Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)


The first thing that must be said about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is that it is a step in the right direction for Martin McDonagh. Everyone loved In Bruges, it was a perfect blend of the dark and the humorous, and it had a lot of heart, too. However, that pathos was lost in his sophomore feature Seven Psychopaths, which favoured cineliterate metafiction and frivolous pop-culture gags.

A cursory read of the synopsis will tell you that Three Billboards is more than a return to the dark tragedy of his debut. Indeed, just the title suggests that McDonagh has once again made the location of his story a character in itself, only this time we have the verdant mountains of the Deep South (it was filmed in North Carolina) rather than the spires and canals of medieval Bruges.

This sweeping backdrop is the stage of a vicious yarn about small town America and small town attitudes. In short, it is about Mildred, a tough, belligerent woman who uses a provocative message spread across three billboards with the aim of reigniting the search for her daughter’s murderer(s). Again, Mildred doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but just when you think that there are no cracks in her granite veneer, the textured interplay of McDonagh’s characters start to reveal them. This is especially true of Mildred’s relationship with Sheriff Willoughby, which, despite all the public mud slinging, has an underlying respect and mutual schadenfreude sense of humour. Their chemistry has a particularly poignant depth when Mildred swiftly drops her prickly facade to comfort him in a desperate moment. Scenes like these that are the highlights of Three Billboards.

However, there are several problems with the film, both small and large. Firstly, there’s too much swearing. It may well be an honest depiction of the way these people speak, yet much of the incessantly crude language seem to be played for the laughs, and it didn’t elicit many from me. Secondly, there are several questionable castings, namely Abbie Cornish, who is too young and too Australian to be a credible wife to Sheriff Willoughby. Even more egregious is Samara Weaving’s performance as Penelope, the stupid young girlfriend of Mildred’s white trash ex-husband. Again, she is just not credible; a girl with her kind of wholesome attractiveness just wouldn’t be with a scummy lowlife like Charlie – she needed to be brassier. The worst thing about her character, though, is how flatly written she is. In fact, she’s not a character but a cheap, ditsy punchline delivered with wide-eyed obviousness.

The third and most problematic issue, however, lies with the narrative. There are two important acts of violence in the film, Jason Dixon’s brutal assault of Red, and Mildred’s firebombing of the police station. One can see how these violent set-pieces serve as the nadir of the each character’s tempestuous personality, but the problem is that they go unaccounted for. These are both serious crimes, yet Jason merely loses his job and Mildred is barely even questioned; I’m sorry, but such drastic crimes would have interrupted and overruled whatever was happening beforehand. Some may argue that such narrative matters should be overlooked, but credibility matters.

These flaws prevent Three Billboards from entering great movie territory, but Martin McDonagh’s third effort remains a well-acted and engrossing drama that sometimes hits the same darkly humorous notes of his superb debut.

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Stalker (1979)


Andrei Tarkovsky has something of a personality cult in cinematic circles. He brushes shoulders with the other masters like Kubrick, Bergman, Kurosawa and Fellini – the sorts of filmmakers who often feel beyond reproach. To criticise their work would cause frowns to burrow and eyebrows to rise; it may even invite vicious ad-hominem attacks, especially back in the good old days of the IMDb message boards.

Tackling their oeuvres can therefore be a daunting task, particularly when the chosen film is 2 hours and 40 minutes long. This needn’t be a problem, though. Just look at Seven SamuraiLawrence of Arabia and The Godfather – none of these films feel as long as they are, and I don’t even particularly like Seven Samurai. Tarkovsky, however, forces you to endure every doggone minute ofStalker.

Indeed, when Tarkovsky screened the film to producers, they urged him to tighten the film up, which infuriated the auteur so much that he made it even slower. So, when you soporifically consider the meaning of one of Stalker’s many gratuitously slow shots, just remind yourself that it is the result of petty self-indulgence, not ‘genius’.

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The 10 Most Underrated Movie Villains


A Google search of ‘greatest film villains’ will bring many familiar faces: Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Alex DeLarge, Anton Chigurh and, of course, Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker – a character that has become omnipresent.

The villainy of these iconic performances is without question, but there are many more nasty characters in the annals of cinema history that are seldom if ever considered in the lists by various magazines, websites and institutes. Some are a pleasure to hate, whilst others cause the proverbial red mist to descend in righteous indignation. So, in no particular order:
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Hacksaw Ridge (2016)


Hacksaw Ridge spins a crowd-pleasing yarn about a simple man who possessed extraordinary mettle and bravery. Desmond Doss, a ‘conscientious cooperator’ from Lynchburg, Virginia, saved approximately 75 wounded men during the Battle of Okinawa.

It was a dreadful battle – the bloodiest of the Pacific Theatre. Some 12,520 US troops died while an estimated 110,000 Japanese perished. Mel Gibson, whose last film Apocalypto displayed his talent for breakneck action sequences, channels that same ferocity into Hacksaw Ridge’s superlative depiction of the landmark battle.

The combat scenes are loud, frenetic and protractedly visceral. Gore explodes from the screen while the excellent sound engineering surrounds you with whizzing bullets and thunderous explosions.

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The Coming War on China (2016)

Castaways of the Marshall Islands

John Pilger’s The Coming War on China is an ominous examination of the war games between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

Pilger is a venerable Australian journalist who has made 60 documentaries about an impressive range of sociopolitical subjects such as the Vietnam War, the Cambodian genocide, Indigenous Australians and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He is often critical of Western foreign policy, but The Coming War on China is a largely even-handed documentary that will enlighten and perhaps challenge your position on Sino-American relations.

It opens with footage of a devastated Hiroshima and war-torn Vietnam while the pomp and circumstance of the Star Spangled Banner plays in stark contrast. This clear contradiction is a harbinger of what’s to come; both countries are criticised, but the United States’ transgressions are given particular emphasis (well, I’d argue that Hiroshima was not a transgression).

After the brief, foreboding title sequence, we are shown a montage of news clips reporting China’s militarisation of islands in the South China Sea, which is punctuated by some Fox News foghorn saying “we, the US, have to be much more aggressive in dealing with the Chinese government!” One suspects that this pundit is ignorant of the United States’ “pivot to Asia” policy, which is drastically increasing US presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

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How the Father of Organised Crime Won His Freedom by Helping the US Government during WW2


It is often said that crime does not pay, and when Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano was sentenced to 30-50 years for ‘compulsory prostitution’ on 18 July 1936, he may have considered such a sentiment.

However, as with many idioms and adages, there are exceptions to the rule that, typically, arise in exceptional circumstances.

The Second World War was the most exceptional circumstance of them all, and on December 7, 1941, the United States was plunged into it with the attack on Pearl Harbor. For Lucky Luciano, the national and governmental paranoia and anxiety that followed would be the ticket to his freedom.

By 1945, the war’s inauspicious start was largely forgotten for the United States had emerged as the greatest victor of the conflict. Its economy was strengthened, its power unprecedented and its cities unmarked, which was in stark contrast to their battered and bankrupt European allies who had not enjoyed the comfort of the Atlantic and Pacific barriers.

This last point, however, is not entirely fair, for while the American people did not suffer the massacres of the Eastern Front or even the bombing raids of the Blitz, their sailors certainly faced the terror of the Atlantic war, which the U-boats brought much closer to the American mainland than many may realise.

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The Alan Clarke Collection: Disruption

alan clarke

The BFI has released a mammoth 13-disc box set chronicling the life and work of Alan Clarke, the hell-raiser director/writer/producer of Scum, The Firm, Made in Britain and many TV films for the BBC.

The collection comprises two sections: Dissent, which covers 1969 – 1977, andDisruption, which covers 1978 – 1989. They can be bought as a single Blu-ray collection, which will set one back about £110, or in separate DVD box sets for £49.99 each. It’s a pity that the separate collections are only available on DVD, but the transfer of Disruption – which is the focus of this review – still looked good on my Blu-ray player.

Besides, high definition would not do much to improve the 4:3 framed grittiness of Alan Clarke’s realism. The real selling point of this collection is the remarkable scope of the material; indeed, the BFI says it is the most comprehensive package they’ve ever produced for a single filmmaker. There are 11 BBC films: Nina, Danton’s Death, Beloved Enemy, Psy-Warriors, Baal, Stars of the Roller State Disco, Contact, Christine, Road, two versions of The Firm and Elephant.

Supporting these films is a veritable wealth of introductions, commentaries, Open Air discussions and documentaries that are too numerous to be fully listed here. The special feature most worth mentioning is Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light, a brand-new 12-part documentary that’s spread out across the six discs, providing contexts and insights that are bound to illuminate even the most venerable of Clarke’s fans.

As something of a newcomer (I’d seen only Scum and The Firm), it was the diversity of Clarke’s canon that surprised me. Like many others, I had associated him with bleak kitchen-sink fare and little else. However, Clarke has dealt with corporate drama in Beloved Enemy, revolutionary France in Danton’s Death, the Troubles in Contact and Elephant, communist defection in Nina, and governmental torture in Psy-Warriors, to name just a few.

This body of work represents a largely bygone era of creativity over commercialism among BBC commissioners, who now believe that the British public wants the likes of ‘’ and his monstrous sartorial inelegance headlining yet another loud, flashy talent show.

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