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Film Review: THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (USA/UK 2017) *****

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Poster
Trailer

In this darkly comic drama, a mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder, when they fail to catch the culprit.

Director:

Martin McDonagh

 

Written, co-produced, and directed by one of the most esteemed playwrights in Ireland (the play, THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENAN) Martin McDonagh, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI arrives with all the hype after winning this year’s Toronto International Film Festival prestigious People’s Choice (Most Popular) Film Award.  This is a film that can be enjoyed by both the commercial audience and critics alike.  It is smart, funny (darkly so), suspenseful and brilliantly acted by all concerned.

Nine months after her daughter is raped and murdered, a woman, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is totally frustrated that there has been no progress with the investigation led by the local police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).   Using the last of her hard earned money, she leases three billboards from Red (Caleb Landry Jones) on the edge of her Missouri town to condemn the local police force for failing to find the culprit.  This angers the sheriff and one of his top officers, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a red-neck racist mamma’s boy, with a temper to suit his prejudice.  Mildred is one angry, foul mouthed woman who would kick any man in the nuts if they comes across her the wrong way.  The billboards gradually lead from one bad incident to another resulting in the suicide of Police Chief Bill Willoughby.  This infuriates Jason who beats Red up, ending up in Red being in hospital and himself fired from the force.

Despite the wicked humour, McDonagh’s script is smart enough never to forget the main issue at hand – the desperation of a mother to see justice done.  The irony though, is that Mildred is not that good a mother who on the eventful night of the rape, had an argument with the daughter that led her to walking alone and abducted.  Those like myself who love irony, will see it rearing its head again when the racist Jason coming up as the one with the best clue as to the killer.

As one would imagine after the film passes its half way mark, it is not the identity of the killer that is important.  It is the nature of people – how people change, and in this film for the better.  The chief who kills himself writes letters to Mildred and Jason that would change them.  This is the reason audiences would favour the film.  It has heart, sympathy despite the dark humour and foul language – more irony here (the film with the most foul language has the biggest heart.) 

One might argue as to the necessity of the abusive language used in the film.  To McDonagh’s defence, thee are people in the world that utter the ‘f’ word in every sentence.  Mildred happens to be one of them. 

McDonagh develops excellent characterizations.  The best is the lead, Mildred.  Mildred has so fierce and powerful a personality that one is never sure what she will do, thus becoming an exciting presence in every scene she is in.  Sam Rockwell achieves marvellous results with his complex character which might win him an oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  McDonagh’s film’s ending is also impressive.  It is a 4 way open ended non-Hollywood ending, which is the smartest conclusion I have seen in a film this year.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jit3YhGx5pU

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Film Review: SUBURBICON (USA 2017) ***

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Suburbicon Poster
Trailer

A home invasion rattles a quiet family town.

Director:

George Clooney

Writers:

Joel CoenEthan Coen 

 

Written by the Academy Award wining Coen Brothers, Grant Heslov and George Clooney himself, this odd piece of satire on the American dream turning into an uncontrollable monster nightmare has its wicked charm but unfortunately fails.  But better an ambitious failure than a simple minded film with no faults – I always say.

The film is set in the fictitious community of SUBURBICON – of perfectly manicured lawns and white picket fences (as in similar films, FAR FROM HEAVEN, PARENTS), one can tell something is amiss or going to go terribly wrong.  In PARENTS, the boy discovers that his parents barbecue human flesh and in FAR FROM HEAVEN, the husband comes out of the closet.  In SUBURBICON, the father of the family, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) hires two killers to do away with his wife in a home invasion scenario so that he can be with her sister, Maggie (both roles played with Julianne Moore with blonde and brunette hair).  They plan to go to Aruba with the collected insurance money.  But things get complicated, particularly with the interference of an enterprising insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac) who ends up being poisoned by Margaret.  Their son, Nicky (Noah Jupe) is totally aware of everything that is going on, as he is always snooping or eavesdropping.  Father has no qualms  with doing away with the meddling son, just as the cannibalistic dad would gladly eat his son in PARENTS.  (The film feels very similar to PARENTS at some points.)  A lot of fun in the movie is observing how Nicky discovers what is going on and tries to save his own life.

SUBURBICON’s humour and writing has the distinct Coen Brothers touch, especially in the way events suddenly occur out of the blue and how violence can also suddenly come into the picture (reference: the Coen’ ARIZONA).  But the humour can be so sly and at times so dead-pan, that the humour can be missed.  Also, the film unfolds at a dead slow snail’s pace.  One would definitely fault the film’s direction and editing, though Clooney has directed a few outstanding films in the past.

The art direction of the 50’s idle housing estate is nothing short of perfect.  As the camera pulls back, one can see how all the houses and streets are interconnected.

The film also intercuts into the main story a side-plot of the first coloured family that moves into SUBURBIA.  From initial surprise to full outrage, the neighbourhood finally riots right outside the coloured family’s house.  Ironically the two boys, the coloured boy and Nicky become the best of friends, playing throw and catch baseball, the typical American sport.  The two kids show how adults should behave.

Despite the film that illustrates Murphy’s Law that if anything that can go wrong will and at the worst possible time, the film does end beautifully on an optimistic note, which almost saves the film. One plus of the movie is French composer Alexandre Desplat’s score that includes some suspense music as heard in a typical Hitchcock film.

SUBURBICON premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to mixed reviews.  Still, it is an interesting failure, and by no means a dull piece despite its slow pacing.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBezc1S1BAQ

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Film Review: WONDERSTRUCK (USA 2017

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Wonderstruck Poster
Trailer

The story of a young boy in the Midwest is told simultaneously with a tale about a young girl in New York from fifty years ago as they both seek the same mysterious connection.

Director:

Todd Haynes

Writers:

Brian Selznick (based on the book by), Brian Selznick (screenplay by)

Runaway kids escaping to a strange, new town in search of a parent.  This subject has always been a favourite for films and plays, the most notable being the recent Tony Award winning THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, in which a boy travels to London to find his father.  IN WONDERSTRUCK, a young deaf autistic boy leaves home after his librarian mother is killed in a car accident.  All he has is a little clue of a museum.  He takes off with some cash obtained from his Aunt Jennie (Michelle Williams), gets his wallet snatched but eventually finds out the truth about his father, who he initially knew nothing about.

WONDERSTRUCK appears like a a typical story but director Haynes (CAROL, POISON and his best movie SAFE FROM HEAVEN) decides to do it different.  The openly gay director has always dealt with isolated loner characters who has to come to terms with some truth.  In WONDERSTRUCK, because the subject is deaf, Haynes blacks out all words, so that the film feels like a silent movie with just background music.  The film is alternatively shot in colour and black and white for the flashbacks (in the year 1927).  It seems a good tactic but it does not all work.  For one, the film ends up very difficult to follow.  With no dialogue, one has to figure out who is whom, how the subjects are related and basically what is going on with the plot.  It does not help that the film intercuts two stories set fifty years apart, switching frequently between them.  Each tells the story of a child’s quest.  In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) runs away from her father’s New Jersey home to find her idol, the actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). In 1977, recently orphaned Ben (Oakes Fegley) runs away from his Minnesota home in search of his father.  Moore plays two roles – the older Rose as well as Lillian Mayhew which confuses matters even more.

The reason the film is called WONDERSTRUCK is revealed towards the end of the film.  The film’s sets are amazing, special mention to be made of the New York City model though details are not really shown.

Director Haynes leaves the audience much in the dark for the first half of the film.  Though one might, upon considerable thought put all the jigsaw pieces together, it is a very frustrating process.  Director Haynes, gives the full explanation during the last third of the film, what then is the purpose?  Is it to illustrate to the audience the inconveniences of being deaf?

The cast largely of unknowns (excepting Moore, Michelle Williams in a token role and Tom Noonan) including Fegley do an ok job, noting exceptional.

Though credit should be given to Haynes for his non-conforming storytelling techniques, it does not really work.  It comes together at the end, as if Haynes gave up and decided that it is safer to tell it all the usual way.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n207k52C3DM

 

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Film Review: THE SNOWMAN (USA 2017) **

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The Snowman Poster
Trailer

Detective Harry Hole investigates the disappearance of a woman whose pink scarf is found wrapped around an ominous-looking snowman.

Director:

Tomas Alfredson

Writers:

Peter Straughan (screenplay by), Hossein Amini (screenplay by)

 

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Film Review: TAKE EVERY WAVE: THE LIFE OF LAIRD HAMILTON (USA 2017) ***

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Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton Poster
Trailer

This is the remarkable story of an American icon who changed the sport of big wave surfing forever. Transcending the surf genre, this in-depth portrait of a hard-charging athlete explores.

Director:

Rory Kennedy

 

The film opens with breathtaking cinematography that puts the audience right inside the surging waters, a real high even when watching the waves on screen before introducing the main star and film subject – big wave surfer Laird Hamilton.

After 5 minutes of surf footage, director Rory Kennedy (LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM, GHOSTS OF ABU DHABI), delves into the life of Laird Hamilton.  Director Kennedy, born into the Presidential Kennedy family knows what it is like to be singled out and looked upon by the world.

Kennedy’s film uses archival footage, home movies, contemporary scenes, and interviews with his step-father, Bob Hamilton who introduced Laird to the sport, his wife (former volleyball star and model Gabrielle Reece) and his surfing buddies (even those with whom he’s fallen out) and former editors of Surfer Magazine. 

Told in chronological order, the film traces Laird’s early beginnings as a boy raised by his single surfer mother left pregnant by another surfer dude.  When meeting Bob for the first time on the beach, he is shown how to body surf before his mother meets up and ends up marrying Bob.   In his interview on camera, the now middle-aged Laird recounts his rebellious days in school, throwing desks out the classroom window and yelling obscenities while getting the occasional whopping for his stepfather Bob.  As the story goes, Laird finds solace in the ocean.

It is fortunate that Laird’s life is interesting as there is more of his life on show than of surfing footage.  As Laird never competes, there is not competition that needs to be won that often forms the climax of sport documentaries.  So Kennedy relies on a different technique to climax her film – Laird riding the biggest wave EVER.

Hawaii where Laird grew up as a boy is revealed for all its racial prejudice – reverse white prejudice that is.  The was one of the few whites in the class and whites always get beaten up and singed out.

There are tons of good looking blond surfing hunks in this movie.  But the good looks slowly fade just as youth does.  Both Bob and Laird Hamilton are gorgeous hunks in the early twenties.  This led to Laird, who dropped out of school, to get into the modelling business – a part of his life just barely touched upon in the film.

Director Kennedy sidetracks his film just as Laird sidetracks his life on big wave surfing.  Laird is also revealed as an inventor, first of the foil board (a surf board that rides above the water, amazing as it looks due to Physics), then of the board strap, that enables surfers to do summersaults while being attached to their boards.

The film also brings into the picture, the invention of both the jet ski and the windsurf.  Laird and his gang tackled the new sport of windsurfing (I myself tried it too, – and it is not easy), but gradually went back to big wave surfing.

TAKE EVERY WAVE is a documentary that ends up as interesting as Laird the man.  The best scenes are the ones with the biggest waves.  Director Kennedy has done his research and TAKE EVRY MAN is as exhaustive as any filmmaker can get on Laird.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaGCdymhA40

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Film Preview: Half Magic (2017)

Three women unite out of their frustration over men. They pledge to each other that they should each learn to love themselves before they become romantically involved with anyone again.

Director: Heather Graham

Writer: Heather Graham

Stars: Heather Graham, Stephanie Beatriz, Johnny Knoxville, Jason Lewis, Thomas Kennon, Angela Kinsey, Molly Shannon, Luke Arnold, Chris D’Elia, Alex Beh, Michael Aronov, Jesse Heiman, Odessa Rae, Sandra Rosko, Patty Guggenheim, Lee Raviv

Half Magic is the directorial debut of Heather Graham. While the actress has starred in several mainstream and indie flicks, this is the first project where she serves as part of the creative team. According to Hollywood Reporter, the comedy film follows Honey (Graham’s character), along with two of her friends, as they make a pact to each find great sex and a good man, preferably from the same person.

Starring in a comedy is not particularly new to Graham, whose recent projects include the indie films “Wetlands” and “Last Rampage” and an advertising campaign for the hugely popular British gaming community Foxy Bingo. In fact, it has somewhat become her brand over the years. The Huffington Post said that the actress, who has consistently ranked as among the most beautiful faces in Hollywood, used her looks to her advantage and managed to make a career off the back of it. Writing the script and directing Half Magic, however, proves that she is more than just another pretty face in the industry.

Graham confessed to the People that the urge to write the script came after she broke up with someone. She purposely made her writing funny to help her get over the relationship, and incorporated some of her own, as well as her friends’, life experiences in the story. Although, it’s worth noting that they were exaggerated for comedic value.

But beyond the humor of the film and the catharsis it gave her post-breakup, Graham admitted in an interview with Digital Spy that she wrote the film as a way to address sexism in Hollywood. The actress explained, “It’s hard – you want to make a movie about how some of the entertainment industry is sexist, and then you’re like, ‘Why doesn’t everyone want to make this movie?’”

In another interview, Graham mentioned the reason why she pushed to turn her script into a full-fledged movie. She realized that instead of waiting for the dream role to come to her, she would just create that dream role herself. While she was quick to say that she’s thankful for her projects throughout her career, she wished there were more movies made that told things from a feminine point-of-view. The thespian commented that Hollywood’s tendency is to present things from the male perspective. She actually stated in several interviews in the past that her reason for taking on raunchy roles was to help open discussions on female sexuality.

In fact, her character in the film is a tongue-and-cheek parody of what she experienced in her career. She relayed that Honey works for a man who told her that the content she produced will never get picked up because it was written from a woman’s perspective. And the only way to have her story made was if she instead told things from a man’s point-of-view.

The release date of Half Magic is yet to be announced.
half_magic

Film Review: POOR AGNES (Canada 2016) ***

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Poor Agnes Poster
A serial killer and her next victim form an unexpected relationship.

Director:

Navin Ramaswaran

 

The synopsis of POOR AGNES on imdb goes “A serial killer and her next victim form an unexpected relationship”.  That description of the movie would be enough to scare away many an audience but writer James Gordon Ross and director Navin Ramaswaran have concocted quite the movie.

The film opens with a few incidents involving Agnes (Lora Burke).  She is shown suffocating a victim by placing a plastic bag over his head.  The audience sees her pawning the victim’s gold watch and silk tie.  When the pawnbroker uses the ‘f’ word at her, she retorts by throwing him an insult.  He reduces the price of the gold watch from $200 to $150 which she takes, as she is broke and has no choice.  The segments tell a lot about Agnes and the route the film is taking.

Credit should be given to director Ramaswaran for the feat of having his audience root for as unlikeable a character as a non-repentant  serial killer.  He achieves this (feat) by several means which are interesting to note:

all the characters around her are either seedier or nastier than her, not only her victims

she is all by herself and one usually respects an independent woman

she is funny and she cracks the best jokes

she is smart

she knows what she wants and does it

she is neither annoying nor irritating in any of her conduct

This might be the reason the film is called POOR AGNES (instead of say NASTY AGNES) which makes the audience want to root even more for someone needing sympathy.

The first half of the film establishes Agnes’ personality while introducing her love/sex relationship with Mike (Robert Notman).   Mike is the private detective hired to find out more about a missing person a year ago that Agnes did away with.  After Mike hits on her, she kidnaps him but lets him go free in an odd love relationship.

One might imagine the film going out of steam after the first half.  But the film’s pacing is good and new events keep the audience interested throughout the entire film.  Agnes draws the reluctant and unsuspecting Mike into her evil deeds.  She kidnaps a previous trick, Chris (Will Conlon) and forces Mike to do away with him.

Credit goes to Toronto actress Lora Burke for an excellent performance as the serial killer/madwoman.  Robert Notman is also convincing as her reluctant partner.  Everything else in the other departments from music, to sound to sets to cinematography are to be commended.

POOR AGNES doe not slag in any way.  Despite the rather outrageous plot, the story and characters are kept believable.  Humour (especially black) is also injected particularly in the segment where Agnes attends a tortured victims support group.

Director Ramaswaran and writer James Gordon Ross make an excellent team.  The film won the Best Canadian Film Prize at the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0boeomU9anM

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