Sunday, 18 March 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by Martin McDonagh

Mostly I post about movies I like. Sometimes I dislike a movie so much that I feel have to post about it. Other times, I dislike one so much that I decide just to ignore it.

This was the case with writer-director Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (a great title, by the way. Although henceforth it will be shortened to Three Billboards). 

But the movie has received such acclaim that I've become rather annoyed, and decided to state my case for the record.

Let me start by saying that I thought Sam Rockwell's performance, as dumb-ass deputy Dixon, was outstanding, and I was delighted that he won an Oscar for it.

What's more, throughout most of the film I thought I was watching a masterpiece. It was hilarious, disturbing, emotionally complex... But then towards the end it fell apart so completely that the entire enterprise collapsed.

And revealed that the movie was a big bag of emptiness. It pretends that it is serious and deep and profound. Only to betray the audience by turning out to be shallow, phony and nothing but a gimmicky show-off piece of junk.

And this betrayal is utterly fatal because the movie needs to be serious and deep and profound, since it is dealing with such grave material.

It tells the story of Frances McDormand as Mildred, a mother dealing with guilt and grief after the horrible fate of her teenage daughter ("raped while dying").

It also delves deep into human suffering elsewhere, tenderly depicting the terminal illness and suicide of Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

This is such serious subject matter that you can't afford to fuck it up. But fuck it up Martin McDonagh does, and pretty spectacularly, too.

The movie crashes off the rails when Deputy Dixon is apparently released from hospital a week after being admitted with serious burns. And it fails beyond redemption when Dixon and Mildred set off together on a cross-country revenge spree.

They're going to kill this guy who they know was not the attacker of Mildred's daughter. But they've decided he's a rapist — plus he beat up Dixon in a bar fight — so they're going to kill him anyway. 

Or maybe they won't. 

Who knows?

Certainly not Martin McDonagh who seems to have forgotten the first rule of screenwriting. Movies are all about endings.  
Indeed, some people believe that you should start writing a movie with the ending and work your way backwards.

That sure as hell didn't happen here.

What Three Billboards does succeed in doing — laudably and superbly — is setting up characters whom we expect to be unlikable and unsympathetic, and then utterly reversing our feelings towards them. It does it first with Willoughby and then, in spades, with Dixon.

Indeed the characters in the film are excellent, and McDonagh's ability to write characters — and dialogue — are his great strengths. What's more, I entirely agree with McDonagh when he says (in this interview) "The character begins from the dialogue."

Which makes it all the more of a pity that the movie fails to live up to its promise. I think the problem is simply that McDonagh leaned too heavily on his skill at dialogue and character (honed in his stage plays) and did too little work on the plot.

Millions of people like, revere — even love — Three Billboards. I was about to make a crack that none of them are screenwriters, though...

However, I realised that I know this to not be true. My dear friend Rona Munro is an amazingly gifted screenwriter. And she adores Three Billboards.

So maybe I'm completely wrong.

But I don't think so.

(Image credits: Seven billboards at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The Shape of Water by del Toro and Taylor

I've seen most of Guillermo del Toro's output: everything from his debut feature Cronos in 1993 through to Pacific Rim 2013. Then, after twenty years of disappointment, I pretty much threw in the towel.

That's a bit of an exaggeration. I really liked Blade II... But such widely loved and highly regarded works as The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth just left me cold. And I particularly detested the Hellboy movies (what a waste of Ron Perlman...).

I mention all this so you will know it was by no means a foregone conclusion that I'd love The Shape of Water. But love it I did.

The movie was written by del Toro in collaboration with Vanessa Taylor. Taylor has a background in television writing, ranging from Alias — an old favourite of mine — to Game of Thrones (which I currently think is the greatest TV series ever made). She also scripted Divergent, but we won't hold that against her.

Because The Shape of Water is terrific. It tells the story of... well, you know the story: basically a deaf female janitor at a secret government research facility falls in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, who is being held captive there.

It's like a super-deluxe, full colour, full length version of a 1960s Outer Limits episode, made for adult audiences.

The janitor is Elisa, portrayed by British actress Sally Hawkins with great subtlety and considerable courage. She unflinchingly appears nude, and performs, ahem, acts of auto-eroticism in the bathtub in scenes which cleverly set up the film's theme of associating sexuality and water.

Octavia Spencer is great as fellow janitor (janitress?) Zelda. And Michael Stuhlbarg, who was splendid in Steve Jobs, is good as a sympathetic scientist.

The bad guy is military stooge Strickland played by Michael Shannon, who is very effective but is basically reprising his uptight fed from Boardwalk Empire, right down to making love to his wife with his socks on.

However, besides Sally Hawkins, it is Richard Jenkins who really impresses as Elisa's kindly neighbour Giles, a commercial artist whose cat Pandora gets eaten (with hideous skull-crunching sound effects) after they help the creature escape and give him sanctuary.

Oh, and the creature, called Amphibian Man, is played by Doug Jones in a superb monster suit which is iridescent, with beautiful colours. He also has really cool feline eyes (you'd have thought he could have spared poor Pandora out of intra-species loyalty...).

The film is set in the early 1960s and nominally takes place in Baltimore, but it was shot in Toronto (the Toronto crew came in for particular thanks at the Academy Awards ceremony). 

It's visually splendid, with a nice period feel and a lovely score by Alexander Desplat — who won an Oscar for it.

The film also won — astonishingly — Best Picture. I say astonishingly because the Academy is notorious for its dislike of science fiction del Toro got Best Director and Paul Austerberry won for Production Design.

Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins were all nominated for Oscars but failed to win. Spencer lost to Allison Janney in I, Tonya and Jenkins to Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In both cases I'd go along with that.

Hawkins lost to Frances McDormand in Three Billboards, and here I beg to differ. Not least because Three Billboards is so much weaker than The Shape of Water.

And del Toro and Vanessa Taylor were also nominated for their original screenplay, but lost to Jordan Peele for his script to Get Out. And in this case I can't fault the academy. 

Both are wonderful movies, but Get Out is deeper, more important and profound and subversive.

The Shape of Water has moments which are silly and unbelievable, but this mattered not a jot because the movie was so appealing and won me over so completely. And I'm going to give you a soft spoiler here by telling you that it has a happy ending.

Grisly cat-eating scene aside, I enjoyed every minute of The Shape of Water. It's a lovely movie, touching, exciting and satisfying.

(Image credits: just a handful (with webbed fingers) of posters available from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Triggerman by Matz, Hill and Jef

Triggerman, like Peepland, is another entry in the outstanding new Hard Case Crime series of graphic novels. It's drawn by Jef and co-written by Matz and Walter Hill.

Walter Hill is a highly regarded director and screenwriter. As a writer he had a hand in creating the Alien franchise, but he is better known for his work on Westerns (Deadwood) and particularly crime dramas (48 Hrs.).

In 2012 he directed a thriller set in New Orleans entitled Bullet to the Head. The movie wasn't particularly memorable, but it was based on a French graphic novel (Du plomb dans la tête). 

And on the set of the film Walter Hill met Matz (a pseudonym for Alexis Nolent) who had written Du plomb dans la tête.

Hill recalls that Matz "asked if I had any scripts or stories that could transfer to comic book form. I told him I had about thirty of them."

And Triggerman is the result. Set in America in the 1930s, it is a vivid, violent and compelling tale of Depression era crime. A classic story of Prohibition and gangsters, it focuses on a gunman called Roy Nash.

Nash is a hardened criminal and a hired killer — a standard character from film noir and pulp fiction. 

What makes him distinctive is that he is on a quest — for a woman from his past. He is motivated not by money or the thirst for revenge, but by love.

This a simple and strikingly effective plot device, but I don't recall it ever having been used before. Hill himself says, "The story is driven by Roy's nostalgia for a lost love. I thought that was an interesting departure point for a gangster character and story."

It certainly is, and thanks to the exemplary art by Jef (aka Jean-Francois Martinez, aka Nino), Triggerman comes powerfully to life. Jef's illustrations are gritty, dynamic and strangely elegant. 

In particular I was knocked out by the magnificent shots of the launch heading out to the gambling ship. This sequence is all the more effective for being entirely wordless. Indeed, the use of silent images is one of the great and distinctive strengths of Triggerman.

Jef contributes to the sense of period which heightens the pleasure of this tight, terse action thriller which is populated by intriguing characters. 

(There's one called Eddie Marz, which must be a cheeky homage to Chandler's The Big Sleep, which features a crook called Eddie Mars, who runs a beach side gambling house.)

Triggerman was pure pleasure for me. Dark, terse, grim and relentless. But also beautifully drawn and tremendously evocative.

As a comic book writer myself, though, I have to add that during the grave robbing sequence on Page 99, Panel 5, I think the word balloon is wrongly positioned. I think it should be coming from Roy, who is out of shot.

I really like these Hard Case graphic novels. I can't get enough of them. More, please.

(Image credits: Once again thanks to Will O'Mullane at Titan for providing all the art.)

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Beguiled (the novel) by Thomas Cullinan

The Beguiled makes for a fascinating case study. It is a 1966 novel which has been filmed twice.The 1971 movie, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood was a classic.

The 2017 remake was directed by Sofia Coppola with Colin Farrell in the Eastwood role, and I've said some rather harsh things about it.

Not least concerning the way it marginalised the author of the original novel — Thomas Cullinan — who doesn't even get credit on the poster.

However, the Coppola film did at least have the effect of bringing Cullinan's book back into print and allowing me to re-read it. (My battered paperback tie-in of the Eastwood movie is long since history.)

My first impression of the novel was that it was amazingly self assured, extremely well written and shaping up to be a fascinating hybrid of True Grit and The Lord of the Flies. 

It was the way it so strongly evoked its female narrators which reminded me of Charles Portis's True Grit.  

And the connection with William Golding's Lord of the Flies arises at the beginning when Mattie (Matilda), the slave, reflects on the schools inhabitants. "I didn't have any notion then how much evil we got in us, all of us."

Unfortunately, as I continued to read, these strongly positive reactions began to ebb away and I came to see that Cullinan's book was considerably weaker than the first film adaptation... and indeed the second one.

Fundamentally the same material is here in all cases, but there's an utterly decisive shift of emphasis. The movies are about a wounded Union soldier who is taken in by a girls' school in the South. 

The book is about a girls' school in the South which takes in a wounded Union soldier. 

This is a crucial shift of emphasis. In the book the soldier McBurney is a peripheral figure — a catalyst. To Cullinan this novel is all about the girls and women; the denizens of the school.

For a goodly portion of the book (about 70 pages) McBurney is comatose. Supine and unconscious, he is a blank slate on which the females can project their fantasies. When he finally does wake up, so does the novel, which frankly had become rather dull.

It's a long book, nearly 400 pages, and unfortunately dullness sets in again. Just over the halfway mark we have the essential event of the story: the brutal, and quite possibly unnecessary, amputation of McBurney's leg.

In the film this was the cue for a rapid and dramatic escalation of drama, heading downhill to a murderous conclusion.

But in the book, McBurney's initial horror and anger abates, and he becomes resigned to his mutilation. The story plateaus for a long while before he rather arbitrarily recaptures his rage and resentment, and precipitates the events which lead to his downfall — crucially, the killing of Amelia's pet turtle.

This faltering stop-and-start pacing and the endless digressions into the backgrounds of the school's womenfolk are the fatal flaws of the novel. Of course, Cullinan wouldn't see it that way. He loved his characters and wanted to bring them fully to life.

Yet I'd argue it was possible to do that and still also tell a taut and gripping story. Which is actually what the book's editor should have demanded — by tightening the pace and cutting about a hundred pages out of the book.

No doubt Cullinan would have been about as pleased with that as McBurney was with the removal of his leg. But it could have turned the novel into a masterpiece. As it is, it's a rather shapeless and frustrating volume, the often excellent writing and potentially explosive plot going to waste.

However, when the Hollywood scriptwriters got to work on it, The Beguiled ended up transformed into the powerful and unforgettable Gothic drama it always had the scope to become.

There is much to admire in this book. The characterisation is often sharp and amusing: "Alice... she's really not too mean as long as you don't provoke her."

And Cullinan also clearly knew an immense amount about the Civil War, conveying a firm sense of the period with its odd beliefs ("all this cannon fire would surely bring on rain"). 

His descriptions are also often brilliant, as when Amelia first finds McBurney lying wounded in the woods, "one arm around a fallen log, just clinging to it like it was his mother or a raft in deep water." 

Or much later in the book when Harriet hears McBurney coming ominously upstairs with "the measured thump of his crutches."

But ultimately Thomas Cullinan's The Beguiled is an object lesson in a novel which only realised its full potential when it was adapted for the screen.

(Image credits: Thank you, Good Reads.)

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Hostiles by Donald Stewart and Scott Cooper

By an interesting coincidence when I saw this film I had just been reading about the terrible atrocities perpetrated on native Americans by the white settlers. So the shocking opening sequence of Hostiles had a strange effect on me...

Or rather no effect. I watched the family of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) being wiped out by Apaches, including her small children. And I was stonily unmoved — because I knew all too well how much evil had been done the other way around.

"This movie has really missed the mark with me," I thought. But I was completely wrong...

Because, to its enormous credit, that is exactly the intention of Hostiles. It deliberately begins with this argument so it can set about refuting it. Or at least balance it.

Thus, having established the appalling suffering of Rosalie, it then neatly reverses our sympathies, by showing the even worse suffering of the Indians.

It does this through Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a captive Cheyenne leader, and his family, who are being grudgingly (very grudgingly) escorted back to their ancestral homelands by Cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) — a professional soldier with a lifelong hatred of all things Indian.

As their trek commences they find the traumatised Rosalie and take her along with them, on a journey of discovery in which deeply held beliefs on all sides are challenged and profoundly changed.

This is a gripping, moving and highly intelligent movie which has something tremendously important to say, and it does so in the shape of an action packed Western, easily qualifying Hostiles as an important film and one of the best of the year. 

It is directed by Scott Cooper, who previously directed Black Mass, the Johnny Depp Boston crime story. Cooper also wrote the screenplay (he previously wrote Crazy Heart, about Jeff Bridges as a washed up country singer).

The film has an intriguing genesis — Cooper's script is based on the work of the late Donald Stewart, a distinguished veteran screenwriter with a fascinating career.

Donald Stewart started out writing exploitation movies for Roger Corman (Jackson County Jail, Deathsport) then worked on the radical classic Missing for Costa-Gavras — and won an Oscar and a BAFTA for it — before moving into the commercial mainstream and working on all the Jack Ryan spy thrillers, starting with The Hunt for Red October.

Hostiles was clearly a labour of love by Donald Stewart, because it was painstakingly researched. The credit on the movie reads "based on a manuscript by", so it's not clear if he wrote a novel or a screenplay, but whatever he created it was the basis for an outstanding film.

Stewart's widow gave the manuscript to Scott Cooper who saw the potential to make a movie about "all of the things we as Americans need to better understand to make this country heal."

The picture has a structural flaw — it effectively stops halfway through and then starts again — but other than that it is beautifully made by Scott Cooper and clearly is a heartfelt work.

And I'm delighted to report that Hostiles, after harrowing and terrible losses along the way, has a marvellous ending.

(Image credits: all four posters from Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 11 February 2018

All the Money in the World by David Scarpa

I have not hesitated to be harsh to Ridley Scott in the past — check out my post on Alien: Covenant. Indeed, I'd pretty much written him off. So it is with enormous pleasure that I report that All the Money in the World is the best film he's made in decades.

Maybe his best ever.

It tells the true story of what happens when the teenage grandson of the richest man in the world is kidnapped. And the richest man in the world, John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) refuses to pay the ransom...

Now, of course there are cogent arguments in favour of not paying a ransom — if you do so, you just encourage further kidnappings. But that isn't why Getty refuses.

He just doesn't want to spend the money.

This is an amazingly tense and compelling story. The kidnapped kid, John Paul Getty III (played by Charlie Plummer, no relation) is an appealing and resourceful character and we are utterly caught up in his plight.
And also the plight of the kid's mother, wonderfully played by Michelle Williams in what is easily her finest role. We feel her agony as she is swept up in the monstrous machinations of the kidnapping.

We even begin to sympathise with one of Paul's kidnappers, Quintana, played by Romain Duris.

The person we feel no sympathy for is the cold, hard, rich old man, as so magnificently depicted by Christopher Plummer.

In the company of these (literally) great actors I was preparing to wince when Mark Wahlberg enters the story as the ex-CIA hostage negotiator hired by Getty. But Wahlberg does a fine job.

This movie had a troubled history. It was filmed once with Kevin Spacey in the role of the old man, then had to be extensively re-shot, recast with Christopher Plummer, when Spacey was caught up in accusations of sexual harassment and abuse.

The re-shoots reportedly cost $10 million, with the actors who'd already done their scenes once returning for rock bottom fees — except for Wahlberg, who demanded $1.5million. 

Then, sensing a PR disaster (guess what Mark, you just appeared in a movie which condemns a heartless rich man who only cares about money...) Wahlberg hastily donated that fee to a legal fund for victims of sexual harassment... and made the donation in the name of Michelle Williams.

Enough gossip... Written by David Scarpa from a book by John Pearson, this is a terrific film,  and you should definitely see it. 
I was familiar with the case from press reports at the time, so I knew a lot of what was coming. If you're not familiar with what happened, you're really in for a roller coaster ride.

Great movie. Enjoy.

(Image credits: Some really lovely posters at Imp Awards, although I've refrained from using one which foolishly reveals a major plot development.)

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I first read this science fiction landmark when I was a kid and I have to confess I retained virtually no memory of it, except a general sense of the great flow of events through the vast spaces and long history of a galactic empire, with intrigue aplenty.

Actually, that's not a bad thumbnail sketch of this novel, and indeed the three-volume classic it kicks off.

I was motivated to give the Foundation Trilogy a much overdue reappraisal when I received a beautiful boxed set of Folio Society hardcovers for Christmas. (Thanks, Barb.)

I dived into this first volume about a week ago, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. In fact I found it addictively readable.

Asimov, at least at this stage in his career (1951), is no great literary stylist. But in some ways this is an advantage. 

His prose is so neutral there's no danger of it getting in the way of the story. And it's so colourless that there's little danger of it dating.

What has dated is the technology — I ask you, microfilm? — and the dialogue, which is sometimes stilted sci-fi speak at its worst ("Great Galloping Galaxies";  "I don't care an electron").

But let's cut Mr Asimov some slack. He is also capable of some striking and memorable descriptions, particularly when he's taken by the visionary excitement of space and he speaks of "the hard brilliance of the stars" or "the broken edge of the galaxy."

The Foundation trilogy tells the story of the collapse and rebirth of a vast galactic empire. The gimmick is psychohistory — a science which enables the future to be predicted, not in the sense of anyone's individual destiny, but in terms of mass movements and populations.

Hari Seldon (Asimov is good at names — we also have Sennett Forell and Salvor Hardin) is the master of psychohistory and he has worked out that the Empire will descend into chaos and barbarism for 30,000 years.

The collapse is inevitable, but the duration of collapse isn't. If he makes the right moves a new empire can arise in a "mere" thousand years. So he establishes the Foundation of the title...

The story proceeds at a headlong pace in a series of vignettes (the novel was reworked from eight short stories) with the protagonists using first science, then religion, then commerce to drive the galaxy back towards a new beginning.

Asimov was inspired by Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and there's something intoxicating about the scope of his vision. And he has a knack for conjuring suspense and creating satisfying situations in which the bad guys are bested.

What he doesn't have is any women. The first female character turns up about one hundred pages in, and she's effectively a secretary who answers the phone. 

Another hundred pages along we get a sparky and troublesome queen of a planet (her title is actually  "commdora").

But she's immediately pacified when her husband gives her some fab fashion accessories...

Great Galloping Sexism aside, Foundation was compelling fun and I'm looking forward to volume two of the trilogy, Foundation and Empire. Stay tuned.

(Image credits: The Folio Society edition is from their website. The Gnome Press original hardcover (blue spaceships on a black background) was from an ABE book dealer, Heartwood Rare Books. The Weidenfeld UK original (blue spaceships on a purple background) is from another ABE dealer, Currey, L.W. Inc. The other covers are from Goodreads. I've given pride of place to the Avon edition with the lovely cover painting by Don Ivan Punchatz. This was the one I grew up with, but it isn't mere nostalgia which moves me to single out this striking design.)