Here we are January 2018, a brand new year full of potential where we can finally stop talking about Star Wars and move on with our lives. The winter sucks, doubly so in January – once all the hype of Christmas has faded . And so it is, it really is a perfect time to go down to your cinema and abuse your cineworld unlimited card (this isn’t an advertisement but last year alone I saved over £300 in movie tickets, which was spent on popcorn).
It is now award season, so here comes the serious hard hitting movies. You’ve got your historical biopic underdog movies, you’ve got your difficult/dark subject manner, you’ve got your obligatory Oscar clips, you’ve got you introspective genre deconstructions, you’ve got your throwbacks to a simpler time, you’ve got the movie about the woman who falls in love with the fish man… It’s all popping off. Every movie you see is guaranteed to be a masterpiece, each film seemingly better than the last. Or at least that’s what they want you to believe.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a misleadingly frank title for a movie dealing in the whole menagerie of human beastliness. It’s all here rape, murder, police negligence and just about every form of hateful prejudice humanity has ever conceived of, and all distilled within the bubbling hotpot of small town America. It’s awful people dealing with awful things, with an air of black comedy and an inventiveness of swearing we should all aspire towards in our daily lives, all to alleviate the quickening encircling round the toilet bowl. This is the style writer-director Martin McDonagh has fashioned for himself since In Bruge and it’s alive and well within Three Billboards for the most part.
Francis McDormand is on the war path as a bereaved mother who channels all her sadness into a calm but vindictive calculated rage projected at seemingly everyone within the small town community of Ebbing, Missouri. She’s got her sights not just on those in positions of authority but the entire establishment, not to mention her shit heel abusive ex-husband (whose 19 year old girlfriend frequently steals the show in whatever scene she appears). No arrests were made after her daughter was raped, murdered and burned, so through considerable expense she uses three billboards to call out the police headed by Woody Harrelson’s somewhat honourable (but terminally ill) police chief and Sam Rockwell’s despicable cop who represents just about every negative element of the modern conception of bad cop. It’s the starting point of a story that weaves in and out of morality and amorality. Indeed, at times none of its characters feel deserved of being redeemed, they’re all set in the ways, unrelentless in their march. Despite the gravity of the situation, and some just truly horrible characters it is played mostly for laughs and although small town America is depicted at its worst (dumb and hateful) there is ultimately hope that people can change for the better, that a modicum of empathy with people can still be achieved. Even if it does first require a bit of baptism by fire.
A great script backed by standout performances, no wonder it’s gathered so many Oscar nominations. For me personally, it doesn’t quite reach the level of In Bruge, which has this kind of beautiful symmetry about it that I think Colin Farrel is able to channel completely through his eyebrows. Still, Three Billboards is a story about big things that are left unresolved and the effect this can have on people.
All The Money In The World
You have to give it up for Sir Ridley Scott, because at the ripe old age of 80, he just does not stop. After the disappointment of Alien Covenant he bounced back by selecting Denis Villeneuve to create Bladerunner 2049 and now returns to earth with a tightly focused thriller revisiting the events of the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson in 1973. The movie gained a degree of notoriety, as it was originally made with Kevin Spacey in the role of J. Paul Getty. After all the allegations against Spacey went public, all his scenes were quickly reshot by Scott with Christopher Plummer in the role. Luckily, Plummer was the Sir Rider’s original choice for the lead.
All the Money in the World is a well-executed and well-acted thriller. Not just with Plummer as the miserly but somewhat charismatic Getty, but Michelle Williams as the mother trying her best to keep her head above water within an impossible scenario heavily under the public spotlight and her father in law’s routine denial of the relatively small amount of money required to pay her son’s ransom. She’s supported by a dependable Mark Wahlberg as Getty’s negotiator who begins to form a conscious towards the end as the film descends into a truly nail biting conclusion. Marky Mark has phenomenal hair here and looks good in a suit.
I was unaware of how it was going to end, so for me it did play as a very tense thriller, but beyond that it keeps asking the viewer what the real cost of money is. Money is the root of all evil and at every turn throughout the picture you see this corruption influencing everyone and everything. The only people to rise above it are Getty himself, unprepared to pay the ransom, and the mother who would pay all the money in the world to get her son back safely. You can obviously side with the mother easily, but to the film’s credit (or specifically Plummer’s) you do find yourself agreeing with Getty as well. In this day and age with the 1% of the world owning more wealth than the other 99%, that’s quite impressive.
Darkest Hour is the latest British prestige film following in the wake of The Queen, The King’s Speech and I guess The Iron Lady, which will get all the baby boomers into cinemas once again to cheer and applaud whilst shedding patriotic tears of joy, and basically giving Old Blighty an open goal when it comes to the BAFTAs in the upcoming award season. Darkest Hour has basically been nominated in every conceivable category in not only the Baftas but the Oscars too, so everything would have you believe that this is a really really fantastic film. To which I say…
The evacuation of Dunkirk has been the focus of resurgent interest in popular cinema in recent years. Director Joe Wright already had that startling one shot in Atonement depicting the beaches as a kind of purgatory. Last year, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk redefined what a war movie could be, and Their Finest told the story about a group of wartime film makers making a movie about the evacuation in an attempt to sway the American public to join the war effort. Darkest Hour itself is only the second film biopic about Winston Churchill to be released within 6 months, the first being Churchill starring Brian Cox. Whilst Churchill focused on the PM’s personal crisis heading into D-day, Darkest Hour deals with Churchill’s personal crisis coming into the power after the resignation of Clement Attlee and picking up the pieces of the British war effort on the eve of Dunkirk.
It depicts Churchill as eccentric underdog of British parliament, the man seemingly no one within the cloistered halls of Parliament or indeed Buckingham Palace wants to lead the country during its great moment of crisis. Going from the confines of Churchill’s war bunker, it goes through the plans to evacuate the 300,000 troops at Dunkirk whilst toying with the notion of negotiating surrender with Hitler before rising finally to a King’s Speech styled ending where old Churchey must succeed in delivering his iconic speech that will sing Britain defiantly into victory not just in the war but presumably in the years and centuries to come. Rule Britannia! Hello Brexit!
Being one of the finest actors around, Gary Oldman is just about able to turn Chruchill into a character rather than a caricature. There’s a scene in which he has a bit of breakdown in front of his confidant ‘get the youth vote’ secretary. He has a good old cry and your like “aw, look at him”. At times some of the prosthetic do have a habit of looking a little plastic in places. As I was watching, I realised it probably isn’t Oldman’s best performance in prosthetics – that would be his role as Mason Verger in Hannibal, a role that managed to best Anthony Hopkins villainy as Dr Lector. Anthony Hopkins was of course only the second man to play Dr Lector the first being… Brian Cox… WHO ALSO MAY HAVE PLAYED THE VILLAIN BETTER and I’m getting off point.
Darkest Hour just doesn’t reveal anything you didn’t already know about Winston Churchill nor has anything profound to say about the man or the British character that hasn’t been said already. We’ll just keep calm and carry on, I suppose. Our resolute island nation. It’s what we’ve always done. There is a scene towards the end of the movie involving a ride in the underground, in which the PM connects with a true microcosm of British society, it’s meant to show Churchill as a man of the people, it’s meant to be the defining scene that I guess is supposed to speak directly to a modern audience, but it can’t help but feel a little on the nose. The tagline says Never Never Never Surrender, but I mean, they all get pretty close! they all have a pretty good cry about it! Yes, it is well made and looks amazing, darkness and shadow pervading most of the shots to reflect our DARKEST HOUR. But like the man on the posters, it mumbles a lot. Thinking about Britain’s current ordeal, not to mention the rise of fascist feeling across the world, there is perhaps no better time to revisit the legacy of Winston Churchill, but I just felt the Darkest Hour could have given the old British bulldog more bark and more teeth.
The Western as a genre has gone the way of the West in many ways, but in modern years it seems to have found it’s true form as a more of a slower burn introspection that deconstructs the American character within an untame and violent history. Set in 1892, Hostiles begins with Rosamund Pyke’s character fleeing from her homestead from a band of marauding Indians, in a bleak and disturbing opening that sets the tone very clearly. Moving on, it introduces haunted US army captain Joe (Christian Bale), a man with a prolific past in the massacring of Native Americans. He is reluctantly chosen to undertake an order from the president to escort a liberated Indian chief back to his homeland. Having both fought on opposing sides in the Battle for Wounded Knee, there is a level of mistrust that instantly creates a tension that things are not going to run smoothly.
From the beginning, Bale is an enigmatic presence, stoic and silent, torn inside by post traumantic stress. A scene early on has him in the same room as a newly revealed Indian sympathiser, and the energy coming from Bale is intense, you feel he could explode at any moment. There is the promise that his this character is guaranteed to do some unspeakable things over the course of the next two hours. So you wait on tenderhooks as events unfold, but then…. it never really happens. Though Joe does have a clear and troubling hatred for Native Americans, there is ultimately a greater sense of duty that keeps those feelings from manifesting in a truly terrible manner. In a way it’s his sense of duty, his unflinching adherence to a code and his mission that seems to save him from his own demons, which is quite fascinating to watch. Gradually, as the party journey through the American heartland, they effectively become unified as their own tribe. Other parties they encounter, suddenly become the hostiles.
You can point a critical finger at the picture as yet another Western that depicts Native Americans as either scalp hungry savages or saintly spiritual pacifists. At the same time, it’s not Dances With Wolves, it’s a Western that deals very significantly in post-traumatic stress in an age where this condition was yet to be properly determined as a serious mental illness. There is the expectation that things will all fall apart, the old ghosts will come back and have their way and tear away everything. But this isn’t your typical Western. Along the way, there isn’t much in the way of catharsis, perpetrators meet sticky ends but not often at the hands of who you would think. There’s just this feeling of hopelessness and screaming “what was this all for?” Ultimately, to make amends of a dark past, all the living can do is just let it go and come to some form of acceptance of one another.
It’s powerful stuff that plays out in a very slow but deliberate way. I was engrossed throughout.
The Post is set in 1971, a year in which a 25 year old Steven Spielberg released Duel, a proto-type movie for Jaws in which a big rusty truck chased Dennis Weaver through the lonely canyon roads of California. It perhaps speaks volumes to how Spielberg has changed as a film maker over the last half a century. On one hand you have Spielberg as the household name behind some of the most beloved movies of all time, and then on the other hand you have the older Spielberg, retelling the events of modern history in a way that always seeks to create an active communion between the past and present.
As the war in Vietnam rages, The Washington Post gains access to a set of leaked top secret files (the Pentagon Papers) that proves the US government – under successive presidencies – has been misleading the public into war with Vietnam. As the newspaper chooses to publish the all the incriminating headlines, the Nixon administration threatens an injunction that could spell out doom for the Washington Post not to mention the greater mission of the free press in bringing government affairs to public light.
Unlike Darkest Hour, The Post is a depiction of historical events that feels increasingly relevant to modern times. Though it is set in the 70s, journalism as an industry and profession is mired by the same old problems, it’s duel nature to inform the public but function as a business and generate actual profit, there is an obligation to investors and even politicians, there are looming questions of how close the journalists are tied with politicians and in what way does this warp the truth or even sculpt the overlying narrative in the media. There has never been a harder time for journalism, there has never been an easy time for journalism and always there is the sense that the ways in which the news is being reported is changing.
We see this from different perspectives. Meryl Streep plays Kay Graham, the defacto leader of The Post, a company her father created and her husband inherited before it was passed on to her. She’s a woman trapped in a man’s world, who has for the longest time left it to the men to run the show, Streep plays her as reserved and meek, but quietly resolute, her character has so much doubt in herself that she’s not the right person to lead the newspaper forward. At times she feels wholly weak as a character.You feel the weight bearing down on her from all different places. Like from her hard-nosed the Post’s legendary editor, Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks who isn’t just playing the American everyman, his character is slightly more boisterous, somebody who grew up in a newsroom. In contrast, it’s a more understated performance from Bob Odenkirk that we are used to seeing in Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul, as the investigative journalist who uncovers the leaked papers.
Perhaps the film could have gone into more depth into each of the lies made by the American government (you could always read up on them yourself however – right here). Like Spotlight or All The President’s Men (of which The Post could basically lead into), The Post does represent the press as a morally shining agency for truth, justice and the American way, one that has the power to challenge and even topple older institutions. It does so ultimately with a pretty bow in the form of a classic dosage of Spielberg sentimentality. But at the same time, the resolution never comes as a surprise. Not if you are familiar with history. Of course the Supreme Court see the White House’s involvement as unlawful and in breach of the 1st Amendment. In many ways it’s not just the press that saves the day, but the setup of the American political system designed to keep each branch of government in check with one another.
It’s very telling how Spielberg chooses to include Nixon throughout the movie. He doesn’t go with yet another character actor to do the voice and chew up the scenery of the oval office. We merely get glimpses of the president through cursory shots from outside the White House. We’re only merely staring in but we see the president awake into the lone hours of the night speaking on the phone along with the real audio of the Nixon tapes. The tapes that would of course lead to his impeachment. In his own nice way, Spielberg is firing shots at the current white house incumbent. A man who also seems at war with the media, a president that has also banned reputable media outlets from setting foot in the white house, a man who throws around the term ‘fake news’ whenever he doesn’t like what a particular news outlet says about him. Nixon, from the outside, is portrayed exactly as he is in the tapes, a bully who is abusive of his tremendous power, but at the same time desperate and petty, prone to making mistakes, all factors that will of course play into his inevitable downfall. I suppose it does add an extra layer of hopefulness to the film, if we maintain faith in our newsrooms and journalistic integrity not to mention the systems that keep a democracy in check, we only have to wait for the inherent awfulness of the bad men to get out of control, their abuse of power becomes too big leading them to ultimately dig their own graves. They go. We move on.
In the first month of 2018, it’s a nice thought.
The Shape Of Water
There are many film makers and story tellers I look up to, but perhaps none who can talk so eloquently about cinema, literature AND video games than my main man Guillermo. Listening to this guy talk about things is an entrancing and captivating experience. Makes me want to grab a keyboard and fucking write something, fucking make something.
His latest film The Shape in the Water feels like an amalgamation of all of Del Toro’s movies up to this point. At first it feels like a spinoff of the Hellboy movie, featuring a secret underground government laboratory which houses an aquatic fish man once again played by a Mr Doug Jones – prosthetic character actor extraordinaire. The structure and progression of the story feels very similar to his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, a fairy tale within a fairy tale wherein a young girl escapes into a fantasy world of her own making as a means to find liberation. The Shape of Water is another fairy tale about a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) who finds personal liberation once she finds her prince charming… in the form of a green amphibious gentleman – the aforementioned fish man. As with Pan, the true enemy to the story is a unchecked form of masculinity authoritarianism, this time in the form of Michael Shannon. Unlike bastardly Vidal in Pan’s labyrinth, Michael Shannon’s character is a man in a sort of position of power, it’s more that he’s just a respectable man in the 50s, with a comfortable suburban home, two all American kids, a buxom wife who ingratiates him sexually whenever he wants and the money to afford a Cadillac. He’s the token man who has the American Dream but it’s not quite everything he wants. A fact that is very ferociously grating at his soul.
Like Hellboy, Shape of Water explores romantic love between human and humanoid, going further it finds a way to represent other forms of love and there is a little bit of exploration of the personal fetishes people have. Set in the 50s, it depicts an age where only one form of love is really accepted socially, yet it uses the iconography of the age and musicals of golden age Hollywood to sweep you away into acceptance. It does this to turn convention on it’s head, suddenly fish man and woman don’t look so bizarre, it’s everything else that appears alien. Based on my screening, I felt a lot of people around me were left a little bit confused about how to feel about it all. It makes some grand gestures, you will probably not see coming. Some people laughed and guffawed, I heard one dude exclaiming that there should have been at least a glimpse of fish-man penis. Perhaps he is right. Whether or not you accept the central relationship, may determine how much you enjoy Shape of the Water. My recommendation would be to go into it with an open mind and embrace the weirdness of it all. See something different on your night off. Because there is nothing like this.
It’s been nominated for best picture at this year’s Oscars along with Three Billboards, Darkest Hour (haha) and The Post, but I really hope The Shape of Water wins it, it’ll be the weirdest movie ever to win this coveted category. It’ll give the film more exposure, soon everybody and your mum will be like, “let’s watch that movie about the fish-man”. An Oscar win would only give Guillermo Del Toro more clout in making movies with all his crazy ideas, and I cannot stress how much we need this man’s imagination to invade our cinema screens and dance across them.