Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, 2018)

Okay, let’s do this.

I can’t give Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri a star rating. It exists in a realm of moral ambiguity tantamount to Schrödinger-esque quantum mechanics, as it champions disobedience on part of a citizen against a corrupt and violent police force, whilst doing no more than at best paying lip-service to the people of colour who come most in contact with police violence and at worst trying to salvage the worst offenders for a white perspective.

Three Billboards is, absolutely, exceptionally powerful in places. Repeated use of the phrase “Raped While Dying” sends emotional shockwaves, as it should. But, in a way, it’s also the problem. Mainstream Hollywood “issue films” are exceptionally wont to render questions of social justice and civil rights as wholly affect, no effect. In other words, there is no legitimate material analysis of the situation, which means that, when Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) storms over to Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and inquires after the “[n-word]-torturing business,” it is very difficult indeed to believe she would have nearly as much a problem with the cops torturing “[n-words]” if they’d also managed to find her daughter’s killer.

This is largely because the suffering of people of colour at the hands of the police is never more than a (white) talking point, and a passing one at that: we’re told Dixon tortured a Black man pretty horrifically at some point before the film, but we never see him, we never hear his name. It’s nothing but a narrative device to help illustrate a white character. Mildred’s boss, Denise (Amanda Warren) is barely afforded a few “you go, girl”-s to Mildred before she is incarcerated for – you guessed it – possession in order to – guessed it again – get at Mildred. We’ve already had it established that the department holding Denise is in the business of torturing Black people so, will the camera cut to her, to see if she’s okay? No, we don’t know how she’s doing; we’re actually supposed to forget about her, but you bet your bottom dollar Mildred expresses her outrage all around the station. Might have been nice to visit her in jail even once, but we’ve got a one-woman war to wage, I guess.

Interestingly for a film whose plot is catalysed by the rape and murder of a teenage girl, Three Billboards actually takes an exceptionally dim view of all young women. Not one is portrayed as anything other than a ditzy, well-meaning but undeniably stupid girlfriend. Even the flashbacks of Mildred’s daughter, Angela (Kathryn Newton), show her to be irrationally volatile in such a way that her death is portrayed by implication as a – no matter how unjust – punishment for storming out the house.

Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) takes on an effectively messianic role throughout the film: a Good Cop™ who knows all our hearts’ desires, but not who killed Angela, it is he who promulgates Dixon’s supposed rehabilitation, informing him he has “love in [his] heart,” an insight that has escaped everyone else, audience included. Dixon takes it upon himself then to improve his actions, after having been fired for beating and throwing someone out a first floor window into traffic. Not arrested. Fired. He betters his ways through interactions solely with – yep – white people. Dixon’s increased importance as the film goes on shows him to be the avatar for any Trump voter in the seats, and the message Martin McDonagh wishes to convey is clearly one of largely liberal platitudes. “Hurt people hurt people” shouldn’t be such a stunning revelation to all the critics falling over themselves to give Three Billboards 5 stars for its “nuance,” and yet it seems to be its rallying cry. Unlearning oppressive thought and behaviour is acknowledged as uncomfortable, through its insistence on showing graphically the pain Dixon experiences in the second half of the film (in contrast to almost any of the pain experienced by his victims), but it gets so wrapped up in showing the discomfort, it forgets to show any unlearning.

The film had me laughing and tearing up in the grand majority of the right places, it’s nothing at all if not compelling, and the performances are fantastic. I’m especially glad to see the brilliant Caleb Landry Jones slowly climb the ladder, from first seeing him in The Last Exorcism, then Get Out and now to Three Billboards. Frances McDormand’s Best Actress Oscar will be well deserved. The film is, in occasional parts, beautiful, both visually and emotionally. However, there is an inconsistency and two-facednedness which is both ethically and morally suspect that it falls again into what may count either as tone-deafness, or indeed flat-out cynicism, which makes me want to avoid praising it too much at all. Its disquieting ambiguity is what I’m sure may have put Peter Dinklage in the first role I’ve seen him take in years that struck me as – for my perhaps patronising, able-bodied money – demeaning. The moment climaxes are reached, guns are drawn or buildings burned, Three Billboards has shifted out of clumsily handled dramatic thinkpiece territory and into “Martin McDonagh, director of Seven Psychopaths,” Tarantino-lite genre film territory, and the transition is not nearly as smooth as everyone involved clearly thinks it is.

McDormand is a powerhouse, and I’m not saying this would have solved every problem, but imagine if Mildred Hayes had been played by Angela Bassett. Same age, same wonderful talent and ability to combine comedy, aggression and heart, but one can only imagine how much the film would have been improved if the violence and indifference of the police expressed to Black people in the South had been the crux of the story, not anecdotal reference material. If murder that inspires all actions in the film had not been of the Young White Woman, the victim supposed to inspire sympathy, but had been someone as likely to be murdered by the cops as by any criminal. This is why #OscarsSoWhite should have been treated as a blessing for Hollywood – the overrepresentation of whiteness in films isn’t just a travesty of social justice; it stops cinema from being all it could be, too.

Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)


I don’t even know how many times I have seen this film, and it should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who knows me, but this film never fails to enthral and delight me, every single time. I absolutely belong to the not-inconsiderable ranks of those who consider Some Like it Hot to be the greatest comedy of all time.

But what is it about Some Like it Hot that makes it stand out, 57 years after the fact? Leaving aside – at least for now – the universally impeccable performances (even though it is made quite clear in Marilyn Monroe’s eyes and occasional uncertainty in her voice that she was clearly struggling under the influence of pills at this stage – stories of 47 takes just to get her to say “It’s me, Sugar” in the right order attest to this – and yet, through direction and editing, not to mention her own perseverance, her most memorable performance still shines through), much of its greatness comes from its writing.

The narrative flow in this film is as smooth as running water and, as such, everything is exactly in its right place. Consider the opening: we begin with a hearse, driving through a city at night, all of a sudden pursued by a police car, all its inhabitants guns blazing, only for the passengers of the hearse to produce rifles of their own and return fire. As the hearse makes its escape, liquid leaks out of the bullet-holes left in the casket, whose lid is revealed to contain nothing but scotch whiskey. Finally, the words “Chicago, 1929” appear on the screen. In a way, this simple sequence articulates classical film-making at its very best: narrative created through conflict; not just the obvious conflict of cops vs robbers, but the more subtle examples of oxymoron and juxtaposition, allowing the humour and confusion of subverted expectations to carry the scene, with the conflict’s resolution also acting as its first explanation: this is Chicago, 1929: city of bootleggers, in a time of prohibition. Any other film might have had an establishing shot and/or those words, telling us the date/location before the fact, thereby making this some pseudo-documentarian “slice of life” point; instead, by reversing this trope, the setting justifies the action, allowing the action full comedic and dramatic potential, unencumbered by detail (I recently, appreciatively noticed the series Preacher doing just this, too).

We then follow an undercover detective, entering Spats Columbo (George Raft)’s riotously successful speakeasy, ingeniously hidden within a funeral home, sitting next to the dancing girls and the band, tenor sax and bass played respectively by Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) – we are led to our principle characters by following a secondary plot. After the club is raided, Joe and Jerry witness the gangland massacre by Spats of the rivals who ratted out his establishment, inspiring them to dress in drag and join up with Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators for a three-week gig in Miami, Florida.

It seems a small point, but it is in fact highly illustrative of the tightness of the narrative: we follow police, following mobsters into the mobster speakeasy, where we meet our protagonists, who are put out of a job by the police raiding the joint, inspiring a bloody reprisal by the mobsters, who chase the protagonists into Florida, where, eventually, the mob will end up, chase them again, before themselves being killed in a bloody reprisal against the first, whilst the events in Florida see the protagonists to safety. Complex, yet purely seamless, every single scene matters, and is beautifully interwoven not only with the ones immediately before and after it, but throughout the entire film. Thus, Some Like It Hot exists in a wide and believable universe, but also in an holistic one – by having each situation matter, each occurrence is justified. By each occurrence being justified, the audience will never feel cheated or insulted by a turn of events. Thus, the narrative thread of “destiny” upon which classical film structure is so dependent has rarely been so deftly executed: we, as an audience, are able to place our trust in Some Like it Hot, in a way unlike so many contemporary films.

It is without a doubt this harmonious interconnectvity that carries this film so well: it feels as though each and every line has its own comeback AND at least one call-back. There are at least three or four separate jokes in the film relating to Blood Type O alone, all of them different, all of them funny, all of them contextual. That’s pretty damn impressive, if you ask me. Joe at one point lists all the terrible things that could (and, of course, totally did) happen, early in the film: “suppose the stock market crashes, suppose Mary Pickford leaves Douglas Fairbanks, suppose the Dodgers leave Brooklyn, suppose Lake Michigan overflows…” (a line which, in any lesser comedy, would have the characters stopping for multiple tedious fourth-wall-breaking nod to the audience), to which Jerry replies (having seen the detective) “don’t look now, but the whole town is underwater.” Far, far later into the film, as Joe is schooling Jerry in the old adage that one can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg, Jerry sees Spats and his henchmen turn up in Florida and responds “don’t look now, but the omelette is about to hit the fan!” The skill of the writing allows call-backs to function in the most oblique and purely tonal sense, whilst still remaining completely successful in the process. It is this devotion to the god in the details that ensures Some Like it Hot will carry on gaining new fans in another 57 years and beyond, long after the cynical “<insert joke here>” format films of men like Seth MacFarlane and Todd Phillips are rightfully forgotten.

Of course, Some Like it Hot is also a vital film in its existence as one of the final nails in the coffin of the oppressive Film Production Code, in its glorious celebration of many facets of queerness, not only in having hired the brilliant drag queen and trapeze artist Barbette as an on-set consultant in the art of “gender illusion,” but in the wider context of its presentation of drag’s potentiality. Little if any time at all is spent remarking on preconceived notions of humiliation or emasculation as a necessary element of, or psychological response to, cross-dressing. Instead, both protagonists are liberated from what might otherwise have been an inescapably predictable tropey existence: Joe, who begins the story as a selfish, womanising manipulator, becomes in Josephine a respectable and more than a little prim confidante for Sugar Kane (Monroe), whilst Jerry – Joe’s hapless sidekick, dragged around, constantly pessimistic – becomes the gloriously loud, opinionated and popular Daphne. Of course, perhaps most interesting is Joe’s other other persona: his male drag-king act as Junior, the Cary Grant-caricature millionaire, in many ways the dialectical synthesis of Joe and Josephine, via whom he manipulates Sugar into falling in love with him (in a not un-Shakespearean fashion) through a parodic process of what one can only consider erotic conversion therapy for the type of man one would normally expect to say “when I’m with a girl, it just leaves me cold.” However, through the foundation of gentleness and sensitivity of their communion – a trait Sugar inexplicably believes all short-sighted men share – he finds enough of a conscience to spare himself from unsalvageablity. Jerry as Daphne’s relationship with the fantastically named lecherous “rich millionaire” party-boy Osgood Feelding III (Joe E. Brown) is consistently hilarious whilst also profoundly effecting for any queer audience member – no reading-into required, when that final line in the film comes, it’s a joyous celebration of “whatever”-ness in the face of social convention that will remain with me for all time.

The cinephilic ensemble of Some Like it Hot expands the concept of performativity to be relevant to all characters in the film. The gangster subplot is littered with as many recognisable faces – George Raft, Pat O’Brien, Edward G. Robinson Jr – as the comedic narrative is – Joe E. Brown, Dave Barry and others. The gangsters not only reflect real life (the opening credits may claim similar events are completely unintentional but the fictionalised St Valentine’s Day Massacre says otherwise), but also fictionalised ones. Spats is only just stopped at one point from smashing half a grapefruit into a henchman’s face, in a clear reference to the most infamous scene in gangster film classic, The Public Enemy. It seems reasonable to view Some Like it Hot performing Butler-esque commentary on the performativity of aspects of gender, race and class all round. Of course, the cineliterate nature of the film’s comedy has also paradoxically helped it escape dating: by being a film, made in the tail-end of the 1950s, set in the tail-end of the 1920s, opting to be one of the exceptionally few 1959 films shot in monochrome, Some Like it Hot convinces the audience it is an older film that it is, only amplifying its relevance in the resultant contrast. The fact it manages to do so by addressing themes progressive for the time it was made allows it to exist in a time all its own, as it shall continue to do for years to come.

Some Like it Hot is cinematic viewing at its most fundamentally essential. If you have not seen this film, you have not truly seen film at all.


Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015)



There are certainly many arguments to be made about what makes the cinema the cinema, what makes a film a film. A popular argument does rest on editing: the complementation and/or juxtaposition of images. Still, as a well-known fan of post-intellectual montage Socialist cinema (e.g. Tarkovsky), and indeed the cinema post-that (e.g. Tarr), the long take, in which the cameraman effectively becomes the editor is hardly a new concept to me; nor one that presents many inherent hurdles I need to “get over” to enjoy the film.

Nor should it be: the single shot – even the single frame – film has existed, both in concept and reality, bouncing in dialogue between the avant-garde and mainstream cinema for decades now. From Frampton to Hitchcock to Sokurov to Iñarritu. However, Victoria is certainly one of the first genre films I’ve encountered, filmed in one take; generic devices so often by definition relying upon traditional filmic conventions such as editing. I would tentatively suggest that one of the main events that has happened in the 13 years since the release of Russian Arkin 2002 and Victoria, first released in Germany in 2015, was the found-footage-horror boom (The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999, but the explosion of this style to ubiquity only really happened in about 2007). It only was a matter of time, therefore, before the steady increase of genre film with the atmosphere and simulation of an unedited, real-time occurrence would result in a film like Victoria, the moment the technology was there.

The film can, more or less, be split into thirds: before / after Victoria decides not to end her night by opening up the café at which she works, and instead to help her new friends out, with what she doesn’t yet know, and before / after that event itself. I certainly enjoyed the first two-thirds, and found the last section certainly more than watchable. It is in no way unimpressive to see a film develop so seamlessly from a Before Sunrise walk-and-talk to a high-octane crime drama. However, as will all films, it is important to ask: is a film more than its formal elements, even if we understand acting and narratology as a formal element? Does it matter that the story and motivations, divorced from the formal devices – fabulous as they may be – are largely workaday and a little unsatisfactory, or should we just allow them to blend in our minds, as indeed they should inherently do?

One of the ways in which the effect and affect seem most connected is the phenomenological impression left on the viewer. By the last section of Victoria, the shaky camera and high intensity of the storyline combined to make me feel utterly seasick and a little anxious for the film to end, though I was acutely aware that this was quite likely a genuine empathetic connection with the protagonist. However, the fact that Victoriadrew my attention to the formal process of itself, even as it had an emotional, even haptic, effect on me left me with the impression I had seen a gimmick – an engaging, well-acted gimmick – but a gimmick nonetheless.

However, Victoria still wins on many levels: Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen gets billed in the end credits above director Sebastian Schipper, as is only correct – as good as the majority of the acting is (and it really is), the camera work can really only be classed with one word and that is “heroic.” The fluidity not only of its movement (how Grøvlen wasn’t tripping over himself constantly through all the location changes on foot and in automobile is beyond belief in and of itself) but its focus changes provide a film in which the whole frame is constantly vital: moving deftly from exactly those sorts of close-ups Hitchcock famously likened to crash cymbals to a shot that utilises foreground and background simultaneously, with the spectator encouraged to study both, even when one is highly blurred. Such an effect is truly harmonious in the context of a film in which the protagonist is a non-German-speaker, surrounded by Germans, affording the spectator a slight upper-hand in terms of understanding over Victoria, even though we are constantly aligned with her. Aptly enough, the recent found footage (esque) horror Unfriended, set entirely on a computer screen made use of the spectator’s ability to read messages the protagonist would write and delete before sending them, as way of giving a unique point of access to her interior monologue.Victoria‘s use of Sonne, Boxer and Blinker’s frantic German discussions, going right over Victoria’s head give a similar effect, albeit in reverse.

There is an awful lot going for Victoria, thus I don’t want my labelling of it as a gimmick to be seen as pure dismissal. Rather,Victoria should stand proudly as testament that, just because a film may be groan-inducingly characterised as a “rollercoaster ride of a movie” doesn’t mean the rollercoaster can’t have a little depth.



Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)


The “charming psychopath” trope is truly one of the tropiest out there, and yet we never really see it. Usually you can divide them between your Dexter Morgans – who are much less “charming” than they are “awkward,” a little bumbling, convincing all around that they are totally harmless anoraks, despite their ripped abs and blood on their shirt – and your Hannibal Lecters, whose definition of charm seems to be “hang your class privilege over absolutely everyone’s head and intimidate people into sucking up to you, even when you’ve killed people making less than minimum wage for being uncouth.” Nightcrawler‘s Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) finally, more than any other character I can recall, embodies the charming psychopath.

The main thing about them of course, is that the charm is studied, mimetic – forced, even – and, through its inorganic nature, will always eventually run its course for the people around the performer, much like a TV show that’s been on too long, relying on re-runs and unimpressive updates. (Did someone say The Simpsons?) Thus, whilst Gyllenhaal’s performance is absolutely stellar, it absolutely relies upon the support of the increasing unease on the faces of Rick (Riz Ahmed) and Nina (Rene Russo) to establish Lou’s relationship with the outside world.

Without a doubt, Nightcrawler‘s gritty sideways look the rubbernecking industry does owe something to Network but, frankly, I refuse to compare them: it’s uninspired and boring and there have been plenty of other journalistic satires over the years. What Nightcralwer does, to my mind pretty uniquely, is keep the narrative located almost entirely through Lou’s nocturnal eyes. This means – and praise God – none of those catatonically dull shots of people in diners asking the waitress to “turn it up,” or toast falling out of businessmen’s mouths at the breakfast table. Instead, Nightcrawler follows the stringer business as a business of the most objectivist: subjects are subjects of interests, human beings are human capital, even and especially in death.

I was, apparently mistakenly, under the impression before I watched it that Nightcrawler was based on the true story of Wallace Souza, a Brazilian anchor who ordered killings to ensure he could report on them before anyone else, including cops, could reach the crime scene. Thus, especially in the light of the film’s opening, in which Lou attacks, possibly kills, a security guard to steal scrap metal and a nice watch, I was waiting for his pursuits to escalate to straight-up committing murders. That his actions remain – arguably, and for the length of the film – just below that didn’t actually disappoint me; rather, it allowed Lou to be the icon of journalism bending the rules right up to breaking point, but not necessarily over it. That said, the ending and final image could have been a little more enigmatic.

As is the modern LA noir way, the film glows in the naturally unnatural lighting of the city, which – following Inherent Vice  arguably is becoming just as much cinematographer Robert Elswit’s signature as it is Nicolas Winding Refns’. However, just as Lou’s neoliberal loquaciousness stands in opposition to The Driver’s near-mute levels of laconism, the neon incandescence of Drive remains unchallenged by Nightcrawler, whose atmosphere still rests on the surrounding natural beauty, and all the human treachery hidden within. My – possibly only – complaint about Drive has always been that there just isn’t enough driving, which contributes to a slight skewing of the film’s climax. Nightcrawler successfully delivers the driving I felt Drive held out on me, which makes me desperately want to watch these two, back-to-back, at my earliest possible convenience.

I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy Nightcrawler quite as much as I did, and maybe a second viewing will lower my rating, but it’s left me a very satisfied customer today.