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.

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Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)

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Let’s not split hairs: Suicide Squad is a veritable How-To manual in making an absolute incoherent catastrophe of shambolic narration, cynical pandering and intensely problematic racial and sexual politics. And yet, somehow, I didn’t hate it.

It’s actually interesting how paradoxical this film’s existence really is. What feels like a good 20 minutes of the film’s beginning is literally someone eating steak, going through a file, and talking about some – not even all – of the characters who are to be rounded up and become the originally named “Task Force X,” aka the “Suicide Squad” in question. Sure, there are flashbacks contained within the description, but only really as visual aids to the narration – after all, if the introductory scenes to these characters were considered strong enough, they wouldn’t need some suits explaining to us who these people were, or what their motivations are. So, although this is essentially an action whose intended audience is clearly the exact age of the rating (15), the film-makers somehow figured that talking talking talking would be a preferable introduction to a motley band of super villains… and Captain Boomerang… who’s little more than a fake Tom Hardy, armed with a children’s toy. Ironically for a film that relies so heavily on exposition, nobody ever really stops to answer “why?” Why did you set this up on essentially a whim with virtually no provocation?Why do you think you actually need an ANYTHING Squad, when you believed yourself to be in control of a witch/goddess (which is it, by the way?)-possessed woman who can literally dash off to Tehran in half a second, steal nuclear documents, then dash back? Why do we spend so much time building up some sort of energy with the prison guard, for absolutely no pay-off? Why did you only introduce some of the villains in the file, then tack on a couple more halfway through? Why, when you’ve literally implanted bombs in the necks of each member of the Squad, does Rick Flag need Katana to help him control the team, at all? Also, why are we supposed to care about Rick Flag at all? Why are we supposed to care about anything?

Perhaps this is the conceit of the 21st century comic book film: they assume everyone walking into the cinema is a hardened fan, who’s seen everything, and blow anyone who isn’t. Certainly, when I saw The Avengers, with its bad guy from Thor using the weapon from Captain America, when all I’d seen was the first two Iron Man films, I felt genuinely punished for my complete absence of loyalty to this insidiously ubiquitous franchise. Suicide Squad proudly displaying what I can only imagine is a major spoiler from the end of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I have not yet seen, suggests exactly the same thing. Indeed, Suicide Squad shows such an aggressive bravado in its wholly unwarranted self-confidence, I almost feel as though it were daring me to question its, or its characters motives and motivations, beyond the most intuitively asinine.

Speaking of which, let’s turn to the characters: Deadshot, by virtue of Will Smith, is an enjoyable enough and watchable enough boilerplate Will Smith experience. His character’s been given a cute daughter and, my god, please Hollywood stop giving criminals cute daughters! just for a change, I’d like to see them be givenany other kind of motivation. (Mental note: watch John Wick, apparently his motivation’s the death of his dog. That works.) Diablo (Jay Hernandez) at least has an element of complexity, due to his sympathetic repentance for a truly terrible crime. However, he is for the most part reduced to a walking, talking racial stereotype, even if not too ugly a one. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a disgustingly underused character, not only because Croc is invariably awesome, but also because he is being portrayed by an absolutely fantastic actor in Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who was without a doubt one of the best elements of the TV series Lost. He is also reduced to a disappointing racial stereotype – his “demands” at the end of the film apparently being a widescreen TV showing non-stop generic sexist rap videos, and a shelfful of Hennessy. Katana (Karen Fukuhara) is a bland racial stereotype (anyone see a pattern emerging?), with nothing but a samurai sword and a “you killed my father; prepare to die” storyline. Slipknot (Adam Beach)… well, we don’t know a single thing about him, other than the fact he is played by a First Nations Canadian, wasn’t even considered worthy of a backstory, and is killed before he’s said 10 lines. Seriously, this film is racially abysmal.

And then, of course, we have Joker (Jared Leto) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). The portrayal of their relationship is utterly gross. It is depicted unambiguously as being one of an extremely controlling, coercive and abusive nature, and also depicted unambiguously as being one worthy of romanticisation. There are already multiple essays and articles on this topic, so I shan’t waste much time dwelling on this, here, but what’s really frustrating is that, if we are to see Harley as a character almost entirely defined by her devotion to an abusive, largely absent, psychopath, her response to thinking her puddin’ has just died in a helicopter crash is not going to be snuffling for two seconds and then sucking it up, buttercup, and putting a brave face on things. That’s just not how these things work. This film is so utterly lazy in its narrative threads, it will happily have 180º levels of inconsistency in its protagonists. Honestly, I think Jared Leto’s performance as Johnny Depp’s performance as Willy Wonka and The Mad Hatter’s performance as the Joker is reasonably passable. I mean, it without a doubt is the weakest performance I’ve seen committed to screen, from Cesar Romero to Mark Hamill, but that’s not saying all that much, considering the powerhouses all those performances have been. Arguably, the strength of his own, such as it is, lies almost entirely in its sporadic brevity. Contrary to what everyone’s favourite overrated emo, Ayn Rand-reading, marginalised community-appropriating asshole of an undeserving Oscar winner seems to think, a film named Suicide Squad – a squad of which Joker is not a member – was always going to be an ensemble piece in which Joker should not be a protagonist. Thus, he exists more as an idea – specifically an idea of pleasure for Harley and trepidation for everyone else – than he does as an actual game player. Harley’s existence in this film as a character removed from him is… debatable. However, she’s funny and well acted, even if she does keep spouting lines off of mass-produced Camden Market t-shirts from over ten years ago: “‘normal’ is a setting on the dryer,” yeesh.

Cara Delevigne as Dr June Moon / Enchantress, the possessed child archaeologist, is interestingly terrible. She does a reasonably steady job, when the two identities are separate, Enchantress being portrayed not at all badly by CGI but, by the time she takes over, the film-makers clearly decided it would be wrong to hide the beauty of a skinny white woman (though clearly not the beauty of an exceptionally attractive Black man), and thus strip her of all her dignity by sticking her in one of the most pathetically appropriative garbs I’ve seen since the sound era. I say “since the sound era,” given that June Moon / Enchantress’ headdress and ridiculous twitchy shoulder-based dance moves are clearly based upon the Evil Maria clone from Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. Only difference is, whilst Brigitte Helm was clearly having the time of her life, throwing shapes in a ridiculous get-up, there’s absolutely no joy in the absurdity of Delevigne’s villain. Thus, we can only squirm in embarrassment and humiliation on her behalf.

Between the under-arm serves by way of humour, the trick-or-treat costuming, the inanely quotable lines, Suicide Squad painfully appears to be the filmic equivalent of Reading Festival. And then in comes the music, to confirm it all: “Paranoid,” “Ballroom Blitz,” “Sympathy For the Devil,” “Seven Nation Army” – these are all quite literally the songs you expect to be playing on the PA system before a bank holiday music festival headliner comes on, and they are all played, seemingly at total random, for no reason other than to have a blandly cool soundtrack. At least Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” seems vaguely appropriate, playing whilst Deadshot – a bald, Black man – is on the screen. Seriously, this bloody film…

For some reason, though, there were just enough jokes to make me actually laugh, there was just enough action to keep me excited, and there was just enough charm in a couple of the performances – not least Smith and Robbie’s – to make sitting through all 130 minutes of this disasterpiece not quite the teeth-grinding, migraine-inducing nightmare I worried it might be. By no stretch of the imagination can I recommend this film to anyone. Is it that bad? Absolutely, but it’s not THAT that bad.

**

The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003)

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My stance with the obnoxious whiners, both the ones for and against what is so often frankly mislabeled “political correctness” ever in flux, my opinion on The Human Stain‘s own argument is not unlike the opening joke of Annie Hall about two elderly Jewish ladies complaining about the awful food, and in such small portions: it is all at once desperately stupid, and isn’t made at all strongly enough.

It is almost universally acknowledged that Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman are woefully miscast in this film. I mean, obviously, Nicole Kidman, a nigh-perpetual charisma vacuum, appears miscast in pretty much everything but the casting of protagonist Coleman Silk is at least slightly interesting, if still pretty lousy. Better qualified and more dedicated people than me could explore the potential racial-identity-oriented implications of having the young Coleman Silk played by a man of Afro-Carribean and Jewish descent (Wentworth Miller), and the old Coleman Silk being played by a man with neither, with regard to Silk’s choices regarding his familial and racial disconnection, but I don’t feel all that comfortable exploring it right now, myself. What I shall instead say is that, despite my general lack of interest in Miller, I think he does a pretty fine job, all things considered, both of portraying Silk on his own terms and also reflecting Hopkins’ mannerisms enough to make one a believable younger version of the other. However, this only further establishes something of a star-power-dynamic, as the latter’s performance is a wholly workaday Hopkins-as-Hopkins which, especially in the context of the May-December relationship between Silk and Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), makes The Human Stain appear an overly-serious dummy-run for the equally underwhelming Allen comedy You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

The catalyst for the lacklustre narrative, Silk’s loss of his academic post on account of his use of the term “spooks,” meaning “ghosts,” being seemingly intentionally misconstrued as “spooks,” meaning “Black people,” is wholly dependent not on the clandestine racial origins of the speaker, but the lack of level-headedness of his colleagues, given the clarity of context of the word, situated in the phrase “do they exist, or are they spooks?” This is ever so slightly alluded to, right near the very of the film which, given what’s just happened at the climax, everyone essentially goes – “who cares?” However, the bulk of the film is essentially predicated on a deeply inane “freezepeach” babble: “What do you mean I can’t use a racial slur? What if I’m secretly Black? Didn’t think of THAT one, didya?” An argument made predominantly by the whitest of white men.

Nicole Kidman is, of course, awful but, to be fair, so is her character. The Wentworth Miller-led flashback sections are, without a doubt, the most engaging, but are entirely cheapened and embittered by the fact that what is actually a fairly compelling story of one man is being used, inappropriately and poorly, as smoke-and-mirrors for a completely fatuous argument. The tensions surrounding Faunia and her obnoxious PTSD outbursts, one-dimensional allusions to childhood molestation, dead children, and her not-at-all-menacing menacing ex husband (Ed Harris), beyond being dull and grating, also distract from the point the story is trying to make. The result is, rather than complexity, The Human Stain merely gains confusion.

The Human Stain suffers through its underuse of good actors in good roles, overuse of good actors in bad roles, and overuse of bad actors in bad roles, never with enough conviction or narrative drive to express its point to the extent that it could be described as a “commentary” or “satire,” and it’s a stupid point anyway.

 

*1/2

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

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I hate agreeing with Mark Kermode. Especially on the subject of Tarantino. I find it an utter bore that people are so anxious to be iconoclasts that it’s become as cool as it is to say you hate Tarantino’s filmmaking in the same breath as denouncing The Beatles. No, neither of them are as good as the hype. Nothing is. That’s why it’s called hype.

That saidThe Hateful Eight is just too damn long. I mean, it really is so long. I’m saying this as someone who holds Sátántangó  and Dekalog in the highest regard. Appreciating and sometimes studying the films of Hungary, Poland, Russia, China, Romania and Japan to name a few has solidified in my esteem the ability of an extended average shot length to re-centre the spectator’s focus, away from any plotline froth to the humanity and, by extension, spiritual dignity of the characters, navigating unforgiving territory, both geographical and existential in nature. The length of The Hateful Eight can, for the most part, only be understood as representative of Tarantino’s vanity and self-assurance.

Indeed, though it certainly became apparent during the considerably more enjoyable Django Unchained, the mask of Tarantino started solidly to slip for me in Eight. I as aware going in that it would take at least half an hour for us even to arrive at the cabin, which sounded fine to me – I mean, it takes longer than that to get into space in Solaris or the Zone in Stalker; who needs a racing start, especially with that celebrated Tarantino dialogue? The Hateful Eight, apparently. Indeed, one of the problems with relying ever more on genre film archetypes in a historical setting is that the quotidian profundity that punctuated his slick crime thrillers, that later developed into genuinely heartfelt poignancy in Kill Bill: Vol 2 is little more than a nostalgic memory. Instead, as opposed the spectacular use of Ultra-Panavision 70 setting up a precedent for full use of cinema as a visual medium, Tarantino tells, rather than shows the narrative set-up with some of the clunkiest expositional dialogue I recall seeing outside of the ending of Vanilla Sky. “Do you know why they call him ‘The Hangman’?” Warren (Samuel L Jackson) asks Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), as she is literally manacled to John Ruth aka “The Hangman.” He proceeds to mansplain to Ruth’s live bounty that Ruth doesn’t kill his bounties, before Ruth asks to see Warren’s “Lincoln Letter,” which he’s already seen. Near everybody knows each other, but they still have to introduce themselves to one another, for the sake of the audience, which seems utterly ridiculous when you know Tarantino’s going to throw in a narrator’s voice for ten seconds, like Jackson’s in Inglourious Basterds, you figure he could have quickly introduced the characters via narration or on-screen text and saved us at least twenty minutes. Gorgeous as the landscapes certainly are, the philosophy of tell-don’t-show (which is something of a consistent re-occurrence  throughout) is surely Tarantinto at his least cinematic.

We are saved, somewhat, by the time we reach the cabin and are afforded more characters. Tim Roth’s performance certainly tries to steal the show, but is afforded nowhere near enough screen time to do so. There is also the niggling feeling that Roth’s success in this film – or, at the very least, his character’s – is based largely upon a close modelling and channeling of the notable-by-absence Christoph Waltz. Eight establishes itself as something of a paranoid thriller, in which Ruth harasses everyone else in case they try to lay their hands on Daisy, his $10,000 bounty (something which might be aided by him not constantly telling everyone how much she’s worth), and develops into having the barest semblance of a locked-room mystery, and eventually devolves into an extended Mexican standoff. In many ways, The Hateful Eight is a remake of Tarantino’s own Michael Fassbender sequence from Basterds – which a vast number of people, myself not actually included in this case, complained was too long – turning it into a film the best part of three hours, which damn near everyone is saying is too long. I’m doing my best to keep this review spoiler-free, but I shall simply say: there is a gaping plot-hole surrounding the nationality of one character and the alleged racial prejudice of another, and the devolution from locked-room mystery to Mexican standoff is catalysed by a plot device I feel I can only describe in one word: cheating. Indeed, though the main issue with Eight is quite simply that it is a Western thriller with elements of mystery that is incredibly short on suspense. I don’t think I really felt any tension in the film until a considerable number of the characters were already dead. However, soon after the tension was established, it then became pretty clear nobody was fully sure how the film should end. “Very ploddingly” was apparently the answer.

Don’t get me wrong, there are flashes of brilliance in this film, and I do not regret watching it. It’s lovely to see Tim Roth and Michael Madsen return triumphantly to Tarantino’s fold, even if they are both criminally underused in favour of the fairly unlikeable Walton Goggins and increasingly pretty tiresome duo of Jackson and Russell. The dialogue is not all dreck, certainly past the expositional hurdles, and it really is pretty gorgeous. Oddly enough, it may well address racial issues better than Django, even though the number of people of colour has been significantly reduced from that film to this. However, there is a scene in Eight that relies on the white fear of the symbolic Black male body, within the context of sexual assault via coercion that made me desperately uncomfortable – speaking as someone who really doesn’t get uncomfortable in films easily. For sure, that was the point, but that it was Tarantino’s point, rather than another writer/director better qualified to make it is less than impressive. The bloody violence is enjoyable and the score does indeed scream “modern classic.” I didn’t hate this film; just, speaking as someone who still likes Tarantino, despite herself, I was left very disappointed.

**1/2

Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)

 

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Dear White People is a genuinely funny, brilliantly acted and assuredly relevant dramedy that follows student politics in the lead-up to an altercation between students of colour and the attendees of a blackface-themed Halloween party on campus.

Whilst Dear White People cannot be said completely to shy away from the label of “issues-related” or “social problem film,” its fictional Ivy League backdrop and all-round exceptional performances allow for its collective-protagonist-driven roaming narrative and crescendo of property damage (the physical violence against white people in the scene in question is as absent as systematic violence towards Black people is present) to act as a witty parallel to Do the Right Thing, rather than simply trying to “update” it. Justin Simien has gone on record as not wanting to be called “the next Spike Lee,” and nor should he. But he has also name-checked Do the Right Thing and it would be dishonest to act as though I hadn’t noticed similarities.

The well expressed (if – at moments – a little stagey) socio-political discourse to one side, Dear White People‘s strength – its vividly multi-dimensional narrative, carried by 4 stellar leads and a fabulous host of supporting cast, acts paradoxically as its weakness. The desire to see so many characters have a legitimate story – as Sam (Tessa Thompson) herself says, with development and a background other than their race – in a 108 minute film does somewhat result in none of the characters quite fully having that.

Troy (Brandon Bell) is given the most background (due to the presence of his father, also the Dean of Students, played by the ever wonderful Dennis Haysbert) but, whilst a fine character, is arguably the least interesting/evocative of sympathy, on account of his seemingly greater degree of fiscal and class privilege. His conflicts are by far the most addressed, in my opinion at the risk of the film’s pacing. However, it’s not simply that I feel there are scenes that should have made it to the cutting room floor; rather, I feel certain there are scenes lying on the cutting room floor that could do with re-entry.

The film’s rhythm does leave a little to be desired – whilst we enjoy the company of all the film’s characters, their motivations for suddenly dropping and/or picking up (for want of a better term) “the cause” are left consistently partially obscured. I want to know more about Lionel (Tyler James Williams)’s inner tensions between his Blackness and his queerness that seems to keep him away from the BSU. I want to hear more about Sam’s book, her radio show, her films, her family, her relationship with Troy. I want to see more Coco (Teyonah Parris) in the film just generally – she has nowhere near a big enough role, and the film could have easily done with some tightening up to fit her in. I should add, it’s not just an overabundance of Troy that needs tightening up – there are several filler scenes of Lionel just kinda hanging out that could easily have been done away with in favour of more story and character development. Plus, there was this reality TV plotline that added so little, I’m honestly not sure why it existed, beyond showing off the fabulous Malcolm Barrett?

Still, Dear White People has left me panting for more of a good thing and that is not the same as it being an unsatisfying watch. It is funny, it is righteous, it is angry, it is well-written and deals with serious topics of history, identity, and society, balancing just the right levels of irreverence and clarity to make Dear White People a sophisticated yet unpretentious, didactic yet un-preachy, exceedingly worthy campus social satire.

***1/2