Phantom Thread (15)
Having already had one five-year period of semi-retirement, it seems that triple Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis has decided to finally quit acting for good. This, then, is his swansong, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, making his first British film affording him the opportunity to bow in style (and with another Oscar nomination) as Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock, dressmaker to the vulgar but rich high society women of British post-war society he despises but relies on, not to mention the occasional Belgian princess. He’s a cold fish, fastidious to the point of anal, crabby, humourless and preeningly self-important, still in thrall to his late mother who launched him on a career as a couturier and unable to make emotional connections. Indeed, he’s first seen breakfasting with his latest live-in lover, making it abundantly clear he’s tired of her, her removal duly facilitated by his domineering, caustic and equally frosty business partner sister Cyril (Lesley Manville).
Taking a brief seaside break, he encounters shy, clumsy German waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) and is immediately as smitten as his personality allows, seeing in her potential for beauty and poise, duly whisking her back to London where, much to Cyril’s initial displeasure, she becomes both his assistant, muse, star model and occasional sexual gratification. Naturally, given Raymond’s controlling nature and lack of tolerance (there’s brilliant scene in which the sounds of Alma having breakfast are magnified to indicate his irritation at such ‘distraction’ from his work), the relationship seems set to collapse. However, Alma’s not about to lie down and be walked over, proving, with the help of a little poison mushroom omelette (another daringly nuanced scene) that she can be just as manipulative in making him emotionally rely upon her while he tries to keep her at a remove. It is, as she puts it at one point, something of a staring contest to see who blinks first.
Affecting a mannered speaking voice and sinuous body language, Day-Lewis is superb in his portrayal of toxic masculinity shot through with ineffable vulnerability and need, creating but never finding beauty, his composure also rattled by the threat from a new fashion trends that are seducing way his clients, giving rise to a riveting explosion of anger when Cyril dares to mention the term ‘chic’. He’s brilliant complemented though by both Kriebs and Manville, the former giving a complex and intricately textured performance while the latter feels as though she’s stepped out of the pages of a Du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Working on themes of desire, ambition and control and enrobed in Jonny Greenwood score, Hitchcock, Bergman and Losey are all evident influences in Anderson’s claustrophobic design and fabric while the relationship between Woodcock and his sister. An unusual and at times oblique love story, it has a definite refined art house quality that might prove testing for less patient audiences, but its narrative needlework is true craftsmanship. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Den Of Thieves (15)
Featuring a decidedly take and bake performance from Gerard Butler as a stereotypical gruff, hard-bitten rules-bending rogue cop, at nearly two and a half hours, this Heat cum To Live And Die In L.A. wannabe is ridiculously overlong and peppered with genre clichés. Set in LA, apparently the bank robbery capital of the world according to the opening statistics, it opens with a donut store assault on an armoured truck carried out with military precision until a minor mishap escalates into a full blown shoot out leaving assorted cops and one of the robbers dead. Enter “Big” Nick Davis (Butler) from the Major Crimes division and his team of self-styled ‘Regulators’ who immediately butts heads with the guy from the FBI (a running antagonism that surfaces a couple of times for no particularly necessary reason), who can’t figure out, given the clearly well-planned operation, the gang ended up hijacking an empty truck. At this point anyone with even a vague familiarity with crime thrillers will be well ahead of Davis, but it still takes forever to get to the core of the film, an attempt to steal a fortune in bills due for shredding – and hence no longer having the serial numbers registered – from the L.A. branch of the Federal Reserve, the city’s most impenetrable and never robbed bank.
It’s all being masterminded by former elite soldier Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) in the surrogate DeNiro role who, although the bad guy, does at least have reservations about killing people – especially cops – during their jobs, unlike Davis and his crew who have no reservations about beating up suspects to get the information they need. Case in point being bartender Donnie (O’ Shea Jackson, Jr, the best thing here), who he quickly fingers as the driver and forces to be his inside man. However, the cool and clear-thinking Merriman’s not an idiot and equally uses Donnie in turn.
When it gets to the big heist and the subsequent shoot-out in heavy traffic, the film ignites as a cracking high octane thriller, Merriman’s sleight of hand strategy in its execution cleverly written, even if it does borrow somewhat from the Ocean’s 11 remake. However, you have to wade through a lot to get there, including a perfunctory subplot involving Davis’s collapsing marriage and being served with divorce papers and some mirror daddy and daughter scenes with Davis talking to his youngest at the school fence and Merriman’s second in command, Levi Enson (Curtis ’50 Cents’ Jackson), scaring the life out of his daughter’s prom date which I’d assume writer and first-time director Christian Gudegast introduced for some ‘comic relief’. There’s also a sequence in which cop and criminal both wind up at the latter’s apartment after Davis has bedded Merriman’s club dancer girlfriend, the payoff to which comes much later.
There’s an attempt to introduce some moral ambiguity to the characters, forcing audiences, as in Michael Mann’s classic, to question who they should be rooting for, but, failing to much humanise either of the opposing protagonists (Butler crying over being an estranged daddy is about as convincing as his generic tough cop bluster) the script never really pulls it off, just as a clumsily written Japanese restaurant, where Davis pretends to bump into Donnie as he’s eating with the gang and, as Merriman susses, is patently obviously a cop, makes no logical sense. There’s a final unexpected twist, but that too is stolen from another crime classic, suggesting that while Gudegast may make a decent thief, he’s a pretty poor fence. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Roman J. Israel Esq (12A)
This legal drama character study may boast an unexpected – though not undeserved – Best Actor Oscar nomination for Denzel Washington, but it’s still being buried away on three out of town screens. That said, it’s not hard to see why. Saddled with a particularly attention-bypassing title, it feels much longer than its two hours and, in the midsection, the narrative seems to be idling along as if waiting for the screenwriter to return and release the pause button.
We first meet Israel (Washington) as he’s typing out a letter confessing his serious laps in moral integrity and demanding his own immediate disbarral, the reasons for which take forever to arrive. Somewhat on the spectrum, unmarried, lacking social skills and still sporting a 60s Afro, he’s a former activist and now L.A. criminal attorney with an encyclopaedic memory and knowledge of California legal code and a dream of filing a class action lawsuit to stop the rigged plea bargaining system whereby those accused (and possibly innocent or with mitigating circumstances) wind up accepting a deal to avoid going to trial and potentially risking a harsher sentence. He is, however, a backroom boy, providing the groundwork and advice for his (never actually seen) partner who handles the court proceedings, that is until he has an offscreen heart attack and ends up in a vegetative coma and he learns that the firm can’t afford to keep going or, indeed, pay him any redundancy.
He’s offered a job by corporate high flier George (Colin Farrell), a former student of his partner who now heads up a swish legal firm and has been nominated to wind up the practice. Roman refuses until it becomes plain that, in his 6os and with no real experience of the “white man’s courtroom”, finding employment anywhere is going to be nigh impossible. But at least he gets to meet up with Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a younger activist who runs a local voluntary organisation aimed at protesting injustice.
The narrative crux comes when he’s assigned by George to represent a young man (Niles Fitch) who was involved in a robbery where the storekeeper was shot dead by his accomplice. His client offers to turn evidence, as he knows where the killer’s hiding out, but, incensed at the terms, Roman (who seems to alienate most authority figures, his first appearance in decades winding up with a fine for contempt) ) botches the deal that’s offered and the kid winds up murdered in jail. However, he does have the confidential information he was given and there is a $100,000 reward, fairly tempting for someone with no savings who lives in a shabby apartment (decorated with images of Angela Davis and Marvin Gaye and packed with jazz albums), wears cheap suits and seemingly only eats peanut butter. Es;pecially given it seems likely he’s now going to get fired.
For a while, he gets to enjoy the good life, emblemised by eating maple syrup turkey bagels on the beach, but, inevitably, his actions come back to haunt him as the film briefly slides into more of a tense thriller mode. Some judicious editing of the flabby midsection would not have gone amiss, nor would more clarity regarding Roman’s relationship with Maya, but, writer-director David Gilroy has a good eye for detail and character with a script that pokes around in the moral ambiguities of a modern world rife with iniquities. Ultimately, it could have done with a stronger, perhaps more focused narrative core, but it’s certainly worth seeing for Washington’s brilliantly nuanced, complex and unmannered performance, disappearing into the character, an idealist out of time but still consumed by the passion for justice that drove him as a younger man. It ends on its weakest note, but Washington keep you with him throughout. (Cineworld NEC; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
History records that, back in the first decade of the 20th century, Sarah Winchester, heiress to the company that created the Winchester repeating rifle, began extension work on the family mansion in San Jose, California, construction continuing for 38 years as more and more rooms, as well as stairs that led nowhere were added, allegedly under the belief that she was cursed on account of the deaths the rifles had caused and the house was meant as an atonement to the spirits. Legend also relates that the place as haunted and that Winchester was obsessed with the number 13. All of which provides the basis for this period horror, in which laudanum-addict doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is hired by the company to assess Winchester (Helen Mirren) as mentally incompetent so they can remove her from the board.
He duly fetches up at the eccentric mansion where Winchester, who always dresses in black widow weeds (she also lost her daughter shortly after her birth) and holds solo midnight seances, is living with her recently widowed niece, Marion (Sarah Snook in a mostly thankless role), and her young son, Henry, (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), as well as a couple of creepy butlers, Arthur (Tyler Coppin) and Ben (Eamon Farren), the place also populated by assorted housemaids and the workmen who continue the building day and night.
He’s barely been shown to his room that he’s seeing ghostly figures and is subsequently confirmed that the rooms are all recreations of where those who were killed died so that their spirits can come to terms and move on. Those nailed shut (with 13 nails), including the garden room, house spirits who remain too angry to do so. Naturally, there’s a tormented soul at large who’s regularly possessing young Henry and wants to kill Sarah and, equally naturally, Price refuses to believe what he’s seeing until events force him to do otherwise. There’s also a backstory involving his own wife, Ruby (Laura Brent) who committed suicide and how he himself was shot and died for three minutes, all of which, of course, proves to be bound to why he’s connected to the house, his search for redemption and the means to sort out the vengeful ghost of a dead Confederate soldier.
There’s a vague anti-gun commentary limping through the contrived screenplay (though, keeping the NRA on board, Marion duly points out it’s not the gun that kills but the people who pull the trigger), but it’s mostly buried in the generic jolts and shocks involving ghosts suddenly popping up, rattling cupboards and the like, there’s even the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to bring down a few walls too. What there isn’t is much tension or many actual scares, but at least Mirren seems to be having fun and Clarke delivers an unremarkable but sufficiently solid enough performance to at least prevent the film from firing complete blanks. (Cineworld NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
12 Strong (15)
Shortly after 9/11, Task Force Dagger, a twelve-strong team of Green Berets, weren’t deployed in Afghanistan, the first American troops to serve in the country, charged with linking forces with General Abdul Rashid Dustum, one of the most powerful – but also notoriously allegiance-shifting – warlords, in order to liberate Mazar-e-Sharif, the Taliban stronghold and stop the country being used as an Al Qaeda training ground. Although their initial purpose was to get close enough to the targets to call in bomb strikes, leaving the actual fighting to Dustum and his soldiers, the team, forced, much to their surprise, to ride horses to traverse the mountainous terrain, eventually found themselves in the thick of the battle. In a mission that lasted just three weeks (as opposed to the allotted six), they succeeded in liberating several villages and taking their target, one of the biggest – and very few – successes in a conflict that has now been going on for almost 17 years.
Based on Horse Soldiers, Doug Stanton’s non-fiction account of events, although only two of the soldiers depicted (Lt Colonel Bowers and Colonel Mulholland played by Rob Riggle and William Fichter, respectively) go by their real names and here, unlike in reality, one of them suffers a life-threatening injury, this is otherwise a generally faithful telling of what went down.
Chris Hemsworth is Mitch Nelson (in real life Mark Nutsch), the team’s captain who, after they’d returned from working with specials ops forces in special operations forces in Uzbekistan, had been promoted into a desk job and had to lobby his commanding officer to let him rejoin his men for the mission. Like his character, all but one of the team were family men, among them Michael Shannon as his second-in-command, Hal Spencer, and Michael Peña as Sam Diller, although Elsa Pataky (Hemsworth’s actual wife), Allison King and Lauren Myers get fairly short shrift as their respective wives back home. The task force also features Moonlight star Trevante Rhodes as Ben Milo.
Directed by Nicola Fuslig making his feature debut with a screenplay by Ted Tally and The Hunger Games’ Peter Craig, it’s workmanlike, but (if overlong at 130 minutes) nevertheless engaging and, as the battle for Mazar-e- Sharif (under the command of Said Taghmaoui’s cruel Taliban leader), pitching men on horses against tanks and rocket launchers, often tensely exciting war drama. It’s also compounded by Nelson not only having to implement his orders but, given the fact that hostilities could kick off at any time between the rival Northern Alliance warlords, forge a bond with Dustum (a commanding turn by Homeland’s Navid Negahban), , who would go on to become the country’s Vice-President and, as the end credits reveal, maintain his friendship with Nutsch to the present day. The scenes pitting Nelson’s intellectual approach against the more pragmatic Dustum, the two men ultimately learning from each other, are among the film’s best.
Despite clearly resonating with the mood of Trump’s red state America, this is less gung ho than you’d expect, more interested in the men and a heroic battle against impossible odds than waving the flag and, if it lacks the political depth of something like 13 Hours or The Hurt Locker, its meditation on the difference between a soldier and a warrior, as espoused by Dustum, is ample compensation. (Cineworld NEC; Empire Great Park; Reel; Vue Star City)
Following 2014’s The Book of Life, it’s now Pixar’s turn to take animation audiences on an Oscar nominated journey into the afterlife, as celebrated in Mexico’s Day of the Dead, a lively, colourful festival to remember friends and family members who have passed on and who, at least here, cross over to (unseen) spend time with their relatives. As with all the best Pixar films, there’s a definite darkness as it delivers familiar messages about family, friendship, passion and being true to yourself. Boldly, the title character, while pivotal to the story, isn’t actually the focus of the narrative. She’s an old Mexican woman drifting in and out of dementia and hovering around death’s door. As a child, her heart was broken when her father left to pursue his dream of being a musician, to which end her mother banned music from the home and family and went into the shoemaking business. Two generations later, the business is thriving, but ban still stands, much to the frustration of 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) who, having secretly taught himself to play guitar, wants to emulate his hero, the late legendary film and singing star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).
When his gran smashes his guitar, looking to take part in a talent show, Miguel ‘borrows’ the one that belonged to de la Cruz from his shrine and suddenly finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead where his assorted dead relatives, all friendly-looking skeletons, offer to give him the blessing he needs (involving bright orange marigold petals) to return home before he becomes a skeleton like them, but, his great-grandmother insists it’s on the condition he renounces music. Miguel, however, decides to track down his idol, as huge a star in death as he was in life, and seek his blessing instead, and who, to his surprise and delight, he’s discovered he was his great-great grandfather . To do so, however, he needs the help of Hector (Gael García Bernal), a skeleton and a bit of a con artists who says he knows Ernesto and wants to get back to the Land of the Living and see his daughter one last time before, with no one putting up his photo on the Day of the Dead, he’s forgotten and lost forever.
Full of traditional Mexican music, with songs (notably the soaring Oscar nominated ballad Remember Me) from the team behind Frozen, and a storyline tht involves an unexpected revelation, betrayal, lots of sight gags and a scraggly, tongue-lolling hairless Xoloitzcuintli street dog sidekick, this is a vibrant, visually spellbinding and ultimately hugely touching bittersweet family film that will also help make the idea of death seem less scary for youngsters. And, unlike Ferdinand, the characters here all speak with native accents. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Commuter (15)
Liam Neeson teams with director Jaume Collet-Serra for a fourth time for what is, essentially, Non-Stop on a train. A sixty-year-old ex-cop who, for the past ten years has commuting between home and New York’s Grand Central (as indicated by the composite prologue of him getting up and going to work), insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Neeson) arrives at work to be told he’s been made redundant. Already financially strapped and with his son’s college tuition coming up, he can’t bring himself to tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and, after drowning his sorrows in the bar with his cop buddy Alex (Patrick Wilson) heads for the train home one last time.
Here he’s joined by a mysterious woman (a compelling Vera Farmiga) who says she’s a behavioural psychologist and poses him the hypothetical question as to what he would do if offered $100,000 to find someone on the train who, carrying a bag, doesn’t ‘belong’ and identify them, without knowing the consequences. After she gets off, finding $25,000 stashed where she said, MacCauley realises it wasn’t so hypothetical after all. Now, with his every move apparently being monitored, and the woman phoning in instructions, threatening his family unless he cooperates, he has to try and identify which of the non-regular passengers is the Prynne in question, apparently the witness to a murder that certain powerful figures want eliminated and plant a tracker on the bag before they get to a certain station and hook up with the FBI, Is it the black guy with the guitar case, the Latino nurse, the brash and obnoxious hedge fund manager, the guy with a tattoo and an attitude or the student with the nose piercing (Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh)?
As bodies pile up, he’s ultimately given the choice of killing the witness himself or letting his wife and son die, finally prompting our senior citizen action hero to declare “I’m done playing games”, leading to a spectacular derailment, the surviving carriage with its ‘hostages’ surrounded by a SWAT team led by Sam Neill in a thankless brief role pretty much anyone could have played.
Blithely disregarding logical and piling on the contrivances, there’s a feeling that the star and director have perhaps been to this well too many times, but there’s no denying they know how to play the Everyman in a tight spot formula and, starting slowly and gradually gathering speed as MacAuley does battle with a gunman in an empty carriage, making use of some dizzying camera work this delivers exactly the ride you expect when you buy the ticket. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Darkest Hour (PG)
Oscar nominated for Best Picture, this is the third film in under a year to revolve around the Dunkirk evacuation and the second to put the spotlight on Winston Churchill, directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, this charts the three weeks in May 1940 from the resignation of the cancer-stricken Neville Chamberlain after losing Parliament’s confidence in his appeasement approach to the war in Europe to the setting out of the fleet of civilian boats to rescue the 300,00 troops, pretty much the entire British army, from the Dunkirk beaches.
Sporting but also rising beyond convincing prosthetics, BAFTA and Oscar frontrunner Gary Oldman gives a tour de force performance as Winston Churchill, Conservative MP and First Lord of the Admiralty, who, despite being generally disliked by his own party, was, as the only one acceptable to the Opposition, asked to become Prime Minister and head a coalition government as the Nazis swept through Belgium and France and threatened England with invasion.
The film primarily focuses on the battles Churchill faced with his own War Cabinet, in particular Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), both of whom favoured negotiating terms with Hitler, the suggestion here being that a beleaguered Churchill bowed to pressure to allow Mussolini to act as an intermediary only to recant in the final hour. It also shows how, looking to bolster the spirit of the British public, he also lied about the German advances, claiming Allied forces were holding their own, when the truth was a very different matter, as well as his decision to sacrifice the battalion stationed at Calais (prompting a brief, narratively unnecessary and manipulative scene of the doomed solders) so as to give the troops at Dunkirk a better chance of being evacuated.
Largely shot in underground bunkers, corridors and closed rooms (at one point, in a dimly lit scene against a black background, it imagines him on the phone to Roosevelt in his private WC) it captures the claustrophobic tension as the hours ticked away, Churchill’s position looking increasingly precarious as his rivals plotted his removal. Looking, acting and sounding very bit like the man often described as the greatest Englishman ever, Oldman’s Churchill is irascible, self-willed and at times something of a bully, cigar and a glass of either Scotch or champagne rarely far from his hand, but also sharp of wit and humour, capable of compassion, brought to doubt and depression with the burden of responsibility and, who, as Halifax puts it here “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”, delivering rhetoric that has stood the test of history.
Oldman’s also well served by his supporting cast, chief among them Kristen Scott-Thomas as his exasperated but loyally supportive wife Clemmie, Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI who, initially siding with Halifax is shown here, in an intimate meeting chez Winston, as offering his support and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, the (fictional) secretary assigned as Churchill’s personal typist, one particular scene between the two of them providing the film’s most powerful emotional moment.
The film does take some fanciful liberties, most specifically a wholly invented sequence that sees Churchill riding the Underground and chatting to assorted representatives of the British public, especially a cute young girl, who in their resolve not to surrender to Hitler supposedly move him to tears and steeled his resolve not to negotiate and inspired the subsequent immortal fight on the beaches…never surrender speech. Arriving on the eve of another exit from Europe, it does sound some loud patriotic bells about the English resolve and spirit that could well be co-opted by the wrong quarters, but as insightful history lesson, character study and dramatic populist entertainment, this is a definite V for victory. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
An awkwardly assembled environmental end of days Swiftian allegory, Alexander Payne’s latest is an interesting concept flawed by its telling. With over-population and climate change putting unsustainable pressure on the planet, a team of Norwegian scientists headed up by Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard) come up with a means of miniaturising people to around six inches, creating a colony and eventually announcing their discovery to the world. It’s not long before hundred are volunteering to downsize and moving to purpose built communities such as Leisureland where, apparently, going small means you can live a much grander life. Overstretched as they are, that certainly appeals to occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and, convinced by a friend (Jason Sudeikis) who’s opted for a Lilliputian life, and the fact that their $152,000 asserts are worth $12m in Leisureland, having had the sales spiel and seen the presentation (hosted by a cameoing Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern) he and his wife Audrey (Kirstin Wiig) decide to follow suit.
However, waking up after the procedure (during which all body hair has to be removed along with any dental fillings), while peering under the sheet and happily finding that certain things have shrunk in proportion, he’s then shocked to learn Audrey backed out at the last moment.
Now, he has to make a new life for himself alone. At which point the film introduces a couple of new narrative strands in the form of his playboy Eurotrash neighbour, Dusan (Christopher Waltz), who’s made a fortune on the black market by smuggling contraband from the ‘outside’ world, and his cleaner, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), leg, the embittered sole only survivor of Vietnamese dissidents who were shrunk by her government as a punishment. Now with an ill-fitting artificial leg, she lives in Leisureland’s equivalent of ghettoised housing projects with the other ‘undesirables’ and it is through her that Paul begins to learn to see the world and his life in a different perspective, helping her distribute leftover food to the less fortunate. Inevitably an unlikely romance sparks. Then comes news that the world is facing an extinction event.
Encased in a glass-dome, Leisureland is clearly America in microcosm, with all the same racial and class inequalities still writ large, but the Faustian bargain screenplay never seems to quite find its focus or tone, veering between satirical comedy, mutual healing romance, eco parable and commentary on the economic crisis. Not helped by a running gag about the mispronunciation of his character’s name, a rather bland Damon never feels quite comfortable in the role while Waltz and, as his equally hedonistic partner in crime, Udo Kier, turn up the dial on their performances to an almost camp degree. Unexpectedly, initially appearing to be something of an ethnic stereotype with her broken English and rapid speaking patters, Chau hijacks the film, proving genuinely funny (her list of the different types of American fuck is hilarious) and giving the film’s strongest and most emotional performance as Ngoc emerges as the most interesting and complex character. Feeling like a film written to fit the title pun, it’s a big idea but it comes up short. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Early Man (PG)
Opening in the Neo- Pleistocene era, at the site of future Manchester, with a meteor that both wipes out dinosaurs and leads cavemen to invent football, this endearingly crudely-fashioned if somewhat bland stop-motion animation from director Nick Park and Aardman fast forwards to the time when the Stone Age was about to give way to the Bronze Age. The former’s represented by Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his somewhat dim-witted tribe who live in a secluded valley and hunt rabbits, mainly because they’re scared of anything bigger. The latter’s represented by Lord Nooth (voiced with a Pythonesque French accent by Tom Hiddleston) who, armed with his bronze war machines, invades and kicks out Dug’s tribe in his search for metal.
Managing to sneak his way into the fortified city, Dug accidentally winds up at one of the soccer games the avaricious Nooth stages to fleece the locals with the mandatory voluntary entrance and, when his true identity’s revealed, challenges the Real Bronzio champion team, captained by the preening Dino (Kayvan Novak), to a match with his tribe; if they win they get the valley back, if they lose they have to go and work in the mines. All he has to do now is teach the likes of knuckle-dragger Asbo (Johhny Vegas), mommy’s boy Treebor (Richard Ayoade), scouser Barry (Mark Williams), whose best mate is a rock, and the ageing (he’s 32) Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) how to play. Fortunately, he has the help of Goona (Maisie Williams), a Bronze Aze shopkeeper who is a brilliant footballer but forbidden to play with Real Bronzia because she’s a girl. Plus, of course, his pet wild boar, Hognob (grunted by Park).
It’s a pretty simple underdogs come good sports movie plot that plays exactly as you’d expect, but, despite rather an excess of slapstick with folks falling over or being hit on the head, it’s all cheery fun. It is, as you might imagine, packed with plenty of anachronisms, throwaway football-related puns (not to mention that Pleistocen/Plasticine gag) and the company’s trademark little details tucked away in the background. Throw in a giant mallard, Miriam Margoyles as Queen Oofeefa (another soccer pun!) and Rob Brydon voicing the two punning commentators (Early Man United!) and a message bird, a sort of feathered speaking telegram, and, while not in the same Premier League as Shaun the Sheep or the Wallace and Gromit films, if it never puts it in the back of the net, it’s not a complete own goal either. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Greatest Showman (12A)
Closer to Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge than La La Land, whose Benj Pasek and Justin Paul also provide the songs here, first time director Michael Gracey and writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (who, having penned Chicago and Dreamgirls, knows his way around a musical) may take any number of liberties with the life of 19th century showman and legendary hoaxer Phineas T Barnum, but succeed in serving up a fabulous sugar rush, candy coloured helping of feelgood family entertainment about the man who pretty much invented modern day entertainment.
Bearing absolutely no resemblance to the real Barnum, who looked more like Mel Smith and didn’t get into show business until he was in his 60s, Hugh Jackman is clearly having the time of his life, positively exploding with energy in the musical routines (and let’s not forget he first made his name in musical theatre and won a Tony for the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz), but also hitting the key emotional notes when needed.
It opens with a brief background prologue, introducing the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) as the son of a struggling tailor who falls for Charity (Skylar), the daughter of his dad’s stern and snobbish client who sends her away to put an end to the friendship. Barnum’s father dies and the kid’s reduced to stealing food on the streets, until befriended by a disfigured stranger, he’s inspired to become more than he is and chase his Million Dreams.
Fast forward and, having made something of himself as an office clerk, the now grown Barnum marries Charity (Michelle Williams, somewhat underused), again to her father’s disapproval, and they have two cute daughters, Caroline and Helen (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), and, when the shipping company he works for goes belly-up, a flash of inspiration leads Barnum to open his American Museum, a collection of historical wax figures and stuffed exotic animals, in the hope of attracting the curious. A bedtime observation from one of the kids that it could do with an exhibit that’s not dead then prompts him to round up all manner of society’s freaks, among them bearded lady singer Lettie (Keala Settle), a 22-year old dwarf (Sam Humphrey) he dresses up as General Tom Thumb, a giant, Siamese twins, a fat man, the hairy Dog Boy and, brother and sister trapeze artists whose only ‘deformity’ is being African American, exaggerating their ‘freakishness’ for extra effect and nigger ‘humbug’.
Scamming the bank for a loan, he opens his theatre and, proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity, transforms a scathing review into an audience magnet with the New York crowds flocking in, restyling his show as a circus with himself as the ringmaster. Looking to move beyond lowbrow audiences, he then forms a partnership with Philip Caryle (Zac Efron in his first musical role since High School Musical and very loosely based on James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus), a bored theatrical producer with a hefty trust fund and the sort of connections that can earn the troupe an audience with Queen Victoria.
It’s here Barnum meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), the feted opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, and sees an opportunity to move from the peanut to the champagne market. Gambling both his reputation and his wealth, he signs her up for first a New York showcase and then a mammoth American tour. Suffice to say, things do not go well, resulting in a marriage threatening scandal while, back in New York, the bigot mob protests about the ‘freaks’ get out of hand and the tentative road to romance between Philip and Anne (Zendaya), one half of the trapeze act, is hitting some racial prejudice bumps.
Naturally, setbacks are just a spur to bigger and better success and, as such the film is very much a hymn to the underdogs chasing the American Dream, not to mention a clarion cry for diversity that strikes a far more right on contemporary note about those on the margins than would have been the case in Barnum’s day, even if none of the troupe are given anything like a backstory..
But social commentary is secondary to the spectacle and the songs, the rooftop dance routines, the lavish circus ring bombast, and the cast and film deliver with exuberant gusto, standout moments being Ferguson (albeit overdubbed by Loren Allred) singing out the pain of being the outsider with Never Enough, Settle leading the charge with the showstopper (and surely Oscar favourite) This Is Me, Jackman and Efron’s lithe shot glass shifting barroom negotiations dance routine and the literally soaring circus ring Rewrite the Stars sequence with Efron and Zendaya. Climaxing with Jackman leading the rousing cast finale of From Now On, this is a fabulous celebration of the power of unadulterated entertainment to raise the spirits and fill the heart and the transition from screen to the Broadway stage is surely a given. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Insidious: The Last Key (15)
Despite the fact her character was killed off at the start of the first film, 74-year-old Lin Shaye has now managed to appear in not only the sequel, as a ghost, but also two prequels, this one serving as a sort of origin story regarding the psychic Elise Rainier. As such, it takes us back to her childhood (her younger selves played by Ava Kolker and Hana Hayes) in 50s New Mexico, sharing a haunted bedroom with her younger brother Christian and suffering under her abusive correctional officer father (Josh Stewart) who’s fearful of her ‘gift’ (talking to the assorted ghosts that infest their house near to the penitentiary) and determined to beat it out of her.
Sometime after tragedy claims the life of her supportive mother (Tessa Ferrer), at the hands of a demonic force young Elise unintentionally sets free, she runs away from home. Fast forward to 2010 when she gets a call from a man who wants her help to get rid of his haunting, and turns out to be living in the very house where she grew up. Returning home, which remains pretty much as she left it, she not only encounters her embittered brother (Bruce Davison), who’s never forgiven her for leaving him alone with dad, and discovers she has two nieces, Melissa (Spencer Locke) and Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), the latter of whom also turns out to have the gift.
The wildly contrived and at times exhaustingly convoluted plot proceeds to reveal a history of both supernatural and real world demons (a somewhat underexplored theme about where the real horrors lie) involving further flashbacks, women chained in cells, a plea from a ghost for help, her brother’s long lost whistle, given to him by mum to blow if he needed help, and a variety of locked doors (some red) and keys. There’s also the return of Elise’s ghostbuster sidekicks, Specs (screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to provide some flaccid comic relief.
Director Adam Robitel does a serviceable job, but, with its innumerable flickering lights, darkened rooms, shadowy hallways, confined spaces and figures suddenly appearing from nowhere, he brings nothing new to a well worn genre, while the scares are pretty low down the fright scale too. It ends with a phone call that returns to the start of the first film, suggesting that Shaye’s storyline has (further prequels notwithstanding) run its course and, if the franchise still has life in it, then it’s Imogen’s turn to pick up the (inevitably flickering) torch. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Birmingham, Broadway Plaza; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (12A)
Picking things up from the end of the 1995 adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book that saw Robin Williams escape from a magical board game and then have to save the city from the creatures that followed him, director Jake Kasden updates the concept for the video game generation with an added body swap makeover, except this time the adventures are played out inside the game itself.
Found washed up on the beach in 1996 and transforming into a video cartridge, the game sucks in teenager Alex (Nick Jonas) as its latest victim, the film then cutting to some twenty years later as, in shades of the Breakfast Club, four high schoolers, scrawny nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), football star Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), self-absorbed phone-addict princess Bethany (Madison Iseman) and introverted Martha (Morgan Turner), find themselves in detention and ordered to tidy up a junk cupboard. Here they chance upon and decide to play an old video console and are themselves duly sucked into the game, transformed into their chosen but personality mismatched avatars. The hulking Fridge becomes diminutive panicky zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), none too pleased to find he’s sidekick and weapon carrier to Spencer’s ripped expedition leader archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Madison becomes kick-ass Lara Croft halter top type Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and, to her horror, Bethany is the overweight middle-aged cryptographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).
No sooner have they arrived than game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) turns up to inform them of their mission to save Jumanji from the curse brought about by Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) when he stole an emerald jewel from a giant Jaguar statue and became one with the jungle creatures, scorpions and centipedes crawling in and out of his orifices.
Realising they reluctantly have no option but to play the game and return the jewel to its rightful place and that the three stripes on their arms denote how many lives they have before it’s ‘game over’ – for real, the film duly unfolds in customary video game style with the characters having to move from one level to the next by competing various tasks, run through the jungle and try to remain out of the clutches of the pursuing Van Pelt and his motorbike riding henchmen, hooking up with another stranded player along the way.
Wisely, Kasdan and the four screenwriters opt to play tongue in cheek, winking at videogame conventions such as the characters all having strengths and weaknesses (Hart’s is cake), while the cast duly send-themselves up, Johnson regularly breaking into ‘smouldering intensity’ poses and admiring his physique.
Gillen arguably has the more underwritten role (although Ruby’s attempt to learn flirting from Bethany is hysterical), but nevertheless makes for a feisty action heroine with her dancefight skills, while Black proves the film’s star with some hilarious riffs on being a teenage girl trapped in a man’s body, inevitably including various penis-related gags. Naturally, it all comes with a self-discovery message as the transformed teens all learn something about themselves and each other and emerge as better, more confident people at the end of the journey, Bethany’s arc being perhaps the most satisfying and touching of them all.
While played for thrills and laughs, it’s not without its dark moments, and, even if characters return after their ‘death’, the sight of Black being gobbled up by a hippo might give some impressionable young minds a sleepless night or two. Cheerfully cobbling together elements from Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Freaky Friday, it may not be a masterpiece but it is hugely entertaining, enjoyable escapist family fun. Get that jungle fever. (Cineworld 5 Ways, Solihull; Empire Great Park; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom ; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Maze Runner: The Death Cure (12A)
Delayed on account of the on-set accident suffered by Dylan O’Brien, this is the third and final chapter in the adaptation of James Dashner’s young adults novels, original director Wes Ball returning to provide the send-off. Despite Enders Game and The 5th Wave both having failed to launch the anticipated franchise and the planned conclusion to the Divergent series demoted to a TV series without its star, Shailene Woodley, the fact that this dislodged Jumanji from the box office throne shows there’s still a hefty audience for the dystopian genre if it’s done right.
Certainly, this makes no attempt to involve anyone not already familiar with the narrative, opening with Thomas (O’Brien) and resistance fighters Vince (Barry Pepper), Rosa (Brenda Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) staging a thrilling assault on a train to rescue Minho (Ki Hong Lee). Unfortunately, while freeing some of the other immunes (remember, a deadly virus, the Flare, is wiping out humans by turning them into zombie-like ‘cranks’), Minho’s not among them, prompting Thomas, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) to try and infiltrate the walled WKD city stronghold where he’s been taken for experimentation in search of a cure by scientist Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson), who’s now assisted by Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), a former Glader and Thomas’s erstwhile love interest who betrayed them in the last film in her belief that science was the only answer.
Here, they’re surprised to be reunited with someone from the first film they all thought dead and, of course, are destined to be ruthlessly hunted down by the series chief villain, WKD’s head of security, Janson (Aiden Gillen, with his permanent smile cum sneer, the film gathering to top gear after a somewhat saggy mid-section for combination of jailbreak and full-on storming of Last City by those outside its walls.
While it’s possible to see allusions to the Trump administration, this is less about scoring any political points and more about delivering explosions, shoot-outs and not one but two dramatic airlifts by attaching a hook to a vehicle filled with WKD captives. Plus, with one of the team showing signs of infection and Thomas’s reunion with Teresa, themes of friendship, loyalty, sacrifice and assorted moral quandaries all percolate the screenplay.
Featuring some pretty spectacular action sequences and aerial shots, hugely impressive CGI effects and a welcome boost in screen time and involvement by Salazar, at 140 minutes it may drag out the climax longer than needed, but, with a sense of genuine chemistry among the central cast to go with the firefights, this brings the curtain down in impressive style. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Odeon Birmingham, Broadway Plaza, West Brom; Reel; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Paddington 2 (PG)
This delightful sequel to the 2014 movie reunites the original cast and finds Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Wishaw) banged up in her Majesty’s for theft. He’s been found guilty of stealing a valuable 19th century book, a pop-up guide to London’s landmarks, from Mr, Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. He’s innocent, of course, and the book, which Paddington wanted to buy for Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton) birthday, has actually been stolen by the Brown’s Windsor Crescent Notting Hill neighbour, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, faded stage star now reduced to fronting dog food commercials (a scene that will cause much laughter among those who remember the Clement Freud ads), who believes it actually contains clues to the location of a vast treasure hidden by the book’s originator, the Victorian steam fair owner and trapeze artiste who was murdered by one of her fellow performers.
All of which makes for a hugely enjoyable romp as the Browns, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris) and their Scottish housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) set about trying to track down the real thief, while, in prison, Paddington strikes up a friendship with feared hardman chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) by introducing him to the delights of marmalade. All of which culminates in an high speed chase involving two steam trains that surely owes a debt to the likes of Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops and Mel Brooks.
The animation is outstanding, not least the water dripping from Aunt Lucy’s fur when, in the prologue, we see how she and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) came to adopt their cub and the tear rolling down Paddington’s cheek when he thinks he’s been abandoned, while the film’s bright primary colours design reflects the happiness it seeks to spread.
Along with some inspired slapstick (including a riff in the classic rope and bucket routine), screenwriters Simon Farnaby, Jon Croker and Paul King, who also directs, pepper the narrative with a succession of very funny jokes, including some at the expense of Brexit, and effortlessly appeals to children and adults alike, it’s message about kindness and looking for the goodness in people of particular resonance in today’s world. Wishaw again perfectly captures exactly the right tone while Grant is on top form as the preening thespian.
Ben Miller’s grumpy Colonel gets to find love, pompous xenophobic Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the street’s self appointed regulator, gets his comeuppance and there’s a clutch of cameos too, including Joanna Lumley as Buchanan’s agent, Tom Conti as the customer on the receiving end of a barber shop disaster who subsequently turns out to be the trial judge, and Richard Ayoade as a forensic scientist. All this plus a post credits tap dancing musical number featuring the pink striped prison uniforms that resulted from a Paddington mishap in the laundry. What more could anyone reasonably ask. (Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
The Post (12A)
Some 40 years after All The President’s Men told how Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon, Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture nominee serves up this swiftly made prequel about the 1971 leaking of the so-called Pentagon Papers. These were a classified report into the role of the US in IndoChina commissioned by Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) that, initially leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), an analyst with the Rand Corporation (and whose story was told in a 2003 TV movie), revealed how the US administration, from Truman to Nixon, had been lying to the American public about policy towards Vietnam, prolonging a war they knew could never be won – at the cost of American lives – to avoid humiliation.
With the Times barred from publishing further details by the Attorney General, when The Washington Post, a regional daily under the managing editorship of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Oscar nominee Meryl Streep), the socialite who had inherited the company following her husband’s suicide, acquired the rest of the papers, they prepared to take up the story.
Opening with the Post initially having a run-in with the White House when Nixon refused to let it cover his daughter’s wedding, the film focuses on the pressures and decisions around whether to publish or not; Graham was in the process of taking the company public on the Stock Exchange and any “catastrophic occurrence” could cause investors to pull out and potentially cause the paper to collapse. Equally, there was the possibility they could be held in contempt of court and imprisoned for treason, again bringing the paper to its knees. As the film tells it, Graham was also under pressure from members of her Board of Directors who did not feel she had the experience and strength to handle matters, not least being a woman. This strand runs parallel with Bradlee’s race against the clock to obtain the papers and get the articles written in the event Graham, who was a close friend of McNamara, elected to give the go-ahead to publish.
Unfolding a confrontation between the press and the government, it’s a taut, suspenseful thriller about the freedom of the press to hold those in power accountable, a throwback to the days of hot metal type when a regional newspaper actually meant something rather than filling its pages with lightweight ‘user generated’ dross. Streep and Hanks (in rolled up shirt sleeves snapping out lines like “Anyone else tired of reading the news instead of reporting it?”) are terrific, especially in the scenes they share, and are well supported by a cast that also includes Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie, Bradley Whitford and, as Ben Bagdikian, the reporter who tracked down Ellsberg to get hold of the papers, Bob Odenkirk. Spielberg drives things along at pace that captures the urgency of the situation as the deadline for going to print approaches and there’s much here to make veteran newshounds nostalgic, but, more to the point, it’s a potent reminder of the power of great journalism in the cause of the public interest at a time when the press is under increasing pressure from those who would prefer the truth of their deception and corruption remained unreported. (Cineworld 5 Ways, NEC, Solihull; Electric; Empire Great Park, Sutton Coldfield; Everyman; MAC; Odeon Birmingham; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (12A)
Not so much an ending, more returning the plot to the beginning to start over, written and directed by Rian Johnson, this comes as something of a disappointment after JJ Abrams’ excellent The Force Awakens and Gareth Edwards’ magnificent Rogue One. Certainly, often skewing to a younger audience than either of them, the early stretches feel like an unwelcome throwback to the George Lucas days with some particularly lame dialogue and jokey scenes. Picking up from the last instalment, the remains of the Resistance, aboard their fuel-dwindling carrier and led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher, the actress’s death creating all manner of script problems for the next episode) are fleeing the First Order, commanded by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, creepy but still slightly the wrong side of caricature), while, piloting the Millennium Falcon, Rey (Daisy Ridley), has tracked down the bearded self-exiled Luke Skywalker (a now seasoned and mature Mark Hamill, the best he’s ever been) on his remote island to persuade him to come to their aid and, with the force having awoken within her., train her in Jedi ways. He’s having none of either. As such this is very much a film of two parts, one narrative strand following Leia, hot-headed X-wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new cast addition, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a low level rebel whose sister (Veronica Ngo) sacrificed herself in a bombing raid on a First Order Dreadnaught to save everyone, while the other focuses on Luke, Rey and her psychic connection with the brooding Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who, having offed dad Han Solo last time round, is being groomed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as the next Vader. Sensing Ren’s conflicted, Rey hopes to turn him away from the dark side, but there’s a whole lot of plot backstory and different perspectives on events between him and Skywalker involved here.
Things are further divided into myriad subplots (not least a contrived visit to a space casino and an even more contrived cameo by Benicio Del Toro) that flit in and out of the main narratives, and Johnson doesn’t always juggle them successfully while the pursuit/escape and the push-pull strands often feel like a case of running to stand still. Plus there’s that cute/annoying budgie-like character, although at least it does set up an amusing scene involving Chewbacca and a barbecue.
Thankfully, after a somewhat hesitant start, once things get into their stride, the film seems to find its feet as it builds to a genuinely powerful climax and spectacular finale that’s invested with almost operatic grandeur, the scenes between Ren and Rey electrifyingly intense while the understated reunion between Luke and Leia is deeply touching.
As ever, it works its themes of heroism, courage, sacrifice, resilience and self-discovery to good effect, keeping an emotional grip even when the story becomes sluggish while naturally punctuated by a plethora of explosive action sequences and the obligatory lightsaber duels.
Initially slightly stiff (largely down to the prosaic lines she has to deliver), Ridley settles down to bring vitality and complexity to her character and, despite Finn being slightly underwritten this time around, Bodega stands up well, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s Driver, Hamill and Isaac who provide the strongest performances. However, fans will be thrilled to see the cameo return of two iconic figures from the original series while the screenplay also delivers some unexpected major twists, paving the way for Episode IX with its new Vader/new Luke face-off. Johnson hasn’t fumbled the ball, but neither has he delivered by way of fancy footwork, turning in an entertaining but ultimately two and a half-hour bridge between more interesting chapters. (Empire Great Park; Vue Star City)
Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing Missouri (15)
Heavily represented in both the BAFTA and Oscar nominations, Best Picture included, the latest from British-born In Bruges writer-director Martin McDonagh manages to make a narrative about rape, murder, revenge and racism a gallows-black comedy about masculine violence, guilt and forgiveness.
The title comes from the three hoardings that divorcee Mildred Hayes (Oscar best bet Frances McDormand) rents along the backroad leading to her home town, on them written in large black letters against a red backdrop, respectively, ‘Raped while dying’, ‘and still no arrests’ ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’ It’s an accusatory protest regarding the fact that the local police, headed up by Bill Willoughby (Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson) have made no progress in investigating the rape and brutal murder of her teenage daughter, Angela, some seven months previously. Although, sympathetic to her case, Willoughby has explained there is no DNA evidence and no leads, Mildred, pointedly dressed in combat-like bandana and coveralls, decides to poke things back into life.
The townsfolk aren’t overly happy about her actions, not least when the local media get involved, and matters are further complicated by the fact that Willoughby, married to a young wife (Abbie Cornish) with two young daughters, is dying of pancreatic cancer and that his officers feel little motivation to warm up a cold trail, least of all his numbskull deputy Officer Dixon (Oscar favourite Sam Rockwell) a vindictive, racist, momma’s boy thug with a reputation for torturing black suspects, something to which his superior has turned a blind eye. Already having to tread cautiously around his mother’s emotions, Mildred’s teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges) inevitably starts getting a hard time of things at school and around town and, to make matters worse, her abusive former husband (John Hawkes) turns up with his dumb 19-year-old lover (she confuses polo with polio yet also sagely notes that “anger begets greater anger”) and who reckons the billboards ideas is madness but is also looking to capitalise on things.
With everyone apparently against what she’s doing (a situation that prompts a brilliant scene between McDormand and Mildred’s priest), the investigation begins to take second place to getting rid of the billboards, Dixon, at one point, savagely beating up the advertising agent (Caleb Landry) who rented them out.
When Willoughby inevitably dies and any impetus seems to have hit a dead end, Mildred resorts to a different course of action, one involving petrol bombs and the police station. Surprisingly, it is through this that an unlikely redemption comes around, leading to the identification of a stranger in town, one who has already intimidated Mildred where she works, as a possible suspect in Angela’s case.
McDormand is electrifying as the mother determined to have justice, vigilante or otherwise, and does a brilliant job of making her sympathetic without necessarily making her the easiest of people to get along with, often foul mouthed, possessed and harsh in her dealings with others. Most notably the dentist who winds up on the wrong end of his own drill. Although only in the film for roughly half of the running time, Harrelson is also excellent, the scenes between Willoughby and Mildred crackling with brittle wit and tension, complemented by the poignant moments with his family, making the manner of his exit even more of a shock. Likewise, Rockwell is an utterly commanding presence and provides the film’s redemptive arc in a superbly well-judged piece of writing from McDonagh, while sterling support comes from Peter Dinklage as Mildred’s rebuffed but persistent lovelorn admirer, Clarke Peters as Willoughby’s replacement and, especially,
Dextrously juggling tonal shifts and moral ambiguities as it explores the abyss of guilt, anger and hurt that engulfs all the central characters, it sets scenes of brutal violence alongside moments of breathtaking beauty, such as Mildred’s early morning encounter with a deer. The final moments take on an almost resigned nihilism that suggests that some crimes will always go unpunished and wounds never heal, but, in an unlikely teaming, also ends with the controversial implication that perhaps you should punish those that can. (Cineworld 5 Ways; Electric; Empire Great Park; Everyman; MAC; Mockingbird; Showcase Walsall; Vue Star City)
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