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61. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – This Just In (#122)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Stacy Grouden, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

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Non-Review Review: The Commuter

The Commuter is the best Neeson Season movie since The Grey and the best movie about the financial crisis since The Big Short.

On paper, The Commuter is a mildly interesting premise that feels very much of a piece with the typical January awards-fare counter-programming. It is very much a high-concept action film that feels populated from a mad lib. [Liam Neeson/Bruce Willis/Gerard Butler] is a [former cop/current cop/law enforcement official] who finds himself embroiled in a race against time to [protect/rescue/expose/defeat] a [loved one/conspiracy].

McCauley took the instruction not to fire the gun inside the carriage a little… literally.

The Commuter is very much of piece with Liam Neeson’s other collaborations with director Jaume Collet-Serra; Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night. It is a movie about a weary protagonist embroiled in a situation beyond his control, the perfect fodder for a midweek movie to be enjoyed with a bucket of pop corn and a soft drink of choice. However, what elevated The Commuter above these earlier collaborations is similar to what elevated Collet-Serra’s The Shallows above so many familiar shark movies.

The Commuter has the look and feel of a big dumb action movie, a film inviting the audience to engage on its own terms rather than theirs. However, there is a very knowing and self-aware quality to The Commuter, an understanding of what the audience expects of the film and what the film can expect from the audience in return. The result is a film that always feels smarter and better than it needs to be, very carefully calibrated; just serious enough to work, just self-aware enough to charm. The result is a delightfully enjoyable action film.

Dial “C” for Commuter.

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Non-Review Review: All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World is an intriguing and uneven anthropological study of wealth.

Ridley Scott’s drama documenting the abduction of Paul Getty treats its subjects as members of a different species. In an introductory voice-over, the character of Paul Getty explains that the truly rich may as well come from “another planet.” They might look the same, but they are fundamentally different from ordinary people. At one point, John Paul Getty recalls an argument on how a publisher tried to change the title of his book from How to be Rich to How to Get Rich. Getty complains, “Getting rich is easy. Any fool can get rich. Being rich, that’s something else entirely.”

A Plum(mer) Role.

This idea simmers through All the Money in the World, the notion that there is something more than just a bank balance that separates the wealthy from the poor. “Money is never just money,” reflects advisor Fletcher Chase, and All the Money in the World suggests as much repeatedly. Throughout the film, journalists and paparazzi stalk the Getty family like wildlife photographers trying to snap a picture of some rare beast in its natural habitat. The Getty’s stand apart, and that sense of otherness is compounded by some measure beyond a balance in any account.

All the Money in the World is fascinating in its exploration of this idea, but it suffers from a lack of focus and clarity. All the Money in the World feels more like a series of vignettes than a single narrative story, a set of compelling sequences that never add up to a fulfilling whole. There is something intangible missing, as if the figures don’t quite add up. Then again, that flaw seems perfectly suited to the characters at the centre of the narrative.

Oil’s well that ends well.

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Non-Review Review: Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is visually sumptuous, thematically rich, but narratively clumsy.

There is a lot to love in The Last Jedi. Most notably, the gamble that Disney took on director Rian Johnson has paid off. The Last Jedi looks and feels like no other Star Wars movie. It is not simply the intimacy with which Johnson stages conversations separated by half a galaxy, nor the high quality visual effects. There is an endearing and appearing sense of wonder to The Last Jedi, as if watching a small child playing with action figures and humming the lightsabre noise to himself. The Last Jedi feels like the work of somebody continuing and expanding a story, more than just recreating it.

Rey of Hope.

Indeed, the best moments in The Last Jedi struggle to reach beyond what audiences have come to expect from the franchise. Some of this is inherited from the ambition of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, particularly in early scenes that emphasise the human cost of this galactic struggle. However, there are other more ponderous moments in The Last Jedi when it seems like Johnson and his characters are asking profound questions of the franchise itself, poking at the underlying assumptions that power this box office behemoth.

This was essential for the success of The Last Jedi. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens was an exercise in nostalgia that worked so well because of three factors; it was a palette cleanser after the prequels, it innovated by pushing background characters to the narrative foreground, and it was released more than a decade after Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Nostalgia is not enough to sustain a franchise that will be releasing one major motion picture a year for the foreseeable future. The Last Jedi needs to find something interesting to say about a forty-year-old franchise.

Seeing red.

In its best moments, it seems like The Last Jedi is lining up its arguments. It looks at the Star Wars universe through new sets of eyes, often in a literal sense. Johnson is not a director in the vein of Lucas or Abrams. Johnson is not a director who feels entirely comfortable with spectacle and scale. Instead, Johnson offers a tighter and closer glimpse at the universe and the people who inhabit it. There is a lot of focus on faces in The Last Jedi, shadows moving across them, eyes either focused or trying desperately to look away.

However, The Last Jedi ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions. The bolder and more provocative suggestions at the heart of the narrative remain just that, nothing more than implications or subtext. The Last Jedi has intriguing and bold ideas, but lacks the resolve to follow them through to their logical conclusions. Although undoubtedly less nostalgic than The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi remains too trapped by its own past to fully chart its own course and map its own destiny.

Shore thing.

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Non-Review Review: Lady Bird

Lady Bird is a sweet and charming little film, one anchored in two great central performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.

Lady Bird is relaxed and casual, a story of teenage anxiety unfolding at its own pace without any tangible sense of stakes or scale. Lady Bird is a refreshingly quiet and sincere movie, one that captures a lot of the listlessness associated with youth, the obliviousness to the reality of the outside world, the struggle to define a unique identity. For all the film is anchored in its Californian surroundings, Lady Bird is a universal coming of age story.

Blessing in disguise.

Like its protagonist, Lady Bird is smart and wry, if a little directionless and unsure of itself. However, the movie works in large part because of the decision to build its emotional core around the relationship between the eponymous character and her mother. Ronan is phenomenal here, but Metcalf is just as able to match her co-star. Both actors deliver raw and genuine performances that perfectly capture the push-and-pull of any real-life familial dynamic.

Lady Bird is perhaps a little too eccentric and a little too whimsical in places, drawing its supporting cast in broad strokes and leaning a little too heavily into stereotypes of adolescence, but the film has a warm and beating heart that sustains it for its ninety-three-minute runtime.

Bye, bye, birdie.

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Non-Review Review: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is a powerhouse performance nested inside a fairly formulaic film.

In terms of plot, Darkest Hour is very much a familiar cinematic biography. Building off the template cemented by writer Peter Morgan on The Deal, The Queen, The Special Relationship and Rush, this is a film that explores its subject through the lens of a single event. The plot of Darkest Hour unfolds across May 1940, in the shadow the Second World War. It charts the life of Winston Churchill from the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to the evacuation of Dunkirk. It is tightly focused, and perhaps the better for that.

Winston, Loseton.

In many ways, Darkest Hour feels like a collection of pop culture standards. Churchill is such an iconic part of European history, and this month was so crucial, that audiences have almost reached saturation point with narratives documenting key moments in the life of the statesman. Darkest Hour cannot help but evoke shades of everything from The King’s Speech to The Crown to Dunkirk, all of which share some sense of the same time and place. Darkest Hour simply combines a lot of pop culture Churchill into what amounts to a “greatest hits” package.

With that in mind, it should be no surprise that Darkest Hour is elevated by the central performance from an almost unrecognisable Gary Oldman. If pop culture has synthesised Churchill’s history to a collection of “greatest hits”, then it is the delivery that truly matters. Oldman carries the film home.

Two-finger salute.

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Non-Review Review: Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a weird and interesting experiment, in part because it is a nostalgic and belated sequel that remains caught between its past and the present.

Welcome to the Jungle joins a long (and perhaps undistinguished) line of twenty-first century franchise revivals for beloved nineties properties. The original Jumanji was a hardly a breakout hit, even if it did make an impression on a younger generation who would have grown up on it as part of Robin Williams’ nineties family-friendly oeuvre along with Hook or Ms. Doubtfire. Indeed, Jumanji is arguably the nineties Robin Williams film most perfectly suited to a revival like this, in that it involves a premise that can be divorced from its iconic and beloved star.

Franchises find a way.

At the same time, Jumanji is undoubtedly near the bottom of nineties adventure films in need of a revival, lurking in the shadow of other resurrected blockbusters like Independence Day or Jurassic Park. Perhaps because of this distance, and perhaps because of the lack of a true cult iconography, Jumanji serves as an interesting control case. This is a film with one leg in the present, aimed at what modern families expect from blockbuster entertainment. The other leg it planted firmly in the past, harking back to certain aspects of formula that seem almost quaint.

Welcome to the Jungle is not a particularly good film, but it is an interesting one. It serves as a prism through which certain aspects of nostalgia might be deconstructed and explored.

Players.

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