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Non-Review Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

“All this anger. It only begets more anger.”

Ironically enough, given the title, the anger in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri never seems to ebb. Martin McDonagh’s small town black comedy drama is a parable about grief that metastasises into all-consuming rage. Fire is a recurring fixation for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a potent metaphor for both the scorched earth left behind by trauma and the tendency of such anger to swallow up everything in its path. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a cautionary fable.

Reading the signs.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri benefits from a number of different factors. McDonagh’s script is smart and well-constructed, wry in the right places and emotional when it counts, imbuing the characters and their surroundings with an organic and lived-in quality that enriches the story built around them. The locations are atmospheric and effective, creating a sense of place that extends beyond mere geography. The cast is fantastic, particularly supporting turns from Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.

However, Frances McDormand is the engine that drives Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. While the film features several set pieces built around fire, the hottest flame burns at the heart of the central character. As enraged mother Mildred Hayes, McDormand captures the energy and the depth of a woman raging against a system that let her down, an unjust world that denies her closure, and her own sense of guilt and responsibility.

Ebbing and flowing.

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Non-Review Review: Seven Psychopaths

“Meta” is a concept that can be very rewarding, but it’s very difficult to do right. Often, it seems a little heavy-handed, a little self-indulgent. The art of writing fiction about fiction can easily descend into a writer documenting his own process, or become clever for the sake of being clever – offering an easy way out of virtually any dramatic situation, and allowing the script to answer pretty much any question with “because the writer says so.” Nevermind that movies about movie are prone to become a little self-congratulatory, or a little too self-focused. Seven Psychopaths never completely falls apart, but it occasionally struggles with these sorts of problems a little bit in the middle. Martin McDonagh has produced a very thoughtful and clever exploration of the traditional revenge film, but the execution feels a little bit too clunky at times.

I understand that this might be the point, but there are times when Seven Psychopaths feels like more of a narrative experiment than a compelling story in its own right. Still, it’s witty and funny and bold and smart and charming. Those attributes aren’t the easiest to come by, and certainly not in this combination. Seven Psychopaths might not be the incredible success that In Bruges was, but it’s a film that takes chances, and which tries to push both the genre and its audience a little out of their comfort zone. It is very hard not to respect that, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was fairly consistent charmed throughout its runtime.

The write stuff…

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Non-Review Review: Gentlemen Broncos

I’m going to be a bit of killer jo here and admit that I didn’t really “get” Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, so it’s no surprise that the latest movie from the creative team leaves me cold. That sort of overly understated sense of humour feels a bit old at this stage, as if we’ve seen it once too often. There’s a sense that the movie somehow recognises this, and decided to augment those awkward silences with incredibly gross and juvenile humour.

Grabbing the stag by the horns...

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Non-Review Review: The Green Mile

I never really responded to The Shawshank Redemption. I’ll go into why exactly if I ever get around to writing a review of it, but perhaps the fact that I never really embraced the film as strongly as most film fans (or even just, y’know, people) is the reason that I am somewhat fonder of The Green Mile than most. The Green Mile is admittedly as guilty as Frank Darabont’s early Stephen King adaptation set in a prison when it comes to emotional manipulation of its audience (look at us humanise the prison guards by having the three of them tackle a mouse in a borderline comedic fashion!), but I find it a lot more honest about its inherent darkness than that tale of redemption in Shawshank.

No, it's not a halo, but it's pretty close...

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Non-Review Review: Iron Man 2

Legacy. It’s all about legacy. What we leave for our children and what we inherit from our parents. Sometimes it’s bitterness and hatred, sometimes it’s more than we think. Iron Man as a concept is inherently linked to the Cold War and American foreign policy, so it’s a fitting theme for the sequel to tackle. Fathers and sons dominate the film, as does the simple and haunting fact that the now is shaped by the then. Some of us get to change the world, some of us simply leave big smoking craters behind us. Even the bad guy, a Russian, consciously evokes conflicts fading from memory that shaped our modern world.

Sometimes you just need to slow down and take a break...

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Is Iron Man 2 a thematic successor to The Dark Knight?

As anyone who reads this blog is probably aware, we’re still eagerly awaiting news of any sort of announcement about Batman 3, the sequel to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight that was rumoured to arrive this January. Be it that he was leaving or staying or what have you. Still, part of me wonders if there might be quite a significant amount of stuff in Iron Man 2 for those looking for a further exploration of the themes in the 2008 blockbuster. With recent discussions about the project and the first trailer, I can’t help but get the fantastic feeling that the second Iron Man movie may pick up and explore some of the wonderful threads which Nolan’s dark epic set up. That’s not to say that there isn’t reason to get excited for the film in it’s own right – Robert Downey Jnr! Sam Rockwell! Mickey Rourke! Jon Favreau! – but it’ll be interesting to see if the themes overlap or echo with the film’s 2008 summer rival as well.

Who says darker and edgier is the way forward?

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Non-Review Review: Moon

It’s been a good year for niche cinema. And looks to continue to be. For the moment though, Moon is one heck of a science fiction film. I’m goign to try to be careful and not really give away too many spoilers, but sufficed to say hat it is one of the most cleverly constructed science fiction films of the past decade – possibly since The Truman Show and Gattaca.

Sam Rockwell gets spaced out...

Sam Rockwell gets spaced out...

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Fly Me to the Moon…

I’m back…

Science-fiction film Moon, starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey is opening in the States next week. It actually looks quite good – with reviews seemingly spanning the divide from “it’s solidly entertaining with a great performance” to “it’s classic science-fiction”. It looks likely to be one of those films I will really try to get to see over the Summer (when it eventually opens here in Ireland), and the trailer is well worth a look. Still, this got me thinking about how the fictional fascination with life on other worlds has been embraced by the genre, and whether that has really changed in recent years.

Sam Rockwell's many jobs on the lunar station include changing lightbulbs when needs be...

Sam Rockwell's many jobs on the lunar station include changing lightbulbs when needs be...

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Star Trekkin’, Across the Universe!

This weekend sees the much anticipated opening of Star Trek. And I have to admit, I’m a little excited. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a good old-fashioned space opera on the big screen, the way that it’s meant to be seen.

Sure, it looks like it might have jettisoned all the moral and philosophical explorations that made the franchise what it was – where else could the American public have found dispassionate explorations of issues as diverse as the Cold War, Vietnam, assisted suicide, cloning, religion, even the American healthcare system? – in favour of an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, but it still looks incredible. It seems more like a rollercoaster to the stars than a wagon train.

"I'm from Iowa, I only work in outer space..."

"I'm from Iowa, I only work in outer space..."

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have a complaint or two. I should introduce this article with the forewarning that I am not a hardcore Trekker/Trekkie/whatever-they-call-themselves, but there is one thing about the attitude of geek god JJ Abrams that really grinds my gears: the insistence that this movie is not for Star Trek fans.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with a movie that is not just for Star Trek fans, but that’s an entirely different sentiment than a movie that is not for Star Trek fans. It’s these guys who are going to see the movie three or four times and will likely make up a sizeably portion ($100m+) of the film’s revenue base. Maybe not a majority, but enough to justify being treated with a little ounce of respect. What’s the point of giving the franchise a much-needed overhaul if you’re just going to insult the fans in the national press?

Anyway, my pet publicity peeve out of the way, I look forward to the reintroduction of space-based science fiction on to the big screen. In the past few years it seems the genre has been confined to the telly (with the superlative, but over, Battlestar Galactica – which also sometimes draws the similar protest “it’s not for sci-fi fans!” – or the wonderful nonsense of Doctor Who, who is unfortunately out of the office bar four specials this year). It’s been a while since we’ve had a big out-and-out science fiction release (okay, most summer blockbusters could loosely be classified as science fiction – Transformers, Eagle Eye, etc. – but I like a bit of substance with my flash).

Ignoring the Star Wars prequels (I’m less of a Star Wars nut than a Star Trek nut), I can only think of a handful of respectable science-fiction films in the past few years. There was the George Clooney vehicle, Solaris, a remake of a classic Russian film of the same name, and there’s was director-of-the-moment Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. Both are solid films, almost independent films in their mindset (being more psychological than epic). A few Michael Gondry fans might throw a hissy-fit at this classification, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is probably easiest classified as a science fiction film (there’s a machine that can erase memories!).

"Walking on... Walking on the moon... ((Some... may say...))"

"Walking on... Walking on the moon... ((Some... may say...))"

Of course, thoroughbred science fiction is the ugly stepchild of the major film genres, one that gets very little respect. The major studios are understandably antsy, with risky science-fiction flicks like Artificial Intelligence or Blade Runner opening to little critical or commercial success. Blade Runner has been subsequently rehabilitated critically, and has likely made its money well back (I own five versions of the film), but one gets the vibe that audiences just don’t dig science fiction settings. The most often-cited complaint about the disappointing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was the substitution of hokey fifties aliens ‘extra-dimensional beings’ for hokey thirties mysticism. Personally, I just thought the movie was a mess, and its problems had little to do with the close encounter at the film’s climax.

Still, the genre is home to some of the greatest films ever made and, when used well, can provide a creative team an epic canvas with which to work. 2001: A Space Odyssey combining breathtaking ideas with breathtaking imagery. Alien and Aliens gave us some of the most visceral body horrors of mainstream cinema. Metropolis remains one of the most influential films of all time ninety years after it was released. Few types of film can so deftly mix the existentialist questions with sheer visual flair; nor do they mix so well – I can readily name sci-fi dramas (Gattaca), sci-fi comedies (Galaxy Quest), sci-fi horrors (Event Horizon), sci-fi action flicks (Total Recall), sci-fi romances (Wall-E), even sci-fi westerns (Outland).

It is perhaps because of the breadth and scale of the genre’s potential that I can forgive it the occasional empty treat like Star Wars or Minority Report. After all, if Star Trek sucks, I can look forward to Moon.

It’s a low-budget claustrophobic drama set – where else? – on the moon, with Sam Rockwell playing an astronaut whose isolation is steadily growing into paranoia. It probably doesn’t help that his only companion is a computer voiced by Kevin Spacey. Nothing helps calm you down like creepy monotone.

So, yep, I’m looking forward to Star Trek. I’m hoping they catch the lightening in a bottle again. I’m hoping that there are brains to match the spectacle on display. Even if there isn’t, I’m sure there’ll eventually be a science fiction movie along with both.

Maybe Terminator Salvation?

Okay, I won’t hold my breath.