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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Anyone familiar with the work of writer/director Martin McDonagh – in particular, his movies In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012) – will be aware of his signature style of dark humour, bleak storylines and use of profane language paired with ultra-violence.

The British/Irish screenwriter and film director is also renowned as a playwright, especially for The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), The Cripple of Inishmaan (1997), and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001). His plays have been produced all over the world, including Australia.

His newest Hollywood film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, offers everything you might expect and more. It delves deeper into the darkest recesses of the human psyche than most storytellers dare to go, and the result is uproariously funny as well as disturbing and utterly harrowing.

Frances McDormand is superb as the central protagonist within an equally all-star ensemble that includes Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage. Also, McDonagh has cast three of the fine actors he used for Seven Psychopaths – Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Abbie Cornish. Caleb Landry Jones is remarkable as a key supporting character Red, the savvy salesman who arranges the rental of the titular billboards.

McDormand plays Mildred Hayes. We learn that several months earlier her daughter was raped and murdered in an especially gruesome way. McDonagh does not spare us any of the details. Frustrated by the lack of police action, she sets out to provoke a response from the town officials and from the townspeople themselves. She wants justice at any cost. But her incensed activism does have a cost – on everyone, including herself and her high schooler son Robbie played by Lucas Hedges (known for Moonrise Kingdom and Manchester by the Sea). Despite her escalating extreme behaviour, McDonagh ensures we are in step with Mildred’s fury throughout.

Exquisitely crafted, McDonagh’s story is set in a US Midwest town small enough that everyone knows each other’s business, yet large enough that not everyone knows each other by sight – a device that allows for McDonagh to maximise his drama at every opportunity.

The film is populated by authentic and well-rounded characters, from the sympathetic police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) – the main subject of her ire – to his dunderheaded colleague, the clearly incompetent and openly racist police officer Jason Dixon, played perfectly with on-point character detail by Sam Rockwell.

Around the one-hour mark – the midpoint – the movie plummets off a cliff into far darker territory than anticipated. Everything that follows is far from predictable, and therefore has you squirming uncomfortably in your seat with each new outrage.

This is a movie that illuminates the multifarious despicable ways that humans treat each other, and yet there are occasional flashes of decency offered by way of contrast or respite. The accusatory speech Mildred fires at the local priest forms a gratifying and triumphant moment – her “Crips and the Bloods” speech. The “orange juice” scene in the hospital may render you gutted thanks to its unexpected grace within a series of horrendous episodes. There’s a lot to admire about this film; not just its unflinching stance, but also its crumbs of redemption.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

 
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Inseparables (Cine Latino)

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French film The Intouchables was a major hit both in its home country and abroad back in 2011. So much so, it probably comes as no surprise that it’s been booked in for an American remake, which should surface next year in the shape of The Upside. Meanwhile, over in Argentina, the film has already been reinterpreted as Inseparables and the result is a mixed bag.

Felipe (Oscar Martínez) is a wealthy quadriplegic who requires around the clock support. Tired of being babied by the people hired by his PA, Felipe decides to give duty of care to his fiery-tempered gardener, Tito (Rodrigo de la Serna). Tito lives a hand to mouth existence and his rough and ready approach to life is in sharp contrast to Felipe’s.

Even if you’ve never seen the original, or simply know about the true story upon which it’s based, you’ll already be fully aware of where this all going; with Felipe discovering, through Tito’s abrasive care, that there’s still so much more to enjoy in life.

There’s no denying that Inseparables wears a large heart on its sleeve. It’s a sweet natured film and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Both leads have a strong chemistry that ensures you’re more than happy to stay in their company for the remainder of the film. De la Serna is particularly strong as the boisterous but fragile Tito.

And yet, what truly lets the film down, is director Marcos Carnevale seemingly not wanting to deviate too much from the source material. We’re not talking Gus Van Sant’s Psycho in terms of mimicry, but if you’re not going to put your personal stamp on it, and with so much brought over wholesale from the original, it’s a wonder why you would remake it all.

 
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That’s Not Cheating (Cine Latino)

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Sometimes, in relationships, we promise our partners things that we will never follow through on. Whether that be getting a pet, cutting down on fatty foods, or allowing them to sleep with a celebrity should the opportunity arise. It’s the latter of these options that makes up the premise of Argentine comedy, That’s Not Cheating.

Nerdy Mateo (Martin Piroyanksky) has an undisguised crush on actor Zoe del Rio (Liz Solari), which his girlfriend Camila (Lali Esposito) gently mocks by offering him a ‘free pass’ in the unlikely event of him ever getting to meet her. Unfortunately for Camila, Mateo does indeed cross paths with Zoe and the two end up getting on like a house on fire.

Directed by Ariel Winograd, That’s Not Cheating initially mines its humour from Mateo’s decision to hide this initial encounter from his loved one. However, it manages to avoid being a bro-ey celebration of his infidelity by quickly ensuring his plans go awry. From there on out, the film follows both sides in the relationship as they try to deal with the aftershock. It’s a smart move and allows Esposito to be something more than the cliched nagging girlfriend who just doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a ruddy bloke. Refreshingly, she makes just as many mistakes as Mateo, particularly when it comes to her own celebrity crush in the shape of hipster celebrity, Antonio (Guillermo Argeno).

Genuinely funny in parts, with solid performances from its leads, That’s Not Cheating runs aground due to its predictability and rather stale approach to vacuous celebrity culture. Additionally, for a film that chastises its male lead for objectifying women, it certainly goes out of its way to objectify Solari, whilst suggesting that anyone who doesn’t meet her body measurements is liable to be mentally unstable.

 
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The Punisher

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Hell, where do we be begin?

The hotly anticipated Punisher TV series represents the nadir of Marvel’s Netflix streaming projects, narrowly nudging out the widely derided Iron Fist by dint of squandering a perfect set up and a shedload of goodwill left over from the character’s Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity debut in season 2 of Daredevil. That’s pretty impressive; Jon Bernthal’s turn as the ex-Marine vigilante Frank Castle is the fourth live action iteration of the character since Dolph Lundgren took on the name (And little else) way back in 1989, and is pretty much universally considered the best by a considerable margin. This time, fans told each other, they got The Punisher right. Now, on the other side of 13 turgid, meandering episodes, it seems it’s time to go back to the drawing board once more.

When we left our man Frank back in Daredevil, his origin was done and dusted; his family was dead, and he’d acquired for himself an arsenal of terrifying weapons and a rather striking white on black skull motif, leaving him in prime position to begin his never-ending war on crime. The follow up series wastes no time in undoing that. After a brief, bloody and quite enjoyable montage that sees him cleaning up the last few mooks responsible for his family’s deaths, Frank calls it quits, picks up a construction job under an assumed name, and does his level best to put his violent past behind him.

That’s strike one right there: the idea of The Punisher, of all people, trying to go on the straight and narrow contradicts the very essence of the character. Luckily, we have a mechanism to pull him back into action: former NSA analyst David “Micro” Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who has uncovered evidence of military malfeasance linked to Frank’s time as a marine in Afghanistan, and needs his help to take down the bad guys. We still have to put up with a lot of wheel-spinning and wool gathering, though – especially frustrating when you have a character such as this stuck on the “Refusing the Call” chapter of Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Indeed, The Punisher suffers from the now-familiar Marvel/Netflix issue of having to spread too little story over too many hours; there’s actually about a feature film’s worth of narrative here, maybe two at a pinch. It’s possible to actually skip from the first episode to episode 10 and not miss anything of value or, indeed, any plot points you won’t be able to infer for yourself. Much of the series is just Frank and Micro arguing in Micro’s warehouse base of operations – especially galling considering the promise of plenty of action is baked into the basic concept.

Instead we get side-plot after side-plot that drags us slowly toward the inevitable climax, and precious little mayhem until things ramp up in the final stretch. After all, why have our skull-shirted avenger mowing down armies of deserving criminals when we could be watching Micro fret over his family, who think he’s dead since he faked his own death to protect them from reprisals? Or Frank, acting as Micro’s catspaw, fixing their sink, at the same time getting a taste of the family life that was torn from him? It’s not as poignant as it sounds.

Also in the mix are a couple of Homeland Security agents (Amber-Rose Nevah and Michael Nathanson) who are also on the case; a disabled veteran (Jason R. Moore) who runs a support group for returned soldiers; returning supporting character Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) from Daredevil; and Billy Russo, Frank’s old comrade-in-arms, now working as a private military contractor and, of course, The Villain. Rather than build a narrative that operates organically and builds satisfyingly, show runner Steve Lightfoot has simply packed the show with enough separate story strands and characters that he can just cut between them whenever a scene begins to run out of steam.

Which happens a lot – it’s impossible to overstate how leaden and badly structured The Punisher is. There are endless dialogue scenes that go nowhere, flashbacks to backstory we already know or can parse for ourselves, pointless verbal confrontations and posturing… the list goes on.

It’s also dumb. That’s not necessarily a cardinal sin when it comes to an action series, but you want to make sure things are moving too quickly for the audience to notice how sloppy things are in the moment. The Punisher does not do that. It’s at its worst when it’s trying to be smart – there’s a bit of business in the back half addressing the ever-topical gun control issue that just comes across as glib and contrived, especially in a series specifically built around and celebrating the “good guy with a gun” myth beloved of the NRA. It’s actually, on reflection, rather offensive, an act of blatant ass-covering so that the producers can point to it and say that they addressed the issue.

If that doesn’t bother you, perhaps Frank’s laughably mawkish hallucinations of his wife will. Or Paul Schulze’s scenery-chewing turn as a corrupt CIA agent. Or the fact that, when you elide away all the unnecessary window dressing, the actual plot is basically Lethal Weapon, to the point that Frank sitting down for Christmas dinner with Micro’s family as the credits roll seems like an all-too-possible denouement.

There are a few positive elements in play. The cast do everything they can to elevate the substandard material they’ve got to work with, and Jon Bernthal remains a flat-out great Punisher, all barely restrained rage and possessed of a physical stoicism that borders on the masochistic. It is absolutely frustrating to see this guy, who for a brief moment was well on track to being the definitive on-screen Punisher, undone by such bad writing, and such a misguided understanding of the character. The scenes where Bernthal gets to cut loose against his enemies, carving his way though them with methodical fury, remain the highlight of the series, but boy do you have to wade through a lot of dross to get to them.

And, in the end, it’s just not worth it. The Punisher is an absolute mess. It’s thematically naive, narratively inert, condescending to its audience,  and lacks almost any understanding of its central character’s appeal. Only the low bar set by previous on screen Punisher incarnations prevents it from being unarguably the worst live action version of the character.

And he hardly ever wears the damn skull, either. Honestly, who thought that was a good idea?

 
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Borg vs McEnroe

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In 1980 Swedish tennis star Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) is headed for Wimbledon to  attempt to win a record fifth title at the famed tournament. Standing in his way is the brash American upstart John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), determined to beat the Swede and take home his first Wimbledon win. The two men are a study in contrasts – Borg is famously emotionless on court, a tennis-playing machine, while McEnroe is a firebrand, known for his temper tantrums and unsportsmanlike behaviour. However, as the tournament progresses and the pressure to win through mounts, we learn that the two may have more in common than their surface demeanours indicate.

Danish director Janus Metz Pedersen (Armadillo) approaches this account of Borg and McEnroe’s famous rivalry as a work of psychological portraiture, delving into the mindset and sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness. While the focus is on Wimbledon ’80, frequently flashbacks to both the players’ formative years give us insight into what makes them tick: both come from poorer backgrounds and see tennis as a way to elevate themselves and their families, and both are driven by rage and perfectionism (we spend a lot of time with the young Borg seeing how his coach, played by the ever-reliable Stellan Skarsgard, channels the boy’s rage into productive forward momentum).

It’s an impressively sympathetic film. We spend more time with Borg than McEnroe and you might expect the film to err towards hagiography, but Pedersen goes out of his way to present the driven, often brusque Borg as a man with his own share of foibles. Similarly, McEnroe’s frequently boorish behaviour may be on full display, but the man’s loneliness and self-flagellating drive to be the best makes him a well-rounded screen presence rather than just an antagonist to test our Swedish hero.

When the two finally clash on court, it’s something to behold. The outcome isn’t in doubt for anyone familiar with the sport, but Pedersen manages to ratchet up the tension nonetheless by making each volley an extension of character -we know what the personal stakes are for these guys, so we’re thoroughly invested by the time they face each other over the net.

Borg vs McEnroe avoids most of the cliches of the standard sports movie – this isn’t about an underdog rising up, but two world class athletes testing their mettle against one another and finding a kind of camaraderie when they realise that the only person who can really understand what they’re going through is their opposite number. What we’re left with is a film that’s more interested in what’s going on in the heads of the protagonists rather than on the court between them, and is all the more satisfying for that.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Borg vs McEnroe

 

 
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Murder on the Orient Express

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It’s 1934 and a disparate cast of characters are traveling by train from Istanbul to Paris, among them famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh). After the train is stopped by a rockslide on the tracks during a snowstorm, a fellow passenger, the shady Mr Ratchett (Johnny Depp), is found stabbed to death in his locked compartment, and Poirot is presented with the challenge of divining who the killer is. The truth is, of course, much stranger than he could anticipate.

Agatha Christie’s classic novel was famously filmed by Sidney Lumet back in ’74, and it’s kind of incredible that it has taken this long for another big screen version to be mounted. It’s a nigh-perfect basis for a film, offering a clear narrative goal, an interesting location, and – most importantly – a panoply of intriguing and eccentric roles just begging to be brought to life by a talented company of character actors.

Which is exactly what we get here, although the line between “character actor”, “rising star” and “dear God, it’s Johnny Depp” is blurry. What we do get is (deep breath) Michell Pfeiffer as a husband-hunting American widow, Judi Dench as an imperious Russian princess, Olivia Colman as her long-suffering maid, Josh Gad as the alcoholic secretary to the murdered man, Derek Jacobi as the victim’s valet, Penelope Cruz as a devout missionary, Daisy Ridley as a governess, Willem Dafoe as an Austrian professor, Leslie Odom Jr. as a doctor, and  more. They’re all uniformly great (yes, even Depp), and are clearly having a ball, embracing director Branagh’s heightened, theatrical take on the material.

Branagh is, of course, Poirot, and why not? He is, after all, the director’s favourite actor. If everyone present is having fun, Branagh is having the most fun as Christie’s famous and fastidious flatfoot, sporting one of the greatest mustaches in cinematic history giving full play to Poirot’s suite of tics and quirks. It’s such a great role, and Branagh manages the rather neat balancing act of making Poirot brilliant and heroic but at the same time fussy and funny, a strange little man driven to try and correct a world made imperfect by crime and carelessness.

As a director, Branagh revels in the sumptuous details and textures of his setting – the polished brass and rich, dark wood of the train carriages, gleaming in the lamplight; the clean, blinding white drifts of snow outside; the luxurious fabrics of the costumes; the hair, the make up and accessories of his characters. It’s the James Bond model in microcosm, cinema as luxury tourism, showing us an aspirational world we can’t really afford to visit except for a couple of hours at a time. Branagh also doesn’t let the location limit him too much in terms of his camerawork – our point of view is always on the move, tracking down carriages, swooping overhead, pushing in to highlight tangible details. Orient Express is absolutely worth catching on theatrical release; while it may not fit the current tentpole model, it is a timely reminder that it’s not just explosions and spectacle that benefit from the cinema.

Plus, it’s a really good time. For all that it deals with murder and (slight spoiler from an 80 year old book) conspiracy, there’s something quite cosy and comforting in Christie’s story, and that translates perfectly here. The solution to the mystery is pretty well known by this stage of the game, but we don’t necessarily go to these things to be surprised, any more than we go to see Hamlet expecting to be scared by the ghost of the King. Rather, the joy is in seeing how these familiar narrative forms are being re-interpreted by a new set of creatives. Branagh never colours outside of the lines on this one, and that’s fine – this is a respectful romp through one of literature’s most famous mysteries, and well worth your time.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Murder on the Orient Express

 

 
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OtherLife

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Ren (Jessica De Gouw) is the designer of OtherLife, a liquid substance that can be dropped onto the eyeball and re-program the human brain. As the release date for its recreational use fast approaches, Ren spends an increasing amount of time on her own secret project. When her business partner Sam (T.J. Power) comes with a lucrative offer from the Department of Corrections to use OtherLife as an alternative to incarceration Ren is horrified – but opposing such a high-value offer has made her a target.

OtherLife is a new science fiction film from Perth-based filmmaker Ben C. Lucas (Wasted on the Young). It does a superb job of spinning a smart, engaging thriller out of a modest production budget, and marks a fresh and still comparatively rare Australian contribution to science fiction cinema. Sadly, it does not quite vault from being a solid genre entry into something ground-breaking or progressive, thanks to a string of comparatively safe choices in the plot.

Where it does excel is in taking the sort of well-established virtual reality tropes of such films as Total Recall and grounding them in a much more contemporary context. The virtual reality of OtherLife is a chemical one, applied via a liquid agent, and combined with scenes of Ren being interrogated over the drug’s safety and ethical concerns it feels genuine and believable. It may be a science fiction, but it feels aggressively contemporary at the same time. As with all science fiction cinema, making the science fiction parts seem real is half of the battle – and it is a half that OtherLife absolutely wins. It also rather clever to see virtual reality, something often presented in film and television as a drug-like experience, presented as an actual narcotic.

Where the film struggles is in the predictable story. Twists and turns in the narrative feel predictable and unfold in ways that can be seen from far, far ahead. For any viewer half-versed in virtual reality thrillers there will be few surprises to be found. As it stands the film is an entertaining one, but a few more ideas and unexpected developments in the plot and it could have been something tremendous. In that respect it is largely par for the course for writer Gregory Widen, whose previous screenplays such as Highlander, The Prophecy and Backdraft all betray a similar problem: strong ideas, but a relatively ordinary execution.

Jessica De Gouw presents Ren as a complex and damaged figure, and brings a lot of talent to enhance the character and provide additional depth. It is a valuable performance given how much of the film focuses directly on her. There is a bit of a stereotype at work in Ren’s goth fashion sense and demeanour, but design-wise it does look great on screen.

OtherLife is Lucas’ second feature, following his 2010 debut Wasted on the Young. It shows a strong and developing directorial talent, and marks Lucas out as a filmmaker to keep a close eye on in the future.