Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Great movie dialogue is at its funniest when you can quote a line that brings down the house but won’t mean a thing out of context. For instance, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Peter Dinklage utters these words in the middle of a dinner conversation: “Penelope said ‘begets’?” Not funny out of context, but in the movie it is preceded by certain other lines, and delivered with a certain throwaway intonation, and seen from a certain camera angle, and followed by certain reactions. It is glorious. This is because writer-director Martin McDonagh is a craftsman who places each word with wicked precision, a talent he has previously displayed in his career as a playwright, and in two films: the great In Bruges, and the rather sour Seven Psychopaths. McDonagh is so besotted with language that a large portion of the dialogue actually concerns itself with how people use words, or misuse them.

Three Billboards finds the Irish filmmaker conjuring up a fictional American town in the Midwest.

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Blu-ray: Into the Night

Into the Night (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray)

Shout! Factory

After the 1970s recast film noir in shades of nostalgia (Chinatown, 1974, The Late Show, 1977) and private eye revisionism and cynicism (The Long Goodbye, 1973, Night Moves, 1975), the eighties gave it a burst of color and energy with Neon Noir. John Landis’s Into the Night (1985) doesn’t have the self-consciously chiaroscuro lighting we associate with noir (Landis uses light for clarity, not atmosphere) but otherwise he takes a classic noir story—the middle-class innocent jolted out of his protected but dull existence and plunged into a nightmarish odyssey into the urban underworld—and treats it right. It was a commercial disappointment in its day and tends to be forgotten in the annals of post-noir crime cinema but if anything it looks better today than it did in eighties.

Jeff Goldblum is our married suburban everyman Ed Okin, an aerospace engineer whose dreams of space have been grounded in cubicle land, sleepwalking through his days and unable to sleep at night. “My life is a dead-end,” he tells his carpool coworker (Dan Aykroyd), “I feel like I’m from another planet,” and things don’t improve when he finds his wife having an affair (but slinks away rather than confront her). This isn’t a man bored by his compromises to conformity, but a man unsure why he is so unfulfilled after doing everything right.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of November 10

“Every genuine act of innovation starts with a bit of destruction. However, it’s not the medium that Lynch blows up, but the rules and conventions associated with it. He has done this many times throughout his career: with the aesthetics of analogue film and low definition cameras, with serialized narratives, and compact (even ultra-short) durations. For Lynch, exploring the possibilities of a given medium often means turning it upside down in order to shake off the expectations attached to it, to unfold it like a glove into which he places his own, particular world, to extract from this medium what seems impossible, even utterly inconceivable.” Cristina Álvarez López explores David Lynch’s radical reinvention of the sequence-shot in his contribution to Lumière and Company, Premonition Following an Evil Deed.

The two latest entries in Reverse Shot’s symposium on time feature two very different instances of the camera delicately approaching a seated man. Imogen Sara Smith highlights Anton Walbrook’s monologue in the refugee office as a distillation of all the gaps and flashbacks that make time the implacable villain in the Archers’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. (“Theo can return to England, but never to the days when his wife was alive. Film, however, can rewind or replay, slow down or speed up time at will, as Colonel Blimp does with its flashbacks, its way of skipping over years as a stone skips over a pond. The challenge then is to make cinematic time feel like real time, to capture the irreversibility of age and loss, the way the past is at once inescapable and unrecoverable.”) While Nadine Zylberberg finds the key to Sofia Coppola’s whole project in Somewhere’s suspended zoom on a face encased in plaster. (“Johnny and the lifeless substance that envelops him come together, he is at once dead and undead. In Coppola’s world of existential boredom, there may as well be no difference between the two.”)

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Review: The Square

I once interviewed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh on stage in front of an audience that included one person who occasionally made canine barking sounds that resounded through the hall. This was only mildly distracting, and if it were a person with Tourette’s Syndrome or something, I’m glad he came and took in the event. It did make me wonder, sitting there on stage, what I should do if things got actually disruptive.

Things get disruptive under similar circumstances in The Square, and—typically for this wicked film—nobody’s reactions help anything.

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Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh brandishes an improbable mustache and suspicious accent in Murder on the Orient Express, but I have no interest in mockery. Surely one reason—not the most exalted reason, maybe, but a reason—to go to the movies is to relish the spectacle of an actor battling outlandish tricks of the trade and making them fun. Branagh understands that kind of make-believe, and he hits it on the button here.

He plays the world’s greatest detective, Hercule Poirot, and also directs the film. Poirot boards the deluxe Orient Express in Istanbul, little suspecting a passenger will die in the night and an avalanche will strand the train just long enough for the murder to be solved.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of November 3

“War changed Jean-Pierre Grumbach into Melville, basically took from him even his birth name, his innocence, confirming him blocklike under his patronym, a solid character with a studied set of accoutrements, an impassable mask. The fighting, the atrocities, painted his reality gray, erased the idiotic border between good and evil, set him down firmly in a world of nuance where the bad man is never entirely bad and the good man is never entirely good, a world peopled with nice bad men and bad nice men, humans who are all too human.” Adrien Bosc explores how foundational the years of WWII were in Jean-Pierre Melville’s life—not only his own service, but that of his brother Jacques.

The topic of Reverse Shot’s latest symposium, asking its writers to highlight a sequence in a film that explores the duration of time, is broad enough to encourage a wide range of responses. Thus far there is Michael Koresky on the horrifying ten-second final shot that all of The Seventh Victim is building toward (“But after those ten seconds—so fleeting and frightening—we are left forever on the other side of a closed door”); Michael Joshua Rowin on Roeg’s use of synchronicity in Don’t Look Now’s opening (“Only the viewer is witness to the coincidence of these events as John feels their cumulative force upon his “second sight””); Lauren Du Graf on the juxtaposition of past and present in Alfred Guzzetti’s Family Portrait Sittings (“Yet unlike Night and Fog (or The Wizard of Oz, for that matter), Guzzetti’s film portrays the past in color and the contemporary moment in black and white, an inversion that further subverts a sense of time as a linear sequence of events”); and Julien Allen on the ingenious narrative and thematic shifts Hitchcock pulls off during the clean-up scene in Psycho (“How soon after our heroine has been so viciously dispatched, turning our experience and emotions upside down, do we find ourselves itching for her body to disappear, even though this means her murderer will most likely escape justice? Just nine and a half minutes. Are we monsters?”)

 

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Review: Thor: Ragnarok

In every sense, Thor needed a haircut. The Marvel movie universe—which, like the real universe, is pitiless and has no end—featured this character to passable effect in its Avengers movies and with lesser results in Thor’s starring vehicles. Something had to change, especially since a very funny actor, Chris Hemsworth, was visibly hamstrung by the Nordic gloom of his character.

A haircut—literally and figuratively—is exactly what Thor gets in Thor: Ragnarok, the latest Marvel thing. And like Samson in reverse, Thor thrives when his 1970s thrash-rock locks are shorn, finding new life as a comic character

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Review: God’s Own Country

You’ve got to hand it to a movie that introduces its main character as aggressively unpleasant right from the start. We might suspect that redemption will come, but the prospect of spending a lot of time with an obnoxious protagonist can be dispiriting when you’re just sitting down to a night at the movies.

Such is the case with God’s Own Country, or at least it was for me. My spirits sank a little when it became clear that Johnny (Josh O’Connor), who works long days at his family’s small, grubby Yorkshire farm, would be the hero of this tale.

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Review: Wonderstruck

Todd Haynes has been in the zone for quite some time now, creating a remarkable streak of films that establish glorious illusions, and then burrow deeper for the real, messy deal. Wonderstruck, the director’s first movie for a younger audience, feels like an anomaly in other, less intriguing ways—including an atypically slack narrative and an occasional case of the cutes. But then the third act kicks in, and everything gets terrific.

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Blu-ray: James Whale’s ‘The Old Dark House’

James Whale followed up his iconic horror classic Frankenstein (1931) with the strange, sly, and sardonic The Old Dark House (1932), part haunted house terror and part spoof executed with baroque style.

Cohen Film Collection

Boris Karloff (fresh from his star-making turn in Frankenstein) takes top billing in the supporting role of Morgan, the scarred, mute butler with a penchant for drink and a vicious mean streak, but the film is really an ensemble piece. Melvin Douglas is the wisecracking romantic lead caught in a raging thunderstorm in the Welsh mountains with bickering couple and traveling companions Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart. They take refuge in the creepy old manor of the title, lorded over by the gloriously flamboyant Ernest Thesiger and his dotty, fanatical sister Eva Moore, when a landslide wipes out the goat-trail of a mountain road, and are later joined by more stranded passengers: a hearty Charles Laughton, whose Lancashire working class accent and blunt manners sets him apart from the social graces of his companions, and his “friend” Lillian Bond, a chorus girl with a chirpy sunniness in the gloomy situation.

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Blu-ray: Mario Bava’s ‘Kill, Baby… Kill!’

The title may sound like a serial killer thriller but Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill (Italy, 1966) is a Gothic ghost story with haunting images, grotesque edges, and glorious style. Think of it as Bava’s answer to a Hammer horror, with hysterical superstition and suspicion of outsiders replacing the lurid sexuality of Hammer’s Victorian horrors and Bava’s rich palette setting an altogether more expressionist atmosphere.

Kino Classics

Shooting exteriors on location in rural mountain villages of picture-postcard medieval stone dwellings and labyrinthine streets, Bava creates a fairy tale world of an oppressively provincial 19th century village in the grip of a curse. At least that’s the explanation of the townspeople who dismiss the scientific investigation of Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), a coroner from the city called into determine if Irena (Mirella Pamphili), a young woman whose death by impaling opens the film, was murdered or committed suicide. The villagers know—she is the latest victim of a curse upon the village—and do everything they can to drive the coroner and Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), the city investigator, from their insular little village. With the help of Monica (Erika Blanc), who was born in the village but sent away to school and has recently returned, Paul is determined to find the true cause of the inexplicable deaths plaguing the village.

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of October 27

At TIFF’s blog, a paean to the iconic crafter of movie gimmicks and a look at how little a master filmmaker can get away with showing you. Craig Caron, like most writers on the subject, can’t conceal his giddiness recounting the career of William Castle, whose mix of shameless stunts and B-movie energy maintain a sense of fun none of his current inheritors can claim. (“Named by Castle’s long-time co-producer Dona Hollaway and inspired by a faulty bedside lamp, “Percepto” was succinctly summarized by Castle as follows: ‘I’m going to buzz the asses of everyone in America by installing little motors under the seats of every theatre in the country.’”) And an excerpt from David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong breaks down the mechanics of Johnnie To’s “tell-it-once rule” of filmmaking in The Mission. (“I know of no previous Hong Kong crime film with such suppressive and elliptical narration. To uses his multiple protagonists not only to pursue different strands of action but to switch points of view in ways that hold back information from us. This is somewhat like Wong Kar-wai’s withholding of information about the affair at the heart of In the Mood for Love. But whereas Wong flaunts the fact that he’s hiding things, To is more covert. We don’t expect that a film that can dwell on men kicking around a ball of paper will be so reluctant to divulge an extramarital affair or a fake murder scheme.”)

“Existential meaninglessness, the pointlessness of moral causes, the uselessness of idealism: these were the fates they truly feared. And for Aldrich, these were the just rewards for those who sought to ignore the savagery of the world for hopes and dreams. Survival by any means was the only virtue worth espousing. But what do you do when the mission is over? Where do you go when your worldview has been shattered? These are the questions we find in Autumn Leaves, a film almost totally unique, both as part of Aldrich’s extensive oeuvre and as a product of the classical Hollywood studio system.” Nathanael Hood considers Autumn Leaves as both a daring extension of his portraits of broken men and an intriguing compromise with melodrama—right down to the rare (for the director) happy ending.

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Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin

Over the years the rights to Winnie-the-Pooh have been acquired by Disney, so the muscle of the world’s savviest media corporation stands behind the winsome cartoon bear. If that doesn’t already seem like a mismatch, it will after you see Goodbye Christopher Robin, a British film about the origins of Pooh. This gentle movie examines what happens when a cartoon character becomes a media phenomenon.

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Review: Human Flow

Human Flow is not a documentary by a journalist, or a traditional activist. If it were, it might be 25 hours long, with abundant background on the history of the world’s current refugee disasters and a guidebook on how these terrible problems—the worst since the end of World War II, with 65 million people displaced—can be addressed. Instead, Human Flow is a film by an artist, albeit one famous for his dissidence against his country’s government. This is Ai Weiwei, whose art-world celebrity has only been enhanced by his battles with Chinese officials (he’s now based in Berlin). With Human Flow, Ai does something that has recently ignited debate in documentary circles: He takes a terrible subject and makes it beautiful.

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Review: Save the Tiger

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Save the Tiger is the sort of film that can give a well-intentioned film teacher nightmares. It’s so easy to imagine an equally well-intentioned, beginning student turning in a scene-by-scene breakdown of the narrative that faultlessly demonstrates as serious a thematic—indeed, didactic—purpose and as constant and consistent a stylistic application as one could ask to discover—all without realizing that the film itself remains dead, dead-ended, its conclusion foregone from the first. Producer Steve Shagan’s screenplay themes the viewer right into the ground with its highly unspontaneous collection of invocations of what we have lost as a nation: baseball played on real instead of plastic turf, oriental-dream movie palaces featuring The Best Years of Our Lives instead of skin flicks with selfrighteous, socially redeeming narration, garments cut by a master craftsman, Cole Porter, a sense of what World War II was all about (or even a memory that it was fought)….

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