Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2017): Hit and Miss (Review)

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Written and directed by Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a blackly comic look at small town mid-America, guilt, parental grief and not a little survivor anger. Frances McDormand (Fargo, Blood Simple) stars as Mildred, the mother of a girl raped and murdered too long ago and the police have made no head way in finding her killer. Sadly, despite much promise and a pretty good script, the result is a little hit and miss.

Woody Harrelson is Chief Willoughby; a beloved local figure of authority and calm. Mildred focuses on the chief with her three billboards of “shame”and accusation. Sam Rockwell is Dixon; one of Willoughby’s deputies, and the man is a shambling mess. 

The plot revolves around Mildred’s overwhelming guilt, which overrides her sense of grief, and it is this guilt that drives her through the entire film. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri almost feels like a modern noir thriller with darkly comic overtones. We side with both Willoughby and Mildred in this tale of attempted retribution and atonement.

Later, we can almost get behind Dixon’s attempt at solving the murder but the man is such a neanderthal that his dreams of becoming a proper detective can really be no more than a pathetic pipe dream. Peter Dinklage has a cameo as the village “dwarf.” (A term that his character tosses out after a disastrous meeting with Mildred and her ex.)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri starts out well. McDormand manages to almost match her performance in the 1996 Coen Bros film Fargo. We are behind her every step of the way, even more so when we learn her ironic and terrible secret. She and Harrelson’s character enter into a short sparring match that brings the film’s character’s to life brilliantly.

This “battle” is short-lived however and that changes the face of the entire story. Herein lies the problem with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. While the billboards themselves are an excellent plot device, their importance shifts about a third of the way through. We focus more on Dixon and Mildred and because of the deputy’s character, the film becomes a bit more than hit or miss with its tale.

The film does entertain though. McDormand is a treat, Harrelson scores much better here than with his excursion in the “Ape” film and Rockwell proves yet again that his range is very impressive, if somewhat misplaced in this role.

Caleb Landry Jones is great value in his cameo role of the one man in town who dares to allow Mildred the chance to thumb her nose at the local Sheriff’s office. (Jones is also superb in another 2017 darkly comic film, the horror offering “Get Out.”)

John Hawkes is spot on as Mildred’s smarmy ex and Abbie Cornish is delightful as his 19 year-old airhead girlfriend. In essence, no one puts a foot wrong in the film but the character’s, especially that of Dixon, act in ways that do not really fit their limitations.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri feels like a Coen Bros film (McDormand is married to Joel who, apparently, told her to take the role of Mildred as it was written expressly for her.) but…different. Overall it fires on most cylinders and has an ending that can only be described as “noir-ish.”

This is a solid four star film that keeps the viewer locked on to the events as they unfold onscreen. One can easily see McDormand nabbing another Oscar this year, even though the competition will be fierce (The Post.)

Holidays (2016): Anthology Horror With a Twist (Review)

Poster for Holidays

Holidays is the 2016 anthology film to watch for chuckles and the odd disturbing vignette.  There is a twist in a few of the tales which range from blackly comic to darkly disturbing. 10 directors do there best to bring some originality to the screen and pay homage to existing classic horror films and themes.

Kevin Smith is  perhaps the best known of the lot and his Halloween segment stars his “Yoga Hosers” Daughter Harley Quinn Smith. In terms of  “names” Seth Green  appears in the Christmas segment and The House of the Devil star Jocelin Donahue is Carol in Father’s Day. 

Valentine’s Day starts off the proceedings and has clearly been influenced by the 1972 British offering  Tales from the Crypt.  This old anthology film featured a similar short tale starring  horror icon Peter Cushing and also features  a lot of “heart.”  A lovely homage that proves someone knows their horror films.

The Easter story was equal parts disturbing and creepy. A young girl gets Jesus and the Easter Bunny mixed up in her head, the night before Easter.  This felt like a homage to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth right down to its downbeat ending.  At points the tale was uncomfortable to watch as it seemed dangerously close to a take on pedophelia.

Two of the holidays on offer, St Patrick’s Day and Mother’s Day were seemingly  influenced by Rosemary’s Baby.  In the Irish tale, a doctor even tells the pregnant protagonist to “think of Rosemary’s reptile.”  Set in Ireland this is more of a darkly comic parody of the Roman Polanski film.  Mother’s Day was more serious in intent and was move evocative of the paranoiac nature of RB.

Father’s Day, starring  Jocelin Donahue, was the saddest  of the lot.  Smith’s Halloween was the quirkiest and there was no sign of a  homage anywhere. This was original horror with a  blackly comic edge.  His daughter starred as one of the three “webcam girls.”

Christmas starred Seth Green, with his real life wife Claire Grant,  and featured a virtual reality  type of equipment that bypasses game play and shows the wearer different things.  A dark humorous look at human behavior,  marriage and murder.

Seth Green in Christmas
Seth Green as Pete Gunderson

Saving the best for last, New Years Eve was easily the funniest segment. Watching this could well put viewers off of dating websites forever. This also feels as though it was influenced by a cult film from down-under.  While there was no direct correlation,  this seemed to be a nod and a wink to the Australian horror film,The Loved Ones. The female protagonist also resembled Robin McLeavy;  who played “Princess” in that 2009 movie.

Rather interestingly the film focusses on “universal” holidays like Christmas and leaves out the more regional ones like Independence Day and Thanksgiving. Even though the film is set in the US it seems to cater to world audiences.

These omissions are  not important but Holidays has been done well enough that after the last holiday on offer, one wishes devoutly for more.  The range of styles and mix of darkly comic horror and eclectic storylines  is nigh on perfect.

The directors and their respective segments are:

  • Valentine’s Day  -Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer
  • St Patrick’s Day  – Gary Shore
  • Easter  -Nicholas McCarthy
  • Mother’s Day  – Sarah Adina Smith
  • Father’s Day  – Anthony Scott Burns
  • Halloween  –  Kevin Smith
  • Christmas  –  Scott Stewart
  • New Years Eve  –  Adam Egypt Mortimer

Fans of anthology films will love this offering  of 10 entertaining stories with not one relying on “found footage” to sell these blackly comic scares.

Holidays is a 5 star gem of a film. A pleasant surprise that is streaming on Netflix at the moment. At 105 minutes the movie streaks by and leaves the viewer wanting more.  The film offers horror with a twist and is well worth a look, or two.

Moonwalkers (2015): Unloved and Misunderstood (Review)

Rupert Grint, Robert Sheehan and Ron Perlman.

For a film almost universally slammed by critics the world over, “Moonwalkers” is surprisingly fun, if one takes the film as black comedy versus the straight up kind. Unloved and misunderstood, this “inspired by true conspiracy theories” movie may be an oddity, to be sure, but it is great fun to watch.

Rupert Grint struggling to find life after Harry Potter does a pretty fair job in this quirky French/Belgian production.  Working with  Ron Perlman and  Robert Sheehan (who totally rocked as the Irish lad who could not die in E4’s “Misfits“) Grint manages to bring this psychedelic  black comedy to life.

Set in 1969, “Moonwalkers”  is directed by Antoine Bardou-Jacquet (it is his first feature length film) and is written by Dean Craig. Perlman is the mentally damaged CIA agent Kidman, Grint is unsuccessful band manager Jonny and Sheehan is junkie/actor Leon. Kidman is sent to London, with  a briefcase full of money,  to hunt down Stanley Kubrick to film a fake space landing in case the Apollo 11 mission fails. 

Jonny is mistaken for Kubrick’s agent and the band manager convinces Kidman that he can arrange a meet with the director and he asks Leon to impersonate Kubrick. They convince Kidman to fork over the cash but it is then stolen by the  loan shark  “Ironmonger Dawson” (played by the superlative  Scottish character actor James Cosmo) who Jonny owes money to. 

The entire film is a combination love letter to Kubrick and a black comedy of errors. Perlman’s character is clearly suffering from PTSD and yet he can still take out multiple “enemies” with alarming ease.

Take, for example, the scene in the pub toilet.  Kidman is outnumbered and, in terms of size, “out-gunned.”  The CIA agent never even pauses when taking down the thugs in the men’s room. The entire fight is set against the light and lilting music of Gioachino Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” it is the blackest of comedic  moments. 

The scene is  keeping to  the Kubrick homage , that is  apparent throughout the film. The Men’s Room scene is also very evocative of “A Clockwork Orange” where Alex beats his Droogs to the sounds of Rossini as well. If it were not apparent that the filmmakers wanted to salute Kubrick before, this scene would make it abundantly  clear.

“Moonwalkers” is set up to have the CIA  hire the moon  landing done and then have all the participants murdered to keep the whole thing secret.  This dark and murderous plan is eased up with some very funny moments as well as some brilliant touches of authenticity.

In the scene where Kidman (Perlman) and Jonny (Grint) confront the Ironmonger (Cosmo),  aka Dawson, and his thugs. The loan shark is making an elaborate sculpture of the London Bridge out of matchsticks. He then goes on to list the other historical landmarks he has constructed. In English prisons, inmates are allowed to purchase matchsticks and glue in order to make things in their cells. A little touch of truth that helps to sell Cosmo’s character.

There are two shootouts in the film, both take place around  Dawson although the first one is instigated by Kidman. The CIA man tells the thugs to sit still and no one will be hurt, he immediately proves himself to be lying when he starts shooting Dawson’s men.

Later there is a more prolonged fire fight between the CIA  heavies who have come to execute those who have worked on the faked landing film as well as Kidman, presumably, and the Ironmonger’s troops who have come to “sort those c****s out.”

Perlman shows that he can do comedy brilliantly regardless of the role he is playing. The scenes after Ella (Belgian actress Erika Sainte) gives Kidman acid for his headache are hysterical with Perlman getting laughs without dialogue. (The bit with the door knob is just beyond funny and it is done silently.)

American critics slammed the film upon its 2015 limited release and it is easy to see why. Set predominately in London  at the time of flower power, free love, tuning out and turning on  the film feels more British than American.

Moonwalkers pokes fun at the “Yanks” (but not too much) as much as it needles the infant space program and the American’s enthusiasm for lying about the mission if it fails.

The film looks spectacular.  The clothing, the sets and the atmosphere all  feel like ’60s London.  At the end of the day, Perlman makes the viewer laugh, and cringe at his character’s tendency to move into violent mode at the drop of a hat and Grint makes the audience like him.

It is hard to understand quite why critics panned the film on release. It is as blackly comic, in it own way, as the 2011 film “God Bless America” with the  added bonus of a lot of references to Kubrick’s work. This is a cracking film. Running at 107 minutes the it does not feel  overly long.

“Moonwalkers”  is a little “Kubrick,” a touch of black comedy, and generally good fun. It is streaming on Netflix at the moment so head over and watch it. A 4 out of 5 star film well worth experiencing.

EXTE aka Hair Extensions (2007) Hirsute Black Comedy

Poster for Hair Extensions aka EXTEEXTE OR Hair Extensions is a 2007 black comedy horror film made by the Shion Shono (who made the “based on a true story” horror film Cold Fish in 2010) and in EXTE Chiaki Kuriyama (Battle Royale, Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2) plays very much against type as a hairdresser in training who must take on a madman and a lot of cursed hair extensions to save herself and her niece.

At the start of the film two Japanese character actors who seem to be in pretty much every J-Horror film ever made open a shipping container because it smells. Upon opening the thing, they discover it is full of human hair. A body is also found and taken off to the police morgue.

Once it arrives, assistant and hairdresser(?) Tatsuo Sugarawa, played by Ken Mitsuichi (Audition, 13 Assassins) becomes obsessed with the bald-headed corpse and takes her home. Once there, he discovers that she is continuing to grow hair which he cuts off and sells, or gives away, to local hairdressers.

Unfortunately the hair is possessed and whomever gets one of the extensions soon dies, some after they’ve killed someone else. It seems the hair contains memories of the dead young lady who was murdered for her organs. Yuko and Yuki are roommates, the first a hairdresser in training and the latter a dancer in training.

Yuko (Kuriyami) is an optimistic, funny and good natured girl whose dream is to become a professional stylist. Her sister, Kiyomi is a nasty bit of work who abuses her daughter Mami and drops her off with Yuko when she wants.

As the hair begins claiming more victims, Tatsuo becomes more and more consumed with his dead girl and he begins behaving bizarrely. The film has its funny moments and other times there are scenes which are surreally entertaining.

In terms of the Asian fascination with long black hair, this movie is the ultimate homage to all things hirsute and creepy. Some of the scenes with the hair extensions are difficult to watch and others just are just flat out horrible. Despite this urge to turn away from the screen, or to at least watch through one’s fingers, overall the movie is more funny than scary.

It has to be said that the scenes with the girl after she is caught by the organ traffickers (with its Christmas music background) are more sad than terrifying and while these are disturbing to watch, the film does fall firmly into black comedy territory.

For those who do not like subtitled films, EXTE comes with dubbing that, to be honest, is not too horrible. At least the American market one features “normal” voices and not those cut glass English accents of The Grudge fame. A definite winner from the chap who brought the brilliant Cold Fish to screen.

Sightseers (2012) British Black Comedy Caravan Style

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I watched this film after reading a brilliant review by Natasha on Films and Things. I’d not heard of the film, but, as it was directed by Ben Wheatley (creator of the brilliant film Kill List and Down Terrace) and I am an unabashed fanboy of this brilliant new film director, I decided to give it a go.

The film starts with Chris (Steve Oram) taking his new girlfriend Tina (Alice Lowe) on an introductory trip to his world; the world of caravanning. Tina’s mother  (wonderfully played by Eileen Davies) doesn’t like Chris or trust him. It turns out that she is pretty much spot on with her character assessment of Chris.

Although he obviously adores Tina, he is, in fact, a serial killer and has been eliminating people who irritate him since his redundancy six months ago. Tina, doesn’t know this at first, but getting caught up in the action, becomes an over enthusiastic accomplice.

Director Ben Wheatley again shows the deft touch that is his trademark and he allowed the two main characters plenty of opportunity to free wheel their scenes. It works wonderfully. Oram, Lowe, and Wheatley get together to tell us that all the things we imagined about caravaners is true. In fact, it’s worse than we thought; these people aren’t just odd, they’re murderous.

Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, aka Tina and Chris.
Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, aka Tina and Chris.

The humour is of the blackest sort and quite droll in most places. Chris’s penchant for killing those that irritate the living hell out of him is very funny (and not a little bit scary, it must be said) and most of his victims are very deserving of their fate.

Sightseers began as a stage comedy “skit” thought up by the two (Oram and Lowe) after they discussed childhood experiences in the world of the caravan holiday makers. This skit was performed regularly and it led to the decision to attempt a screenplay. With everyone they approached declining to make the film as it was considered “too dark;” they eventually got Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, et al) to green light the project.

Ben Wheatley wisely allowed Steve and Alice to improvise a lot of their scenes as they were the authors of the material and due to repeated performances of the skit knew their characters inside and out. It makes the film something special to watch. You also come away from the film realising that it is possible to produce a work that, despite its shoestring budget, looks great.

After seeing the film, I realised two things; that I was an even bigger fan of Wheatley (if that’s possible) and I now adored Alice Lowe. While Oram was outstanding as the monumentally screwed up Chis, it was Lowe who impressed the hell out of me. This is her film really and the character of Tina, who is just as messed up mentally as Chris, but on a different level, was hysterically funny.

There is a scene early on in the film with a Jack Russell dog and a pair of oversized knitting needles that made me laugh so long and hard that I had to stop the film and rewind it. I’d missed a lot of action because of that one scene.

A definite 5 out of 5 stars for a British black comedy that will tickle your dark humour funny bone.

Blackly funny.

*Filmfans in America will now be able to enjoy this English gem as the film has a release date of 10 May 2013 in the US.*

Tina (Alice Lowe) and Banjo/Poppy.
Tina (Alice Lowe) and Banjo/Poppy.