Film Reviews by WS

Welcome to WS's film reviews page. WS has written 33 reviews and rated 317 films.

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Carlos the Jackal

International Man of Misery

(Edit) Updated 09/05/2020

Venezuela-born Carlos – real name Ilich Sanchez Ramirez – believed that the Marxist-Leninist class struggle was inseparable from “anti-imperialism”, which meant, in practice, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. The aim being to undermine (and where possible militarily defeat) America’s allies, but chiefly the State of Israel. In 1970 he threw himself into the nationalist struggle of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, training as a guerrilla fighter.

Perhaps disproportionately (although not solely) of interest to politics and current affairs nerds, “Carlos” provides a balanced, non-polemical view of Ilich’s bloody and ignoble career. Clearly a man of some physical courage – he fought in the 1970 Black September conflict between Jordan and the PLO – he is not glamorised or represented as a heroic failure like Che Guevara. He is ruthless enough to shoot an unarmed man in the face at point-blank range, but never sadistic or gratuitously violent. The genuineness of his political zealotry is never in doubt, and there is no suggestion that he is ever seeking personal power for its own sake. But he shows a staggering level of arrogance and political naivety in thinking that he understands the Palestinian cause better than the Palestinians themselves.

The first section of the film sees Carlos carrying out attacks on Israel-linked targets in London, and then going on the run after fatally shooting two detectives. The second act deals with the astonishingly audacious raid on the 1975 OPEC conference – ending, from the terrorists’ point of view, in a humiliating anti-climax. By the closing chapters of the film Carlos, spurned by his Palestinian mentors and gradually running out of countries willing to shelter or aid him, is facing life as a politically irrelevant fugitive.

Ambitious in its scope and in its use of multiple international locations, “Carlos” attempts to show us the wider picture (the geopolitics and international diplomacy of the time), while not neglecting the human scale – the divergent objectives and clashing personalities within the international militant Left, the disagreements over tactics, and the inevitable conflict between guerillahood and stable family life. We see Carlos involved with three different women, and briefly raising a daughter, but it appears that being a dutiful husband and father was never high on his list of priorities.

The inconsistent use of subtitles – French, Spanish and sometimes Arabic speech is subbed, English and German dialogue isn’t, even with the subtitle option selected – didn’t really bother me but it may be enervating to some viewers and is not ideal for the hard of hearing. Again some people may be put off by the 155 minute running time, but the story is eventful enough to fill it out, the action scenes are well-directed, to me it didn’t feel unnaturally stretched.

It’s debatable how relevant this film is as we enter the third decade of the twenty-first Century. ISIL and their imitators are not concerned with playing the long game but see slaughter and martyrdom as ends in themselves. But if there is a message we can take away, it is: that terrorists are bad people, they rarely have legitimate grievances, and the only way to defeat them long-term is through skilled international diplomacy and cutting off the funding. The pen and the abacus are mightier than the sword.

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Ema

Ema = Extreme Maternal Anarchy

(Edit) Updated 05/05/2020

The premise is that Gaston, a choreographer, and Ema, his much younger wife, a school dance instructor, have adopted a child but gave him back to the adoption agency because they couldn’t cope with his delinquent behaviour – in particular, his fire-setting. The boy (named Polo, by now about 10 years old) started a blaze that left Ema’s sister permanently disfigured. The couple seem to regret giving him up but blame each other for the chain of events that led to it happening.

If so far it sounds like a Mike Leigh tragedy or a slice of Dardennes Brothers social realism, think again – what follows is more a celebration of decadence and transgression, sort of Pedro Almodovar meets Gaspar Noé. Ema has an affair with a married firefighter and encourages Gaston to sleep with one of her friends – not very shocking or perverse behaviour in itself perhaps, since their marriage has irretrievably broken down. As if that’s not enough, she gets sexually involved with an older female attorney – maybe because she’s broke and is hoping the other woman will take on her divorce case gratis . . . or maybe just because she can. And then a bit later she’s at a house party with her five reggaeton friends, they all strip naked and make out with each other . . . and, far be it from me to accuse the film-makers of inserting a gratuitous lesbian scene just so they’d have some salacious imagery to show in the trailer reel - I’m sure there was a sound artistic justification for it but I’m just too thick to see it. (There’s no male-on-male action, in case you’re wondering).

Mariana Di Girolamo gives an accomplished performance as Ema, a borderline sociopath who has a great lust for life but a weird emotional detachment from people and situations (and is a pyromaniac to boot). Almost every scene is visually rewarding, whether we’re at the harbour side, a halogen-infused city street at night, or a decaying basketball court, and the outdoor reggaeton dance scenes are particularly inspiring.

But aside from being a celebration of hedonism, what is this film really about? I would hardly call it feminist or anti-authoritarian – in Ema’s world, male power and authority seem to have evaporated anyway. Once or twice the film seems to be trying to make a point about class or racial privilege – one of Gaston’s students calls him out as a “tourist” who doesn’t understand the culture of the blue-collar waterfront district, and it’s surely significant that Polo is a dark-skinned mestizo boy who’s been adopted by a very white couple. But if it’s meant to be skewering self-indulgent white hipster culture then its impact is blunted when for most of its running time it seems to be endorsing that sort of lifestyle and mentality.

I felt a little soiled by the film’s seemingly amoral world-view and would be tentative about recommending it to any of my cinephile friends, on account of the shortage of likeable characters and lack of emotional chemistry between the main protagonists. But it has a nifty ending and I enjoyed it enough to want to re-watch at least parts of it. Perhaps in classifying this film as amoral I’m missing the point – when all’s said and done, if Chilean society is going to hell in a handcart anyway, maybe the only rational response is to grab the sleekest handcart, paint go-faster stripes on it and enjoy the ride.

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Uncut Gems

He's no diamond geezer

(Edit) 24/01/2020

It’s about a man with a reverse Midas touch – all the gold he touches turns to poop!

Howard Ratner is a successful and knowledgeable jeweller who (unlike Gerald, his blundering UK namesake) offers luxury bling to customers at the upper end of the market. He counts among his regular clients a basketball star named Keith Garnett (he actually plays for the Boston Celtics in real life). Howard is however in dire financial straits, partly owing to his gambling fixation. He likes to bet on the outcomes of basketball games, a sport to which he is fanatically devoted – more than he is to his wife, sons, and mistress, in fact.

He’s concocted a get-rich-quick scheme, by which he will smuggle a rare uncut African black opal into the country, which he anticipates will sell at a 600 % profit, allowing him to pay off the 100K he’s had to borrow from loan sharks. Unfortunately, his scheme, and his life generally, seem to be constantly on the verge of catastrophe thanks to his over-confidence, poor judgement, and talent for rubbing people up the wrong way. When he gets some cash in hand he gambles with it instead of using it to pay off his loan; he doesn’t allow himself enough time to get the opal properly valued before the auction; and he behaves boisterously and arrogantly towards the mobsters who have lent him the money. The loan-sharking crew is led by his brother-in-law Arno; this may explain why they go easy on him at first, although Arno has some very scary-looking goy (possibly Russian?) associates who, you suspect, might not be so lenient if they were running the outfit.

Although marketed as a thriller, the emphasis is more on dialogue and character motivation than thrills and suspense. It feels more sleazy and gritty than noir-ish, partly a consequence of the central character, who is by turns devious, aggressive, and self-pitying. Then again, there isn’t really a truly admirable person in this picture – the only benign characters are fools. I think the biggest weakness is the underdevelopment of the female characters. Julia doesn’t really amount to more than a stereotype – the gorgeous young mistress with no life plans of her own, pathetically devoted to a well-off but obviously unreliable married man who keeps promising to leave his wife. Dinah, meanwhile, seems remarkably tolerant of her husband’s misdeeds and his chaotic approach to business. I don’t think a normal woman would stay so calm and composed on finding her husband locked naked inside the trunk of his own car. The grimy feel of the story is enhanced and underlined by the close-range hand-held camera work, the 90s techno-inspired soundtrack, and the unconventional sound mix which often gives equal priority to ambient noise and background chatter as against what the principal protagonists are actually saying.

Perhaps to an extent the Safdie brothers, themselves Jewish, are rebelling against the habitual portrayal of Jews in the movies and on TV as being either respectable, clean-cut high-achievers or nerdy, sexually-inadequate wimps, and wanted to make a film showing Jews as badass wheeler-dealers who have more in common with African-Americans than their fellow light-skinned Caucasians. At one point Howards black assistant Demany, played by Lakeith Stanfield, even calls him a “Jewish n****r”.

It all adds up to a rather sour and nihilistic worldview. But I felt that Adam Sandler’s performance, the cinematography, and soundtrack, all made it compelling, it was never dull and I never stopped wanting to know what would happen next even though the central protagonist is such a sleazebag. However, I do feel it would be a less rewarding experience on the small screen.

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Cinema 16: European Short Films

Essential viewing for short-film enthusiasts

(Edit) 06/11/2019

Sixteen films from established directors showing a remarkable range of tone, style, and subject matter.

There's "Charlotte et Veronique", Godard's delightful neo-Nouvelle Vague comedy about a young Parisian philanderer; "L'Homme sans Tete", an allegorical fantasy that gives a whole new meaning to "head shop"; "Talk", a sombre tale of a social vampire who is desperate for company after being fired from his job; and "Gisele Kerosene", a demented caper in which transvestite witches on combustion-powered broomsticks hurtle through an ultra-modern cityscape in pursuit of a stolen relic. Other stand-outs include a stop-motion from the master of Czech surrealism; a gentle yet sardonic comedy from Chris Morris about a man who thinks his dog can talk; and an over-zealous anti-racist who comes a cropper in Jensen's hilarious "Election Night".

Should be something to please everyone - there are no real duds except the forgettable "Opening Day of Close Up" and maybe "Nocturne" which is perhaps too minimalist for most people's taste - so I'm a little surprised to see it rated at only 3.5 stars.

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Salvatore Giuliano

Gangster's paradise

(Edit) 14/10/2019

A profoundly depressing exposé of the interpenetration of politics, organised crime and landed interests in rural Sicily. Depressing not only in its portrayal of corruption and deference, but in the lack of any clear moral lessons to be learned or grounds for hope. Classed as a Neo-realist film but don't expect "Bicycle Thieves". The pivotal event is the massacre of Porta della Ginestra, in which assailants fired upon people who had gathered to celebrate May Day, killing 11 including women and children. Much of the second half of the film deals with the investigation and subsequent trials, and focuses on the struggle to find out who ordered the killings. The subject matter is given a documentary-style treatment, with the emphasis very much on dramatising the known facts rather than providing character depth. But parts of it are quite cinematic, especially the military operations in the town, and the courtroom scenes which are possibly the highlight.

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A Touch of Zen

A Touch of Zen

(Edit) Updated 09/10/2019

This is an untutored opinion as I haven't seen many wuxia ("martial hero") films and cannot claim to have a rounded view on the genre.

I felt that for much of the running time the pace was crashingly slow, but at the same time I have to admire its cleverness in the way it only gradually reveals who the main protagonists are and who is allied to whom. It is well-directed, even though at times the locations are so dark you have to concentrate to tell what's going on. The fight scenes, although probably advanced for the late 60's, sometimes lack finesse by modern standards.

But it is definitely worth it for the majestic final and penultimate scenes. There's the terrific multi-participant fight in the eerily-lit forest involving warrior monks, a military commander, a renegade general and the fugitive heroine, followed by the surreal desert endgame which calls to mind a spaghetti Western.

In conclusion, feels slow for a 3-hour movie, but worth persevering with.

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Winter Light

A heart in winter

(Edit) 08/10/2019

Something I've always admired about Bergman's films is his use of light. Here, the photography expertly captures the austere and dignified beauty of the snow-bound landscape and the Medieval church interior. Not a film for people who insist on an action-packed three-act drama with neat resolutions to everything, yet it is definitely more than just a character study or atmosphere piece - it is a film about how inner struggles play out in the outer world.

Tomas Erikson, the pastor, celebrates Mass and performs his other parochial duties obediently, but without enthusiasm. He feels that God is distant and finds it difficult to reconcile his Christian faith with the adversity he has encountered during his life. His suffering has become a chasm separating him from his fellow human beings, rather than a bridge to empathy with them - he is self-absorbed, judgemental and sometimes callous. But the viewer can sympathise with his spiritual confusion and the fact that he is acutely aware of his own failings as a minister, thanks to the remarkably sensitive performance by Gunnar Björnstrand. One of the other principal characters is Marta Lindblom, a schoolteacher with whom, it is implied, Tomas has been having an on-off affair for some years. Marta is everything Tomas is not – warm, vivacious, generous, optimistic, and mentally resilient. Although openly agnostic, she provides a better illustration than the pastor of how to live a Christian life.

Inspired by the director's own struggles to maintain his own "childish piety", as he put it, in the face of life as actually lived, "Winter Light" is not heavy on theology, but is a deeply humanistic film that explores, among other things, whether it is possible to "save" someone who has given up not only on God and Man, but even on himself.

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Lore

Shattered minds in a shattered country

(Edit) 02/10/2019

A film largely overlooked by critics as well as cinema-goers. When we think of World War II aftermath and survival films we tend to think of big cities (Grave of the Fireflies, Germany Year Zero), but this is all about rural Germany. Notable in that it's not only about the struggle for survival in a war-ravaged country, but about the profound psychological damage done to children living under a totalitarian regime. Children and adults alike have been deeply affected by 12 years of brainwashing . . . but haven't completely lost their humanity. An exceptionally sensitive portrait of a war-ravaged country that makes excellent use of the rural locations.

1 out of 1 members found this review helpful.

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At Eternity's Gate

At Eternity's Gate

(Edit) 01/10/2019

I saw this at a one-off screening in an arts centre . . . and nearly half the audience walked out before the end.

I don't know what it was in particular that offended the early quitters, but I heard someone later complaining about excessive camera movement. Which is a fair comment - there were times where the camera buzzed around like a midge even though there wasn't a lot of action taking place, such as the first outdoor painting scene.

My own reaction is harder to describe. I liked the visuals and the imaginative sound design, and that it gives us some insight into Van Gogh's motives, his underlying philosophy and how it related to other contemporary trends in the art world, through his friendship with Paul Gaugin. But I came away with a sense of discontent, a feeling that the whole was less than the sum of its parts, that I find it difficult to pin down without seeming nit-picking. To some degree, perhaps, it's because it focuses mainly on aspects of Vincent's life that are already well-known - his single-minded devotion to his art, his inadequate social skills, the dire poverty he had to endure, and being snubbed by the critical establishment and art buyers alike. And, of course, his psychosis, which to give credit where it's due, the film does not exaggerate or sensationalise. But what I found really perplexing - and this is what downgrades it from 4 stars to 3 - was the casting choice. I cannot fault Willem Dafoe's performance, but Vincent van Gogh was only 37 when he died, and having him played by the 60-something Dafoe (who isn't even a young-looking 60-something) required a suspension of disbelief. This is especially so in the close-ups, where he often looks nearly 70, and when you see him together with his brother Theo, played by the obviously much younger Rupert Friend.

To sum up, a respectful and compassionate portrait of an extraordinary man, but one that, for me at least, doesn't live up to the promise of its epic-sounding title.

2 out of 3 members found this review helpful.

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A Woman Under the Influence

A tragedy of manners

(Edit) 02/09/2019

Made at a time when mental illness was more stigmatised than it is now, “Woman under the Influence” is far from being a period piece. The question of how we should treat mentally-afflicted people with compassion while preventing them from harming themselves and others – especially when so many cases resist an easy diagnosis or classification – is of ongoing relevance. People are terrified of being “sectioned” and drugged up, or having their loved ones subjected to this treatment . . . but what if the alternative is even worse?

Mabel is a married mother of three whose eccentric and uninhibited behaviour, not to mention her libertarian attitude to child-raising, have a habit of landing her in hot water. On one occasion, she treats a conservative neighbour, who has brought his own offspring round for a homework- and play-date, to a rendition of “Swan Lake” in the backyard – his bafflement turns to fury when he ventures upstairs and finds that the unsupervised children are playing dress-up and one of the girls is running around naked. Nick loves his wife the way she is and has no desire to suppress her individuality. But Mabel’s condition gets to the point where there is no alternative but to have her committed. At work Nick is tetchy and defensive about his wife's state of health and lies to the children about the reason why she's in hospital. He does his best to adjust to being a single dad while Mabel is institutionalised, but his own style of parenting turns out to be an odd mix of authority and anarchy.

The film steers clear of trite sentimentality and pop-psychology, and even more notably it avoids racial and class stereotypes and even subverts them to a degree. In Cassavetes’ world, working-class people still suffer from “middle-class” problems, such as uncertainty about how to behave in social situations. For instance, there’s the scene where Nick has prepared a big homecoming party for his wife, but belatedly realises that someone who’s recovering from a nervous breakdown will feel overwhelmed by that much company. Nick’s ethnically-mixed (but mainly Italian) colleagues are portrayed with dignity – no signs of racism or "toxic masculinity" here even though it’s the South in the 1970s – and I like the way that Nick effortlessly switches between brusque and affectionate without appearing to be two different people. Some viewers might find fault with the lack of significant female supporting characters, but I assume that Cassavetes wanted to emphasise that work was an important part of Nick’s sense of identity, being the family’s sole breadwinner, while underlining the relative isolation that Mabel experiences as a suburban housewife.

A heartbreaking yet life-affirming film that celebrates the resilience of the nuclear family and the value of love within marriage, which, while it may not necessarily conquer all, at least ensures there is a well to draw upon when the castle is under siege.

Notable also for the blend of expressive camerawork and naturalistic dialogue, which seems to be a trademark of this director, and very strong performances by the two leads, Gena Rowlands (who teamed up with director in several other films) and Peter Falk.

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November

November spawned a monster

(Edit) 11/11/2018

I had the good fortune to see this at Leeds International Film Festival and I hope it will go on wider release in 2019. Whether you choose to see this lurid tale of golems, shape-shifters, satanic pacts and bleeding crucifixes as merely an exercise in sensationalism, an anti-romance, a celebration of Estonian national resilience, or an oblique criticism of our own present-day fetishisation of wealth and technology, you certainly won't find it unmemorable.

It appears to owe little to the conventions of Hollywood or Western European genre films. Certain elements stand out which are perhaps more reminiscent of Polish, other Eastern European or even Asian cinema. The action scenes, which tend to be abrupt, with little build-up or aftermath; more emphasis on atmosphere than character development; the predominance of close-ups and half-shots for filming the principal characters; a cynical world-view; and the deployment of very dark and understated humour, to the extent that it's hard to tell whether some scenes are meant to be funny or not. The evocative high-contrast monochrome photography is evident from the stills, the score is outstanding too. Anyway, it's great to see such a tiny country (population 1.3 million) punching above its weight by making such a high-quality film.

8 out of 8 members found this review helpful.

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First Reformed

The human face of the church

(Edit) 24/09/2018

I was previously unacquainted with Paul Schrader's work, except for Taxi Driver (for which he wrote the screenplay). You can see the parallels, in that they both concern a hard-working, conscientious loner who is ill at ease both with himself and society.

I did not find Pastor Toller's descent into political radicalism in the second half of the film wholly convincing, but Ethan Hawke is wonderful in the role - his performance conveys just the right blend of spirituality and suppressed anger, and even in his character’s heavy, over-emphatic gait as he walks from one room to another you can sense his inner turmoil. Some of the best scenes are the meetings between Pastor Toller and his mentor, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), who is concerned about Toller's intense and erratic behaviour as the church's 250th anniversary celebration draws near. Both are strong-willed men who are passionately devoted to serving God and their local community, but have very different visions of how to achieve this goal.

Further dramatic interest is provided by the ambiguous relationship between Pastor Toller and Mike's widow, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) – does she see him as a spiritual guide or a potential lover?

The film is does not reach any firm conclusions about the value of Christianity in modern society, but illustrates one of the key lessons in any religion - that it’s no good trying to save others if you can’t save yourself!

5 out of 6 members found this review helpful.

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The Square

The Square - a review

(Edit) 24/08/2018

Some familiar themes from Ruben Östlund's other work are quickly recognisable here – embarrassment, guilt, male insecurity and the fact that no code of etiquette or morals can ever prepare you for the ridiculous and perverse situations that life throws at you.

There are two main threads to the story – one is Christian and his colleagues preparing for the opening of a new exhibition, whose theme is to be kindness and trust. We witness a press conference, the team planning a promotion strategy, and later, the fall-out from a disastrous viral marketing campaign. The other strand is when Christian has his phone and wallet stolen on the way to work. Using the tracking device installed on the phone he locates the thief’s multi-storey apartment building – but he doesn’t know the thief's exact address. His co-worker Michael tells him he should post a letter to every flat threatening unpleasant consequences if the items are not returned. When Christian voices doubts, Michael tells him to "stop being so Swedish" and that "now's not the time for political correctness". The plan works but their actions have unintended consequences later on.

I liked the central character, Christian - he is polite and considerate to others, takes his professional and family responsibilities seriously - but is believably flawed, prone to occasional outbursts of passive-aggressive behaviour and denial of responsibility. One of my favourite moments was when a homeless woman in a diner asks Christian to buy her a chicken panini without onions. He orders her the panini, onions and all, saying "take them out yourself!"

The film is elegantly photographed, with excellent use of light, and makes good use of the large interior spaces – notably in the “apeman” performance art scene in the banqueting hall which you have seen in the trailer. Some may find it slow-moving; it’s not that any of the scenes feel redundant, but they often seem to progress rather slowly, with static long takes and rambling conversations, so that at times it almost has a mock-documentary feel to it.

Watching it at the cinema I found the slowness and the lack of a clear-cut ending a bit frustrating, but it grew on me afterwards. It makes you think about the value of modern art whilst gently poking fun at the wackier side of it, and asks us if it is possible to be a good person in an increasingly fragmented and chaotic world. Yes, it's very much a film about middle-class problems, but I can't imagine a better film about middle-class problems being made this year.

2 out of 3 members found this review helpful.

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Bamboozled

Bamboozled

(Edit) 27/04/2018

Back in 2012, Sight and Sound magazine published a chart of the 100 greatest films, as selected by critics, which led to a debate about how we decide which films pass the threshold of “greatness”. Is it the most influential films? The ones that best capture the spirit of the age? The ones with the most consistent artistic vision?

But how then do we judge films that are bold but messy, visionary but rough around the edges? The ones that you’ll still be thinking about days after, even though they are not technically brilliant and contain elements that don’t quite work?

“Bamboozled” is such a film. Never drily intellectual, it nevertheless requires engagement rather than mere passive reception from its audience. Possibly the most outrageous comedy about race since “Blazing Saddles”, it is also a powerful satire on political correctness, cultural appropriation, the entertainment industry, and more.

Some background. From the 1830's up until about 1910, minstrel shows were one of the most popular forms of mass entertainment in the USA. Comprising monologues, comedy routines, songs, dances and sketches by performers in blackface make-up, they presented an exoticised and caricatured version of black culture. Post-Emancipation, troupes of genuinely black performers began to take to the stage, but still blacking up and offering self-caricaturing routines, because that’s what audiences had come to expect. Undeniably demeaning, if not always intentionally racist, minstrel shows arguably helped to create a culture in which even legitimate black entertainers, well into the 20th Century, felt compelled to adopt a buffoonish stage or screen persona for the sake of commercial success.

Once his boss, Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) has given him the go-ahead for his new show, Delacroix throws all his energy into developing it. He recruits a team of white writers to create skits for the performers – even encouraging them “channel their white rage”. The show quickly becomes a huge cult hit, with even the (racially mixed) studio audience turning out in blackface. But Delacroix and his two star performers gradually develop a crisis of conscience, and he faces growing opposition from his PA Sloane Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and more ominously from a militant underground rap collective, the Mau-Maus.

We also learn that Delacroix has self-esteem and identity issues of his own. His father, it turns out, is a stand-up comic whose earthy routines draw upon his own experience of being black. Pierre has rejected his own background to the extent of changing his name (really Peerless Dothan) and even modifying his speaking voice so that he sounds white.

Yes, "Bamboozled" has its flaws – there are cultural references that virtually nobody under sixty years old will get, and it fluffs the opportunity to lampoon hip-hop culture. To its credit, however, it does not attempt to prettify the historical racism of the entertainment industry. I learned from the featurette that some of the scenes were shot with a subtle blue filter so the burnt cork make-up would look like cast iron. It's as if the performers are not only disfigured by their make-up, but imprisoned by it. It implicitly criticises many aspects of modern culture without letting anyone off the hook – including faux-antiracists like Dunwitty – and raises many questions about the representation of minorities. Who gets to decide how other races should be represented on screen? Who gets to decide what’s offensive? And can just about anything be made acceptable if you dress it up as “irony”?

In this age of "micro-aggressions", "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings", in which there are ever more restrictions on what can be said in public without inviting censure, it is more relevant and vital than ever.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

A great idea but poorly developed

(Edit) 18/03/2018

This is unmistakably an outsider’s view of the southern Mid-West and one that verges on parody - not a very affectionate one at that. Apart from the strong accents and some twangy banjo music near the start, very little attempt is made to create an authentic sense of place. We get no establishing shots of the town’s main street or residential neighbourhoods, and very little sense of what everyday life is like, how people make a living and spend their leisure time.

The film often prioritises stylised violence set-pieces at the expense of thoughtful character development and human interaction. Some of the plot developments are either downright silly or have insufficient build-up to make them plausible (such as when a character gets thrown out of a window in broad daylight and the perpetrator doesn’t getting charged - only suspended!). Development of the supporting characters is minimal. For instance, Peter Dinklage is a very good actor but he is given very little to do. James, the character he plays, is sad and pathetic and his entire contribution to the story, such as it is, is defined by his dwarfism. We get a trio of memorable characters – the stoical and obstinate Mildred, the rough diamond Chief Willoughby, and the ball of impotent rage that is Jason Dixon. But even here some aspects of the character development feel perfunctory. It struck me as odd that Mildred appears to have no outside interests or female friends her own age, and I'm not altogether clear about how she earns a living - she works in some kind of touristy gift ship but it's unclear whether she owns the business or is just employed there. I didn't find it very funny either - the humour is crude and unimaginative and I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I laughed, although I was in a minority.

The attempts to bring political themes into the film are clumsy at best, manipulative at worst. For example, early on it seems to be trying to make a point about police racism. We learn that Officer Dixon has recently been accused of unjustified violence towards a black suspect but was never disciplined for it. But we never get to learn what really happened, we see no evidence of Dixon being racist in everyday life, and all the main characters in the story are white. So why even bring up the subject in the first place? We also learn that Mildred is a survivor of domestic violence, but again this hardly seems necessary to explain her motivations, and I felt it was bit cynical to create a strong, assertive female character only to make her the victim of male violence twice over. Yes, police misconduct, racism and spousal abuse are serious issues, but when a film has nothing meaningful or original to say about them, and is apparently only using them to give itself a liberal sheen, this leaves a rather bad taste in the mouth.

I'm torn between giving this 2 and 3 stars. It's well-paced and well directed. The characters played by Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell are compelling if a little hard to relate to, and it explores the psychological themes of projected guilt and externalised self-loathing leading to violence (although not, it goes without saying, with the same degree of subtlety as that shown in "Manchester by the Sea"). And I liked the ambivalent ending - you feel the characters have learned something from their experiences . . . but have they learned to be better people, or just to make different mistakes in place of their old ones? But in the last analysis, Martin McDonagh's attempt to meld compassion, vulgarity, and Tarantino-lite violence into a coherent and satisfying whole does not really work, at least not for me. A great idea for a movie, but it could have been so much better if he had: 1) employed a script consultant; 2) spent a few months living in a small-town America to gain some empathy with its people.

9 out of 18 members found this review helpful.
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