Woody Harrelson

The Highwaymen

11/04/19

In 1967, director Arthur Penn created the unforgettable Bonnie and Clyde. Featuring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in career-defining roles, it treated the young outlaws as folk heroes and their bloody slow-mo deaths in a hail of bullets transformed them into martyrs. It was emotive stuff and few people emerged from a screening dry-eyed.

John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen takes an altogether more sober look at their three year reign of terror and concentrates on the two elderly men who ultimately brought them to justice. Indeed, here, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are demoted to the periphery of the action, glimpsed only in longshot until the very end – an approach that somehow serves to accentuate their charisma.

Kevin Costner stars as former Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, brought out of comfortable retirement in order to hunt down the seemingly unstoppable duo. He teams up with old comrade, Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), and the two ageing men embark on the long quest to find their elusive quarry. Their uncomfortable, odd couple relationship lies at the heart of this film, which is beautifully shot by John Schwartzman, the endless vistas of the American plains shimmering enticingly. This is, in many ways, an elegy for the old West, a world where new fangled automobiles struggle to deal with the kind of landscape where only horses previously ran.

Writer John Fusco is interested in the popularity of Bonnie and Clyde, the way they generated a huge fan following in a time of absolute poverty. They were widely seen as Robin Hood figures, outlaws who only ever stole from the rich. The scenes of mass hysteria when the couple’s bullet-riddled corpses are brought before the public are sobering indeed.

It’s interesting to read that the relatives of the real Frank Hamer successfully sued Warner Brothers for defamation of character over his depiction in the Arthur Penn classic. Costner sets the record straight here, playing him as a pragmatist, a man who takes no pleasure in killing them, but sees their deaths as a necessity – mad dogs to be put down in the public’s interest, even if the public don’t realise what’s good for them.

While The Highwaymen doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of high drama, it’s nevertheless an interesting and very different take on a story you may already think you know well. Interested parties will find it on Netflix.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

02/01/18

Martin McDonagh is an interesting writer/director. His plays are always stupendous and his first foray into cinema, In Bruges, is a five star solid gold masterpiece (and one, incidentally, that just won ‘best Christmas movie’ in our recent ‘World Cup of Everything’ game). The follow-up, however – Seven Psychopaths – wasn’t anything like as assured. Indeed, in a recent interview, McDonagh (with refreshing honesty in a business not usually associated with that sentiment) admits that he took his eye off the ball during the making of it. Now Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri arrives amidst much muttering about potential Oscar wins. The truth is, it’s an interesting film but, sadly, not in the same league as In Bruges. Having said that, it’s still worth your consideration.

In the remote town of Ebbing, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents three billboards on a lonely stretch of country road and has them papered with three simple slogans. It’s been seven months since her daughter, Angela, was raped and murdered and, enraged by the lack of any progress in the resulting police investigation, Mildred has decided to start pointing the finger of blame, primarily at Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). He’s understandably miffed by this approach, particularly as he’s recently had a cancer diagnosis and knows that his days are numbered. But Mildred is not about to give up on her mission, even if it is set to make her and her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), the most unpopular people in the county. Meanwhile, openly racist policeman, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is not above taking the law into his own hands…

As I said, this isn’t a perfect film but there’s plenty here to admire, not least McDormand’s searing performance in the lead role, brilliantly portraying a woman so obsessed with her daughter’s death that she’s willing to go to any lengths to obtain justice, no matter what the cost. Rockwell too, is splendid, managing to give his initially unsympathetic character some degree of redemption, and Harrelson delivers what just might be his best turn since Cheers. But there are plot strands here that don’t quite convince. Some of the minor characters are never fully developed and others seem to step in for one cracking scene and are never seen again. (I’m thinking here of the scene where Mildred exchanges some crackling dialogue with the town priest. It’s brilliant but it feels unresolved.) Likewise, Peter Dinklage’s turn as (as one character refers to him) ‘the town midget,’ a sweet-natured drunkard who carries a torch for Mildred. And is it just the presence of McDormand and that distinctive Carter Burwell score that make this feel eerily like an early Coen brothers movie?

Whether or not Oscar will come knocking for this film is debatable. Certainly if we’re talking ‘best actress,’ I for one wouldn’t be making any objections – I’ve long been of the opinion that McDormand is one of the best there is. But while this is a huge step up from Seven Psychopaths, it’s perhaps not quite the total masterpiece that many are claiming.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

War for the Planet of the Apes

14/07/17

Ape-related homages to Apocalypse Now are a bit like buses. You wait for ages and then two come along more or less at the same time. The first homage, was of course, Kong: Skull Island. The second is this, the third instalment in the Planet of the Apes reboot, a franchise that has proved to be surprisingly watchable considering the damp squib that was Tim Burton’s foray into the simian world. This new adventure is also eminently entertaining, but there’s a real problem at its heart, which few reviewers seem prepared to entertain – and that is its almost total lack of any roles for women.

We encounter just two female characters in the whole film. Young orphan, Nova (Amiah Miller), who is mute, and Lake (Sarah Canning), a chimpanzee, who is tasked with looking after Caesar’s young son, Cornelius. Because, of course, childminding is the one job that has to be done by a female. Apart from a couple of glimpses of faces in crowds, that’s it. And there are LOADS of characters in this movie. Why are they all male? This doesn’t feel like a deliberate slight on the part of director, Matt Reeves, but it’s a a major oversight, a warped and weirdly lopsided vision of society, and in this day and age, it should never have been allowed to happen – and it’s definitely knocked the overall points for this movie down a few notches.

That said, there is plenty to enjoy here. It’s three years after the events of Dawn, and Caesar (Andy Serkis) now leads his simian followers against what’s left of humanity. One soldier in particular, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson, as a Kurtz-type zealot) has set himself the task of wiping the apes off the face of the planet, blaming them for the demise of mankind. When he mounts a sneak attack on the apes’ hideout, Caesar suffers a personal loss, an event that unhinges him and sends him on the path of revenge, accompanied by three of his most trusted companions. On route to the Colonel’s headquarters, they encounter ‘Bad Ape’ (Steve Zahn), a former zoo inhabitant, whose presence here is clearly to provide some much needed comic relief. As the apes ride on horseback through increasingly snowbound terrain, the film echoes John Ford’s epic western  The Searchers  in its look and feel – and then, bizarrely, it all turns decidedly biblical, as Caesar evolves into a kind of hairy Christ figure, mocked, scourged and (just in case you missed the reference) crucified by his human oppressors.

Though the title might lead you to expect a full-on war movie, that’s really not what the film’s about;  it’s more cerebral than anything else – though there are some cracking battle scenes, including a major blitzkrieg towards the movie’s conclusion. All-in-all, it’s very watchable and, though it might not be quite as sharp as the two preceding stories, it’s nonetheless an absorbing piece of cinema and (lest we forget) a brilliant technical accomplishment. The apes are perfectly rendered in every detail – snow slicked fur is apparently the hardest thing to get right – and they are convincingly set within their locations. Serkis has been very vocal about giving motion-capture performers the kudos they deserve and War is a perfect advertisement for what this relatively young technique can achieve. It’s an epic, thought-provoking film.

But no real roles for women, human or ape? Come on, we can do better that that!

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney