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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Martin McDonagh’s third feature is touching, moving, darkly humorous and deeply tragic. This seemingly contradictory concoction is expressed through a beautifully measured and exquisitely designed portrait of small town America. Ebbing, Missouri is a town where everyone knows everyone and the major advertising agency, police station and popular bar are within walking distance of each other. Yet it is also a deeply troubled and fractured town. These fractures are foreshadowed in the opening shots, where DOP Ben Davis captures the dilapidated titular billboards, the frame sliced with the supporting struts much as the town is sliced through with mistrust and resentment. For the most part, the direction follows this unobtrusive approach, until a long take expresses the eruption of previously contained violence. This violence is key to its perpetrator, who like all the characters is superbly realised both by McDonagh’s merciless yet tender script, and an array of mighty performances from the entire cast. From incidental figures such as the pretty but oblivious Penelope (Samara Weaving) to supporting characters like James (Peter Dinklage) who cynically embraces the label of ‘town midget’, to the three leads of Mildred (Frances McDormand), Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), all the people in this tale are rounded, engaging and brilliantly flawed figures. Mistakes are made, judgements held and everyone is wracked with anger, pain and loss. Yet there is also compassion, care and love, both between characters and for the film’s world as a whole. For all its harshness and tragedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a wonderfully human story, offering emotional peaks and troughs as well as a subtle socio-political commentary as it gives voice to a largely neglected part of America.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Joss Whedon’s second Avengers movie may be the most ambitious thus far committed to film. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it succeeds in some aspects of its ambition while others are left undernourished. On the negative side, the sheer number of characters both familiar –Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), et al – and new – Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson), Ultron (James Spader) among others – results in a jumble of motivations, back stories, hallucinations, flashbacks and abilities, and few characters get time or space for development. It also lacks the strong sense of humour of The Avengers, as the bickering between our heroes is much reduced now that they are friends. It may not reach the super seriousness of DC’s superhero antics, but Age of Ultron is the most po-faced entry thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film is explicitly not self-contained, with multiple references to other parts of the MCU past, present and future, and this sometimes makes the film unfocused. Whedon has publicly spoken of his creative struggles with Marvel, which perhaps explains why the film is sometimes uneven and discordant.

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When Avengers: Age of Ultron does succeed, however, it does so with verve and aplomb, Whedon demonstrating that he has the nous to manage a behemoth of this scale. There are effective character moments such as touching interactions between Romanoff and Banner as well as the Maximoffs, and the film’s biggest surprise is domestic rather than spectacular. The range of superpowers allows for varied set pieces, especially the opening action sequence when he delivers one of his trademark long takes showcasing the various abilities of the Avengers. As the ranks swell yet more powers join the mix, but Whedon, along with DOP Ben Davis and editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek, keeps the action coherent, drawing the viewer into the mayhem where we experience both the Avengers’ exhilaration and their fear. Fear is key to this film, as it explores the dichotomy between fear and faith. Both of which fuel the intimate and the epic in this superpowered slobberknocker. The inevitable question is where can the MCU go from here, but the franchise has consistently risen to the challenge of outdoing previous spectacles, and this reviewer at least is confident that future films will continue this trend.

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