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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.

eXpanding and Continuing Part Two: X-Men: Days of Future Past

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X-Men: Days of Future Past pulls off the remarkable feat of being sequel, prequel and reboot all at once. It continues plotlines of X-Men: First Class, while also referring to the events of X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine. But it also performs a remarkable piece of internal resetting, making an alternative title X-Men: Restoration. Whereas other franchises have delivered reboots that simply play out as though earlier incarnations never happened (see Batman Begins, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel), X-Men: DOFP uses its time travel conceit to have its cake and eat it, featuring elements that, in any other narrative, would never work. In doing so, it echoes Star Trek (2009), which also created an alternative timeline to run parallel, rather than separately, from that established in earlier instalments.

Much of the pleasure of X-Men: Days of Future Past comes from its knowing engagement with the franchise’s established history. Most obviously, we see new and old versions of familiar characters, especially Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier as well as Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. The differences between the young and old versions of Xavier are highlighted in a sequence that sees McAvoy and Stewart play against each other, McAvoy a burned-out drug addict who has given up, Stewart a grizzled war veteran who, despite everything he has seen, still has hope and urges his younger self to rediscover his hope. Hope is perhaps the central conceit of all superhero movies, and is especially important given the bleak future that occupies the film’s early scenes (reminiscent of Terminator 2: Judgment Day), including a genuinely shocking battle sequence between Sentinels and mutants. In a previous post, I criticised The Wolverine for the low stakes of its drama, and that problem is easily avoided in X-Men: DOFP as Stewart’s ominous voiceover informs us that mutants cannot win this war. On an intimate level, we see familiar characters cut down mercilessly, demonstrating that everyone is at risk in this grim vision of the future.

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At times, the grim seriousness of the future sequences does not gel with the humour of the 1973 portion of the narrative, which leaves the film feeling rather flimsy overall. However, the intertextual/intra-franchise references are a lot of fun and well-judged as the film never tips too far into wink-nudge territory. Furthermore, director Bryan Singer shows the same flair for visualising superpowers on screen that made his earlier X-Men films such a delight. A much celebrated scene features Quicksilver (Evan Peters) literally moving faster than a speeding bullet as he darts around a shootout scene, while Magneto’s manipulation of metal as well as Xavier’s telepathy continue to provide visually arresting scenes, as do the abilities of Blink in the future. Overall, the film is like the X-Men themselves – a motley assemblage of disparate elements that do not always harmonise, but an assemblage that is nonetheless engaging and compelling.

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