Thursday, 18 January 2018

REVIEW - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

REVIEWS NO-ONE ASKED FOR
by Ashton Brown

Image result for three billboards


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri written & directed by Martin McDonagh

A Masterpiece.

I am a fan of Martin McDonagh. In Bruges is one of my favourite scripts of all time with exceptional performances from both Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. Seven Psychopaths was also an exceptional piece of cinema. So I was extremely excited to see his latest (and third feature) film. I was by no means disappointed. McDonagh has certainly established himself as one of the greatest writer/directors of character focused pieces.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is based on the true story of a mother whose daughter is tragically raped and murdered. Months later  the police have gone quiet on the case so she takes things in to her own hands to encourage them to prioritise the case by keeping it in the public eye. Mildred (played by the endlessly captivating Frances McDormand) hires three public billboards on a stretch of road in the quiet town reminding the town (and the police) that the crime remains unsolved and that they should be doing more. McDormand is arguably the best I have seen her since Fargo. She portrays Mildred with an understandable level of grief and intensity but never overplays it so we loose track of the anger or the sense of injustice which seems to be the real driving force behind the drama.

The script, as with all of McDonaghs work is as hilarious as it is darkly tragic. He uses extraordinary events to study very real human emotions and interactions. On the surface Three Billboards is a tragic comedy of the blackest kind but at it's heart it is a character study of the human conscious, the resilience and stubbornness of the human will and the tragedy and desperation that comes with loss. It brings into focus the idea that just because we blame someone for something - doesn't necessarily mean they are the villain. We never see anything from one point of view but rather the magnitude of the crime as the horrifying entity it is rather than just the grief of one person. The film doesn't focus on the crime itself but the normal lives affected after such a crime - from the loved ones, to the town, to the law enforcement. We soon realise that everyone is a victim when such atrocities are committed. At no point does the script become preachy or bogged down in over emotional vitriol - it remains blunt, honest and downright confronting throughout.

All the performances are absolutely stunning. Woody Harrelson is perfect as police Chief Willoughby bringing a likability but also a harshness to the role so not only do we empathise with him but we also never lose the sense of understandable frustration that our lady protagonist has towards. This is what the film does so well. We never view a character through a black and white lense - these characters are coloured with a kaleidoscope of characteristics making us question right and wrong, good and bad, hero vs villain.  Sam Rockwell continues to be one of the most diverse actors of our generation as the extremely flawed Deputy Dixon. From start to finish his characters journey is grounded, believable, infuriating and heartbreaking.

Three Billboards is nothing short of a masterpiece. It contains an exceptionally well cast and directed ensemble of extremely talented actors, beautiful cinematography which all work in perfect harmony under the well paced direction to bring alive this hilarious, tense and brilliant script. This is of course all accompanied by the perfect soundtrack making this one of my picks for the best films for 2018 - if not the decade.


5 out of 5  

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Monday, 18 December 2017

THE LAST JEDI

REVIEWS NO-ONE ASKED FOR
by Ashton Brown

Image result for the last jedi


THE LAST JEDI

written & directed by RIAN JOHNSON

SPOILER FREE REVIEW.

Angry fans. Delighted critics. Online arguments. Opinions presented as facts. Ah the internet. Home of the movie goers free expression. Verbal fights to the death. The Last Jedi, the latest installment in the Star Wars Universe, seems to be the most contentious film in the series to date. Having received huge critical praise but also backlash from the loudest fans has left it as one of the most dividing films in the series.

Cinematically the film is an absolute delight. Combining all the aesthetics we love from the original trilogy, combining the humour with  the space opera and the drama, the characters, new and old, driving forward a story that seems huge in scope but is, at it's core, as simple as it has always been. Goodies vs Baddies. Dark vs Light. All the elements of strong storytelling are here. The heroes journey is ever present. The thing that stood out to me after my first viewing was how there was always so much going on. Despite being the longest film in the Saga to date - the film never  gets bogged down or lacks in pacing - I was never not invested. I did leave the first viewing feeling slightly overwhelmed at everything that was thrown at me. So many questions had been made and left unanswered. In fact it was hard for me to tell how much I enjoyed after the first viewing.

Second time around I was able to focus more - less like an overwhelmed Star Wars fan and more with a critical eye. Let me make myself absolutely clear. In no way is The Last Jedi a perfect film. It is flawed with frustrating gimmicks, Disney moments, cheese and more cheese and even a scene that the film could have done without. But I think it's also important that we remember that these have ALWAYS been part of Star Wars. The one liners, the silly characters, the odd moments that seem to be just for the kids (and inevitably the merchandise). This is continuing in the tradition that Lucas himself set up when he made A New Hope. They haven't changed the formula. Which is why I find it so bizarre how people are so cross at this film. It is the closest a film has come to capturing the feel of the original trilogy we have had since the original trilogy itself. It manages to drive the franchise forward for a new era whilst 100% honouring where it came from. Nostalgia is in full force but so is a focus on the future of the franchise and not just where it's come from.

The story is fun. It delves into the force and approaches it with fresh eyes. Johnson is a prolific storyteller. He raises questions, hints at answers but he also doesn't spell everything out to us. Even questions we had going into the film weren't necessarily answered which leaves a desire in us for more. More Star Wars. More answers. The point of the story teller is to entertain, to enthrall, to create a universe we are invested in, characters we care about. Lucas set this up brilliantly and this new trilogy is following in it's footsteps. Add to this some exceptional set pieces, some brilliant battles and classic Star Wars characterisation and you have what I believe to be an extremely fitting addition to the universe. Even moments when you think you have figured out exactly what is going to happen - the film twists in a new direction redefining what could be cliche moments as something unexpected.

So why the backlash from fans? I can't speak on behalf of all of them but I would like to suggest a couple of things - it is not ALL fans who dislike the film - just the loudest ones. It's low fan score on Rotten Tomatoes is because those who didn't get precisely what they wanted are the only ones who care enough to down vote it's online score. With a 93% critic score it has an overwhelming amount of support from those who's job it is to scrutinise the film . Don't believe the naysayers. But let go of what you want the film to answer. Just because you don't necessarily get the answers you want or the exact story-line you preconceived in your head doesn't mean you should view the film with such hostility that you convince yourself not to enjoy it. It's not a documentary people. It's a ridiculous space film. And it's bloody great.


4 out of 5  

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Sunday, 30 July 2017

DUNKIRK

REVIEWS NO-ONE ASKED FOR
by Ashton Brown


Image result for dunkirk

DUNKIRK

written & directed by CHRISTOPHER NOLAN


AT WAR WITH ONESELF 

Christopher Nolan has, over the past decade or so, solidified his role as one of our generations greatest mainstream directors combining superb camera work, spectacular set pieces, unique stories and the ability to extract the best performance from his actors.

I have never been a fan of war films. I find they ooze of patriotism, paint one sided stories of history and are usually used to justify war in reality. I find them overly long, overly sympathetic to the "heroes" and overly similar. It is a genre of films I have little interest in. However I am a massive Nolan fanboy and I know that the sheer visual scale of his films is best enjoyed at the cinema rather than at home so I quickly got myself along to the cinema to see Dunkirk.

Thematically, Dunkirk doesn't offer anything that hasn't been offered in every other war film. The triumph and resilience of the human spirit. The damage war does to soldiers and civilians alike. The magnitude of the loss. The desensitising nature of violence and death. No new ideas or themes are presented in Dunkirk. The narrative isn't overly complex or insightful although the exposition of the narrative is, in true Nolan fashion, unique and refreshing and continues to show us how much the director enjoys playing with non-linear storytelling. The film soars visually as Nolan manages to create both a sense of claustrophobia and a sense of terrifying hugeness to the whole thing through his genius camera work. It is very much a visual triumph.

I would like to say at this point that I don't think Dunkirk is a masterpiece nor do I think it is the directors best work. Aspects of the film are breathtakingly sensational and are a hint at what could have been a masterpiece if all aspects of the film were equally strong. However as far as the story itself goes - there is little. The characters are grim and devoid of any real individuality and whilst this may serve to demonstrate the reality of war and the way human life very quickly becomes nothing more than statistics, it made it hard for me to connect with anyone in the film and ultimately this separation stopped me from feeling anything overly emotional in regards to what I was witnessing. So whilst I was able to marvel at the sheer beauty of what I was looking at - the lack of emotional connection between the characters and the audience left me feeling more disengaged than I would have liked to.

As far as pacing goes - my heart did race for the majority of the film. I did feel on edge and it was filled with adrenaline inducing tension. This is all because the true genius of Dunkirk is in it's soundtrack. Since dialogue is extremely sparse - Nolan relies on Hans Zimmer to drive the story musically. Zimmer is the true genius behind Dunkirk and if any aspect of the film earns the term 'masterpiece' it is certainly the composition of the soundtrack. From the second the film starts Zimmer's (arguably best work) takes the audience on a journey of nerves. The pace is entirely controlled by the soundtrack and for me, this is what makes Dunkirk stand out from just being one of many competent films in the genre.

Overall, Dunkirk is very good. Visually, it is exceptional and musically it is a masterpiece. However the lack of character and plainness of the narrative (structure aside) leaves the film on the edge of being something much, much better and whilst this may serve the overall message, it left this movie goer feeling three quarters full and not completely satisfied.

Must see at the cinema.

4 out of 5  

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Sunday, 7 May 2017

13 Reasons Why - My Thoughts

13 Reasons Why - My Thoughts

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“Sir have you seen 13 Reasons Why?”
“No, I haven’t even heard of it. Is it good?”
“Yes. Really, really good. You must watch it so we can talk about it.”
This is the conversation I had with one of my students which first made me aware of the show 13 Reasons Why – a Netflix Original which has been the source of much controversy, especially in the education sector. As it happened I was on the look for a new show to binge watch and since it offered an opportunity to discuss some important themes with a passionate student of mine I sat down and watched it with my wife over the course of about a week.
During the week I had avoided most online correspondence regarding the show as I didn’t want to ruin the experience but I knew a few things (which aren’t really spoilers).
The TV show was going to depict a rape scene and a suicide scene. My opinions when it comes to art and its limitations have always been that art has no limitations – it’s job is to show what the creators think it should show. Censorship is a bad thing and shouldn’t have a place in the artistic world. However as anyone who has read my thoughts on the Jim Jeffries gig I walked out of will know – that just because you have a right to say and show what you want as an artist, I don’t believe this means you don’t have a social responsibility to be aware of, consider and understand the implications of the decisions you make as an artist. For example, if you are the aforementioned comedian and decide to make rape jokes for the sake of making rape jokes you shouldn’t be above the scrutiny and public reaction to your jokes. After all I think it’s hugely important that we remember that freedom of speech works both ways. Just because you are an artist doesn’t mean that you are above social responsibility.
So it was with this (not necessarily agreed with) mind-set that I settled down to watch this show. I was hooked pretty quickly. An interesting premise, excellent young actors, exceptional older actors and a topic that is considered so taboo that people are quite frankly terrified of it being the subject in which any artistic medium brings to light.
Since this isn’t a review I don’t want to spend time discussing the show itself in terms of quality but more discuss the critism in which it received. Needless to say I overall enjoyed the show and found it engrossing throughout.
The main controversy that 13 Reasons Why has received is the fact that it shows, in reasonably graphic detail, both rape and suicide. This is done very bluntly and visually and has caused the show to be deemed as irresponsible and some people have even gone as far to suggest it glorifies suicide. I had seen facebook posts that colleagues of mine had shared demonising the shows portrayal of suicide and many articles simply saying “don’t let anyone watch this show.”
To make something super clear – as a teenager and someone in my early 20s was someone who suffered from severe depression, was victim to self-harm and had personally dealt with the thought processes and actions around suicide. So I’ll admit I had a vested interest in the show but also an understanding of it’s content. I also work a high school so my opinion on working with young people is rooted in reality.
There are very few moments when I have watched a show (especially because I am a massive fan of horror) where I have looked away from the screen. When Hannah cuts her wrists I looked away. I felt physically ill. I broke down when her parents entered and found her body. I hurt for days afterwards. All I wanted to do was talk about it. I wanted to go back in time and stop Hannah from killing herself. I wanted to go back to high school and be nicer to people. I hurt. Big time. Not once did I feel that Hannah was justified in her abhorrent decision. Not once did I think “that’ll show the bullies.” Not once did I feel anything other than utter horror and desperation at what I had just seen before me. It left a lasting affect – a need for conversation.
As I said a lot of the criticism the show has received is that it glamorises suicide. As it shows Hannah getting her revenge on those who wrong her and blames them for her suicide. I understand this criticism and see how that can be perceived but it is not what I took away from the show. The most dangerous thing about 13 Reasons Why is the fact that schools are not only banning students from watching it but they are banning students from talking about it on the school campus. Now THIS is dangerous. Firstly, when you ban students from watching something – all you are doing is making it more likely that they watch it. Secondly, by banning conversation around the controversial you are ensuring that the stigma around said controversy just becomes an even bigger thing, even more of a problem.
We are so quick to ban things that make us uncomfortable. We are so quick to be scared of things that expose us to the frightening realities of issues like depression, self harm and bullying. Why do we protect ourselves from talking about things that we are surrounded by on a day to day basis? Our fear around talking about depression, suicide and mental health is the reason that shows like 13 Reasons Why are important. You don’t have to agree with it. You don’t have to like it. You certainly don’t have to approve of the way the story is told or whether or not you approve of the graphic nature of the show. But we as society need to reflect on why we are so scared to talk about the themes and issues that 13 Reasons Why dealt with. Which is why, for me, 13 Reasons Why is a success.
So instead of telling your kids, or students of friends of for watching the show, why not have a chat to them about what they thought about the show? How it made them feel? You never know – it might be a conversation they really need to have.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments. Don't forget to subscribe. 


Thursday, 2 March 2017

RISING STARS (to see) 2017 NZ COMEDY FEST

REVIEWS NO-ONE ASKED FOR
by Ashton Brown

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2017 NEW ZEALAND INTERNATIONAL COMEDY FESTIVAL

Check out these fresh comics smashing one hour shows this year...

I'd be stupid if I didn't use my blog to sell my own show. So here is a link for my show. That's all I'm going to say about it. Please come. 

https://www.comedyfestival.co.nz/find-a-show/anxious-to-meet-you/


LOUISE BEUVINK - Ladylike: A Modern Guide To Etiquette 

Louise has seen herself rise through the NZ Comedy ranks at a rapid pace over the last few years. Having developed an honest style, strong social commentary and superb stage craft, Louise continues to prove herself as one of NZs most relevant, sarcastic and impressive comics. Her first solo show performed in 2016 and was an enjoyable step into longer form comedy and this year her new show Ladylike: A Modern Guide to Etiquette promises to be as hilarious as it is sarcastic and original. 

OFFICIAL LINK 
https://www.comedyfestival.co.nz/find-a-show/ladylike-a-modern-guide-to-etiquette/

BRENDAN KELLY - Caveman

Brendan is an extremely dry comic with exceptionally well written gags. His storytelling ability - whilst completely inane and at times fantastical, is so engrossing, well written and performed, that it is impossible not to be drawn into his hilarious world. Having only been performing stand up for just over 3 years, he has wasted no time in cementing his position as a professional comic. 

OFFICIAL LINK
https://www.comedyfestival.co.nz/find-a-show/caveman/

LUKE CALLAGHAN - Born In The US - Eh?

Luke is an American - but don't hold that against him - he's fucking hilarious. Having performed with Luke many a time in my early days as a comic, I can personally vouch for the level of his hilariousness. He's dry - but not so dry that you crave a glass of water. His perceptions and interpretations of Kiwi life through the eyes of an America are both interesting and hilarious and he is certainly someone you don't want to miss this year. 

OFFICIAL LINK
https://www.comedyfestival.co.nz/find-a-show/born-in-the-us-eh/

TIM MULLER - Laugh Now, Google Later

This man is dry. This man is intelligent. This man is hilarious. Tim combines intelligent wordplay with deadpan dry humour to provide you with reasons to laugh that you might not even understand until you think about it properly later, or as the title suggests, when you google it. If you want something a bit different that still results in you pissing yourself with laughter, then Muller is the way to go. 

OFFICIAL LINK
https://www.comedyfestival.co.nz/find-a-show/laugh-now-google-later/


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Monday, 20 February 2017

LA LA LAND

REVIEWS NO-ONE ASKED FOR
by Ashton Brown

Image result for la la land


LA LA LAND

written & directed by Damien Chazelle


SUPRISED

I probably never would have watched La La Land had I not wanted to review it for my blog. There are so many films to watch and only so much time in a week that a musical is usually last on my film watching agenda. However when more and more people started asking me "have you seen La La Land" I became intrigued. This intrigue was turned to straight up interest when people had such strong reactions to the film. Either people loved it or they hated it. There was no middle ground. A friend of mine even went as far as saying "it's one of the worst films I have ever sat through." Then when it cleaned out the Oscar nominations I decided I just had to see it to see what the hell everyone was so bloody polarised about.

I sat down with my wife and it began. After the first song I said something along the lines of "if the whole movie is like this can we stop watching it?" I had pretty much already decided it wasn't my cup of tea and that I was going to be on the side of viewers who didn't understand the hype. Which is, to be honest, how I felt about it before we had even seen the first song. But then I was suprised.

I enjoyed the second song. Then the third. The fourth. All of them. Whilst the singing and dancing of the two leads (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) wasn't always the most life changingly amazing  dancing and singing - there was something about that that for me added to the appeal and their performances and chemistry between the songs was exceptional. I couldn't believe it was happening. I was enjoying La La Land. In fact - I was loving it.

Whilst parts of it seemed to pay a homage to films of the past, it also beautifully intertwined the elements of a musical into the modern day for new audiences. The direction took inspiration from generations of cinema to provide a fluid, beautiful and at times eccentric journey through the struggles of a creative with dreams of fame.

Whilst the story was nothing overly original I thought the elements that were used to tell the story provided a unique and fresh take on an old story. It didn't end with a suggestion that we can always have everything we want if we "set our minds to it" - I didn't find the film patronising - which is often the case with films about success in the arts.

Overall I was left pretty satisfied by the film. The choice to cast actors rather than strictly singers/dancers in the lead roles played into the films success more than not as the strength of the performances and the emotion that was portrayed, for me, outdid any need for insanely ridiculous choreography. It made the performers more real and believable. I was actually invested in them both, their relationship and their journey. I wanted to see how things worked out for them.

At the end of it all the thing I am the most confused about is why the film was so dividing. Sure it's not everyone's cup of tea - hell I'm surpised it was mine -  but I was expecting something that was so clearly divisive of different audiences either through it's direction or it's storytelling which I really didn't see. Why did everyone have such polarising opinions about it?

More discussion is necessary I'm sure.

Well worth the watch.

4 out of 5  

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Saturday, 21 January 2017

DON'T THINK TWICE

REVIEWS NO-ONE ASKED FOR
by Ashton Brown


Image result for don't think twice

DON'T THINK TWICE

written & directed by Mike Birbiglia 


HILARIOUS. TOUCHING. REAL.

"Let's watch a brainless comedy" I said to my wife on a lazy, rainy Saturday night on the couch. So I scrolled through some online trailers and thought that Don't Think Twice certainly looked enjoyable and brainless enough. I was only half right. What unfolded was some of the most grounded, believable and hilariously touching comedy that I have seen in quite a while.

The story follows a group of improv artists who perform a late night show to reasonable size audience on a weekly basis. They all have aspirations to make it BIG by being scouted to perform or write for 'This Weekend Live' (AKA Saturday Night Live). The story follows these performers as they deal with the reality of some of them being granted with the opportunity to move up in their careers while the rest of them just watch from the sidelines - no less deserving of the success and thus unable to escape the bitterness and jealousy that naturally arises even when they are happy for the success of others.

The thing that makes this film soar so well is the brilliance of the cast. Mike Birbiglia has assembled an extremely talented group of performers (himself included) who carry the comedy and the reality and the drama with completely honesty. Special mention to Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key as the members of the group who are also dealing with dating one another on top of all the other situations that struggling to be an artist in your 30s brings about.

Perhaps as a comedian and performer myself I found the story particularly poignant. It never glamorises the fame or the success nor does it suggest that one path is necessarily better than the others. What it does do is show a very honest look into the struggles of artists in a world where there are very few places for many, many talents. It portrays the difficulties of watching those around you gain the success that you too deserve but also the difficulties on being the ones who have the success when you are no more deserving than your peers.

Also it's hilarious. But it isn't brainless. It's beautiful.

4 out of 5  

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