The Courier

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Lionsgate;
Drama;
Box Office $6.6 million;
$29.95 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout.
Stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Maria Mironova, Kirill Pirogov, Zeljko Ivanek.

The engrossing Cold War docudrama The Courier examines a lesser-known chapter of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The film takes place in the early 1960s, when a high ranking Soviet army officer named Col. Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) becomes wary of his country’s military boasting and makes overtures to help the West.

The American CIA and Britain’s MI6 soon organize an effort to utilize him as a mole, but don’t have any operatives who could credibly infiltrate Moscow to make contact with him.

So, they recruit an industrial salesman named Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has already made business inroads selling supplies to communist countries, to proffer a similar business arrangement in the U.S.S.R. as a front for obtaining state secrets from Penkovsky. As an amateur to the clandestine services, Wynne fears for his safety at first, but comes to embrace his role ferrying packages from Penkovsky to the Western intelligence agencies. Some of the documents tip off American spy planes about where to look for missile bases on Cuba, leading to the confrontation that ultimately would lead the Soviets to back down and set up improved channels of communications to stave off the threat of nuclear war between the superpowers.

Eventually, Wynne and Penkovsky develop a mutual respect and friendship that is tested when the KGB begins to suspect their treachery. Realizing the heat now on Wynne, his MI6 overseer pulls him off the case and sends him back to his life, much to the chagrin of the CIA liaison (Rachel Brosnahan). However, Wynne volunteers for one last mission with hopes to help Penkovsky defect to the West and live out his dream of setting up his family on a ranch in Montana.

Cumberbatch blends naturally into the role of the earnest yet wary businessman thrust into an impossible situation. Why based on actual events, the film works more as an absorbing spy thriller than a history lesson, since a number of key details were fictionalized for dramatic effect. For instance, Brosnahan’s CIA officer character is completely made up, constructed to inject a woman into the mix, according to the screenwriter.

This revelation and many more details about the production are included with the lone extra on the Blu-ray, a comprehensive 29-minute making-of featurette.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Fox;
Drama;
Box Office $53.35 million;
$29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references.
Stars Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Zeljko Ivanek, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Amanda Warren, Clarke Peters.

Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards offers an intense, character-driven examination of the relationship between small-town police and the residents they serve.

Frances McDormand gives a powerhouse performance as Mildred, whose bitterness over the stalled investigation into her daughter’s murder motivates her to rent space on the billboards of the title excoriating the cops for their lack of progress.

This naturally raises tensions in the town, as supporters of the police demand she take the signs down while putting pressure on her friends and family to force her hand.

The police chief (Woody Harrelson), has his own issues to deal with, not the least of which is an alcoholic deputy named Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who is accused of torturing a black suspect in custody during an incident that allegedly happened before the start of the film’s story.

Three Billboards takes a multi-faceted view of cops’ racial attitudes in small-town America, and presents them as people and not as the caricatures some knee-jerk critics of the film would insist upon. Certainly the department must confront its troubled history of race relations, but the situation with Mildred might suggest they’re not great cops in general, or at the very least in over their head on some things.

Dixon, for example, has bigger dreams but little self-awareness, and his racism goes hand in hand with a general attitude of superiority about everyone, no doubt fueled by the toxic influences of his mother. His violent streak even extends to the white kid who sold the signs to Mildred and becomes the subject of a brutal beating in one of the film’s signature sequences — a single take of Dixon walking from the police station across the street to the advertising shop, up the stairs and back to admire the chaos of his handiwork.

Mildred and Dixon represent the opposing forces in the firestorm at the heart of the film, so it comes as little surprise that McDormand and Rockwell were among the most recognized performers of awards season.

The Blu-ray includes five deleted scenes running about seven minutes total that aren’t vital to the storylines but do offer some interesting additional character insights.

Also included is a comprehensive half-hour behind-the-scenes documentary in which McDonagh relates how seeing similar billboards on a tour of the American South inspired him to make the film. The featurette also includes a lengthy look at the making-of the single-take fight scene at the center of the film.

Finally, the disc offers McDonagh’s unrelated half-hour 2004 short film Six Shooter, which won the Oscar for Best Live-Action Short. The short stars Brendan Gleeson as a man on a train confronted with mortality and the foibles of the human condition.