In Bruges

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$39.95 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for strong bloody violence, pervasive language and some drug use.
Stars Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes, Clémence Poésy, Thekla Reuten, Zeljko Ivanek, Ciarán Hinds.

Twenty minutes is generally the make-or-break point. If the first reel fails to sink its claws, chances are nothing that follows will compensate for that initial bad impression. Rarely, as in the case of Robert Mulligan’s Bloodbrothers, does a film purposely start on what appears to be unintentionally slippery footing only to turn things around in reel five by artistically justifying the introductory unevenness. As quick as I am to give up hope after a reel, it is even tougher to go for a film that ultimately falls apart in the last 10 minutes. Such is the case with Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges.

After a particularly grueling assignment, hitmen Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell), receive stern warning from their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes): “Get the f*** out of London.”

Harry sentences the pair to two weeks in a Bruges hotel where they’re ordered to lay low until he calls with further instructions. Infantile Ray instantly starts climbing walls at the mere hint of transforming their room into a jail cell. Playing against his natural dimwitted impulses, Ray uses the threat of culture as inducement and convinces Ken to take an evening constitutional. During their stroll, Ray is instantly smitten by a woman he spies working on a film crew. Chloe (Clémence Poésy) has the most important job on the production: She supplies drugs to the cast and crew.

Films like Midnight Express, Babel and Manda Bala depict nightmare destinations that act as instant deterrents to tourism. It has been a long time since a film gave me the itch to visit the city in which it was filmed. With its canals, cobbled streets and miles of beautifully preserved medieval architecture, the titular locale seems like a perfect storybook destination. What better place for a couple of hoods to hole up in than the picturesque town of Bruges, the capital of West Flanders in northwest Belgium?

Ken is somewhat cultured, as assassins go, and actually enjoys taking in the scenic points of interest. Uncouth boor that he is, Ray gets his kicks by harassing obese tourists. In spite of Harry’s orders to stay in the room and await his orders, Ray refuses to break his first date with Chloe. After the first cocktail together his actions are almost justified. Chloe possesses the perfect blend of mystery, beauty and bad behavior to attract any criminal looking for a down-time diversion.

Even if Ray waited for Harry to call, the results would have been the same. His first contract, a priest in mid-confession, ends with a child accidentally getting caught in the crossfire, a fact that haunts Ray and repulses Harry who has a soft spot for children. Ken’s next assignment is to whack his partner. He trails Ray to a local park where no sooner does he draw a bead on his partner than guilt-racked Ray lifts a gun to his temple. Ken could just as easily let nature take its course, but his fondness for the kid causes Ken to put an “Amen” on both hit and suicide and in doing so, pray that Harry goes easy.

Up until now, much of the comedy flowed naturally from Ray’s ignorant, mean-spirited reaction to his idyllic surroundings. This was playwright Martin McDonagh’s debut, his distinctively cadenced ear for gutter- speak apparent from the get-go. The amount of “c” words strung together in one 30 second scene outnumber most features.

Let’s pause for a few words on the most reviled word in the English language. Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack is the first time I remember hearing a man refer to another man as a “c**t.” Compared to Ken and Ray, Jack sounds like a schoolmarm. The Brits have an affinity for the pejorative that’s unsurpassed. Found on The Tailor of Panama commentary track: director John Boorman professess undying adoration and vows to do whatever he can to keep this “lovely” expletive alive in his dialogue. During an interview with Martin’s younger brother, John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Cavalry), I ask about his fascination with the word. “You see, this is the thing,” he laughs, “In England people use it as a non-purpose word that doesn’t have the weight that it has in America. You come out of the toilet at a bar to find all your friends have left and you say, ‘Where have all those c**ts gone?’” The McDonaghs (and Scorsese and Mamet, etc.) use curse words as a writer could commas to bring a stylistic rhythm to their dialog.

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If you have yet to see the movie it’s best to stop here. The road ahead is paved with spoilers.

Signs of a faltering narrative first appear when Harry’s weakness for children is used as a justification for Ray’s termination. Just because he likes kids shouldn’t automatically render him childlike. Watching Harry self-destruct and rip apart a phone while his family looked on from the dinner table earned a hearty chuckle. But it’s a bit much when, after Ken covers for Ray by telling Harry that his mate is indisposed, the boss’s first reaction is to ask whether he is “making a pee or poo.”

The Boss should have packed lightly; when Harry hits town his excess baggage includes happenstance, convenience, and an unsatisfying climax. A pair of anti-smokers, awkwardly-placed in Act I, return to enact revenge three reels later. Given what we know of him, a pro like Harry would never be so reckless a shot. And either that bell tower had 147 stories or Harry took the 10-steps-down, five-steps-up staircase. Ray has time to jump to his death and deliver a pavement soliloquy while Harry is still running.

In spite of these few gripes, In Bruges is still worth your time if for no other reason than a chance to watch Brendan Gleeson, one of the last great character actors, strut his stuff. Fiennes and Farrell (basically reprising his role from Cassandra’s Dream) are outstanding, but nothing comes close to matching the scene in the tower where Ray, tired of all the double-crossing, simply gives up. In the company of such over-the-top performances, Gleeson wisely underplays at every turn. His maturity and depth of characterization are what engaged and kept me in In Bruges.

The 4K edition includes four featurettes, deleted and extended scenes, interviews with the cast and filmmakers, a gag reel and the film’s trailer.

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.