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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – A Movie Review


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3 BillboardsDarkly comic, incendiary and riveting, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a whiplash inducing experience. At one moment, the film has the audience laughing at something absurd and hilarious. Then, in the next, the movie turns to something sobering and disturbing. Perhaps one of the points of Three Billboards is that very feeling, that life and death come at us from such bizarre angles and at such unpredictable times, that we often do not know whether we should laugh, cry, scream or sob. If that was the goal of the film, well done, all. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards has (and I am going to try NOT to make this a motif of the review) three things going for it: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. All three are nominated for Academy Awards and the nominations are more than well deserved. Theirs are brave performances, performances that shine lights in dark places, that resonate with realism and, specifically in the cases of McDormand and Rockwell, that illustrate something ugly that lurks in us all.

They are all but impossible from which to look away.

McDormand is predictably brilliant as Mildred Harris, a mother turned inside out by the grief she feels over the rape and murder of her only daughter. Dissatisfied with the efforts of the police at solving the case, Mildred pays for the three billboards that lend themselves to the film’s title, billboards that call out law enforcement in general and the Chief of Police in particular for their lack of action. This is a role that few other than McDormand could assay. She is riveting in rage and pain and laughter. She paints a character who is unkind and unfocused, lashing out at anything that moves. She is often hard to watch but McDormand is fully in command.

Harrelson’s Chief Whilloughby is another note-for-note perfect Harrelson creation. How good has Woody Harrelson become? Of all the characters in movie, Whilloughby comes off as the most rational and reasonable but Harrelson is not satisfied to play him straight. Rather, what may have been a simplistic performance in the hands of a lesser talent becomes a brilliant one. He, too, is nominated for an Academy Award, nominated for cause. In a movie of great performances, his is the most measured and the most heartbreaking.

Let us make that three acting nominations as Sam Rockwell, too, gets a nod for his work as Dixon, an unrepentant, uneducated racist cop who is loyal to Whilloughby to a fault. A monster of emotion who seems, much like McDormand, to let his rage flow in all directions, Dixon becomes a surprising (and some feel disappointing) focal point of the movie. Rockwell somehow manages to keep the audience interested in Dixon. That is something of a feat.

Martin McDonagh’s film is up for Best Picture and he is nominated for Best Original Screenplay among others and all of those accolades are certainly deserved. There is a lot going on in Three Billboards, but left inconclusive, most of it, frankly, is unappealing. Moral quandaries of deep complexity are introduced then shattered by anger. Characters face themselves in their darkest places and often find ways to go to places even darker still. Themes overlap and intertwine and provide no easy answers or resolutions. On many levels, Three Billboards is quite hard to watch. Moral murkiness does not always equate with brilliance, however, and I wish that Three Billboards would have taken a few more stands on the themes – the many, many themes – it so well introduces. An enticing set up is not the movie’s problem. Paying it off is.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI receives THREE AND A HALF WELL, BILLBOARDS out of a possible FIVE.

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Black Panther – A Movie Review


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Black Panther

I will restrain myself from pronouncing Black Panther the best of the Marvel Studios movies. 

For now.

However, you can certainly believe the hype: Black Panther is a wonderful movie – thought provoking, beautiful, exciting, uplifting – and it deserves each accolade it is receiving. On its way to a massive and record opening, Black Panther will, like Wonder Woman last summer, likely serve as a touchstone that will change the way people think about superhero movies.

Actually, it is likely to change the way people think about movies in general. More on that later.

Black Panther does many amazing things, primary among them is passing itself off as a comic book movie. It simply is not or, rather, it is much more than that. Sure, there are the trappings of the superhero story: a young man receives special gifts and powers upon the death of this father and, after fighting through self-doubt and challengers, assumes the mantle of hero. Each-and-every box of that trope is fully checked. Black Panther (played by a very engaging and well cast Chadwick Boseman who premiered in the role in Captain America: Civil War) has a super suit, super powers and is super clear in his mission. He is also a wonderful hero. But he does not act alone.

Of the many surprises Black Panther has in store for its audience, one of the most delightful is that it is actually an ensemble movie. Perhaps even more delightful – and important – is that the ensemble is comprised almost exclusively of women. On hand and in roles which are just as prominent as Boseman’s are Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, Danai Gurira as Okoye and Leticia Wright as Shuri. Nakia is a secret agent just as competent as the Panther, Okoye is a member of the Panther’s royal guard who is clearly a superior fighter to him and Shuri is the most brilliant character on screen. I wanted to see more of these women that the movie (even at 2 hours and 14 minutes) had time to showcase. Each performance was wonderful and nuanced. Each was full of surprises. Factor in Forrest Whittaker and Angela Bassett in supporting roles as well and you have put together an amazing cast. Each of them, like the movie overall, exceeds expectation.

Michael B. Jordan is remarkable as Eric Killmonger, the protagonist in the film. He embodies Killmonger with complexity and pathos and overcomes some of the typical, villain must be connected to the hero plot devices that plague these movies. His rage is as believable as him being an equal to Black Panther and, when the final showdown comes, Boseman and Jordan are well suited for it and well matched.

The movie itself is unlike any of the others which have proceeded it. There is precious little world building or fan service here and Black Panther is the better for the absence. One part James Bond movie, one part mediation on race, one part celebration of all cultures and one part action movie, Black Panther is simply a terrific and captivating experience that will resonate far beyond the manner in which other comic book movies do. Black Panther wants to be what it is, yes: a Marvel Superhero Movie. But it wants to be – and IS – much more than that. It will have to be counted on any “best of” list of Marvel films and I wonder, way in the back of my head, if we will be talking about it when Academy Award nominations for 2018 are announced early next year. 

We should be.

It will continue to smash box office records and reasons it has struck such a note with the general public will be considered, written about and debated. And that is a good thing. The movie gives lie to the idea that a film starring a black cast, featuring black creators and discussing themes of race cannot be a hit with a broad audience.

And thank God for that.

I am looking forward to Boseman and many of the rest of the cast appearing this summer in Avengers: Infinity War and I cannot wait for Black Panther 2

BLACK PANTHER receives FIVE ARMORED RHINOS out of a possible FIVE.

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Countdown to INFINITY… Iron Man 3


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ONE A WEEK UNTIL Avengers Infinity War opens in May!

Captain America: The First Avenger | Iron Man | The Incredible Hulk| Iron Man II Thor | The Avengers | Iron Man 3 | Thor: The Dark World | Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Guardians of the Galaxy \ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 | Avengers: Age of Ultron | Ant-Man | Captain America: Civil War | Doctor Strange |            Spider-Man: Homecoming | Thor: Ragnarok | Black Panther

Week Seven: IRON MAN 3

Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 is one of my favorite Christmas movies. Did you forget it takes place over the holiday? It is also smart and fun and directly deals with fallout from Avengers. Though there are many for whom the big reveal of the identity of the Mandarin did not land, it absolutely worked overtime for me. Almost every choice made in Iron Man 3 works. It is a much superior sequel to Iron Man 2. 

It is surprisingly funny and it might be Robert Downey jr’s best performance in the role of Tony Stark which is surely saying something. The movie’s main antagonist, Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian, is a slight improvement over the typical villain. And the chemistry between Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow along with the dynamic between Downey and Don Cheadle is terrific, too.

Iron Man 3 is a very much self contained affair. There is very little world building here and the majority of the plot threads it introduces are not really revisited again. It also takes on some of the most “grown up” themes of any of the Marvel films.

And the initial segment of the closing credits – the Hart to Hart homage, the driving and super-duper theme song by Brian Tyler and the images from all 3 Iron Many movies – is too much fun.

Iron Man 3 plays like the final installment in Iron Man’s solo adventures, and so it has been.

 

Iron Man 3 premiered before I was blogging reviews, but it receives FOUR AND A HALF DORA THE EXPLORER WATCHES out of a possible FIVE.


KEY INTRODUCTIONS:

  • The Mandarin
  • Tony’s army of Iron Man suits (which are, of course, destroyed in the context of the movie)

CONNECTION(S) TO INFINITY WAR:

  • The kind of artificial intelligence that is seen in the new suits sets up a plot point of Avengers: Age of Ultron which will lead to Captain America: Civil War which will… you get the point.
  • Stay for the post credit scene which continues the development of the so-called “science bros” rapport between Tony and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner.
  • We know that Tony puts his armor back on before Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the audience is never actually told why or how.

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Get Out – A Movie Review


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GetOut0

Any movie that makes a reviewer analyze the fine differences between allegory and symbolism must have something going on, right? Any movie you cannot shake immediately after viewing, that creeps up on you, that keeps playing with your head long after the final reel has some gravitas, yes? Any movie that grabs you and holds on to you is a cut above the usual fare, true?

Get Out does all of the above and more.

Look for metaphor, for symbol, for allegory and you will find it. Or, do not. Just watch the film for what it is (at least on one level): an enjoyable, terrifying thriller that is all but prescient in plot and theme.

First time writer/director Jordan Peele hits the ball so far out of the park with Get Out that it seems unfair to him. What in the world will he do for a second act? His debut feature is entertaining, taut, watchable and timely. It has immense staying power, lingering in the recesses of the brain – perhaps “taunting” the brain is a more apt verb. Get Out knowingly, lovingly, manipulatively taunts its audience.

And that is so much fun.

This is a hard movie to pin down in terms of genre. It is billed a horror film and produced by a horror movie house, but it is not precisely horror. It plays out as a thriller, but it is not quite that. It is very funny – surprisingly funny – but it is not a comedy. Get Out defies categorization in the best way.

Simply put, it is absolutely original and we need more movies like it.

There is a reason Get Out has been nominated for major Academy Awards. It is up for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay because the movie is that good and the accolades are very well deserved.

Peele as a writer and director distinguishes himself immediately with a singular vision that he is able to realize on the screen. His choices, from casting to locations to scene work, are spot on and each supports the over-arching themes of the film. The more I consider the film, the more I realize there is very little left to chance. The package of Get Out is very impressive, each line of dialogue, each plot point, each image on which the camera lingers is placed where it is and when it is in service of the whole. And it is these individual pieces that stay with viewers. Peele has created a wonderful film.

Daniel Kaluuya is stunning and pitch perfect. The ultimate terror his Chris Washington displays by the end of the film is as convincing as the character’s initial confidence. As events being to unravel around him, Kaluuya breaks down by degrees – by degrees both subtle and shocking – and the audience goes on the hellish ride with him. He is the stand-in for the audience in the film and though he is treated like anything but an everyman by the characters in the movie, Kaluuya has an accessible persona and it is a critical persona to succeed in this role. If the audience cannot relate to his Chris, the movie does not work.

It does work, largely because of him.

The rest of the cast are no slouches, either. Allison Williams, in particular, is something else. To say more than that would be a disservice. Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford are on hand in support roles and any movie that can attract their talent in support work must be doing something right.

In a recent spate of movies determinedly not giving audience what they expect (The Last Jedi anyone?) Get Out delightfully subverts expectations. Knowledge of the plot and proceedings of the movie cannot prepare one adequately for where the film goes or for the journey on which it takes the audience. Frightening, thrilling and fun, Get Out is a movie that works on many, many levels. It works on every level Peele conceived and that, in-and-of-itself, is something to see.

Get Out deserves the recognition it is receiving. Do not let anyone tell you differently. I have not been able to shake it, and I do not want to.

GET OUT receives FOUR AND A HALF SILVER SPOONS out of a possible FIVE.

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Countdown to INFINITY… The Avengers


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ONE A WEEK UNTIL Avengers Infinity War opens in May!

Captain America: The First Avenger | Iron Man | The Incredible Hulk| Iron Man II Thor | The Avengers | Iron Man 3 | Thor: The Dark World | Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Guardians of the Galaxy \ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 | Avengers: Age of Ultron | Ant-Man | Captain America: Civil War | Doctor Strange |            Spider-Man: Homecoming | Thor: Ragnarok | Black Panther

Week Five: AVENGERS

the-avengers-mondo-poster

This is the grandaddy of them all: Avengers is the one that made the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe come together. Loud, audacious, bombastic, over-the-top and incredibly fun, Avengers made put together the Marvel heroes in a movie where the sum is better than its parts (and its parts are pretty damned good). Before the Joss Whedon blacklash of recent years, he was regarded as something of a genius, a nerds’ geek and a pop culture hero. Watching Avengers, it is easy to see why. Almost every choice he makes pays off in this undeniably entertaining superhero team up.

Avengers remains one of the best of the Marvel movies and perhaps the most enjoyable on repeat viewings. The chemistry among the characters is easy and fun. The stakes are appropriately high. The set pieces are thrilling.

The only quibble (and it is a minor one) is the final battle. It literally plays out over the final forty minutes of the film. That is a long time. And, by-the-way, as a fan of the DC movies and a critic of the critiques, I note that the wanton destruction and willful loss of life in Avengers rivals anything in Man of Steel but that is a different post. One final point: it is sad to hear Chris Connell’s vocals on Live to Rise, the rock and roll theme of the movie…

Avengers premiered before I was blogging reviews, but it receives FIVE MEWLING QUIMS out of a possible FIVE.


KEY INTRODUCTIONS:

  • Maria Hill
  • Thanos
  • The World Council
  • The Battle of New York

CONNECTION(S) TO INFINITY WAR:

  • Thanos is, obviously, the big bad of Avengers: Infinity War. His introduction in the mid-credit sequence, however, is underwhelming. Only the geekiest of geeks would know him.
  • The World Council played a significant role in Captain America: Civil War, a movie that put many of the Avengers on the wrong side of the law were they remain until Avengers: Infinity War.
  • The movie establishes heroes, villains, aliens and gods in the world and people just seem to accept it. I guess it will not seem that crazy when Thanos comes calling in Infinity War.
  • The Other, the minion of Thanos with whom Loki deals, is going to show up in Guardians of the Galaxy.
  • Tony Stark’s heroic deposit of the nuclear bomb into Chitari space has major repercussions for the character, repercussions that will, likely, influence Infinity War.

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Darkest Hour – A Movie Review


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DarkWe have known that Gary Oldman is good for some time, have we not? We have known he is an amazing actor, yes?

But did we know he is great?

Let us put that question to rest. Gary Oldman’s performance – the performance of a career – in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is the kind of work that will be referenced in film lore, likely, forever. Oldman is that good as Winston Churchill. One can apply whatever measure one wishes: he vanishes into the role, he becomes Churchill, he makes the character his own. All of this – and more – is true. Darkest Hour is worth seeing simply for Oldman’s work. He is Academy Award nominated for a reason: his work deserves that recognition and, quite frankly, he deserves to win. There is not a more magnetic, engaging performance this year.

Oldman is the overwhelming strength of the movie and overwhelming is the right term. He is so good, so much better than everyone else on screen (and they are very good, too) that, in some ways, he sucks the life out of the rest of the performances. Perhaps this was by design as Churchill the man must have done precisely the same thing but I could not shake the fact that the movie felt like a professional sports team that invested all of its money in one player to the detriment of the rest of the squad. Again, everyone is good, but Oldman is shockingly great.

The movie is told over a very compressed timeline – a series of days when Churchill is first named Prime Minister. His objective is nothing less than trying to save western civilization from the advance of the Nazis. Against almost impossible odds and embroiled in battles foreign and domestic, Churchill stakes the fate of the British Empire on his own understanding of the spirit and resolve of the English people. It is a wild gambit.

The surprises found in Darkest Hour have less to do with the outcome of World War II (spoiler alert: you are not reading this review in German), rather the tension is found in watching Oldman’s Churchill attempt to hold together an empire on the strength of his intelligence and wit. I am a fan of movies about smart people doing smart things, and Darkest Hour has that going for it for sure.

It is a great companion-piece to the likewise Best Picture nominated Dunkirk and viewing both gave me a far greater understanding of on just how thin a thread the Allies were dangling. In fact, I would advise viewing these films together. Darkest Hour is a far better character study; Dunkirk is a far better war movie.

Because the film takes place in war cabinets and the floor of the House of Commons and in various throne rooms and board rooms, it can be very dialogue heavy and while it is well written and well delivered dialogue, there is an overabundance of it, especially at the end of the second and the beginning of the third act. The movie slows under the weight of it, despite Oldman’s brilliance.

But Darkest Hour is surprisingly funny and more engaging than not. It is also a vehicle for one of the greatest recent performances committed to film.

It is more than worth your time.

DARKEST HOUR receives FOUR CHOMPED CIGARS out of a possible FIVE.

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The Shape of Water – A Movie Review


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WaterAs the closing credits came up in the darkened theater, a patron to my right said “that wasn’t very realistic.”

While I cannot disagree with this opinion, I am not sure realism was precisely what writer/director Guillermo del Toro was going for in his brilliant, lovely and lyrical The Shape of Water.

Part fable and part fairy tale, The Shape of Water tells the story of an unlikely romance between night maid Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins in an Oscar nominated performance) and the Amphibian Man (played by Doug Jones in a performance that should have been likewise recognized). When agents of the US government bring a strange, aquatic creature to the lab where Elisa works, the immediate fascination she feels with the being – and his with her – quickly passes from intrigue to friendship to more.

Hawkins’ Elisa is mute and the actress is utterly astounding and captivating. She gains the audience’s attention and compassion from the earliest scenes of the movie and she does not let go. In ways both subtle and overt, Hawkins’ manner grounds the more fantastic elements of the movie; she is the center of the movie and her acceptance of and belief in all that is happening to her and because of her makes The Shape of Water work. Hers is a performance that deserves recognition and it immediately indelible. There is no Shape of Water without Hawkins.

Both Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins rightfully received Support Actor nominations for the movie. They serve as the voices of the film with Hawkins’ Elisa a mute and the Amphibian Man not speaking in a language recognizable to human ears. There is something telling and intentional about the dialogue of the movie being carried, primarily, by a black woman and a closeted gay man. There is something important about that. Jenkins and Spencer are excellent and they are funny. Elisa’s romance is the heart and they are the soul of The Shape of Water.

Antagonist Michael Shannon is at his best here, too and, while his role is fairly black and… black in terms of nuance, Shannon is so good he manages to find and play a few subtle shades of gray. On hand as well is the typically solid and ubiquitous Michael Stuhlbarg – the man who seems to be in every film made in the last five years.

The Shape of Water is a movie about those society rejects, those who exist on the outside and at the margins. It is about how they find purpose and love and faith. It is an undeniably timely film wrapped in a fairy tale-like timeless package.

Typically, movies that layer on symbolism and signs fatigue me. I can become quickly disenchanted by them. That is not the case here. While there is much allegory (the Cold War setting, the movie theater location, the severed fingers, the Power of Positive Thinking tropes, the color and set design… and more!) to ponder, I found – and still find – myself doing just that: pondering the significance of del Toro’s choices and finding more to ponder when I do.

And still, one of the most remarkable things about The Shape of Water is how few surprises there are. The movie plays out as one would expect and hits notes that are familiar and comfortable. There are no mind-bending plot twists and even the end of the movie is so well telegraphed by the beginning that it, too, cannot be considered surprising. So why is The Shape of Water so well regarded? Why is it so good?

It is a gorgeous movie, layered in shades of green (the application of that color means so much to the film). The design is astounding and there are more than a few scenes where I leaned over to The Cinnamon Girl and said “this is really beautiful.” One that remains in my mind is a shot of the Amphibian Man standing, mouth agape, in the center of a movie theater watching a film unspool before him. Breathtaking.

The Shape of Water is the most nominated film of this Academy Award season and it is clear why that is. I would not be surprised – nor disappointed – if it take home most of the trophies. It is that good.

THE SHAPE OF WATER receives FIVE GREEN CANDIES out of a possible FIVE.

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