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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.



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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.


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


  • 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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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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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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The Post – A Movie Review

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The PostIt is difficult to imagine a director other than Stephen Spielberg wringing as much tension and excitement out of the kind of story on display in The Post as he manages here. The film begins at a simmer and rises to the heat of a pot boiling over in a matter of moments and does so without the aid of action sequences or car chases, pyrotechnics or physical confrontations. It does so by conveying that the highest stakes we face, both personal and political, call us to action in ways we cannot imagine and at times we cannot anticipate. The characters in the movie may not have their lives on the line, but they risk the integrity of their souls with each decision they make. It is a fascinating journey to watch. The Post wildly succeeds and does so for three reasons: it has a critical and timely message, it has a director at the top of his skills and it has a cast that is simply brilliant.

The audience receives its marching orders at the conclusion of The Post. They received them from Stephen Spielberg himself. The brilliant director (his amazing skills on full display in this movie) urges as immediate follow up to viewing this film with its sequel-of-sorts All the President’s Men in a most obvious and visceral way. Spielberg directs his audience to leave the theater but not the themes and message of The Post. He wants the audience to consider what was going on in the 1970s as warning, to recognize the immense power of and unchecked government and the critical responsibility of a noble press.

He wants the audience to be patriots, no matter the personal cost.

And all of this is delivered to the audience through a series of conversations, each more compelling than the last – conversations about the nature of the press and democracy, of personal risk and personal sacrifice, of what it truly means to be an American. This is very, very heady stuff and no other director could pull it off as well.

But it does help Spielberg that his cast is spectacular. The supporting actors deliver exceptional and understated work in perfect pitch with the subject matter and in perfect service to their leads. And having leads the caliber of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks would serve any movie well.

Hanks is wonderful as Ben Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post and this is not the most comfortable character to assay. Hanks’ Bradlee is not the older sage, all-around good guy audiences have come to expect from the actor and the dynamic between his Bradlee and Streep’s Katharine Graham is far more fraught with tension than the previews of the movie may have led the audience to expect. Hanks’ Bradlee confronts demons personal and professional throughout the movie and the actor, perhaps in line to receive another Oscar nomination, conveys all of this engagingly and realistically. He brings the character to vivid life.

The movie, though, belongs to Streep.

If Hanks performs as Bradlee, Streep becomes Katharine Graham. Her portrayal of a woman realizing her potential and her power, of dealing with her history and of seizing the most critical moment of her life feels effortless. Surely it is not. Surely Streep must work at what she does, work at becoming the best actor – certainly – of her generation. Surely it cannot be easy for her. Streep carries the movie and carries each-and-every theme within it. She allows the audience to live her struggle to come to the right decision about whether to publish the so-called “Pentagon Papers” or not. She illustrates the challenge of being a woman in a world still dominated by men. She embodies a person allowing herself to come to terms with her past and to become a fully realized individual. She shows what it means to be a patriot. It is impossible to imagine anyone else in this role.

What is Spielberg not talking about in The Post? He is challenging an isolationist, male-dominated, secrecy-embracing society that seems all too real in 2018. He is underscoring the power of women at a time when we need to hear this message again. He champions the free press, the superiority of morality over law, the importance checks and balances. He has made a movie about protecting what it means to be America in the first place.

It may be too early to put The Post on the list of the best movies about journalism of all time… but let’s go ahead and do it. The Post is not only in the conversation, one could argue the conversation, now, starts and ends with Stephen Spielberg’s The Post.


THE POST receives FIVE PULITZER PRIZES out of a possible FIVE.

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Molly’s Game – A Movie Review

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Molly's GameI must update a post from earlier this week. When I selected the best movies I had seen in 2017, I had yet to watch Molly’s Game. I’ve updated the post and, after DunkirkMolly’s Game was the best movie I saw this year.

Powerfully written, beautifully acted and deeply affecting, Molly’s Game tells the true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic athlete who gives up a life of competitive skiing and, through twists and turns, runs exclusive poker games for the rich and famous for the next seven years of her life, right up until dangerous circumstances and a brush with the law force her out. Two years after that, she is arrested by the FBI and facing charges that could put her in prison for a decade.

Aaron Sorkin makes his directorial debut with Molly’s Game, lensing a script which he adapted from the book of the same name. Sorkin’s direction is solid if uninspiring. He covers all the angles through a series of good if not great shots and lets the writing and acting speak for themselves.

Good call.

The writing – his own – is absolutely brilliant. It is everything we have come to expect from him. It is smart and funny and, in many cases, leaves the audience breathless as the words tumble out of the characters’ mouths at speeds and in combinations unlike anything we hear in real life. Somehow Sorkin always makes what his characters say sound better than real life. That is one of his gifts.

But that gift only works if the actors are up to the task and Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba surely are.

Chastain is magnetic as Molly. She plays the character with the perfect mixture of bravado and vulnerability pushing right up to unsavoriness before pulling back to wounded heroism. Steely and clear, Chastain’s Molly knows exactly what she thinks she wants throughout the movie and sets out to get it. When her world crumbles around her and she realizes the only way out is to betray those she has already used up and left behind, Molly’s morality becomes her primary operating system and Chastain really shines. It is a role that should bring the talented actor another Oscar nomination. Such recognition would be well deserved. She is phenomenal.

Idris Elba plays Charlie Jaffey, Bloom’s initially lawyer and father-figure. Well paired with Chastain, Elba gives another top-notch performance and, if it is not quite as nuanced as Chastain’s own, that is fine. It is Chastain’s film and it takes a terrific co-star to recognize this. Elba is a terrific co-star. If his work is not bringing the raves that Chastain’s is, that is only because Charlie is not as well developed as Molly. But Elba does more with less than most actors. The two leads are powerful together. I think I could watch the climactic scene of the movie in Charlie’s office over-and-over again, reveling in the quality of acting on full display.

There are messages here, ones so timely that Sorkin seems to be some kind of soothsayer. There are admonitions about excess, about powerful men running unchecked, about ambition overriding morality. And there is condemnation of a society that seems to care more about the next salacious story than it does about the people whose lives are destroyed because of that very story. Sorkin knows first hand about many of these dangers and he can be forgiven (as, in truth, we must always forgive him) for being a little preachy. Molly’s Game makes the sermon so smart that we do not even mind hearing it.

MOLLY’S GAME receives a STRAIGHT FLUSH ON THE RIVER (FIVE out of a possible FIVE).

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