Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri- Movie Review

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Martin McDonagh’s past two features, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, were notable for their odd comedic elements and ridiculous stories, and while his newest film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri shares some similar qualities, it’s his darkest and most disturbing film by far. There’s a decent amount of very dark humor surrounding a very heartbreaking and timely story, and yet despite the film’s overall grim nature, there are moments of hope and empathy that stand out by their diminutive statues.

Several months following the death of her daughter, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) buys the rights to put up three local billboards in protest to what she sees as indifference from the police department. The billboards cause a local media storm, ensnaring the attention of the local police captain (Woody Harrelson) and his dimwitted assistant (Sam Rockwell). McDormand is at her most gritty here, giving a no holds-barre performance of contained rage, yet it’s Sam Rockwell’s redemptive story arc that’s the film’s strongest beat.

I don’t think I could ever watch Three Billboards Outside, Ebbing Missouri again; it’s a fascinating deconstruction of the ways in which justice is and should be served, and despite it’s often humorous moments, it’s a deeply disturbing film that’s pitched with only rare moments of optimism. Yet, there’s something extremely unique about the film, something that got under my skin, a quality that’s rare in any film, and the film’s emotional machine of rage and empathy is something that will be discussed for quite some time. Grade: A

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Lady Bird- Movie Review

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Lady Bird is more than just a great coming of age story- it’s something more special than that. There’s a purity, an honesty to the film’s story that is nice, but as the film goes on, it’s evident that it’s just a piece of great filmmaking. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut speaks to the truths that anyone goes through growing up, and it’s the meticulous editing, presentation of events, and high caliber performances that elevate it into classic status.

Christine (Saoirse Ronan), also known as “Lady Bird”, is a high school senior living in Sacramento who longs of going to college on the East Coast. As her strong willed personality clashes with her stern mother (Laura Metcalf), Christine navigates through the most difficult things in the world for a high school girl: love, sex, friends, family, responsibility, work, and her own expectations. I didn’t know Saoirse Ronan had it in her to give a performance of this caliber; she’s always been charismatic in films, but her performance as a rebellious teenager longing for a life better than she has is one of the most honest and entertaining performances of the year.

Yet, it’s Greta Gerwig’s precise work as a director that can’t be overlooked; the film flows through all the most important moments in Christine’s senior year, yet it also has time for brief moments of humor and sincerity, capping a perfect tale in approximately 90 minutes. The film is uproariously funny at points, poignant in traditional and untraditional ways, and one of the most continuously engrossing stories told this year. It’s a coming of age tale in the general sense, yet it’s clearly something personal for Gerwig, and it couldn’t have come off any better. Grade: A+

Mudbound- Movie Review

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Mudbound is a powerful American epic, and perhaps one of the most emotionally stirring films of the year. The film is a brutal watch at times, uncompromising in its depiction of racial brutality and PTSD, utilizing compelling storytelling techniques to spread the story out amongst its impressive cast. It’s rare that an epic like this is able to balance it’s ensemble so well, and it’s the cast that elevate the characters into memorable, dynamic people.

The film tells the story of two families, one black and one white, that live near each other in the American South in the 1940s, showing their interactions and conflicts as they coexist. The entire ensemble is superb, but the standouts are easily Jason Mitchell and Garret Hedlund, two sons who serve in World War II; these actors sell the brutality of conforming to traditional living following the horrors of war, and their bond upon returning home is the film’s most uplifting element.

Despite having the scope and scale of an epic, the film’s runtime never feels overbearing, and the transitions between the cast allow the film to never bore the audience with one particular storyline. The film builds towards a haunting conclusion of violence, and while the film addresses racial tension in an extremely effective way, it avoids trivializing the issue or presenting anything as cut and dry. It’s a powerful experience, and the emotional journey of Mudbound is one worth taking. Grade: A-

Thor: Ragnarok- Movie Review

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If you took the crazy ’80s sci-fi opera of Flash Gordon, the self serious epicness of Highlander, and the brilliant comedic mind of director Taika Waititi, then you get Thor: Ragnarok, one of the craziest and must gleefully weird movies that Marvel has ever made. The third installment strips away the world of the Thor franchise, fueling Taika Waititi’s genius world building and attention to detail to create a gloriously silly and fun space adventure. The film works because of Waititi’s style, which while overtly comedic, is completely imaginative in each sequence and location.

When the villainous Hela (Cate Blanchette) threatens Asgard, the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is jettisoned to the far reaches of space and forced to fight his way back to save his people. At this point, Hemsworth has embraced the comedic elements of the character, and made the character in on the joke of his own inherent goofiness. Appearances by Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/ The Incredible Hulk and Tom Hiddelston as Loki add additional comedic banter, and while the film’s characters have strong emotional ties that are built up by previous films, Ragnarok‘s goal is to entertain, and the comedy here comes first.

It’s many of the film’s new characters that add the most, and none more so than Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, the leader of a gladiatorial combat society. Goldblum is absorbed in the film’s ridiculous nature, and while his performance may not differ very much from his offscreen persona, he’s one the best parts of the film. The addition of Tessa Thompson as an ally of Thor’s is also a strength of the film, as Thompson instantly fits in with the previously established banter between the characters. While the character of Hela is not a very complex one, it’s improved by Blanchette’s very theatrical performance.

Thor: Ragnarok could easily be criticized for it’s formulaic story, or it’s lack of consistent character beats, but what Taika Waititi recognizes is the type of film this is suppose to be. It’s a Saturday morning cartoon, continuously bringing ingenuity and adventure to the screen and never letting the audience take a moment to breathe. It’s a fun, weird, and consistently memorable film that ranks among the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and perhaps one of the best the genre has ever offered. Grade: A

Last Flag Flying- Movie Review

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Last Flag Flying is one of the most devastating films of the past few years, an absolutely brutally honest film about the realities of life, service, and honesty, told with a grace and maturity that Richard Linklater has mastered in his many years as a filmmaker. Linklater is known for his films that celebrate youth, such as Boyhood or Dazed and Confused, but with Last Flag Flying he has captured the Vietnam generation in a heartbreaking and sincere fashion. It’s a pointed commentary on the war that each generation faces and the hard truths about reality, yet it’s also a completely personal story about a broken man who turns to his oldest friends for help.

Middle aged widower Larry Shepard (Steve Carell) sets out on a journey to find two of his fellow servicemen from Vietnam, bartender Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and preacher Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). While the three have not seen each other since the end of the Vietnam War, Shepard convinces the two to accompany him on a cross country trip to bury his son, a Marine killed in the Iraq War. As they embark on their journey, the former friends realize just how much they’ve changed in the decades and the hard realities they’re forced to face in a world that seems to learn no lessons.

To say these performances are magnificent would be an understatement; Cranston and Fishburne are poignant, charming, and memorable, but Carrell’s quiet, somber performance is not only the best performance he’s ever given, but a sign that he’s emerged as one of the best actors of his generation. The film is quite funny at points, yet utterly devastating in others, and while their are political ideas sprinkled throughout, it’s an introspective film that asks the tough questions and offers few answers. It’s hard to say if Last Flag Flying is Linklater’s best work, but it’s certainly his most thought provoking, a humane and powerful work of raw emotional strength. Grade: A+

Wheelman- Movie Review

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Wheelman is a slick, lean thriller that achieves almost everything it sets out to do, and benefits greatly from it’s central gimmick. The film follows a getaway driver (Frank Grillo) who’s put in a compromising situation when he’s forced to navigate through a mafia plot in order to save his family. The gimmick, of course, is that a majority of the film is just Grillo talking to people in a car, and while it’s a concept that’s been seen before, the film’s lean 82 minutes maximizes it’s potential as a very well made B-movie.

The film keeps the viewer guessing at every point, and the story never gets too complicated that it undermines the adrenaline and intensity of the filmmaking. Yet, the film’s greatest strength is Grillo, who gives a commanding performance that’s demanding of attention in every scene; it’s a role that requires the audience to invest within the lead character in every scene, and Grillo provides a compelling dramatic, yet surprisingly vulnerable performance. It’s a great thrill ride, an expert depiction of a simple concept, and a huge genre win for Netflix. Grade: B+

1922- Movie Review

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1922 is essentially Stephen King’s “A Tell-Tale Heart”, a simple yet highly effective depiction of crime and guilt with a career best performance by Thomas Jane. The film follows Jane as a proud farmer who murders his wife (Molly Parker) when she threatens to move to a large city and steal his son (Dylan Schmid). It’s a perfectly simple premise, but the film has an excellent grasp on tension and visual metaphors, creating a thoroughly nasty and skin crawling story.

Jane gives a masterful performance here; his intentions and motivations are clear in every scene, and while the role could’ve easily been a one note, broody murderer, Jane gives subtle signs of emotion and the fear his character faces. While the metaphorical imagery is hardly original, it’s effective for what the film is attempting, and fits perfectly with the social norms and concepts of the 1920s. 1922 is a masterful adaptation, a great slow burn that brings a consistent sense of dread matched with a straight forward, yet never meandering, narrative. Grade: B+

Goodbye Christopher Robin- Movie Review

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Goodbye Christopher Robin is one of the best films of the year; a heartfelt, heartbreaking, and beautifully simple story of father and son, told with elegance and maturity. The film is more than a standard biopic, telling a startling story about the unimaginable pain inflicted upon an entire generation through the eyes of a frustrate writer. It’s highly emotional without descending into melodrama, and there’s a genuine nature that is rare in any film.

The film follows author Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), a prolific comedy writer and World War I veteran who retires to a house in the woods to focus on his writing. When facing a conflict with his wife (Margot Robbie), Milne is inspired by his son Christoher Robin (Will Tilston) to create the character of Winnie the Pooh, once again becoming a prolific writer, yet crippling his relationship with his child. Gleeson gives some of his best work here, playing a scarred veteran who’s constantly reminded of the hell of war, and is unable to move forward while looking back.

Yet, it’s Kelly MacDonald’s performance as Christopher Robin’s caretaker that give the film it’s true heart, as MacDonald perfectly displays the nurturing behavior that the boy lacks in his life. The film is rarely flashy and often understated, carving a slow journey that explodes into a beautiful ending that ranks among the year’s best scenes. It’s a somber journey at times, but the hope within Goodbye Christopher Robin is some of the year’s most inspiring filmmaking. Grade: A

The Florida Project- Movie Review

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The Florida Project is a consistently watchable, often entertaining, and quite often portrayal of childhood, dealing with many challenging concepts through the innocence of a child’s eyes. While the film is mostly a series of vignettes telling the story of a young girl and her mother, there’s a depiction of childhood that feels utterly unscripted, as the film’s showcase of the lives of those living week to week is eye opening and moving in a way few films are.

Leading the story is Brooklyn Prince, a six-year-old actress who’s performance is so natural it almost doesn’t feel like acting; the performance, perhaps through the direction, fits perfectly within the “slice of life” style the film is attempting. Also strong is Bria Vinaite as Prince’s mother, who’s performance is shattering in a different way as a loving, yet wildly irresponsible mother. The film is anchored in a supporting role from the great Willem Dafoe in the role of a hotel manager who watches the story unfold; it’s a quiet, subtle performance of a man at his wit’s end who still cares very deeply about people, and Dafoe is absolutely brilliant in every scene.

The Florida Project is perhaps about ten minutes too long, and although it’s a fairly straightforward story about innocence and childhood, there’s something compelling with how simple and unresolved it is. There’s not one “shocker” scene or one emotional gut punch designed to torpedo the film’s themes; it simple plays out in a plain and honest way, and when the conclusion hits, it’s unsurprising yet still impactful. The Florida Project is brutally honest in a way few film are, an optimistic, yet unsentimental look at one family’s story. Grade: B+

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)- Movie Review

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Noah Baumbach has a rare ability as a filmmaker of creating beauty and humor out of dysfunction, and shaping characters that are convicted and ideological, yet unpretentious. It’s a trait that all his films seem to carry, and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is not only his most interesting ensemble, but his most humane and affecting film to date. The film lives and dies with its terrific ensemble, and while the film often drifts between melancholy and humor, there’s a surprising complexity to the characters, and their ability to speak freely while maintaining the film’s relentless pace.

When an aging artist (Dustin Hoffman) and his fourth wife (Emma Thompson) prepare his work for an exhibition, he’s visited by his three adult children; Danny (Adam Sandler), who’s preparing to send his daughter (Grace Van Patten) to college, Matt (Ben Stiller), a successful yet unhappy businessman, and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), the peculiar yet most stable of the children. Hoffman is excellent here; he’s one of the greatest actors of all-time, and he’s both charming and despicable as a talented artist who’s cast a long shadow for his children to live up to.

Yet, it’s Sandler’s performance that truly leads the film; Sandler is rarely given credit for his dramatic work, which is a shame, as he’s completely committed and utterly perfect as the family’s hapless dark horse. The scenes between Sandler and Patten, one of the most exciting young actresses in the business, are among the film’s strongest, and the entire dynamic Sandler crafts between himself, Stiller, and Marvel is exceptional.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) could have easily been a series of humorous, yet unimaginative short clips, but Baumbach crafts an elegant portrayal of a privileged, yet peculiar and troubled family. The film asks the hard questions about age and growing apart, and while there are certainly solid laughs throughout, it’s more of a serious story that happens to revolve around ridiculous people. It goes without saying that the cast is phenomenal, but it’s even more impressive that the film’s “slice of life” approach could prove to be so impressive. Grade: A-