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“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” Movie Review

This movie represents the best type of advertisement out there: Get up off your butts and go make a difference. This darkly comic crime drama won the top prize of People’s Choice Award at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival back in September. Following a relatively limited released on November 10th, the film has already made back its $12 million budget and will no doubt continue a strong run thanks to strong word-of-mouth and rave reviews from critics. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the playwright behind the films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, the screenplay was reportedly conceived back in the early 2000’s when he saw billboards similar to the ones in this movie while traveling through America. He apparently shaped the story around the question of “Who would put up something like that?” Set in the titular small town, Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a woman whose daughter was raped and murdered 7 months prior. Frustrated with the lack of progress on the case, she rents three billboards just outside of her town condemning the police department. This leads to a war with the cops, particularly the chief and one racist officer, several townsfolk, and her own family. But hopefully, this can get them to find a new suspect and bring it all to a close. No, I have not yet seen the director’s debut feature In Bruges, though it is high on my watchlist. But I have seen, and enjoyed, Seven Psychopaths, an underrated black comedy with Tarantino-esque dialogue and circumstances. So in that, I knew I had to keep an eye on Martin McDonagh and the projects he’d potentially undertake. And when I first heard about this movie, two thoughts ran through my head. First, this is ridiculously relevant to the current anti-police climate being felt in many areas of the country. Second, how did he come up with such a cool concept? I wanted to see how he’d approach the subject matter. And he has come up with one of the year’s best films. What I appreciated most about the film is how realistic it was. One of my complaints about Seven Psychopaths was that the story felt too ludicrous at times and sometimes felt like style over substance. Three Billboards is almost as if McDonagh heard those responses and decided to get down and dirty in this small town. The dialogue is once again brilliantly written and endlessly profane. The characters have no problem saying some really inappropriate things to each other, some on a regular basis. Virtually every single swear word that you can think of is probably said in this movie, but not in a gratuitous way. It feels like this is as close to reality as could be done if a situation like this were to actually occur. It was unexpectedly funny and, at times, sobering. Frances McDormand is already a legend for movies like Fargo, but she honestly gives the best performance of her career in this film. She curses like a sailor, smokes like a dealer, and is mean to everyone who opposes her actions, but still incredibly thoughtful and deeply troubled. My favorite scene is when a priest asks her to take down the billboards and she goes on a diatribe about how gang laws passed in the 80’s related to priests who are “culpable” to abuse. A pointed, if cynical observation. Woody Harrelson portrays the irritated yet sincere Chief Willoughby, a man who clearly wants to do some justice, but has to deal with rotten apples. One of those apples is Sam Rockwell, who turns in a brilliant role of a racist, drunken cop. Though the character could be easy to write off, Rockwell gives him shades of pity and foolishness as we see he’s nothing more than a product of his environment. And while the rest of the cast, especially Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s troubled son and Peter Dinklage as a funny yet insecure townsmen, do a great job, it’s these 3 actors that are at the forefront of the drama. Let’s take a minute to discuss the technical attributes of the film. Previously a favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, cinematographer Ben Davis uses natural lighting and washed colors to get the accurate look of a small town. Whether we’re on the side of the freeway with the titular billboards or inside neon-lit bar with the characters, we’re always there in the moment. McDonagh’s background as a playwright means that single-location scenes are always engaging, but he makes sure that something else happens to keep the audience’s attention. The edits by Jon Gregory between stuffy indoor rooms and open-air environs outside is rather clever. One of the most memorable sequences is when one character goes on a full rampage, and it’s all taken on a single, handheld shot. I wouldn’t necessarily call this an “action scene,” but it definitely kept me on the edge of my seat. The soundtrack is brought to us by Coen brothers collaborator Carter Burwell. (Which is fitting since this feels like a film they would make together) Compared to most other musical scores this year, it’s a rather simplistic one, but undeniably effective. Most of the tracks consist of the rhytmic blues-like beat of a guitar and hand percussion, giving off the effect of armies marching to war. It also contains real-world songs of country or rock in the background, but their names aren’t coming back to me right now. And in some instances, there is no music. This, I feel, allowed some of the more powerful scenes to breathe. My major issue is about the ending. It made sense for the sake of the story and ended on an unconventional note. But you’ve just spent 115 minutes with this town, and it felt stretched out a little. I’d have liked to watch at least one more scene. In any case, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri finds its outstanding cast reveling in searing comedy. The perfect blend of pitch-black humor and frighteningly real drama.

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“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” Movie Review

If this movie proves anything in life, it’s this: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was not the only awesome film to come out of New Zealand. This adventure comedy-drama landed a limited release in North America on June 24th, 2016, following a lengthy festival run after its premiere at Sundance. It has since gone on to become the highest-grossing native film in New Zealand, with a box office take of about $23 million. Based in part on Barry Crump’s book Wild Pork and Watercress, the story is set against the extensive wild bush of New Zealand and follows a juvenile delinquent named Ricky Baker, who has recently been adopted by a farmer couple. After a tragic happening, Ricky resolves to run away from his home into the bush, only to be found by his foster uncle Hector. When a nationwide manhunt ensues, they reluctantly have to work together to survive the wilderness. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is brought to us by writer-director Taika Waititi, who also gave us hidden gems such as the moving drama Boy and the hilarious mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. He will also be moving to the Hollywood blockbuster environment this November with Thor: Ragnarok so it would be wise to keep tabs on this one. His trademark quirkiness for characters and dialogue is ever-present in this latest effort, which may be his best work yet. His script is injected with immense heart and poignancy, contrasted by scenarios so absurd that it’s almost impossible to not laugh out loud. During one particular scene, the situation was mirrored to and alludes to The Fellowship of the Ring, something even the characters address. As a fan of the series, this made me chuckle. As for the cast, veteran Irish character actor Sam Neill gives us a performance unto itself completely different from his stint as a paleontologist in Jurassic Park. He’s gruff and occasionally closed off but shows a tremendous capability for compassion and care as a father figure. By his side is a breakout performance from the newcomer, native New Zealander Julian Dennison as Ricky. Even at the age of 14, this kid does a fantastic job with his lovable, yet deeply troubled character. You get the idea that Ricky has had a rough life up to this point, and it also becomes clear at a point that he wouldn’t last 2 seconds out in the wilderness without Hector. These two bounce off of each other with ease, as their relationship is a very believable one. Hector has to show Ricky various tactics for survival, such as building fires and hunting for food with a rifle. But it’s also their less stressful and quieter situations that make for some of the most human moments. Whether it’s when they’re both sitting by the campfire sharing their own painful pasts, or when they’re quietly sitting in the woods looking at a thought-to-be-extinct bird, it’s actually quite impressive how well these scenes were put together. However, we can’t talk about any movie set in the wilderness without discussing the look and aesthetic of it all. In a sense, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has the feel of a modern sitcom because it was almost entirely shot on a single camera. Even with that, the locations in the film look absolutely beautiful. There are so many aerial view shots of the lush green landscape that are immediately edited into quick cuts across the dense forest. This gives the film a feeling that puts it on level ground with the characters. Of all the places in the world that I would like to visit before I die, New Zealand is at the top of that list. This is the final proof of that goal. Commentary should also be given to the music. There is a very minimalist score from Lukasz Buda, Samuel Scott, and Conrad Wedde, mostly just background guitars. The soundtrack itself is comprised mostly of folk songs, all of which perfectly match the tone of the story. And now for the big negative of the movie: Regret. I regret not seeing this film in theaters in 2016 because it would have easily appeared somewhere on my Top 10 List by the end of the year. So please don’t let its seemingly foreign nature dissuade you; Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an irresistibly quirky and touching dramedy about the sacred bond between father and son. (Or in this case, uncle and nephew) A poignant yet hilarious showcase for great, lesser-known actors, it’s appropriately restrained in its direction. And for that, Hunt of the Wilder people absolutely deserves more recognition from American audiences.

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R.I.P. Carrie Fisher

Just when we thought we were in the clear, the evil gods behind 2016 pulled the rug from under us and laughed. So if you haven’t heard by now, actress and philanthropist Carrie Fisher died on December 27 of cardiac arrest. There had been conflicting reports of her status in the days leading up to it. She had been hospitalized, following a heart problem on an airplane, and then the diagnosis stated that she had been put into stable condition. But 2 mornings ago, I learned that those rumors of her pulling through were examples of false hope. And so now, I take my time to reflect my thoughts on this terrible tragedy for Star Wars fans. “But, Cade, you still have a bunch of movies from 2016 you haven’t reviewed yet. You need to get on those, pronto!” Stop that noise. Those movies will have their time to shine when it comes down to it. I literally dropped EVERYTHING else that I’m working on to bring you the feelings I’m going through in the wake of Carrie Fisher’s death. If by chance, you don’t know have the slightest clue Fisher is or who she’s played in her career, that’s weird but I’ll explain. It was this little movie franchise called Star Wars. Who did she play? Princess Leia Organa of the planet Alderaan, leader of the Rebel Alliance, and feminist icon for generations. Okay, confession time. I did have a little celebrity crush on her when I was but a child, especially after Return of Jedi. As adolescence wore on, I matured as a person and found there were other things worth getting invested in rather than what actor or actress you have a crush on. However, her personal life story is arguably even more fascinating than her professional one. The first daughter of actors and singers Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, she spent much of her adult life suffering from bipolar disorder. She wished to cope this with severe episodes of drug addiction and alcoholism. In fact, it’s believed that she may have been stoned for a good chunk of filming The Empire Strikes Back. She spent her subsequent years as a novelist, play-write, and activist in rehabilitation and female power. So if anyone on Earth could survive a heart attack, it had to be her. Just goes to show that you can’t always get what you want. Funnily enough, her mother passed away a day later, supposedly from grief. Like mother, like daughter. Fisher’s death also has me wondering about the implications of Leia’s role in the next few Star Wars movies. It’s been confirmed that she has completed work on Episode VIII, which she may have a larger role in than The Force Awakens. But that still leaves the question open to what her character’s fate will be in Episode XI. Will she be written out like Spock Prime and Pavel Chekov in Star Trek Beyond? If so, they would have to include deeply emotional tributes to her, like we saw this past summer. Then again, they could potentially go the path that Rogue One took? (Spoiler Alert) In Rogue One, Grand Moff Tarkin and young Princess Leia were recreated with different actors, but their faces were digitally structured to look like them through the use of CGI. That’s been the biggest point of contention for this year’s entry in the series, and there’s speculation that Lucasfilm might use that strategy in the future. I could imagine the fans in an uproar at that prospect, but we’ll have to wait until Kathleen Kennedy says anything. I’m willing to bet my money, however, that they’ll wait a few years to announce a coming-of-age movie starring young Leia, a la Han Solo. In any case, those are my thoughts on this whole ordeal. When I discovered the news, I screamed out my frustration and sadness. What a way to cap off a year chock full of celebrity deaths. Rest in peace, Carrie Fisher. You will be missed in the future. Thanks for everything.

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“Captain America: Civil War” Movie Review

I know what you’re thinking:”Cade, I’m growing tired of superhero movies. They’re all the same thing, just repackaged.” That’s what I thought before Civil War. This politically-charged superhero action-adventure released nationwide on May 6th, 2016, having released in other countries over a week beforehand. It has nearly tripled its $275 million budget in the first opening weekend alone. Relax, this review is completely spoiler-free. Will I do spoiler-filled post? You bet. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who were also at the helm of 2014’s The Winter Soldier, this film is inspired in part by the limited comic book crossover series of the same name by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven, and is set one year after the events of Age of Ultron. Bucky Barnes, A.K.A. the Winter Soldier, is wanted by the U.N. for a variety of terrorist acts. His actions along with all the collateral damage the Avengers have caused in the past few years prompt the government to create the Sokovia Accords, a document that, if signed, would require all superhumans in the world to either register their identity to the government or just retire from being a superhero. Iron Man/Tony Stark is pro-registration, stating that the Avengers need to be put check, otherwise there’s no difference between them and the villains that they fight. On the opposite side, Captain America/Steven Rogers says they shouldn’t become the government’s personal play toys, and a few other points not to be spoiled here. These are two completely ideologies clashing, and several superheroes and agents have to choose sides. But I feel obligated to let you know that, first and foremost, this a personal sequel to The Winter Soldier, because it focuses a lot on the relationship between Captain America and the Winter Soldier. Ultimately, the Civil War storyline is interesting, but it’s a byproduct of that relationship. Black Panther is really given a chance to shine in this movie. Chadwick Boseman portrays him so well, displaying a balance between being regal, ferocious, intelligent, and rash. He did a great job crafting a Wakandan accent, sounding like a mixture of African and French. But folks, let’s get right into it; the airport battle. The single greatest all-star royal throwdown I have ever seen in any film. It’s so much bigger than we have seen in any of the trailers. The special effects were impressive, the dialogue was funny, the sound design was superb, and each hero was given a chance to show off their talent. Ant-Man, played again hilariously by Paul Rudd, shows us how powerful he’s capable of being. And then there’s Spider Man. Oh my God, guys. That has got to be the greatest incarnation I’ve seen of Spider Man and Peter Parker I have seen on-screen to date. Tom Holland did a terrific job as him, even if he was in the movie for only 15 minutes tops. He alone makes the movie worth seeing. And now for the one thing that brings the film down: the villain. He’s a completely useless and irrelevant weasel that is only in it for the sake of their being a bad guy. It would have been great to just see either Cap or Iron Man as villains, but nope; the writers had to shoehorn in Helmut Zemo. His plot did make sense, but ultimately irrelevant, and honestly opens a few plot holes that screw up continuity. Even with that rather large setback, Captain America: Civil War is still one of the best superhero movies ever put to film, with great characters, excellent writing, and a stunning cast. It surprisingly maintains equal balance between both Iron Man and Captain America’s points of view, so there are no obvious politics. I cannot wait to see what happens next with Tom Holland’s Spider Man.

“The Jungle Book” Movie Review

I went into this movie thinking I would not enjoy it as much as the original. But I did. This 3D fantasy adventure film open worldwide on April 15th, 2016, since then more than tripling it’s staggering $175 million budget. As part of Disney’s new plan of live-action adaptations for their classic animations, we follow a young boy named Mowgli who is being raised as a “man-cub” in a pack of wolves led by Raksha and Akela. During a particularly dry rain season, a temporary truce has been called between all the animals of the Jungle. But the powerful tiger, Shere Khan, has a great hatred for man, and announces that once it starts raining again and the truce is over, Mowgli dies. So now, Bagheera, the black panther who brought Mowgli into the Jungle in the first place, is escorting him to the nearest man village for safety, meeting a cast of colorful characters along the way. This may surprise some fans of classic Disney, but it takes cues from both the old 1967 film and the original writings of author Rudyard Kipling. Only two of the songs from the original movie’s soundtrack composed by Louis Armstrong appear in this movie. “Bear Necessities” is played up from banter between Mowgli and the bear Baloo, while “I Wanna Be Like You” sung by King Louie seemingly comes out of nowhere. It felt like director Jon Favreau shoehorned these songs into the movie for the sake of, “If a Jungle Book didn’t have any of the songs in it, that would be strange.” And this is just me being petty, but the actor who plays Mowgli simply can’t sing. But thankfully there are many other things he can do. He is literally talking and acting in front of nothing, and I have seen adult actors do worse at that than him. Quote me on this: Neel Sethi is going to be getting a ton of work and movie roles offered to him in the not-so distant future. The entire voice cast is also worth noting. Sir Ben Kingsley and Bill Murray share great chemistry as two protectors of Mowgli who have very different ideals and methods for how to operate in the Jungle. I view this movie as a return to form for Murray, who cracks many funny jokes with appropriately snappy dialogue. If we want to talk about supporting characters stealing the show, Christopher Walken deserves recognition as the orangutan King Louie. More or less he plays what Christopher Walken usually plays: a big, creepy weirdo who likes to assert authority over others and is a goner before the movie is over. That’s what I can say about this film in general, is that it’s a lot darker and more scary than the animated Jungle Book. Despite it’s PG rating, strong caution is advised for any parent who plans on taking their young children to see the movie. the snake Kaa, voiced by the versatile Scarlet Johansson, has gone from a silly animal to a terrifying beast. In King Louie’s temple, the monkeys all acted and sounded frightening; not cute and fuzzy as we are used to knowing. Got to talk about Shere Khan, though; HO-LY SHIT! He was so intimidating. I’m going to remember this tiger for the rest of my existence. I love how his personality was made for the movie; he’s ferocious, articulate, menacing, dominating, intelligent, stubborn. Voiced by Idris Elba, who sounds so natural that it seems he’s been do voice-over work for years. What truly drove this movie home for me is how it showed that the Jungle has a system. Each species must bow in respect to the elephants, the wolves are responsible for their own pack, fire is commonly referred to as the “red flower,” and all animals have their own specific territories within the Jungle. In the end, The Jungle Book was exactly what I wanted it to be. A great cast, wonderful characters, fantastic visuals that rival that of Gravity and Avatar, and ultimately serves as a loving tribute to it’s predecessor that doesn’t betray its legacy. Easily one of the best movies of 2016 by far, I am now eagerly awaiting a live-action Mulan. You know you want it, too.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” Trailer Analysis

You know why I’m here. You saw the trailer too. So the first official teaser trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has dropped. I don’t do posts on movie trailers or teaser images. Last week, some people wanted to hear my word on the Lego Batman Movie trailers. But they were essentially the same, so I’d be saying, “There’s a brand new Lego Movie coming out. It’s about Batman, and there are a lot of self-referential jokes. Done.” Same thing when the first cast image appeared last August. Here’s what it would’ve been: “It looks like a bunch of battered Rebels, just like we all heard. Looks cool, but I don’t see the importance of this in the middle of The Force Awakens’ campaign. Done.” But this first trailer? Oh yeah, there’s enough to talk about. The trailer opens with Felicity Jones’ character, Jyn Erso, being interrogated on what looks like the Rebel base on Yavin 4 by Mon Mothma and General Dodonna. She remarks, “This is a Rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel.” Pretty witty and clever, not only because it’s told over a scene of her kicking Imperial ass, but also directly addresses the Rebel Alliance’s seemingly obvious sales pitch. This film is being directed by Gareth Edwards, the director of the new American incarnation of Godzilla. If there’s one thing he did right in both of those movies, it’s that he showed off an immense scale. It’s looking no different in this trailer. You see it when the Star Destroyers are so puny when compared to the completion of the Death Star. Next, can we just address the love movie trailers have for loud, siren-like bursts of alarm? It plays almost all throughout, especially during the montage of action. We also get our first look at Forrest Whitaker. It’s kind of odd to see one of the most accomplished actors in the world and in this saga as a Mad Max-like warrior, but he provides an obligatory ominous voice-over. He keeps asking, “What will you do if they catch you? What will you do if they break you?!” From context, it sounds like he’s a mentor figure of sorts to Jyn Erso, warning her about going off to war. This montage also shows Donnie Yen, the modern-day Bruce Lee of martial arts movies, being a complete badass. Though he’s a blind alien, he’s more than capable of taking down an entire Imperial Stormtrooper squad with a staff like Morgan from The Walking Dead. You get a couple glimpses of Ben Mendohlson as the villainous officer of the Empire, and he looks like he’s high in power. Just his white cape and stride through the aftermath of a large battle are enough for the as-yet unnamed character to look intimidating. There’s one quick shot of someone approaching the Emperor’s Guards. I’ve heard that Darth Vader makes an appearance in this movie in some capacity. From what it looks like, he may not be relegated to a simple cameo for the sake of fan service. And remember what I said about the director’s penchant for huge scale? The teaser ends with many of the Rebel soldiers running across a beach landscape towards a line of AT-AT Walkers. It felt so cool and intense. It seemed reminiscent of the front line beach attack in Saving Private Ryan, because like the Nazis, these gigantic Walkers are not messing around. Now comes the part where I explain what the hell I’ve been talking about. So about a year ago, Disney announced that the Extended Universe has been wiped from canon, which now only consists of the films and cartoon series. (And supposedly that godawful Holiday Special) They also announced that in addition to the core movies, they begin an Anthology series. This is where each installment is a different stand-alone picture centered around a different story. And now we have an entire cinematic plan that stretches from now to the year 2020. The first Anthology movie is Rogue One, which focuses on the Rebel soldiers and spies who embarked on a suicide mission to steal the Death Star plans right before the events of A New Hope. And unlike the other films, this is meant to be a gritty and grounded war drama, with no Jedi or Lightsaber battle included. While many have argued that this business practice of releasing annual films screams money-grab, I think it’s a great proposition for fans. Outside of the central Skywalker family arc, there is a wealth of fascinating stories in the Star Wars Galaxy worth exploring. And now that the first teaser trailer has released, I’m officially pumped. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

“Midnight Special” Movie Review

Yes, I realize I have to finish Daredevil Season 2 and see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But first, as a fan of all almost things sci-fi, I bring you this. This science-fiction drama thriller received a limited release on March 18th, 2016. Grossing just over 1 million within that limited release, this is the fourth feature length film from writer-director Jeff Nichols, who is quickly and deservedly becoming one of the most talented storytellers of his generation. The story follows an 8-year-old boy named Alton Meyer, who possesses incredible and unearthly powers, as he and his father Roy flee from a religious cult. With the help of his childhood friend, state trooper Lucas, they have to take Alton to a certain location where a celestial, even world-changing event might occur. However, some of the cult members devise a plan to steal Alton back, whom they see as a Messiah and prophesier. This attracts the attention of the FBI, as the sermons and dates used in the cult are actually encoded with government information communicated via satellite. Midnight Special honestly reminded me of last year’s Ex Machina, in that it was a low-key science-fiction movie that focuses more on ideas than spectacle. Though not as tense as that movie, its visuals are very nicely polished, especially in the last act of the story. There are a lot of noteworthy performances, so here we go. First off, Michael Shannon is completely convincing as Roy and brings sincerity and fear to a father who wants to connect with his son, a stark deviation from his portrayal of a creepy, selfish Prohibition agent in Boardwalk Empire that gained him initial recognition. Speaking of which, Jaeden Lierberher is a surprisingly good child actor, sharing some great chemistry with Shannon. Joel Edgerton, Sam Shepherd, and Adam Driver all gave typically wonderful performances in their limited yet pivotal roles. But the one that stands out the most has to be Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother. Outside of her early stint as Mary Jane Watson in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy, I can’t name a single thing she has done that I remember or that has impressed me. Until this film. She’s so understated yet perfect as Sarah. In fact, one of the things that separates Midnight Special from its peers is that it’s just so driven and based on different emotions. It’s mysterious, it’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s inspirational all at the same time. It can truly be called a “modern science fiction” movie- it’s a unique and mostly original story that tries not to be derivative of other properties or part of any sort of franchise. Though a case could be made for Stephen King’s The Green Mile, it still stands on it’s own due in large part to the narrative ultimately being a father-son tale. It’s simple: there’s a boy with special powers who’s dad must take him to a place for a world-changing event in his life. With that simplicity, Midnight Special can already be hailed as one of the year’s best films, and as one of the most original and memorable science-fiction experiences in recent memory. Even though it’s technically in a limited release, I issue a call-to-arms of all fans of science-fiction to see it at the earliest opportunity. Jeff Nichols is a modern treasure trove of creativity, and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next.