Movie Review – “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

“The intricate, and often hostile, interaction between the strong-willed personas of Harrelson, McDormand, and Rockwell makes for sensational filmmaking and movie watching…  The early Oscar front-runner for Best Picture!”

– Patrick King, REEL BRIEF

A trifecta of superb acting performances will surely earn “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” a well-deserved spot on nearly everyone’s shortlist for Best Picture in 2017. This crime drama, depicting a grieving mother seeking answers for her daughter’s brutal murder, moves at a brisk pace while character development intensifies throughout the cast.

Headlining this remarkable group of actors and actresses is Frances McDormand, who portrays Mildred Hayes…the upset and angry mother of a teenager killed just outside the small town of Ebbing, Missouri. One of only 14 women to ever achieve the “Triple Crown of Acting” (earning an Academy Award, an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award), McDormand forcefully shakes up local law enforcement officers and moviegoers in her steadfast quest to find the person(s) responsible for Hayes’ unimaginable heartache.

Recipients of McDormand’s razor-sharp tongue and activism are Woody Harrelson (as Ebbing police chief William Willoughby) and his stormy second-in-command (Officer Jason Dixon), played impeccably by Sam Rockwell. Both must reopen the homicide investigation of Mildred Hayes’ daughter after three billboards are painted which openly calls out the police chief for his inaction in finding clues to the killer of the young girl.

A brilliant screenplay slowly unmasks the film’s key players, shining a spotlight on how each character’s past and present are interwoven into this chilling storyline. Although McDormand is the central figure and antagonist for finding the truth, it’s Woody Harrelson as the police chief that pulls this movie plot together. Harrelson’s rapport with his family, Mildred Hayes, and his own police officer (Rockwell) all combine to profoundly grab viewers’ full attention using crude language, revenge, and violence. A simplistic, but hugely effective, soundtrack captures the film’s many boiling points and overall potency.

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” boils down to complicated relationships which are perfectly marinated and presented by British director Martin McDonagh. The intricate, and often hostile, interaction between the strong-willed personas of Harrelson, McDormand, and Rockwell makes for sensational filmmaking and movie watching.

Simply put, McDormand and Rockwell deserve Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor nominations during next month’s Academy Award announcements. Both deliver career high points in this thought-provoking and heartfelt drama. Likewise, don’t be surprised to see “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” land Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay nominations at the same time. The film took the top prize at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and I don’t see it losing momentum as it expands to an additional 1,000 theaters later this month.

Grade: A+

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is rated R for language, sexual thematic elements, and violence. Its running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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Movie Review – “Mudbound”

“Powerful! Easily the strongest ensemble cast we’ve seen thus far in 2017.”

– Patrick King, REEL BRIEF

Over the past several years, Amazon and Netflix have dramatically stepped up their own studio’s production and distribution of high quality motion picture films. In fact, by the second week of January, don’t be surprised to see both movie makers get several Academy Award nominations for best acting and one for best adapted screenplay. One such film guaranteed to garner a hard look by Oscar voters is Netflix’s “Mudbound”.

Based on Hillary Jordan’s novel by the same name, “Mudbound” takes viewers back to 1939 and race relations along the Mississippi Delta farming locale. Still deeply rooted in southern segregation at the time, the film depicts the growing hostilities formed between the white McAllan family and the black Jackson family. As each family sends a son off to war in Europe during World War II, the plot thickens with other hardships faced by the joining land owner and tenant farmer.

“Mudbound” tells a powerful story that will punch you in the stomach too many times to count. It emotionally illustrates the severe challenges faced by these neighboring farmlands. Examined the closest is how each family responds to flooded crops and serious injury & sickness sustained by loved ones while waiting for their sons to return from war. These devastating tests all promulgating the growing distrust between the families.

Phenomenal performances abound throughout this exceptional film. Easily the strongest ensemble cast we’ve seen thus far in 2017, expect to see Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell compete for best supporting actor nominations this awards season. Although both are critical components to this narrative as returning WWII service members, I give a slight preference to Hedlund’s headstrong role as Jamie McAllan. The always selective Hedlund, who turned down the part of Christian Grey in the 2015 “Fifty Shades of Grey” bondage film, acts as the film’s forceful voice of reason and compassionate soul.

This film’s ultimate success, however, can be traced back to superb female influences found on both sides of the camera. Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Dee Rees directed and co-wrote this dramatic screenplay, giving audiences the most gripping story on race relations since 2013’s “12 Years a Slave”—which earned 3 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Aside from Rees’ astonishing work as director and screenwriter, two female stars of “Mudbound” deliver second-to-none matriarch performances. Mary J. Blige as devoted mother and wife Florence Jackson and Carey Mulligan as Laura, the wife of landowner Henry McAllan (and brother to Hedlund’s Jamie McAllan).

The combined greatness found in the acting, directing and script all make “Mudbound” and Netflix worthy of Oscar talk come March 4th.

Currently, the film is available to all Netflix subscribers on-line and in select theaters nationwide. Expect a wider release of “Mudbound” into additional theaters by later next month.

Grade: A+

“Mudbound” is rated R for brief language, some disturbing violence, and nudity. Its running time is 2 hours and 14 minutes.

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Today’s scorecard: Best Actress

Who ya got on your list (as of today)?

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Current: 2017 Film Awards

Where the race stands right now…

Next: Best Actress.

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Movie Review – “Justice League”

“The DC Extended Universe is back….bigger and brighter!”

Patrick King, REEL BRIEF

Although “Justice League” failed to break the $100 million mark in U.S. ticket sales last weekend, this latest DC Extended Universe’s action feature did achieve its longer-lasting goal: Reestablish Warner Bros. and DC Comics back on their feet in the superhero movie death match against the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After 2016’s disastrous “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”, that’s no small feat for director Zack Snyder to overcome.

I was surprised at just how good “Justice League” was and its wildly entertaining introduction of new comic book characters. The movie also cleverly expands our knowledge of the other action heroes as they form a bond to save the world. It’s a humorous trek throughout with quick one-liners and inflatable egos. And that Lasso of Truth tells us all we need to know!

This plotline moves quickly, but deliberately, coming in at just under 2 hours—minus the two bonus scenes after the post-film credits. Whereas past DC adventures seemed to dwell on the villain for far too long, this narrative mostly sidesteps the evil Steppenwolf history and the formidable New Gods. Instead, “Justice League” focuses on our newest action figure additions and delivering laughs within the newly formed group of crime-fighters.

Excellent casting abounds all-around: Jason Momoa is edgy as Aquaman and Ezra Miller delivers a youthful exuberance, a la “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, as The Flash. Newcomer Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is also very effective to the overall story. Diane Lane and Amy Adams return along with a star-studded ensemble that includes Jeremy Irons, J.K. Simmons, Robin Wright, and a brief appearance by Jesse Eisenberg.

Gal Gadot once again delivers a mega-blockbuster in 2017 as Wonder Woman. Make no mistake, Gadot drives “Justice League” from start to finish. Even awkward, extended scenes of a shirtless male superhero is offset by gratuitous shots of Diana Prince wearing sexy leather pants. Talk about justice.

The best compliment that can be bestowed upon “Justice League” is that it summarily cleans up and improves last year’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” by tying up loose ends and giving us closure. Additionally, the film miraculously discards the darker cinematography found in more recent DC adventures and injects brighter lit scenes that help viewers catch every moving part on the set.

“Justice League” reminds me of the successful ingredients found in the Marvel editions since Iron Man ten years ago…excellent leading characters, humorous camaraderie shared between superheroes, and a laser focus on new character superpowers. Combined, they make this DC Extended Universe theater experience the best we’ve seen in years!

Grade: A

“Justice League” is rated PG-13. Its running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes, not including two post-credit bonus scenes.

 

 

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Movie Review – “Blood Stripe”

“Powerful! In what’s bound to be (Kate) Nowlin’s breakout movie, I can’t remember a better female screen portrayal of the U.S. Marine Corps.”

– Patrick King, REEL BRIEF

A hallmark of many successful films is their ability to tackle common, often repeated topic areas found in other big screen endeavors and, yet, still surprise viewers. These different perspectives or cultures take us into uncharted characters, adding unique story twists to already well-established plotlines. Marking the scarlet band running down the dress uniform of officers in the United States Marine Corps., “Blood Stripe” does just that.

The fictionalized “Blood Stripe” follows the final return home of a female Marine sergeant following deployment tours to Afghanistan and Iraq. As the sole woman assigned to a combat unit, this “Lioness” led checkpoints, established civil operations, and helped clear house raids at night.

Despite arriving back in the United States looking strong and well, we find this Marine’s real wounds are festering in emotional turmoil inside her. Using a series of flashbacks, sleepless nights, and a growing uneasiness around friends and family, “Blood Stripe” methodically traces the Sergeant’s reintegration into civilian life.

Whereas most post-traumatic stress disorder war films focus on the battlefield causes or the band of brothers and family members pushing to give these warriors the help they richly deserve, “Blood Stripe” boldly shows this combat veteran taking it upon herself to decompress and find her own solutions.

A spectacular performance by Kate Nowlin, as our Marine, spearheads “Blood Stripe” and provides the film its believability and human touch. In what’s bound to be Nowlin’s breakout movie, I can’t remember a better female screen portrayal of the U.S. Marine Corps. Nowlin gives a gripping and memorable screen tour that honors members of the Corps and all women serving in the United States military.

“Blood Stripe” is powerful! It’s a great film that all Americans would benefit from seeing and understanding. The story gives us the ground truth on the emotional wounds our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coasties pay for the price of freedom…but from a unique perspective not seen in most military dramas. And that makes “Blood Stripe” well worth your time.

You may rent “Blood Stripe” from iTunes, Google Play, VUDU, or YouTube.

Grade: A-

“Blood Stripe” is Unrated with a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes.

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Movie Review – “Goodbye, Christopher Robin”

“This film is an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the comfort and safety provided from the Winnie-the-Pooh series for over 90 years.” 

– Patrick King, REEL BRIEF

 

Avid fans of the classic “Winnie-the-Pooh” books and poems will be mildly shocked at the traumatic and unsettled mindset behind the most popular children’s storybook character of all time. A.A. Milne, a play writer in London after serving on the frontlines of World War I, penned the huggable bear series amidst horrific wartime flashbacks that caused dreadful stress throughout his personal life and family.

Extraordinary screen talent Domhnall Gleeson (“The Revenant”) perfectly projects the reclusive author Milne, forced to relocate to a 100+ acre estate in England to decompress and calm his post-war thoughts. Fighting a major case of writer’s block, Milne must embrace fatherhood and a wife (Margot Robbie) nearing her wit’s end trying to help him with his post-traumatic war emotions.

Goodbye, Christopher Robin” is a film whose introduction and first few chapters are spread out a bit too long, inducing several slower moments between telling developments of a young son growing up: Christopher Robin Milne. The awkward and painful relationship endured by Christopher Robin (aka “Billy Moon”) with his father and is heartbreaking to watch at times. Likewise, the children’s book created about him, creates other challenges for the younger Milne as he matures and leaves home.

This film is an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the comfort and safety provided from the Winnie-the-Pooh series for over 90 years. British director Simon Curtis (2011’s “My Week with Marilyn”) nicely illustrates the inspiration for developing and naming Winnie, along with background on several other of Pooh’s book pals.

Most intriguing of all in “Goodbye, Christopher Robin” is the notion that the first person to find their fears and pain alleviated by the Winnie-the-Pooh was the author penning the poems and stories. After a slightly drawn out beginning, the film’s final two acts are fascinating to see unfold…all the “Winnie-the-Pooh” characters, those inside the books or those responsible for creating them, are either merchandised or aged. As the “Winnie-the-Pooh” franchise takes off, so does the movie.

Goodbye, Christopher Robin” is one of the year’s most anticipated and award-buzzing films slated for 2017. Seen in only 262 theaters nationwide right now, look for more publicity for this movie and franchise in the coming weeks. Do I think it’ll earn a Best Picture nomination? Not likely. Is this a toddler-friendly big screen story? Not at all. But “Goodbye, Christopher Robin” is an interesting and worthy story to watch. Particularly with its endurance and popularity over the years now approaching the Century mark.

Grade: B+

“Goodbye, Christopher Robin” is rated PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images, and brief language. Its running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.

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Movie Review – “Thank You for Your Service”

“Keep (Miles) Teller on your Best Actor list for 2017. Yes, he’s that good in this movie.”

Patrick King, REEL BRIEF

Fans of 2014’s highly acclaimed “American Sniper” military drama will find common themes embedded in this latest war film depicting U.S. service members returning home after doing battle in Iraq. Never once taking the easy route to describe the struggles suffered by tens of thousands of combat veterans and their families, “Thank You for Your Service” honors the unimaginable sacrifices of so many, for so long.

Based on the non-fiction book by American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winning author David Finkel, this movie follows three U.S. Army soldiers’ reintegration to family life back in 2007. It meticulously and realistically addresses their post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and the personal challenges each faces in trying to get back to a sense of normalcy around loved ones.

Making his directorial debut, Jason Hall gives us a heartbreaking, and, at times, shocking view into the soldiers’ journey to seek out and get medical help. Hall, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “American Sniper”, perfectly captures the changed family dynamics and unsettling tension found between married couples after nearly a year of deployment separation.

As one who deployed sixteen times in support of 12 military operations over a 24-year Air Force career, I can tell you that this film gets military family life spot-on. One scene in this film still stands out in my mind as the ground truth of U.S. combat operations now going on its seventeenth consecutive year: One of the recently returned soldiers must get his supervisor to sign-off on paperwork verifying his exposure to an attack in Iraq so he can receive his justified service-related medical treatment. The young officer in-charge, probably with nary a combat tour under his belt, is more enamored with purchasing steak on-line than hearing from one of the troops that served down range outside the barbed wire.

Miles Teller and Haley Bennett lead a stellar cast, both of whom absolutely nail their parts as Sergeant Adam Schumann and his wife, Saskia. Teller, who along with Jake Gyllenhaal (“Stronger”) are the two most underrated Hollywood actors right now, epitomizes the selfless leadership found in today’s non-commissioned officer corps. Keep Teller on your Best Actor list for 2017. Yes, he’s that good in this movie. Bennett also does a masterful job at pulling information slowly from her hurting husband and getting him to ask for help.

The 99% of Americans who don’t wear the U.S. military uniform should see this film. As we continue to settle into the longest war in our nation’s history, it’s important to note the stress in our fighting force and their families. With twenty-two veterans committing suicide each day and many others suffering in silence after multiple combat deployments, the status quo isn’t sustainable forever. To all the men and women on our front lines today, thank you–and your families–for your sacrifices.

Grade: A-

“Thank You for Your Service” is rated R for strong violent content, language throughout, some sexuality, drug material and brief nudity. Its running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.

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Movie Review – “Only the Brave”

“A tough film to watch…”  – Patrick King, REEL BRIEF

Watching this year’s forest fires scorch the western United States has highlighted the dangers and difficulty faced by those willing to fight fire with fire. The photos of homes and landmarks saved seared into our memories–a tribute to the dedication and hard work of so many.

Perhaps none more so than Multnomah Falls, a popular waterfall running along the Columbia River Gorge outside Portland, Oregon, saved due to an all-out effort by first responders. And just as shocking, the pictures of who and what couldn’t be saved…like the apocalyptic images of Douglas Thron’s overhead drone footage catching a U.S. postal service truck attempting to deliver mail to a charred, desolate neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California. Both instances underscoring the strength and devastation wildfires are capable of leveling and the men charged with stopping it.

 

“Only the Brave” takes us back to the true-life beginnings of Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshots, the self-proclaimed SEAL Team Six of forest fire killers. While it’s a film that illustrates the tactics, techniques, and procedures used to fight wildfires, “Only the Brave” is a humble, character-driven drama about these very special young men and those closest to them.

The movie’s driving force are shifting 60-mile per hour winds and the sacrifices made by Hotshot family members…whether they’re wives or girlfriends, their struggle is real and just as tense.

Director Joseph Kosinski, tapped to deliver “Top Gun: Maverick” in 2019, surrounded himself in this outdoor feature with proven film veterans on both sides of the camera. Co-writers Ken Nolan (“Black Hawk Down”) and Eric Warren Singer (“American Hustle”) give us powerful roles from a superb cast of known actors, actresses and handfuls of newcomers. None better than Jennifer Connelly’s screen gem as the hardcore wife of the Hotshots’ brazen leader (Josh Brolin).

“Only the Brave” is a tough film to watch. It’s gripping to see the risks these dedicated souls take on new wildfires. The movie’s also very emotional and funny at times, as we learn about each character’s life outside of forest fires.

Intense filmmaking doesn’t come close to describing the smoke, ashes and heat this film pours down on the woodlands and viewers. The outdoor fire scenes are easily the best cinematography since 2015’s The Revenant”.  You’ll feel so close to the flames your eyebrows may get singed!

A remarkable tribute to these first responders and their line of work, their families, and the esprit de corps they share.

Grade: A

“Only the Brave” is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language, and drug use. Its running time is 2 hours and 14 minutes.



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Movie Review – “Victoria & Abdul”

“An interesting and charming start… Victoria & Abdul awkwardly takes on a more serious tone by mid-movie…largely leaving behind the film’s witty humor and successful banter established between the two. …Wait to rent it”.

– Patrick King, REEL BRIEF

It’s easy to understand why the widespread popularity of series like “Game of Thrones” or “Outlander” has garnered so many loyal television fans. Viewers enjoy stepping back in time to witness snappy foreign dialects, the intricacy of throwback wardrobes, and get spellbound by the distinct personalities presented within each hierarchy or kingdom. Or, in the case of “Victoria & Abdul”, a monarchy. Stephen Frears, who brought us the Oscar-nominated “The Queen” in 2006 and last year’s hilarious “Florence Foster Jenkins”, directs this loosely based true story of England’s Queen Victoria in 1887.

Victoria & Abdul” charts an interesting and charming start, taking us to Queen Victoria’s (Judi Dench) historic 50th year atop the royal throne. To properly mark such an occasion, Her Majesty orders that two gentlemen from the British colony of India appear at her Golden Jubilee celebration bearing a gift. Quickly a satisfying teacher-pupil relationship is fostered between the 24-year old Indian named Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) and the elderly monarch fighting boredom.

This film’s high point is the glimpse behind the scenes of the British royalty and the equally enchanting on-screen rapport of Dench and Fazal. Dench, who also played Queen Victoria in 1997’s “Mrs. Brown”, delivers another flawless performance. Surprising is Fazal’s ability match Dench’s award-worthy work step-for-step throughout the movie. Fazal’s personal aide role as Abdul highlights a passionate teacher (called a “munshi”) who always educates and informs the isolated and lonely Victoria.

After a blistering and pompous beginning, “Victoria & Abdul” awkwardly takes on a more serious tone by mid-movie…largely leaving behind the film’s witty humor and successful banter established between the two. The story’s sharp dialogue and goodness suddenly replaced with accusations, discrimination, and outright hatred by close associates and family of the Queen. “Victoria & Abdul” darkens fast. Too fast, really. The back-and-forth friendship of the two swings wildly from hot to cold…too quick to almost seem plausible under the circumstances.

Just as fascinating as this rise of an Indian to be a servant to the British monarch is the century-old story on how it was discovered. Following Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, all records of Abdul Karim’s service and relationship to the crown were removed from the royal archives. Not until journalist Shrabani Basu found clues to their friendship in 2003, and later described it in her book “Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant”, did modern history fully understand and acknowledge this royal story. And now you should too…just wait to rent it.

Grade: C+

“Victoria & Abdul” is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and language. Its running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.

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