Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Directed by Martin McDonagh best known for 2008’s In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a terrific film with a stellar cast that expertly blends dark comedy with drama. Set in a small town in Missouri, the movie follows Mildred Hayes, played brilliantly by Oscar winner Frances McDormand, as she tries to find justice for the murder and rape of her daughter several months prior. A force not to be reckoned with, she hatches a plan to rent three abandoned billboards outside of town that directly question the police’s inability to find the culprit. A darkly funny tit-for-tat fight erupts between Mildred and the rest of the townsfolk who are sympathetic to the local police department and Chief Bill Willoughby, played by the always great Woody Harrelson. Things do not get any better with the intervention of the dim-witted and often racist Officer Jason Dixon, played wonderfully by Sam Rockwell, who does not always follow the law in protecting his chief and making sure Mildred removes the incriminating billboards. The issue over the billboards rapidly escalates into violence primarily as a result of the strong-willed and stubborn Mildred who does anything in order to avenge her daughter’s gruesome death. Even as Chief Willoughby is going through his own serious personal problem, she squarely blames the police department for not doing enough to find the perpetrator. To no avail, Mildred’s son Robbie, played by Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges, and her abusive ex-husband, played by Oscar nominee John Hawkes, insist she stop with all the shenanigans in order to prevent further shame to the family. However, she does have some strange bedfellows who encourage her, including the local slick used car salesman who happens to be a little person and excellently portrayed by Peter Dinklage. Although the background story is dramatic and depressing with it involving a rape and murder of a teenage girl, the filmmaker is remarkably able to bring some levity to the situation and allow the audience to laugh at some rather uncomfortable yet ridiculous moments of macabre humor. Overall, I found it to be one of the best films of the year because it contains such brilliant acting performances and is somehow able to effectively mix very real drama with perfectly timed dark comedy.

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Murder on the Orient Express

Directed by Kenneth Branagh who is best known for his work in Shakespeare plays and film adaptations, Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish adaptation of the classic 1934 Agatha Christie novel of the same name and later adapted into a critically acclaimed movie in 1974. It feels very much like a modern update to the murder mystery genre and is jam-packed with an all-star cast, but the film largely does not live up to its predecessor and the novel itself. The always terrific Academy Award nominee Kenneth Branagh stars as Hercule Poirot, a brilliant and eccentric Belgian detective who is a recurring character in Christie’s books. While on a break between cases in the winter of 1934 in Istanbul, he is recruited to investigate a case in the UK and is offered a ticket on the world-famous luxury train the Orient Express headed to Calais, France in order to quickly reach his destination. He, along with thirteen strangers, mostly keep to themselves on an uneventful first leg of the journey. The first few scenes on the train introduce the audience to the passengers ranging from a governess, a professor, a duchess, a secretary to a mobster and are played by such famous faces as Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., and Derek Jacobi. Things rapidly become chaotic after the Orient Express is stranded after an avalanche and a body is discovered in one of the cabins. Detective Hercule Poirot is then enlisted to help solve the murder before the train reaches its next destination. With unique cinematography, including overhead shots and long panning shots, and sumptuous detailing of the original Orient Express and 1930s costumes and decor, the meticulous detective interrogates all the passengers and tries to piece together the evidence to discover the culprit. The best part of the movie is Branagh’s portrayal of the charismatic and mysterious Poirot and the fascinating ways he is able to solve the murder mystery, all the while interacting with a terrific ensemble cast. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable and beautifully shot movie that does not reach perfection as a result of its bloated cast, sometimes too slow pacing, and attempt to revitalize an already beloved classic murder mystery novel and film. 

Suburbicon

Directed by George Clooney, Suburbicon is a strange movie mixing satire, murder mystery, and racial social commentary that ultimately fails its great potential with such a stellar cast of actors and famous writers and director. Going into the movie, I was fully prepared for a zany and eccentric experience since it is partly written by Joel and Ethan Coen, both highly-skilled writers and filmmakers known for oddball humor and satire. The movie starts like a stereotypical vintage infomercial for a bizarrely exaggerated picturesque and quiet suburban community with a 1950s-sounding narrator and imagery associated with that era. I was almost immediately reminded of the 1998 movie Pleasantville, which effectively captured the 1950s and was mostly shot in black-and-white. We first meet the protagonist Gardner Lodge, played by Matt Damon, who appears to be a gentle and normal middle class suburban father and husband in the relatively new predominantly white town of Suburbicon. Coinciding with the first African-American family moving into the community, much to the consternation of the white neighbors, Gardner, his wife Rose, played by Julianne Moore, their young son Nicky, and Rose’s twin sister Margaret, also played by Julianne Moore, are robbed by two mysterious strangers. Rose who is bound to a wheelchair after a recent car accident is subsequently killed during the robbery. Gardner, in a peculiar calm fashion, tries to return to a life of normalcy and asks Margaret to stay and help with raising Nicky. Reinforcing that not all is well in the seemingly perfect Suburbicon, the residents’ hatred and problems arise as their discomfort with the black family becomes a race riot. With such chaos surrounding them, suspicions about the robbery and Rose’s death are raised by the police and the life insurance company Gardner is trying to collect from his wife’s death. To make matters worse, a slick insurance agent named Bud Cooper, played by Oscar Isaac, arrives at the Lodge residence aggressively investigating the life insurance claim and if the death of Rose was orchestrated to defraud the insurance company for money. Chaos rapidly engulfs this supposedly idyllic town where everybody gets along, and the increasingly violent acts expose the hypocrisy and true nature of the residents, especially Gardner and Margaret. Unexpectedly, the movie becomes predominately a murder mystery almost immediately after the satirical opening act and does not have as much dark comedy as the promotional material would have you believe. Overall, I thought that the film tries too hard to blend several genres together to provide biting social commentary, and, unfortunately, fails to capitalize on the terrific talent involved and thereby becomes a wholly different movie than expected. 

Crown Heights

Based on a true story chronicled in a 2005 episode of the NPR radio show This American Life, Crown Heights is the heartbreaking tale of a young man living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York who spends many years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a homicide in 1980. The talented young actor Lakeith Stanfield plays an 18-year-old immigrant from the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago named Colin Warner who leads a troubled life as a petty criminal. After a young man is shot to death in broad daylight, Warner gets caught up in the corrupt and negligent justice system eager for convictions in crime-ridden 1980’s New York. As a result of false testimonies given by predominately young immigrants pressured by the police, he is quickly ushered through the court system and sentenced to 15 years to life for the murder of someone he had never heard of, along with a likely guilty co-defendant who is sentenced to less time as a juvenile. Disgusted by the injustice in which he was convicted and later lost appeals, Warner’s close friend Carl ‘KC’ King, played by former NFL Pro Bowler Nnamdi Asomugha, tirelessly makes it his mission to prove his childhood friend’s innocence and get him released from prison. The film does an excellent job of providing an intimate glimpse into prison from the perspective of an innocent man, including the difficult moments resulting in angered violence and coming to the harsh belief that he may be behind bars for the rest of his life for a crime he did not commit. King remains tenaciously hopeful even when Warner is despondent and spends day and night learning the legal system with the occasional help of a generous criminal defense attorney, played by Bill Camp best known for the 2016 HBO miniseries The Night Of. With his new knowledge, King investigates and interviews witnesses in order to create a compelling appeal for Warner’s exoneration. Over the course of the movie, the filmmaker expertly contextualizes the sometimes injust justice system in the United States by inserting newsreel montages depicting the government crackdown on crime for each decade Warner spends in prison. Overall, I found it to be a truly enlightening and emotionally powerful film about some of the problems with the criminal justice system, including the depressing statistic that up to 120,000 innocent people may be currently incarcerated. 

Wind River

Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan who wrote 2015’s Sicario and 2016’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, Wind River is a gritty and riveting crime mystery thriller with terrific acting performances and excellent cinematography capturing the dark nature of the story. Set in remote Wyoming on the Wind River Indian Reservation, the film follows U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert, played by Jeremy Renner, as he investigates a possible homicide after discovering the frozen body of a 18-year-old Native American girl miles away from civilization. He is forced to team up with the novice FBI agent Jane Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen, who is brought in to see whether it was a murder and help the Wind River Reservation Tribal Police investigate. Based out of Las Vegas, she is woefully unprepared for the frigid weather and must rely on Lambert for his animal tracking skills to literally follow the trail of the mysterious crime. Shot in such a desolate and unforgiving location in which exposure to the elements can result in death within minutes brilliantly underscores the unsolved brutal death of a young woman among the largely overlooked and oppressed Native American population suffering from severe poverty and substance abuse. Throughout the film, there are moments of intense standoffs and violence at unexpected times and places that help to create a gripping thriller in which audiences are desperate for answers. Overall, I found it to be one of the best movies of the year, and the brilliant script and acting fashions not just a truly great crime thriller but a stark exploration of the plight of many Native Americans, especially the disproportionately large number of missing girls cases that are never solved in the community.

Logan Lucky

Directed by Steven Soderbergh who is best known for Ocean’s 11 and its sequels, Logan Lucky is a smart and highly entertaining heist movie very much similar to Ocean’s 11 except taking place in West Virginia and North Carolina where the protagonists hatch an elaborate plan to rob Charlotte Motor Speedway. Played by Channing Tatum, Jimmy Logan is a working-class construction worker living in a trailer in rural West Virginia who is laid off from his job at Charlotte Motor Speedway and learns that his daughter may move further away from him with her mother and his ex-wife who is married to a wealthy car dealer in West Virginia. Desperate for a better chance in life, he decides with his bartender and Iraq veteran brother Clyde, played by Adam Driver, to steal money from Charlotte Motor Speedway’s central vault that Jimmy knows about from his job excavating below the Speedway to repair sinkholes. Eventually, the Logan brothers recruit their beautiful sister Mellie and an explosives expert in prison named Joe Bang, hilariously played by a very southern Daniel Craig, in addition to Joe’s two idiot brothers. Like your typical heist movie, there is a montage of all of the characters being introduced and their preparations for the film’s climax of finally robbing the vault and, of course, not everything goes according to plan. Throughout the movie, there are several parallel plot lines, including Jimmy’s relationship with his ex-wife Bobbie Jo, played by Katie Holmes, and his beloved daughter who is preparing to enter a beauty pageant. To provide additional comic relief, we are introduced to the eccentric British character Max Chilblain, played by Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame, who is an obnoxious wealthy sponsor of one of the NASCAR drivers participating in the race during the heist and has a confrontation with the Logan brothers at Clyde’s bar. Initially, the actors’ highly exaggerated West Virginian accents seem to poke fun at the blue-collar people living in impoverished West Virginia and the South. However, going against the stereotype that they are uneducated and dimwitted Southerners, Jimmy and several of the other characters are proven to be smarter than they appear because they are able to pull off such an elaborate and well-thought-out scheme to steal from Charlotte Motor Speedway and many of the authorities are caught off guard. Overall, I found it to be one of the more enjoyable movies of the summer due to its laugh-out-loud humorous and sometimes preposterous scenes and joyride action sequences; it is sure to be a crowdpleaser, and I would highly recommend it.

Baby Driver

Written and directed by Edgar Wright who is best known for 2004’s Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver is a fun and exciting action film that is complemented by high-octane car chases, a terrifically eclectic and energetic soundtrack, and quality acting performances. We first meet the protagonist Baby, played by the baby-faced Ansel Elgort, in the middle of a bank heist in which he is the extremely talented getaway driver in Atlanta. Later, we learn that the young Baby works for the criminal mastermind Doc, played by the always terrific and devious Kevin Spacey, who organizes various armed robberies with different crews but always with Baby as the driver. Baby is very much ready to stop being a criminal and is told by Doc that he only has to participate in one more heist in order to pay off his debt to Doc. Somewhat of a loner whose only true passion is music after developing tinnitus as a child from a car accident that killed both of his parents, he eventually meets a young and beautiful waitress named Debora, played by Lily James of Downton Abbey fame, who works at a diner where he is a regular. His life finally appears to be back on track, and he begins dating Debora and planning a crime-free life. However, things become complicated after Doc threatens Baby to do one more armed robbery, and Baby must work with the wild Buddy, played by Jon Hamm, Buddy’s beautiful wife Darling, and the gung-ho and out-of-control Bats, played by Jamie Foxx. The planned post office heist goes awry after Bats impulsively shoots several police officers and later murders a security guard. At the same time, never really wanting to be part of the criminal underworld in the first place, Baby secretly plans an escape with his love interest Debora in addition to making sure his deaf foster parent is safe. Overall, unlike most big-budget Hollywood action blockbusters, the movie feels more like a nuanced indie that takes a wholly unique spin on the car chase thriller and makes for an exhilarating and satisfying cinematic experience. What really defines the film is the carefully crafted soundtrack with songs that fit perfectly with each and every scene, whether it be action or romantic, and contributes so much so that it feels like a character of its own.