Judy

Directed by Rupert Goold best known for English theatrical productions and the 2015 movie True Story, Judy is an excellently crafted and sobering glimpse of the final months of actress and singer Judy Garland’s tumultuous life, and the film is brought to life by the truly extraordinary performance given by Renée Zellweger. A majority of the movie revolves around her final set of shows given in 1969 in London after facing several professional setbacks back home in the United States, but Judy’s story is also fleshed out with a series of flashbacks at the height of her child stardom around the time of The Wizard of Oz. As a result of her notoriously difficult behind-the-scenes behavior related to her substance abuse, she is practically in financial ruin and unable to get any sort of gig at the beginning until she is encouraged to perform in England where she is still beloved. She reluctantly leaves her son and daughter with their father and her ex-husband Sidney Luft, played by Rufus Sewell, in Los Angeles despite her unhealthy attachment to her children who she would use to perform with her. Greatly worrying her agent, the show promoter, and her British handler and assistant who is played by Jessie Buckley, Judy constantly shows up late to her sold-out crowds and dismisses rehearsals and spends most of her time in her hotel suite acting bizarrely and in a state of confusion. We learn she is addicted to a wide variety of medications, primarily as a result of her abusive treatment as a child star by the MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. While working at MGM, she was often forced to working long hours and eat very little in order to maintain her status as a major star. Overall, I found it to be a terrific movie showcasing Renée Zellweger in an Oscar-worthy performance vividly showing that Judy Garland was sadly in a terrible state towards the end of her much celebrated life and greatly struggled with substance abuse and depression.

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Joker

Co-written and directed by Todd Phillips best known for his comedic work, including The Hangover trilogy first released in 2009, Joker is unlike any other movie based on a comic book character because it is much more of a character study of a very dark and deranged individual who eventually becomes the predominant arch-nemesis of Batman. Similar to the iconic 1976 Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver, the story follows a clearly mentally ill man who eventually descends into violent madness after feeling persecuted by a morally bankrupt society that constantly bullies him for his idiosyncrasies. Living in the corrupt and economically depressed fictional Gotham City in 1981 based on the gritty New York City of the time, Arthur Fleck, played by the terrific Joaquin Phoenix in a very committed and disturbing role, works as a hired clown in the city and lives in a dingy apartment with his sick mother. His feeling of hopelessness and the pervasive depression surrounding him in the decaying city filled with a wealthy and greedy elite contribute to his horrifying psychological breakdown towards the middle of the movie. What really sets him off is seeing his comedic idol and late night television host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro whose portrayal of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver very much resembles Arthur Fleck, make fun of his inability to be a stand-up comic. Dressed up as a disheveled cloud who wants to be referred to as Joker, Arthur finds himself in a extremely violent situation that eventually spirals out-of-control and leads him to a destructive and terrifying psychosis. His actions eventually lead to a citywide protest against the rich, particularly mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne who is better known as father to Bruce Wayne later to become Batman. At the end, the entire city devolves into chaotic riots in which several people are brutally killed. Overall, I found it to be a disturbing yet well done anti-hero psychological drama that is led by a truly remarkable performance given by the extremely talented Joaquin Phoenix. It is definitely not for the faint of heart because it does contain a fair amount of violent moral depravity that has made the movie somewhat controversial with critics and audiences alike.

Ad Astra

Co-written and directed by James Gray best known for 2017’s The Lost City of Z, Ad Astra is a visually stunning sci-fi space adventure movie that is much more philosophical than your typical space film in that it explores the relationship between father and son as well as the existence of intelligent life beyond humanity on Earth. Set in the near distant future in which humans have colonized the Moon and Mars, the protagonist of the story Major Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt in one of his best performances, as a member of the U.S. Space Command is sent on a secret and personal mission to stop mysterious cosmic power surges crippling human infrastructure and threatening all of humanity. Roy is chosen for this mission because it is believed that his father H. Clifford McBride, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is somehow involved despite disappearing sixteen years ago on a mission to Neptune. The emotionally stoic and dedicated Roy, who we discover through flashbacks has had a difficult personal life with his estranged wife and long-lost father, sets out on a interplanetary expedition to the SpaceCom base on Mars by way of the Moon where there is a war between countries and pirates over the control of minerals. He is accompanied by a longtime friend of his father who is played by Donald Sutherland to go to Mars in order to deliver a message to the Lima Project spacecraft, led by his father, that mysteriously disappeared years ago. Without spoiling too much of the plot, Roy goes on even further adventures across the solar system while he is internally grappling with what it means to be a human and trying to understand the intentions of his father who is praised as a hero of SpaceCom. Rather surprisingly, the movie is much more of a meditative experience that relies on magnificent cinematography exploring space and the dreamlike states of Roy as he spends days by himself in outer space. Since his father’s mission was to try and discover extraterrestrial life on solar systems far from our own, the film contemplates on the existence of life and what it means for humans to possibly be the only intelligent beings in the universe. Overall, I found it to be a very well-done space film that has brilliant elements of science fiction in its depiction of space travel in the future in addition to being a personal drama that takes an inward look into the human psyche and our relationships with others, particularly family.

Downton Abbey

A follow-up movie to the extremely popular British TV series Downton Abbey that ran for six seasons from 2010 to 2015, Downton Abbey does an excellent job of recreating the elements that made the show such a success by portraying the daily lives of the family members and staff of the Downton Abbey estate and, of course, with bits of scandal. The film is set in 1927 England, a year after the events of the concluding episode, and the plot revolves around a royal visit to Downton Abbey and all the preparations that must take place in order to properly host King George and Queen Mary. The movie will mean a lot more for fans and viewers of the original series and is very nostalgic with the appearance of almost all of the characters that fans have come to love and hate over the years. The quite entertaining conflicts between the staff members downstairs and the witty banter between the Grantham family, especially Maggie Smith’s magnificent Dowager Countess character. Things get even more complicated with the arrival of the royal staff who are trying to take over almost all of roles of the household staff, which, to put it lightly, does not go over well. Knowing that it is such a great honor to serve the king and queen, the household staff try their best to take back control of their beloved Downton Abbey and the family they have so dutifully served over the years. As is the case towards the end of the series, Lord Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville, and his daughter Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery, along with the rest of the family grapple with what will happen with Downton Abbey in light of the changing times in which large estates are shuttering. Overall, I found it to be a wonderful continuation of the internationally-acclaimed television series that thoughtfully tried hard to recapture the same feel of such an endearing TV show. It will definitely delight long-time fans of Downton Abbey and quite honestly will probably mean much more to those who have watched the entire series than regular moviegoers who have not been exposed to the characters and storylines of the television program.

Hustlers

Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria best known for 2012’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Hustlers is a surprisingly smart and entertaining movie for having a plot revolving around New York City strippers and is remarkable for undoubtedly the best performance ever given by Jennifer Lopez. Based on a real life story, the narrative is primarily told by a former stripper named Destiny, played by Constance Wu best known for her role in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, to a journalist, played by Julia Stiles. In a series of elongated flashbacks, Destiny first enters the world of stripping in 2007 as a means of financially supporting her grandmother but soon begins to want more money to live a more luxurious lifestyle. She meets a older yet extremely popular stripper named Ramona, played by the terrific Jennifer Lopez, who teaches her how to pole dance and the tricks of getting the most money from the male clientele. After the financial crisis only a year later, Destiny and Ramona part ways, with both women in financial distress due to the decreasing number of strip club attendance. Eventually, Destiny returns to stripping and teams up with Ramona once again but this time with a illegal scheme to steal money from their wealthy patrons. Two other strippers are also enlisted in the fraud in which they go to bars and restaurants to attract wealthy men and take them to the strip club where the women max out their credit cards. They are able to to get away with the scam because they drug the targets so they do not realize what is happening and lose memory of the events the next day. Over time, Ramona gets reckless in order to make even more money and ultimately gets her in trouble and harms her close relationship with Destiny. Yes, the film is visually dazzling as a result of the stylish and provocative strip clubs sequences, but there is unexpected depth to the storyline that explores the complex dynamics between stripper and patron. It also touches on the subject of wealth inequality in that the financially desperate protagonists decide to take advantage of mostly Wall Street wealthy patrons who only see the women as a means for their sexual gratification. Overall, I found it to be a terrific film, filled with powerful acting, that is able to tell a truly unique and nuanced story about a group of strippers taking control of their lives by using an an illicit scheme.

Good Boys

Produced by comedian Seth Rogen and his producing partner Evan Goldberg, Good Boys is a well-done vulgar comedy that can be best described as a tween version of the 2007 comedy Superbad because it follows a group of adolescent boys going on ridiculous and cringe-worthy adventures involving very inappropriate subject matter, primarily of a sexual nature. The main characters are three sixth graders comprising of a relatively shy Max, played by Jacob Tremblay best known for his role in the critically acclaimed 2015 movie Room, wannabe singer and bad boy Thor, played by Brady Noon, and mama’s boy Lucas, played by Keith L. Williams. Their R-rated exploits begin with Max’s desire to attend a party hosted by the popular kids so that he can kiss his crush. Leading up to this anticipated party, the boys end up encountering high school girls looking for drugs and stealing alcohol while in pursuit of replacing a destroyed drone owned by Max’s father, played by Will Forte. Rather ironically, the actors who will obviously go on to promising acting careers would never be allowed to see the actual movie that they are stars in as a result of the risque material. Also, to my great surprise, there was actually a good message contained within the film: the special power of friendships and how such friendships evolve over the years as a result of the normal process of growing up. Even though close friends may grow apart, the bond they had at one time will always be a part of their lives and will help shape future good memories. Overall, it is definitely a movie that is not for everyone as a result of its ribald nature involving children, but it is a very entertaining and hilarious look at the things that a group of young boys experience as friends, albeit in an over-the-top fashion.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

The ninth installment in the action adventure movie franchise Fast and Furious first started in 2001 and the first spin-off movie, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is a surprisingly entertaining action film deriving from a mostly cheesy and popcorn blockbuster movie series and is successfully able to set itself apart as a result of the charismatic rapport between the two main protagonist who themselves have starred in previous Fast and Furious movies. The plot follows the American government secret agent Luke Hobbs, played by Dwayne Johnson, and his one-time nemesis the British government secret agent Deckard Shaw, played by Jason Statham, who are forced to team up to fight a vast criminal organization and its new mechanically weaponized soldier Brixton Lore, played by the always terrific Idris Elba. They work with Shaw’s estranged sister Hattie, played by Vanessa Kirby, who is also a British spy falsely suspected of stealing a powerful biological weapon developed by the same evil organization that hired Brixton. All three team up to prevent the use of the deadly weapon known as Snowflake that could kill millions of people around the world. At the same time, they have to fight off the super powerful Brixton that is practically invulnerable because of the technology implanted in his body. Like the previous movies, there are elaborate car chases and spectacular action sequences that make it a typical action movie. The climax of the film takes them to Luke Hobbs’ home country of Samoa where he tries to reconnect with his estranged family in order finally defeat the threat posed by Brixton’s organization. What follows is a explosive battle sequence that involves traditional Samoan weapons instead of the generic gun battle. Overall, I found it to be a slightly more than just your stereotypical action flick that had elements of humanity all created by the terrific chemistry between all of the actors.