American Animals

Written and directed by British filmmaker Bart Layton best known for the 2012 critically acclaimed documentary The Imposter, American Animals is a terrific heist movie that reenacts a truly extraordinary true story about a group of college students daring to commit one of the largest art thefts in American history. The filmmaker makes a truly unique and brilliant decision to mix the majority of the film’s dramatized narrative with interviews with the real life characters portrayed. We first meet Spencer Reinhard, played by the terrific Irish actor Barry Keoghan, as an art student at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky who is looking for a way to escape his ordinary life. He teams up with his lazy childhood friend Warren Lipka, played by another terrific young actor Evan Peters, to steal several rare books, including an original book of paintings by the famous wildlife artist John James Audubon, worth millions from the special collections library at Transylvania University. As they plan what they believed was a relatively simple heist, they run into a series of problems and must enlist two other friends: Chas Allen who is played by Blake Jenner and Eric Borsuk who is played by Jared Abrahamson. As the day of the robbery in December of 2004 approaches, several of the guys, especially Spencer, are worried that the robbery will fail and ruin their lives if they are caught, but Warren who acts as the ringleader successfully encourages them to go through with the plan. The movie keeps a quick and exciting pace as soon as the robbery commences by relying on shaky camera work and acting performances that make their characters’ intense emotions palpable. The filmmaker also does a remarkable job of crafting a film about reality; in the real life interviews, almost all of the individuals tell a slightly different story about what happened, which makes the audience question what really happened and what was fictionalized. Overall, I found it to be a terrific film that brilliantly transcends the formulaic aspects of a heist film while raising fascinating and important issues about storytelling, reality, and the desire for the individual to become extraordinary through reckless actions.

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Tag

Based on an unbelievable true story as featured in The Wall Street Journal in 2013, Tag is an entertaining and sometimes hilarious comedy with such a preposterous premise that it probably would not have worked had it not have been based on real life events. The plot revolves around is a group of friends who grew up together as kids have been engaged in a game of tag for almost 30 years that always takes place during the month of May. The five friends now in their forties include Ed Helms who plays the sort of ringleader Hoagie, Jon Hamm who plays the successful insurance executive Bob Callahan, Jake Johnson who plays the stoner Chilli, Hannibal Buress who plays the goofball Sable, and Jeremy Renner who plays the successful and untouchable tag player Jerry. In what possibly could be their last game of tag, they all converge on their hometown of Spokane, Washington where Jerry who has never been tagged in his whole life is about to get married. Through a series of elaborate ploys, the four others try desperately to finally tag Jerry even though his fiance strictly forbids them from doing it during the wedding activities. The filmmaker adds an extra dose of humor by showing several of their antics in slow-mo as if it is an action movie and in which the characters’ ridiculously serious inner dialogue can be heard. Also, in order to round out the movie, there is also a love triangle between Chilli and Callahan over Rashida Jones’ character, as well as several unexpected heartwarming moments involving the lifelong friends and their futures. One part of the film that I thought was unnecessary was having a Wall Street Journal reporter appear as a character who really did not add anything to the story. Overall, I found it to be a good light-hearted film that helps pass the time and is able to pull off a story with such a preposterous yet creative story.

Ocean’s 8

A spin-off of the Ocean’s 11 trilogy first released in 2001, Ocean’s 8 is an entertaining heist movie that follows the formula of the first films but with the unique twist of having an all-female cast. The movie involves the planned robbery at the highly fashionable Met Gala in which a 15 million dollar diamond necklace is to be stolen from a pretentious actress named Daphne, played by Oscar winner Anne Hathaway. The elaborate heist is devised by the sister of Danny Ocean, played by George Clooney in the trilogy, Debbie, played by Oscar winner Sandra Bullock, who was just released from prison after 5 years. Like almost all heist movies, the beginning introduces the audience to the cast of characters making up the team: Oscar winner Cate Blanchett plays Debbie’s former partner-in-crime Lou, Emmy winner Mindy Kaling plays the jeweler Amita, Golden Globe winner Sarah Paulson plays the surburban mom and stolen goods salesperson Tammy, Oscar nominee Helena Bonham Carter plays the disgraced fashion designer Rose, Grammy winner Rihanna plays the hacker Nine Ball, and Awkwafina plays the pickpocket Constance. The rest of the movie follows the group as they get ready for the heist that involves penetrating the high security surrounding the extremely valuable Cartier diamond necklace and the Metropolitan Museum of Art on its most glamorous and exclusive night. The film is a fairly rudimentary heist movie complete with unexpected events that could derail a successful operation and surprise twists of who else is involved. What sets it apart is its female focus by having the protagonists be highly capable women who target an over-the-top high fashion event full of self-absorbed socialites and actresses. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable cinematic experience that provides mindless entertainment, but it falls short of the original Ocean’s 11 and its sequels that helped redefine the heist narrative.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Directed by Morgan Neville who won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 2013’s 20 Feet from Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an excellent documentary about the remarkably kind children’s television host Fred Rogers and provides insight into what inspired him to create the iconic television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. When the low-budget family-friendly show debuted on Pittsburgh public television in 1968, nobody could foresee the impact that the soft-spoken ordained minister Fred Rogers would have on children’s programming and the education of young minds through such a new medium as television. The documentary gives an insider’s look into Mister Rogers by interviewing cast and crew members as well as his children and surviving wife who describe his personal life reflective of his on-screen persona as a gentle and patient man who truly cared about children. Because of his profound influence on the millions of people who grew up with his breakthrough show that premiered its last episode in 2001, the film is at times emotional for the audience by bringing back such heartwarming and joyous memories to life. In a day in age in which several iconic personalities have let down audiences after the revelation of egregious moral failings, it is refreshing to see a movie about a honest-to-goodness wonderful human who always presented his true inner self and simply wanted to do what was best for others. As presented by the documentary, there were times when Fred Rogers struggled and felt the obligation to discuss rather depressing topics with his young audience, including the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Overall, I found it to be a truly fascinating glimpse into the life of Fred Rogers and his passion for creating Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and I would highly recommend it to anybody who watched Mister Rogers or simply looking for a heartwarming story about a positive figure during such a divisive time in our country.

Hotel Artemis

Written and directed by Drew Pearce who was one of the writers for 2013’s Iron Man 3 and 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Hotel Artemis is an entertaining and stylish action thriller with the hallmarks of a midnight B movie and a surprising all-star cast. Set in dystopian Los Angeles in the near future, the story revolves around a secret hospital for criminals that becomes the refuge for outlaws from the intense violent riots enveloping the entire city. The hospital, which is located on the top floor of a vintage old world hotel, is run by a rules-bound and efficient nurse, played by Oscar winner Jodie Foster in her first role since 2013. A large muscular orderly nicknamed Everest, played by Dave Bautista, is the only other person working at the futuristic hospital, and he is sometimes enlisted as the enforcer. On a particularly busy night, the Artemis is filled with a variety of dangerous criminals who only behave because of the rules enforced while in the hospital. It begins with a pair of bank robbers, one played by Emmy Award-winning actor Sterling K. Brown, who escaped a botched robbery while being pursued by the police. The other patients include a world-class assassin, played by Sofia Boutella, and a wisecracking criminal, played by Charlie Day. Things get increasingly complicated and violent with the arrival of the so-called Wolf King, played by Jeff Goldblum, who is the criminal overlord of Los Angeles and is accompanied by his obsequious son, played by Zachary Quinto. Foster’s character is trying to keep everyone happy and allow Hotel Artemis to continue running smoothly while she also has to deal with her anxiety deriving from the traumatic memory of losing her son. Overall, I found it to be an exciting and fun action flick that is notable for its unique vision of a dystopian future in which medical technology advances, but society as a whole collapses.

First Reformed

Written and directed by Golden Globe-nominated screenwriter Paul Schrader who is best known for 1976’s Taxi Driver, 1980’s Raging Bull, and 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, First Reformed is a first-rate drama exploring the complexities of religion, environmental issues, and self-reflection and is truly remarkable for the Oscar-worthy performance of Ethan Hawke. The plot follows the troubled Reverend Ernst Toller, played by Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke in perhaps his best role, who leads a very small congregation at an upstate New York Dutch Reform church that is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. Struggling with alcoholism and past trauma, he finds little solace in his pastoral work and lives a lonely existence without practically any friends or family. His somber and quiet life changes course after meeting a pregnant parishioner named Mary, played by the terrific Amanda Seyfried, and her distraught husband who is an extremist environmental activist. While trying to navigate religious issues with Mary and her husband and coming to terms with the environment, the Reverend is under the guidance of his mother megachurch Abundant Life led by the influential Pastor Jeffers, played by Cedric the Entertainer in a very dramatic role, who has financial ties to the region’s largest polluter. The beautifully dark cinematography with a smaller aspect ratio and set during the depths of winter brilliantly underscores Reverend Toller’s quiet despair grappling with his own demons and conscience about the church’s involvement with what he sees as an immoral corporation. In the gripping climax towards the end of the movie, he contemplates committing a grievous act out of desperation and as his own form of environmental activism. Overall, I can say without any doubt that it is one of the best films of the year and Ethan Hawke’s mesmerizing acting should be universally applauded; therefore, I highly recommend the movie to true lovers of cinema.

Action Point

Starring Johnny Knoxville famous for his TV series Jackass first released in 2000, Action Point is a rather stupid movie that is essentially a series of Jackass-like physical comedy stunts pretending to be a full narrative film. However, it should not be criticized too severely because it is exactly the type of movie you should expect from Johnny Knoxville and what appeared in the previews. The story follows the free-spirited owner of a cheap amusement park in the 1970s named D.C., played by Knoxville, who fights for his beloved park to remain open while trying to please his young teenage daughter nicknamed Boogie. The movie is told from the perspective of an older version of D.C. who recounts his memories about Action Point park to his young granddaughter. The amusement park is an extremely unsafe yet thrilling place for the local kids as well as the misfit employees who are often drunk or high. With the opening of a nearby corporate-owned amusement park and the arrival of a litigious real estate developer, D.C. struggles to keep up with competition and decides to up the ante by making the rides even more fun and dangerous. He also tries to connect with his daughter who lives with her mother in New York. The rather ridiculous premise is designed as justification for displaying all of the extremely dangerous stunts for comedic effect that Johnny Knoxville and his crew are known for in the TV show and subsequent movies. Overall, I found the movie largely without any redeeming qualities or even moments of laughter, and I could only recommended to those who really enjoy watching people hurt themselves or are fans of Johnny Knoxville’s work.