Shaft

The fifth movie installment in the Shaft franchise first started with the original released in 1971 starring Richard Roundtree, Shaft is not the best movie you will see this summer, but it definitely was an entertaining film with a charismatic cast of characters and harkens back to the original blaxploitation version but with the twist of making it more of a comedy. The plot follows the son of John Shaft II, played by the suave foul-mouthed Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson who reprises his role from the 2000 spinoff, nicknamed JJ, played by Jessie T. Usher, who is a smart straight-laced MIT graduate now working as a data analyst for the FBI. After the mysterious death of his childhood friend, JJ along with his other childhood friend Sasha, played by the beautiful Alexandra Shipp, investigate what actually happened to their friend who was a war veteran and recovering drug addict. Eventually, JJ reluctantly realizes that his estranged father known for his borderline illegal yet extremely effective private investigator skills has to help them navigate the underworld of Harlem. He enlists his father’s help against the wishes of his mother Maya, played by Regina Hall, who left John for endangering JJ as a child. Just like the original Richard Roundtree character, Jackson’s character is very much a ladies man who cares very little for emotion and is often giving profanity-laced outbursts, all the while protecting his neighborhood from criminals. The film is more of an action comedy that does not take the extremely outdated and chauvinistic Shaft character too seriously and definitely does not condone his behavior that is considered controversial according to today’s standards. Towards the end of the movie as they get closer to a resolution and find the villain, JJ’s smooth-talking grandfather John Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree as the original character, makes an appearance to help out the younger Shafts. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable movie that does not try to elevate the original asource material but rather attempts to present a different type of Shaft movie, full of often vulgar humor and outrageous situations.

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Pavarotti

Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard best known for 1995’s Apollo 13 and 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, Pavarotti is a love letter of a documentary to the legendary and larger-than-life opera singer and tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and the film does an extraordinary job of capturing the truly remarkable life story of one of the greatest voices whose persona captivated the world. It follows in the traditional mold of a documentary by telling his story through photographs, archival footage, actual concert performances, and contemporary interviews with his family and colleagues. The true magic of the deeply fascinating documentary is the subject who we first meet as a young man from a working-class family living in Modena, Italy with the improbable dream of becoming a world-class opera singer. The audience does get a glimpse of his sometimes complicated personal life, especially as it relates to his love for beautiful women, who always adored his daughters even at his most difficult points in his life. We get to witness the rise of Pavarotti as he starts his career performing in a small Italian opera company and eventually become a major recording artist who did the unthinkable for opera stars by primarily giving concerts with a selection of songs from famous operas. The largely unseen personal archival footage shows a big-hearted giant of a man who exuded natural charisma and generosity while always enjoying the good things in life, including fine wine and Italian food. His desire to help those in need throughout the world began in earnest after he teamed up with fellow famous tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, establishing what would be known as The Three Tenors. The documentary gives particularly interesting insight into the relationship between the equally charismatic Three Tenors by interviewing both Domingo and Carreras who beautifully reflect on the legacy of their dear friend Pavarotti. Overall, I found it to be one of the more engrossing documentaries that I have seen in recent memory, and I would definitely recommend it to anybody who enjoys music even if you are not a fan of opera, or really anybody who enjoys a good documentary about a remarkable person such as Luciano Pavarotti.

Men in Black: International

The fourth installment in the Men in Black film franchise first started with the release of the original in 1997 with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, Men in Black: International is an average entertaining summer blockbuster that is not as bad as critics have proclaimed and the strongest asset of the movie is the dynamic chemistry between the two protagonists. A spin-off of the original, the movie follows the young and new female Agent M, played by Tessa Thompson best known for her role in the Creed movies, who becomes a probationary agent after tenaciously trying to find the secret agency following an experience as a young girl. The head of the United States division Agent O, played by Oscar winner Emma Thompson, sends her on a mission to help her colleagues in the London division led by Agent T, played by Oscar nominee Liam Neeson. There, she is teamed up with the popular yet recently reckless Agent H, played by the charismatic Chris Hemsworth, to eventually track down an extremely powerful alien force that could destroy the world. The two agents who have a playful and entertaining rapport find themselves traveling throughout the world, including Marrakesh and Paris, to save humanity and all friendly alien races. They are later joined by a wisecracking small alien creature named Pawny, voiced by the funny comedian Kumail Nanjiani. Along the way, they discover that not everything at the agency is as it appears and several plot twists develop as a result. Like the other installments in the franchise, the movie does a good job of creating fantastical alien creatures that are not scary but rather funny and endearing and are terrifically captured by CGI that has vastly improved over the years since the original. Overall, I found it to be a good movie to pass the time that brings back good memories of the original film and is more entertaining than the critics would have you believe.

Late Night

Directed by Nisha Ganatra best known for her work on the award-winning TV show Transparent and written by Mindy Kaling best known for her hit TV show The Mindy Project, Late Night is a terrifically entertaining comedy about a fictional late night comedy show like The Tonight Show hosted by the only female in the industry and is remarkable for its first-rate acting performances, especially from the always terrific Emma Thompson. The story revolves around the late night comedian host Katherine Newbury, played by Oscar winner Emma Thompson, whose long-running show on a major television network is struggling in the ratings as it becomes increasingly irrelevant in today’s fast-paced news cycle and social media influence. In a last-ditch hope of revitalizing the show, the producers and network force Katherine to make a diversity hire by hiring its first female writer who happens to have no professional comedy experience but is very energetic. Although the male-dominated writer’s room and the very stubborn and demanding Katherine does not like the new hire and her new ideas at first, the Indian-American writer Molly Patel, played by comedian and actress Mindy Kaling, slowly becomes friends with Katherine and helps the show rebuild with her fresh views of comedy. Katherine becomes more receptive to Molly as her personal life begins to fall apart, especially with her rapidly ailing husband who is played by Oscar-nominated actor John Lithgow. Even more pressure is added when the head of the network, played by Oscar-nominated actress Amy Ryan, threatens to replace the well-respected veteran host Katherine Newbury with a younger male comedian whose comedy is edgier to appeal to larger audiences. What I particularly liked about the film is its behind-the-scenes look at what happens on a daily basis in the offices of a late night TV show and even brings in the real late night host Seth Meyers for a cameo to create a level of authenticity about the industry. Overall, I found it to be a highly entertaining film about comedy that itself is very funny and relies on a highly talented cast to effectively illustrate what happens on the set of late night television and what it must be like if there was a major female host.

The Souvenir

Written and directed by critically acclaimed British independent filmmaker Joanna Hogg known for making movies that partly reflect her own life, The Souvenir is a very artsy indie film about a budding film student who enters into a troubled relationship with a slightly older man, and it is remarkable for the terrific acting performances and the unique filmmaking techniques and writing. A slow burn of a movie, the almost philosophical movie revolves around the main character Julie, played by the talented young newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne who is the daughter of Oscar winner Tilda Swinton, who tries to distance herself from her upper middle-class family, including her mother played by Tilda Swinton, by joining a small film school and obsessing over making a movie with a very vague topic. Eventually, she begins a romantic relationship with the mysterious and quintessentially posh Anthony, played by the mesmerizing English actor Tom Burke, who is in a constantly dark place and is revealed to have some serious addiction problems. Similar to Julie, he very much goes against what is expected of him, and it is rather a surprise to learn that his family is from a working class and laid-back background. Often, the film feels like a personal project that is a very meta exploration of filmmaking, romance, class status, and toxic relationships. Yes, it can be a difficult-to-watch and confusing movie, but somehow it leaves a deep impression upon the viewer and reveals itself to be more like a piece of artwork that should be cherished for its complexity and beauty. Overall, I found it to be one of those rare films that I did not initially know whether I liked it or not; it was only after watching the movie did I realize how much it affected me. Only now do I appreciate it as one the best movies of the year as a result of how the filmmaker and actors were able to craft such a superb cinematic experience from an occasionally frustratingly opaque story.

Photograph

Written and directed by critically acclaimed Indian filmmaker Ritesh Batra best known for 2013’s The Lunchbox, Photograph is a charming and insightful romantic movie that follows the usual patterns of a Hollywood romantic comedy but goes beyond the genre by incorporating subtle messages about Indian society, particularly the color and caste systems. With predominantly Hindi dialogue, the film explores an unexpected relationship between two very different people from separate parts of society in Mumbai, an unusual bond started with a chance encounter at the tourist landmark Gateway of India. Rafi, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, lives in poverty and works as a street photographer taking pictures of tourists in order to repay his family debts back home in his native village. As is the case in most of Indian families, he is constantly urged to settle down and marry an Indian woman. To appease his very insistent grandmother, he eventually decides to pretend that he is in a romantic relationship with a younger shy woman that he took a picture of at the Gateway of India. Over time, he is able to convince the young woman named Miloni, played by Sanya Malhotra, to play along and meet his grandmother who has just arrived from her small village to see this supposed girlfriend of her grandson. Miloni comes from a middle-class background and is currently studying to become an accountant at the insistence of her parents who she still lives with at home. Similar to Rafi, she is a fairly quiet person who is looking for a way out of her rather mundane life. The best part of the movie is the rather funny and persistent performance given by Rafi’s strong-willed yet sweet grandmother who is played by Farrukh Jaffra. Despite the two main characters’ diverging class status and family background, they begin to become fond of one another and spent time alone together outside of trying to convince his grandmother of their potential marriage. Overall, I found it to be a bittersweet romance that, although at times can be slow, is very touching and has a lot to say about the contemporary issues facing Indian society and culture as a whole, all the while relying on beautiful cinematography to capture the essence of Mumbai.

Dark Phoenix

The 12th installment in the X-Men movie franchise first started in 2000 and a direct sequel to 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix is a remarkably bad superhero comic book film that is very predictable and full of dull moments in which the undoubtedly talented cast give rather lackluster performances. The movie follows the younger version of the X-Men from an alternate reality separate from the original X-Men movies headlined by Patrick Stewart and is set in the year 1992 when the X-Men mutants with extraordinary powers are sent on a rescue mission in space to save NASA astronauts. Primarily focused on the character Jean/Phoenix who has telekinetic powers and is played by Sophie Turner of Game of Thrones fame, the film delves deep into the circumstances of Jean finding herself among the X-Men and her transformation into a much more powerful mutant after being exposed to an extraterrestrial solar flare. She is joined by fellow X-Men led by Charles Xavier, played by Golden Globe nominee James McAvoy, Professor Xavier’s right-hand man Hank/Beast, played by Nicholas Hoult, one of the older X-Men Raven/Mystique, played by Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, Jean’s love interest Scott/Cyclops, played by Tye Sheridan, as well as younger X-Men still learning. Jean becomes a danger to all of her friends as well as the rest of humanity when she absorbs the full power of what we later learn is a super powerful extraterrestrial being that an alien race of shapeshifters are looking for their own benefit. This is alien group is led by Vuk in the form of a female human, played by Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, who is hell-bent on harnessing Jean’s superpowers. Eventually, the X-Men team up with Charles Xavier’s arch-nemesis Erik/Magneto, played by Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender, whose powers are needed to save and protect Jean from her own power and the aliens who are hunting her down for it. The movie does have several very typical CGI action sequences in which the X-Men use their fantastical strengths, but the scenes in between are rather mundane and lacking in any real emotions for such a character-driven movie. Overall, I was truly surprised by how much of a misfire the movie was for being part of the highly popular superhero genre, and it felt like a truly unnecessary addition to the already expansive X-Men franchise.