Harriet

Directed by critically acclaimed African American filmmaker Kasi Lemmons best known for 1997’s Eve’s Bayou, Harriet is important as the first major motion picture about runaway slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman that tells a truly remarkable story but does not do justice to such an extraordinary person as a result of the film’s rather formulaic script. Based on a true story, the plot follows Harriet Tubman, played by Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, first living as a slave in Maryland who decides, after receiving visions from God, that she must escape and run away to the free state of Pennsylvania. We witness her courageous solo journey of over 100 miles being chased by slave catchers led by her brutal slave owner Gideon, played by Joe Alwyn. Eventually, she makes it to Philadelphia where she gets help from an African American abolitionist leader named William Still, played by Leslie Odom Jr., and a generous African American boarding house owner named Marie, played by Janelle Monáe. Receiving further visions, she makes the brave decision to return to Maryland to help her family also escape slavery using the Underground Railroad route given to her by Still. The rest of the film follows her numerous other expeditions as one of the most successful conductors on the Underground Railroad to eventually help almost 300 slaves escape to freedom. Following the tropes of the adventure genre, Harriet is constantly chased by the villain in the form of Gideon and his slave catchers, including an African American man, but she always perseveres to help her fellow man, woman, and child to reach freedom. Her missions are very much complicated by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed runaway slaves living in free states to be legally captured and returned to their slave owners in the South. Overall, I found it to be a much-needed and thereby very important depiction of one of America’s greatest heroes who has been overlooked in terms of the embarrassing lack of cinematic treatments. Despite the terrific acting performances and amazing story, the movie, unfortunately, adheres too much to a typical action adventure film with predictable actions and results and makes for a movie that does not rise to the stature of the truly extraordinary Harriet Tubman.

Terminator: Dark Fate

Directed by Tim Miller best known for 2016’s Deadpool and produced by James Cameron who directed the original The Terminator released in 1984, Terminator: Dark Fate is a surprisingly satisfying action film that is almost as good as the first three installments of the six movie franchise that works as a result of adhering to the framework of a traditional action flick with intense fight sequences and complex characters. Similar to some of the other Terminator movies, the movie’s plot takes a revised journey into the Terminator universe by presenting an alternate reality in which the humans and machines from the dystopian future travel back in time to protect or terminate a character integral to the future survival of humankind. The film begins with the appearance of the augmented human Grace, played by Mackenzie Davis, who is sent on a mission from a future timeline, as well as the villainous latest version of a Terminator sent by a powerful group of AI machines resembling the original Skynet. Grace’s mission is to protect a young woman from Mexico City named Dani, played by Natalia Reyes, whose survival is somehow vital to the future human resistance. After being cornered by the new Terminator, the heroine of the franchise Sarah Connor, played by Linda Hamilton, shows up guns a-blazing to also help protect Dani and destroy the advanced Terminator. In addition to the appearance of Sarah Connor, the film also brings back the T-800, played by the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger, which helps add to the nostalgic elements of the movie taken from the influential first Terminator movies. Much of the film is an elongated action-packed chase sequence in which Grace, Dani, Sarah, and Arnold’s Terminator must do everything in their power to fight the practically indestructible new Terminator. It is a highly entertaining and thrilling sight to see one of the most beloved action stars Arnold Schwarzenegger relive his most iconic role without missing a pulse-pounding beat alongside Linda Hamilton and deadly shapeshifting liquid metal Terminator machines. Yes, the plot does seem to be recycled from the original installments, but there are slight alterations updated for the 21st century, such as the inclusion of more female heroes, that allow for it to feel fresh to contemporary fans of action movies that may or may not have seen the first few films. Overall, I found it to be a much more enticing action flick than what I was expecting, especially in light of the subpar recent installments, and is an especially rewarding cinematic experience due to its first-rate action sequences and nostalgia for the original Terminator movies.

Jojo Rabbit

Written and directed by critically acclaimed New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi best known for 2016’s The Hunt for the Wilderpeople and 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit is a terrifically well-made comedy drama that has the unusual premise of satirizing the Nazis to provide a powerful message about hatred while also being highly entertaining as a result of its very irreverent humor. The plot follows a ten-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany during World War II named Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler, played by the talented young British actor Roman Griffin Davis, who is a fervent follower of the Nazis and happens to have Adolf Hitler, played by the brilliantly funny Taika Waititi, as his imaginary friend. Jojo and his best friend Yorki are active members of the Hitler Youth under the local leadership of the foolish Captain Klenzendorf, played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell. Often at the disgust of the imaginary Hitler, Jojo has to deal with his secretively anti-Nazi single mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, who we eventually learn is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa, played by the acclaimed young New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie. When he first discovers her, Jojo has great disdain for Elsa because of his fervent Nazi beliefs, but, over time, they strike up a friendship with Jojo’s understanding that it could help him learn about the so-called Jewish enemy. He often fights with the childish and ridiculous imagination of Hitler who somewhat uncomfortably becomes the comic relief of the movie, and they obviously disagree about befriending a Jew. In addition to the main characters, the film’s comedic nature is greatly assisted by a cast of rather buffoonish characters played by such highly talented actors as Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, and Alfie Allen. Despite all the preposterous shenanigans and over-the-top satirical portrayal of the Nazis, the film ends on a positive and important note by showing how someone so indoctrinated by hate like Jojo can come around to despise his previous actions and beliefs by simply getting to know the supposed enemy of Nazi Germany, Elsa as a Jewish girl. Overall, despite the fact that the movie is not for everyone as a result of its comedic depiction of the Nazis, I found it to be one of the more entertaining and incisive satires as a result of its terrific acting and very creative and irreverent script.

Parasite

Winner of the highest award the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Parasite is a brilliant dark satirical drama that reaches the heights of filmmaking as a result of the truly extraordinary craft of the Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho who is already critically acclaimed for 2013’s Snowpiercer and 2017’s Okja. The film follows a poor working-class family living in a decrepit basement apartment in South Korea who are unable to find work, but, eventually, come up with a fraudulent plan to get themselves all employed at the residence of the wealthy Park family. The son decides to pretend to be a English tutor after his friend must take a leave from the job tutoring the high school daughter of the Parks. After his plan works, his family devises a plan to trick the extremely gullible mother of the extremely wealthy family to hire his sister as an art tutor, his father as a driver, and his mother as the housekeeper. In rather absurd fashion, all of the previous employees need to be replaced as a result of the lower class family’s shenanigans. Everything goes according to plan for a majority of the film until a rather shocking twist takes place in which the conniving family is put in jeopardy and could be caught by the Park family. The true artistry of the film is the filmmaker’s effective ability to mix satire and the twisted dark parts of the movie with the very dramatic and tragic elements of what impoverished families must struggle with on a daily basis. Overall, the movie is a cinematic masterpiece that takes a scalpel to better understand the deep wound of income inequalities that take place even in today’s modern society and does so by presenting a highly entertaining story that is both darkly humorous and painfully sad. Even if you do not usually enjoy subtitled foreign language films, I would still highly recommended seeing this movie for its mesmerizing use of cinema to tell a truly important story.

Gemini Man

Directed by visionary director Ang Lee best known for 2013’s Life of Pi which won him the Oscar for Best Director, Gemini Man is a high-concept and technically brilliant film that uses new technology for great visual effect but ultimately fails as a movie due to its poor script writing and slow pace. The plot revolves around the aging secret government assassin Henry Brogan, played by Will Smith, who is close to retirement after his latest assassination almost goes terribly wrong but is forced to remain in action as things go awry with his handlers. He teams up with a fellow secret government agent named Dani, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who greatly helps him evade those who are chasing him. Henry is on the run from a secret non-governmental military force known as GEMINI after its leader and a previous military acquaintance of Henry must do whatever he can to protect his company’s secrets. The increasingly misguided head of the organization Clay, played by Clive Owen, dispatches his own clandestine assassin Junior who we later find out is actually a younger clone of Henry as part of a secret operation to create a superhuman force of clones for the American military. Like a typical action thriller, there are a few visually dazzling action sequences that occur across the world, including in Columbia and Budapest. What really makes the movie stand out is the filmmaker’s decision to film in a much higher frame rate of almost a 120 frames per second when the typical movie is only 24 frames per second. The high frame rate along with a less gimmicky version of 3D made the movie much more smooth and thereby realistic. Another technical breakthrough is the fact that the younger version of Will Smith is a completely digital creation made from CGI and a compilation of Will Smith’s earlier works. Unfortunately, these quite innovative cinematic tools were used on a surprisingly ineffective and sometimes boring action flick. Overall, I found that the only reason to see the movie is to witness the birth of several technical milestones, but otherwise I would avoid the movie because of its weak story, almost entirely devoid of emotion.

Zombieland: Double Tap

The follow-up movie to the 2009 movie Zombieland also directed by Ruben Fleischer, Zombieland: Double Tap is an over-the-top zombie comedy that relies on ridiculous graphic violence and absurd and often sarcastic humor, all revolving around a zombie apocalypse that has overtaken the United States. The plot follows the original cast of characters, including the tough and gun-obsessed Tallahassee who is played by Woody Harrelson, the talkative and smart Columbus who is played by Jesse Eisenberg, the sarcastic and female leader of the group Wichita who is played by Emma Stone, and the younger and rebellious Little Rock who is played by Abigail Breslin. Taking place ten years after the original, the group comprised of some rather difficult personalities find themselves in a relatively easy life of fending off weak zombies while living at the White House. Little Rock is obviously getting anxious and eventually sets out on a plan to escape the father-figure of Tallahassee and leave the group with her sister Wichita. Columbus is very much in love with Wichita and so decides to go with Tallahassee to try and bring back Wichita and her sister out of the dangers of the zombie-infested country. They eventually end up meeting up with a very attractive but dumb young woman named Madison, played by Zoey Deutch, and take her on the adventure to find Wichita and Little Rock who they discover are headed to Elvis Presley’s home Graceland in Memphis. Over the course of their cross country road trip, the group discovers that there is a new breed of super zombies who are much harder to kill. In one particularly funny sequence, Tallahassee and Columbus encounter a duo of fellow zombie killers who have a uncanny resemblance to them and are played by Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch. Over the course of the movie, there are quite a few moments of rather gratuitous violence as the characters come up with creative and grotesque ways of killing the zombies. The wicked sarcasm and funny banter between the characters definitely help make the movie more than just your regular zombie apocalypse action flick rather becomes more of a absurdist comedy. Overall, I found it to be a fairly entertaining film that is definitely not for everybody, especially those who are squeamish around violence, but it does add an interesting component to the overused zombie genre.

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.