Aquaman

The sixth installment in the DC Extended Universe comic book movie franchise first started in 2013 with Man of Steel, Aquaman is yet another superhero movie that is stuffed with an overabundance of CGI but slightly departs from the many others by embracing the fun and silliness of the genre. The movie begins in 1985 on the remote coast of Maine when the lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry rescues the mysterious Atlanna, played by Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, who is discovered to be the underwater princess of the mythical world of Atlantis. They have a child together named Arthur, but Atlanna is forced to leave her family to return to her father who is the king of Atlantis. As he grows up with his father and is occasionally trained by an advisor of Atlantis named Vulko, played by Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe, Arthur, played by Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa, learns he has great superpowers as a half-Atlantean who can swim fast underwater without having to breathe air. At this point, the movie follows the typical formula of a superhero origin story in which the protagonist plays with his newfound powers and eventually discovers he could use his very special skills for good by saving sailors and fishermen. Aquaman, which becomes Arthur’s superhero alter-ego, enjoys a relatively peaceful life on the surface world until his half-brother Orm, played by Golden Globe nominee Patrick Wilson, sees him as a threat to his legitimate claim to the throne of Atlantis. Orm has a stereotypically villainous plan to overtake rulership of all the seven underwater kingdoms by starting a war with the surface world and humans who are polluting the oceans. Over time, Aquaman is joined by the beautiful Atlantean Mera, played by Amber Heard, who is originally betrothed to Orm by one of the other rulers who happens to be her father, played by Dolph Lundgren. Over the course of the spectacular and quite frankly over-the-top underwater CGI sequences, Aquaman along with his new love interest Mera fight to save both the underwater and surface worlds from the destructive designs of his half-brother. In addition to the surrealistic visuals in which sea creatures come to life, the script, with its self-referential humor and quite silly jokes, lends the movie a certain quality of not taking itself too seriously and thereby promoting the inherent ridiculousness of the story. This aspect of purposely pointing out the ludicrous nature of what takes place on screen helps the movie overcome simply being just another bad attempt at exploiting the superhero genre to make a boatload of cash. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining film that, despite its generic stereotypes, makes for an enjoyable distraction from reality, led by a charismatic actor who truly looks the part of Aquaman.

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If Beale Street Could Talk

Directed by Barry Jenkins who is best known for the Academy Award-winning 2016 movie Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautifully shot and emotionally intimate independent drama that quite effectively critiques the American criminal justice system and racial injustice. Set in the 1970s in predominantly African American Harlem, the plot revolves around a heartbreaking love story between Tish, played by brilliant newcomer KiKi Layne, and Fonny, played by the terrific Stephan James, two young black people who find themselves in tragic circumstances the result of the color of their skin. It is a rather straightforward story but one that elicits a powerful response from the audience, primarily as a result of the outstanding acting performances and craftsmanship of the filmmaker. Resembling Jenkins’ unique narrative structure used in Moonlight, the movie takes a non-linear approach to telling the deeply personal account of Tish and Fonny’s beautiful romance that flourishes despite the adversities that they must overcome. After showing glimpses of the racism that they experience on a daily basis, Fonny is confronted head-on by institutional racism and the flawed criminal justice system after he is arrested for a crime he did not commit. At the same time she has to deal with her fiancé being falsely imprisoned, Tish discovers she is pregnant with Fonny’s child and faces the harsh reality that she may have to raise their child by herself. In a particularly poignant and heart-wrenching sequence, Tish fearfully tells her family about her pregnancy and is somewhat surprised by the level of support given by her parents, but things began to go awry when she tells Fonny’s parents. Her sympathetic and strong mother Sharon, played by the excellent Regina King who won a Golden Globe for her role, has to defend her own daughter against the extremely vicious mother of Fonny who renounces the out-of-wedlock baby as a product of sin. The film’s potency to really capture the racism and injustice felt by the characters is also derived from the source material, the 1974 novel of the same name written by the acclaimed African American author and activist James Baldwin. Overall, I found it to be one of the more emotionally impactful movies, remarkable for capturing the personal side effects of systemic racism and the closely related broken judicial system that unfortunately continues even in today’s modern society.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

A follow-up to the six Spider-Man movies made since 2002 starring three different actors in three separate series, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is yet another installment in the Spider-Man comic book franchise that is justifiably the best film as a result of its innovative computer animation and unique storytelling. It is a visually arresting animated feature that relies on a completely new type of CGI very much resembling the aesthetic of the actual comic books while also somehow bringing a level of unorthodox realism. Just by reading the synopsis or even watching the preview, the movie at first seems to be too unusual and convoluted to make any sense but, to my great surprise, it actually becomes one of the most memorable cinematic experiences of the year. The story follows a young black and Puerto Rican teenager living in Brooklyn named Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore, who becomes infected by a radioactive spider that gives him the super powers of Spider-Man. Unexpectedly, he runs into the real Spider-Man, voiced by Chris Pine, battling the supervillain Kingpin, voiced by Liev Schreiber, who is about to unleash a particle accelerator that will open parallel universes and ultimately destroy New York City. As a result of the accelerator’s partial activation, Miles encounters several other iterations of Spider-Man from other parallel universes, including the out-of-shape and depressed Peter B. Parker, voiced by Jake Johnson. Parker reluctantly helps train Miles to save his universe from Kingpin’s maniacal desires, and they are later assisted by Aunt May, voiced by Lily Tomlin, who introduces them to the other Spider-People from the alternate universes. The other personas are rather comical and include Gwen Stacy, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld; the talking pig Spider-Ham, voiced by John Mulaney; the old-fashioned black-and-white Spider-Man Noir, voiced by Nicolas Cage; and the anime Peni Parker, voiced by Kimiko Glenn. The fight to save all of the parallel universes and for the other Spider-Man characters to return to their worlds becomes the responsibility of Miles who must save his own world and destroy Kingpin’s cataclysmic device. While fighting to save his beloved New York City, the young Miles becomes much more confident of himself and comes to better appreciate his family, especially his father and police officer Jefferson, voiced by Brian Tyree Henry, and his troubled uncle Aaron, voiced by Mahershala Ali. Furthermore, even the sceptics, including Miles’ own father, that believe Spider-Man is a menace to society realize they have been mistaken and that really Spider-Man is the true hero of the city. Overall, I found it to be a truly engrossing and invigorating depiction of the tired Spider-Man character and is a remarkable movie for its brilliant use of a new form of computer animation and ability to reconceptualize Spider-Man as an endearing superhero that would make the late co-creater Stan Lee proud.

Vice

Written and directed by Oscar winner Adam McKay best known for the 2015 movie The Big Short, Vice is a dramatic and sometimes darkly comedic movie about Vice President Dick Cheney and is remarkable for the terrific acting performances, especially from Christian Bale. The film is a series of flashbacks and montage sequences recounting the most important events in the life of the notoriously uncharismatic and vilified Cheney, played by the truly transformative actor Christian Bale who has already won a Golden Globe for his role. We first meet Cheney as vice president under President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, but the story shifts back to the 1960s when Dick Cheney had a working-class job in his native state of Wyoming. After living a wild life as an alcoholic, eventually he reforms his ways with the help of his assertive wife Lynne Cheney, played by Oscar winner Amy Adams, and enters the world of politics as a White House intern in 1969 under President Nixon. He continues to a political force to be reckoned with who attains increasingly powerful jobs with President Ford, President Reagan, President George H. W. Bush, and President George W. Bush, and interrupted by a career as the congressman from Wyoming. During his early political days, he becomes very close to the eventual Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, played by Oscar nominee Steve Carell, who is also depicted as a cunning and shady political figure. The movie also explores parts of his personal life that are often overlooked and include his relationship with his equally powerful wife and the revelation that one of his daughters Liz is a lesbian. It is not until the presidential election of 2000 that Dick Cheney becomes a household name when he is asked by the younger Bush, played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, to become his running mate. Portrayed as a bumbling redneck who only runs for president to please his father, George W. Bush is only able to convince the hesitant Cheney to become his VP by granting him unprecedented executive power for a vice president. The remainder of the film provides snippets of his controversial career as possibly the most powerful man in the country: it is a rather unflattering look that shows him to be a shrewd yet dangerously conniving figure partly responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers with the Iraq War. It may sound unusual to call it a dark comedy, but there are flashes of it through the use of caricature of malevolent characters and witty narrative devices, including a fake end credits and Cheney talking directly to the audience. Overall, I found it to be a compelling and entertaining look into one of the most divisive political figures brought to life by the extremely talented and committed actor Christian Bale; it can also be seen as a cautionary tale against consolidating too much power into the executive branch and warning against the rise of another Dick Cheney.

Bumblebee

A spin-off and the sixth installment of the Transformers movie franchise first released in 2007, Bumblebee is a refreshing take on a film series that has been largely stale and bloated the past few years. The popular franchise has been brought back to life as a result of its much better acting talent and nostalgic quality. Set in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s taking place decades before the other Transformers movies, the much more personal story follows the teenage girl Charlie Watson, played by Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld, who feels like an outcast in her community and family after her father died years ago and her mom is now remarried. Eventually, she discovers an alien form that recently crash landed on Earth from the planet Cybertron where a civil war is raging between the Optimus Prime-led Autobot resistance and the malevolent Decepticons. With the ability to transform into any vehicle or heavy machinery, the alien robot takes the form of a 1967 yellow Volkswagen Beetle, which Charlie gets from a local junk yard . To her shock and amazement while working on it, her beloved VW magically transforms into a large robotic-like creature that turns out to be rather innocent with its loss of memory. Charlie eventually becomes friends with what she affectionately names Bumblebee, and she becomes an unwitting defender of Bumblebee from the Decepticons and a secret United States agency known as Sector 7 run by the tough Colonel Jack Burns, played by pro wrestler and actor John Cena. The government is tricked by the Decepticons to pursue Bumblebee after being told that the Autobots pose grave danger to Earth. With the help of her teenage boy neighbor who also happens to have a crush on her, Charlie tries to persuade the government forces that Bumblebee is not a threat and is in fact her very close friend. What sets the movie apart from the other action-filled Transformers movies is that it is not an over-the-top and laughably cheesy Hollywood popcorn flick designed as mindless entertainment. Surprisingly, the script is well-written and has several moments of heartfelt charm and clever nostalgic references to the 1980s. Steinfeld’s endearing performance goes a long way in crafting an entertaining film based on a line of toys first made in the 1980s and makes it feel like it is more than just a CGI-heavy movie designed to make lots of money. Overall, I was pleasantly shocked to discover that a good Transformers film is entirely possible and actually makes me look forward to the likely sequels if they are helmed by the same creative team and actors.

The Mule

Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker and actor Clint Eastwood, The Mule is a well-acted and intriguing film that explores the largely unknown world of drug mules whose story is based on a real person named Leo Sharp. Facing serious financial difficulties in which his business has failed, the 90-year-old Earl Stone, played by the always gruff Clint Eastwood, eventually finds himself deep into the drug underworld working as a drug mule transporting large quantities of cocaine for the Sinaloa Cartel from El Paso to Chicago drug dealers. The cartel leaders increasingly rely on the unassuming Stone who does not fit the profile of a drug trafficker as a result of his advanced age, white ethnicity, and gentlemanly demeanor. Furthermore, he has nothing really to lose because he is estranged from his family and his horticultural business of growing award-winning daylilies was forced into bankruptcy. Over the course of the movie as he traffics hundreds of kilos at a time and makes copious amount of cash, Stone and his cartel colleagues raise the suspicions of the local DEA office based out of Chicago. Two DEA agents, played by Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña, eventually convince their boss, played by Laurence Fishburne, to further investigate the activities of the cartel in Illinois and figure out the identity of Stone who is the cartel’s most profitable drug mule. The somewhat oblivious Stone desiring to reconnect with his family and committing several careless mistakes allow the DEA to get closer and closer to questioning and arresting him. All of this is set against the backdrop of chaos within the cartel after one of the bosses is murdered by his lieutenant, and the new boss has different plans for his drug mules. Overall, I found it to be a compelling story that is hard to believe is based upon a true story, and, while not one of Clint Eastwood’s best works, it is definitely a worthy film to watch if you enjoy Eastwood’s other works.

Mary Queen of Scots

Written by Beau Willimon who is best known for creating the critically acclaimed Netflix TV series House of Cards, Mary Queen of Scots is an enticing historical drama about a unique time in British history in which two strong female leaders vied for control over the British monarchy, and the film itself is anchored by two terrifically powerful actresses. As to be expected from the creator of the political thriller House of Cards, much of the movie is a series of sometimes convoluted acts of palace intrigue and outright violent conflict in order to decide who would be the rightful ruler of the United Kingdom. The story is set around the year 1569 after Mary Stuart, played by Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan, has returned to her native Scotland from France following the death of her first husband. With the support of the Scots and British Catholics, she claims legitimacy to take over the throne from the reigning monarch and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, played by Oscar nominee Margot Robbie. In London, Elizabeth is surrounded in court by competing factions made up of her advisers, including William Cecil who is played by Guy Pearce and her lover Robert Dudley, played by Joe Alwyn. On the other side in Scotland, Mary who is proclaimed Mary Queen of Scots also has to deal with her own palace intrigue, including her second husband Lord Darnley who is played by Jack Lowden, at the same time dealing with the firebrand Protestant minister John Knox who is played by David Tennant. Tensions between the two intensify after Mary has a child who could make a legitimate claim to being an heir, while Elizabeth remains childless without a strong desire to marry a husband. Although at times the script can seem uneven and be complicated to the casual viewer, the true strength of the film is the brilliant acting performances from the lead actresses who give off an air of royalty and their costumes and makeup look very realistic for the time. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable historical drama that albeit slightly flawed is a movie worthy to watch if you are a fan of the historical film genre and looking for tour-de-force acting performances.