Death Wish

death_wish_ver3_xlgThe sixth installment of the Death Wish movie franchise and a direct remake of the original released in 1974, Death Wish is an average action flick that relies heavily on the stale genre conventions of the revenge/vigilante action thriller and ultimately feels like an unnecessary exercise in re-creating the original movie starring Charles Bronson. An aging Bruce Willis plays Dr. Paul Kersey, a talented emergency surgeon living in Chicago, who one day becomes a vengeful vigilante after a home invasion leaves his wife Lucy, played by Elizabeth Shue, dead and his high school senior daughter Jordan, played by Argentinian model Camilla Morrone, comatose. Angry that the police led by Detective Kevin Raines, played by Dean Norris of Breaking Bad fame, is unable to fully investigate the crimes and identify the culprits, Dr. Kersey transforms into a typical Bruce Willis character who takes justice into his own hands and eventually discovers those responsible. He keeps his violent retaliations secret even from his brother Frank, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, and becomes known by the public as the Grim Reaper, either vilified as an unjustified killer or lionized as a justice warrior. Typical of the director Eli Roth’s oeuvre as a well-known horror filmmaker and producer of such films as 2005’s Hostel, the movie contains some graphically violent scenes that sensationalizes vicious acts involving weapons and overall brutality. Overall, I did not find it to be a particularly satisfying moviegoing experience and was underwhelmed by the simple premise of a revenge thriller that has been used far too many times; furthermore, the glorification of violence and assault rifles comes at a particularly bad time as a result of the recent mass shootings occurring just prior to the film’s release.


A Fantastic Woman

una_mujer_fantastica_xlgDirected by acclaimed Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio who is best known for the 2013 Oscar-nominated film Gloria, A Fantastic Woman is a truly fantastic drama that explores the very timely issues surrounding the transgender community and is very much worthy of its 2018 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The plot follows a young transgender woman named Marina, played by the revelation of a star Daniela Vega in her acting debut, who is in a relationship with a businessman named Orlando, played by Chilean actor Francisco Reyes, who is almost 30 years her senior. After a romantic evening celebrating her birthday, Marina’s life is turned upside down after Orlando becomes seriously sick and passes away after Marina rushes him to the hospital. Already going through a different sort of transition filled with its own set of hardships, her grief is exasperated by the doctors and police who are suspicious of her due to her status as a transgender woman. Further complicating matters, Orlando’s ex-wife and grown-up children want nothing to do with Marina and have always held a discriminatory view of her and what they term as her perverse relationship with Orlando. The film is a beautifully somber portrayal of a misunderstood segment of the population and shows that transgender people experience the same love and pain as “normal” individuals. Vega imbues her absolutely mesmerizing performance with a subtlety and emotional power that helps create a very sympathetic and fierce character that courageously pushes through the ups and downs of life, especially the downs experienced as a result of the prejudiced attitudes held against the LGBT community. Like in his previous work, the filmmaker is remarkably effective in creating strong-willed and mold-breaking female characters whose daily struggles and romantic lives are vividly portrayed without excessive flourish. Overall, I found it to be a terrifically empowering and insightful movie that may very well change many people’s minds about transgender individuals, almost completely owing to newcomer Daniela Vega who gives one of the best acting performances of the year.


annihilation_xlgDirected by Alex Garland who is best known for the 2015 Oscar-nominated film Ex Machina, Annihilation is a visually dazzling and thought-provoking sci-fi movie notable for its rather strange and frightening story and a terrific performance from Oscar-winner Natalie Portman. Based on the acclaimed 2014 novel of the same name written by Jeff VanderMeer, the plot revolves around Portman’s character Lena who is a biologist and former American soldier that unexpectedly becomes involved in a highly classified mission to study and prevent the spread of a scientifically unexplained phenomenon known as The Shimmer located along the American coast in a rapidly expanding region known as Area X. After her husband Kane, played by Golden Globe nominee Oscar Isaac, mysteriously returns a year after going missing on an expedition into Area X, Lena is recruited to go on another mission to study The Shimmer and determine whether it is earthly or extraterrestrial. It is a particularly dangerous operation because no one besides her husband has ever returned after that many failed attempts. Led by the stone-faced psychologist named Dr. Ventress, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, the all-female group of scientists is comprised of a paramedic named Anya, played by Gina Rodriguez, a physicist named Josie, played by Tessa Thompson, and a surveyor and geologist named Cass, played by Tuva Novotny. Immediately after venturing into Area X, Lena and the rest of the team notice that things are very abnormal, including the plants and animals exhibiting perplexing biological mutations. The filmmaker mystifies the audience through the realistic and often beautiful depictions of these strange creatures; towards the end, reality and the laws of nature become further blurred as emphasized by the ever increasing mind-blowing imagery witnessed by the characters. Not just purely science fiction, the film contains several suspenseful and often terrifying moments that could come from a horror flick, especially the scenes involving mutated animals and the psychoses experienced by the team members. Overall, I found it to be a riveting and creative work of science fiction that surprisingly delves deep into philosophical issues of humanity and our relationship to the environment, while also catering to fans of sci-fi and horror with its mesmerizing visual effects and creation of horrifying creatures.

Black Panther

Directed by Ryan Coogler best known for 2013’s Fruitvale Station and 2015’s Creed, Black Panther is not your typical superhero movie and surpasses the innumerable installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a result of its empowering story, terrific acting, and dazzling visual effects. Significant for being a Hollywood blockbuster with an almost all black cast, the plot revolves around the titular superhero character Black Panther whose real name is T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman who has portrayed such African American icons as Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall, returns home to the fictional African country of Wakanda to become king after the death of his father T’Chaka. Posing as a Third World country that does not receive foreign aid, Wakanda is mostly hidden from the rest of the world and is actually a very technologically advanced civilization powered by a magical metallic substance known as vibranium that is only present in the nation. To become ruler and continue to have the powers of the Black Panther, T’Challa must ingest a special flower filled with vibranium and undergo an ancient ritual to connect with his ancestors, overseen by the spiritual leader Zuri who is played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker. The CGI visual effects underscore a modern society complete with futuristic skyscrapers and flying cars that also incorporate a traditional sense of African style and heritage focused on a connection with nature and animals. Eventually, the new young king is faced with an enemy force led by a white South African arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue, played by a wonderfully wicked Andy Serkis, who wants to get his hands on the powerful vibranium and expose Wakanda. The evil Klaue is partnered with former black ops solider Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, played by the terrific Michael B. Jordan, who wants to overthrow T’Challa for reasons we do not find out about until later. T’Challa must confront these outsiders with the help of Nakia, his ex-lover and spy known as a War Dog and played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, and Okoye, the strong leader of an all-female special forces unit and played by Danai Gurira. Rounding out the empowered female cast of characters, he receives many of his technological powers from his sister and brilliant inventor Shuri, played by the charismatic Letitia Wright. The Wakandans are later assisted by the only other white character CIA agent Everett K. Ross, played by Martin Freeman, whose life is saved after being treated in Wakanda with the healing powers of vibranium. By having a white character saved by the black characters, the stereotypical white savior archetype is reversed with the black society helping others with their more advanced technology and intellect. Overall, I thought it was a brilliant film that will definitely thrill fans of the superhero comic book movie genre with its gorgeous CGI and well-choreographed fight sequences, and it also will appeal to those looking for a thought-provoking cinematic experience that is filled with powerful messages for black culture and women.

The 15:17 to Paris

Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker and actor Clint Eastwood, The 15:17 to Paris is a well-intentioned movie remarkable for its use of the actual people that the true story is based upon but ultimately fails fairly miserably as a result of its poor writing and risky casting choices. The story revolves around a group of three American friends who unexpectedly become heroes while on a European vacation after they prevent a terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris on August 21, 2015. We first meet Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler as troublesome middle schoolers at a Christian school in California where they become close friends interested in the United States military. The movie fast forwards several years later when the men, all played by themselves, are in their 20s still friends but living separate lives. It primarily focuses on Spencer who decides to join the Air Force in the Pararescue division and Alek who is deployed to Afghanistan as a soldier in the Oregon Army National Guard. In a rather lackluster build-up to the incident, we see all three friends join together on a stereotypical American vacation across Europe filled with drunken nights and sightseeing. The stilted dialogue does not really add much to a greater understanding of the moments leading up to their heroics. Also, the movie sometimes inexplicably switches back and forth between snippets of the action-packed train sequence and the rather mundane activities of their trip. Finally, towards the end, the movie reaches its climax when it details the men boarding a high-speed train from Amsterdam, the interlude as typical passengers, and the remarkable moments when they face off against a radical Islamic terrorist set on killing everyone aboard the train. Spencer makes the quick-fire decision to tackle the terrorist whose gun luckily jams, and a bloody fight ensues between the two men with Spencer sustaining injuries. At the same time, Alek and Anthony along with other brave passengers help to subdue the gunman until the train reaches its next stop where the police can take him into custody. Unquestionably an amazing story of courage, the creative use of the real people in a dramatized motion picture unfortunately backfires and does not really do justice to what happened. Overall, I found it to be a wasted opportunity to pay tribute to three American heroes who undoubtedly saved many lives; therefore, the story would have been better served by a documentary or a more conventional movie with real professional actors.

Call Me by Your Name

Nominated for the 2018 Oscar for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay, Call Me by Your Name is a beautifully crafted film flowing with powerful emotions about forbidden love between a teenager and a young graduate student during the summer of 1983 in the Italian countryside. Elio Perlman, played wonderfully by Timothée Chalamet who is nominated for an Oscar for his performance, is a seventeen-year-old Jewish American-Italian who lives in a rural Italian villa during the summers with his Italian mother and American father who is an archaeology professor, played by the always terrific Golden Globe nominee Michael Stuhlbarg. A very bright young man, Elio spends most of his time alone idyllically reading books and transcribing classical music until the arrival of American graduate student Oliver, played by Armie Hammer who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, who lives with the family for six weeks to help Professor Perlman with his academic work. While in a quasi-romantic relationship with a girl his age named Marzia, Elio is still exploring his love life and embarks on a journey of self-discovery as he becomes closer and closer to the older and handsome Oliver. Initially, the two are rather distant, but, over the course of the slow yet mesmerizing plotline, they begin to fall in love as they leisurely spend time together cycling through the countryside or swimming while engaged in intellectual conversations. Although at first he is somewhat confused by his emotions and homosexual attraction to Oliver, the remarkably mature Elio embraces his romantic and sexual desires by subtly making advances on the carefree and flirtatious Oliver. Through the use of gorgeous cinematography, beautifully subdued music, and immersion in very emotional moments, the acclaimed Italian director Luca Guadagnino expertly portrays an evocative romance, complete with the typical ups and downs experienced by any heterosexual couple. In one of the most poignant scenes, Elio’s compassionate father tries to comfort Elio as he grapples with the heartbreak of the inevitable conclusion to his time with Oliver as Oliver returns home where it would be extremely difficult to continue their amorous relationship. His father displays a complete understanding of Elio’s touching romance with another man and tells him that he too experienced pain over forbidden love. His advice to his son is to cherish the fact that he was lucky enough to share such great joy with Oliver. Overall, I found it to be a truly remarkable movie made possible by stellar acting performances and a heartwarming story with a powerful message about love set against the breathtaking beauty of Italy.

The Insult

Nominated for the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Insult is a riveting and emotionally evocative Lebanese drama about the complicated nature of the Middle Eastern debate over the Palestinians, particularly those living as refugees in neighboring countries such as Lebanon. The plot revolves around a seemingly trivial argument between a Lebanese Christian nationalist and a Palestinian refugee living in Beirut that rapidly escalates into a nasty legal fight resulting in mass demonstrations across Lebanon. The Christian nationalist Tony is upset when the Palestinian construction foreman Yasser attempts to repair Tony’s illegal drainage pipe after which Yasser uses profanity to insult Tony. Coming from different backgrounds in which both were victimized by religious and political hatred in both Lebanon and Israel, the two men never back down and Tony takes Yasser to court for Yasser not apologizing for the insult and assaulting Tony after he makes inflammatory remarks about Palestinians. Eventually, it becomes a sensationalized court case between two stubborn individuals and the issues being fought over spark outrage among the many different factions in Lebanon who either sympathize with the Palestinian cause or consider the Palestinian refugees a drain on Lebanese society. The filmmaker does an excellent job of developing a gripping courtroom drama that becomes even more intriguing after we learn that the powerful right-wing lawyer representing Tony is actually the father of the more liberal female lawyer representing Yasser. Throughout the course of the story, we also witness that the personal lives of the men and their loved ones are adversely affected by the drawn-out dispute, especially Tony’s wife who has a complicated pregnancy. The real power of the film is that it vividly represents the real animosity between certain religious and ethnic groups in the Middle East and how small matters can reveal complicated issues of pride and victimization. Overall, I found it to be a terrific movie with powerful performances that somehow expounds upon a relatively small argument to delve into the central matters surrounding the still heated Palestinian conflict.