The Happy Prince

Written and directed by the talented actor Rupert Everett in his directorial debut, The Happy Prince is a terrifically well-crafted independent film exploring the tragic final days of the world-renowned playwright and author Oscar Wilde brought to life by the transformative performance of Rupert Everett. The plot tells the mostly untold story of Oscar Wilde’s downfall after being imprisoned with hard labor for two years in 1895 when the United Kingdom found him guilty of committing homosexual acts, which at the time was illegal, and it would not be until 2017 that Oscar Wilde along with 50,000 other convicted gay men would be pardoned. Exiled to Europe following his release in 1897, Wilde, played by Rupert Everett in his greatest performance of his career, tries to scrape by after clearly being tormented in prison and is continually vilified by those back in the UK. He lives for a time in Naples, Italy with his former young and handsome lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, played by Colin Morgan, who was part of the reason that Wilde was caught and convicted for being a homosexual. At the same time, another former lover and his current literary executor Robbie Ross, played by Edwin Thomas, tries to find sympathetic people who can financially support Oscar Wilde’s life, and he encourages him to avoid scandal for business and personal reasons. Robbie is also somewhat jealous of Alfred who captivates the notoriously wild Wilde’s attention once again. Although these two men in addition to the novelist Reggie Turner, played by Academy Award winner Colin Firth who has collaborated in several other movies with Everett, do their best to keep him out of trouble, his life quickly spirals out of control. Towards the end of his life, he lives off the streets of Paris after being disinherited by almost everyone, including his estranged wife played by Emily Watson. The movie also includes several flashbacks to Oscar Wilde’s better days when he was a warmly embraced celebrity throughout the world; these scenes illustrate the juxtaposition of how far such an illustrious writer as Oscar Wilde can be brought down by society’s disdainful view of homosexuality. Neither a happy story or one about a charming prince, the film is truly noteworthy for the astounding Rupert Everett who is drastically different from his usual role as the handsome and vivacious character in such movies as 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding for which he received a Golden Globe nomination. Everett is fully immersed in his performance and is almost physically unrecognizable as a downtrodden, overweight, and sickly man nearing the end of his troubled life. Overall, I found it to be a fascinating glimpse into one of the most important writers in history and the often overlooked tragedies that he experienced in his life realistically portrayed by the magnificent Rupert Everett. On another note, I had the privilege of seeing Rupert Everett in person who provided great insight into how this film has been a passion project for him, especially as a homosexual man, and the difficulty of capturing the famously witty Oscar Wilde without becoming a caricature.

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First Man

Directed by Damien Chazelle who is best known for 2014’s Whiplash and 2017’s La La Land for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director, First Man is a terrific biographical movie that explores the personal side of Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission and is anchored by excellent acting performances and dramatic cinematography. We first meet Neil Armstrong, played by Golden Globe winner Ryan Gosling, in 1961 as he is attempting an extremely dangerous test flight at Edwards Air Force Base where he is a military test pilot. At the time, he and his wife Janet, played by Golden Globe winner Claire Foy, are struggling with the sickness of their young daughter Karen who is undergoing treatment for cancer; her memory will later serve throughout the film as a sort of metaphor for the personal life of Armstrong as he becomes world-famous for being the first man on the moon. Eventually, he is accepted to the NASA astronaut program and becomes one of the astronauts in Project Gemini, the space program that would lead into the Apollo missions with the goal of a lunar landing. Living in Houston in 1965, he develops close friendships with fellow astronauts, especially his neighbor Ed White, played by talented actor Jason Clarke, and his wife befriends the other astronaut wives who also have young children. While much of the film focuses on the more personal aspects of Armstrong and his family coping with his hazardous job, the filmmaker does an excellent job of recreating the very tense rocket launches in which the slightest problem could be catastrophic for Armstrong and the other astronauts aboard. Leading up to the climax of the film, Armstrong learns from NASA’s Chief of the Astronaut Office Deke Slayton, played by Emmy Award winner Kyle Chandler, that he will be the commander on Apollo 11, the mission selected for the first landing on the moon, and will be joined by the often lighthearted Buzz Aldrin, played by Cory Stoll best known for his role in the Netflix series House of Cards, and the Command Module Pilot Michael Collins. Before he is selected for the historic mission, tragedy strikes NASA on January 27, 1967 when a fire during a routine test for Apollo 1 engulfs the capsule resulting in the death of three astronauts, including Armstrong’s close friend Ed White and one of the original astronauts Gus Grissom, played by Shea Whigham best known for his role in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. The final scenes of the movie revolve around the actual mission of Apollo 11, complete with the dramatic takeoff, four-day flight to the moon, undocking the Lunar Module, and finally landing on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969 with hundreds of millions of people watching around the world. After becoming the first human to touch the moon, Armstrong’s immortal moon walk is portrayed as a much more introspective personal look into his life and what led up to such a historical event for all of mankind. He makes a touching tribute to his beloved daughter Karen, which helps bring the movie back to the beginning as he begins to lose his child to cancer. Overall, I found it to be one of the more memorable movies that effectively takes a quite different and more emotional approach to the space movie genre, that was elevated by the talented performances given by Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, and kept the audience on the edge of their seats during the magnificent spaceflight sequences. The film must now be included in the historical space movie canon, joining the likes of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 with each contributing a different aspect to the story of humans in space. For instance, the seminal 1983 movie The Right Stuff provided more of a historical background by showing Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier and the early efforts of the Mercury program that ultimately led the United States to the moon. On the other hand, the 1995 Ron Howard movie Apollo 13 was much more of a thriller in which the characters must figure out a way to survive after a catastrophic failure and focuses more on the actual mission.

Free Solo

Directed by documentary filmmakers and married couple Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin who are best known for the award-winning 2015 mountain climbing movie Meru, Free Solo is an extremely fascinating and visually arresting documentary that follows the rock climber Alex Honnold as he plans to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park using the free solo technique. Alex is a thrill-seeker who is regarded as one of the foremost free soloists in which he climbs cliffs by himself and without any ropes or other safety equipment; an extremely dangerous sport in which the smallest slip will result in certain death. Besides showing the actual preparations and the free solo climb that takes place on June 3, 2013, the documentarians, who are skilled climbers and outdoor enthusiasts themselves, also attempt to explore Alex’s personal life and background without really questioning why he pursues such a risky passion. Rather unexpectedly, Alex is a very quiet and somber individual who has difficulty expressing his emotions, and he really does not feel alive except when he is on a mountain. For several years and during most of the film, he lives out of a van and leads a very solitary life without many close friends or family members outside of the climbing community. Even when he talks about the deaths of fellow mountain climbers and free soloists that he knew fairly well, Alex rather nonchalantly brushes off their fates as part of the thrill. The tragic ends of these friends does very little to dissuade him from tackling the seemingly impossible task of making a free solo ascent of the notoriously difficult El Capitan mountain. The only obstacle that he faces is the pressure he feels from his new girlfriend who tries to help Alex transition into a more normal lifestyle and even encourages him to purchase a house in Las Vegas. Despite her trepidations, he goes full steam ahead and, in some rather harrowing sequences, he goes on several practice runs with the traditional safety mechanisms before the climax of the film in which he free solos the almost 3,000-foot sheer cliff. The filmmakers do an excellent job of presenting the spectacular yet terrifying climbs of Alex through the use of skilled mountain climbing cameramen and drones, all giving the thrilling effect that the viewer is actually there alongside Alex. At several points during his final climb, even the documentarians and crew members are petrified that they may be filming the final moments of their new friend Alex and so several of them have to look away. Overall, I found it to be one of the more gripping documentaries I have ever seen as a result of its effective ability to explore the largely unthinkable extreme sport of free solo rock climbing through the mesmerizing and quite frankly scary footage of Alex Honnold as he fulfills his daredevil passions.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Directed by Drew Goddard who is best known for writing 2008’s Cloverfield, 2013’s World War Z, and 2015’s The Martian in which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Bad Times at the El Royale is a dark and stylish mystery thriller that contains many elements of a popcorn flick but is elevated by strong acting performances. The unique storytelling and violence very much reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 movie The Hateful Eight: both take place in a isolated location involving a relatively small cast of mysterious figures together for largely unexplained reasons. The plot takes place over the course of one very eventful night in 1969 at the once celebrity hideout and very 1950s retro hotel called the El Royale straddling the border of California and Nevada near Lake Tahoe. At the beginning of the film, we meet the slick Southern gentleman vacuum salesman Laramie Sullivan, played by Golden Globe winner Jon Hamm, who is on a regular stopover and greets fellow travelers Father Daniel Flynn, played by Oscar winner Jeff Bridges, and African-American lounge singer Darlene Sweet, played by Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo who uses her beautiful singing voice. Eventually, they are able to rouse the only employee at the empty hotel Miles Miller, played by fresh-faced young actor Lewis Pullman, after encountering yet another peculiar hotel guest named Emily Summerspring, played by the somber Dakota Johnson. All of the characters do not really know what is going on with each other and do not find out until the increasingly violent climax that takes place with the appearance of a handsome cult leader named Billy Lee, played by the shirtless Chris Hemsworth, and his ruthless crew. Without giving much of the plot away, suffice it to say that no one is who they seem to be and the hotel itself is full of mysterious and creepy surprises. The filmmaker makes the rather unusual narrative technique of using flashbacks that are clearly marked with title cards using each character’s room number and reveal the immediate events that led them to the El Royale. Most of the guests were involved in criminal or rather shady circumstances and figured that the remote hotel would be a good refuge from their troubles. Unlike most modern-day thrillers, the film does not heavily rely on action-packed sequences but rather focuses on character development that slowly evolves over the course of the almost two and a half hour duration. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining and not-too-serious thriller that is full of enough mystery, violence, and well-acted character backstories to keep audiences on the edge of their seats, even if the movie probably lasted too long.

Museo

Directed by critically acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Alonso Ruizpalacios in his second feature, Museo is a very creative and exciting heist movie that works beautifully as a result of its unique storytelling and terrific acting performances. The Mexican film, with Spanish dialogue and English subtitles, tells the true story of the greatest art heist in Mexican history that took place on Christmas Eve in 1985 at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City by a pair of amateur thieves. The plot follows two best friends who are leading rather unremarkable lives outside Mexico City in the middle-class suburb Satellite City: the mastermind and the black sheep of his family Juan, played by Golden Globe winner and celebrated Mexican actor Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal, and the film’s narrator and mustached partner in crime Wilson, played by Leonardo Ortizgris. After working part-time at the Museum and witnessing the value of the prehistoric artifacts, Juan hatches a plan to break into the Museum late at night when the security guards are distracted and steal mostly Mayan archaeological pieces that they then hope to sell on the black market. The filmmaker makes a highly effective decision to present the actual heist scenes as a artful collection of montage sequences in which the duo are shown meticulously removing each artifact and the camera freezes on each stolen piece as the actors try to remain still. This dazzling filmmaking effect reflects the artworks that are being stolen from the architecturally contemporary museum so important to the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican heritage of Mexico. They are able to pull off the robbery rather easily as a result of it taking place at a time before the widespread use of security cameras and alarms, and they are even able to return to their families’ Christmas celebrations unnoticed. Things begin to unravel when the clearly unprepared young thieves quickly discover that they may not be able to sell any of the almost 150 artifacts because they are priceless and any art collector would not be stupid enough to purchase them as they would be easily detected. Towards the end of the movie, the story becomes more of a comic misadventure in which a pair of bumbling criminals desperately try to offload their illicit goods and eventually come to the conclusion that none of their crimes may have been worth anything. Overall, I found it to be a gripping film that artistically presents a truly fascinating story filled with excellent performances, especially from the always terrific Bernal, and, therefore, allows it to stand out among the countless number of heist movies.

Venom

Directed by Ruben Fleischer best known for 2009’s Zombieland and 2013’s Gangster Squad, Venom is a surprisingly lackluster standalone superhero movie based on the Marvel Comics Spider-Man villainous character Venom, and, despite the efforts of the terrific Oscar nominee Tom Hardy, it feels very much like an unfinished project that has trouble staying on course. The plot revolves around a journalist named Eddie Brock, played by Hardy, who achieves superpowers after being infected with an alien symbiote brought to Earth by Elon Musk-like billionaire Carlton Drake, played by Emmy winner Riz Ahmed best known for his role in the 2016 HBO miniseries The Night Of. Drake is the overly ambitious CEO of a bioengineering firm called Life Foundation based in San Francisco, and he becomes so desperate in his secret research that he authorizes extremely dangerous human experiments using the alien lifeforms. At the beginning of the film, Brock is engaged to a high-powered lawyer played by Golden Globe winner Michelle Williams, but she loses her job after Brock uses some of her classified documents to help expose Drake. Brock’s suspicions about Drake are confirmed after he gets in contact with a Life Foundation scientist played by Jenny Slate who does not approve of Drake’s experiments. It is at this point that Brock is joined with one of the alien symbiotes that becomes known as Venom and develops unusual capabilities when Venom takes over his body. Drake and his army of security guards try to locate Brock and extract Venom so that it could be used for further trials. The movie then shifts into high gear with a series of CGI action sequences in which Venom talks to and takes control of Brock who is easily able to fend off the heavily-armed forces of Drake. There are elements of humor in the sarcastic interactions between the largely bewildered Brock and the malicious Venom; their relationship is a bizarre Jekyll and Hyde in which their polar opposite personalities struggle against one another. Overall, I found the movie only appealing for the performance of Tom Hardy who is one of my favorite actors, and I was quite frankly surprised at how abrupt the film ended and left the audience scratching their heads. The problem was that it did not know what kind of movie it wanted to be: a more humorous comic book adaptation like Guardians of the Galaxy or a more serious superhero movie like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

A Star is Born

The third remake of the original 1937 movie of the same name later made into a 1954 version starring Judy Garland and most recently a 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, A Star is Born is a terrifically well-made movie remarkable for Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut and the breakthrough acting performance of Lady Gaga. The updated story follows hugely successful yet troubled country singer Jackson Maine, played by Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, who makes a surprising discovery at a drag bar following one of his concerts of a new talented singer named Ally, played by pop superstar Lady Gaga in her dazzling acting debut. Over time, Jackson encourages her to perform her own songs that she has written over the years, despite her misgivings over her appearance, and she becomes a musical star in her own right. As she rapidly rises to fame, the wild Jackson suffering from debilitating substance abuse begins to fall in love with Ally, but he starts to get jealous of her newfound stardom after she signs with a record label with a new cutthroat manager. Jackson’s much older brother and manager Bobby, played by the gravelly voiced Golden Globe nominee Sam Elliott, is especially worried about Jackson and cautions Ally that he can sometimes go out of control. Along his tumultuous journey and her rocketing success, Jackson runs into his old friend played by Dave Chappelle as well as having a tense relationship with Ally’s father played by Andrew Dice Clay. With the help of Ally, he realizes that he must do something to turn his life around and accept Ally’s successful career. Although it is an age-old story of fame and romance, the film is able to set itself apart from its predecessors by presenting a story relevant to today’s culture at the same time providing magnificant firsts, for first-time director Bradley Cooper and first-time actress Lady Gaga. Furthermore, I was particularly struck by the terrific performance of Sam Elliott who provides an heartfelt anchor to the storyline and a veteran quality to the movie. Overall, I found it to be an excellently heartbreaking and enjoyable cinematic experience that incisively explores the complexities of fame and pays great homage to the music industry.