Trial by Fire

Directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker and Oscar-winning producer Edward Zwick best known for 1989’s Glory and 1995’s Legends of the Fall, Trial by Fire is a well-crafted drama with terrific acting performances from the two main characters and a deeply compelling plot about a man on death row for a crime that he probably did not commit. Based on a true story, the film follows Cameron Todd Willingham, played by the talented British actor Jack O’Connell, as he goes through the flawed Texas justice system and eventually meets an unexpected supporter of his case for exoneration. In the beginning of the movie, we witness his trial which leads to his conviction and being sent to death row for the arson and murder of his three young daughters in Corsicana, Texas in December 1991. As a poor and uneducated individual living in rural Texas with tattoos and a love of heavy metal music, he quickly discovers that he has not received the same level of legal representation and thereby is more susceptible to a miscarriage of justice. He spends most of his twelve years on death row learning the judicial system in order for him to try and petition for a retrial or exoneration as a result of several investigative blunders and negligent lawyers. As the years pass, he develops a very close relationship with a single mother of two kids living in Houston who comes to visit him numerous times before deciding to help out on his case. Played by Golden Globe winner Laura Dern, Elizabeth Gilbert becomes a strong advocate for Willingham even as family members question her motivation for trying to free a convicted murderer. Over the course of the film, it becomes readily apparent that he is innocent or at least not deserving of the death penalty and therefore the movie becomes much more of a anti-death penalty film critical of the justice system. Overall, I found it to be a powerful movie by a filmmaker who does an excellent job of showing the emotional rollercoaster that someone like Willingham must go through as he faces certain death by the state while providing a unique perspective from the most unexpected source of Elizabeth Gilbert.

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Tolkien

Directed by critically acclaimed Finnish director Dome Karukoski, Tolkien is a well-intentioned biopic, that is slightly disappointing, about one of the most important 20th century authors J. R. R. Tolkien and tries to explore what possibly inspired him to write the famous fantasy books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series. Living a difficult childhood as an orphan living in impoverished Birmingham, England, Tolkien, played by Nicholas Hoult best known for 2002’s About a Boy and 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, is heavily influenced by a close group of friends he meets while studying at a prestigious school sponsored by the local Catholic Church. Eventually, because of his high marks, he goes on to study at Oxford University where he discovers his love for languages and continues to pursue his love interest Edith Bratt, played by Lily Collins who is the daughter of English musician Phil Collins. The movie is interspersed with flashbacks to his horrific experiences as a soldier in the trenches during World War War I in which some of his best friends are killed in action. The filmmaker makes the case that the creative and idealistic Tolkien was partly inspired by his wartime experiences to craft his later high fantasy books about the struggle between good and evil mixed in with magic and heroism. The movie sometimes goes overboard on focusing on the events and objects in his life that are visually connected to the characters and themes of his published works. Many of the references may go over most audience’s heads, but I could see how it would be a treat for fans of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings book series. Overall, despite the historical visual aesthetic and commendable acting performances, I found the film to be sometimes too slow and not really geared for general audiences as a result of the constant inundation of reference points in the otherwise fascinating story of Tolkien’s life.

The White Crow

Directed by British actor Ralph Fiennes in his third film as director, The White Crow is a fascinating movie about one of the most famous ballet dancers and focuses on the seminal moment of his life in which he defects from the Soviet Union. Based on his real life, the film follows Rudolf Nureyev, played by Oleg Ivenko, and three distinct phases of his life: his early life in a struggling rural Soviet family, early career at a famous St. Petersburg ballet school, and his defection occurring during his company’s visit to Paris. The stereotypical tortured genius, he often exhibits egotistical behavior in which he does not shy away from berating his instructors, but his brilliant and unique talents are always desired by the Soviet ballet elite. The middle part of his life revolves around his relationship with the famed ballet teacher Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin, played by Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes, and his increasingly personal and strange relationship with Pushkin’s wife. The more contemporary chapter in his life is a rather slow-paced depiction of his falling in love with Western culture and society when his Soviet ballet company has a weeks-long residency at the Paris Opera in 1961 at the height of the Cold War. Nureyev enjoys the nightlife of Paris with his new-found French friends, and he eventually decides that he needs to defect from the Soviet Union in order to pursue a career in the West with much more freedom as an artist and individual. The one major problem area of the film is the often convoluted setup of having the story switch back and forth between three different time periods. Overall, I found it to be a very compelling story about a true genius against the backdrop of the Cold War that, despite the movie’s few flaws, feels like a very authentic portrayal of Rudolf Nureyev as a result of the film’s use of Russian dialogue and several beautiful dance sequences.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

The third installment in the John Wick franchise with the release of its first movie in 2014 and directed by Chad Stahelski who was Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix franchise, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a high octane and over-the-top action movie that rises above the rest of the genre as a result of its magnificent choreographed fight sequences and creative storyline. It follows the titular character John Wick, played by Keanu Reeves, who is an internationally-known assassin working under the secret organization known as The High Table but is excommunicado, an unprotected status in which the other assassins can kill him for a bounty, after an unauthorized killed in the previous movie. He is no longer given immunity while staying at the hotel for assassins in New York City known as The Continental run by the manager Winston, played by Ian McShane, and the concierge Charon, played by Lance Reddick. Eventually, a very large contingent of assassins chase John Wick in order to get the 14 million dollar bounty on his head. Over the course of the film, he is engaged in very stylistic and elaborately choreographed fights in which he kills off many men using a variety of tactics, including gunplay, knife fights, and martial arts. Eventually, he travels throughout the world trying to get protection from a powerful criminal leader played by Anjelica Huston and later a fellow assassin played by Halle Berry. Eventually, John Wick teams up with Winston and a fellow assassin leader known as the Bowery King, played by Laurence Fishburne, who are both punished by The High Table and its representative The Adjudicator and hunted down by a group of hitmen led by the ruthless assassin Zero, played by Mark Dacascos. What sets the movie apart is the heavy use of practical stunt work instead of the usual CGI bloat common with superhero movies, all the while taking place in a very different world that is extremely stylish and filled with secret organizations. Overall, I found the third movie in the franchise to be as good as the original as well as the sequel, and I still believe it to be one of the best action movie series due to the martial arts talents of the subdued Keanu Reeves and the unique yet violent visual style.

Red Joan

Based on the 2013 novel of the same name written by Jennie Rooney that was inspired by the real-life story of the British civil servant and Soviet spy Melita Norwood, Red Joan is a disappointing film that somehow makes the deeply fascinating material rather boring and bland, with the only bright spot being Judi Dench’s performance, albeit with very little screen time. The story starts in modern-day England when a elderly grandmother named Joan Stanley, played by Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench, is arrested on suspicion of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union following World War II. However, most of the film takes place in flashbacks that portray the young and idealistic Cambridge physics student Joan Stanley, played by the beautiful young British actress Sophie Cookson, falling in love with a Soviet sympathizer named Leo, played by Tom Hughes best known for his work on the British TV series Victoria. After graduating, she works for a secret British nuclear weapon program run by the brilliant scientist Professor Max Davis, played by British actor Stephen Campbell Moore, and is eventually recruited by the Soviet KGB through her connections with Leo to become a spy passing highly classified information about the British nuclear program. At times, it is a fairly typical romantic drama in which Joan falls in love with the mysterious and ultimately dangerous Leo while also developing feelings for her boss Professor Davis. The rest of the film explores the intriguing case of Joan becoming a Soviet spy and her struggle between her allegiance to her native Britain and her disdain for her government’s developing nuclear weapons, particularly after learning the horrific details of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To the movie’s detriment, the filmmaker relies on telling the story in a unusually slow and stale pace and does not use the talents of Judi Dench very much as a result of his emphasis on the character’s younger life. Overall, I was hoping for a prestige British historical drama that would better encapsulate one of the more interesting stories in espionage history, but, unfortunately, the execution is extremely lacking for such a terrific filmpremise.

The Hustle

A female-led remake of the 1988 movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that itself was a remake of the 1964 movie Bedtime Story, The Hustle is a shockingly bad and largely unfunny movie that had great potential with its casting of Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson but somehow the filmmaker and screenwriter failed miserably to use their proven acting and comedic talents. The plot revolves around a first-rate con artist living in the south of France named Josephine, played by Oscar winner Anne Hathaway with a fake and annoying accent, who uses her sexuality and wits to swindle wealthy men. Her work as a con artist is interrupted by a foul-mouthed Australian small-time con artist named Penny, played by the usually funny Rebel Wilson, who is also preying on the same gullible targets. They enter in a competition to see who can convince a young tech millionaire to give them half a million dollars. A majority of the movie is filled with the stupid and gag-worthy antics the women use, some of which are borderline offensive by using humor about the blind. Eventually, they discover that they themselves are possibly victims of an even more elaborate scheme and must find a way to work together to avenge their losses. The only part of the film that is somewhat enjoyable is the beautiful scenery and fancy houses and cars that are stereotypical for the wealthy enclaves of the French Riviera. Overall, I found the film to be rather disastrous for a project featuring two normally talented actresses and would not recommend people waste their money at the theaters but, if you must see it, wait until it is released for free at home.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Based on the internationally popular Japanese fantasy video game and television franchise Pokémon first created in 1995 and the 2016 video game also named Detective Pikachu, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is a light-hearted and cute family film that will surely delight fans of Pokémon while also appealing to other audiences looking for silly and funny entertainment. It takes place in a fantastical world where Pokémon, adorable creatures with special powers, and humans live together in which most everybody has a Pokémon companion. The movie follows a young insurance salesman named Tim Goodman, played by Justice Smith, who always had the dream of becoming a trainer for Pokémon to fight in battle against other Pokémon. When he learns that his estranged father who is a well-respected detective has disappeared, Tim finds himself in Ryme City where humans and Pokémon live harmoniously together to gather his father’s belongings but eventually is caught up in a mystery to discover what really happened to his father. Unexpectedly, a talking Pikachu Pokémon, voiced by the perfectly casted Ryan Reynolds, appears to Tim at his father’s apartment, and the bewildered Tim discovers that the very sassy Pikachu is his father’s partner. The rest of the film takes the audience on a colorful adventure where we meet a wide variety of Pokémon and evolves into a fairly funny movie with the comedic witticisms of Ryan Reynolds’ Pikachu character. The duo meet up with a young intern hoping to be a reporter named Lucy Stevens, played by Kathryn Newton, who helps them progress in their investigation of Tim’s father’s disappearance. The case leads them to a mysterious scientific lab run by a company owned by the wealthy founder of Ryme City named Howard Clifford, played by Bill Nighy. Overall, I found it to be a surprisingly entertaining and charming movie as a result of the wisecracking Ryan Reynolds performance and the whimsical world of Pokémon enhanced by fantastical CGI.