Miss Bala

A remake of the critically acclaimed 2011 Mexican film of the same name, Miss Bala is a fairly typical average action thriller that does not add much to the genre and is bogged down by rather underwhelming performances and a sloppy script filled with cliches. We first meet the main character and Mexican-American makeup artist Gloria, played by Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez best known for her role on the TV show Jane the Virgin, crossing the border from her home in the United States to help her friend Suzu who lives in Tijuana, Mexico prepare for a local beauty pageant. However, after visiting a nightclub in which a local gang attacks, Gloria is separated from her friend and desperately tries to find her. Eventually, she is told by the Las Estrellas Mexican gang that they will help locate her friend and bring her to safety if Gloria agrees to work with the gang. She enters in a rather unusual relationship with the boss who is named Lino and is convinced to participate in criminal and often violent activities as the only way to see her friend ever again. For a while, she is kept at a safe house in the outskirts of Tijuana where she meets a another woman who has been held against her will to be with the gang members as a sort of sex slave. Towards the end of the film, Gloria is forced to get involved with an assassination attempt on the Tijuana Chief of Police, played by Damián Alcázar best known for his role on the TV show Narcos. She is also secretly contacted by the DEA and a undercover CIA agent played by Anthony Mackie to help foil the activities of the Las Estrellas and its leader Lino. The movie gives Gina Rodriguez a promising start to a dramatic film career but, unfortunately, her talents are underutilized and she never really becomes a full-fledged action star expected for her role. Overall, I found it to be a mildly entertaining action thriller that somehow lacks much action or thrills, and it did not use the potential of a clearly talented Gina Rodriguez to really shine and help the film escape the tired tropes of an action movie.

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Capernaum

Written and directed by critically acclaimed Lebanese actress and director Nadine Labaki, Capernaum is a beautiful and emotionally powerful film that hits you in the heart with its heartbreaking story about those living on the edge of society and life in the impoverished neighborhoods of Lebanon. The film literally translated as chaos and spoken in mostly Arabic tells the tragic life of a twelve-year-old boy named Zain, remarkably played by first-time actor Zain al Rafeea, who is largely left to his own devices on the rough streets of Lebanon. At the beginning of the movie, he decides to sue his neglectful parents for giving birth to him and allowing him to live such a miserable existence. Mostly comprised of a series of flashbacks, the story simply yet effectively follows Zain who one day leaves his overburdened and ever-growing family in search of a better life after his beloved and too young sister is married off to an older man. Eventually, he encounters an undocumented young Ethiopian female refugee named Rahil, realistically played by Yordanos Shiferaw, who asks the street smart Zain to look after her baby son Yonas, played by the adorable yet fragile Boluwatife Treasure Bankole. Through the eyes of the young Zain who struggles by himself to support the still nursing Yonas after his mother is detained, the remainder of the film depicts the horrifying and deeply depressing challenges of living in abject poverty on the chaotic streets of Lebanon. Hugely deserving of the Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, the movie is so heart-wrenching as a result of the extremely talented filmmaker’s vivid ability to scratch the surface of what life must be like for those living in very poor and quite frankly miserable places around the world. She is able to capture this so brilliantly by incorporating breathtaking cinematography presenting the underbelly of Lebanon with the use of predominantly untrained actors who really lived very much like their characters. Overall, I found it to be an utterly distressing yet necessary piece of art and storytelling; it is so realistic that I do not remember another movie over the past several years with so much impact that I thought about the characters with such a heavy heart for days after watching this truly earth-shattering film.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

A direct sequel to 2014’s The Lego Movie and the fourth installment in the Lego film franchise, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is a very charming and witty family friendly computer animated movie that continues the creativity of the original with funny voice acting and humorous gags. Set five years after the original, we meet the protagonist Emmet Brickowski, voiced by the charismatic Chris Pratt, living his hopelessly naive life in what has now become Apocalypseburg until his Lego world is faced with an even greater danger than before, an army of alien invaders led by Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi, voiced by the comedian Tiffany Haddish. The shape-shifting Queen tries to brainwash Emmet and his friends to join her Systar System and force Batman, voiced by the gruff-sounding Will Arnett, to marry her in order to form an alliance. However, Wyldstyle or simply known as Lucy, voiced by Elizabeth Banks, knows that something is wrong and must fight off the Queen and her minions who could bring forth the so-called Our-Mom-Ageddon. Meanwhile, Emmet tries to rescue his friends, especially his love interest Lucy, and is eventually teamed up with a tough guy named Rex Dangervest, also voiced by Chris Pratt, who is cleverly yet indirectly described as a combination of the actor Chris Pratt’s other roles, including Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy and a velociraptor wrangler from Jurassic World. When Emmet and Lucy finally reunite, they realize that not everything is as it seems and that the Queen may in fact not be as bad as they initially thought. Like the original, the film takes the audience on a very entertaining adventure filled with extremely clever references and metaphorical representations of the real world in which the characters are part of two children’s imaginations. In a very creative twist, it is revealed that Emmet’s world is in the real world realm of the young boy Finn and the Queen is the real world representation of his younger sister Bianca who simply wants to play Legos with her older brother. To clarify this reality, the film occasionally cuts to live action sequences in which the feuding siblings are portrayed as well as their father, played by Will Ferrell, and mother, played by Maya Rudolph, who threatens to put all the Legos in storage if the two siblings do not get along. In the end, the movie gives a heartwarming message of the bond between brother and sister that ultimately overcomes all challenges. Overall, although it is clearly not as great as the original, I found it to be an extremely enjoyable cinematic experience as a result of the terrific and often very funny writing fleshed out by a first-rate cast of voice actors. Furthermore, I was thoroughly impressed by the level of realism generated by the computer animation that makes the Lego pieces look real and are even aged with marks that would typically appear on real life Legos over time.

Cold War

Directed by Oscar-winning Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski best known for 2013’s critically acclaimed Ida, Cold War is a breathtaking romance drama that is truly remarkable for its beautiful black-and-white cinematography and outstanding lead actors who give brilliant performances as star-crossed lovers. Based on the lives of the director’s own parents, the relatively short film with mostly Polish dialogue follows the heated and complex romantic relationship between two Polish citizens, the musician and composer Wiktor, played by the terrific Tomasz Kot, and the beautiful singer Zula, played by the seductive Joanna Kulig. We first meet them in the years following World War II in the ruins of communist Poland when they are part of a traveling folk music group that later espouses the virtues of communism throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. After their romance begins behind the Iron Curtain, we follow them as individuals who get separated and reunited several times across several European countries over the course of four decades concluding in the late 1960s. Wiktor eventually escapes Poland and lives for a while in Paris as a struggling musician working in nightclubs but never really feels happy after Zula decides to remain back home in Poland. With brilliantly subtle directorial vision, the audience is able to feel the passionate and emotionally powerful romantic interactions between the two as they are reunited several times throughout the course of the plot. Furthermore, the filmmaker makes the perfect decision to make the film black-and-white with the older boxy proportions to vividly express the difficulties of those living in the rather bleak and the confining communist countries during the Cold War. At the same time, the movie depicts a truly beautiful love story with a contemporary jazz soundtrack for the times and astounding cinematography that helps bring to life both the dark and light of both sides of the Iron Curtain. Overall, I found it to be one of the most beautiful romantic movies in recent memory as a result of the first-rate acting performances and contemplative directing and cinematography, and it is thereby highly deserving of the Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography.

The Kid Who Would Be King

Written and directed by British filmmaker Joe Cornish best known for 2011’s sci-fi movie Attack the Block, The Kid Who Would Be King is a surprisingly well-done and fun family-friendly adventure film with a very creative take on the iconic British legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The film follows a young teenager named Alex, played by newcomer Louis Ashbourne Serkis, living in London who leads a fairly typical adolescent life until one day he discovers the magical sword Excalibur previously possessed by the legendary Arthur. Along with his bullied best friend Bedders, Alex is unwittingly tasked with saving England by fighting off the magical evil force of Morgana, played by Rebecca Ferguson, who is the half sister of King Arthur and the mortal enemy of the wizard Merlin. With the discovery of Excalibur, she and her magical zombie army are awakened from the depths of Earth after a centuries-old spell to avenge Arthur’s curse and destroy Great Britain during a solar eclipse. The fatherless Alex is told this unbelievable story and how he is a descendant of the great King Arthur from the famed wizard Merlin who is disguised as a older teenage student, played by the film’s comic relief Angus Imrie. When he is not trying to blend into modern-day England, Merlin appears either as an owl or an older man, played by the great Patrick Stewart. Eventually, Alex and his best friend are reluctantly partnered with the school bullies Lance and his girlfriend Kaye to go on a perilous journey to locate and kill Morgana. In the process, the four of them learn moral lessons to overcome their challenges with each other to become lifelong friends despite being enemies prior to their quest. Overall, although it is definitely geared to be a wholesome family movie, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it to be a terrifically entertaining adventure story also appealing to adults looking for a fun time at the movies.

Serenity

Written and directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Steven Knight best known for directing 2014’s Locke and writing 2007’s Eastern Promises, Serenity is a high-concept film with largely disastrous results as a result of the preposterous twists and stilted acting performances. Set on a remote tropical island, the story follows the down-on-his-luck fisherman Baker Dill, played by Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey in an unusually unremarkable performance, who along with his partner Duke, played by Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou, take tourists on fishing expeditions out at sea. The divorced Baker who also struggles financially is fixated upon catching a particularly elusive large tuna he calls Justice and has lived on the island for years without seeing his son who lives in Florida. One day, his estranged ex-wife Karen, played by Oscar winner Anne Hathaway, shows up unannounced and propositions Baker to kill her abusive husband Frank, played by Jason Clarke, while out on a fishing trip. For the first part of the movie, it feels like a typical thriller but something feels amiss throughout much of the film, including the mysterious appearance of a businessman named Reid Miller, played by Jeremy Strong, and the almost telepathic relationship between Baker and his son Patrick who lives thousands of miles away. All of the unusual circumstances begin to make some sense towards the end of the movie with a truly bizarre and laughable twist revealing that not everything is as it seems to be in reality. It is hard not to underscore the ridiculousness of the film without giving away the major twist that the filmmaker attempts to use as a creative narrative device, which nevertheless fails epically. I found it difficult to imagine why A-list movie stars, which also includes Oscar nominee Diane Lane in a very minor and pointless role, would voluntarily sign up for such a mess of a movie. Overall, I was quite frankly astonished by the poor direction and writing, especially with such a great cast and a promising plot, and it may even rise to the level that it is so bad that it is a good movie just to watch for laughs.

Stan & Ollie

Based on the true story of one of the world’s most famous comedic duos Laurel and Hardy during their late career, Stan & Ollie is a truly wonderful little movie about the heartwarming relationship between Laurel and Hardy despite their occasional disagreements on their very last tour together across the United Kingdom. We first meet the Englishman Stanley “Stan” Laurel, played by the Oscar-nominated British comedian Steve Coogan, and the American Oliver “Ollie” Hardy, brilliantly played by Oscar-nominated American comedian John C. Reilly who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role, toward the end of the height of their career in the 1930s making movies for the famous comedy producer Hal Roach, played by Danny Huston. Almost two decades pass before we meet the two again. Partly for financial reasons, the comedians finally get over their years-long rift over Laurel leaving Hal Roach Studios and Hardy making a movie without his longtime partner Laurel. In the twilight of their careers, they agree to embark on a rather small-time music hall tour of England and Ireland in 1953 comprised of their most famous acts in addition to several new ones that Laurel has written. Over the course of the non-stop traveling schedule, both comic legends are often at each other’s throats as a result of the disappointing crowd turnouts and the acknowledgement that their careers are inevitably ending soon. Through recreations of their bits and the behind-the-scenes rehearsals, the filmmaker is vividly able to portray the comedic genius of the larger-than-life Laurel and Hardy whose diametrically opposed personalities and physical appearances work perfectly for comedic effect. The actors, particularly John C. Reilly who is almost magically transformed into the overweight mustached Oliver Hardy, help to bring the world famous comedians to life even though they have been dead for over half a century. The film also does a terrific job of painting a much more intimate picture of the pair that explores the complicated friendship between both men in which they often argue but, at the end of the day, love one another as if they were family. Overall, I found it to be one of the most emotionally touching movies in recent memory that is only able to work as a result of the outstandingly realistic depictions of the one-and-only Laurel and Hardy given by the excellent actors; it is a much more personal and nuanced exploration of Hollywood comedy luminaries that goes beyond simply reliving their funniest bits.