At Eternity’s Gate

Directed by Golden Globe winner Julian Schnabel whose 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for four Academy Awards, At Eternity’s Gate is a beautifully-shot and uniquely creative biopic about the final days of famed Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh living and working in the South of France towards the end of the 19th century. Played by the mesmerizing Willem Dafoe who is nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, the penniless and unappreciated Vincent van Gogh is encouraged to move to the small town of Arles in the South of France and is occasionally accompanied by his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, played by Golden Globe winner Oscar Isaac. Besides Paul Gauguin, the only emotional and financial support that he received was from his brother and struggling Parisian art dealer Theo, played by Emmy nominee Rupert Friend. Rather than following the typical formula of a straightforward biopic, the movie reflects the impressionistic artworks of Vincent van Gogh by relying on shaky avant-garde camera work and an unstructured storyline that also explores the mental instability of such a genius as Vincent van Gogh. A majority of the film follows him as he travels the French countryside with his paints and easel trying to discover the perfect places to paint his now masterpieces. His work and mind was so out-of-the-box at the time that he was disparaged by the villagers as a violent lunatic and would be committed several times to a mental institution for his eccentric behavior. The vibrant sequences in which Vincent van Gogh is recreating his environment are brilliantly captured by the filmmaker who visually compares the final results with the actual surroundings inspiring the artwork. The movie is also broken up by several philosophical monologues given by Vincent van Gogh and those caring for him in the institutions, including a priest who is played by Mads Mikkelsen and a doctor who is played by Mathieu Amalric. Evident by his ideas of grandeur and his blasé decision to famously cut off his own ear, Vincent van Gogh is portrayed as the archetypal tortured genius who was before his time and thereby led a very troubled life that eventually ended in tragedy. Overall, I found it to be a hypnotic and extremely well-crafted film that effectively tries to explore the inner psyche and artistry of such an enigmatic and only relatively recently internationally well-regarded artistic icon as Vincent van Gogh who is magnificently brought to life by the one and only Willem Dafoe.

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The Favourite

Directed by critically acclaimed Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos whose 2015 movie The Lobster was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, The Favourite is a rather bizarre historical drama containing elements of dark humor that is elevated to be one of the best movies of the year because of the Oscar-worthy acting performances of the three lead actresses. The story is based on real life events that took place during the time of the British monarch Queen Anne in the early 18th century, at a time when England was at war with France. Played by Olivia Colman who is nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, Queen Anne is portrayed as a rather weak and frail figure as a result of her struggles with illness, including gout, and is at the center of palace intrigue including two ladies of the Court. The Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill, played by Oscar winner Rachel Weisz, is initially the favorite of Queen Anne and is given great responsibility over matters of the state during the convalescence of the Queen. The audience quickly learns that Sarah is also the secret lover of Queen Anne who relies heavily on Sarah’s personal advice and looks to her for support. Things are complicated with the arrival of Sarah’s young cousin Abigail Hill, played by Oscar winner Emma Stone, who has lost her position and is now seeking a job working at the Royal Palace. After she gets into the good graces of Queen Anne, Abigail begins a very tense rivalry with the Queen’s current favorite Sarah over who can become the coveted personal favorite of the rather buffoonish Queen. At the same time, the Queen’s power is being tested by the Member of Parliament Robert Harley, played by Nicholas Hoult, who opposes the monarchy’s plan to raise land taxes to support the unpopular war with France. The cunning ploys between the fiercely competitive Sarah and Abigail eventually come to a head and leads to Sarah temporarily being away from the Royal Court. With her absence, Abigail continues in haste her successful endeavor to curry favor with Queen Anne whose disconcerting and petty antics continue to bewilder the Court. Evident of her rise in stature, Abigail even begins a relationship with a baron named Samuel Masham, played by Joe Alwyn. A key aspect of the filmmaker’s unique style, the movie is filled with some rather outlandish and quite simply weird moments, however, it is to a much lesser degree than his earlier works. The strangeness is quite effective in satirizing the excesses and eccentricities of a Royal Court, particularly Queen Anne’s in the early 1700s at the corroding height of the British Monarchy. Overall, I found it to be a highly entertaining and fascinating film that delves deep into the closed-door politics of the Royal Palace, and it is very special as a result of the brilliant casting of three actresses at the top of their game.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

The follow-up to the hugely successful Disney computer animated film Wreck-It Ralph released in 2012, Ralph Breaks the Internet is an endearing and extremely creative computer animated feature that effectively incorporates popular culture into a family-friendly story about changing friendships. Like the original, the plot follows a video arcade character named Ralph, voiced by Oscar nominee John C. Reilly, and his adventures with his best friend, another character from a racing video arcade game named Vanellope who is voiced by comedian Sarah Silverman. They both live in a magical world in which they can travel between games at a video arcade that is full of eccentric and lovable characters. The major twist in this particular film is that both best friends end up venturing into the previously unknown world of the internet after the owner of the arcade installs a Wi-Fi router giving them access to the colorful expensive universe of the internet. Ralph must look for eBay in order to purchase a part for Vanellope‘s racing game before it is permanently shut down. The filmmakers create a playful environment recreating what the internet could look like to children characters in which well-known websites like eBay and Facebook are represented as vibrant buildings within a large city. Not realizing that they must pay eBay actual money, Ralph and Vanellope embark on an entertaining adventure to make money through a spambot website represented by a street hawker and eventually a YouTube-like video website. Through the help of a search bar named KnowsMore, voiced by Alan Tudyk, the two are first led to an online racing game called Slaughter Race where they meet a tough racer named Shank, voiced by Gal Gadot best known for her role as Wonder Woman. Ralph finally discovers that he can make the necessary money by posting viral videos to the video sharing website BuzzzTube run by an algorithm represented by the fashionable character Yesss, voiced by Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson. Chaos ensues after Ralph helps unleash a virus that could possibly prevent Vanellope from wanting to stay in the online game with her new friend Shank. His jealousy and sadness over the possible separation from his dear friend is a message to the viewer about the hardships of a changing role in relationships with friends and family. Ralph eventually comes to terms with his best friend’s desires, and they are able to remain friends despite not always being together at the arcade. Overall, I found it to be a fun and unique movie appealing to both adults and kids who can appreciate the clever representations of the internet and the heartfelt message underscoring the entire premise. The only fault with the film is the occasional oversaturation of pop culture that can sometimes feel like an advertisement for the real products and intellectual property represented, especially during a scene in which all of the Disney princesses appear.

Creed II

The eighth installment in the Rocky movie series first released in 1976 and the sequel to the 2015 spinoff movie Creed, Creed II is a rather formulaic boxing movie that follows closely in the footsteps of the genre-defining film Rocky but is able to remain entertaining by being updated to follow the sports world of today. Taking place several years after the first Creed movie, the plot follows boxer Adonis Creed, played by Emmy-nominated actor Michael B. Jordan, who is the son of Apollo Creed featured in the original Rocky films and killed in a fight in 1985’s Rocky IV. The beginning of the film shows the young Creed capturing the world heavyweight title, but he is faced with an even greater challenge by Viktor Drago who is the son of Russian boxer Ivan Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren, last seen as the nemesis in Rocky IV. At first, the aging boxer Rocky Balboa, played by Oscar-nominated actor Sylvester Stallone, refuses to help train Creed because he is worried that he will suffer the same fate as his father fighting the much more powerful young Drago. He goes on to fight Drago in a match that leaves him badly injured, which particularly upsets his new fiance Bianca, played by Tessa Thompson. Creed’s mother Mary Anne, played by Phylicia Rashad, becomes a supportive influence on her adopted son Creed in helping navigate his relationship with Bianca and preparing to fight her husband’s son’s killer. While Creed is dealing with his own issues, Bianca is following a similar trajectory by being a musician suffering from a progressive hearing disorder that she fears will be passed on to their newly expected daughter. Eventually, Rocky decides to help Creed in the final major rematch that will take place in Moscow against Drago, and the movie follows the typical cinematic device of having a training montage that shows the progress that Creed makes in preparation for the fight of his life, quite possibly literally. The actual boxing sequences are effectively well done and keeps the audience engaged through thrilling and highly stylistic dramatic vicious fighting. Overall, I found it to be an enthralling addition to the already rich Rocky franchise that somehow finds a way to stay relevant despite the predictable outcomes as a result of the terrific acting performance given by the star Michael B. Jordan.

Green Book

Directed by Peter Farrelly who along with his brother Bobby is best known for such comedic films as 1994’s Dumb and Dumber and 1998’s There’s Something About Mary, Green Book is a heart-warming comedic drama about an unusual road trip through the South in the 1960s with a famous black musician and a rough Italian-American driver. Inspired by a true story, ill-mannered tough guy Tony ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga, played by two-time Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen, is a Manhattan bouncer looking for a job and eventually lands a job as a driver for the sophisticated and proper African American jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley, played by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. Despite their mutual misgivings mostly as a result of their ethnic differences, Shirley is told that the strong-willed Tony would probably be best suited for a journey through the extremely hostile South for black men like himself. Tony’s wife Dolores, played by Emmy nominee Linda Cardellini, encourages her hesitant husband to take the job. At first, both men really do not understand each other at least from a cultural and ethnic perspective, with Tony feeling that Shirley is really not black enough according to the day’s stereotypes. In almost a role reversal, at least according to the prejudices at the time, Shirley objects to the profane and often irreverent mannerisms of Tony who has never really left his comfort zone of New York City. Most of the road trip is smooth sailing with the exception of several incidents in which a few racist Southerners verbally and physically attack Shirley simply due to the color of his skin. Ironically, Shirley who is an extremely talented classically-trained pianist with impeccable manners is often barred from patronizing the same clubs and other venues where he is performing as they venture deeper and deeper into the Jim Crow South. Although at times the film glosses over the much more inhumane treatment that Shirley would likely have experienced as a black man in the South, the story evolves into a bittersweet buddy comedy in which Tony and Shirley look past their differences and develop a friendship that would last a lifetime. Emphasizing the racial underpinnings of the movie, the title itself refers to the actual travel guide known as the Green Book that directed black motorists to the black friendly establishments in the Deep South. In a rather jarring moment for Tony, he seems confused by receiving this book because he did not know that its existence was required for someone as respected as Shirley just because he is black. Overall, I found it to be an endearing and entertaining buddy road trip film that largely promotes interracial harmony evolving over an extended trip between two different men from two very different backgrounds. Furthermore, the movie works so beautifully as a result of the terrific chemistry between such acclaimed actors as Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.

Widows

Directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Steve McQueen who won the Oscar for 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, Widows is a powerful character-driven heist thriller that relies less on action sequences and more on the slow burn drama surrounding the climax and is remarkable for its stellar ensemble cast. The plot follows a group of women who plan a robbery following the deaths of their criminal husbands during a job and find themselves intertwined with the corrupt politics of Chicago and competing criminal organizations. Veronica Rawlings, played by Oscar winner Viola Davis, becomes the leader of the bereaved women following in the footsteps of her husband Harry, played by Oscar nominee Liam Neeson, who was the leader of their husbands’ criminal enterprise. She discovers her husband’s notebook outlining their next robbery and recruits the other women to go through with the heist in order to pay back the criminal boss and alderman candidate Jamal Manning, played by Emmy nominee Brian Tyree Henry. Jamal, along with his brutal associate and brother played by Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya, threaten the women whose husbands they claim stole millions of dollars from them. Eventually, Veronica is able to recruit Linda, played by Michelle Rodriguez, Alice, played by Elizabeth Debicki, and Linda’s babysitter Belle, played by Cynthia Erivo, to participate in the heist that could be worth up to five million dollars, enough to pay back Jamal. Only one of the widows Amanda, played by Carrie Coon, decides not to help out because she has a newborn baby. Their plans are complicated by the corrupt Chicago politician Jack Mulligan, played by Golden Globe winner Colin Farrell, who is running for alderman against Jamal. Jack and his vicious and equally corrupt father Tom Mulligan, played by Oscar winner Robert Duvall, are wary of Veronica because they made illicit deals with her husband Harry. Although there are several action sequences that take place during the actual heist scenes, most of the film shows the trauma and grief of the women losing their husbands, as well as their desire to avenge their deaths by meticulously planning an elaborate robbery of their own. They are portrayed as almost feminist anti-heroes who commit a crime that all the male criminals and corrupt politicians believe is not possible for women. The movie also contains several shocking twists and turns that make for a much more entertaining and thought-provoking experience. Overall, I thought it was a well-crafted and superbly acted action drama that creatively breaks the mold of a typical heist thriller by focusing on character development and creating a foreboding atmospheric drama.

Boy Erased

Written and directed by Golden Globe-nominated Australian actor Joel Edgerton who is best known for 2015’s The Gift and 2016’s Loving, Boy Erased is a powerfully-acted drama that explores gay conversion therapy and its negative impact on the LGBT participants. The story follows the emotionally fragile Jared Eamons, played by the terrific young Oscar-nominated actor Lucas Hedges, who is sent to a religious-oriented gay conversion therapy program by his deeply religious parents living in small town America. His father Marshall, played by Oscar winner Russell Crowe, is a local car dealer and a Baptist preacher who is horrified to learn that his son is homosexual, while his mother Nancy, played by Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, is equally shocked but slightly more sympathetic. In a series of flashbacks, the audience witnesses Jared’s struggles with his sexual orientation in which he tries to deny it as a result of his religious and conservative upbringing. Eventually, he comes to terms with who he is after a particularly traumatic experience in college and decides to come out to his indignant parents who believe that he can be cured at a gay conversion therapy center. While undergoing so-called treatment under the guidance of the leader Victor Sykes, played by Golden Globe nominee Joel Edgerton, the predominantly young men undergo verbal and emotional abuse supposedly designed to help them overcome their homosexuality. Jared becomes friends with the other participants and comes to resent Victor and the other employees who lack the sympathy to understand what they are going through in a society that tells them that they are morally wrong and deficient. Through his subtle yet emotionally provocative performance, Lucas Hedges brings a level of realism that allows the audience to truly understand how damaging and ineffective gay conversion therapy is on the LGBT participants who are sometimes forced to remain at the facility against their will. The fact that the movie is based on a true story and countless other experiences makes it even more heartbreaking to see the level of torment many of the victims go through during and after what is described as helping homosexuals become straight. Overall, I found it to be a truly extraordinary and harrowing account of the inner workings of gay conversion therapy and how it does nothing besides scarring those who undergo this so-called therapy; the stellar acting performances from the extremely talented cast helps to humanize the LGBT participants or victims as well as their well-intentioned but flawed family members.