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.

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On the Basis of Sex

Directed by Mimi Leder best known for 1998’s Deep Impact and 2000’s Pay It Forward, On the Basis of Sex is an intriguing look at the formative years of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that, although well-acted and with the best of intentions, fell short of capturing the truly extraordinary life of Justice Ginsburg. We first meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg, played by Oscar nominee Felicity Jones, as a first-year student at Harvard Law School in the 1950s when she is only among a handful of female students enrolled at the prestigious institution. Throughout the first half of the movie, she struggles with finding her place in the legal world primarily due to her gender and despite her being the top of her class at Harvard and Columbia. She even sacrifices some of her own academic work in order to help her cancer-stricken husband Martin, played by Golden Globe nominee Armie Hammer, to keep up with his work also at Harvard Law School. Eventually, they move to New York City where Martin works for a highly regarded law firm, and the only job that she can find is working as a law professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Up until this point, it is a rather paint-by-numbers biopic exploring the protagonist’s challenges that inspire the person’s later life and eventual great success. The remainder of the movie revolves around her most important case about gender discrimination, especially for women, that is brought to her attention by her loving husband Martin who is now cancer-free. At first, it seems like a rather straightforward and dry tax case until Ginsberg realizes it could provide precedent overturning the national and state laws that she argues discriminates against women and are therefore unconstitutional. The famous case involves an unmarried man named Charles Moritz living in Denver who is denied tax benefits for a caregiver for his sick older mother and must take care of her himself to his financial detriment. With the help of the ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf, played by Justin Theroux, and feminist civil rights advocate Dorothy Kenyon, played by Oscar winner Kathy Bates, the up-and-coming Ginsberg spends most of her waking hours in pursuit of appealing the tax decision and ultimately bring it up in front of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to further her crusade for gender equality. In yet another biopic cliché, she must face her prior foes in the form of the formidable defense team aided by the former Harvard Law School dean, played by Oscar nominee Sam Waterston, and her former professor, played by Stephen Root, both men who made her life difficult in law school at a time when women were frowned upon becoming lawyers. The film also presents a more personal side of now Justice Ginsburg by showing her tender and supportive relationship with her husband and having to raise young children at the beginning of her hard-fought career. Overall, I found it to be a good start for exploring the remarkable accomplishments of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but ultimately it is bogged down by genre conventions and stereotypes. That is not to say that it is not a movie worth seeing because it is full of good acting performances and centers around a fascinating law case, but I would say that the recent 2018 documentary RBG is a much more important study of the venerable Justice Ginsburg.

Vice

Written and directed by Oscar winner Adam McKay best known for the 2015 movie The Big Short, Vice is a dramatic and sometimes darkly comedic movie about Vice President Dick Cheney and is remarkable for the terrific acting performances, especially from Christian Bale. The film is a series of flashbacks and montage sequences recounting the most important events in the life of the notoriously uncharismatic and vilified Cheney, played by the truly transformative actor Christian Bale who has already won a Golden Globe for his role. We first meet Cheney as vice president under President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, but the story shifts back to the 1960s when Dick Cheney had a working-class job in his native state of Wyoming. After living a wild life as an alcoholic, eventually he reforms his ways with the help of his assertive wife Lynne Cheney, played by Oscar winner Amy Adams, and enters the world of politics as a White House intern in 1969 under President Nixon. He continues to a political force to be reckoned with who attains increasingly powerful jobs with President Ford, President Reagan, President George H. W. Bush, and President George W. Bush, and interrupted by a career as the congressman from Wyoming. During his early political days, he becomes very close to the eventual Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, played by Oscar nominee Steve Carell, who is also depicted as a cunning and shady political figure. The movie also explores parts of his personal life that are often overlooked and include his relationship with his equally powerful wife and the revelation that one of his daughters Liz is a lesbian. It is not until the presidential election of 2000 that Dick Cheney becomes a household name when he is asked by the younger Bush, played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, to become his running mate. Portrayed as a bumbling redneck who only runs for president to please his father, George W. Bush is only able to convince the hesitant Cheney to become his VP by granting him unprecedented executive power for a vice president. The remainder of the film provides snippets of his controversial career as possibly the most powerful man in the country: it is a rather unflattering look that shows him to be a shrewd yet dangerously conniving figure partly responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers with the Iraq War. It may sound unusual to call it a dark comedy, but there are flashes of it through the use of caricature of malevolent characters and witty narrative devices, including a fake end credits and Cheney talking directly to the audience. Overall, I found it to be a compelling and entertaining look into one of the most divisive political figures brought to life by the extremely talented and committed actor Christian Bale; it can also be seen as a cautionary tale against consolidating too much power into the executive branch and warning against the rise of another Dick Cheney.

Mary Queen of Scots

Written by Beau Willimon who is best known for creating the critically acclaimed Netflix TV series House of Cards, Mary Queen of Scots is an enticing historical drama about a unique time in British history in which two strong female leaders vied for control over the British monarchy, and the film itself is anchored by two terrifically powerful actresses. As to be expected from the creator of the political thriller House of Cards, much of the movie is a series of sometimes convoluted acts of palace intrigue and outright violent conflict in order to decide who would be the rightful ruler of the United Kingdom. The story is set around the year 1569 after Mary Stuart, played by Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan, has returned to her native Scotland from France following the death of her first husband. With the support of the Scots and British Catholics, she claims legitimacy to take over the throne from the reigning monarch and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, played by Oscar nominee Margot Robbie. In London, Elizabeth is surrounded in court by competing factions made up of her advisers, including William Cecil who is played by Guy Pearce and her lover Robert Dudley, played by Joe Alwyn. On the other side in Scotland, Mary who is proclaimed Mary Queen of Scots also has to deal with her own palace intrigue, including her second husband Lord Darnley who is played by Jack Lowden, at the same time dealing with the firebrand Protestant minister John Knox who is played by David Tennant. Tensions between the two intensify after Mary has a child who could make a legitimate claim to being an heir, while Elizabeth remains childless without a strong desire to marry a husband. Although at times the script can seem uneven and be complicated to the casual viewer, the true strength of the film is the brilliant acting performances from the lead actresses who give off an air of royalty and their costumes and makeup look very realistic for the time. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable historical drama that albeit slightly flawed is a movie worthy to watch if you are a fan of the historical film genre and looking for tour-de-force acting performances.

Schindler’s List (25th Anniversary Theatrical Release)

Directed by critically-acclaimed filmmaker Steven Spielberg who won several Oscars for this particular film that is considered one of the greatest of the 20th century, Schindler’s List was recently remastered and released on the big screen for its 25th anniversary, and I found it to be extremely relevant in today’s divisive times in which hate crimes have risen. Although I saw it many years ago, simply watching it at a movie theater had an even greater emotional impact on an already extremely powerful film exploring the evils of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis. Based on a true story, the plot follows Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson who was nominated for his extraordinary role, who was an industrialist working alongside the Nazi party in Krakow, Poland and went on to save up to 1,200 Jewish people from extermination by the end of World War II. The almost three and a half hour long film with its potent black-and-white cinematography and intense attention to detail still stands the test of time as probably the most important artistic representation of the Holocaust. In addition to the nuanced performance given by the great Liam Neeson, the movie is full of beautiful and very memorable acting performances, especially Ben Kingsley who gives a remarkably tender performance as Schindler’s Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern and a young Ralph Fiennes who gives a horrifyingly realistic performance as the truly evil Nazi officer Amon Göth. In retrospect, Liam Neeson wholeheartedly deserved the Oscar for Best Actor as well as the other lead actors deserving awards in their respective Oscar categories. As was the case at the time of its release, the most indelible image from the entire movie is the appearance of a little girl wearing a red coat, the only color amongst the symbolically stark black-and-white imagery. The film was correctly recognized for the astounding directorial vision of Steven Spielberg who quite effectively captures the horrors of the labor and death camps of the Holocaust without showing a gratuitous amount of blood and gore. Overall, I found it to remain one of the most profound cinematic experiences of my life as a result of the stupendous directing, writing, acting, musical composition, and cinematography; the movie is truly worthy of its seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. If you ever get the chance to see this extraordinary cinematic piece of history on the big screen, it is definitely worth your time and money and will leave you even more in awe than viewing it on the small screen and before the beautiful restoration done for the 25th anniversary.

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.

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.