Written and directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick best known for 1978’s Days of Heaven, 1998’s The Thin Red Line, and 2011’s The Tree of Life, A Hidden Life is a visually spectacular and deeply contemplative film that uses brilliant cinematography and philosophical voiceovers to tell the true life story of Franz Jägerstätter. Visualized by the sweeping bucolic mountain vistas of Austria, we first meet the farmer Franz, played by German actor August Diehl, enjoying his peaceful country life with his wife Fani, played by Austrian actress Valerie Pachner, and we see his life play out over several years as they have children. However, at the outbreak of World War II, Franz is sent away to train for the German military but is allowed to return home after several months training. Eventually, the German military is in need of new soldiers to fight so they call up Franz to swear allegiance to Hitler and become a soldier in his army. A deeply religious man, he refuses to take an oath to Hitler who goes against all of his beliefs. Because of his openly defiant disobedience, he is sent to prison until he pledges allegiance, but, after months of still not giving in, he is transferred to Berlin where he faces a death sentence for treason. At the same time, his wife and three young daughters remain in Austria where they are subjected to insults and outright rejection from the local villagers who believe Franz’s act is reprehensible. Resembling the long and arduous time that he must wait in prison for what he knows is ultimately death, the movie is effectively slow-paced and is almost three hours long, which is fairly typical for a Terrence Malick picture. This somewhat unorthodox approach allows the viewer to truly contemplate what it means to suffer for your beliefs and stand up to what is evil in the world; especially with its shots of nature and the grandeur of the mountains, the film becomes somewhat of a spiritual or religious cinematic experience. Overall, I found it to be a truly magnificent movie that reinforces the unique genius of Terrence Malick who is able to create a film that reflects on the beauty and destruction of the world through the eyes of one of the most famous World War II conscientious objectors who later became a martyr in the Catholic Church.
Directed by Jay Roach best known for such comedies as 1997’s Austin Powers and 2000’s Meet the Parents and written by Charles Randolph best known for co-writing the Oscar-winning movie The Big Short released in 2015, Bombshell is a well-crafted yet rather unusual movie in that it is both a comedy and drama about the downfall of Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes amidst a flurry of sexual harassment allegations from the female employees of the network. Unlike the recent Showtime TV mini-series The Loudest Voice following Fox News from its inception, the movie has a narrow focus on the year 2016 as the presidential election is in full swing and Roger Ailes is finally facing repercussions for his history of sexual harassment over the years as the head of the conservative news network. The film is full of a bunch of characters based on real life individuals working at Fox News and are portrayed as preposterous caricatures of themselves. However, the main focus of the story is the star female anchors Megyn Kelly, played by Charlize Theron who uncannily resembles her character, and Gretchen Carlson, played by Nicole Kidman, as well as a fictionalized producer named Kayla, played by Margot Robbie. The three main actresses are the real draw of the movie because they give such excellent performances that make you believe that they are actually the characters they play. Throughout the movie, the offices and studios of Fox News are depicted as extremely toxic work environment in which harassment and crude jokes are the norm. The filmmaker effectively discusses the serious issue of sexual harassment by juxtaposing the political rise of Donald Trump who makes inappropriate remarks about women, including Megyn Kelly, with the powerful but feared leader of Fox News Roger Ailes, played terrifically by John Lithgow. Particularly in the case of Gretchen Carlson, the women of Fox News are shown debating whether to finally stand up to the sexual harassment of Ailes by making formal complaints to Fox Corporation run by the Murdoch family or filing lawsuits. Such a seemingly depressing subject matter is made entertaining through the use of office gossip circulating Fox News that first begins as whispers and eventually leads to the rapid demise of Roger Ailes and the top anchor Bill O’Reilly. It is very similar to the 2015 movie The Big Short in that it delves into serious subject matter with a fast-paced and witty script that constantly keeps the audience engaged. Overall, I found it to be a surprisingly entertaining film that is also a very empowering tale of people standing up for what is right and having the audacity to go against their powerful boss. It may not be the best treatment of the Fox News sexual harassment story as it relates to the now disgraced and deceased Roger Ailes, but it does an excellent job of exploring the mindset of the three female protagonists brought to life by the powerhouse acting combination of Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie.
Co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton best known for 2013’s Short Term 12 and 2017’s The Glass House, Just Mercy follows the template of a rather typical legal drama that rises above the rest through its emotionally powerful moments brought to life by a terrific cast telling a true story. The plot revolves around a recent Harvard Law graduate named Bryan Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan in one of his best performances, who decides to move to Montgomery, Alabama in the late 1980s to set up a pro bono legal organization to help Alabama inmates get off death row. With the help of a local activist who is played by Oscar winner Brie Larson, the passionate Stevenson creates the Equal Justice Initiative out of a sense of idealism in what he quickly discovers is a very hostile environment to pursue legal justice for death row inmates, especially African American men, in the historically racial discriminatory South. At first, he encounters resistance from the incarcerated individuals themselves who have largely given up on the judicial system to give them a reprieve from the death penalty. Eventually, Stevenson is able to convince Walter McMillian nicknamed Johnny D., played by Oscar winner Jamie Foxx in one of his best recent performances, to fight his flawed conviction and sentencing to death for the murder of a young white woman in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama in 1987. Stevenson, whose 2014 memoir of the same name is the basis for the film, works tirelessly to overturn what he soon realizes is McMillian’s wrongful conviction; as an African American from an impoverished rural community himself, Stevenson struggles personally with the case because he knows he could have been treated just like McMillian. The filmmaker does a good job of recreating the real courtroom drama that took place over several appeals and trials to exonerate McMillian. Outside of the legal process in Alabama that still is full of systemic racism, Stevenson, along with Brie Larson’s unfortunately underdeveloped character, must also deal with the outside world in which they often face death threats and menacing police officers following them. As the audience sees through Jordan’s excellent acting and ability to develop the character, Stevenson is clearly burdened by the unjust treatment of inmates who he gets to know on a personal level and sheds several layers of his optimism in the face of such adversity. Overall, I found it to be a thought-provoking drama that delves deep into the contentious issue of the death penalty and particularly how it relates to racial discrimination; the movie quite effectively presents the problems with the justice system by telling a true story with talented actors able to convey the story’s impactful message.
Directed by critically acclaimed independent filmmaker Todd Haynes best known for 2002’s Far from Heaven and 2015’s Carol, Dark Waters is a riveting legal thriller about one corporate defense attorney switching sides to pursue justice by fighting the large chemical company DuPont that has been poisoning a West Virginia community. The movie, which is based on a true story, is especially powerful as a result of its terrific acting and thoughtful chronicle of a more than 20-year legal battle that is still ongoing. The film begins in 1998 when we first meet attorney Robert Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo, as a rising star at his large Cincinnati-based law firm working as an environmental lawyer defending corporations. However, his life and work are turned upside down when West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant, played by Bill Camp, asks for help after he discovers widespread poisoning of his cattle that he suspects is the result of a nearby DuPont chemical plant dumping toxic waste. At the hesitancy of his law firm and boss Tom Terp, played by Tim Robbins, because they defend corporations like DuPont, Bilott begins a decades-long legal crusade against DuPont after his in-depth investigation reveals that they have been using the toxic chemical PFOA in the production of Teflon without ever disclosing it to the public and environmental government agencies. Fighting such a dominant and powerful group as DuPont takes a heavy personal toll on the soft-spoken and mild-mannered Bilott whose wife Sarah, played by Anne Hathaway, feels that the case is taking over his life and preventing him to spend time with his young family. Despite all of these struggles, he continues and eventually starts a class action lawsuit comprised of the public living around Parkersburg, West Virginia who are being subjected to the chemical in their drinking water. At the same time, his legal team expands and later includes a local West Virginia attorney who is played by Bill Pullman. Mark Ruffalo does a remarkable job of displaying the sheer tenacity of the real life hero Bilott who pursues justice at all costs as long as it will take until he feels DuPont cleans up their act and gets rid of PFOA. Overall, I found it to be a truly powerful film that tells a horrific true story of a corporation disregarding the public in favor of profits and how a otherwise normal lawyer decides to do the right thing and stands up to such a Goliath of industry. It is especially intriguing that a director such as Todd Haynes who is best known for intimate artsy independent films felt so strongly about telling the story that he would decide to direct a movie largely outside of his scope.
Directed by Marielle Heller best known for 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a beautifully affecting and bittersweet movie about the beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers and his relationship with a journalist that shows exactly how Mr. Rogers positively affected those he touched personally and on television. Unexpectedly, the movie focuses much more on the emotional evolution of the fictional journalist Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys best known for his role on the TV series The Americans, who is somewhat of a curmudgeon but is told by the editor of Esquire magazine to do a short profile of Fred Rogers. The character Lloyd is actually based on the real-life Esquire writer Tom Junod who wrote an 1998 article that the movie is based. Lloyd sees himself as a serious journalist who is coping with the new reality of being a father to a newborn baby and is hesitant to interview someone like Fred Rogers who Lloyd the skeptic believes is disingenuous. Eventually, he goes to Pittsburgh to the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at the PBS television station WQED in order to interview Rogers for an issue of Esquire about heroes. Lloyd is taken aback by Fred Rogers, played brilliantly by the nice guy of Hollywood Tom Hanks, who is exactly like he is on television, a wonderful human being too humble to be called a hero. Throughout his time interviewing Mr. Rogers on several different occasions, Lloyd is struggling with the reappearance of his estranged father Jerry, played by Chris Cooper, and wants nothing to do with him since he left his sick mother years ago. The real purpose of the movie is to show how Lloyd eventually comes around to make amends with his father as a result of the the advice given to him by Mr. Rogers who teaches him to forgive and care for family and friends even when they may be troubled themselves. Rogers himself admits to not being a perfect person as everybody believes him to be and even admits to having difficult relationships with his two sons. The filmmaker quite effectively depicts Fred Rogers through a single episode of his kindness towards another character who needs help, rather than the traditional biopic that may not have given a truly personal story that would resonate with the audience. Other terrific filmmaking decisions were to include models of cities and puppets as they were in the original show, as well as using similar video cameras from the real Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to recreate scenes from the television show. Overall, I found it to be an uplifting movie that captures the true spirit of such a down-to-earth man of values as Fred Rogers, primarily as a result of the intimate script and perfect casting of Tom Hanks. Yes, the film does have sad moments as the emotionally distant Lloyd tries to come to terms with his family situation while receiving invaluable moral guidance from Mr. Rogers.
Directed by James Mangold best known for 2005’s Walk the Line and 2017’s Logan, Ford v Ferrari is a brilliant car racing movie remarkable for its terrific acting performances, entertaining story, and thrilling race sequences, all adding up to a film that can be enjoyed even by those who do not care for cars or racing. Based on a true story, the plot follows Ford Motor Company’s pursuit of winning their first 24 Hours of Le Mans race and finally overtaking the dominance of Ferrari. Ford Vice President Lee Iacocca, played by Jon Bernthal, pitches the idea in 1963 of creating a competitive racing team to Ford CEO Henry Ford II, played by Tracy Letts, as a means to appeal to the younger generation of car buyers, and he approaches famed car designer Carroll Shelby, played by Matt Damon, to help design the car to beat Ferrari. A brilliant yet somewhat eccentric Texan, Shelby is confident that, with the right mechanics and driver, he can optimize a Ford GT40 to compete and eventually win the coveted 24 Hours of Le Mans, which he himself won in 1959 in a different car before he was forced to retire. The only problem Shelby encounters is the complicated bureaucracy of such a large company as Ford, especially as it relates to Shelby’s handpicked driver Ken Miles, played by Christian Bale. Miles is a hot-headed yet excellent British race car driver who is struggling to make a living as a mechanic in Los Angeles with his wife Mollie, played by Caitriona Balfe best known for her role in the TV series Outlander. The Ford Motor Company and its racing division led by Ford Senior Executive Vice President Leo Beebe, played by Josh Lucas, are very much against having such a wild and brash lead driver as Miles and try almost anything to get rid of him, at least in public. Amidst all the dramatic infighting, the movie is filled with truly exciting and realistic racing scenes that show exactly how difficult it is to be an endurance race car driver and the very real dangers of serious injury or death, especially during that era when safety standards were lower than today’s. Eventually, Shelby American and Ford make it to the crucial Le Mans race in 1966 where they will finally have the best chance of taking down Ferrari. Overall, I found it to be one of the best auto racing movies ever made as a result of its extraordinary intense race sequences and surprisedly in-depth character studies of the iconic automotive designer Carroll Shelby and one-of-a-kind daredevil Ken Miles, making for an extremely entertaining cinematic experience for all types of viewers.
Directed by critically acclaimed African American filmmaker Kasi Lemmons best known for 1997’s Eve’s Bayou, Harriet is important as the first major motion picture about runaway slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman that tells a truly remarkable story but does not do justice to such an extraordinary person as a result of the film’s rather formulaic script. Based on a true story, the plot follows Harriet Tubman, played by Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, first living as a slave in Maryland who decides, after receiving visions from God, that she must escape and run away to the free state of Pennsylvania. We witness her courageous solo journey of over 100 miles being chased by slave catchers led by her brutal slave owner Gideon, played by Joe Alwyn. Eventually, she makes it to Philadelphia where she gets help from an African American abolitionist leader named William Still, played by Leslie Odom Jr., and a generous African American boarding house owner named Marie, played by Janelle Monáe. Receiving further visions, she makes the brave decision to return to Maryland to help her family also escape slavery using the Underground Railroad route given to her by Still. The rest of the film follows her numerous other expeditions as one of the most successful conductors on the Underground Railroad to eventually help almost 300 slaves escape to freedom. Following the tropes of the adventure genre, Harriet is constantly chased by the villain in the form of Gideon and his slave catchers, including an African American man, but she always perseveres to help her fellow man, woman, and child to reach freedom. Her missions are very much complicated by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed runaway slaves living in free states to be legally captured and returned to their slave owners in the South. Overall, I found it to be a much-needed and thereby very important depiction of one of America’s greatest heroes who has been overlooked in terms of the embarrassing lack of cinematic treatments. Despite the terrific acting performances and amazing story, the movie, unfortunately, adheres too much to a typical action adventure film with predictable actions and results and makes for a movie that does not rise to the stature of the truly extraordinary Harriet Tubman.
Directed by Rupert Goold best known for English theatrical productions and the 2015 movie True Story, Judy is an excellently crafted and sobering glimpse of the final months of actress and singer Judy Garland’s tumultuous life, and the film is brought to life by the truly extraordinary performance given by Renée Zellweger. A majority of the movie revolves around her final set of shows given in 1969 in London after facing several professional setbacks back home in the United States, but Judy’s story is also fleshed out with a series of flashbacks at the height of her child stardom around the time of The Wizard of Oz. As a result of her notoriously difficult behind-the-scenes behavior related to her substance abuse, she is practically in financial ruin and unable to get any sort of gig at the beginning until she is encouraged to perform in England where she is still beloved. She reluctantly leaves her son and daughter with their father and her ex-husband Sidney Luft, played by Rufus Sewell, in Los Angeles despite her unhealthy attachment to her children who she would use to perform with her. Greatly worrying her agent, the show promoter, and her British handler and assistant who is played by Jessie Buckley, Judy constantly shows up late to her sold-out crowds and dismisses rehearsals and spends most of her time in her hotel suite acting bizarrely and in a state of confusion. We learn she is addicted to a wide variety of medications, primarily as a result of her abusive treatment as a child star by the MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. While working at MGM, she was often forced to working long hours and eat very little in order to maintain her status as a major star. Overall, I found it to be a terrific movie showcasing Renée Zellweger in an Oscar-worthy performance vividly showing that Judy Garland was sadly in a terrible state towards the end of her much celebrated life and greatly struggled with substance abuse and depression.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher who was the director who finished the 2018 Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman is a truly extraordinary cinematic experience that perfectly encapsulates the fantastical career of Elton John by presenting the movie as a musical fantasy that definitely breaks the mold of the traditional biopic. Punctuated by well-choreographed dance sequences set to Elton John’s music, the film is a series of rapid-fire flashbacks told from the personal perspective of Elton John, played by the terrific Taron Egerton best known for his role in The Kingsmen action comedy movie franchise, while he is receiving treatment at a rehab facility. The story retraces his early life living in a dysfunctional family led by his dismissive mother Sheila, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, but his musical talents are encouraged by his kind-hearted grandmother who supports his decision at such a young age to enroll in the prestigious Royal Academy of Music. Eventually, he decides to change his name to Elton John and take on a flamboyant stage persona, which coincides with his meteoric rise to global musical fame. His amazing ability to place music to lyrics is greatly enhanced when he begins a writing partnership with a songwriter named Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell. As is the case with a majority of musical geniuses, he quickly spirals out of control with the heavy influence of alcohol, drugs, and sex and also under the unhealthy pressure of his music manager and one-time lover John Reid, played by Richard Madden. The filmmaker makes the brilliant decision to convey the excesses and low points of Elton John’s personal life through the use of his own music with lyrics that somehow perfectly fit within the context of each and every scene. Overall, I found it to be a fabulously entertaining cinematic journey that takes a refreshing twist on the traditional musical biopic by incorporating Elton John’s unique personality and sound; it is undoubtedly one of the most creative films of the year and runs laps around last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard best known for 1995’s Apollo 13 and 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, Pavarotti is a love letter of a documentary to the legendary and larger-than-life opera singer and tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and the film does an extraordinary job of capturing the truly remarkable life story of one of the greatest voices whose persona captivated the world. It follows in the traditional mold of a documentary by telling his story through photographs, archival footage, actual concert performances, and contemporary interviews with his family and colleagues. The true magic of the deeply fascinating documentary is the subject who we first meet as a young man from a working-class family living in Modena, Italy with the improbable dream of becoming a world-class opera singer. The audience does get a glimpse of his sometimes complicated personal life, especially as it relates to his love for beautiful women, who always adored his daughters even at his most difficult points in his life. We get to witness the rise of Pavarotti as he starts his career performing in a small Italian opera company and eventually become a major recording artist who did the unthinkable for opera stars by primarily giving concerts with a selection of songs from famous operas. The largely unseen personal archival footage shows a big-hearted giant of a man who exuded natural charisma and generosity while always enjoying the good things in life, including fine wine and Italian food. His desire to help those in need throughout the world began in earnest after he teamed up with fellow famous tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, establishing what would be known as The Three Tenors. The documentary gives particularly interesting insight into the relationship between the equally charismatic Three Tenors by interviewing both Domingo and Carreras who beautifully reflect on the legacy of their dear friend Pavarotti. Overall, I found it to be one of the more engrossing documentaries that I have seen in recent memory, and I would definitely recommend it to anybody who enjoys music even if you are not a fan of opera, or really anybody who enjoys a good documentary about a remarkable person such as Luciano Pavarotti.