All Eyez on Me

Based on the true story of one of the most famous rappers, All Eyez on Me is a mediocre biopic that tells the story of revolutionary rap star Tupac Shakur through his struggles as a poor black youth living in the projects to his eventual rise to fame. Played by newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. who has an uncanny resemblance to the real Tupac, Tupac bounces around public housing in New York, Baltimore, and Oakland with his siblings and single mother who was a prominent member of the Black Panthers. After writing lyrics for himself, he debuts as a nationally recognized rapper in the early 1990’s, especially after signing and releasing his first albums with Interscope Records. Eventually, he joins Death Row Records run by controversial rap mogul Suge Knight who helped kickstart the massively popular group N.W.A. At the time, he is hailed as the next great gangsta rap star and rapidly becomes rich while also becoming the target of rival rappers, particularly the East Coast-based The Notorious B.I.G. Despite his success, he runs into legal trouble several times and is shot on one occasion at least five times before his early death. Tragically, in September 1996 at the age of 25, he is gunned down in the streets of Las Vegas in a car driven by Suge Knight. To this day, his murder remains unsolved. Even after his untimely death, his estate has released at least five posthumous albums, and he has sold over 75 million albums as of 2007, ranking him as the second best-selling rap and hip-hop artist in history. Overall, I found the movie to take an occasionally interesting look at arguably the greatest rap icon, but I came away disappointed in the overly confusing and rushed plot line that did not really delve deep into Tupac’s fascinating life story. Although lacking the high-quality script and powerful acting performances, the movie reminded me of the terrific 2015 film Straight Outta Compton about N.W.A. with its biographical depiction of an equally significant rap group and their rise to fame.

Megan Levey

Based on an inspirational true story, Megan Leavey is a well-crafted and emotionally powerful movie about war in addition to the bond between humans and animals. In a sublime performance filled with raw emotion, Kate Mara of House of Cards fame plays Megan Leavey, a troubled young woman who decides to join the United States Marine Corps as a way to escape her life. During her time training at Camp Pendleton outside San Diego, she desperately wants to become a Military Police K-9 handler. Eventually, she becomes a corporal and is paired with a difficult-to-control bomb-sniffing military working dog named Rex. Never really having bonded with anyone in her hardship-filled life, Megan quickly develops a close kinship with Rex, especially when they are deployed into combat in war-torn Iraq. First serving in Fallujah in 2005 then Ramadi in 2006, she, as a woman not allowed in combat, and her best friend Rex are mostly posted at checkpoints looking for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that were wounding and killing so many American and Coalition troops. Everything changes when out on a rare mission outside Ramadi, an IED explodes and injures Megan and Rex. While recovering from her wounds and battling depression caused by PTSD, she is heartbroken to learn that Rex is returning to combat with a different handler and will be labeled unadoptable after his deployment and retirement. Herself retired from the Marines, she fights with her superiors to be able to adopt Rex as her own dog and even finds herself profiled in the media and appealing to Senator Chuck Schumer for support. Megan’s dogged determination shows just how important the human bond can be with animals; she is only able to effectively cope with her PTSD by being with Rex and Rex seems to only be happy with her. The film also shows the emotional impact that war has on people and the chronic PTSD problem among a large portion of war veterans. Overall, I found it to be an excellent movie, complete with a terrific performance from Kate Mara, about the horrors of war that also had a hopeful message about the important relationship between humans and animals. Additionally, I thought the film did an excellent job of shedding light on the mostly overlooked work of military combat dogs and how vital they are to protecting and saving so many soldiers lives.

Churchill

Based on the true story of one of the most pivotal moments in Winston Churchill’s life, Churchill tells a fascinating chapter of World War II history and is marked by a terrific acting performance from Brian Cox, but the movie’s impact ultimately falls short and feels more like a low budget TV movie. The film follows the larger-than-life British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, played by the great Scottish actor Brian Cox, during the lead up to the massive invasion of Normandy, France on D-Day. We witness the pivotal days before June 6, 1944 through the eyes of the war-weary Churchill who is opposed to the plan because it reminds him of his fateful decision during World War I at the Battle of Gallipoli that led to thousands of Allied deaths and an embarrassing defeat. The stubborn and strong-willed political leader butts heads with the military leaders, including the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower who is played by John Slattery of Mad Men fame, and British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. For such dramatic decision-making that turns the tide of the war, the movie never really builds up enough tension and is hampered by the stilted performances of the supporting cast. Much of the film wallows in the despair of Churchill who, at times, is unresponsive and must be encouraged by his emotional backbone, his wife Clementine Churchill who is played by Miranda Richardson. I was most fascinated by the deep depression that Churchill experienced and his resistance to such a bold action as D-Day, both surprising aspects for a great leader famous for his power and resiliency. Overall, I was disappointed by the less-than-stellar and oftentimes convoluted writing and narrative structure of the movie, which had so much potential. The remarkable story of an unexplored area of such a consequential man as Winston Churchill and his role during World War II deserved a better cinematic treatment.

Chuck

Based on the true story that inspired the Rocky films, Chuck is a boxing biopic about Chuck Wepner, the sports folk hero from the working-class town Bayonne, New Jersey and known as The Bayonne Bleeder, and his struggles in life following his fifteen minutes of fame, boxing Muhammad Ali. A small-time professional boxer who lives paycheck-to-paycheck as an alcohol salesman, Chuck, terrifically played by Liev Schreiber, gets a once-in-a-lifetime offer from the famous boxing promoter Don King to fight the reigning heavyweight world champion Muhammad Ali in 1975. In typical fashion for a boxing movie, the scenes preceding the much-hyped match follow his strict training regimen with encouragement from his manager and trainer played by Ron Perlman. Although he ultimately loses the fight, he is praised as a underdog hero after valiantly holding off Ali for fifteen rounds, which everyone thought impossible. Already a drunk and overall mess, he gets into further marital problems with his wife Phyllis, played by Elisabeth Moss, after his sudden rise to fame. His wife and kids eventually leave him, and he begins a relationship with the local bartender Linda, played by Naomi Watts. With the release of the hugely successful film Rocky in 1976, Chuck constantly brags about being the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone and even attempts to contact Stallone despite not receiving a penny from the movie. He finally gets to meet Sylvester Stallone, and he is offered a small role in Rocky II set to be released in 1979. His increasing minor celebrity status leads to more alcohol and a severe cocaine addiction, which further wreaks havoc in his already chaotic life as he is having trouble finding work. Overall, I thought it was a good, albeit a rather cookie-cutter boxing film whose redeeming qualities include the strong acting performance of Liev Schreiber and the fascinating and largely unheard of story about the man who inspired the great Rocky character. 

The Lost City of Z

Based on the best-selling non-fiction book written by David Grann in 2009, The Lost City of Z is a beautifully crafted film in the great tradition of the Hollywood epics, complete with gorgeous panoramic cinematography and detailed adventurous storytelling. It tells the true story of British Colonel Percy Fawcett, played terrifically by Charlie Hunnam, who is a early 20th century explorer and led expeditions to Amazonian South America and ended up obsessed with discovering a lost city. He was first recruited by the British Royal Geographic Society to help survey the Bolivian frontier to settle a border dispute with Brazil and, while on the arduous months-long journey, he heard and saw evidence of a long lost civilization in the middle of Amazonia. He is also accompanied on most of the expeditions by a fellow explorer and close confidante, a British corporal played by Robert Pattinson. Returning home for a while to his wife, played by Sienna Miller, and his two young children, he eventually decides to embark on yet another adventure back to the jungle to find what he calls the lost city of Z. However, things do not turn out well after taking one of his investor explorers and running into unwelcoming indigenous tribes on the especially challenging trip. His almost fanatical quest is interrupted by World War I when he is sent to the front lines in France and where he witnesses the horrors of war alongside a number of his expeditionary companions. In 1925, he sets out on his final mission with his son Jack and a much smaller group, but the expedition comes to a mysterious end that has yet to be solved. Besides reminding me of such classic epics as 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, the film’s dark and mysterious atmosphere of adventuring into the dangerous unknown is reminiscent of 1979’s Apocalypse Now. Like in Apocalypse Now, the protagonist is a complicated character who is close to descending into madness deep in the jungle and surrounded by unsuspecting natives, some of whom are primitive cannibals. Overall, I thought the filmmaker did an excellent job of recapturing the epic adventure genre and creating a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating cinematic experience.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Based on the true story as recounted in Diane Ackerman’s 2007’s book of the same title, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells a fascinating mostly untold story about the director of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Żabiński, and his wife Antonina, portrayed by Jessica Chastain, who were instrumental in saving many Jewish lives throughout World War II in the bombarded city of Warsaw, Poland. The movie begins showing the innocent goings-on of the zoo during the typical days before the Nazis invaded Poland and focuses mostly on Chastain’s character and her love of animals. Eventually, after it suffers catastrophic damage from German bombings in which many animals are killed, the zoo is shuttered by the new Nazi regime and becomes the testing grounds for Hitler’s so-called zoologist, played by the sinister Daniel Brühl, to breed a large extinct animal. Still living on the zoo’s property with their young son, the couple devise a plan to hide Jewish citizens from the infamous Warsaw Ghetto who would eventually be condemned to death in the extermination camps. Over the course of the war, over 300 men, women, and children are estimated to have been saved as a result of their heroic actions of sneaking Jews away from the ghetto and harboring them until they could be safely freed from German-occupied Poland. Like many Holocaust-themed films, at times it was very hard to watch, especially the scenes taking place within the inhumane Warsaw Ghetto and when the Nazis finally decided to liquidate all of its Jewish residents. What also struck me about the movie was the uncanny parallels between the zoo animals who were kept in cages yet very much loved by their zookeepers and the innocent Jewish victims who were deprived of their human rights and forced to live in cages of their own as if they were animals themselves. Overall, I found it to tell a very enlightening story that significantly contributes to the innumerable tales of horror and heroism during one of the darkest times in our history.

A United Kingdom

Based on an incredible true story, A United Kingdom is a beautifully crafted film with strong acting performances that tells a remarkable story of forbidden love. Set in the late 1940s, the story follows Seretse Khama, the black King of Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana) and portrayed by David Oyelowo, and his controversial romantic relationship with a white British woman named Ruth Williams, played by Rosamund Pike, whom he met during his studies in London. To the chagrin of British authorities and his family and tribe back home, they eventually marry and move back to his hometown in Africa to officially become the king of his people. The British government fear that the interracial couple will interfere with politics, particularly the government’s relationship with South Africa, which just imposed apartheid criminalizing interracial marriage. It is believed that South Africa could use the marriage as a pretext to invade colonial Botswana, or the British could lose out on the potential for oil and other minerals in the region. Despite opposition, internationally, and from Khama’s own powerful uncle who served as regent, they steadfastly refuse to divorce, and they start their own family in Bechuanaland even though they are threatened with exile and a lengthy separation from one another. At one point during a meeting with British authorities, he is not allowed to leave England and cannot visit his wife who is still in Africa. Their case to be allowed to live in his beloved homeland as ruler makes its way all the way through the British Parliament and is even discussed by Winston Churchill. The movie is especially poignant because it tells a truly extraordinary story I have never heard of about injustice and race relations that feels particularly relevant in today’s divisive political climate. It is made even more powerful as a result of the terrific performances of the two main lead actors whose chemistry makes the characters’ profound love feel realistic. Overall, I found it to be a must-see film about how forbidden love due to unjust laws can be overcome, with brilliant filmmaking and acting to boot.