Based on a true story chronicled in a 2005 episode of the NPR radio show This American Life, Crown Heights is the heartbreaking tale of a young man living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York who spends many years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a homicide in 1980. The talented young actor Lakeith Stanfield plays an 18-year-old immigrant from the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago named Colin Warner who leads a troubled life as a petty criminal. After a young man is shot to death in broad daylight, Warner gets caught up in the corrupt and negligent justice system eager for convictions in crime-ridden 1980’s New York. As a result of false testimonies given by predominately young immigrants pressured by the police, he is quickly ushered through the court system and sentenced to 15 years to life for the murder of someone he had never heard of, along with a likely guilty co-defendant who is sentenced to less time as a juvenile. Disgusted by the injustice in which he was convicted and later lost appeals, Warner’s close friend Carl ‘KC’ King, played by former NFL Pro Bowler Nnamdi Asomugha, tirelessly makes it his mission to prove his childhood friend’s innocence and get him released from prison. The film does an excellent job of providing an intimate glimpse into prison from the perspective of an innocent man, including the difficult moments resulting in angered violence and coming to the harsh belief that he may be behind bars for the rest of his life for a crime he did not commit. King remains tenaciously hopeful even when Warner is despondent and spends day and night learning the legal system with the occasional help of a generous criminal defense attorney, played by Bill Camp best known for the 2016 HBO miniseries The Night Of. With his new knowledge, King investigates and interviews witnesses in order to create a compelling appeal for Warner’s exoneration. Over the course of the movie, the filmmaker expertly contextualizes the sometimes injust justice system in the United States by inserting newsreel montages depicting the government crackdown on crime for each decade Warner spends in prison. Overall, I found it to be a truly enlightening and emotionally powerful film about some of the problems with the criminal justice system, including the depressing statistic that up to 120,000 innocent people may be currently incarcerated.
Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan who wrote 2015’s Sicario and 2016’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, Wind River is a gritty and riveting crime mystery thriller with terrific acting performances and excellent cinematography capturing the dark nature of the story. Set in remote Wyoming on the Wind River Indian Reservation, the film follows U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert, played by Jeremy Renner, as he investigates a possible homicide after discovering the frozen body of a 18-year-old Native American girl miles away from civilization. He is forced to team up with the novice FBI agent Jane Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen, who is brought in to see whether it was a murder and help the Wind River Reservation Tribal Police investigate. Based out of Las Vegas, she is woefully unprepared for the frigid weather and must rely on Lambert for his animal tracking skills to literally follow the trail of the mysterious crime. Shot in such a desolate and unforgiving location in which exposure to the elements can result in death within minutes brilliantly underscores the unsolved brutal death of a young woman among the largely overlooked and oppressed Native American population suffering from severe poverty and substance abuse. Throughout the film, there are moments of intense standoffs and violence at unexpected times and places that help to create a gripping thriller in which audiences are desperate for answers. Overall, I found it to be one of the best movies of the year, and the brilliant script and acting fashions not just a truly great crime thriller but a stark exploration of the plight of many Native Americans, especially the disproportionately large number of missing girls cases that are never solved in the community.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh who is best known for Ocean’s 11 and its sequels, Logan Lucky is a smart and highly entertaining heist movie very much similar to Ocean’s 11 except taking place in West Virginia and North Carolina where the protagonists hatch an elaborate plan to rob Charlotte Motor Speedway. Played by Channing Tatum, Jimmy Logan is a working-class construction worker living in a trailer in rural West Virginia who is laid off from his job at Charlotte Motor Speedway and learns that his daughter may move further away from him with her mother and his ex-wife who is married to a wealthy car dealer in West Virginia. Desperate for a better chance in life, he decides with his bartender and Iraq veteran brother Clyde, played by Adam Driver, to steal money from Charlotte Motor Speedway’s central vault that Jimmy knows about from his job excavating below the Speedway to repair sinkholes. Eventually, the Logan brothers recruit their beautiful sister Mellie and an explosives expert in prison named Joe Bang, hilariously played by a very southern Daniel Craig, in addition to Joe’s two idiot brothers. Like your typical heist movie, there is a montage of all of the characters being introduced and their preparations for the film’s climax of finally robbing the vault and, of course, not everything goes according to plan. Throughout the movie, there are several parallel plot lines, including Jimmy’s relationship with his ex-wife Bobbie Jo, played by Katie Holmes, and his beloved daughter who is preparing to enter a beauty pageant. To provide additional comic relief, we are introduced to the eccentric British character Max Chilblain, played by Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame, who is an obnoxious wealthy sponsor of one of the NASCAR drivers participating in the race during the heist and has a confrontation with the Logan brothers at Clyde’s bar. Initially, the actors’ highly exaggerated West Virginian accents seem to poke fun at the blue-collar people living in impoverished West Virginia and the South. However, going against the stereotype that they are uneducated and dimwitted Southerners, Jimmy and several of the other characters are proven to be smarter than they appear because they are able to pull off such an elaborate and well-thought-out scheme to steal from Charlotte Motor Speedway and many of the authorities are caught off guard. Overall, I found it to be one of the more enjoyable movies of the summer due to its laugh-out-loud humorous and sometimes preposterous scenes and joyride action sequences; it is sure to be a crowdpleaser, and I would highly recommend it.
Written and directed by Edgar Wright who is best known for 2004’s Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver is a fun and exciting action film that is complemented by high-octane car chases, a terrifically eclectic and energetic soundtrack, and quality acting performances. We first meet the protagonist Baby, played by the baby-faced Ansel Elgort, in the middle of a bank heist in which he is the extremely talented getaway driver in Atlanta. Later, we learn that the young Baby works for the criminal mastermind Doc, played by the always terrific and devious Kevin Spacey, who organizes various armed robberies with different crews but always with Baby as the driver. Baby is very much ready to stop being a criminal and is told by Doc that he only has to participate in one more heist in order to pay off his debt to Doc. Somewhat of a loner whose only true passion is music after developing tinnitus as a child from a car accident that killed both of his parents, he eventually meets a young and beautiful waitress named Debora, played by Lily James of Downton Abbey fame, who works at a diner where he is a regular. His life finally appears to be back on track, and he begins dating Debora and planning a crime-free life. However, things become complicated after Doc threatens Baby to do one more armed robbery, and Baby must work with the wild Buddy, played by Jon Hamm, Buddy’s beautiful wife Darling, and the gung-ho and out-of-control Bats, played by Jamie Foxx. The planned post office heist goes awry after Bats impulsively shoots several police officers and later murders a security guard. At the same time, never really wanting to be part of the criminal underworld in the first place, Baby secretly plans an escape with his love interest Debora in addition to making sure his deaf foster parent is safe. Overall, unlike most big-budget Hollywood action blockbusters, the movie feels more like a nuanced indie that takes a wholly unique spin on the car chase thriller and makes for an exhilarating and satisfying cinematic experience. What really defines the film is the carefully crafted soundtrack with songs that fit perfectly with each and every scene, whether it be action or romantic, and contributes so much so that it feels like a character of its own.
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Finding Oscar is a riveting and shocking documentary about one of the largest massacres during the 36 year-long Guatemalan Civil War. Under the de facto military president, an elite group of soldiers tasked with eliminating guerrilla fighters entered the small rural village Dos Erres in December 1982 allegedly to flush out the anti-government fighters supposedly hiding in the village. What unfolded was the killing of over two hundred innocent men, women, and children who were beaten to death and thrown into a local well. Only two young boys survived, and they were taken by two soldiers to become members of their family. The film follows the contemporary forensic anthropologists who went through the victim’s skeletal remains to uncover the truth that the Guatemalan military was responsible for the massacre. In hopes of gathering more details and an eyewitness account of that day, a group of activists search the world for the two surviving boys, especially a boy named Oscar who was particularly hard to find. Through the accounts of the forensic anthropologists, activists, lawyers, some of the soldiers that committed the atrocities, and surviving family members, we learn about a war that many in the United States are unaware of and the unheard of war crimes, including the estimated 200,000 dead civilians and this particularly horrific massacre. More disturbing is the fact that the United States government and President Ronald Reagan supported the Guatemalan regime and had friendly meetings with the very president who ordered the massacre around the same time. Overall, I found it to be a terrific documentary that highlights a atrociously bloody war that took place in our hemisphere yet most Americans know nothing about; this powerful film provides a much-needed history lesson about Guatemala and the questionable dealings of the United States had with the regimes during the Civil War.
Following the surprise success of the original John Wick released in 2014, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a terrifically fun and slick action thriller that puts most sequels to shame because it is equally good if not better than the original. In a continuation of his rebirth as an action star since his breakout role of Neo in The Matrix films, Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, a particularly skilled assassin rightfully nicknamed The Boogeyman, who is forced out of retirement still dealing with his wife’s death several years prior. He is part of an international underground society of assassins known as The Continental and is bound to one more assignment by a blood oath to a high-ranking Italian gangster. The assassination that he is tasked with takes him to Rome where his impressive fighting skills are used to dispatch an army of bodyguards, including a particularly brutal assassin played by Common. Eventually, the tables are turned on Wick, and he spends the rest of the movie evading a trove of Continental members across Rome and back in New York City. Almost perfectly typecasting the famously subdued Reeves, Wick has very little dialogue and fights and kills with Zen-like precision even as he suffers bloody injuries. Already reminiscent of The Matrix with its highly choreographed martial arts fighting sequences, the film reunites Keanu Reeves with Laurence Fishburne who, like Morpheus in The Matrix series, plays a philosophizing leader of the criminal underground. I particularly enjoyed the absurdly out-of-place old-fashioned formalities of The Continental headquartered at classically luxurious hotels in which the prim and proper concierge arranges services for well-dressed assassins. Furthermore, the leader of the New York branch who acts more as a hotel manager, named Winston and portrayed by Ian McShane, runs a tight ship and ensures that no business is conducted on the premises at the risk of a member’s execution or excommunication. Overall, I found the movie to be a stylish and inventive take on the increasingly stale action genre and takes the audience on a thoroughly entertaining joyride.
Based on the novel written by Dan Brown in 2013, Inferno is an average mystery thriller that is largely a retread of the previous Ron Howard productions of the Robert Langdon series. Like the previous adaptations of The Da Vinci Code in 2006 and Angels and Demons in 2009, the film stars Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon, the renowned fictional Harvard professor of symbology who finds himself entangled in yet another international conspiracy. We first find Professor Langdon waking up in a hospital in Florence, Italy and suffering from short-term memory loss as a result of a mysterious head injury. With the assistance of a British expat working as an emergency room doctor, portrayed by Felicity Jones, he gradually remembers details of the past 48 hours and is forced to embark on a wild goose chase to prevent a sinister plot from unfolding. While experiencing vivid nightmarish visions, he uses his vast knowledge of ancient symbols to decrypt a series of clues hidden in famous museum artifacts throughout Florence. As the title suggests, many of the mysteries are somehow connected to the 14th century Florentine poet Dante Alighieri and his famous work The Divine Comedy and its first part known as Inferno, which gave us our modern understanding of hell. Professor Langdon discovers that there is an eccentric billionaire named Zobrist who hatches a plan to solve overpopulation by secretly creating a disease to kill off half of the world’s population. Much of the film has a frenetic and fast-paced feel that sometimes too quickly jumps from one clue to the next across increasingly exotic locations throughout Europe. The real problem with the movie is that much of it is too cryptic, making it hard to digest all the details crammed into two hours. Also, unfortunately, much of the action is too preposterous and convoluted to take seriously. It is a film that is really more of the same and already has been done more adequately in the prior installments. Overall, it is a movie better suited to readers of Dan Brown’s novels and casual fans of frivolous mystery thrillers. The redundant cliches that we have already seen led me to believe that it was simply made as a cash cow for the studio, desperate for another Brown-Howard-Hanks blockbuster co-production.