Motherless Brooklyn

Written, directed, and produced by actor Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn is a well-crafted neo-noir crime drama that is somewhat remarkable for its unique storytelling and fascinating characters but, unfortunately, is bogged down by convoluted plotlines and a long runtime. Set in 1957 in New York City, the film follows a private investigator named Lionel Essrog, played by Edward Norton in a very committed performance, who has struggled his whole life with Tourette syndrome yet has a photographic memory that makes him an asset for the detective agency he works for under his beloved boss Frank Minna, played by Bruce Willis. Eventually, he is taken on a rabbit hole as he tries to uncover the circumstances surrounding Frank’s death, which is personally devastating since Frank is the one who saved him from an orphanage when Lionel was a child. Lionel is deeply committed to the investigation and is hesitantly assisted by the other investigators that work for Frank’s agency, including a rather suspicious detective who is played by Bobby Cannavale. Posing as a reporter, Lionel learns much more about the corrupt inner-workings of the city and its boroughs and the real power structure led by a publicly unassuming municipal official and developer named Moses Randolph, played by Alec Baldwin. Appearing rather odd to those he encounters along the way as a result of his Tourette-induced quirks, Lionel realizes that Moses may have something to do with Frank’s murder after he talks with an eccentric man named Paul, played by Willem Dafoe. He is suspicious of Moses after he connects several clues left behind by Frank that take him to a beautiful African American woman named Laura Rose, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who works for an organization fighting gentrification and the overdevelopment of minority neighborhoods. Throughout the movie, a romantic relationship between Lionel and Laura seems to be developing, which forces Lionel to open up and reveal some of his secrets. Without giving too much of the story away, suffice it to say that the film is chock-full of plot twists that can be overly complicated and drawn-out. Overall, I thought the multi-talented Edward Norton did a great job of recreating the trappings of a classic film noir with dark and mysterious settings, characters with believable backstories, and a quintessential detective story. However, it could have been a much better movie if it was more condensed into a shorter and less confusing story that could be better followed by the audience.

Joker

Co-written and directed by Todd Phillips best known for his comedic work, including The Hangover trilogy first released in 2009, Joker is unlike any other movie based on a comic book character because it is much more of a character study of a very dark and deranged individual who eventually becomes the predominant arch-nemesis of Batman. Similar to the iconic 1976 Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver, the story follows a clearly mentally ill man who eventually descends into violent madness after feeling persecuted by a morally bankrupt society that constantly bullies him for his idiosyncrasies. Living in the corrupt and economically depressed fictional Gotham City in 1981 based on the gritty New York City of the time, Arthur Fleck, played by the terrific Joaquin Phoenix in a very committed and disturbing role, works as a hired clown in the city and lives in a dingy apartment with his sick mother. His feeling of hopelessness and the pervasive depression surrounding him in the decaying city filled with a wealthy and greedy elite contribute to his horrifying psychological breakdown towards the middle of the movie. What really sets him off is seeing his comedic idol and late night television host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro whose portrayal of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver very much resembles Arthur Fleck, make fun of his inability to be a stand-up comic. Dressed up as a disheveled cloud who wants to be referred to as Joker, Arthur finds himself in a extremely violent situation that eventually spirals out-of-control and leads him to a destructive and terrifying psychosis. His actions eventually lead to a citywide protest against the rich, particularly mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne who is better known as father to Bruce Wayne later to become Batman. At the end, the entire city devolves into chaotic riots in which several people are brutally killed. Overall, I found it to be a disturbing yet well done anti-hero psychological drama that is led by a truly remarkable performance given by the extremely talented Joaquin Phoenix. It is definitely not for the faint of heart because it does contain a fair amount of violent moral depravity that has made the movie somewhat controversial with critics and audiences alike.

Hustlers

Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria best known for 2012’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Hustlers is a surprisingly smart and entertaining movie for having a plot revolving around New York City strippers and is remarkable for undoubtedly the best performance ever given by Jennifer Lopez. Based on a real life story, the narrative is primarily told by a former stripper named Destiny, played by Constance Wu best known for her role in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, to a journalist, played by Julia Stiles. In a series of elongated flashbacks, Destiny first enters the world of stripping in 2007 as a means of financially supporting her grandmother but soon begins to want more money to live a more luxurious lifestyle. She meets a older yet extremely popular stripper named Ramona, played by the terrific Jennifer Lopez, who teaches her how to pole dance and the tricks of getting the most money from the male clientele. After the financial crisis only a year later, Destiny and Ramona part ways, with both women in financial distress due to the decreasing number of strip club attendance. Eventually, Destiny returns to stripping and teams up with Ramona once again but this time with a illegal scheme to steal money from their wealthy patrons. Two other strippers are also enlisted in the fraud in which they go to bars and restaurants to attract wealthy men and take them to the strip club where the women max out their credit cards. They are able to to get away with the scam because they drug the targets so they do not realize what is happening and lose memory of the events the next day. Over time, Ramona gets reckless in order to make even more money and ultimately gets her in trouble and harms her close relationship with Destiny. Yes, the film is visually dazzling as a result of the stylish and provocative strip clubs sequences, but there is unexpected depth to the storyline that explores the complex dynamics between stripper and patron. It also touches on the subject of wealth inequality in that the financially desperate protagonists decide to take advantage of mostly Wall Street wealthy patrons who only see the women as a means for their sexual gratification. Overall, I found it to be a terrific film, filled with powerful acting, that is able to tell a truly unique and nuanced story about a group of strippers taking control of their lives by using an an illicit scheme.

Shaft

The fifth movie installment in the Shaft franchise first started with the original released in 1971 starring Richard Roundtree, Shaft is not the best movie you will see this summer, but it definitely was an entertaining film with a charismatic cast of characters and harkens back to the original blaxploitation version but with the twist of making it more of a comedy. The plot follows the son of John Shaft II, played by the suave foul-mouthed Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson who reprises his role from the 2000 spinoff, nicknamed JJ, played by Jessie T. Usher, who is a smart straight-laced MIT graduate now working as a data analyst for the FBI. After the mysterious death of his childhood friend, JJ along with his other childhood friend Sasha, played by the beautiful Alexandra Shipp, investigate what actually happened to their friend who was a war veteran and recovering drug addict. Eventually, JJ reluctantly realizes that his estranged father known for his borderline illegal yet extremely effective private investigator skills has to help them navigate the underworld of Harlem. He enlists his father’s help against the wishes of his mother Maya, played by Regina Hall, who left John for endangering JJ as a child. Just like the original Richard Roundtree character, Jackson’s character is very much a ladies man who cares very little for emotion and is often giving profanity-laced outbursts, all the while protecting his neighborhood from criminals. The film is more of an action comedy that does not take the extremely outdated and chauvinistic Shaft character too seriously and definitely does not condone his behavior that is considered controversial according to today’s standards. Towards the end of the movie as they get closer to a resolution and find the villain, JJ’s smooth-talking grandfather John Shaft, played by Richard Roundtree as the original character, makes an appearance to help out the younger Shafts. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable movie that does not try to elevate the original asource material but rather attempts to present a different type of Shaft movie, full of often vulgar humor and outrageous situations.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

The third installment in the John Wick franchise with the release of its first movie in 2014 and directed by Chad Stahelski who was Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix franchise, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a high octane and over-the-top action movie that rises above the rest of the genre as a result of its magnificent choreographed fight sequences and creative storyline. It follows the titular character John Wick, played by Keanu Reeves, who is an internationally-known assassin working under the secret organization known as The High Table but is excommunicado, an unprotected status in which the other assassins can kill him for a bounty, after an unauthorized killed in the previous movie. He is no longer given immunity while staying at the hotel for assassins in New York City known as The Continental run by the manager Winston, played by Ian McShane, and the concierge Charon, played by Lance Reddick. Eventually, a very large contingent of assassins chase John Wick in order to get the 14 million dollar bounty on his head. Over the course of the film, he is engaged in very stylistic and elaborately choreographed fights in which he kills off many men using a variety of tactics, including gunplay, knife fights, and martial arts. Eventually, he travels throughout the world trying to get protection from a powerful criminal leader played by Anjelica Huston and later a fellow assassin played by Halle Berry. Eventually, John Wick teams up with Winston and a fellow assassin leader known as the Bowery King, played by Laurence Fishburne, who are both punished by The High Table and its representative The Adjudicator and hunted down by a group of hitmen led by the ruthless assassin Zero, played by Mark Dacascos. What sets the movie apart is the heavy use of practical stunt work instead of the usual CGI bloat common with superhero movies, all the while taking place in a very different world that is extremely stylish and filled with secret organizations. Overall, I found the third movie in the franchise to be as good as the original as well as the sequel, and I still believe it to be one of the best action movie series due to the martial arts talents of the subdued Keanu Reeves and the unique yet violent visual style.

Cold Pursuit

Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Hans Petter Moland who directed the original 2014 Norwegian film that Cold Pursuit is a remake of, Cold Pursuit is a dark comedy action film that has a uniquely twisted and humorous script and is led by another entertaining action star performance given by Liam Neeson. The film follows a ski town snow plow driver named Nelson Coxman, played by Oscar nominee Liam Neeson, who seeks vengeance for the death of his son by going after competing drug gangs in in the remote fictional town of Kehoe, Colorado. His major target is a Denver drug lord nicknamed Viking, played by a psychotic Tom Bateman, who his son got mixed up with and Nelson goes on a killing spree viciously murdering several of Viking’s men. Eventually, a war between Viking and a Native American drug lord named White Bull, played by Tom Jackson, after Viking suspects White Bull of being responsible for the deaths of his men. Along the way, Nelson’s brother nicknamed Wingman, played by William Forsythe, who used to work for one of the drug cartels helps him find possible leads in the death of his son. In a similar fashion like Liam Neeson’s first action flick Taken but to a much more bloody degree, an absurdly high body count quickly rises, especially towards the climax when the drug cartels and Nelson engage in a all-out shootout. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining action movie with the right amount of dark humor to mark a departure from the tropes of the often over-bloated action genre, but it is definitely not for the faint of heart as a result of the over-the-top violence.

Destroyer

Directed by Karyn Kusama best known for 2000’s Girlfight and 2009’s Jennifer’s Body, Destroyer is a very gritty crime drama exploring the criminal underbelly of Los Angeles and is truly remarkable for the tour de force acting performance given by an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman. Clearly living a troubled life filled with alcoholism and regrets, the downtrodden and physically weathered LAPD Detective Erin Bell, played by the extraordinary Oscar winner Nicole Kidman in a truly transformative role, finds herself intricately involved in a murder investigation of an unknown victim. A majority of the film uses the rather unusual yet extremely effective flashback narrative device, which reveals the complicated nature of Bell who at one point worked as an undercover officer for a criminal gang in Los Angeles almost fifteen years before the present day. We witness her and her partner Chris, played by Sebastian Stan, pretending to be criminals involved in a bank robbery for a gang headed by the dangerous Silas, played by Toby Kebbell. Bell and Chris’s relationship becomes much more close than they expected and their involvement with the eventual robbery becomes something more than just an undercover investigation. During the present day, Bell encounters several of the key gang members to find the whereabouts of Silas who may still be alive. Underscoring her gritty life, she is a rather terrible mother to her deeply troubled teenage daughter and has a contentious relationship with her ex-husband Ethan, played by Scoot McNairy, who tries his best to take care of the daughter. The filmmaker does an excellent job of developing a rather unlikeable character whose motivations we never really know by presenting side-by-side the character’s messy and morally ambiguous personal and professional lives. It is definitely a depressing movie and is not for the faint of heart as Detective Bell does some legally dubious interrogations of criminals, including a wealthy money launderer, played by Emmy winner Bradley Whitford and Silas’ drug-addicted girlfriend Petra, played by Emmy winner Tatiana Maslany. Overall, I found it to be a deeply compelling crime drama that provides enough twists and turns to make for a wholly unique movie that defies the crime genre and is the perfect showcase for Nicole Kidman who is somehow made ugly and gives one of her best performances in her already illustrious career.