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 The film is more of an action comedy that does not take the extremely outdated and chauvinistic Shaft character too seriously and definitely does not condone his behavior that is considered controversial according to today’s standards.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.
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.
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.
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.
Directed by Barry Jenkins who is best known for the Academy Award-winning 2016 movie Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautifully shot and emotionally intimate independent drama that quite effectively critiques the American criminal justice system and racial injustice. Set in the 1970s in predominantly African American Harlem, the plot revolves around a heartbreaking love story between Tish, played by brilliant newcomer KiKi Layne, and Fonny, played by the terrific Stephan James, two young black people who find themselves in tragic circumstances the result of the color of their skin. It is a rather straightforward story but one that elicits a powerful response from the audience, primarily as a result of the outstanding acting performances and craftsmanship of the filmmaker. Resembling Jenkins’ unique narrative structure used in Moonlight, the movie takes a non-linear approach to telling the deeply personal account of Tish and Fonny’s beautiful romance that flourishes despite the adversities that they must overcome. After showing glimpses of the racism that they experience on a daily basis, Fonny is confronted head-on by institutional racism and the flawed criminal justice system after he is arrested for a crime he did not commit. At the same time she has to deal with her fiancé being falsely imprisoned, Tish discovers she is pregnant with Fonny’s child and faces the harsh reality that she may have to raise their child by herself. In a particularly poignant and heart-wrenching sequence, Tish fearfully tells her family about her pregnancy and is somewhat surprised by the level of support given by her parents, but things began to go awry when she tells Fonny’s parents. Her sympathetic and strong mother Sharon, played by the excellent Regina King who won a Golden Globe for her role, has to defend her own daughter against the extremely vicious mother of Fonny who renounces the out-of-wedlock baby as a product of sin. The film’s potency to really capture the racism and injustice felt by the characters is also derived from the source material, the 1974 novel of the same name written by the acclaimed African American author and activist James Baldwin. Overall, I found it to be one of the more emotionally impactful movies, remarkable for capturing the personal side effects of systemic racism and the closely related broken judicial system that unfortunately continues even in today’s modern society.
Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker and actor Clint Eastwood, The Mule is a well-acted and intriguing film that explores the largely unknown world of drug mules whose story is based on a real person named Leo Sharp. Facing serious financial difficulties in which his business has failed, the 90-year-old Earl Stone, played by the always gruff Clint Eastwood, eventually finds himself deep into the drug underworld working as a drug mule transporting large quantities of cocaine for the Sinaloa Cartel from El Paso to Chicago drug dealers. The cartel leaders increasingly rely on the unassuming Stone who does not fit the profile of a drug trafficker as a result of his advanced age, white ethnicity, and gentlemanly demeanor. Furthermore, he has nothing really to lose because he is estranged from his family and his horticultural business of growing award-winning daylilies was forced into bankruptcy. Over the course of the movie as he traffics hundreds of kilos at a time and makes copious amount of cash, Stone and his cartel colleagues raise the suspicions of the local DEA office based out of Chicago. Two DEA agents, played by Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña, eventually convince their boss, played by Laurence Fishburne, to further investigate the activities of the cartel in Illinois and figure out the identity of Stone who is the cartel’s most profitable drug mule. The somewhat oblivious Stone desiring to reconnect with his family and committing several careless mistakes allow the DEA to get closer and closer to questioning and arresting him. All of this is set against the backdrop of chaos within the cartel after one of the bosses is murdered by his lieutenant, and the new boss has different plans for his drug mules. Overall, I found it to be a compelling story that is hard to believe is based upon a true story, and, while not one of Clint Eastwood’s best works, it is definitely a worthy film to watch if you enjoy Eastwood’s other works.
Directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Steve McQueen who won the Oscar for 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, Widows is a powerful character-driven heist thriller that relies less on action sequences and more on the slow burn drama surrounding the climax and is remarkable for its stellar ensemble cast. The plot follows a group of women who plan a robbery following the deaths of their criminal husbands during a job and find themselves intertwined with the corrupt politics of Chicago and competing criminal organizations. Veronica Rawlings, played by Oscar winner Viola Davis, becomes the leader of the bereaved women following in the footsteps of her husband Harry, played by Oscar nominee Liam Neeson, who was the leader of their husbands’ criminal enterprise. She discovers her husband’s notebook outlining their next robbery and recruits the other women to go through with the heist in order to pay back the criminal boss and alderman candidate Jamal Manning, played by Emmy nominee Brian Tyree Henry. Jamal, along with his brutal associate and brother played by Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya, threaten the women whose husbands they claim stole millions of dollars from them. Eventually, Veronica is able to recruit Linda, played by Michelle Rodriguez, Alice, played by Elizabeth Debicki, and Linda’s babysitter Belle, played by Cynthia Erivo, to participate in the heist that could be worth up to five million dollars, enough to pay back Jamal. Only one of the widows Amanda, played by Carrie Coon, decides not to help out because she has a newborn baby. Their plans are complicated by the corrupt Chicago politician Jack Mulligan, played by Golden Globe winner Colin Farrell, who is running for alderman against Jamal. Jack and his vicious and equally corrupt father Tom Mulligan, played by Oscar winner Robert Duvall, are wary of Veronica because they made illicit deals with her husband Harry. Although there are several action sequences that take place during the actual heist scenes, most of the film shows the trauma and grief of the women losing their husbands, as well as their desire to avenge their deaths by meticulously planning an elaborate robbery of their own. They are portrayed as almost feminist anti-heroes who commit a crime that all the male criminals and corrupt politicians believe is not possible for women. The movie also contains several shocking twists and turns that make for a much more entertaining and thought-provoking experience. Overall, I thought it was a well-crafted and superbly acted action drama that creatively breaks the mold of a typical heist thriller by focusing on character development and creating a foreboding atmospheric drama.
Based on the 2015 book of the same name written by David Lagercrantz as part of the Millennium novel series begun by the late Swedish author Steig Larsson beginning in 2005 with the posthumous publication of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is an average reboot of the 2011 American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which itself is a remake of the 2009 Swedish feature film, that relies too heavily on its action sequences and not enough on the fascinating main character who has now been played by three different actresses. The story follows the exploits of a punk hacker with a complex background named Lisbeth Salander, played by Golden Globe-winner Claire Foy in a truly mold-breaking performance, who finds herself caught in the web of an international criminal conspiracy to steal a software program that gives the user complete control of the world’s nuclear arsenal. With the help of her longtime partner and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, played by Icelandic actor Sverrir Gudnason, she discovers that the developer of the potentially catastrophic program who previously worked for the American National Security Agency named Frans Balder, played by British actor Stephen Merchant, and his brilliant young son are in danger and must be protected against Lisbeth’s enemies. At the same time, a special agent with the NSA named Edwin Needham, played by LaKeith Stanfield, travels to Sweden to search for the missing program known as Firefall before it falls into the wrong hands. Eventually, Edwin and Lisbeth team up to find out who is really behind the theft of the powerful software tool, and she discovers that her estranged sister who was abused by their father may have been involved as the head of a criminal organization. The film scratches the surface of the personal life of the enigmatic Lisbeth who is able to elude authorities for many years despite her striking appearance, and it also explores her vigilante feminism in which she targets male abusers caused by her past sexual abuse and bisexual tendencies. However, unlike the original Swedish books and movies, the audience does not fully grasp who she really is, outside of being a righteous hacker and action heroine. A majority of the film is comprised of elaborate action sequences in which Lisbeth is chased by authorities and criminals through the streets of Stockholm on her motorcycle. Overall, I came away with the feeling that this most recent adaptation does not add much to the already rich literary and cinematic canon about the deeply compelling and complicated character of Lisbeth Salander; unfortunately, the film devolves into a rather typical action flick that tries too hard to reboot such a famous character.
Based on the 2008 confessional memoir of the same name written by the film’s subject Lee Israel, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a deeply fascinating real life story about a desperate writer who resorts to criminal literary forgery and is a well-crafted movie remarkable for its incredible acting, especially from the comedian Melissa McCarthy who puts on an Oscar-worthy performance that reveals her to be an extremely talented dramatic actress. We first meet the previously best-selling biography author Lee Israel, played by the popular Oscar-nominated comedic actress Melissa McCarthy, in the 1990s at a low point in her career when not even her agent is interested in her new work and is willing to do practically anything for cash to support her lonely existence with her aging cat. With her sarcastic wit and overall unpleasantness, Lee devises a plan to embellish and later outright forge letters from famous writers and sell them to local New York City book sellers interested in literary artifacts. Her criminal enterprise grows rapidly after she realizes that she can make hundreds of dollars from just one letter supposedly written by the likes of deceased literary giants as Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward. The movie becomes somewhat of a dark comedy after the sardonic Lee begrudgingly befriends a fellow witty loner and drunkard named Jack Hock, played by the fabulous critically acclaimed British actor Richard E. Grant. They both engage in drunken escapades through the seedy streets and dive bars of Manhattan, and eventually Lee tells Jack about her forgeries and decides to enlist Jack to help her as her accomplice. As Lee gets deeper and deeper into her criminal activities and becomes increasingly careless, both Lee and Jack engage in witty and often ribald banter and are unafraid to talk about their homosexuality. The film simply works as a result of the magnetic chemistry between the two talented actors who bring a certain level of realism and brutal sarcasm that is irresistible to watch. Despite the fact that Lee is quite the curmudgeon and appears unapologetic about her miscreant behavior, the audience is somehow drawn to the character and comes to empathize with her desperation which led to her being investigated by the FBI. Towards the end of the movie, she does face serious consequences for her forgeries after being tipped off by sellers to the FBI and is even betrayed in a much more personal way that ultimately leads to her conviction. Overall, I found it to be a truly captivating movie that leaves the audience wanting more from the compelling dynamic characters that help fashion an extraordinary tragic comedy, and one of its greatest achievements is showing the versatile and skillful work from Melissa McCarthy who proves to be a force to be reckoned with in serious dramatic roles.
Based on the best-selling 2017 young adult novel written by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give is an emotionally profound film about the timely issue of the shooting of black men by police and is brought to life by the terrific acting performances and a well-written script that delves deep into the unexplored complexities of the central problem surrounding police brutality. The plot follows a female black teenager named Starr Carter, played by Amandla Stenberg who is best known for her role in 2012’s The Hunger Games, who lives a double life by living in a predominantly African-American neighborhood while attending a wealthy private high school in a predominantly white neighborhood where she met her white boyfriend Chris. In order to fit in in both settings, she has to “code switch” between the slang and outfits more commonly associated with each respective community. Her parents want a different life for her and her other siblings away from the violence of their neighborhood: her father Maverick, played by the excellent Russell Hornsby, was once a member of a powerful gang and thereby makes sure his children do not end up like him in his past, and her mother Lisa, played by Regina Hall, is a nurse who simply wants the best for her kids. On one fateful night, Starr’s worlds collide after she witnesses her unarmed black childhood friend Khalil getting fatally shot by a white police officer during a routine traffic stop. Not really feeling fully a part of the white or black community, she hesitates to come forward as the witness and speak on the behalf of her murdered friend in fear that she will alienate members of either community. The movie is so effective because it explores the horrific effects experienced by a witness to police brutality and how difficult it is to come forward with their story. By having the protagonist stuck in two worlds, the filmmaker is able to show the reactions of those who typically support the police side of the story and those who typically support the other side of the story; it shows the difficulty in navigating both sides when you are friends with all of them. In one particularly poignant scene, her uncle Carlos, played by actor musician Common, who also happens to be a black police officer tries to explain the feelings and circumstances that many police officers face when confronting a possibly dangerous individual, and he even goes so far to say that unfortunately black men like himself are targeted sometimes unjustly. Eventually, with the help of a black activist played by HBO star Issa Rae, Starr decides to become more active and tell the public her side of the story in hopes of bringing her friend’s killer to justice. Overall, I found it to be a brilliant movie that transcends the young adult genre to become a much more realistic and socially important cinematic experience exploring such a complicated current issue as police brutality.