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.

Paris Can Wait

Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Eleanor Coppola who is married to Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola, Paris Can Wait is a light-hearted romantic comedy that takes the audience on a frivolous yet pleasant journey through the beautiful French countryside. Diane Lane plays Anne who is married to an aloof successful movie producer, played by Alec Baldwin, and unexpectedly takes a two-day road trip from Cannes to Paris with her husband’s suave and charming French associate. Jacques, played by the French actor Arnaud Viard, is an easy-going debonair aficionado of fine wine, food, and art who takes Anne on a wonderfully scenic tour of his favorite parts of France and stops at exquisite restaurants and quintessentially French landmarks. Initially, she wants to get to Paris as soon as possible and feels awkward participating in such romantic activities with a flirtatious bachelor while she is married. Over the course of the film, she welcomes Jacques’ suggestions after realizing that the trip provides a much-needed distraction from her secretly unhappy life and largely unfulfilled marriage with her busy husband, a typical Alec Baldwin character. The movie reminds me of several other Diane Lane movies, particularly 2003’s Under the Tuscan Sun in which she leads a carefree existence in a beautiful foreign country. Overall, I found it to be a pleasing film full of joy and beauty that provides a welcome respite to the viewer’s dull daily life; it is a nice little movie that should not be taken too seriously. 

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 Wall

Directed by Doug Liman who directed 2002’s The Bourne Identity and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, The Wall is a gritty psychological war thriller about two American soldiers ambushed and trapped by a mysterious sniper while on a mission by themselves in the Iraqi desert shortly after the Iraq War. Sniper and U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews, played by professional wrestler John Cena, and his spotter Sergeant Allen Isaac, played by Golden Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson, are on a relatively simple scouting operation but are unexpectedly shot at by an unseen sniper while waiting for extraction. Matthews is critically wounded out in the open and Isaac tries to rescue him but is forced to hide behind a crumbling wall after another barrage of sniper fire. Himself slightly injured, Isaac is unable to radio headquarters because their long-distance radio is damaged, but all of a sudden a mysterious voice appears on the two-way radio. Isaac soon learns that the man is an infamous Iraqi civilian sniper nicknamed Juba and is the one who has been shooting at them. With the wall as his only protection, Isaac desperately tries to find Juba’s location while dealing with dehydration and his bleeding leg wound. He becomes increasingly frustrated because Juba continues to try to engage in strangely friendly conversation about Isaac’s life and how the American military is destroying his country. At the end of the movie, it appears Isaac and the now slightly conscious Matthews have a chance to survive, but Juba may still have the upper hand. For a war movie, there are surprisingly few action sequences, and it resembles more of a intimate psychological thriller between two adversaries, Isaac and Juba, in a life-or-death situation. The film reminds me of another movie that I saw recently, 2016’s Mine in which the protagonist is by himself but is trapped by stepping on a landmine and also must deal with the psychological issues of dying in combat alone. Overall, I thought the filmmaker did a good job of presenting a psychological thriller, but the film never fully rises to its potential and is primarily remarkable only for its unique context and wartime setting. 

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Directed by Guy Ritchie who is known for stylish thrillers like 2000’s Snatch, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a unique and visually over-the-top take on the classic legendary story of King Arthur and Camelot. The star-studded cast and director gives a certain gravitas but, unfortunately, the film is nothing more than an average attempt at a Hollywood blockbuster Medieval action/adventure with the hopes of booting a highly profitable series of sequels. The movie begins with a fast-moving epic battle sequence at Camelot between malevolent fantastical forces known as mage and Uther the king of Britons, played briefly by Eric Bana. Ultimately, the king is killed and his scheming brother Vortigern, played by a cunning Jude Law, ascends to the throne but Uther’s young son escapes. The new brutal king spends years searching for his nephew who threatens his rule, and the appearance of the sword Excalibur, which can only be removed by the rightful heir to the throne, gives him a test to find his nephew. It turns out that his nephew is Arthur who lived for most of his life in a London brothel unaware of his heritage and portrayed by new action star Charlie Hunnam. After he is able to extract Excalibur, he must live a life on the run from his uncle’s vicious soldiers known as Blacklegs. Eventually, he teams up with his father’s former general Sir Bedivere, played by Djimon Hounsou, and his loyalists, a character played by the terrific Aidan Gillen of Game of Thrones fame, a mage who worked with Merlin, and some of his friends from the brothel. He must first go on an adventure and learn how to harness the sheer power of Excalibur, which he could not handle at first. With his renewed strength, Arthur leads several ambushes on the Blacklegs, and he eventually successfully confronts his evil uncle who has sacrificed many of their relatives to gain mystical power. At the end of the movie, Arthur becomes who he was predestined to become and hints of the creation of the Knights of the Round Table. In typical Guy Ritchie fashion, many of the scenes include narration on top of frenetic and bloody stylish fight sequences and often includes flashbacks and flash-forwards. However, the quickfire editing sometimes creates a convoluted narrative that looks pretty but may be hard to follow. Also, the over-the-top fantastical elements and the extremely dark and mysterious atmosphere and mood of the film undercuts the classic Arthurian stories the audience may remember. Overall, I found that Guy Ritchie brought a certain amount of energy to the age-old King Arthur tales, but the movie ultimately failed with its over-reliance on style rather than substance.