Directed by Northern Irish filmmakers and married couple Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, Ordinary Love is a heart-wrenching yet realistic drama that quite effectively portrays a rather ordinary couple dealing with an extraordinary situation and is anchored by the brilliant acting performances of acclaimed British actors Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville. The story is a fairly simple and straightforward one about a loving couple living in Northern Ireland who have been married for several decades and whose relationship is strained after the wife is diagnosed with breast cancer and has to go through brutal chemotherapy. Played by Oscar nominee Liam Neeson in a dramatic turn from recently starring in action movies, Tom has a beautiful relationship with his wife Joan, played by Oscar nominee Lesley Manville in a terrifically nuanced performance, but their quiet retired lives are upended after a scary medical diagnosis. As is the case in real life, Joan facing a breast cancer fight involving very painful chemotherapy treatments does not just afflict her but has a profound impact on her husband Tom who struggles with caring for his greatly suffering wife. The movie feels so heartbreakingly authentic because of the magnificent chemistry between the extremely talented actors who can easily be mistaken as an actual lifelong couple. Furthermore, the filmmakers make the excellent decision to depict rather precisely the medical tests and procedures that Joan must undergo as someone with breast cancer; it allows the audience to truly understand what a couple has to go through when one of them has cancer. Showing how difficult it can be for a very sick person to relate to their loved ones who is not actually going through the difficult treatments, Joan strikes up a friendship with a fellow cancer patient going through chemotherapy named Peter, played by Irish actor David Wilmot. Peter and Joan can candidly talk about their cancer more in depth and personally than they would otherwise be able to with their romantic partners. Overall, I found it to be a beautifully acted and detailed film that provides great insight into how cancer affects not just the patient but also the spouse or lover and how ordinary love is tested when faced with a great difficulty.
Directed by Autumn de Wilde best known for her work on music videos and based on the beloved novel of the same name written by Jane Austen and published in 1815, Emma. is a terrific and entertaining adaptation of a story that has been made into movies and television series many times, and it stands out with its sumptuous settings and costumes as well as the mischievous performance given by Anya Taylor-Joy. The plot follows the wealthy young lady Emma Woodhouse, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who lives a spoiled life with her English aristocratic older father Mr. Woodhouse, played by the perfectly cast Bill Nighy, in a lavish mansion on the fictitious Hartford estate in the English countryside outside of the stereotypically charming village of Highbury. Emma has everything going wonderfully in her life as a young, beautiful, and smart woman of means and loves to play the matchmaker for all of the single gentlemen and ladies on the surrounding estates and in Highbury. She is very much preoccupied with finding a proper husband for her orphaned friend Harriet Smith, played by the innocent Mia Goth, but Emma’s burgeoning desire for her own husband complicates things in her normally ordered life. The rather controlling Emma sometimes viciously tries to get her way by hoping to arrange Harriet with the young minister Mr. Elton, played by the terrific Josh O’Connor, even if it is against the wishes of both parties involved. The movie shows Emma attending over-the-top country parties and balls where she gossips and tries to work her magic to set up Harriet and others with suitable bachelors. However, her perfectly arranged plans are led astray by the arrival of another handsome young man named Frank Churchill, played by Callum Turner, and the mysterious beautiful woman Jane Fairfax, played by Amber Anderson. As she does throughout the film, she talks about the issues that come about by confiding in the wealthy bachelor George Knightley, played by Johnny Flynn, who lives on the estate next to Hartford. Meant to be a comedy, the story is full of rather awkward and funny events that poke fun at the wealthy aristocrats and their frivolous lives and lifestyles. For instance, one of the more interesting and unintentionally hilarious characters is the poorer Miss Bates, played by the very funny Miranda Hart, who tries to ingratiate herself with the Woodhouses but often ends up talking too much, which bothers the oblivious and callous Emma. Overall, I found it to be a very clever and visually stunning adaptation of the classic Jane Austen comedy of manners that will definitely please fans of British period pieces and broaden the appeal of Jane Austen beyond devotees of her timeless writings.
Written and directed by Australian filmmaker Leigh Whannell best known for 2018’s Upgrade, The Invisible Man is a surprisingly excellent modern adaptation of the H.G. Wells 1897 novel of the same name and makes for a truly entertaining and suspenseful experience that is dramatically enhanced by the terrific performance given by Elisabeth Moss. It is a very different story from the original book and the numerous film adaptations in that it takes the perspective of a woman who is physically and verbally abused by her rich and powerful boyfriend and is even terrorized by him after his apparent death. Without giving too much away, Cecilia Kass, played by the always stellar Elisabeth Moss, comes to the conclusion, after several terrifying experiences, that her supposedly deceased boyfriend Adrian Griffin, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, has discovered the ability to become invisible. He uses this unique power to continue to stalk and terrorize Cecilia without any initial explanation because of his apparent suicide and unbelievable skill of actually being invisible. What makes her situation even more horrifying is that nobody believes her, including her sister Emily, played by Harriet Dyer, and her best friend and cop James, played by Aldis Hodge, who she confides in and lives with after first escaping Adrian. The filmmaker is able to transform a relatively cheesy sci-fi story into a powerful metaphor for the constant fear felt by victims of domestic abuse in which they feel they cannot escape their abuser. Through Elisabeth Moss’s character, the audience is always kept on the edge of their seats by not knowing what Adrian as an invisible man will do next and the numerous shocking twists in the plot that follow. The movie’s tension is further heightened by the eerily dark settings, moody music, and the slowly creeping camera movements, all elements typical of a horror film but that is crafted in such a smart way that transcends the genre. Overall, I found it to be a brilliantly creative and emotionally draining cinematic experience that plays more like a thriller that can appeal to both fans and non-fans of the horror genre and is able to vividly portray a terrifying story of domestic abuse, primarily as a result of the gravitas of Elisabeth Moss’s performance.
Based on the classic book of the same name written by Jack London in 1903, The Call of the Wild is an entertaining family-friendly adventure movie that does a good job of retelling the timeless story and making the excellent casting choice of Harrison Ford, but the emotional impact is lessened by the over-reliance on CGI for the animal characters. Taking place in the 1890s, the plot follows a kindly large dog named Buck who we first meet living a normal happy life as a pet in California until he is stolen and eventually sent to the Alaskan Yukon to be sold as a sled dog. Over the course of the film, Buck goes through several owners as he acclimates to the bitterly cold Alaskan wilderness and is first used by a friendly couple as a member of a dog sled team delivering mail to remote outposts. However, he does fall into the hands of a vicious owner who is definitely out of his element named Hal, played by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame, and physically abuses the dog team and pushes them to do things that are extremely dangerous. The true emotional heart of the movie takes place in the second half when Buck finally becomes the companion of the troubled yet compassionate John Thornton, played by the terrific Harrison Ford, who moves to the Yukon to simply get away from humanity after a family tragedy. Like the breathtaking scenery of the Yukon, Buck and Thornton develop a very beautiful relationship in which they care for one another in their own different ways, and Buck truly becomes man’s best friend. Rather effectively, Thornton also is the common thread throughout the movie because he is the narrator of Buck’s adventures all the way from California to the isolation of the Alaskan wilderness. The presence of Harrison Ford’s voice and his empathetic acting performance give the audience a certain degree of calmness that everything will turn out alright for Buck and Thornton. The filmmakers did make the mistake of wholly creating Buck and the other dogs out of CGI and giving the animals overly expressive faces and behaviors that enter the realm of the uncanny valley in which they unrealistically mimic humans, thereby making it rather cheesy and distracting. Overall, I found it to be a nice and comforting adventure tale that displays the important bond between human and animal and is also a wonderful tribute to the universally acclaimed writer Jack London by creating a atmosphere that would fit right at home with the novel’s themes about nature and love.
Written and directed by acclaimed French filmmaker Céline Sciamma and nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautifully shot and deeply emotional romantic drama that is remarkable for the acting performances given by the two French actresses. Set in 18th century France, the film has a rather straightforward and patiently evolving plot that explores the burgeoning and extremely forbidden love between the two female protagonists who first meet under unusual circumstances. The painter Marianne, played by Noémie Merlant, is commissioned by a female aristocrat to travel to her barebones chateau on a remote island off the coast of Brittany, France to paint a wedding portrait of her beautiful daughter Héloïse, played by Adèle Haenel. Héloïse is to be married off to a man of nobility in Milan, Italy who she has never met and is very much opposed to getting married, especially to somebody who lives so far away. In hopes of calling off the wedding, she refuses to pose for a portrait that would be sent to her future husband for his approval, and, therefore, her mother eventually decides to hire Marianne to secretly paint a portrait of her daughter. The lonely and quite depressed Héloïse believes that Marianne is there to serve as a paid companion, and they go on long walks across the windswept desolate island that give Marianne the opportunity to memorize Héloïse’s features in order to paint Héloïse in secret. Eventually, the two sumptuously dressed women, who are mostly by themselves besides the quiet and friendly maid Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami, begin to form a strong bond of friendship that over time evolves into a very intimate and romantic relationship. Strictly forbidden by society, they must keep their profound love for one another a secret, especially from the aristocratic mother who is desperate to marry Héloïse off to a wealthy aristocrat. The filmmaker does a terrific job of showing how relationships develop in real life by having the film take a slow pace that allows the viewer to observe the subtle changes in the two women as they come to strike a strong bond. Towards the end of the movie, the audience feels a certain degree of heartbrokenness as it becomes evident that their truly deep romance must inevitably come to an end as their time together dwindles and society would never allow them to live together as lovers. Overall, I found it to be a exquisitely crafted and slow, for better or worse, film that is helmed by a very talented filmmaker who is able to create a evocative setting in which forbidden love between two wonderfully acted characters could realistically develop.
A remake of the critically acclaimed 2014 Swedish movie Force Majeure, Downhill has the elements of being a great dark comedy as a result of its terrific casting of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but, unfortunately, the slow and rather boring script does not translate into the same level of success enjoyed by the original film. The very simple plot follows an American family on a ski trip in the beautiful Austrian Alps and repercussions suffered by the couple stemming from a single incident. Pete Staunton, played by the usually very funny Will Ferrell, and his wife Billie Staunton, played by the terrific comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus, are enjoying a nice vacation with their two young sons until a supposedly controlled avalanche comes dangerously close to the family. The main plot device reveals itself as how inappropriately Pete reacts to the avalanche by walking away instead of trying to protect his family from the avalanche that turns out to be safe. Billie is visibly upset with her husband and is not afraid to let other people at the resort, including Pete’s co-worker and his girlfriend, hear about her great displeasure. The movie tries to work as a dramedy in which the married couple’s relationship is strained as a result of one traumatic event and layers in extremely awkward dark humor created by the very different reactions to the situation. Quite surprisingly, the film’s comedy mostly goes downhill and is unable to use the comedic talents and chemistry of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus who have never worked together in the same movie. Of course, it does have its moments that are uncomfortably funny, especially in the scenes with the sex-obsessed resort worker who is played by Australian actress Miranda Otto, and incisive about the ups-and-downs of marriage and how it evolves from the young love on display by Pete’s coworker and adventurous girlfriend. Overall, I found the film to be a lost opportunity to really harness the full comedic potential of the comedy greats Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and makes you question the reason why Hollywood had to remake a well-received and creative movie in the first place.
Directed by acclaimed cinematographer Reed Morano and based on the 1999 novel of the same name written by Mark Burnell, The Rhythm Section is your fairly average action flick with a quite predictable plot but is marked by a terrifically dynamic acting performance given by Blake Lively and has some beautifully shot action sequences. The story follows Stephanie Patrick, played by a gritty and emotionally distraught Blake Lively, who was a typical British citizen until she loses her entire family and eventually embarks on a vengeful and very violent mission targeting those responsible for her parents’ and siblings’ deaths in a plane crash. Officially declared a plane crash resulting from a mechanical failure, Stephanie learns from a freelance journalist that the crash was actually the work of a terrorist group who planted a bomb on the commercial airliner killing all aboard. On her own, she discovers the journalist’s confidential source is a former MI6 agent named Iain Boyd, played by Jude Law, hiding out in the remote countryside of Scotland who begrudgingly agrees to train her to be an assassin and have the skills to go after her family’s killers. Eventually, she travels around the world tracking down and killing everyone connected to the terrorist attack. Along the way, she meets several mysterious individuals, including a shadowy figure living outside Madrid, Spain who traffics in secret information named Mark Serra, played by Sterling K. Brown. Although there are several quite well-done and gripping action scenes that are clearly influenced by the filmmaker’s experience as a cinematographer with its use of frenetic camera work, the film suffers from an unnecessarily slow pace that wallows too much in the anguish and grief of Blake Lively’s very troubled character. Furthermore, the plotline, especially the ending revealing the real bad guy, is way too predictable to make for a genuinely unique action flick. Despite all of the movie’s flaws, Lively should be praised for her physically grueling and dedicated performance that feels extremely raw and realistic as if she really did live those feelings of profound loss and desire for revenge at all costs. Overall, I was fairly disappointed that it did not meet my expectations, established by the movie trailer, for a very entertaining and dramatic action thriller; even with Blake Lively’s terrific performance that could make for a turning point in her acting career, the movie is unable to really recover from the poor pacing and lack of originality.
Directed by Nigerian-American Chinonye Chukwu who became the first black woman to win the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for this particular movie in 2019, Clemency is a profound and insightful film with a unique perspective on the American criminal system and capital punishment by presenting itself as a character study of a prison warden overseeing executions; it feels very realistic as a result of the brilliant performance given by Alfre Woodard. The story is a rather simple one that follows the female African American prison warden Bernadine Williams, played by Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard in by far her best performance, during the rather bureaucratic preparations for the execution of convicted murderer Anthony Woods, played by the terrific Aldis Hodge. Yes, it explores the divisive institution of capital punishment as a whole in a fairly negative light, but the main thrust of the movie is to show the immense psychological toll that legally putting someone to death has on the prison employees, particularly the warden who is responsible for making sure everything goes according to the state’s plan. Unlike the stereotypical Hollywood depiction of wardens as either extremely cruel or indifferent background characters, the filmmaker does a excellent job of showing how the difficult job of being a prison warden, especially when an execution is about to take place, affects the character Bernadine in both her personal and professional lives. She has trouble connecting with her husband Jonathan, played by Wendell Pierce, who fears she is becoming emotionally distant in their relationship the direct result of her stressful and important career. Reflecting the slow-moving anguish for Anthony as well as the victim’s family and the extended time it takes to finally reach the actual execution, the movie has a very deliberate and drawn-out pace that portrays even the smallest details of the lead-up to the lethal injection of a death row inmate and how each staff member is responsible for a certain task related to ending Anthony’s life. Woodard, who was definitely snubbed by the Oscars, is able to convey her character’s gut-wrenching mixed emotions just through her facial expressions during the quiet and difficult moments as she reflects on her job and whether it is morally right to be in charge of enacting capital punishment. Overall, I found it to be one of the more emotionally powerful films I have seen in a long time and, although it is very difficult to watch at times, is a cinematic experience that should be seen in order for people to gain greater insight into the death penalty by delving deep into the largely unheard-of viewpoints from prison staff and the warden.
Directed by French-Canadian filmmaker François Girard best known for 1998’s The Red Violin and based on the 2001 book of the same name written by Norman Lebrecht, The Song of Names is a suitably interesting drama full of great potential with such a fascinating story and well-known cast but suffers from a convoluted narrative structure that makes for a movie that should have been much more powerful for the audience. Taking place over several decades, the story follows the evolving relationship between the English Martin, played by Tim Roth as an adult, and the Polish Dovidl, played by Clive Owen as an adult, who become somewhat of adoptive brothers after Martin’s wealthy British family takes in the violin prodigy Dovidl right before the onset of World War II. Dovidl’s impoverished parents decide it would be best for his safety as a Jew to live with Martin’s family who could also provide him with the needs to pursue his very promising musical career. When the two boys first meet each other as young adolescents around the age of nine, the standoffish Martin does not like the overconfident Dovidl and vice versa, but, as they get to know one another, they begin to see themselves as brothers. The filmmaker tries the interesting choice of constantly switching between three different times in their lives and so the film eventually shows both of them in their twenties at a time when the already acclaimed Dovidl is about to give his first public appearance on a London stage. The main plot device then reveals itself as Dovidl never appears at his concert and disappears for many years. The final time period focuses on Martin’s renewed search for his long-lost friend when he is in his fifties, and the movie takes us on his complex journey to discover the whereabouts of Dovidl who would have become a highly successful virtuoso if he did not vanish. Eventually, he is discovered by Martin and the audience learns the emotionally powerful reason why he did not show up on that fateful day. Suffice it to say, Dovidl rediscovers his religious and cultural roots as a Jew, which sets up a beautiful and heart-wrenching ending that relates to his family and the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the emotional potency of the final moments of the film does not have the intended full impact for the viewer distracted by the overly complicated plotline that would have been better suited if told in a linear fashion. Overall, I found it to have enough of a compelling story to make the movie worth watching; however, I did leave the theater disappointed by what the filmmaker could have done to have made it a vitally important and personally resonating cinematic study of relationships, religion, and forgiveness.
Directed by French filmmaker and son of Malian immigrants Ladj Ly and nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature Film, Les Misérables is a riveting look at the gritty slums surrounding Paris that powerfully presents the systemic issues causing friction between the immigrant populace and the mostly white French-born police officers. To underscore the social and political injustice that are the underlying issues of the film, the filmmaker cleverly decides to name the movie after the famous Victor Hugo novel Les Misérables that chronicles the social ills of 19th century France and setting the story in the predominantly impoverished French commune east of Paris named Montfermeil in which part of the 1862 book took place. The fairly simple plot follows the police officer Stéphane Ruiz, played by Damien Bonnard, who has just transferred into the SCU’s anti-crime police brigade and is starting his first day with the corrupt white squad leader Chris, played by Alexis Manenti, and his longtime black partner Gwada, played by Djibril Zonga. We witness the xenophobic and ruthless Chris alongside his complacent partner on a relatively normal day terrorizing the slum neighborhood, all to the shock to Ruiz who has worked his entire policing career in a relatively peaceful French town. Eventually, things go out of control and a young black kid named Issa is inadvertently injured by Gwada during a confrontation in which the kid is accused of stealing a lion cub from a circus led by the violent Zorro. Eager to make sure there is no evidence of the attack against the juveniles, Chris and Gwada with the help of the begrudging Ruiz go to extreme lengths to finding a boy who recorded the whole episode on his aerial drone. The film vividly depicts the brutality of the small group of officers, especially the strikingly immoral leader Chris, against kids who act out criminally the result of their dire circumstances living in poverty and surrounded by crime in the slums. This one particular incident shown taking its course over the movie is designed to depict just one example of the serious problems plaguing the predominantly immigrant communities of suburban Paris and the degree to which justice is practically non-existent for its impoverished residents due to political indifference and police corruption. Overall, I found it to be a sobering dramatic film that effectively visualizes the social and political problems that have beset societies since the beginning of time, especially for the unprivileged, while also exploring the very real current events taking place in France, including the recent yellow vests protest movement and the simmering animosity between migrants and the native French.