The sequel to the critically acclaimed 2015 movie Sicario directed by Oscar nominee Denis Villeneuve, Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a compelling action thriller with great cinematography, music, and acting performances that all combine to create an especially gritty atmosphere conducive to the dark world of the increasingly violent drug war. After a stint in Africa and the Middle East hunting down terrorists, the covert American government operative Matt Graver, played by Oscar nominee Josh Brolin, returns to the US Mexico border to reprise his vicious role as in the first movie to do whatever it takes to take down the powerful Mexican drug cartels. He is recruited by the Secretary of Defense, played by Golden Globe nominee Matthew Modine, and another government official, played by Oscar nominee Catherine Keener, to foment a war between several Mexican cartels by kidnapping the 16-year-old daughter of a particularly influential cartel leader. The ruthless Graver, who is authorized to employ his dirty tactics, assembles a secret contingent of soldiers that also includes the amoral sicario, or hit man, Alejandro who is played by the brilliantly creepy Oscar winner Benicio del Toro. After several intense and warlike gun battles, the covert American forces and loyal members of the drug cartels who also work for the Mexican police, things begin to go awry and Graver’s mission is put into jeopardy by the high-ranking United States officials who authorized the operation. The movie also weaves in another narrative about a Mexican-American teenager living in the border town of McAllen, Texas who is lured by the drug cartels to help smuggle migrants across the border. His story provides insight into why and how young men become involved in drug and human trafficking for such ruthlessly violent cartels and gangs. The most intriguing scenes involve Alejandro who lost his family at the hands of a drug cartel and is now set on a path of brutal vengeance; he is a morally complicated character brought to life by Benicio del Toro’s performance who wants to bring good but does it through clearly bad means. Overall, I found it to be yet another gripping account of the horrific actions of the drug cartels and the secret war against them perpetrated by the American government; however, the movie fell short of the original’s innovative twist on the action thriller genre that explores a complicated subject in a thoughtful way.
Co-written and directed by Brett Haley best known for 2015’s I’ll See You in My Dreams and 2017’s The Hero both starring Sam Elliott, Hearts Beat Loud is a wonderful independent film that is very heartfelt and musically well-versed with terrific performances from the two lead actors. The plot follows Frank, played by the terrifically lovable Nick Offerman, who is the owner of an independent record store in Brooklyn that is about to close and his relationship with his daughter Sam, played by the radiant newcomer Kiersey Clemons, who is about to head off to college in California. As an aging hipster who has a profound love for music, Frank always had the dream of starting a band, especially with his talented daughter who also loves indie music. One day, Frank and Sam decide to record a rock song together, and Frank uploads the song to Spotify without her permission and soon discovers that the song has become popular online. With the unexpected success, he encourages his reluctant daughter to form a band together and possibly miss her first year of college to produce music and tour. The cast is rounded out by a trio of extremely talented actors: Golden Globe winner Ted Danson plays Frank’s best friend Dave who runs a dive bar, Emmy winner Blythe Danner plays Frank’s mother Marianne who is suffering from a mild case of dementia, and Oscar nominee Toni Collette plays Frank’s landlady Leslie who becomes quite close to Frank. The movie is a sweet depiction of a father-daughter relationship that at times can be tenuous but is overall very loving, with Frank trying to pursue his mutual passion for music with his daughter. It has been difficult for Frank because he has had to raise Sam by himself after the tragic death of his wife and her mother years ago and now must face the painful reality about his failing financial situation. Sam also has to deal with her own issues, including going to college so far away and falling in love with a girl named Rose, played by Sasha Lane. Overall, I found it to be a powerfully heartfelt film about a father-daughter relationship filled with excellent performances and truly beautiful original music; I highly recommend it to anybody looking for a feel-good story or simply loves music.
Written and directed by British filmmaker Bart Layton best known for the 2012 critically acclaimed documentary The Imposter, American Animals is a terrific heist movie that reenacts a truly extraordinary true story about a group of college students daring to commit one of the largest art thefts in American history. The filmmaker makes a truly unique and brilliant decision to mix the majority of the film’s dramatized narrative with interviews with the real life characters portrayed. We first meet Spencer Reinhard, played by the terrific Irish actor Barry Keoghan, as an art student at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky who is looking for a way to escape his ordinary life. He teams up with his lazy childhood friend Warren Lipka, played by another terrific young actor Evan Peters, to steal several rare books, including an original book of paintings by the famous wildlife artist John James Audubon, worth millions from the special collections library at Transylvania University. As they plan what they believed was a relatively simple heist, they run into a series of problems and must enlist two other friends: Chas Allen who is played by Blake Jenner and Eric Borsuk who is played by Jared Abrahamson. As the day of the robbery in December of 2004 approaches, several of the guys, especially Spencer, are worried that the robbery will fail and ruin their lives if they are caught, but Warren who acts as the ringleader successfully encourages them to go through with the plan. The movie keeps a quick and exciting pace as soon as the robbery commences by relying on shaky camera work and acting performances that make their characters’ intense emotions palpable. The filmmaker also does a remarkable job of crafting a film about reality; in the real life interviews, almost all of the individuals tell a slightly different story about what happened, which makes the audience question what really happened and what was fictionalized. Overall, I found it to be a terrific film that brilliantly transcends the formulaic aspects of a heist film while raising fascinating and important issues about storytelling, reality, and the desire for the individual to become extraordinary through reckless actions.
Written and directed by Golden Globe-nominated screenwriter Paul Schrader who is best known for 1976’s Taxi Driver, 1980’s Raging Bull, and 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, First Reformed is a first-rate drama exploring the complexities of religion, environmental issues, and self-reflection and is truly remarkable for the Oscar-worthy performance of Ethan Hawke. The plot follows the troubled Reverend Ernst Toller, played by Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke in perhaps his best role, who leads a very small congregation at an upstate New York Dutch Reform church that is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. Struggling with alcoholism and past trauma, he finds little solace in his pastoral work and lives a lonely existence without practically any friends or family. His somber and quiet life changes course after meeting a pregnant parishioner named Mary, played by the terrific Amanda Seyfried, and her distraught husband who is an extremist environmental activist. While trying to navigate religious issues with Mary and her husband and coming to terms with the environment, the Reverend is under the guidance of his mother megachurch Abundant Life led by the influential Pastor Jeffers, played by Cedric the Entertainer in a very dramatic role, who has financial ties to the region’s largest polluter. The beautifully dark cinematography with a smaller aspect ratio and set during the depths of winter brilliantly underscores Reverend Toller’s quiet despair grappling with his own demons and conscience about the church’s involvement with what he sees as an immoral corporation. In the gripping climax towards the end of the movie, he contemplates committing a grievous act out of desperation and as his own form of environmental activism. Overall, I can say without any doubt that it is one of the best films of the year and Ethan Hawke’s mesmerizing acting should be universally applauded; therefore, I highly recommend the movie to true lovers of cinema.
Based on a remarkable true story, Adrift is a fairly typical survival movie that is enhanced by terrific acting performances and realistic and beautiful cinematography. The film follows the 23-year-old Tami Oldham, played by Golden Globe nominee Shailene Woodley, who travels the world away from her hometown of San Diego and finds herself on the island of Tahiti where she meets the handsome 34-year-old British sailor Richard Sharp, played by Sam Claflin. Through a series of flashbacks, they fall in love and enjoy sailing around the South Pacific Islands on his small sailboat that he built himself. Eventually, a couple who are friends with Richard ask Richard and Tami to take their 44-foot sailboat over 4,000 miles back to San Diego. They set out for their journey in October 1983, but tragedy strikes when their boat is heavily damaged by an unexpected Category 4 hurricane in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Richard is severely injured so Tami must take on the duties to try and survive with the sailboat missing its sails and all navigation and radio equipment inoperable. As the days progress, Tami is in an increasingly dire situation as food begins to run low and the boat is many miles away from land. She decides that the best hope for survival is to head for Hawai’i and must navigate only using the primitive tools of the sextant and following the stars. At some point, the audience realizes the extent that her mental state and hallucinations impact her ability to think properly and ultimately survive the ordeal. Overall, I found it to be a somewhat compelling survival adventure movie that differentiates itself from the rather generic formula of the genre by having a dynamic and raw performance from the talented young actress Shailene Woodley.
Based on the famous play of the same name written by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov in 1895, The Seagull is a suitably well-done prestige drama that attempts to retell the acclaimed theatrical production in a more cinematic fashion and is remarkable for its tour de force cast. Set in the idyllic Russian countryside in the early 20th century, the story revolves around the complicated relationships between the house guests at the vacation home of a famous aging and self-centered actress named Irina, played by Academy Award nominee Annette Bening, and her ailing brother played by Golden Globe winner Brian Dennehy. Irina’s son Konstantin, played by Billy Howle, is an aspiring writer who becomes jealous of his mother’s younger famous author boyfriend Boris, played by Corey Stoll. Over the course of the movie, things get even more complicated with the presence of several love triangles involving the characters. Konstantin is in a relationship with the beautiful neighbor Nina, played by Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan, who falls in love with the brilliant Boris who encourages her to pursue her dream of acting in Moscow. Unbeknownst to Konstantin, the household caretaker’s daughter Masha, played by Golden Globe winner Elisabeth Moss, is in love with Konstantin while she is loved by the local school teacher. The plot very much reminds me of a English country house party drama written by Jane Austen but with obvious Russian elements of a tragicomedy in which there is a lot of witty conversations between characters and several of the characters’ stories end in tragedy. Overall, I thought the filmmaker did a good job of transforming such an important play into an admirable work of fiction that would work on the big screen, and it is definitely helped by a stellar cast; however, the audience can come away with the feeling that many of the talented actors were simply on board because it is an Anton Chekhov adaptation.
Based on the 2007 novel of the same name written by critically acclaimed British author Ian McEwan who also wrote the novel that was adapted into the Academy Award-winning 2007 film Atonement, On Chesil Beach is a beautifully shot and acted British drama that explores a young couple’s romance and sexuality shortly following their marriage. Set on their wedding night in the summer of 1962 at their honeymoon hotel and the nearby spectacular Chesil Beach located on the southern coast of Dorset, England, the movie follows the love story of Florence, played by Academy Award-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan, and Edward, played by up-and-coming actor Billy Howle. Following a rather slow pace imitating their gradual romance over the years, the story is mostly told through a series of flashbacks to the pivotal moments in their courtship through the past several years. Like Florence, Edward is shown as a young accomplished student who studies at Oxford and has great ambitions in life. Despite overcoming several challenges while dating, including Edward’s mother’s grave mental health, their inexperience with physical intimacy as virgins in their early twenties poses a crucial problem on their honeymoon as they are about to consummate their marriage. They have drawn-out arguments over the course of the night as Florence tries to grapple with her awkward fear of sex even with her true love Edward who is eager for intimacy. As the characters have deeply philosophical dialogue about love and sex, the filmmaker uses evocative cinematography with sweeping shots of the famous beach to convey a tender yet heartbreaking story. Overall, I found it to be a particularly well-made film that felt like a typically British drama complete with outstanding emotional acting performances and a somber story with great heart.