The Happy Prince

Written and directed by the talented actor Rupert Everett in his directorial debut, The Happy Prince is a terrifically well-crafted independent film exploring the tragic final days of the world-renowned playwright and author Oscar Wilde brought to life by the transformative performance of Rupert Everett. The plot tells the mostly untold story of Oscar Wilde’s downfall after being imprisoned with hard labor for two years in 1895 when the United Kingdom found him guilty of committing homosexual acts, which at the time was illegal, and it would not be until 2017 that Oscar Wilde along with 50,000 other convicted gay men would be pardoned. Exiled to Europe following his release in 1897, Wilde, played by Rupert Everett in his greatest performance of his career, tries to scrape by after clearly being tormented in prison and is continually vilified by those back in the UK. He lives for a time in Naples, Italy with his former young and handsome lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, played by Colin Morgan, who was part of the reason that Wilde was caught and convicted for being a homosexual. At the same time, another former lover and his current literary executor Robbie Ross, played by Edwin Thomas, tries to find sympathetic people who can financially support Oscar Wilde’s life, and he encourages him to avoid scandal for business and personal reasons. Robbie is also somewhat jealous of Alfred who captivates the notoriously wild Wilde’s attention once again. Although these two men in addition to the novelist Reggie Turner, played by Academy Award winner Colin Firth who has collaborated in several other movies with Everett, do their best to keep him out of trouble, his life quickly spirals out of control. Towards the end of his life, he lives off the streets of Paris after being disinherited by almost everyone, including his estranged wife played by Emily Watson. The movie also includes several flashbacks to Oscar Wilde’s better days when he was a warmly embraced celebrity throughout the world; these scenes illustrate the juxtaposition of how far such an illustrious writer as Oscar Wilde can be brought down by society’s disdainful view of homosexuality. Neither a happy story or one about a charming prince, the film is truly noteworthy for the astounding Rupert Everett who is drastically different from his usual role as the handsome and vivacious character in such movies as 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding for which he received a Golden Globe nomination. Everett is fully immersed in his performance and is almost physically unrecognizable as a downtrodden, overweight, and sickly man nearing the end of his troubled life. Overall, I found it to be a fascinating glimpse into one of the most important writers in history and the often overlooked tragedies that he experienced in his life realistically portrayed by the magnificent Rupert Everett. On another note, I had the privilege of seeing Rupert Everett in person who provided great insight into how this film has been a passion project for him, especially as a homosexual man, and the difficulty of capturing the famously witty Oscar Wilde without becoming a caricature.

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First Man

Directed by Damien Chazelle who is best known for 2014’s Whiplash and 2017’s La La Land for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director, First Man is a terrific biographical movie that explores the personal side of Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission and is anchored by excellent acting performances and dramatic cinematography. We first meet Neil Armstrong, played by Golden Globe winner Ryan Gosling, in 1961 as he is attempting an extremely dangerous test flight at Edwards Air Force Base where he is a military test pilot. At the time, he and his wife Janet, played by Golden Globe winner Claire Foy, are struggling with the sickness of their young daughter Karen who is undergoing treatment for cancer; her memory will later serve throughout the film as a sort of metaphor for the personal life of Armstrong as he becomes world-famous for being the first man on the moon. Eventually, he is accepted to the NASA astronaut program and becomes one of the astronauts in Project Gemini, the space program that would lead into the Apollo missions with the goal of a lunar landing. Living in Houston in 1965, he develops close friendships with fellow astronauts, especially his neighbor Ed White, played by talented actor Jason Clarke, and his wife befriends the other astronaut wives who also have young children. While much of the film focuses on the more personal aspects of Armstrong and his family coping with his hazardous job, the filmmaker does an excellent job of recreating the very tense rocket launches in which the slightest problem could be catastrophic for Armstrong and the other astronauts aboard. Leading up to the climax of the film, Armstrong learns from NASA’s Chief of the Astronaut Office Deke Slayton, played by Emmy Award winner Kyle Chandler, that he will be the commander on Apollo 11, the mission selected for the first landing on the moon, and will be joined by the often lighthearted Buzz Aldrin, played by Cory Stoll best known for his role in the Netflix series House of Cards, and the Command Module Pilot Michael Collins. Before he is selected for the historic mission, tragedy strikes NASA on January 27, 1967 when a fire during a routine test for Apollo 1 engulfs the capsule resulting in the death of three astronauts, including Armstrong’s close friend Ed White and one of the original astronauts Gus Grissom, played by Shea Whigham best known for his role in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. The final scenes of the movie revolve around the actual mission of Apollo 11, complete with the dramatic takeoff, four-day flight to the moon, undocking the Lunar Module, and finally landing on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969 with hundreds of millions of people watching around the world. After becoming the first human to touch the moon, Armstrong’s immortal moon walk is portrayed as a much more introspective personal look into his life and what led up to such a historical event for all of mankind. He makes a touching tribute to his beloved daughter Karen, which helps bring the movie back to the beginning as he begins to lose his child to cancer. Overall, I found it to be one of the more memorable movies that effectively takes a quite different and more emotional approach to the space movie genre, that was elevated by the talented performances given by Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, and kept the audience on the edge of their seats during the magnificent spaceflight sequences. The film must now be included in the historical space movie canon, joining the likes of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 with each contributing a different aspect to the story of humans in space. For instance, the seminal 1983 movie The Right Stuff provided more of a historical background by showing Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier and the early efforts of the Mercury program that ultimately led the United States to the moon. On the other hand, the 1995 Ron Howard movie Apollo 13 was much more of a thriller in which the characters must figure out a way to survive after a catastrophic failure and focuses more on the actual mission.

Museo

Directed by critically acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Alonso Ruizpalacios in his second feature, Museo is a very creative and exciting heist movie that works beautifully as a result of its unique storytelling and terrific acting performances. The Mexican film, with Spanish dialogue and English subtitles, tells the true story of the greatest art heist in Mexican history that took place on Christmas Eve in 1985 at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City by a pair of amateur thieves. The plot follows two best friends who are leading rather unremarkable lives outside Mexico City in the middle-class suburb Satellite City: the mastermind and the black sheep of his family Juan, played by Golden Globe winner and celebrated Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, and the film’s narrator and mustached partner in crime Wilson, played by Leonardo Ortizgris. After working part-time at the Museum and witnessing the value of the prehistoric artifacts, Juan hatches a plan to break into the Museum late at night when the security guards are distracted and steal mostly Mayan archaeological pieces that they then hope to sell on the black market. The filmmaker makes a highly effective decision to present the actual heist scenes as a artful collection of montage sequences in which the duo are shown meticulously removing each artifact and the camera freezes on each stolen piece as the actors try to remain still. This dazzling filmmaking effect reflects the artworks that are being stolen from the architecturally contemporary museum so important to the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican heritage of Mexico. They are able to pull off the robbery rather easily as a result of it taking place at a time before the widespread use of security cameras and alarms, and they are even able to return to their families’ Christmas celebrations unnoticed. Things begin to unravel when the clearly unprepared young thieves quickly discover that they may not be able to sell any of the almost 150 artifacts because they are priceless and any art collector would not be stupid enough to purchase them as they would be easily detected. Towards the end of the movie, the story becomes more of a comic misadventure in which a pair of bumbling criminals desperately try to offload their illicit goods and eventually come to the conclusion that none of their crimes may have been worth anything. Overall, I found it to be a gripping film that artistically presents a truly fascinating story filled with excellent performances, especially from the always terrific Bernal, and, therefore, allows it to stand out among the countless number of heist movies.

A Star is Born

The third remake of the original 1937 movie of the same name later made into a 1954 version starring Judy Garland and most recently a 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, A Star is Born is a terrifically well-made movie remarkable for Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut and the breakthrough acting performance of Lady Gaga. The updated story follows hugely successful yet troubled country singer Jackson Maine, played by Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, who makes a surprising discovery at a drag bar following one of his concerts of a new talented singer named Ally, played by pop superstar Lady Gaga in her dazzling acting debut. Over time, Jackson encourages her to perform her own songs that she has written over the years, despite her misgivings over her appearance, and she becomes a musical star in her own right. As she rapidly rises to fame, the wild Jackson suffering from debilitating substance abuse begins to fall in love with Ally, but he starts to get jealous of her newfound stardom after she signs with a record label with a new cutthroat manager. Jackson’s much older brother and manager Bobby, played by the gravelly voiced Golden Globe nominee Sam Elliott, is especially worried about Jackson and cautions Ally that he can sometimes go out of control. Along his tumultuous journey and her rocketing success, Jackson runs into his old friend played by Dave Chappelle as well as having a tense relationship with Ally’s father played by Andrew Dice Clay. With the help of Ally, he realizes that he must do something to turn his life around and accept Ally’s successful career. Although it is an age-old story of fame and romance, the film is able to set itself apart from its predecessors by presenting a story relevant to today’s culture at the same time providing magnificant firsts, for first-time director Bradley Cooper and first-time actress Lady Gaga. Furthermore, I was particularly struck by the terrific performance of Sam Elliott who provides an heartfelt anchor to the storyline and a veteran quality to the movie. Overall, I found it to be an excellently heartbreaking and enjoyable cinematic experience that incisively explores the complexities of fame and pays great homage to the music industry.

The Old Man and the Gun

Directed by David Lowery best known for 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and 2016’s Pete’s Dragon, The Old Man and the Gun is a beautifully crafted film based on the true life story of an aging bank robber and is truly remarkable for its entertaining and heartfelt script and top-notch acting performances. The plot follows a gentlemanly bank robber named Forrest Tucker, played by Oscar winner Robert Redford in perhaps his last role, who is reaching the end of his criminal career spanning several decades and incarcerations. He is a rather unusual bank robber in that he is always extremely polite and an overall debonair character whose charisma sparkles even as he is holding up banks. Living in Dallas, Texas when he is not on a job, Forrest begins to fall in love with a local widow named Jewel, played by Oscar winner Sissy Spacek, who at first does not believe that Forrest is actually a bank robber. In his seventies, he is still involved in bank heists working either alone or with two of his long-time partners played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits who the media refers to as The Over-the-Hill Gang. Over the course of his latest spree during the 1980s when the movie is set, a hard-working Dallas Police detective named John Hunt, played by Oscar winner Casey Affleck, makes it his personal mission to track down and arrest the elusive Forrest who has already escaped from prison a total of sixteen times over the course of his career. He is most famous for his daring escape from the California prison San Quentin using a boat that he secretly constructed while serving time for a robbery. The filmmaker does an excellent job of creating a heist movie from a bygone era, very similar to the 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde, through the use of what looks like an older camera and relying on old-fashioned chemistry between such legends of screen as Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek. The story exudes so much charm and adventure that is sorely missing in many of today’s Blockbuster films. It does not rely on elaborate special effects or over-the-top action sequences but rather focuses on much more subtle acting performances and a simple well-written story about a compassionate criminal who is irresistible to watch. Overall, I found it to be one of the best movies in recent memory that harks back to the Golden Age of Hollywood in which the script and acting were central to the filmmaking process; if it is indeed Redford’s last work, it sure is a fitting capstone to one of the greatest acting careers of all time.

Monsters and Men

Written and directed by critically acclaimed short film filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green in his first feature film, Monsters and Men is an emotionally provocative independent drama filled with raw acting performances about a particularly timely subject matter. The movie is split into three different parts following three different characters who are all impacted by the shooting of a black man at the hands of a white police officer on a street corner in the working class Brooklyn neighborhood Bed-Stuy. We first meet the struggling young Latino father and husband Manny, played by Anthony Ramos best known for his role in the hit Broadway show Hamilton, who just recently got a job as a security guard in Manhattan. His life is turned upside down one day after he videotapes a fatal encounter between a NYPD white officer and a non-violent small-time black criminal named Darius Larson who is shot by the police officer in a confrontation over Darius selling illegal cigarettes, very similar to the 2014 shooting of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Manny struggles with whether he should publicize the video recording in order to shed light on police brutality but feels that its release will cause irreparable damage to his life and family. To provide a balanced perspective on recent police shootings of black men in the United States, the second chapter of the film revolves around the idealistic African American police officer Dennis, played by John David Washington best known for his breakout role in this year’s BlacKkKlansman, who tries to cope with the fact that a police officer in his precinct is the cop responsible for the death of a black man like himself. He feels constant pressure from the African American community that appears to resent him as a police officer tangentially associated with the killing. At the same time, Dennis experiences uncomfortable tension from his fellow police officers who feel a duty to protect the now suspended cop as one of their own even if his fatal action may not be legally justified. As he does with the rest of the movie, the filmmaker effectively navigates the challenges facing the final character Zyrick, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. best known for his role in the critically acclaimed 2017 horror film It Comes at Night. He is a star high school baseball player with the potential of making it professionally, but, in the aftermath of the shooting, he becomes more aware of his identity as a young black man who could be the next victim of police brutality. With the urging of a young female activist also in high school, he decides to risk his athletic career to become a vocal activist protesting the killing of Darius. What makes the film so powerful is the filmmaker’s ability to expertly explore a very complex issue facing today’s society by presenting how police brutality affects the witnesses, fellow police officers, and other potential victims and activists. Overall, I found it to be a most important and brilliantly crafted movie about one of the greatest hot-button issues of contemporary America, all the while approaching such a contentious subject with profound nuance and subtlety.

Colette

colette_xlgDirected by Wash Westmoreland best known for the 2014 movie Still Alice in which Julianne Moore received an Oscar for her role, Colette is a fascinating period drama about one of France’s most renowned writers and is quite remarkable for its terrific acting, especially the dazzling performance given by Keira Knightley. The film is based on the real-life story of the French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, played by twice Academy Award-nominated Knightley in arguably her greatest performance, who moves from the French countryside in the late nineteenth century to the artistic center of the world at the time Paris after marrying a well-known writer referred to as simply Willy, played by the twice Golden Globe-nominated British actor Dominic West. After witnessing her remarkable writing talents first-hand, Willy encourages her to write novels in which he would be fully credited for writing them. They come upon a great success with the publication of a novel loosely based on Colette’s early life revolving around a French country girl named Claudine and her daily life and adventures in rural France. Over the course of the film, Colette becomes increasingly distant from her controlling husband and decides she would like to write for herself with her real name instead of his. The filmmaker does an excellent job of creating a beautiful and realistic depiction of early twentieth century Paris through the use of high-fashion costuming and sumptuous Parisian scenery in which the arts and high society are highly valued. Amidst this exciting backdrop, Colette evolves into a much more independent individual who explores her own sexual expression by entering into a sexual relationship with a beautiful young socialite, played by Eleanor Tomlinson best known for her role in the BBC television series Poldark. She becomes quite the sensation and even causes a riot in an already liberalized Paris with her extremely progressive views and unorthodox artistic expressions through her fashion and writing, including performing a risqué mime act in which she kisses a masculine woman. At the same time, she faces her sometimes cruel and desperate husband whose finances are rapidly collapsing. It becomes quite clear that his own career will never be as successful after Colette refuses to write anymore Claudine novels that have become such a cultural phenomenon throughout France, and, as a result, he becomes a shell of himself and their marriage begins to disintegrate. Overall, I found it to be a truly wonderful film that is brought to life by the dynamic performances of the lead actors, in particular Keira Knightley, and is especially relevant to today’s society in which sexual and artistic expression is accepted and women are using their platforms to speak up for gender equality, just like Colette did in her time.