Co-written and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie best known for 2017’s Good Time starring Robert Pattinson, Uncut Gems is a fast-paced and thrilling drama about a jeweler in New York City who is spiraling out of control as a result of his gambling addiction and debts to dangerous loan sharks. Played by Adam Sandler in an Oscar-worthy performance, the Jewish Howard Ratner is in the middle of brokering his biggest jewelry sale after he acquires a very large uncut gem from Ethiopia and is desperate to sell it in order to pay off his large gambling debts. He owns a small jewelry shop in the frenetic New York City Diamond District and caters to famous clientele, including Boston Celtics basketball star Kevin Garnett, played by himself, who are brought to him by the well-connected Demany, played by Lakeith Stanfield. By following the very unlucky Howard over the course of several days, the filmmakers are brilliantly able to take the audience on a dizzying adrenaline-fueled chase through the city as Howard tries to survive one big misstep after another while on the run from his angry loan shark Arno, played by Eric Bogosian, and his thugs. What makes the movie work so well is the rapid-fire dialogue in which characters speak over one another as if in real life and the switching very quickly from shot to shot and edit to edit. It also feels authentic because it films in the actual Diamond District that is notoriously cautious of outsiders and shows the real gritty and fast-paced world of a very particular kind of jeweler whose lives and livelihoods depend on making deals on a daily basis. As he deals with his very deadly gambling debts and losing possession of the gem that he believes will turn his life around, Howard’s personal life is equally tumultuous as he balances time between his estranged wife Dinah, played by Tony winner Idina Menzel, and his much younger mistress Julia, played by Julia Fox. The unexpected brilliant performance given by Adam Sandler, who is known for juvenile comedies, terrifically illustrates how his character’s entire life is nothing but a series of gambles: there are bets that pay off and others that incur great debt to volatile individuals. Overall, I found it to be a non-stop and exhilarating one-of-a-kind cinematic experience that both entertains and leaves the audience on the edge of their seats; the hyperactive cinematography and filmmaking along with the believable and committed acting performances make for a brilliant movie.
Written and directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick best known for 1978’s Days of Heaven, 1998’s The Thin Red Line, and 2011’s The Tree of Life, A Hidden Life is a visually spectacular and deeply contemplative film that uses brilliant cinematography and philosophical voiceovers to tell the true life story of Franz Jägerstätter. Visualized by the sweeping bucolic mountain vistas of Austria, we first meet the farmer Franz, played by German actor August Diehl, enjoying his peaceful country life with his wife Fani, played by Austrian actress Valerie Pachner, and we see his life play out over several years as they have children. However, at the outbreak of World War II, Franz is sent away to train for the German military but is allowed to return home after several months training. Eventually, the German military is in need of new soldiers to fight so they call up Franz to swear allegiance to Hitler and become a soldier in his army. A deeply religious man, he refuses to take an oath to Hitler who goes against all of his beliefs. Because of his openly defiant disobedience, he is sent to prison until he pledges allegiance, but, after months of still not giving in, he is transferred to Berlin where he faces a death sentence for treason. At the same time, his wife and three young daughters remain in Austria where they are subjected to insults and outright rejection from the local villagers who believe Franz’s act is reprehensible. Resembling the long and arduous time that he must wait in prison for what he knows is ultimately death, the movie is effectively slow-paced and is almost three hours long, which is fairly typical for a Terrence Malick picture. This somewhat unorthodox approach allows the viewer to truly contemplate what it means to suffer for your beliefs and stand up to what is evil in the world; especially with its shots of nature and the grandeur of the mountains, the film becomes somewhat of a spiritual or religious cinematic experience. Overall, I found it to be a truly magnificent movie that reinforces the unique genius of Terrence Malick who is able to create a film that reflects on the beauty and destruction of the world through the eyes of one of the most famous World War II conscientious objectors who later became a martyr in the Catholic Church.
Co-written and directed by Sam Mendes best known for 1999’s American Beauty and the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall, 1917 is a remarkable technical and cinematic achievement of a movie that relies on resembling a long shot filmed in real time to brilliantly capture what it must have been like as a soldier in the trenches during World War I. The premise of the movie is fairly simple and straightforward but the complexity of using cinematography to tell a story in remarkable detail makes for a truly extraordinary cinematic experience. Two British soldiers Lance Corporal Tom Blake, played by Dean-Charles Chapman, and Lance Corporal William Schofield, played by George MacKay, are told by their commanding officer who is played by Colin Firth that they must cross enemy territory in order to give word to the 2nd Battalion in which Blake’s brother is part of to call off their attack against the German military. Set over a course of several hours beginning on April 6, 1917, the two young soldiers embark on a harrowing adventure in which they face very real dangers in the no man’s land, the abandoned German trenches, the open French countryside, and eventually the frontline. As a result of the camera work, it feels as if the audience is right there with the soldiers and are experiencing the same terrifying aspects of warfare. The camera moves its way to closely follow the two main characters and almost the entire movie feels like one long shot in which the camera never stops filming the action. In another effective choice, the filmmaker decides to use two relatively unknown and new actors as the main characters to show how war affects the relatively anonymous foot soldiers, while the leadership and such major stars as Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, and Richard Madden are given less screentime. Overall, I found it to be one of the more unique war movies as a result of its magnificent cinematography and creative use of the long shot technique and therefore will stand the test of time as a true cinematic masterpiece.
Written and directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker and actress Greta Gerwig best known for 2017’s Lady Bird, Little Women is a beautiful retelling of the classic 1868 novel of the same name written by Louisa May Alcott and stands out as one of the best seven film adaptations that have been made as a result of the updated and creative storytelling and the spectacular cast. Primarily set in Concord, Massachusetts, the familiar plot follows the four March daughters as they come of age and grapple with their future prospects as wives and independent women, and the story switches back-and-forth between the time of the American Civil War and a few years later as they enter adulthood. Gerwig makes the unique yet extremely effective decision to have the story told through a series of flashbacks from the perspective of the protagonists as grown women that helps the audience better understand how the women view their lives and childhood. Jo, played by Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan, is the leader of the sisters and has a lifelong dream of becoming a writer and is depicted pursuing publication of her stories and later a book in New York City. Amy, played by Florence Pugh, is more traditional with the acceptance of eventual marriage but also wants to become a painter where she pursues it in Paris accompanying her rich aunt, played by Meryl Streep. Meg, played by Emma Watson, dreams of becoming a actress as evidenced by performing plays with her sisters in their childhood home attic, and the youngest Beth, played by Eliza Scanlen, loves to play the piano but her life is often beset by sickness. Their love lives also become fairly complex, especially with the wealthy neighbor’s grandson Laurie, played by Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet, who falls in love with Jo but is often rebuffed by her the result of her desire to be an independent woman. The movie is rounded out by other acclaimed actors, including Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, James Norton, and Bob Odenkirk, who flesh out the very well-known characters in a realistic and human way. Although it seems like another Little Women adaptation is unnecessary, Greta Gerwig is able to create something terrifically brand-new by bringing a modern twist with a greater emphasis on the March sisters’ individuality. Overall, I found it to be a brilliant and gorgeously shot film that was somehow able to bring the beloved Little Women story to a whole new level even after the successful 1994 version with Winona Ryder.
Directed by Jay Roach best known for such comedies as 1997’s Austin Powers and 2000’s Meet the Parents and written by Charles Randolph best known for co-writing the Oscar-winning movie The Big Short released in 2015, Bombshell is a well-crafted yet rather unusual movie in that it is both a comedy and drama about the downfall of Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes amidst a flurry of sexual harassment allegations from the female employees of the network. Unlike the recent Showtime TV mini-series The Loudest Voice following Fox News from its inception, the movie has a narrow focus on the year 2016 as the presidential election is in full swing and Roger Ailes is finally facing repercussions for his history of sexual harassment over the years as the head of the conservative news network. The film is full of a bunch of characters based on real life individuals working at Fox News and are portrayed as preposterous caricatures of themselves. However, the main focus of the story is the star female anchors Megyn Kelly, played by Charlize Theron who uncannily resembles her character, and Gretchen Carlson, played by Nicole Kidman, as well as a fictionalized producer named Kayla, played by Margot Robbie. The three main actresses are the real draw of the movie because they give such excellent performances that make you believe that they are actually the characters they play. Throughout the movie, the offices and studios of Fox News are depicted as extremely toxic work environment in which harassment and crude jokes are the norm. The filmmaker effectively discusses the serious issue of sexual harassment by juxtaposing the political rise of Donald Trump who makes inappropriate remarks about women, including Megyn Kelly, with the powerful but feared leader of Fox News Roger Ailes, played terrifically by John Lithgow. Particularly in the case of Gretchen Carlson, the women of Fox News are shown debating whether to finally stand up to the sexual harassment of Ailes by making formal complaints to Fox Corporation run by the Murdoch family or filing lawsuits. Such a seemingly depressing subject matter is made entertaining through the use of office gossip circulating Fox News that first begins as whispers and eventually leads to the rapid demise of Roger Ailes and the top anchor Bill O’Reilly. It is very similar to the 2015 movie The Big Short in that it delves into serious subject matter with a fast-paced and witty script that constantly keeps the audience engaged. Overall, I found it to be a surprisingly entertaining film that is also a very empowering tale of people standing up for what is right and having the audacity to go against their powerful boss. It may not be the best treatment of the Fox News sexual harassment story as it relates to the now disgraced and deceased Roger Ailes, but it does an excellent job of exploring the mindset of the three female protagonists brought to life by the powerhouse acting combination of Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie.
Directed by critically acclaimed actor and filmmaker Clint Eastwood who won the Oscar for Best Director for 1992’s Unforgiven and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, Richard Jewell is a well-acted dramatic film that tells the true story of Richard Jewell who was a security guard wrongfully suspected as the perpetrator of the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Richard Jewell, played by the terrific relative newcomer Paul Walter Hauser, is depicted as a quiet and somewhat awkward individual who always wanted to be involved in law enforcement but his aggressiveness prevents him from becoming a police officer or an FBI agent. Still living with his mother Bobi Jewell, played by the acclaimed Oscar winner Kathy Bates, Richard takes a job as a security guard in Atlanta protecting Centennial Park where concerts take place throughout the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and takes his job very seriously. His life is completely overturned on July 26th when he discovers a suspicious package under a park bench at Centennial Park during a concert with hundreds of people in attendance. Ultimately, it is revealed to be a pipe bomb that detonates resulting in the death of two people and over a hundred injuries. For the first few days, Richard is praised as a hero who saved many lives and thereby becomes a media darling. However, the fictionalized FBI agent Tom Shaw, played by Jon Hamm, is sexually coerced into telling a very aggressive journalist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper named Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde, that Richard fits the profile of the bomber. Eventually, word rapidly spreads across international news that this one-time hero Richard Jewell is now vilified as the bomber even though the FBI or local law enforcement have not charged him with any crime. The very respectful Richard wants to cooperate with authorities but feels so much pressure from the media and the FBI that he calls his former boss and now small-time lawyer Watson Bryant, played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell. Watson is a very ambitious lawyer who strongly fights for his client Richard who is devastated along with his mother and tries to change the media narrative portraying Richard as the culprit. The acting performances give the movie a very real feel, especially from Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser whose characters are seen as emotionally distressed victims of a smear campaign and have trouble coping with it since they are just regular people. The nightmare for Richard Jewell and his family goes on for several months as the FBI relentlessly interrogates Richard and comb through their apartment looking for evidence. The major problem with the film is Clint Eastwood’s overzealous depiction of the media and FBI as enemies of the people and even going so far as to fabricate a journalist offering sex for a tip even though it never even happened in real life. Granted, the media and authorities committed reckless actions that irreparably harmed Richard Jewell, but Eastwood sometimes goes too far to show the media and FBI as irreparable predators. Overall, I found it to be a compelling real-life drama that did a good job of recreating the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombing and showing how it negatively impacted the true hero Richard Jewell; it was complete with first-rate acting performances but stumbled a few times in fairly portraying what really happened in regards to the media coverage and investigation.
Directed by Israeli-American documentarian and music filmmaker Alma Har’el and written by actor Shia LaBeouf in a screenplay based on his life, Honey Boy is an often hard-to-watch and heartbreaking powerful drama about a toxic relationship between father and son that is a semi-autobiographical retelling of Shia LaBeouf’s own troubled life. The film revolves around a young actor named Otis, played by Noah Jupe as the 12-year-old version and Lucas Hedges as the 22-year- old version, at two different seminal moments of his life as a child actor in 1995 and later a drug- and alcohol-addicted popular actor in 2005. As the film’s timeline switches back and forth, the main thrust of the story is showing Otis as he relates to his recently sober yet very troubled father James, played by Shia LaBeouf in a revelatory performance, who serves as his chaperone on movie sets while they both live in a run-down Los Angeles motel. The movie is told from the perspective of the older Otis who is in a rehab program and is encouraged to write down his experiences as a child actor with his verbally abusive father. Otis serves as a stand-in for Shia LaBeouf who himself wrote the script during a stint in rehab after a fair share of amount of trouble with substance abuse and law enforcement. It is a very personal yet universal reflection on what fame can do to people, especially those who started as child actors, as well as how children are affected by their abusive parents for the rest of their lives. Overall, I found it to be a difficult movie to sit through but was important enough to merit viewing for its first-rate acting and deeply moving and introspective story written from the perspective of a troubled former child star like Shia LaBeouf.
Co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton best known for 2013’s Short Term 12 and 2017’s The Glass House, Just Mercy follows the template of a rather typical legal drama that rises above the rest through its emotionally powerful moments brought to life by a terrific cast telling a true story. The plot revolves around a recent Harvard Law graduate named Bryan Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan in one of his best performances, who decides to move to Montgomery, Alabama in the late 1980s to set up a pro bono legal organization to help Alabama inmates get off death row. With the help of a local activist who is played by Oscar winner Brie Larson, the passionate Stevenson creates the Equal Justice Initiative out of a sense of idealism in what he quickly discovers is a very hostile environment to pursue legal justice for death row inmates, especially African American men, in the historically racial discriminatory South. At first, he encounters resistance from the incarcerated individuals themselves who have largely given up on the judicial system to give them a reprieve from the death penalty. Eventually, Stevenson is able to convince Walter McMillian nicknamed Johnny D., played by Oscar winner Jamie Foxx in one of his best recent performances, to fight his flawed conviction and sentencing to death for the murder of a young white woman in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama in 1987. Stevenson, whose 2014 memoir of the same name is the basis for the film, works tirelessly to overturn what he soon realizes is McMillian’s wrongful conviction; as an African American from an impoverished rural community himself, Stevenson struggles personally with the case because he knows he could have been treated just like McMillian. The filmmaker does a good job of recreating the real courtroom drama that took place over several appeals and trials to exonerate McMillian. Outside of the legal process in Alabama that still is full of systemic racism, Stevenson, along with Brie Larson’s unfortunately underdeveloped character, must also deal with the outside world in which they often face death threats and menacing police officers following them. As the audience sees through Jordan’s excellent acting and ability to develop the character, Stevenson is clearly burdened by the unjust treatment of inmates who he gets to know on a personal level and sheds several layers of his optimism in the face of such adversity. Overall, I found it to be a thought-provoking drama that delves deep into the contentious issue of the death penalty and particularly how it relates to racial discrimination; the movie quite effectively presents the problems with the justice system by telling a true story with talented actors able to convey the story’s impactful message.
Directed by music video filmmaker Melina Matsoukas in her feature film debut and written by Lena Waithe best known for her work on the Netflix comedy series Master of None, Queen & Slim is a provocative and wholly unique drama about a very specific African American experience revolving around a couple on a first date who end up on the run from the law. The movie is remarkable for its terrific acting performances and nuanced script that begins with the accidental shooting death of a police officer who quickly escalates a unjust traffic stop of the black couple who we only know as Queen, played by British newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith, and Slim, played by Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya. Facing an uncertain future at the hands of authorities, the two decide to leave the scene on a dark and cold Ohio night and go on a Bonnie and Clyde-esque road trip to evade authorities. They first meet up with Queen’s Uncle Earl, played by Bokeem Woodbine, who lives in New Orleans as a pimp and is willing to help Queen as a favor. Throughout the movie, the fraught racial intersections of white and black America come to the fore with the two largely recognized as symbols of racial injustice from the perspective of the African American community while the majority of white police forces see them as a deadly criminal threat. The filmmaker does an excellent job of keeping the audience engaged in an otherwise incisive social commentary by focusing on the gradual development of a romantic relationship between very different individuals stuck in the same situation: Queen who is a criminal defense attorney and Slim who is a devout Christian. Their journey to freedom is also captivating as a road trip movie in which the audience gets to meet a wide range of interesting characters who have different motivations for helping the duo, including a white couple who are played by Chloë Sevigny and the musician Flea. Rather unexpectedly, they also run into people who would otherwise be against them as so-called cop killers, as well as black Americans who sympathize with their complicated situation that has race at the heart of the issue. Overall, I found it to be a beautifully-crafted film that tells a poignant story of a budding romance between a pair of individuals deeply affected by a system of racial inequality; it is a story of love and a nuanced journey through the soul of black America, all put into motion by a very violent and complicated beginning.
Directed by critically acclaimed independent filmmaker Todd Haynes best known for 2002’s Far from Heaven and 2015’s Carol, Dark Waters is a riveting legal thriller about one corporate defense attorney switching sides to pursue justice by fighting the large chemical company DuPont that has been poisoning a West Virginia community. The movie, which is based on a true story, is especially powerful as a result of its terrific acting and thoughtful chronicle of a more than 20-year legal battle that is still ongoing. The film begins in 1998 when we first meet attorney Robert Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo, as a rising star at his large Cincinnati-based law firm working as an environmental lawyer defending corporations. However, his life and work are turned upside down when West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant, played by Bill Camp, asks for help after he discovers widespread poisoning of his cattle that he suspects is the result of a nearby DuPont chemical plant dumping toxic waste. At the hesitancy of his law firm and boss Tom Terp, played by Tim Robbins, because they defend corporations like DuPont, Bilott begins a decades-long legal crusade against DuPont after his in-depth investigation reveals that they have been using the toxic chemical PFOA in the production of Teflon without ever disclosing it to the public and environmental government agencies. Fighting such a dominant and powerful group as DuPont takes a heavy personal toll on the soft-spoken and mild-mannered Bilott whose wife Sarah, played by Anne Hathaway, feels that the case is taking over his life and preventing him to spend time with his young family. Despite all of these struggles, he continues and eventually starts a class action lawsuit comprised of the public living around Parkersburg, West Virginia who are being subjected to the chemical in their drinking water. At the same time, his legal team expands and later includes a local West Virginia attorney who is played by Bill Pullman. Mark Ruffalo does a remarkable job of displaying the sheer tenacity of the real life hero Bilott who pursues justice at all costs as long as it will take until he feels DuPont cleans up their act and gets rid of PFOA. Overall, I found it to be a truly powerful film that tells a horrific true story of a corporation disregarding the public in favor of profits and how a otherwise normal lawyer decides to do the right thing and stands up to such a Goliath of industry. It is especially intriguing that a director such as Todd Haynes who is best known for intimate artsy independent films felt so strongly about telling the story that he would decide to direct a movie largely outside of his scope.