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 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.
Directed by Roland Emmerich who is best known for such Hollywood Blockbusters as 1996’s Independence Day and 2000’s The Patriot, Midway is a large-scale war action movie that heavily relies on CGI special effects to recreate the pivotal Battle of Midway during World War II but does not fully satisfy as a well-rounded movie as a result of its fairly generic script and characters. Based on true events of the beginning of the American involvement in World War II, the movie shows the devastating surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii by the Empire of Japan. The plot follows a bunch of American characters from the top with the Commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, played by Woody Harrelson, to the top intelligence officer in the region Edwin Layton, played by Patrick Wilson, and all the way down to the Naval bomber and fighter pilots, including the real life Dick Best who is played by Ed Skrein and Wade McClusky who is played by Luke Evans. Also, unlike most traditional war movies, the film also follows several key Japanese Naval commanders and officers who are shown making battle decisions based on their best interest. After the somewhat haphazard introduction to almost too many characters to keep count, the story leads up to June 4, 1942 when the Japanese engage the American military at and around the remote islands of the Midway Atoll, a strategic base that allows for closer range to the Japanese Islands. What ensues is the Battle of Midway in which American aircraft carriers and their warplanes go up against the Japanese counterparts in what would become the one of the largest naval battles of World War II. In dramatic and spectacular fashion, the movie effectively uses special effects to capture what the battle must have been like with a constant flurry of aircraft and anti-aircraft fire on both sides. The main mission of the Americans is to destroy as many of the Japanese aircraft carriers as possible in order to recapture control of the Pacific Theater after the mass destruction of the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The script also does scratch the surface of the personal lives of those involved, especially the Naval pilots, but is ineffective because it comes off as cheesy and formulaic, making for unnecessary storylines to the main thrust of the movie to portray a specific battle. Overall, I found it to be a suitably entertaining war movie that does a good job of using special effects to fashion realistic and thrilling battle sequences in order to tell the important story of the Battle of Midway, but, as a whole, relies on too many characters and a rather average screenplay to truly become an iconic war movie.
Directed by Rupert Goold best known for English theatrical productions and the 2015 movie True Story, Judy is an excellently crafted and sobering glimpse of the final months of actress and singer Judy Garland’s tumultuous life, and the film is brought to life by the truly extraordinary performance given by Renée Zellweger. A majority of the movie revolves around her final set of shows given in 1969 in London after facing several professional setbacks back home in the United States, but Judy’s story is also fleshed out with a series of flashbacks at the height of her child stardom around the time of The Wizard of Oz. As a result of her notoriously difficult behind-the-scenes behavior related to her substance abuse, she is practically in financial ruin and unable to get any sort of gig at the beginning until she is encouraged to perform in England where she is still beloved. She reluctantly leaves her son and daughter with their father and her ex-husband Sidney Luft, played by Rufus Sewell, in Los Angeles despite her unhealthy attachment to her children who she would use to perform with her. Greatly worrying her agent, the show promoter, and her British handler and assistant who is played by Jessie Buckley, Judy constantly shows up late to her sold-out crowds and dismisses rehearsals and spends most of her time in her hotel suite acting bizarrely and in a state of confusion. We learn she is addicted to a wide variety of medications, primarily as a result of her abusive treatment as a child star by the MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. While working at MGM, she was often forced to working long hours and eat very little in order to maintain her status as a major star. Overall, I found it to be a terrific movie showcasing Renée Zellweger in an Oscar-worthy performance vividly showing that Judy Garland was sadly in a terrible state towards the end of her much celebrated life and greatly struggled with substance abuse and depression.
Directed by critically acclaimed actor and director Kenneth Branagh best known for his Shakespearean film adaptations, All Is True is a beautifully acted and filmed historical drama that provides a fictionalized account of William Shakespeare returning home to retirement after writing his last play. Set in 1613 immediately after the Globe Theatre in London burned down, the world’s most famous playwright William Shakespeare, played by Oscar-nominated British actor Kenneth Branagh, decides to return to his family in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon and tries to settle down in a life of retirement. He reconnects with his wife Anne Hathaway, played by Oscar-winning British actress Dame Judi Dench, and his daughters Judith and Susanna after he has been away in London writing plays for extended periods of time. Reminiscent of a staged performance, the movie is fairly slow-paced in very intimate settings with elaborate costumes and flowery monologues between the characters. The story attempts to explore Shakespeare’s mental state by showing his preoccupation with the death of his son Hamnet many years ago and his negligence of his daughters after believing that the wrong child died; he thought his son was a genius like himself and thereby still cherishes the only supposed writings of the young Hamnet. He tries to live out a peaceful existence and even decides to create a garden in his son’s memory. However, things quickly do not going according to plan as a result of a scandal involving his married daughter Susanna and the rebellious ways of his other daughter Judith still living at home without a prospect of a husband. In one of the best moments of the film, the Earl of Southampton, played by Oscar-nominated British actor Ian McKellen also known for his Shakespearean acting, pays a visit to Shakespeare at his home and privately discuss what some believe was their romantic relationship. Overall, I found it to be yet another enriching fictionalized account of the one and only William Shakespeare and his mysterious personal life, and I was particularly taken by the terrific acting performances enhanced by the sumptuous costumes and historical attention to detail.
Written and directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Mike Leigh who is also a well-known playwright and director of theater, Peterloo is a very British historical drama with a great amount of oratory that tells the true story of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre of peaceful protesters against the British government in Manchester, England. The film’s events take place after the famous Battle of Waterloo in which British forces defeated the French led by Napoleon Bonaparte, and one young soldier who returns home to poverty-stricken Manchester where there is talk of rebellion against the aristocratic British government. Much of the first part of the movie follows the young soldier’s family as well as other political activists demanding more voting rights and reform in the Parliament. Eventually, a group of Manchester leaders of the protest movement convince the notorious activist Henry Hunt, played by the terrific Rory Kinnear, to give a fiery reformist speech in front of tens of thousands in Manchester in hopes of forcing the British government to take action. Closely watched by local political and police officials hostile to the protesters, up to 60,000 people gather at St. Peter’s Fields to hear Henry Hunt’s speech. However, the local British forces and militia stir up chaos in which the thousands of protesters are scrambling for cover, and, ultimately, as many as fifteen bystanders may have been killed by the British in the melee. Overall, I found the film to be an historically interesting film that, at times, felt rather dry with the abundance of highfalutin dialogue but did an excellent job of depicting the horrific Peterloo Massacre on its 200th anniversary.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Robin Bissell best known for producing 2003’s Seabiscuit and 2012’s The Hunger Games, The Best of Enemies tells a truly unbelievable story of segregation bringing two unlikely people together and is headlined by two critically acclaimed actors, but its desire to discuss racial harmony in appropriate terms is not fully realized. Set in the racially charged atmosphere of Durham, North Carolina in 1971, the plot follows two very different characters on completely opposite sides of desegregation: the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter C. P. Ellis, played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, and the leader of a local black activist organization Ann Atwater, played by Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson. After the elementary school for African-American children is partially destroyed in a fire, a town-wide debate rages over whether to desegregate the school system and allow the black children to attend an all-white school. Eventually, a series of community consensus-building biracial meetings known as a charette is organized by the black activist Bill Riddick, played by Babou Ceesay. Rather unexpectedly, Riddick chooses Ellis and Atwater as co-chairs of the two week-long charette to try and come up with solutions regarding segregation and the Durham school system. In what appears as a more sympathetic portrayal of Ellis who struggles with the ideology of white supremacy, the movie spotlights a lot of attention on Ellis and his wife Mary, played by Emmy nominee Anne Heche, and their life struggles despite the fact that Ellis is a public leader of an avowed racist organization. We do witness some of the racist policies and acts of racism that directly affect Atwater and the black community of Durham, but, rightly or wrongly, the filmmaker makes the decision to focus more attention on showing the effects that Ellis and white sympathizers undergo as a result of working with black people. Despite the questionable handling of such sensitive racial issues by a white filmmaker, the underlying true story of Ellis and Atwater working together and eventually becoming friends is remarkable enough to be explored as a movie. Overall, I found it to be a fascinating historical take on a truly unusual friendship but came away from the film questioning if the issues of race were properly discussed, without sugarcoating the serious problems or becoming a white savior movie.
Based on the 2009 Australian television documentary Surviving Mumbai, Hotel Mumbai is a well-acted and terrifyingly realistic depiction of the horrific terrorist attacks across the Indian city of Mumbai in November 2008. The film begins by simply showing the workers and hotel guests of the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel getting ready for a normal day, in particular a waiter named Arjun, played by Oscar nominee Dev Patel, who has a young wife and baby daughter. Nothing is out of the ordinary and the head chef Hemant Oberoi, played by famed Indian actor Anupam Kher, is preparing his large staff for the daily meals. In addition to getting familiarized with the staff who will later become heroes, the audience is also introduced to the guests, including a young Muslim Iranian-British heiress Zahra, played by Nazanin Boniadi, and her American husband David, played by Golden Globe nominee Armie Hammer, along with their infant Cameron and nanny Sally. We also meet a mysterious Russian named Vasili who used to work for the Soviet government and is played by Jason Isaacs. The rest of the movie is a harrowing dramatization of the devastating terrorist attack and shows a group of young men on a killing spree and are given orders throughout the siege from a Pakistani terrorist leader known as the Bull. Although they attacked at least 12 sites across the major Indian city from November 26 to November 29, the movie primarily focuses on what happened at the historic and iconic luxury hotel. In order to recreate the tragedy, the film does rely on using the exact words used by the terrorists and gruesomely shows the violent and indiscriminate murder of civilians throughout the hotel. The movie perhaps treads on a very thin line of exploitation, but I feel that it does not because it shows the heroic actions of the hotel staff and the guests who are trying to help others survive. For instance, Dev Patel’s character and the head chef escort guests through dangerous corridors in order to get them to safety even after they had the chance to safely escape the hotel. The story also follows the young family who are simply trying to survive and the husband and father David taking great risks to make sure that his son and the nanny who are in a different part of the hotel are safe. All the while, the obviously brainwashed terrorists continue to gun down everybody they encounter and begin to set the hotel on fire. One of the more tragic aspects of the film is the portrayal of the local police attempting to stop the terrorists but unable to do anything due to a lack of training and having to wait for the special forces hours away in Delhi. Overall, I found it to be a very hard to watch a movie at times but is a well-crafted depiction of such a brutal act of terrorism that left 174 people dead across Mumbai and the degree to which normal people become heroic at times of great challenge.
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck best known for 2007’s The Lives of Others which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Never Look Away is an outstanding Oscar-nominated German film that takes an epic look at the generational and personal struggles of a young artist living through Nazi Germany and later Socialist East Germany. The movie begins during World War II in the German city of Dresden where the young child Kurt Barnert is exposed to modern art, which is strictly banned by the Nazi regime, by his loving aunt Elisabeth. To his great horror, eventually Elisabeth is diagnosed with a mental disorder that can be grounds for extermination by the Nazis and is determined by a medical doctor, in this case, the SS-affiliated gynecologist Professor Carl Seeband, played by the terrific Sebastian Koch. After tragedy befalls Kurt’s family and the utter destruction of Dresden, the story jumps to several years after World War II as the older Kurt, played by Tom Schilling, lives in repressive East Germany figuring out a way to pursue his dream of becoming a painter. He ultimately enrolls in a Dresden art academy, but he is rather unhappy being forced to paint in the restrictive school of art known as Socialist Realism in which the working class is venerated and all other subjects are strictly forbidden. However, he does fall in love with a fellow art student named Elizabeth, played by Paula Beer, who, unbeknownst to Kurt, is the daughter of Professor Seeband who condemned his aunt. Without either of them knowing who each other really is, the Professor does not approve of Kurt’s relationship with his daughter and does some rather vicious things in order to prevent them from getting together and having a child. The movie again fast forwards to several years later in the 1960s when Kurt and Elizabeth decide to flee to West Germany where Kurt pursues his art career by entering a very avant-garde modern art academy in the liberal city of Dusseldorf. Vividly capturing the life of an artist, the talented filmmaker does an excellent job of taking the time to show the specific steps that Kurt uses in order to finally discover his own artistic style and medium. Overall, I found it to be a truly extraordinary cinematic experience that quite effectively weaves together a story of tragedy, past sins, forgiveness, love, creativity, and freedom against the backdrop of the very trying times of Germany and is very able to remain enthralling throughout despite its more than three hour runtime.
Written and directed by Oscar winner Adam McKay best known for the 2015 movie The Big Short, Vice is a dramatic and sometimes darkly comedic movie about Vice President Dick Cheney and is remarkable for the terrific acting performances, especially from Christian Bale. The film is a series of flashbacks and montage sequences recounting the most important events in the life of the notoriously uncharismatic and vilified Cheney, played by the truly transformative actor Christian Bale who has already won a Golden Globe for his role. We first meet Cheney as vice president under President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, but the story shifts back to the 1960s when Dick Cheney had a working-class job in his native state of Wyoming. After living a wild life as an alcoholic, eventually he reforms his ways with the help of his assertive wife Lynne Cheney, played by Oscar winner Amy Adams, and enters the world of politics as a White House intern in 1969 under President Nixon. He continues to a political force to be reckoned with who attains increasingly powerful jobs with President Ford, President Reagan, President George H. W. Bush, and President George W. Bush, and interrupted by a career as the congressman from Wyoming. During his early political days, he becomes very close to the eventual Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, played by Oscar nominee Steve Carell, who is also depicted as a cunning and shady political figure. The movie also explores parts of his personal life that are often overlooked and include his relationship with his equally powerful wife and the revelation that one of his daughters Liz is a lesbian. It is not until the presidential election of 2000 that Dick Cheney becomes a household name when he is asked by the younger Bush, played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, to become his running mate. Portrayed as a bumbling redneck who only runs for president to please his father, George W. Bush is only able to convince the hesitant Cheney to become his VP by granting him unprecedented executive power for a vice president. The remainder of the film provides snippets of his controversial career as possibly the most powerful man in the country: it is a rather unflattering look that shows him to be a shrewd yet dangerously conniving figure partly responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers with the Iraq War. It may sound unusual to call it a dark comedy, but there are flashes of it through the use of caricature of malevolent characters and witty narrative devices, including a fake end credits and Cheney talking directly to the audience. Overall, I found it to be a compelling and entertaining look into one of the most divisive political figures brought to life by the extremely talented and committed actor Christian Bale; it can also be seen as a cautionary tale against consolidating too much power into the executive branch and warning against the rise of another Dick Cheney.