Just Mercy

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.

Dark Waters

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.

Midway

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.

Judy

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.

All Is True

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.

Peterloo

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.

The Best of Enemies

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.