Cold War

Directed by Oscar-winning Polish filmmaker PaweĊ‚ Pawlikowski best known for 2013’s critically acclaimed Ida, Cold War is a breathtaking romance drama that is truly remarkable for its beautiful black-and-white cinematography and outstanding lead actors who give brilliant performances as star-crossed lovers. Based on the lives of the director’s own parents, the relatively short film with mostly Polish dialogue follows the heated and complex romantic relationship between two Polish citizens, the musician and composer Wiktor, played by the terrific Tomasz Kot, and the beautiful singer Zula, played by the seductive Joanna Kulig. We first meet them in the years following World War II in the ruins of communist Poland when they are part of a traveling folk music group that later espouses the virtues of communism throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. After their romance begins behind the Iron Curtain, we follow them as individuals who get separated and reunited several times across several European countries over the course of four decades concluding in the late 1960s. Wiktor eventually escapes Poland and lives for a while in Paris as a struggling musician working in nightclubs but never really feels happy after Zula decides to remain back home in Poland. With brilliantly subtle directorial vision, the audience is able to feel the passionate and emotionally powerful romantic interactions between the two as they are reunited several times throughout the course of the plot. Furthermore, the filmmaker makes the perfect decision to make the film black-and-white with the older boxy proportions to vividly express the difficulties of those living in the rather bleak and the confining communist countries during the Cold War. At the same time, the movie depicts a truly beautiful love story with a contemporary jazz soundtrack for the times and astounding cinematography that helps bring to life both the dark and light of both sides of the Iron Curtain. Overall, I found it to be one of the most beautiful romantic movies in recent memory as a result of the first-rate acting performances and contemplative directing and cinematography, and it is thereby highly deserving of the Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography.

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Vox Lux

Directed by American actor and filmmaker Brady Corbet whose 2015 feature film debut The Childhood of a Leader received acclaim at the Venice Film Festival, Vox Lux is a rather unusual movie that I would best describe as an experimental film festival indie movie and is remarkable primarily as a result of the terrific acting performance given by Oscar winner Natalie Portman. Somewhat like a theatrical play, the film is divided into several acts tied together through the narration given by Willem Dafoe, and it follows the rapid rise in fame of the fictitious pop superstar Celeste. We first meet the young Celeste, played by Raffey Cassidy, in the year 1999 as a fourteen-year-old survivor of a school mass shooting who decides to perform a song with her older sister Eleanor, played by Stacy Martin, at a memorial service for the victims. Her beautiful song captures the nation’s heart and almost immediately the two sisters work with an aggressive talent manager played by Oscar-nominated actor Jude Law. The film flashes forward to a point where Celeste begins to become a musical sensation and travels to Stockholm with her sister to work with a famous pop songwriter. After witnessing the erosion of her innocence by attending wild parties with much older men, the major act of the movie takes place in the year 2017 when the now thirtysomething adult Celeste, played by Natalie Portman in a very dedicated role, is trying to stage a comeback tour after a publicity nightmare that took place several years prior and almost destroyed her career. Clearly her success has had a personal toll on her relationship with her previously inseparable sister and has caused her to become a foul-mouthed alcoholic. She even has a teenage daughter named Albertine, also played by Raffey Cassidy, who Celeste is in no state to take care of her and thereby her sister Eleanor has become her guardian. Taking place over the course of an afternoon and evening, the film finally reaches its climax when Celeste performs on stage at a large venue in her native Staten Island. With original songs written by pop musician Sia, Natalie Portman bursts off the screen as a very believable popstar complete with extravagant makeup and costumes while performing a highly choreographed stereotypical pop music performance. Even when she is not on stage using her actual singing voice, Portman is truly mesmerizing by giving a powerful performance as a brash and immature celebrity who never really grew up as a result of the enveloping music world with its highly demanding managers, publicists, and studio executives. Overall, I thought it was perhaps too eccentric of a movie to appeal to most audiences, but it serves as a showcase for the masterful acting of the extremely talented Natalie Portman.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Directed by Bryan Singer who is best known for 1995’s Usual Suspects and several X-Men comic book film adaptations beginning in 2000, Bohemian Rhapsody is an entertaining biopic about the hugely successful pop rock band Queen with particular focus on the eccentric and talented lead singer Freddie Mercury who is brilliantly played by the lead actor Rami Malek. We first meet the Indian-British Parsi Farrokh Bulsara, the real birth name of Freddie Mercury played by the mesmerizing Malek who is best known for his Emmy Award-winning performance on the TV series Mr. Robot, working a dead end job at London’s Heathrow Airport, and he happens upon his favorite local band Smile in 1970 who are looking for a new lead singer. The film then follows the meteoric rise of the band after it changes its name to Queen and explores the flamboyant Freddie Mercury’s relationship with the other band members, including the lead guitarist Brian May who is played by Gwilym Lee, the drummer Roger Taylor who is played by Ben Hardy, and the bass guitarist John Deacon who is played by Joseph Mazzello. Following the stereotypical formula of a movie about musicians, the story chronicles the often contentious issues surrounding the different personalities of the band members and the desire for the lead singer Freddie Mercury to control the band and eventually embark on a solo career. It also explores the behind-the-scenes business decisions that ultimately allows Queen to become an international sensation: the one-time manager John Reid, played by Aidan Gillen who is best known for his role on the HBO TV series Game of Thrones, and their lawyer and eventual manager Jim Beach, played by critically acclaimed British actor Tom Hollander, fight with the studio EMI about what music should be released on the radio. In a fun twist, the executive Ray Foster who does not think that the hit song Bohemian Rhapsody should be played on the radio is played by Mike Myers, who himself supported the idea of using the song in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World despite the studio’s hesitation. Since it mostly follows Freddie Mercury and his complicated personal life, the script reveals his unusual relationship with his girlfriend Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton, who suspects that Freddie Mercury may in fact be gay. Eventually, he does fully embrace his lifestyle and begins a sexual relationship with his personal manager Paul Prenter while, at the same time, his outfits become increasingly outrageous and gender fluid. The movie does suffer at times from a lack of a cohesive narrative direction, punctuated by well-choreographed concert scenes in which the band’s greatest hits are played by the energetic Freddie Mercury. The whole film feels like it leads up to the best part of the film when the reunited band members come together to play a truly extraordinary concert at the internationally broadcast benefit concert series Live Aid in 1985 in front of a live audience of over 70,000 at Wembley Stadium in London and a television audience of over 1 billion. During this exhilarating final sequence, Malek transforms himself into the role of Freddie Mercury and sings and dances eerily similar to the real Freddie Mercury at the summit of his career. Overall, I found it to be a fascinating look into the origins of the world famous rock band Queen who helped to define music throughout the 1970s and 80s, and whose main asset was the outstanding performance given by the extremely talented actor Rami Malek.

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.

Juliet, Naked

juliet_naked_xlgBased on the novel of the same name written by acclaimed British author Nick Hornby best known for the novels High Fidelity and About a Boy, which were both made into feature films in 2000 and 2009, respectively, Juliet, Naked is a charming and fairly typical romantic comedy that is elevated by the acting performances that make for genuine chemistry between the protagonists. The plot follows a museum director in a small English seaside town named Annie, played by the talented British actress Rose Byrne known for her role in 2012’s Bridesmaids and 2015’s Neighbors, and her longtime boyfriend Duncan, played by the ever-charming British comedic actor Chris O’Dowd also known for his role in 2012’s Bridesmaids, who is a professor of television at a small college. Clearly unhappy by their unchanging romantic relationship, Annie tires of Duncan’s eccentric behaviors and especially his obsession over a little-known American alternative rock musician from the 90s who has disappeared from the public named Tucker Crowe, played by twice Academy Award-nominated actor Ethan Hawke. As their relationship quickly fades, Annie upsets Duncan by her writing a negative review on the Tucker Crowe fansite run by Duncan about a demo that Duncan receives of Tucker’s only popular album Juliet from 25 years ago. Through happenstance, Annie begins a correspondence with the actual Tucker who is living a rather unglamorous life in the United States and has several estranged children from several different mothers. Like a stereotypical romantic comedy, the two begin to develop much more affectionate feelings towards other, especially after he visits London with his youngest son for the birth of his grandchild and ends up staying with Annie in her quaint seaside town after suffering a setback. Duncan is flabbergasted and angry at Annie for not telling him about her acquaintance with his idol who ends up not being the man that Duncan has been expecting for so many years. Overall, I found it to be a wonderfully charming romantic comedy full of heartfelt and charismatic performances from the three extremely talented lead actors; therefore, I would recommend it to even those who are not particularly keen of romantic comedies but are simply looking for a heartwarming movie.

Hearts Beat Loud

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.

Baby Driver

Written and directed by Edgar Wright who is best known for 2004’s Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver is a fun and exciting action film that is complemented by high-octane car chases, a terrifically eclectic and energetic soundtrack, and quality acting performances. We first meet the protagonist Baby, played by the baby-faced Ansel Elgort, in the middle of a bank heist in which he is the extremely talented getaway driver in Atlanta. Later, we learn that the young Baby works for the criminal mastermind Doc, played by the always terrific and devious Kevin Spacey, who organizes various armed robberies with different crews but always with Baby as the driver. Baby is very much ready to stop being a criminal and is told by Doc that he only has to participate in one more heist in order to pay off his debt to Doc. Somewhat of a loner whose only true passion is music after developing tinnitus as a child from a car accident that killed both of his parents, he eventually meets a young and beautiful waitress named Debora, played by Lily James of Downton Abbey fame, who works at a diner where he is a regular. His life finally appears to be back on track, and he begins dating Debora and planning a crime-free life. However, things become complicated after Doc threatens Baby to do one more armed robbery, and Baby must work with the wild Buddy, played by Jon Hamm, Buddy’s beautiful wife Darling, and the gung-ho and out-of-control Bats, played by Jamie Foxx. The planned post office heist goes awry after Bats impulsively shoots several police officers and later murders a security guard. At the same time, never really wanting to be part of the criminal underworld in the first place, Baby secretly plans an escape with his love interest Debora in addition to making sure his deaf foster parent is safe. Overall, unlike most big-budget Hollywood action blockbusters, the movie feels more like a nuanced indie that takes a wholly unique spin on the car chase thriller and makes for an exhilarating and satisfying cinematic experience. What really defines the film is the carefully crafted soundtrack with songs that fit perfectly with each and every scene, whether it be action or romantic, and contributes so much so that it feels like a character of its own.