Churchill

Based on the true story of one of the most pivotal moments in Winston Churchill’s life, Churchill tells a fascinating chapter of World War II history and is marked by a terrific acting performance from Brian Cox, but the movie’s impact ultimately falls short and feels more like a low budget TV movie. The film follows the larger-than-life British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, played by the great Scottish actor Brian Cox, during the lead up to the massive invasion of Normandy, France on D-Day. We witness the pivotal days before June 6, 1944 through the eyes of the war-weary Churchill who is opposed to the plan because it reminds him of his fateful decision during World War I at the Battle of Gallipoli that led to thousands of Allied deaths and an embarrassing defeat. The stubborn and strong-willed political leader butts heads with the military leaders, including the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower who is played by John Slattery of Mad Men fame, and British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. For such dramatic decision-making that turns the tide of the war, the movie never really builds up enough tension and is hampered by the stilted performances of the supporting cast. Much of the film wallows in the despair of Churchill who, at times, is unresponsive and must be encouraged by his emotional backbone, his wife Clementine Churchill who is played by Miranda Richardson. I was most fascinated by the deep depression that Churchill experienced and his resistance to such a bold action as D-Day, both surprising aspects for a great leader famous for his power and resiliency. Overall, I was disappointed by the less-than-stellar and oftentimes convoluted writing and narrative structure of the movie, which had so much potential. The remarkable story of an unexplored area of such a consequential man as Winston Churchill and his role during World War II deserved a better cinematic treatment.

The Wall

Directed by Doug Liman who directed 2002’s The Bourne Identity and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, The Wall is a gritty psychological war thriller about two American soldiers ambushed and trapped by a mysterious sniper while on a mission by themselves in the Iraqi desert shortly after the Iraq War. Sniper and U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews, played by professional wrestler John Cena, and his spotter Sergeant Allen Isaac, played by Golden Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson, are on a relatively simple scouting operation but are unexpectedly shot at by an unseen sniper while waiting for extraction. Matthews is critically wounded out in the open and Isaac tries to rescue him but is forced to hide behind a crumbling wall after another barrage of sniper fire. Himself slightly injured, Isaac is unable to radio headquarters because their long-distance radio is damaged, but all of a sudden a mysterious voice appears on the two-way radio. Isaac soon learns that the man is an infamous Iraqi civilian sniper nicknamed Juba and is the one who has been shooting at them. With the wall as his only protection, Isaac desperately tries to find Juba’s location while dealing with dehydration and his bleeding leg wound. He becomes increasingly frustrated because Juba continues to try to engage in strangely friendly conversation about Isaac’s life and how the American military is destroying his country. At the end of the movie, it appears Isaac and the now slightly conscious Matthews have a chance to survive, but Juba may still have the upper hand. For a war movie, there are surprisingly few action sequences, and it resembles more of a intimate psychological thriller between two adversaries, Isaac and Juba, in a life-or-death situation. The film reminds me of another movie that I saw recently, 2016’s Mine in which the protagonist is by himself but is trapped by stepping on a landmine and also must deal with the psychological issues of dying in combat alone. Overall, I thought the filmmaker did a good job of presenting a psychological thriller, but the film never fully rises to its potential and is primarily remarkable only for its unique context and wartime setting. 

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Written and directed by acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is a terrifically well-crafted film about a scheming small-time fixer in New York City; Richard Gere’s devastating performance is what makes the film truly great. When we first meet Norman Oppenheimer, played by Richard Gere in one of his greatest roles, he is down on his luck and is desperate for any business connection and willing to do almost anything to be a well-respected fixer. Like we do not know much about his personal history, what he actually does as a fixer and how he makes money is never very clear in the movie. Many people he encounters who recognize him actively avoid him, including Dan Stevens’ character who is given a business deal while jogging in Central Park and must literally run away from Norman. Eventually, he befriends the minor Israeli politician Eshel, played by Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi, and buys him a very expensive pair of shoes. The movie fast-forwards three years when Eshel rises to power in Israeli politics and becomes the prime minister of Israel. Norman, who still has not been very successful as a fixer, tries to cultivate this relationship with such a powerful man as Eshel but to no avail because he is never allowed to communicate with him. At the same time, Norman plays up his relationship and finds himself entangled in a whole set of deals with those who previously ignored him, including his quasi-friend played by Michael Sheen and his rabbi desperate for funds to keep the synagogue and played by Steve Buscemi. Acting out like a Shakespearean tragedy or a Woody Allen film, Norman’s life begins to rapidly unravel and is scapegoated by a hesitant Eshel who is being investigated for corruption. The best part of the film is Richard Gere’s nuanced performance as a desperate man who comes off as a scheming and not skillful fixer. Overall, I enjoyed the well-timed pacing and elaborate writing that made the movie feel more like a dramatic play, complete with a star-studded cast and the superb Richard Gere.

The Circle

Based on Dave Eggers’ best-selling 2013 novel, The Circle is a movie full of potential with an impressive cast about pertinent issues surrounding technology, but ultimately fails its lofty expectations as a result of weak writing and narrative structure. Emma Watson plays an idealistic millennial who is given the opportunity of a lifetime to work at the Circle, the largest technology and social media corporation in the world serving billions of customers. She is excited to work with a supposedly innovative company and amazed by the sprawling campus that offers everything a young worker would want, an environment remarkably similar to the headquarters of Facebook and Google. With the encouragement of the Steve Jobs-like co-founder and CEO, played by Tom Hanks, Watson’s character allows her entire life to be recorded for the entire world to see as a part of the company’s experiment for full transparency. After the project causes friction with her family and friends over their lack of privacy, she realizes that everything at the company is not as it seems, and there may be dark secrets that harm its customers. The film becomes a cautionary tale and raises the vital implications of technology for convenience sake being detrimental to basic privacy and people’s mental and physical well-being. Unfortunately, it feels like there is something missing from the movie, especially the lackluster ending that does not resolve much of anything and distracts from the overall message. Overall, despite its particularly timely subject matter and star-studded cast, I found it to be nothing more than your average technological thriller that was slightly entertaining and simply passed the time.

Life

Directed by Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa, Life is a fairly typical ‘trapped in space’ sci-fi thriller that provides enough thrills and a creative twist on extraterrestrial horror to make for an entertaining film. Unlike most science fiction, the setting of the International Space Station instead of a futuristic spacecraft makes the storyline somewhat more plausible, as if it could take place today. The movie starts out with the six-member multinational crew making a significant scientific discovery of a small living organism recovered from Mars. However, the British biologist on board realizes the specimen is more than it seems and the Quarantine Officer, played by Rebecca Ferguson, must ensure that their discovery is kept contained in the quarantined laboratory as a result of the potential dangers. Ryan Reynolds’ character who is an American pilot for the space station risks his life in order to save the British biologist who is confronted with the very real dangers of the organism’s ability to cause harm. The specimen rapidly grows and becomes stronger in the presence of the oxygen-rich environment of the International Space Station. In several horrifying scenes, the entire crew, including the Russian commander and the American medical officer, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, must battle for their own survival as the space creature nicknamed Calvin causes irreparable damage to the space station in which all communications with Earth have been cut off and there is no easy escape. The filmmaker does an excellent job of re-creating what it must be like to live in space and seemingly presents the International Space Station in a realistic fashion, complete with the correct scientific implements. Overall, I found it to be a good but not great movie in a long line of films about the terrifying nature of space, and it is a excitingly fun sci-fi flick to pass the time.

The Salesman

Directed by critically acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi whose 2011 A Separation won the Oscar for best foreign language film, The Salesman is an emotionally powerful film that masterfully uses simmering tensions between a couple during a particularly trying time to craft a superb slow burn dramatic thriller. The movie follows the married couple Emad and Rana, both professional actors performing in Arthur Miller’s play The Death of a Salesman, who are forced to evict their condemned apartment in Tehran and move to another apartment previously inhabited by a mysterious woman. While she is alone at their new home, Rana is attacked by a stranger who may have been an acquaintance of the previous tenant. Emad becomes increasingly obsessed with finding the culprit and protecting his wife, but in a way that goes too far and consequently strains their relationship. As all this domestic drama unfolds, the couple must continue to act in the famously dramatic Arthur Miller play as if nothing happened back at home. Although there is very little action in the film, the nuanced performances of the main actors, regulars in Farhadi’s other works, create a palpably tense environment in which the characters’ human emotions are riveting in and of itself. Like the filmmaker’s other cinematic masterpieces, the movie is a perfect example of a master storyteller weaving human complexities and difficult societal and cultural issues into a thought-provoking yet enthralling narrative. As it progresses, the film delves into the complicated aspects of justice, revenge, and forgiveness, and how they affect interactions with loved ones at times of crisis. Overall, I found it to be one of the more rewarding cinematic experiences this year because of its powerful storytelling and brilliantly subtle acting performances, and it is more than deserving to win the Oscar for best foreign language film.

John Wick: Chapter 2

Following the surprise success of the original John Wick released in 2014, John Wick: Chapter 2 is a terrifically fun and slick action thriller that puts most sequels to shame because it is equally good if not better than the original. In a continuation of his rebirth as an action star since his breakout role of Neo in The Matrix films, Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, a particularly skilled assassin rightfully nicknamed The Boogeyman, who is forced out of retirement still dealing with his wife’s death several years prior. He is part of an international underground society of assassins known as The Continental and is bound to one more assignment by a blood oath to a high-ranking Italian gangster. The assassination that he is tasked with takes him to Rome where his impressive fighting skills are used to dispatch an army of bodyguards, including a particularly brutal assassin played by Common. Eventually, the tables are turned on Wick, and he spends the rest of the movie evading a trove of Continental members across Rome and back in New York City. Almost perfectly typecasting the famously subdued Reeves, Wick has very little dialogue and fights and kills with Zen-like precision even as he suffers bloody injuries. Already reminiscent of The Matrix with its highly choreographed martial arts fighting sequences, the film reunites Keanu Reeves with Laurence Fishburne who, like Morpheus in The Matrix series, plays a philosophizing leader of the criminal underground. I particularly enjoyed the absurdly out-of-place old-fashioned formalities of The Continental headquartered at classically luxurious hotels in which the prim and proper concierge arranges services for well-dressed assassins. Furthermore, the leader of the New York branch who acts more as a hotel manager, named Winston and portrayed by Ian McShane, runs a tight ship and ensures that no business is conducted on the premises at the risk of a member’s execution or excommunication. Overall, I found the movie to be a stylish and inventive take on the increasingly stale action genre and takes the audience on a thoroughly entertaining joyride.