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.
A remake of the critically acclaimed 2011 Mexican film of the same name, Miss Bala is a fairly typical average action thriller that does not add much to the genre and is bogged down by rather underwhelming performances and a sloppy script filled with cliches. We first meet the main character and Mexican-American makeup artist Gloria, played by Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez best known for her role on the TV show Jane the Virgin, crossing the border from her home in the United States to help her friend Suzu who lives in Tijuana, Mexico prepare for a local beauty pageant. However, after visiting a nightclub in which a local gang attacks, Gloria is separated from her friend and desperately tries to find her. Eventually, she is told by the Las Estrellas Mexican gang that they will help locate her friend and bring her to safety if Gloria agrees to work with the gang. She enters in a rather unusual relationship with the boss who is named Lino and is convinced to participate in criminal and often violent activities as the only way to see her friend ever again. For a while, she is kept at a safe house in the outskirts of Tijuana where she meets a another woman who has been held against her will to be with the gang members as a sort of sex slave. Towards the end of the film, Gloria is forced to get involved with an assassination attempt on the Tijuana Chief of Police, played by Damián Alcázar best known for his role on the TV show Narcos. She is also secretly contacted by the DEA and a undercover CIA agent played by Anthony Mackie to help foil the activities of the Las Estrellas and its leader Lino. The movie gives Gina Rodriguez a promising start to a dramatic film career but, unfortunately, her talents are underutilized and she never really becomes a full-fledged action star expected for her role. Overall, I found it to be a mildly entertaining action thriller that somehow lacks much action or thrills, and it did not use the potential of a clearly talented Gina Rodriguez to really shine and help the film escape the tired tropes of an action movie.
Written and directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Steven Knight best known for directing 2014’s Locke and writing 2007’s Eastern Promises, Serenity is a high-concept film with largely disastrous results as a result of the preposterous twists and stilted acting performances. Set on a remote tropical island, the story follows the down-on-his-luck fisherman Baker Dill, played by Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey in an unusually unremarkable performance, who along with his partner Duke, played by Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou, take tourists on fishing expeditions out at sea. The divorced Baker who also struggles financially is fixated upon catching a particularly elusive large tuna he calls Justice and has lived on the island for years without seeing his son who lives in Florida. One day, his estranged ex-wife Karen, played by Oscar winner Anne Hathaway, shows up unannounced and propositions Baker to kill her abusive husband Frank, played by Jason Clarke, while out on a fishing trip. For the first part of the movie, it feels like a typical thriller but something feels amiss throughout much of the film, including the mysterious appearance of a businessman named Reid Miller, played by Jeremy Strong, and the almost telepathic relationship between Baker and his son Patrick who lives thousands of miles away. All of the unusual circumstances begin to make some sense towards the end of the movie with a truly bizarre and laughable twist revealing that not everything is as it seems to be in reality. It is hard not to underscore the ridiculousness of the film without giving away the major twist that the filmmaker attempts to use as a creative narrative device, which nevertheless fails epically. I found it difficult to imagine why A-list movie stars, which also includes Oscar nominee Diane Lane in a very minor and pointless role, would voluntarily sign up for such a mess of a movie. Overall, I was quite frankly astonished by the poor direction and writing, especially with such a great cast and a promising plot, and it may even rise to the level that it is so bad that it is a good movie just to watch for laughs.
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan best known for 1999’s The Sixth Sense, Glass is a thriller that tries hard to recapture the innovative and entertaining aspects of 2000’s Unbreakable and 2016’s Split, which are directly part of a trilogy that ends with this film. Unfortunately, the rather high expectations for the movie leads the audience astray and the hallmark suspense and unexpected twists of a M. Night Shyamalan movie fall flat as a result of the slow pacing and preposterous ending. We first meet the complicated anti-heroes eluding authorities as they continue to use their supernatural powers straight from a comic book. Eventually, all three of the protagonists are captured and are confined in a old psychiatric hospital: David Dunn, played by Golden Globe winner Bruce Willis and reprising his role from Unbreakable, who is unable to be physically harmed, Elijah Price, played by Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson and reprising his role from Unbreakable, who has enhanced intellectual abilities but breaks bones easily, and Kevin Crumb, played by Golden Globe nominee James McAvoy and reprising his role from Split, who has multiple personalities and can transform into a super strong beast. They are all held under the auspices of receiving treatment from the mysterious Dr. Ellie Staple, played by Golden Globe nominee Sarah Paulson, who argues they are suffering from a mental disorder giving them delusions of grandeur making them believe they are really superheroes. The first half of the film is quite intriguing and thereby entertaining because we get to see the three extremely fascinating and enigmatic characters interact with one another. My favorite part is witnessing James McAvoy’s brilliant acting ability to spontaneously morph into a wide range of personas, including one of a nine-year-old boy, a devious middle-aged woman, and a terrifying creature with supernatural strength. The movie does a commendable job of unraveling a mystery and over time the audience comes to better understand the motivations of the characters, including the doctor. The revelation of shocking truths comes to the forefront when the three heroes, or villains depending on your perspective, confront each other in a final climactic battle after they use their wits and strengths to attempt to achieve freedom. With its somewhat unexpected twists and turns in the storyline, the film is classic M. Night Shyamalan who has made his career based on twist endings. However, the conclusion to the almost two-decade-long trilogy is very much a letdown with a rather lame and shockingly uncreative twist. The filmmaker is also too heavy-handed in trying to make the movie a powerful metaphor for comic books and humanity’s desire for heroes with superpowers to save the day. The potential is there for the movie to be one of his masterpieces that has a greater message than just entertaining the masses, but, unfortunately, the filmmaker’s almost singular focus on surprising the audience clouds his judgement on truly developing the characters and a coherent plotline. Overall, the build-up to an epic conclusion to M. Night Shyamalan’s years-in-the-making trilogy does not pan out and therefore can be best described as yet another disappointment in his hit-or-miss filmmaking career.
Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker and actor Clint Eastwood, The Mule is a well-acted and intriguing film that explores the largely unknown world of drug mules whose story is based on a real person named Leo Sharp. Facing serious financial difficulties in which his business has failed, the 90-year-old Earl Stone, played by the always gruff Clint Eastwood, eventually finds himself deep into the drug underworld working as a drug mule transporting large quantities of cocaine for the Sinaloa Cartel from El Paso to Chicago drug dealers. The cartel leaders increasingly rely on the unassuming Stone who does not fit the profile of a drug trafficker as a result of his advanced age, white ethnicity, and gentlemanly demeanor. Furthermore, he has nothing really to lose because he is estranged from his family and his horticultural business of growing award-winning daylilies was forced into bankruptcy. Over the course of the movie as he traffics hundreds of kilos at a time and makes copious amount of cash, Stone and his cartel colleagues raise the suspicions of the local DEA office based out of Chicago. Two DEA agents, played by Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña, eventually convince their boss, played by Laurence Fishburne, to further investigate the activities of the cartel in Illinois and figure out the identity of Stone who is the cartel’s most profitable drug mule. The somewhat oblivious Stone desiring to reconnect with his family and committing several careless mistakes allow the DEA to get closer and closer to questioning and arresting him. All of this is set against the backdrop of chaos within the cartel after one of the bosses is murdered by his lieutenant, and the new boss has different plans for his drug mules. Overall, I found it to be a compelling story that is hard to believe is based upon a true story, and, while not one of Clint Eastwood’s best works, it is definitely a worthy film to watch if you enjoy Eastwood’s other works.
Directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Steve McQueen who won the Oscar for 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, Widows is a powerful character-driven heist thriller that relies less on action sequences and more on the slow burn drama surrounding the climax and is remarkable for its stellar ensemble cast. The plot follows a group of women who plan a robbery following the deaths of their criminal husbands during a job and find themselves intertwined with the corrupt politics of Chicago and competing criminal organizations. Veronica Rawlings, played by Oscar winner Viola Davis, becomes the leader of the bereaved women following in the footsteps of her husband Harry, played by Oscar nominee Liam Neeson, who was the leader of their husbands’ criminal enterprise. She discovers her husband’s notebook outlining their next robbery and recruits the other women to go through with the heist in order to pay back the criminal boss and alderman candidate Jamal Manning, played by Emmy nominee Brian Tyree Henry. Jamal, along with his brutal associate and brother played by Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya, threaten the women whose husbands they claim stole millions of dollars from them. Eventually, Veronica is able to recruit Linda, played by Michelle Rodriguez, Alice, played by Elizabeth Debicki, and Linda’s babysitter Belle, played by Cynthia Erivo, to participate in the heist that could be worth up to five million dollars, enough to pay back Jamal. Only one of the widows Amanda, played by Carrie Coon, decides not to help out because she has a newborn baby. Their plans are complicated by the corrupt Chicago politician Jack Mulligan, played by Golden Globe winner Colin Farrell, who is running for alderman against Jamal. Jack and his vicious and equally corrupt father Tom Mulligan, played by Oscar winner Robert Duvall, are wary of Veronica because they made illicit deals with her husband Harry. Although there are several action sequences that take place during the actual heist scenes, most of the film shows the trauma and grief of the women losing their husbands, as well as their desire to avenge their deaths by meticulously planning an elaborate robbery of their own. They are portrayed as almost feminist anti-heroes who commit a crime that all the male criminals and corrupt politicians believe is not possible for women. The movie also contains several shocking twists and turns that make for a much more entertaining and thought-provoking experience. Overall, I thought it was a well-crafted and superbly acted action drama that creatively breaks the mold of a typical heist thriller by focusing on character development and creating a foreboding atmospheric drama.
Based on the 2015 book of the same name written by David Lagercrantz as part of the Millennium novel series begun by the late Swedish author Steig Larsson beginning in 2005 with the posthumous publication of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is an average reboot of the 2011 American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which itself is a remake of the 2009 Swedish feature film, that relies too heavily on its action sequences and not enough on the fascinating main character who has now been played by three different actresses. The story follows the exploits of a punk hacker with a complex background named Lisbeth Salander, played by Golden Globe-winner Claire Foy in a truly mold-breaking performance, who finds herself caught in the web of an international criminal conspiracy to steal a software program that gives the user complete control of the world’s nuclear arsenal. With the help of her longtime partner and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, played by Icelandic actor Sverrir Gudnason, she discovers that the developer of the potentially catastrophic program who previously worked for the American National Security Agency named Frans Balder, played by British actor Stephen Merchant, and his brilliant young son are in danger and must be protected against Lisbeth’s enemies. At the same time, a special agent with the NSA named Edwin Needham, played by LaKeith Stanfield, travels to Sweden to search for the missing program known as Firefall before it falls into the wrong hands. Eventually, Edwin and Lisbeth team up to find out who is really behind the theft of the powerful software tool, and she discovers that her estranged sister who was abused by their father may have been involved as the head of a criminal organization. The film scratches the surface of the personal life of the enigmatic Lisbeth who is able to elude authorities for many years despite her striking appearance, and it also explores her vigilante feminism in which she targets male abusers caused by her past sexual abuse and bisexual tendencies. However, unlike the original Swedish books and movies, the audience does not fully grasp who she really is, outside of being a righteous hacker and action heroine. A majority of the film is comprised of elaborate action sequences in which Lisbeth is chased by authorities and criminals through the streets of Stockholm on her motorcycle. Overall, I came away with the feeling that this most recent adaptation does not add much to the already rich literary and cinematic canon about the deeply compelling and complicated character of Lisbeth Salander; unfortunately, the film devolves into a rather typical action flick that tries too hard to reboot such a famous character.
Directed by South African filmmaker Donovan Marsh in his first major feature film, Hunter Killer is a subpar submarine action movie that never floats above the surface as a result of its lackluster acting performances and cheesy and extremely formulaic storyline. The plot opens with the mysterious disappearance of an American submarine off the coast of Russia in the Arctic, and the unorthodox submarine Commander Joe Glass, played by Gerard Butler, is given command of the USS Arkansas to help investigate the circumstances surrounding the USS Tampa Bay disappearance. Working from the command room in the Pentagon, Rear Admiral John Fisk, played by actor musician Common, eventually convinces the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff played by Oscar winner Gary Oldman that a possible coup by the Russian military is underway and that a nuclear war is imminent. He comes to this conclusion after the USS Arkansas reports back that the USS Tampa Bay was torpedoed and that a nearby Russian submarine was likely destroyed as a result of internal sabotage. At the hesitance of his superiors, Fisk orders a team of Navy SEALs to the Russian naval base where the Russian president has been taken prisoner by the Russian defense minister. As the submarine commanded by Glass makes its way to the same Russian base after destroying another Russian submarine that attacked them, the Navy SEALs are tasked with the very dangerous mission of rescuing the Russian president so that he can inform his military leaders not to engage with the Americans because there is a coup underway. Towards the end of the movie, the action picks up some steam when the USS Arkansas is engaged with the military forces under the command of the rogue Russian defense minister. However, caution must be taken as a direct assault on the Russian Navy would likely result in an all-out war between the Russians and Americans. The film attempts to be a blockbuster popcorn action flick but ultimately fails to live up to the name of previous submarine movies. Even the minor appearance of such a good actor as Gary Oldman cannot save the rather silly and stale action movie from drowning to the bottom of the sea. Overall, I found it to be a film that is not really worth your money and only would be if you are looking to pass the time with mild entertainment.
Directed by Drew Goddard who is best known for writing 2008’s Cloverfield, 2013’s World War Z, and 2015’s The Martian in which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Bad Times at the El Royale is a dark and stylish mystery thriller that contains many elements of a popcorn flick but is elevated by strong acting performances. The unique storytelling and violence very much reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 movie The Hateful Eight: both take place in a isolated location involving a relatively small cast of mysterious figures together for largely unexplained reasons. The plot takes place over the course of one very eventful night in 1969 at the once celebrity hideout and very 1950s retro hotel called the El Royale straddling the border of California and Nevada near Lake Tahoe. At the beginning of the film, we meet the slick Southern gentleman vacuum salesman Laramie Sullivan, played by Golden Globe winner Jon Hamm, who is on a regular stopover and greets fellow travelers Father Daniel Flynn, played by Oscar winner Jeff Bridges, and African-American lounge singer Darlene Sweet, played by Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo who uses her beautiful singing voice. Eventually, they are able to rouse the only employee at the empty hotel Miles Miller, played by fresh-faced young actor Lewis Pullman, after encountering yet another peculiar hotel guest named Emily Summerspring, played by the somber Dakota Johnson. All of the characters do not really know what is going on with each other and do not find out until the increasingly violent climax that takes place with the appearance of a handsome cult leader named Billy Lee, played by the shirtless Chris Hemsworth, and his ruthless crew. Without giving much of the plot away, suffice it to say that no one is who they seem to be and the hotel itself is full of mysterious and creepy surprises. The filmmaker makes the rather unusual narrative technique of using flashbacks that are clearly marked with title cards using each character’s room number and reveal the immediate events that led them to the El Royale. Most of the guests were involved in criminal or rather shady circumstances and figured that the remote hotel would be a good refuge from their troubles. Unlike most modern-day thrillers, the film does not heavily rely on action-packed sequences but rather focuses on character development that slowly evolves over the course of the almost two and a half hour duration. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining and not-too-serious thriller that is full of enough mystery, violence, and well-acted character backstories to keep audiences on the edge of their seats, even if the movie probably lasted too long.