Directed by French-Canadian filmmaker François Girard best known for 1998’s The Red Violin and based on the 2001 book of the same name written by Norman Lebrecht, The Song of Names is a suitably interesting drama full of great potential with such a fascinating story and well-known cast but suffers from a convoluted narrative structure that makes for a movie that should have been much more powerful for the audience. Taking place over several decades, the story follows the evolving relationship between the English Martin, played by Tim Roth as an adult, and the Polish Dovidl, played by Clive Owen as an adult, who become somewhat of adoptive brothers after Martin’s wealthy British family takes in the violin prodigy Dovidl right before the onset of World War II. Dovidl’s impoverished parents decide it would be best for his safety as a Jew to live with Martin’s family who could also provide him with the needs to pursue his very promising musical career. When the two boys first meet each other as young adolescents around the age of nine, the standoffish Martin does not like the overconfident Dovidl and vice versa, but, as they get to know one another, they begin to see themselves as brothers. The filmmaker tries the interesting choice of constantly switching between three different times in their lives and so the film eventually shows both of them in their twenties at a time when the already acclaimed Dovidl is about to give his first public appearance on a London stage. The main plot device then reveals itself as Dovidl never appears at his concert and disappears for many years. The final time period focuses on Martin’s renewed search for his long-lost friend when he is in his fifties, and the movie takes us on his complex journey to discover the whereabouts of Dovidl who would have become a highly successful virtuoso if he did not vanish. Eventually, he is discovered by Martin and the audience learns the emotionally powerful reason why he did not show up on that fateful day. Suffice it to say, Dovidl rediscovers his religious and cultural roots as a Jew, which sets up a beautiful and heart-wrenching ending that relates to his family and the Holocaust. Unfortunately, the emotional potency of the final moments of the film does not have the intended full impact for the viewer distracted by the overly complicated plotline that would have been better suited if told in a linear fashion. Overall, I found it to have enough of a compelling story to make the movie worth watching; however, I did leave the theater disappointed by what the filmmaker could have done to have made it a vitally important and personally resonating cinematic study of relationships, religion, and forgiveness.
Directed by French filmmaker and son of Malian immigrants Ladj Ly and nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature Film, Les Misérables is a riveting look at the gritty slums surrounding Paris that powerfully presents the systemic issues causing friction between the immigrant populace and the mostly white French-born police officers. To underscore the social and political injustice that are the underlying issues of the film, the filmmaker cleverly decides to name the movie after the famous Victor Hugo novel Les Misérables that chronicles the social ills of 19th century France and setting the story in the predominantly impoverished French commune east of Paris named Montfermeil in which part of the 1862 book took place. The fairly simple plot follows the police officer Stéphane Ruiz, played by Damien Bonnard, who has just transferred into the SCU’s anti-crime police brigade and is starting his first day with the corrupt white squad leader Chris, played by Alexis Manenti, and his longtime black partner Gwada, played by Djibril Zonga. We witness the xenophobic and ruthless Chris alongside his complacent partner on a relatively normal day terrorizing the slum neighborhood, all to the shock to Ruiz who has worked his entire policing career in a relatively peaceful French town. Eventually, things go out of control and a young black kid named Issa is inadvertently injured by Gwada during a confrontation in which the kid is accused of stealing a lion cub from a circus led by the violent Zorro. Eager to make sure there is no evidence of the attack against the juveniles, Chris and Gwada with the help of the begrudging Ruiz go to extreme lengths to finding a boy who recorded the whole episode on his aerial drone. The film vividly depicts the brutality of the small group of officers, especially the strikingly immoral leader Chris, against kids who act out criminally the result of their dire circumstances living in poverty and surrounded by crime in the slums. This one particular incident shown taking its course over the movie is designed to depict just one example of the serious problems plaguing the predominantly immigrant communities of suburban Paris and the degree to which justice is practically non-existent for its impoverished residents due to political indifference and police corruption. Overall, I found it to be a sobering dramatic film that effectively visualizes the social and political problems that have beset societies since the beginning of time, especially for the unprivileged, while also exploring the very real current events taking place in France, including the recent yellow vests protest movement and the simmering animosity between migrants and the native French.
Directed by Guy Ritchie best known for such comedy crime films as 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and 2000’s Snatch, The Gentlemen is, for the most part, an entertaining and fast-paced gangster comedy set in London that effectively returns back to what made Guy Ritchie such a unique and brash filmmaker. The story, which can be sometimes hard to follow because of the fast-talking dialogue and alternate timelines, revolves around the criminal exploits of an American marijuana kingpin named Mickey Pearson, played terrifically by Matthew McConaughey, who is trying to sell his massive illicit cannabis empire in Great Britain. In a rather creative twist, a majority of Pearson’s story is told by Fletcher, played by the perfectly cast Hugh Grant, who is a shady private investigator hired by a British tabloid edited by the vindictive Big Dave, played by Eddie Marsan. Marked by amusing banter and bravado, the greedy Fletcher recounts the events over the course of an evening at the London residence of Pearson’s right-hand man Raymond, played by Charlie Hunnam best known for his role on the TV series Sons of Anarchy. Because they are told by an unreliable third party witness, the flashbacks shown throughout the movie are suspect at best and tell a particular story in which major details may have been excluded, which leaves the audience guessing about what is really happening. Pearson wants to get out of the business because he believes it is the right time before marijuana is legalized and to spend more time with his posh car-loving wife Rosalind, played by Michelle Dockery. In typical Guy Ritchie-fashion, the film is filled with charismatic yet foul-mouthed unsavory characters involved in the criminal underworld and who are depicted as comically over-the-top but always ready with witty puns that are rather profane. Pearson encounters difficulties as he navigates the sale of his almost half a billion dollar business to the American billionaire Matthew Berger, played by Jeremy Strong best known for his role on HBO’s TV series Succession. One such group that complicates things is Chinese gangsters led by a mysterious man named Lord George and his powerful underling nicknamed Dry Eye, played by Henry Golding best known for his role in the 2018 romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, who are also interested buyers that brazenly commit criminal deeds in order to reduce the sale price. The plaid-suited Colin Farrell shows up in the story as a somewhat reformed criminal simply known as Coach after a group of teenagers he is mentoring at a boxing gym break into one of Pearson’s secret marijuana growing labs. Towards the end of the movie, things get increasingly complex and at times confusing for the audience as a result of the rapid-fire script and the revelation of several big twists in the plotline that puts into question the narrative told by Fletcher who has ulterior motives for recounting the story to Raymond. Overall, although occasionally the film is slow-paced and not as flashy as one would expect from the filmmaker, I found it to be a refreshing revisit to a classic Guy Ritchie movie after a string of bad movies very much out of line with his well-known gangster comedies.
The third installment in the Bad Boys franchise that first started in 1995 and later with a 2003 sequel, Bad Boys for Life is a highly entertaining action comedy that revitalizes the long-running movie series anchored by the charismatic duo of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence and has a perfect mix of explosive action sequences and comedic banter between the two very different characters. The plot follows two old-fashioned police officers Detective Lieutenant Marcus Burnett, played by the very funny Martin Lawrence, who is contemplating retirement after the birth of his grandson and Detective Lieutenant Mike Lowrey, played by action super star Will Smith, who still wants to remain a cop and has no desire to settle down with a family. Their long-serving boss Captain Conrad Howard, played by character actor Joe Pantoliano, assigns Marcus and Mike to the newly-created tactical division AMMO led by Mike’s ex-girlfriend and well-respected lieutenant Rita, played by Paola Núñez. Being part of the joke about their age, the team is made up of younger police officers with technological knowledge and include a character who is played by Vanessa Hudgens. Their mission is to help solve the murders of several law enforcement officers involved in a drug cartel case years ago and track down the suspected killer Armando, played by Jacob Scipio, whose mother Isabel, played by Kate del Castillo, is a ruthless drug cartel leader living in Mexico City. Like its predecessors, the movie is filled with over-the-top action sequences in which gun battles and explosions are going off all over the place throughout the city of Miami and eventually Mexico. Things go terribly wrong for both Marcus and Mike that make them reconsider retirement and think about their future lives together and with family. In between the thrilling action scenes, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are perfect as buddy cops as a result of their believable chemistry and hilarious rapport in which they make fun of one another but no matter what see themselves as brothers. The movie was a nostalgic look back on the 1990s and early 2000s when theaters were filled with action comedies, including the original Bad Boys and other action flicks starring Martin Lawrence. Overall, I found it to be a first-rate action comedy that is much better than the original two versions of the Bad Boys franchise as a result of its effectively timed action and comedy that makes for a fun and exciting blockbuster movie.
Produced by Blue Sky Studios best known for the highly successful animated Ice Age franchise first released in 2002, Spies in Disguise is a delightfully entertaining family-friendly animated movie that is of the same quality as a Pixar movie as a result of a terrific voice cast and unique story. The plot follows super spy Lance Sterling, voiced by Will Smith, who is the top agent at a fictional secret American spy agency run by Joy Jenkins, voiced by Reba McEntire, but runs into trouble after the appearance of the super villain Killian, voiced by Ben Mendelsohn. Killian who has a powerful cybernetic arm is trying to steal a highly dangerous drone in order to kill Lance and all of his fellow agents. Eventually, the proudly self-sufficient Lance who loves to use lethal weapons must get help from a very unexpected source, a lonely and nerdy weapons lab technician named Walter Beckett, voiced by Tom Holland. Walter has always been an optimistic inventor who wants to make non-lethal weapons to make the world a safer place, and he discovers what he believes is a game-changing way to disguise anyone. To Lance’s great horror, he inadvertently uses Walter’s new weapon and is transformed into a talking pigeon. He eventually realizes in a series of funny moments that being a pigeon actually has its advantages, particularly as he is being chased by Killian and his own agency led by a security agent of the agency’s internal affairs Marcy Kappel, voiced by Rashida Jones. Over the course of the film, Walter and Lance begin to understand one another and become friends who are in it together to fight off Killian and reclaim their reputation that was tarnished by Killian. Overall, I found it to be a fun animated feature that can appeal to both kids and adults as a nice time to the cinema and brings a fresh story to the action-adventure animated genre.
Co-written and directed by Josh and Benny Safdie best known for 2017’s Good Time starring Robert Pattinson, Uncut Gems is a fast-paced and thrilling drama about a jeweler in New York City who is spiraling out of control as a result of his gambling addiction and debts to dangerous loan sharks. Played by Adam Sandler in an Oscar-worthy performance, the Jewish Howard Ratner is in the middle of brokering his biggest jewelry sale after he acquires a very large uncut gem from Ethiopia and is desperate to sell it in order to pay off his large gambling debts. He owns a small jewelry shop in the frenetic New York City Diamond District and caters to famous clientele, including Boston Celtics basketball star Kevin Garnett, played by himself, who are brought to him by the well-connected Demany, played by Lakeith Stanfield. By following the very unlucky Howard over the course of several days, the filmmakers are brilliantly able to take the audience on a dizzying adrenaline-fueled chase through the city as Howard tries to survive one big misstep after another while on the run from his angry loan shark Arno, played by Eric Bogosian, and his thugs. What makes the movie work so well is the rapid-fire dialogue in which characters speak over one another as if in real life and the switching very quickly from shot to shot and edit to edit. It also feels authentic because it films in the actual Diamond District that is notoriously cautious of outsiders and shows the real gritty and fast-paced world of a very particular kind of jeweler whose lives and livelihoods depend on making deals on a daily basis. As he deals with his very deadly gambling debts and losing possession of the gem that he believes will turn his life around, Howard’s personal life is equally tumultuous as he balances time between his estranged wife Dinah, played by Tony winner Idina Menzel, and his much younger mistress Julia, played by Julia Fox. The unexpected brilliant performance given by Adam Sandler, who is known for juvenile comedies, terrifically illustrates how his character’s entire life is nothing but a series of gambles: there are bets that pay off and others that incur great debt to volatile individuals. Overall, I found it to be a non-stop and exhilarating one-of-a-kind cinematic experience that both entertains and leaves the audience on the edge of their seats; the hyperactive cinematography and filmmaking along with the believable and committed acting performances make for a brilliant movie.
Written and directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick best known for 1978’s Days of Heaven, 1998’s The Thin Red Line, and 2011’s The Tree of Life, A Hidden Life is a visually spectacular and deeply contemplative film that uses brilliant cinematography and philosophical voiceovers to tell the true life story of Franz Jägerstätter. Visualized by the sweeping bucolic mountain vistas of Austria, we first meet the farmer Franz, played by German actor August Diehl, enjoying his peaceful country life with his wife Fani, played by Austrian actress Valerie Pachner, and we see his life play out over several years as they have children. However, at the outbreak of World War II, Franz is sent away to train for the German military but is allowed to return home after several months training. Eventually, the German military is in need of new soldiers to fight so they call up Franz to swear allegiance to Hitler and become a soldier in his army. A deeply religious man, he refuses to take an oath to Hitler who goes against all of his beliefs. Because of his openly defiant disobedience, he is sent to prison until he pledges allegiance, but, after months of still not giving in, he is transferred to Berlin where he faces a death sentence for treason. At the same time, his wife and three young daughters remain in Austria where they are subjected to insults and outright rejection from the local villagers who believe Franz’s act is reprehensible. Resembling the long and arduous time that he must wait in prison for what he knows is ultimately death, the movie is effectively slow-paced and is almost three hours long, which is fairly typical for a Terrence Malick picture. This somewhat unorthodox approach allows the viewer to truly contemplate what it means to suffer for your beliefs and stand up to what is evil in the world; especially with its shots of nature and the grandeur of the mountains, the film becomes somewhat of a spiritual or religious cinematic experience. Overall, I found it to be a truly magnificent movie that reinforces the unique genius of Terrence Malick who is able to create a film that reflects on the beauty and destruction of the world through the eyes of one of the most famous World War II conscientious objectors who later became a martyr in the Catholic Church.
Co-written and directed by Sam Mendes best known for 1999’s American Beauty and the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall, 1917 is a remarkable technical and cinematic achievement of a movie that relies on resembling a long shot filmed in real time to brilliantly capture what it must have been like as a soldier in the trenches during World War I. The premise of the movie is fairly simple and straightforward but the complexity of using cinematography to tell a story in remarkable detail makes for a truly extraordinary cinematic experience. Two British soldiers Lance Corporal Tom Blake, played by Dean-Charles Chapman, and Lance Corporal William Schofield, played by George MacKay, are told by their commanding officer who is played by Colin Firth that they must cross enemy territory in order to give word to the 2nd Battalion in which Blake’s brother is part of to call off their attack against the German military. Set over a course of several hours beginning on April 6, 1917, the two young soldiers embark on a harrowing adventure in which they face very real dangers in the no man’s land, the abandoned German trenches, the open French countryside, and eventually the frontline. As a result of the camera work, it feels as if the audience is right there with the soldiers and are experiencing the same terrifying aspects of warfare. The camera moves its way to closely follow the two main characters and almost the entire movie feels like one long shot in which the camera never stops filming the action. In another effective choice, the filmmaker decides to use two relatively unknown and new actors as the main characters to show how war affects the relatively anonymous foot soldiers, while the leadership and such major stars as Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, and Richard Madden are given less screentime. Overall, I found it to be one of the more unique war movies as a result of its magnificent cinematography and creative use of the long shot technique and therefore will stand the test of time as a true cinematic masterpiece.
Written and directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker and actress Greta Gerwig best known for 2017’s Lady Bird, Little Women is a beautiful retelling of the classic 1868 novel of the same name written by Louisa May Alcott and stands out as one of the best seven film adaptations that have been made as a result of the updated and creative storytelling and the spectacular cast. Primarily set in Concord, Massachusetts, the familiar plot follows the four March daughters as they come of age and grapple with their future prospects as wives and independent women, and the story switches back-and-forth between the time of the American Civil War and a few years later as they enter adulthood. Gerwig makes the unique yet extremely effective decision to have the story told through a series of flashbacks from the perspective of the protagonists as grown women that helps the audience better understand how the women view their lives and childhood. Jo, played by Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan, is the leader of the sisters and has a lifelong dream of becoming a writer and is depicted pursuing publication of her stories and later a book in New York City. Amy, played by Florence Pugh, is more traditional with the acceptance of eventual marriage but also wants to become a painter where she pursues it in Paris accompanying her rich aunt, played by Meryl Streep. Meg, played by Emma Watson, dreams of becoming a actress as evidenced by performing plays with her sisters in their childhood home attic, and the youngest Beth, played by Eliza Scanlen, loves to play the piano but her life is often beset by sickness. Their love lives also become fairly complex, especially with the wealthy neighbor’s grandson Laurie, played by Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet, who falls in love with Jo but is often rebuffed by her the result of her desire to be an independent woman. The movie is rounded out by other acclaimed actors, including Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, James Norton, and Bob Odenkirk, who flesh out the very well-known characters in a realistic and human way. Although it seems like another Little Women adaptation is unnecessary, Greta Gerwig is able to create something terrifically brand-new by bringing a modern twist with a greater emphasis on the March sisters’ individuality. Overall, I found it to be a brilliant and gorgeously shot film that was somehow able to bring the beloved Little Women story to a whole new level even after the successful 1994 version with Winona Ryder.
Directed by Jay Roach best known for such comedies as 1997’s Austin Powers and 2000’s Meet the Parents and written by Charles Randolph best known for co-writing the Oscar-winning movie The Big Short released in 2015, Bombshell is a well-crafted yet rather unusual movie in that it is both a comedy and drama about the downfall of Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes amidst a flurry of sexual harassment allegations from the female employees of the network. Unlike the recent Showtime TV mini-series The Loudest Voice following Fox News from its inception, the movie has a narrow focus on the year 2016 as the presidential election is in full swing and Roger Ailes is finally facing repercussions for his history of sexual harassment over the years as the head of the conservative news network. The film is full of a bunch of characters based on real life individuals working at Fox News and are portrayed as preposterous caricatures of themselves. However, the main focus of the story is the star female anchors Megyn Kelly, played by Charlize Theron who uncannily resembles her character, and Gretchen Carlson, played by Nicole Kidman, as well as a fictionalized producer named Kayla, played by Margot Robbie. The three main actresses are the real draw of the movie because they give such excellent performances that make you believe that they are actually the characters they play. Throughout the movie, the offices and studios of Fox News are depicted as extremely toxic work environment in which harassment and crude jokes are the norm. The filmmaker effectively discusses the serious issue of sexual harassment by juxtaposing the political rise of Donald Trump who makes inappropriate remarks about women, including Megyn Kelly, with the powerful but feared leader of Fox News Roger Ailes, played terrifically by John Lithgow. Particularly in the case of Gretchen Carlson, the women of Fox News are shown debating whether to finally stand up to the sexual harassment of Ailes by making formal complaints to Fox Corporation run by the Murdoch family or filing lawsuits. Such a seemingly depressing subject matter is made entertaining through the use of office gossip circulating Fox News that first begins as whispers and eventually leads to the rapid demise of Roger Ailes and the top anchor Bill O’Reilly. It is very similar to the 2015 movie The Big Short in that it delves into serious subject matter with a fast-paced and witty script that constantly keeps the audience engaged. Overall, I found it to be a surprisingly entertaining film that is also a very empowering tale of people standing up for what is right and having the audacity to go against their powerful boss. It may not be the best treatment of the Fox News sexual harassment story as it relates to the now disgraced and deceased Roger Ailes, but it does an excellent job of exploring the mindset of the three female protagonists brought to life by the powerhouse acting combination of Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie.