The Old Man and the Gun

Directed by David Lowery best known for 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and 2016’s Pete’s Dragon, The Old Man and the Gun is a beautifully crafted film based on the true life story of an aging bank robber and is truly remarkable for its entertaining and heartfelt script and top-notch acting performances. The plot follows a gentlemanly bank robber named Forrest Tucker, played by Oscar winner Robert Redford in perhaps his last role, who is reaching the end of his criminal career spanning several decades and incarcerations. He is a rather unusual bank robber in that he is always extremely polite and an overall debonair character whose charisma sparkles even as he is holding up banks. Living in Dallas, Texas when he is not on a job, Forrest begins to fall in love with a local widow named Jewel, played by Oscar winner Sissy Spacek, who at first does not believe that Forrest is actually a bank robber. In his seventies, he is still involved in bank heists working either alone or with two of his long-time partners played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits who the media refers to as The Over-the-Hill Gang. Over the course of his latest spree during the 1980s when the movie is set, a hard-working Dallas Police detective named John Hunt, played by Oscar winner Casey Affleck, makes it his personal mission to track down and arrest the elusive Forrest who has already escaped from prison a total of sixteen times over the course of his career. He is most famous for his daring escape from the California prison San Quentin using a boat that he secretly constructed while serving time for a robbery. The filmmaker does an excellent job of creating a heist movie from a bygone era, very similar to the 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde, through the use of what looks like an older camera and relying on old-fashioned chemistry between such legends of screen as Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek. The story exudes so much charm and adventure that is sorely missing in many of today’s Blockbuster films. It does not rely on elaborate special effects or over-the-top action sequences but rather focuses on much more subtle acting performances and a simple well-written story about a compassionate criminal who is irresistible to watch. Overall, I found it to be one of the best movies in recent memory that harks back to the Golden Age of Hollywood in which the script and acting were central to the filmmaking process; if it is indeed Redford’s last work, it sure is a fitting capstone to one of the greatest acting careers of all time.

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Monsters and Men

Written and directed by critically acclaimed short film filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green in his first feature film, Monsters and Men is an emotionally provocative independent drama filled with raw acting performances about a particularly timely subject matter. The movie is split into three different parts following three different characters who are all impacted by the shooting of a black man at the hands of a white police officer on a street corner in the working class Brooklyn neighborhood Bed-Stuy. We first meet the struggling young Latino father and husband Manny, played by Anthony Ramos best known for his role in the hit Broadway show Hamilton, who just recently got a job as a security guard in Manhattan. His life is turned upside down one day after he videotapes a fatal encounter between a NYPD white officer and a non-violent small-time black criminal named Darius Larson who is shot by the police officer in a confrontation over Darius selling illegal cigarettes, very similar to the 2014 shooting of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Manny struggles with whether he should publicize the video recording in order to shed light on police brutality but feels that its release will cause irreparable damage to his life and family. To provide a balanced perspective on recent police shootings of black men in the United States, the second chapter of the film revolves around the idealistic African American police officer Dennis, played by John David Washington best known for his breakout role in this year’s BlacKkKlansman, who tries to cope with the fact that a police officer in his precinct is the cop responsible for the death of a black man like himself. He feels constant pressure from the African American community that appears to resent him as a police officer tangentially associated with the killing. At the same time, Dennis experiences uncomfortable tension from his fellow police officers who feel a duty to protect the now suspended cop as one of their own even if his fatal action may not be legally justified. As he does with the rest of the movie, the filmmaker effectively navigates the challenges facing the final character Zyrick, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. best known for his role in the critically acclaimed 2017 horror film It Comes at Night. He is a star high school baseball player with the potential of making it professionally, but, in the aftermath of the shooting, he becomes more aware of his identity as a young black man who could be the next victim of police brutality. With the urging of a young female activist also in high school, he decides to risk his athletic career to become a vocal activist protesting the killing of Darius. What makes the film so powerful is the filmmaker’s ability to expertly explore a very complex issue facing today’s society by presenting how police brutality affects the witnesses, fellow police officers, and other potential victims and activists. Overall, I found it to be a most important and brilliantly crafted movie about one of the greatest hot-button issues of contemporary America, all the while approaching such a contentious subject with profound nuance and subtlety.

Night School

night_school_xlgDirected by Malcolm D. Lee best known for the Tiffany Haddish breakout film Girls Trip released in 2017, Night School is a silly comedy that has a few laughs but ultimately fails to live up to the comedic potential of casting the often very funny Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart. The film follows high school dropout Teddy Walker, played by comedian Kevin Hart, who is living a happy life with his professionally successful girlfriend Lisa and has a stable job working as a barbecue grill salesman in Atlanta. However, before that, he was seen as a failure by his very strict father Gerald, played by Emmy Award winner Keith David, and has ever since tried to live up to his father by pretending to be more successful than he really is in life. Everything seems to fall apart after he loses his job and has to come to the realization that he has been living his supposedly financially successful paycheck to paycheck. In order to get a good job working in the financial sector for his friend Marvin, Teddy is told that he has to get his GED and enroll in night school. Teddy believes this will be relatively easy by simply asking the new principal of his former high school for a GED, but he quickly realizes that he will actually have to study and join night school after encountering the principal who turns out to be a former classmate of his that he bullied in high school named Stewart, played by Saturday Night Live alumnus Taran Killam. The night school teacher is the fairly untraditional yet passionate Carrie, played by the breakthrough comedian Tiffany Haddish, who pushes hard for her adult students to pay attention and pass the GED exam. Her class is comprised of adults who had to drop out of high school for various reasons and are now looking for a new lease on life and include such comedians as Rob Riggle, Al Madrigal, and Mary Lynn Rajskub. Much of the film shows the antics of the class led by the de facto leader and class clown Teddy, including a haphazard and ridiculous plot to steal the answers to one of the tests from the principal’s office. Eventually, the movie touches on several more serious issues regarding education: Teddy discovers that he has had trouble in school because of several learning disabilities, and all the students are shown as truly wanting to change their lives and persevere to get their GEDs. Towards the end, Teddy also tries to make amends with his now fiancé Lisa who is upset with him after learning that he was not straightforward with the fact that he was a high school dropout and that he has been taking night school without telling her. Overall, I found it to be a somewhat entertaining film that was suitable for passing the time but, unfortunately, failed to adequately use the comedic skills of the usually hilarious talented comedians.

Colette

colette_xlgDirected by Wash Westmoreland best known for the 2014 movie Still Alice in which Julianne Moore received an Oscar for her role, Colette is a fascinating period drama about one of France’s most renowned writers and is quite remarkable for its terrific acting, especially the dazzling performance given by Keira Knightley. The film is based on the real-life story of the French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, played by twice Academy Award-nominated Knightley in arguably her greatest performance, who moves from the French countryside in the late nineteenth century to the artistic center of the world at the time Paris after marrying a well-known writer referred to as simply Willy, played by the twice Golden Globe-nominated British actor Dominic West. After witnessing her remarkable writing talents first-hand, Willy encourages her to write novels in which he would be fully credited for writing them. They come upon a great success with the publication of a novel loosely based on Colette’s early life revolving around a French country girl named Claudine and her daily life and adventures in rural France. Over the course of the film, Colette becomes increasingly distant from her controlling husband and decides she would like to write for herself with her real name instead of his. The filmmaker does an excellent job of creating a beautiful and realistic depiction of early twentieth century Paris through the use of high-fashion costuming and sumptuous Parisian scenery in which the arts and high society are highly valued. Amidst this exciting backdrop, Colette evolves into a much more independent individual who explores her own sexual expression by entering into a sexual relationship with a beautiful young socialite, played by Eleanor Tomlinson best known for her role in the BBC television series Poldark. She becomes quite the sensation and even causes a riot in an already liberalized Paris with her extremely progressive views and unorthodox artistic expressions through her fashion and writing, including performing a risqué mime act in which she kisses a masculine woman. At the same time, she faces her sometimes cruel and desperate husband whose finances are rapidly collapsing. It becomes quite clear that his own career will never be as successful after Colette refuses to write anymore Claudine novels that have become such a cultural phenomenon throughout France, and, as a result, he becomes a shell of himself and their marriage begins to disintegrate. Overall, I found it to be a truly wonderful film that is brought to life by the dynamic performances of the lead actors, in particular Keira Knightley, and is especially relevant to today’s society in which sexual and artistic expression is accepted and women are using their platforms to speak up for gender equality, just like Colette did in her time.

The Sisters Brothers

sisters_brothers_ver2_xlgDirected by critically acclaimed French filmmaker Jacques Audiard best known for 2010’s A Prophet and 2015’s Dheepan, The Sisters Brothers is a Western that is remarkable for its terrific acting performances and its unique and fascinating story that breaks the mold of a typical Western genre film. The plot revolves around two brothers Eli Sisters, played by Academy Award-nominated actor John C. Riley who is best known for his comedic roles alongside Will Ferrell, and Charlie Sisters, played by three-time Academy Award-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix, who are both hired assassins who work for the powerful Commodore from Oregon City, Oregon. Set in the 1850s at the height of the Gold Rush in California and throughout the American Far West, the brothers are sent on a mission to track down a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm, played by Emmy Award-winning actor Riz Ahmed who is best known for his role in the 2016’s HBO miniseries The Night Of, who has developed a scientific technique to discover gold. As the Sisters brothers embark on a perilous journey through the wild West of Oregon and California, another hired gunslinger named John Morris, played by Academy Award-nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal, has tracked down and captured Warm after which they decide to become partners in gold prospecting. Eventually, Eli and Charlie catch up to both Warm and Morris, and all four men unexpectedly join forces but are hampered by rather unusual tragedies. Throughout the film, the protagonists meet a wide variety of true characters who either want to kill them or are killed by them, all set against dramatic Western landscapes and lawless frontier towns stereotypical of traditional Western cinema. However, the movie diverges from the genre by approaching the storyline as a slow burn drama that has moments of dark comedy and explores the complicated yet loving relationship between the two brothers. Yes, there are good old Western shootouts but a majority of the plot is a much more personal narrative than what most audience members will expect. Overall, I found it to be a well-polished film with elements of a Western that surprisingly evolves into something much more than just a violent picture set in the American West, primarily as a result of its truly excellent performances from the highly regarded lead actors and its unique vision from a well-respected foreign filmmaker.

Fahrenheit 11/9

fahrenheit_eleven_nine_xlgDirected by Academy Award-winning documentarian Michael Moore who is best known for 2002’s Bowling for Columbine and 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Fahrenheit 11/9 is an entertaining and provocative documentary that is to be expected from Michael Moore who mixes comedic elements and liberal indignation to primarily criticize President Donald Trump. He delves deep into the current highly toxic political environment of the United States and is not afraid to have a no holds barred portrayal of Trump as a largely negative figure in today’s society. However, I was surprised to discover that the film covers a much larger range of topics that do not necessarily connect to President Trump, including the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the media, the Electoral College, and even President Barack Obama. Definitely preaching to the choir, Moore goes through what led up to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and its impact on the nation as a whole by interviewing everyday American citizens who either love or despise the rhetoric of Donald Trump. Also, at several points throughout the movie, Michael Moore visits his impoverished hometown of Flint, Michigan where he discusses the water crisis that started in 2014 and expresses anger at the state government, especially Republican Governor Rick Snyder who he believes is responsible for the negligence and apparent lack of caring that resulted in the toxic water supply that continues to this day. In typical Michael Moore fashion, the film includes a stunt in which Moore sprays Governor Snyder’s gubernatorial mansion with the lead-infused water that has come directly from the Flint water supply. At one point, he unexpectedly criticizes President Obama for his visit to Flint where he pretends to drink the water and does not entirely live up to his promise of finally solving the issue. The documentary then returns to what Moore believes is the extremely dangerous and unprecedented current presidential administration and blames the media and the outdated Electoral College for helping Trump get elected despite losing the popular vote and being counted out by the political establishment as a viable candidate. Despite most of the movie painting a rather dire picture of the current political landscape, Michael Moore tries to encourage Americans to stand up through civil discourse and voting. He discusses how ordinary people and activists are running for office, including an outspoken veteran trying to get elected to Congress as a Democrat from West Virginia. Furthermore, there is a glimmer of hope among activists as Moore describes the teacher strikes in West Virginia and its spread throughout the country demanding that public school teachers receive much-needed pay raises. Overall, although I realize that just the mention of Michael Moore will discourage most conservative audience members, I found it to be a well-meaning film that goes after both sides of the aisle, obviously with a more disdainful approach to President Donald Trump, and uses Moore’s techniques to create an effective and enjoyable documentary about today’s divided political discourse.

A Simple Favor

clickDirected by Paul Feig who is best known for comedies, including 2011’s Bridesmaids and 2016’s Ghostbusters, A Simple Favor is a terrifically entertaining film that perfectly blends elements of mystery and comedy and uses its many plot twists to effectively create a fun whodunit. The plot follows a chipper widowed housewife named Stephanie Smothers, played by Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick, who makes a video blog giving tips to mothers and develops a chance friendship with the stylish and beautiful Emily Nelson, played by Blake Lively, who works as a PR director for a well-known fashion designer. They meet each other through their elementary-aged sons, and Stephanie is immediately enchanted by the glamorous yet mysterious Emily who invites her over for drinks during the day at her expensive house in a Connecticut town outside New York City. After Emily asks Stephanie the seemingly simple favor of picking up her son from school, Emily disappears without a trace. The middle part of the film involves Stephanie along with Emily’s husband and English professor Sean, played by Henry Golding best known for his role in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, trying to figure out what happened to Emily and if and by whom she was murdered. At the same time, Sean and Stephanie begin to have a romantic relationship as they work closely together. With Stephanie discussing Emily’s disappearance and appealing for help to the followers of her video blog, she begins to unravel the mysteries surrounding her friend and quickly learns that not everything is as it appears and that Emily has several dark secrets from her past that may reveal why she disappeared. All of Stephanie’s detective work leads to the final scenes of the movie that reveal plot twists on top of plot twists, quite effectively shocking and surprising the audience to a thrilling degree. Overall, I found it to be one of those rare movies that makes for a gripping and wonderfully twisty good time; the film very much reminds me of a less dark and more funny version of the brilliant 2014 thriller Gone Girl that was also full of mystery and a surprise ending.