Cold Case Hammarskjöld

Magnolia Pictures

I love a good conspiracy theory. Don’t get me wrong, though: not all conspiracy theories are fun. Some are silly, some are crazy, and some, to be honest, are just too dire to really think about. But in the new documentary, Cold Case Hammarskjöld, director Mads Brügger posits a conspiracy theory that is a little bit of everything. And that’s exactly what makes it so compelling.

We are used to scandals today, but, back in 1961, when Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN Secretary General, died in a plane crash in Africa, it made headlines worldwide. Only the second Secretary General ever, Hammarskjöld was someone who took his role seriously and was a vocal and powerful supporter and defender of nations asserting their independence, especially in Africa, where countries were increasingly rebelling against centuries of colonial rule. Looking back, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that these colonial powers, such as France and Great Britain, whose economic interests in the continent were deep-seated and dependent on their control, whether directly or by puppet regimes, would have felt threatened by the world’s top diplomat making it his mission to support efforts for independence. The question of whether or not any foreign government may have actually had a hand in the death of Hammarskjöld is one that has been lingering for nearly 60 years. If, however, you expect Brügger’s film to contain some bombshell revelation that will topple MI-6 or the CIA, you might be disappointed—slightly. But if you like real-life mysteries that have layers upon layers of lies, cover-ups, villains and geo-political implications, you might just love this story.

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The Farewell

A24

I have a good friend whose favorite genre of movies is dysfunctional family drama. Which makes me wonder: is there such a thing as a functional family drama? Is that even something we’d want to see? The whole fun is the dysfunction, right? The more insane the relationships, the more dramatic the movie, which means more entertainment for us, the audience.

But what if you made a movie about a regular family that just happened to collectively stumble into one specific dysfunction, all at the same time? The Farewell is just that movie, about one loving family’s struggle to work together to, well, maintain a lie. Ok, maybe they’re not so regular after all.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. Grandma Nai Nai, the matriarch of this family, has terminal cancer and has been given 4 months to live. The family, driven by cultural traditions, decides to not tell Grandma the diagnosis, and plan a fake wedding instead to allow everyone to come home to say their goodbyes without her ever knowing it. I’ll admit, when I first heard this premise, it intrigued and annoyed me. My gut reaction was “how on earth could they do that?” The idea of withholding someone’s diagnosis from them seemed offensive and immoral. But writer/director Lulu Wang not only spoke to my emotional and ethical concerns with her smart and thoughtful screenplay, she turned a film about a simple lie into a heartfelt movie about love, grief, and letting go.

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Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Sony PIctures Entertainment

It’s hard to overstate how much I was looking forward to seeing Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, the newest (and supposedly last) movie from writer/director Quentin Tarantino. Having been a fan of almost all of his movies, counting more than one as masterpieces, I couldn’t wait to see what he would do with this one, especially when I heard the setting would be Los Angeles in 1969. Yes, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio starring was the big headline for this movie, but, for me, to see Tarantino, a self-proclaimed film geek who spent years working at a video store in Manhattan Beach before becoming one of his generation’s great auteurs, finally making a movie that is an homage to what he really loves—that was something to look forward to. So I avoided all trailers, all articles, all Twitter talk as much as I could before settling in on opening night in a sold-out theatre, apparently filled with people just as excited as I was.

Here’s how much I was looking forward to this movie: when they announced that the running time was going to be a whopping 2 hours and 40 minutes (the average movie these days is about two hours, ten minutes long), I was so happy. For me, it meant getting to spend more time in the world Tarantino was going to create. That’s how optimistic I was.

And that’s how right I was.

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Toy Story 4

Disney / Pixar

Pixar has only been around for 24 years, and yet it feels like they’ve been around forever. Ingrained in the hearts, minds of souls of all movie lovers, Pixar movies serve as touchstones in many of our lives. They have moved us, made us cry, made us laugh and made us feel. And, for Pixar itself, the original and still seminal touchstone for the studio has been Toy Story. The first movie ever produced under the Pixar label, Toy Story came out in 1995, and was hailed as an animated achievement that few had seen before. Its success not only launched a company, but reinvigorated a genre. 3 years after Toy Story, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences added a category for Best Animated Feature, which Pixar has won 9 times. Pixar’s domination of the genre and massive success forced other studios to enhance their own animated divisions—to push for smarter, more meaningful and better-produced movies— and the boom of quality animated feature offerings in the past 24 years has been a joy to behold. Franchises like Despicable Me/Minions, How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and blockbusters like Frozen and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse all have Pixar to thank for their very existence, and more specifically, Toy Story. If Toy Story had failed, who knows what the state of animated film would be now, and who knows if Pixar would even still exist.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 3, Episodes 1-3 recaps

Hulu
While this is a site I normally dedicate just to movies, I have been branching out a bit lately and doing some television reviews as well. For those of you interested in The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, I will be recapping Season 3 over at AwardsWatch.com, but, to whet your appetite, here are my recaps for the first three episodes of Season 3, which dropped today (6/5). Beware, though, spoilers abound! (For a spoiler-free review of the first six episodes of Season 3, check out my review on AwardsWatch: Season 3 review)

Season 3: Episode 1: “Night”

[Warning: spoilers ahead]

Picking up right where we left off at the end of season 2, June (Elisabeth Moss) stands in the middle of the wet road, having just sent baby Nicole off with Emily (Alexis Bledel) to freedom. As distant screams of millions of viewers yelling at their televisions last July when June doesn’t get in the van still reverberate in the mist, June defiantly stands tall when a car pulls up, bracing for the consequences of her actions. After rooting for June to get out for two years, not only do we not see her escape when she has the chance, but now we are faced with watching her be punished for trying to. But, instead, the show throws us a curveball in the form of Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), who is the one driving the car and who is the one trying to help her to freedom. Not only doesn’t he punish her or turn her in, he’s still trying to get her out. But June has already made up her mind to not leave without Hannah, so she asks him to take her to the McKenzie’s, so she can get her.

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Rocketman

Paramount Pictures

There really is no way to talk about the new movie Rocketman without bringing up last year’s smash hit Bohemian Rhapsody. Not only are both movies musical bio-pics about larger-than-life, flamboyant and queer musical icons from the ‘70s and ‘80s, but both movies are directed by the same man, Dexter Fletcher. Yes, I realize that Fletcher isn’t officially listed as the director of Bohemian Rhapsody, but he is the one the studio brought in to finish that picture after the firing of Bryan Singer, so I consider him the director (because I don’t really want to acknowledge Singer).

Bohemian Rhapsody, the story of the rock group Queen, with singer Freddie Mercury at the center, exploded into theatres, amassing huge box office numbers and critical acclaim, closing out the year with several Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture and a Best Actor win for Rami Malek, whose Mercury will certainly go down as one of the best rock star performances in movie history. So yes, Rocketman, the musical bio-pic about legendary singer/songwriter Elton John, had a lot to live up to. Coming less than a year after Bohemian Rhapsody’s success, it was sure to face one of two possible outcomes: ride on the coattails of Bohemian Rhapsody because that movie fostered a renewed interest in the nostalgia for the music of that era, or die a slow death because people will feel they’ve been there, done that and are ready to move on. Only time will tell how Rocketman will be received, both financially and critically, but, no matter what, it had its work cut out for it before a single frame was shot.

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Aladdin

Disney

I’m having a hard time sorting through my feelings about Disney’s Aladdin, the live-action remake of the beloved 1992 animated classic, so bear with me as I work this out.

Let’s start with the good. The two actors who play Aladdin and Jasmine, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, are fantastic. Massoud moves well and is energetic and breezy as Aladdin. Scott is similarly charming and charismatic. They look great and have great chemistry together and their performances are exactly what you want and need for this movie—they each have star power for days.

But it’s Nasim Pedrad that delivers the best performance in the movie, as Jasmine’s handmaiden, a new character who wasn’t in the animated version. Pedrad’s extensive comedy background allowed her to seem the most comfortable with the comedic bits, when everyone else is a bit stiff (yes, even Will Smith). She is a natural and every time I see her, I continue to be shocked that she’s not starring in her own movies.

The production elements are beyond belief. Disney has spared no cost, understandably so, and you can see every penny on the screen. The special effects that bring animals strikingly to life (a monkey is an adorable and effective supporting character) are phenomenally seamless and well done, and the names Michael Wilkinson and Gemma Jackson should be remembered during awards seasons for costumes and a production design that are immaculate, gorgeous and alone make this movie worthwhile. Disney movies always look great and this one looks absolutely luscious.

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Booksmart

Annapurna

If there’s one thing we never seem to run out of, it’s teen comedies. I grew up in the John Hughes era, so I was spoiled by mainstream movies that aimed at teenage angst, awkwardness, insecurities and hormones. But while the ‘80s may seem to have been the heyday for teen comedies, the genre has seen a real re-emergence in the last decade. Films like Superbad, Clueless, Mean Girls, Easy A, Election and Love, Simon all proved that, when done right, the teen comedy can be well done AND popular. And maybe that’s just the problem. Of all the movie genres, it just might be the one (other than superhero movies) that feels saturated. It’s almost gotten to the point where you feel as if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It takes something really special to set one apart from all the others.

Last year, we saw Love, Simon break a mold by being the first gay high school rom-com. Superbad, from 2007, set itself apart by being shameless, raunchy and crude. And now comes Booksmart, a movie that mines a little bit of both Love, Simon and Superbad (not to mention Election and Mean Girls) but finds a way to cover all the same ground in a completely unique way.

Directed, produced, written by and starring women, Booksmart feels like so much more than just another teen comedy because it is. The writing is fresh, the performances are fearless and the direction is fierce and bold. Who would have ever seen this from actress Olivia Wilde, who makes her directorial debut. Wilde proves that, much like Greta Gerwig, who made her directorial debut with the brilliant Lady Bird in 2017, if you give women actors as many chances to write and direct as you do men, the new approaches, breadth of stories and fresh perspectives just may lead to some pretty amazing results.

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Catch-22

Hulu

The absurdity of war has been explored in countless ways by Hollywood, from the dark comedy of M*A*S*H to the insanity of Apocalypse Now to the violence of The Deer Hunter to the psychosis of Full Metal Jacket to the satire of Dr. Strangelove, the many angles of the lunacy of sending men into battle has been covered, and then some. So now imagine all of those movies jumbled together into one narrative piece. The result would be Catch-22, a 6-part limited series on Hulu, premiering May 17.

The mini-series, based on the classic novel by Joseph Heller, is executive produced by a team led by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who won Oscars for producing Argo in 2012. Clooney and Heslov also share directing duties (and both have small roles), along with Ellen Kuras, each of them directing two installments. Writers Luke Davies and David Michod have adapted Heller’s book with precision and inspiration, as they have focused the story on World War II bombardier John Yossarian (played by Christopher Abbott) and his experiences while being stationed in Italy. Yasarian, known as Yo Yo to his buddies, is all about finding a way out of the war. But he soon comes to realize that he is simply a cog in the giant war machine that is unforgiving, relentless, heartless and cruel. Sanity is a precious commodity in war and we watch as Yo Yo desperately tries to hold onto his through a multitude of encounters, actions and circumstances that range from the absurd to the tragic.

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Long Shot

Point Grey Pictures

It’s already been a pretty strange few months for odd combos, from Cate Blanchett starring in an Eli Roth movie to Kate Beckinsale dating Pete Davidson, so the pairing of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron doesn’t surprise me as much as I thought it would. After all, Theron is an actress who is far from shy about playing against her perceived type. Since winning her (first of hopefully more) Oscar playing a grimy and ugly serial killer in Monster, she has played a corporate villain in Prometheus, a wicked queen in Snow White and the Huntsman and apocalyptic badass Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, all roles that gleefully break from her beautiful leading lady pedigree. While Theron has played her share of girlfriend and pretty girl roles, her ability and willingness to play a variety of roles in different genres has proven her to be one of Hollywood’s most versatile stars. What’s even more appealing is Theron’s ability to do comedy too, from her goofy guest-starring role in Arrested Development to her darkly comic performance in Young Adult to Seth MacFarlane’s not-so-dark comedy A Million Ways to Die in the West, Theron has proven she’s got comedy chops as strong as her dramatic ones.

All that being said, however, it does still feel and look a little strange to see her starring in a romantic comedy with Seth Rogen. Theron is famous for being beautiful, talented and Oscar-winning, and Rogen is famous for pot jokes, pissing off a dictator and helping the world to see the weird side of James Franco. To be fair, he was really good in serious roles in Steve Jobs and Take this Waltz, but, other than that, Rogen is known for his raunchy and rude comedies like Superbad, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and This is the End. So I was both intrigued and a bit scared to see Long Shot, the new movie which pairs Theron and Rogen as a presidential candidate and her speechwriter who fall in love. With no aliens, special effects, action sequences or pot jokes to hide behind (for the most part), these actors would be fully exposed, relying on just their acting skills, their charm and their chemistry to carry the movie. And let me just say, it’s a good thing these two performers are who they are, because their charm is pretty much all this movie has.

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