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Long Strange Trip was originally a four-hour movie before Amazon cut it to a six-part TV show. Produced by Martin Scorcese, it tells the full story of the band The Grateful Dead. It’s an account so detailed that it will satisfy the biggest Deadheads, but it also can be appreciated by anyone. The focus is the band, but it’s also the band’s significant impact on Rock history, and by extension, on American culture. I didn’t know much about the band and I couldn’t stop watching.

Genre: Documentary, Music

Actor: Al Franken, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, Brent Mydland, Donna Godchaux, Jerry Garcia, Keith Godchaux, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, Ron McKernan

Director: Amir Bar-Lev

Rating: R

The title of Paweł Pawlikowski’s sophomore feature has a double meaning: it’s not only about the extraordinary lengths a Russian mother goes to remain in the UK, but it’s also set in the last seaside resort anyone would ever want to visit. While travelling to meet her English fiancé, Tanya (Dina Korzun) and son Artyom (Artyom Strelnikov) are detained at customs after failing to satisfy the immigration officer’s queries. With her fiancé refusing to answer her calls, Tanya panics and claims political asylum, not knowing that doing so means she’ll have to wait for over a year in a grim coastal town requisitioned as an asylum-seeker “holding area.”

Pawlikowski uses realism to highlight the crushing bureaucracy, dehumanizing conditions, and threats of exploitation that come with being an asylum seeker, but remarkably, bleakness isn’t the overriding tone. Local arcade worker Alfie (Paddy Considine) takes a shine to the duo and does what he can to brighten their gloomy situation — and, in the cruel limbo they find themselves in, his warm generosity and fondness for them imbues the film with an undeniable sense of hopefulness. It never detracts from the film’s realism (see: its bittersweet ending) but neither does Pawlikowski allow the precious gift of someone who genuinely cares to go ignored.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adrian Scarborough, Bruce Byron, David Auker, Dina Korzun, Paddy Considine, Perry Benson

Director: Paweł Pawlikowski

This 140-minute Brazilian drama is an epic and touching tale of two sisters torn apart. In 1950s Rio de Janeiro, Eurídice, 18, and Guida, 20, are inseparable, but their dreams soon take them away from each other, from their conservative family, and from Brazil.

After they are separated, each one of them believes the other is achieving her dreams when often the opposite was happening. Family betrayal, silence, and a suffocating social climate shatter the aspiration of the sisters but also highlight their strength.

Genre: Drama

Actor: António Fonseca, Carol Duarte, Cláudio Gabriel, Cristina Pereira, Eduardo Tornaghi, Fernanda Montenegro, Flávia Gusmão, Flávio Bauraqui, Gillray Coutinho, Gregório Duvivier, Izak Dahora, Julia Stockler, Luana Xavier, Márcio Vito, Maria Manoella, Nikolas Antunes

Director: Karim Aïnouz

Rating: R

Herself tells the story of Sandra (Clare Dunne), a single mother who runs away from her abusive husband to start a new life with her children. When welfare and charity prove to be insufficient with their help, she takes things into her hands by building a house of her own.

This Irish movie, co-written by star Clare Dunne, may be small in scale and budget, but it is affecting in big and powerful ways. Despite what girlbosses might tell you, chasing full independence isn't always as easy or even empowering as it looks, especially when you're stuck in the lower rungs of society like Sandra; Herself takes the honest approach by showing us the unglamorous side of making it on your own. It also has meaningful things to say about marriage and divorce, so if you were moved by Marriage Story or Kramer vs Kramer, you may feel the same about Herself, which references the latter two's iconic courtroom scenes.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Anita Petry, Cathy Belton, Clare Dunne, Conleth Hill, Ericka Roe, Harriet Walter, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Jane Brennan, Lorcan Cranitch, Molly McCann, Peter Gaynor, Ruby Rose O’Hara, Sean Duggan, Tina Kellegher

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Rating: R

It’s always fun to watch something that makes you second guess each move, that shifts seamlessly from one thing to another. Frantz is that kind of film, and as the deceptively simple premise unfolds—a widow befriends her late husband’s friend—you’re never really sure if what you’re watching is a romance, a mystery, or a sly combination of both. 

It helps that Frantz is also more than just a period piece, packed as it is with tiny but thoughtful details. When it is filled with color, for example, it does so in the muted palette of 1900s portraits, making each shot look like a picture come to life. When it talks about love, it goes beyond heterosexual norms and hints at something more potent and, at times, political. And when it takes a swing at melodrama, its actors ground the moment with enough restraint and reserve so that it never teeters on excess. All this results in a well-executed, gripping, and overall lovely film to watch.

 

Genre: Drama, History, Romance, War

Actor: Alice de Lencquesaing, Anton von Lucke, Axel Wandtke, Camille Grandville, Claire Martin, Cyrielle Clair, Eliott Margueron, Elizabeth Mazev, Ernst Stötzner, Étienne Ménard, Jean-Claude Bolle-Reddat, Jean-Paul Dubois, Jean-Pol Brissart, Jeanne Ferron, Johann von Bülow, Johannes Silberschneider, Laurent Borel, Louis-Charles Sirjacq, Lutz Blochberger, Marie Gruber, Merlin Rose, Michael Witte, Nicolas Bonnefoy, Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Rainer Egger, Ralf Dittrich, Torsten Michaelis, Zimsky

Director: François Ozon

Rating: PG-13

John Carney, who directed the critically and commercially successful Once, may be the world’s best captor of charm. Begin Again tells the story of a broken-hearted singer who gets discovered by a failed showbiz executive. Their ideas and love for music are all they have to face their failures and bring their creativity to life. The original songs are charming and from Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo to Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Adam Levine, and Cee-Lo Green, the cast generate sparkling chemistry and portray the story beautifully. Begin again is a sweet and effortless watch, yet far from being your classic rom-com.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Music, Romance

Actor: Adam Levine, Andrew Sellon, Aya Cash, Catherine Keener, Cee Lo Green, CeeLo Green, Danielle Brisebois, David Pendleton, Emily Yarbourgh, Eric Burton, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Jen Jacob, Jennifer Li Jackson, Jimmy Palumbo, John Carney, Karen Pittman, Keen Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Kena Onyenjekwe, Maddie Corman, Madison Love, Marco Assante, Mark Ruffalo, Mary Catherine Garrison, Mos Def, Paul Romero, Rob Morrow, Sama Fernands, Shannon Maree Walsh, Shannon Walsh, Simon Delaney, Stacey Maltin, Terry Lewis, Yasiin Bey

Director: John Carney

Rating: R

Between its maximalist production design and increasingly dark comedic set pieces, the most striking thing about Damien Chazelle's critically misunderstood industry satire is how it strikes a tone closer to tabloid gossip than anything else. As opposed to the clockwork precision of Chazelle's Whiplash, or the dreaminess of La La Land, Babylon's restlessness doesn't resemble Hollywood spectacle so much as it begins to feel like an unscratchable itch, desperate to feel anything. The film ends up trying to say so much that it threatens to say nothing at all, but its vision of cinema becoming reality is so potent that just the experience is more than worth getting lost in.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Aaron Oltman, Albert Hammond Jr., Alex Reznik, Alexandre Chen, Andrew Hawtrey, Anna Chazelle, Ariel Flores, Armando Cosio, Benjamin Jacobson, Bob Clendenin, Brad Pitt, Bregje Heinen, Bryan Scott Johnson, Chloe Fineman, Chris Doubek, Christopher Allen, Cici Lau, Circus-Szalewski, Cyrus Hobbi, Danny Jolles, David Abed, David Ury, Dean Anderson, Diego Calva, E.E. Bell, Eamon Hunt, Eric Roberts, Ethan Suplee, Evan Greer, Flea, Frederick Koehler, Freya Parker, Hansford Prince, J.C. Currais, James Crittenden, James Vincent, James Wellington, Jean Smart, Jeff Garlin, Jennifer Grant, Jeremy Roberts, Jim O'Brien, Jimmy Ortega, Joe Dallesandro, Joey de Leon, John Kerry, John Macey, John Mariano, John Polite, Johnny Britt, Jonathan Ohye, Jordan Seigel, Jovan Adepo, Kaia Gerber, Karen Bethzabe, Karina Fontes, Karolina Szymczak, Katherine Waterston, Katia Gomez, Kenajuan Bentley, Kevin Symons, Kevin Toney, Lewis Tan, Li Jun Li, Lukas Haas, Marc Platt, Marcos A. Ferraez, Margot Robbie, Mather Zickel, Max Minghella, Mike C. Manning, Miraj Grbić, Nana Ghana, Olivia Hamilton, Olivia Wilde, P. J. Byrne, Pat Skipper, Patrick Fugit, Pete Ploszek, Phoebe Tonkin, Ric Sarabia, Robert Beitzel, Robert Morgan, Rory Scovel, Ryan Porter, Samara Weaving, Sarah Ramos, Sean O'Bryan, Shane Powers, Sol Landerman, Spike Jonze, Taylor Hill, Taylor Nichols, Terry Walters, Tobey Maguire, Todd Giebenhain, Trisha Simmons, Troy Metcalf, Vanessa Bednar, Walker Hare, William Roper

Director: Damien Chazelle

Rating: R

Director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) reunites with Mads Mikkelsen to tell the story of four teachers going through a mid-life crisis. They’re not sad, exactly—they have homes and jobs and are good friends with each other—but they’re not happy either. Unlike the ebullient youth they teach, they seem to have lost their lust for life, and it’s silently eating away at them, rendering them glassy-eyed and mechanic in their everyday lives. 

Enter an experiment: what if, as one scholar suggests, humans were meant to fulfill a certain alcohol concentration in order to live as fully and present as possible? The teachers use themselves as the subjects and the tide slowly starts to turn to mixed effects. Are they actually getting better or worse?

With an always-satisfying performance by Mikkelsen and an instant classic of an ender, it’s no surprise Another Round took home the award for Best Foreign Film in the 2020 Academy Awards.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt, Christiane Gjellerup Koch, Diêm Camille G., Dorte Højsted, Frederik Winther Rasmussen, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Lars Ranthe, Mads Mikkelsen, Magnus Millang, Magnus Sjørup, Maria Bonnevie, Martin Greis-Rosenthal, Mercedes Claro Schelin, Michael Asmussen, Morten Thunbo, Niels Jørgensen, Per Otto Bersang Rasmussen, Silas Cornelius Van, Susse Wold, Thomas Bo Larsen

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Rating: 0, Not Rated

This crazy heist movie is told in a very original way. Because it's based on a true story, the movie (with actors and a story) is sometimes interrupted by the people it's about. The opening scene even reads: "this movie is not based on a true story, it is a true story". Two friends decide to rob their local library from rare books worth millions. They're driven by money but also by wanting something different than their monotonous everyday lives in Kentucky. The need for a change is a big theme in this movie, but the story and the way it's told never cease to be breathtakingly thrilling. American Animals stars amazing actors like Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), Evan Peters (Kick-Ass), and many more; but perhaps equally as notable is the director: Bart Layton, who is fresh from his amazing 2012 sleeper-hit The Imposter.

Genre: Crime, Documentary, Drama, Mystery

Actor: Al Mitchell, Ann Dowd, Barry Keoghan, Ben McIntire, Blake Jenner, Bobby Akers, Debby Handolescu, Dorothy Reynolds, Drew Starkey, Elijah Everett, Eric Borsuk, Evan Peters, Fedor Steer, Gary Basaraba, Gretchen Koerner, Jack Landry, Jane McNeill, Jared Abrahamson, Jason Caceres, JD Demers, Josh Jordan, Josh Royston, Karen Wheeling Reynolds, Kelly Borgnis, Kevin L. Johnson, Lara Grice, Lauran Foster, Marlo Scheitler, Pamela Bell Mitchell, Pamela Mitchell, Spencer Reinhard, Steven 'Trainset' Curtis, Udo Kier, Warren Lipka, Wayne Duvall, Whitney Goin, William Cowboy Reed

Director: Bart Layton

Rating: R

At once intimate and sweeping, A Thousand and One seamlessly weaves Inez's personal turmoil and familial troubles with the systemic inequality that was rampant in '90s New York. The hideous faces of gentrification, poverty, and police brutality are constantly appearing in the film, not merely because they lend weight to the story, but because they are inevitable for people like Inez. People who, despite their best efforts at achieving upward mobility are continually pushed down by self-serving institutions. 

It's easy for social issue dramas like this to buckle under the weight of their lofty goals, but nothing about A Thousand and One feels forced. Just the opposite, the film has an authentic quality to it—almost documentary-like in its precise depiction of Harlem throughout the years. It's deeply personal and achingly tender, and everything else—the social commentary and the political beats—stems from that specificity. 

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Adriane Lenox, Amelia Workman, Aven Courtney, Bianca LaVerne Jones, Delissa Reynolds, Emmy Harrington, Jennean Farmer, Josiah Cross, Naya Desir-Johnson, Rudolph Giuliani, Terri Abney, Teyana Taylor, William Catlett

Director: A.V. Rockwell

Rating: R

Adapted from the Lionel Shriver novel of the same name, We Need to Talk About Kevin is the story of a mother (Tilda Swinton) that never quite bonds with her child, but not by her choice. The son grows up to do a heinous act that begs the question: nature or nurture? This film is an uncompromising view on the development of an unloved child. Silent pain gets voice. Feelings are shown by actions not emotions in an authentic, comprehensible and aesthetic manner. Great work.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Aaron Blakely, Alex Manette, Andy Gershenzon, Annie O'Sullivan, Ashley Gerasimovich, Blake DeLong, Caitlin Kinnunen, Daniel Farcher, Erin Darke, Ezra Miller, Francesca Murdoch, Georgia X. Lifsher, J. Mallory McCree, J.J. Kandel, James Chen, Jasper Newell, Jeffrey Mowery, Jennifer Kim, John C. Reilly, Jose Joaquin Perez, Joseph Basile, Joseph Melendez, Kenneth Franklin, Kimberley Drummond, Lauren Fox, Leland Alexander Wheeler, Leslie Lyles, Louie Rinaldi, Mark Elliot Wilson, Maryann Urbano, Paul Diomede, Polly Adams, Rebecca Dealy, Rock Duer, Rocky Duer, Simon MacLean, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Suzette Gunn, Tilda Swinton, Ursula Parker

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Rating: R

You’ll recognize more than a few faces in Uncle Frank. There are no mega-stars but the caliber of acting in this 70s story is truly impressive.

Beth is an 18-year-old in rural South Carolina who grew up admiring the family member she could relate to the most: her uncle, a college professor living in New York.

When she finishes high-school, she makes the move to the city her beloved uncle told her so much about. Once there, she discovers that he has been living a double life which he kept a secret from the family.

This is the perfect holiday movie for those looking for a story that’s not about the actual holidays. It’s sweet, often funny, and packs a heartfelt and genuine story without being too predictable.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Banks Repeta, Britt Rentschler, Burgess Jenkins, Caity Brewer, Christopher Speed, Cole Doman, Colton Ryan, Hannah Black, Jane McNeill, Judy Greer, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Michael Banks Repeta, Paul Bettany, Peter Macdissi, Sophia Lillis, Stephen Root, Steve Zahn

Director: Alan Ball

Rating: R