Reviews


“Godzilla vs. Kong” Movie Review


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     As studios continue to mine their libraries for modern franchise worthy IP, audiences should continue to expect films such as director Adam Wingard’s “Godzilla vs. Kong” to dominate the cinematic landscape for years to come.  That’s the idea after all.  Franchises that can sustain a half dozen films or more, spanning at least a decade as the purported series unfolds.  And with Warner Brothers already having reinvented their DC properties several times over the last twenty years, it should come as no surprise that the so called Monsterverse, featuring these behemoths in all of their skyscraper toppling CGI glory, is now serving up its fourth entry.

     Beginning with 2014’s “Godzilla” and followed by 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island” and 2019’s “Godzilla: King of Monsters”, the latest addition, “Godzilla vs. Kong”, suffers from many of the same deficiencies that not only plagued the first three films, but also many like them, including the entire “Transformers” franchise, as well as knock offs like “Pacific Rim”.  With the focus being on the epic battles between these titans, the human characters take a back seat and are thus relegated to silly plot threads meant to occupy them while they helplessly stare at the destruction unfolding in front of them.  It’s not like these films have presented a reliable means of defense for the people down below.  We already know the very best weapons in our arsenal are virtually useless, so what’s really the point of the story outside of the main attractions?

     And this is where screenwriters Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein really struggle in what has to be considered a tough writing assignment.  The need to have noteworthy characters for continuity between each film, and in an effort to include some level of relatable human drama, means having to create scenarios for them to operate within somewhere in the background.  You’ll watch “Godzilla vs. Kong” and realize you could subtract Millie Bobby Brown’s Madison Russell (who first appeared in “Godzilla: King of Monsters”) and the entire conspiracy theory podcast angle while still having the same film. She spends the entire time away from her father, Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler & also introduced in the previous film), on a half baked crusade for the truth behind the usual nefarious corporate deeds intended really just to give her a reason to be in few scenes while adding nothing of substance to the story.

     Essentially, those in the know have determined Godzilla is really ticked off, based mainly on his recent attack of said evil corporation, Apex, off the coast of Florida.  And with the knowledge that King Kong is currently contained on Skull Island, the CEO of Apex, Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir) devises a plan utilizing his immense technological resources to travel, along with Kong, to a place in the center of the planet called Hollow Earth.  There, he says, is an energy source that can be harnessed for the purposes of a project Apex is working on designed to defeat the threat of Godzilla.  Enlisting the expertise of a Hollow Earth scientist, Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard), and a surprisingly willing Kong caretaker, Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), the group sets out on an adventure to the center of the Earth where they are led to believe Kong will be able to find and understand where he came from.

     Of course those promises are made in order to cover up the corporate greed in play, but the action sets the stage for the battles of which the film gets its name.  And that’s where the real problems begin.  As an example, the initial battle between Godzilla and Kong occurs when the later has been tranquilized and is being transported boat guarded and by a Navy fleet from Skull Island to the United States.  When Godzilla attacks the fleet, Kong springs into action, allowing for their first of many entanglements in the film.  As you would imagine, much of the fleet is decimated by the unstoppable Godzilla, except for, conveniently, the ship carrying all of the main characters and the one Kong was actually on in the first place.  

     It’s these plot holes that ruin the human side of the story, as later on when the action actually moves to the Hollow Earth, only the ships containing Star Trek red shirts are attacked and destroyed by the flying creatures lurking within.  The ship with the main characters? Well, I think you can figure out they have to make it back in order for the story to move forward.  Not that you become attached to any of them anyway.  Everyone is so bland and uninteresting that they’re all practically interchangeable.

     But lets face it, you’re not paying for a ticket to watch Oscar level acting and screenwriting when you enter a theater to see a film titled “Godzilla vs. Kong”.  Ideally, the audience wants a spectacle featuring the two undisputed baddest monsters on the planet, who show no regard for each other or the cities they destroy while utilizing them as their own personal octagon.  And in that aspect, the film will no doubt satisfy with its sprawling third act taking place amongst the colorful ill-fated skyscrapers of Hong Kong as this full on Celebrity Death Match - Monster Edition brings the film to a thunderous conclusion.  And since we learn that both can apparently communicate with one another, I say next time ditch the human characters completely and produce the first ever monster language film.  Talk about groundbreaking.  GRADE: C-

“Nobody” Movie Review


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     If you went in to director Ilya Naishuller’s “Nobody” without knowledge the film is written and produced by “John Wick” scribe Derek Kolstad, it would only take a few minutes to make the obvious connection.  Featuring the action film debut of “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk in another Liam Neeson like later in life attempt at playing a would be family man who possesses a “particular set of skills”, Naishuller’s flick follows the common tropes of the sub genre which predictably force a once lethal killing machine back into action.

     At its core, “Nobody” tells a story we’ve seen so many times before.  Think Schwarzenegger’s Harry Tasker in “True Lies”, but with a twist.  Here, the events depicted are triggered when a pair of would be burglars invade the quiet home and family of Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk), a mild mannered business manager whose daily routine is infused wth the monotony of life.  From our point of view, everything appears normal, as he provides for his wife Becca (Connie Nielsen), and two children, Blake (Gage Munroe) and Abby (Paisley Cadorath) while carrying himself in a manner that projects today’s typical father and husband.  

     But then he is awakened.  As he confronts the two burglars in the dark of night, one of them points a gun in his face, seemingly freezing him and any hope for a reaction with the golf club he grabbed on the way down stairs.  Suddenly out of nowhere, Blake tackles the other burglar to the ground and mounts an offense, forcing the one with a gun to turn away from Hutch and open a window for him to strike with the golf club.  Only he doesn’t, allowing for them to again gain the upper hand and fend off Blake, while completing their minor heist by taking a few dollars and Hutch’s watch.  

     The aftermath has the family questioning why Hutch didn’t take care of business, an answer of particular importance to Blake since he received a black eye from a straight right courtesy of one of the thieves. And it’s at that point something changes, as if old wounds have suddenly reopened.  A visit to his father’s home and a closet where a few items of his past reside, catapult the story into overdrive, as we quickly learn Hutch isn’t exactly a nobody.  But he’s rusty and needs to get his edge back.  After a night of detective work leads to the location of the burglars who started this whole mess in the first place, what better way to get those juices flowing again than to pick a fight with a gang of lowlifes?

     When five drunk guys join him on the bus he’s riding home and begin harassing the other passengers, he subtly asks the driver and other people to step outside as he focuses his attention squarely on the group of thugs.  In brutal and systematic fashion, Hutch dispatches each one of them with an array of elbows, knees, and knife techniques, all within the close quarters of a city bus.  Unfortunately, one of the guys he nearly kills is the son of a Russian mob boss, which means payback is likely going to find him.

     Of course, what does every film like this need? A menacing villain who demonstrates the kind of nefarious actions necessary for us to believe he is indeed a worthy adversary for our hero to go up against.  Enter Yulian Kuznetsov (Aleksey Serebryakov), the aforementioned Russian, who in addition to his fear inducing tactics, oversees a massive operation that secures the money and financial nest eggs of organized crime types all over the world.  With him, he brings an army of highly trained operatives where ever he goes, all while taking the time to get on stage at his club and sing karaoke!  A true psychopath, he’s an interesting guy to say the least, and he’s not happy with Hutch.

     But who is Hutch exactly?  And why are both his father, David (a scene stealing Christopher Lloyd), and his brother, Harry (RZA), imploring him to stand down and avoid falling back into a life we are led to believe he long ago left behind?  There’s a point in “Nobody” where much of this becomes clear, as Naishuller opts for a third act containing enough stylized gun play and hardcore beatdowns that would even make John Woo proud.  But again, much of this is owed to the established templates of the “John Wick” films along with the success of older action stars in films like “Taken” and “Red”.  

     And not only does Naishuller and Kolstad set things up for an inevitable sequel, they have effectively created a worthy action hero in Odenkirk’s Hutch.  Not so much in that he is relatable, but rather believable in the manner he handles his business.  Never once do we suspect he’s invincible, especially considering the amount of damage he takes and the convenient luck that comes his way in several key situations.  But the overall arc of the character leaves the audience wanting to know more, whether that be in a sequel that furthers his exploits now that his family is aware who they are actually living with, or by way of a prequel exploring his off book government past.  And that’s when you know you really have something.  The audience watches your film, and the initial reaction sees them asking for more.  

GRADE: B

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” Movie Review


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     There is a truly satisfying feeling those of us who work within the cinematic world get when a vision is finally realized on screen.  Many directors will tell you their films resided in their head until it was systematically unspooled during production and ultimately in a movie theater or television.  Conversely, nothing is worse than having a clear idea as to what your film will look like, only to have someone else come in and put their own fingerprints on your work, which is certain to abandon the original concept for something that person believes will be better.  This is why 2017’s “Justice League” failed both critically and commercially (at least for comic book movie standards), as director Zack Snyder elected to leave the project after a devastating family tragedy and Warner Brothers scrambled by replacing him with “The Avengers” director Joss Whedon.

     Now to be fair, the studio likely believed Snyder wasn’t coming back anytime soon, and for good reason.  Bringing in a proven heavyweight like Whedon seemed to me like a big win for all involved, but the notes from the studio greeting Whedon upon his arrival to the project meant months of new reshoots and a complete reworking of the script.  All of which proved to be fatal for a number of reasons.  And while it’s easy to blame Whedon for the cinematic bomb that resulted, the truth is a film can only be comprised of one vision, not two.  And the more comical lighthearted story beats Whedon added to the considerable footage Snyder had already shot, meant a complete change in tone from the two films that proceeded “Justice League”, 2013’s “Man of Steel” & 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”.  The Henry Cavill mustache debacle just added insult to injury. 

     And so as the story goes, a social media campaign based on the hashtag #ReleaseTheSnyderCut began to build throughout the entrainment industry.  The legions of DC fans who stood behind it spoke so loud that the studio opted to give Snyder a reported $30 million plus to finish the effects on what would become his definitive Justice League cut, now known officially as “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” and released exclusively on the studio’s new streamer, HBO Max.  The film now clocks in at an epic 242 minutes, up from “Justice League’s” two hour run time, and brings forth the storylines, extensive character development, and darker tone that Whedon left on the cutting room floor.

     With it comes the moments DC fans have been waiting for since the inception of Snyder’s take on this storied universe.  Not since Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy has a DC film captured the essence of these characters so effectively.  And I know the younger generation will likely have a difference in opinion, but the fact is Superman, Batman, & Wonder Woman are the world’s premiere comic book characters, both on the page and in film.  So there’s no reason why the stories we see on screen involving them should be anything less than what Marvel is producing across town with only inferior characters at their disposal.

     Snyder divides his cinematic opus into six distinct chapters which are then followed by a closing epilogue.  Each focuses on very specific characterization of the heroes that will eventually join together to form a team charged with defending Earth from a new threat to mankind.  The story is generally the same as the 2017 film, but there is an abundance of context now provided which gives everything that happens much higher stakes and even, at times, a more noticeable level of emotion.

     Bruce Wayne / Batman (Ben Affleck), who previously teamed with Diana Prince / Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Superman (Henry Cavill) in “Dawn of Justice”, is looking to make several key additions as his well documented Knightmare premonition is quickly becoming a reality.  A minion of an evil world conqueror called Darkseid (Ray Porter) has been dispatched to Earth in order to re-acquire three powerful objects called Mother Boxes in order to once again destroy the inhabitants of Earth and take the planet for themselves.  This minion, Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), brings with him an army of Para-Demons as they set out to each of the three locations the boxes are said to be hidden.  So why have they come now?

     In plot points that have been reinserted into the narrative after being abandoned by Whedon, Superman’s death has opened the door for Steppenwolf once again with the Kryptonian now out of the picture.  Fact is, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the others are not strong enough, even together, to fend off Steppenwolf and his invaders.  Thus launching the main aspect of the story’s plot which involves resurrecting Superman and forming the Justice League with Cyborg / Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), Aquaman / Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), and The Flash / Barry Allen (Ezra Miller).

     Aside from the benefits of character development throughout, what Snyder truly succeeds at with this version of his film is the creation of those signature and memorable moments involving our heroes doing the things that have made them so popular within fandom.  In the final act, Batman, with all of his high tech gadgets and weaponry, looks fantastic as he battles the Para-Demons in an effort to lure them from Steppenwolf, while the others seek one final showdown.  Wonder Woman and Aquaman also shine during the battle, displaying their god like powers in an attempt to thwart the plans of Darkseid and regain possession of the Mother Boxes.  Even The Flash is mesmerizing with his ability to bend time with his speed, and the slow motion effects of which his scenes are presented.  And has Superman ever looked more fierce and intimidating in the long awaited black suit?

     Everything finally comes together in a manner that makes sense and remains cohesive throughout the entire narrative.  And even with the indulgent running time, the film never lags, as each and every scene has clear purpose toward moving the story forward and with keen insight as to why each character should be invested in what’s going on.  In fact, it’s the run time that may be the film’s most intriguing asset, allowing for the kind of detail normally only seen in episodic television where characters are fully realized over an entire season.  Without those extra scenes, we wouldn’t understand the relationship and significance between Cyborg and his father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton).  Nor would we be introduced to The Flash via his saving a future love interest from certain death in a sequence you’ll have to see to believe.  This is every bit as good as Marvel’s closing chapters “Infinity War” and “Endgame”, but again, it is being done with characters who sit at the very top of the superhero mantel as far as I’m concerned.  

     The only issue with the film is the now known fact that it was intended to be the first of three.  Remember, the studio abandoned the entire Darkseid subplot in the 2017 film because with Snyder’s future uncertain, the remaining films in the trilogy were scrapped.  Since that time, Warner Brothers and DC have put a completely different plan in motion that will not include the exploration of Darkseid appearing on Earth as a Thanos like threat in a potential sequel.  Of course, social media will continue to provide the forum for the very fans who helped bring “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” to reality, so it should be no surprise that with hours of the film premiering, a new hashtag instantly began to trend:  #RestoreTheSnyderVerse.  The fans got what they wanted this time.  Now the question is, will they speak as loudly once more?  GRADE: A

“The Father” Movie Review


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     Director Florian Zeller’s debut film “The Father” opens with a scene introducing us to Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), an older fellow who appears as spry and invigorated as you could expect from someone of that age, and his daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), during what appears to be a routine visit.  She tells him she has finally met someone and plans to move from England to Paris, but will still be able to come see him on the weekends.  We assume at this point this is all taking place in Anthony’s residence, and the fact Anne is moving away has little effect on his overall wellbeing.  But then the next scene happens and the person we were told was Anne has now taken the form of another person, while an unknown male comes into frame claiming to be Anne’s husband and they are in fact in their apartment, not his. Something is clearly amiss.  Or is it?

     Zeller, working with Christopher Hampton, has adapted his play of the same name into a stunning feature which chronicles the heartbreaking journey of a man who suffers from dementia, utilizing a unique storytelling mechanism allowing for each scene to be shown from the perspective of Anthony, rather than those around him.  As such, we only get bits and pieces of reality, often jumbled together with other thoughts and emotions, and even past memories.  It can be gut wrenching to watch, particularly if you have had the experience of watching a loved one deteriorate in this manner.  As much as you empathize with Anthony, the helplessness Anne must feel resonates just as strongly.

     Because of the structure “The Father” embraces, the rules normally associated with plot and pacing really can’t be applied here.  On one hand, you could say Zeller has created a work so completely original that any comparison simply cannot be found.  On the other, the film plays like a puzzle of scenes that as an audience you desperately want the pieces to somehow fit together, but they never do.  A film like this can be frustrating to watch, but you have to understand what Zeller is clearly going for here.  This isn’t a fly on the wall approach to the subject matter, such as Julianne Moore’s Oscar winning turn in 2014’s “Still Alice”, but rather an attempt to simulate the constantly devolving thought process of a man suffering from loss of memory, judgement, and the ability to function on his own day to day.

     Things become so confused in his mind that he doesn’t have a grasp of the time passed since Anne was divorced or when tragedy struck their family after an accident took the life of someone close to them.  He could meet a potential caregiver, Laura (Imogen Poots), but confuse her with someone else.  In several scenes, Anthony will argue the fact he is indeed in his own flat, and in another will accuse someone of having stolen his watch.  Neither are true, but he holds steady in his conviction to the point where even Anne cannot convince him otherwise.  About half way through, you begin to wonder if the characters on screen are memories or taking place at the present time.  Is Paul (Rufus Sewell) Anne’s current relationship or a past one who simply didn’t mesh with the responsibility of taking care of someone with the needs of Anthony?  We never really know.

     In a career full of memorable performances, one could easily argue this may be Anthony Hopkins’ best in the last thirty years.  It may not have the in your face flair of his Hannibal Lector character, but the sheer nuance and acting range required where his personality changes with such stark clarity is nothing short of astonishing.  To say this is an Oscar worthy performance would be understating how brilliant his work is here.  This is a performance for the ages that should be remembered forever. 

     And what makes “The Father” even more intriguing is the fact that Olivia Colman brings something equally as riveting.  As Anne, who is played possibly in a number of different time frames, she embodies the person who is forced into the role of caring for her aging father when all of the other family members are gone, leaving him with no one else to turn to.  There’s even a scene where Anthony’s mood sharply changes from jovial to cruel where he lashes out toward Anne at the notion of her moving, while telling her “you’re abandoning me.”  Her reaction, like many before her and the many to come after, is one of calm, but also indicates the unavoidable emotion of pain and hurting.  As if her father just stabbed her directly into the heart.  This is where we truly understand the stakes involved for both.  On one side a difficult decision has to be made.  On the other, we feel for a man who isn’t ready to give up on life, but doesn’t have the capacity to realize he needs help.  A true conundrum within the human condition.  GRADE: A

“Judas and the Black Messiah” Movie Review


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     You have to respect a filmmaker who dares tackle a subject as controversial as race, given the divisive political climate in our country and the likelihood that half of the filmgoing population will almost certainly react negatively, if they even bother watching at all.  And making a film telling the story of the rise and subsequent death of Fred Hampton, the fiery leader of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, cements controversy simply by hearing the title alone.  But with “Judas and the Black Messiah”, director Shaka King has not only made an important film from a historical point of view, but also one that parallels current events with a dangerous accuracy.  One would hope this type of entertainment is consumed with the understanding that we as a society have progressed well beyond the events depicted in the story, but many will likely disagree with that notion and amp themselves up in a manner that does no one any good.

     Told from the perspective of those within the Black Panther Party, rather than including the rational and key decision making of the law enforcement entities ever present in the film, screen writer Wil Berson collaborates with King on a script that sets out to ensure the audience understands who Hampton was, what he stood for, and why.  Thus meaning the law enforcement and government angles are left with a few short meetings amongst the highest ranking members of the FBI and a very general overview as to why they saw Hampton and his fledgling group as a threat to the country.  In the simplist of terms, it was to say that Communism was not popular at the time.  But then again, nothing is ever simple.

     Played with the kind of power and raw emotion few actors are capable of by Daniel Kaluuya, Hampton is portrayed as a uniter of sorts.  Hailing from the south side of Chicago, his group, who adopts a similar style of militant discipline as the armed forces, preaches an unapologetic message of socialism, teaching its members through classroom instruction the finer points of Marxism and its advantages as it pertains to the advancement of the black community and all poor communities in general.  Hampton seeks to ensure rival gangs stand down against one another and come together as a singular force for their cause, which centers primarily around the eradication of “pigs” (the police) from their neighborhoods.  

     Now lets not pretend the reasons behind this were not well earned by several members of the Chicago Police Department, some of which is depicted throughout the story.  But Hampton’s mantra has him speaking passionatley and forcefully in front of large groups, both black and white, encouraging them to kill police, which is something no one should ever get behind, much less act on.  And that’s where history can not objectively compare Hampton to any of the prominent Civil Rights activists like Martin Luther King, whose message was that of love and peace.  Hampton’s rhetoric is likely why he became the top target of both the FBI and local law enforcement, the story of which is the central focus of the film.

     Early on, we meet Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a Chicago street hustler whose MO sees him impersonating an undercover police officer to boost cars from unsuspecting neighborhood gangsters.  When one of his capers goes wrong, he finds himself in police custody and looking at five plus years in prison.  That is until local FBI Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), acting on orders as high as the agency’s director, J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), corners O’Neal in an interrogation room and gives him an offer he can’t refuse.  Infiltrate the Black Panther Party with the goal of gaining the trust of Hampton himself and feed the FBI real time intelligence in exchange for the charges being dropped.

     And so the story moves forward, seeing O’Neal do just that, ultimately ascending to the position of being Hampton’s top security man and delivering to Mitchell a regular diet of insider information that brings law enforcement closer to taking down the person and group they view as the most considerable threat to the democracy of the nation.  Of course, which side of the aisle you currently reside will likely determine how you see these events from a right and wrong perspective.  During the course of his tenure, Hampton was arrested for assaulting an ice cream truck guy and stealing $71.00 worth of goods of which he then gave to kids on the streets.  He was convicted and sentenced to five years for the crime, with the depiction here insinuating the sentence handed down was purposely trumped up by the government, but we never get the actual details as to the assault.  What exactly did he do to the ice cream truck driver?  Aside from that incident, we never see Hampton commit violent acts, but we do hear him incite his followers to kill police which solves nothing and only exacerbates an already tenuous scenario.

     The performances in “Judas and the Black Messiah” are solid across the board, all led by Kaluuya’s ferocious and Oscar worthy turn as Hampton, blending a notable compassion and caring for those he leads, while pushing the boundaries of activism with a pulse pounding display of rage and anger.  All of which culminates in a tragic sequence of events that ultimately led to his untimely death at just 21 years of age.  And given the lead up to that fateful night, King would’ve been wise to allow for a scene showing the preparation for the raid by law enforcement, rather than staging the entire sequence only from the perspective of those inside Hampton’s apartment.  Doing so may have brought further insight as to the true intentions of the cops beyond what we see here as an outright and blatant execution.  There has to be more to the story right?  GRADE: B+

“Coming 2 America” Movie Review


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     Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall recently divulged they made a pact shortly after making 1988’s “Coming to America” agreeing to never make a sequel.  Promises are of course made to be broken, and given the ongoing trend of studios mining their respective IP for sequels, remakes, and reboots in order to present the material to today’s modern audiences, it’s no certainly no surprise the two comedic icons chose to bring their beloved characters back to life.  The sequel comes in the form of director Craig Brewer’s “Coming 2 America”, an as expected rehash of the original film’s formula and story that offers very little to differentiate itself from its predecessor.  They literally reuse the same jokes, though I doubt many will care.

     With much of the 80s film taking place in Queens, the sequel seeks to tell a similar story, but stages the majority of the action in the fictitious African nation of Zamunda.  Still ruled by James Earl Jones’ King Jaffe Joffer, we catch up with his son and heir to the throne, Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) and his wife, Lisa (Shari Headley) as the two have raised a family that includes three young girls.  The King’s primary focus seems to be the fact Akeem is too “soft” to rule once he passes away, with a big concern being the now middle aged Prince has no son to succeed him.  All of this has come to the forefront due to the ongoing threat of a rival nation, led by General Izzi (Wesley Snipes in full Simon Phoenix mode), who has made no secret of their intentions to go to war with Zamunda and overthrow their royal leaders.  Just a note: while this may sound halfway serious, it’s not.

     And then the big revelation comes.  Just before the King dies (he does so during his own funeral that is appropriately narrated by Morgan Freeman), he reveals to Akeem that he has a bastard son in Queens.  Supposedly conceived during a wild and drug infused outing arranged by Semmi (Arsenio Hall) during the events of the first film.  And so the plot thickens!  Akeem and Semmi go back to Queens in search of Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), the until now unbeknownst heir to the throne of Zamunda!  More than anything, this provides Murphy and Hall the opportunity to play all of the characters from Queens again, including Clarence, Saul, and Morris from the barbershop, as well as Reverend Brown and Randy Watson of Sexual Chocolate fame.  It’s nostalgic, no doubt.  Even if it would be difficult to differentiate their look and behavior when realizing there has been over three decades of time lapse.

     It doesn’t take long for Akeem to catch up with Lavelle, as well as his mother and fellow one night stand participant (or is it rapist?), Mary (Leslie Jones).  And there isn’t much convincing needed either as they head back to Zamunda where the original story line is put into play with the young Lavelle now examining the importance of cultivating a meaningful relationship with someone rather than following the rules of his royalty and agreeing to an arranged marriage.

     The love story meant to mimic the same with Akeem and Lisa moves a bit fast and doesn’t sell us on the relationship at anywhere near the same level.  Lavelle is given all of the same royal treatment, jokes surrounding the cleaning of royal body parts included, and in the process meets Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), a woman assigned as his official groomer.  After receiving a slick new do, Lavelle begins to take a liking to Mirembe, but that seems to become much more within only minutes of actual time in the film.  It’s as if Brewer knows that we already know exactly where this is supposed to go and is saving us the hassle of watching the icky romantic stuff.

     Instead, “Coming 2 America” focuses more on the pomp and circumstance that comes with a story centering around a royal family amidst a grand African location.  Practically every scene begins with a musical entrance and dance number, backing the main characters with lavish entourages and choreographed party goers, each of which who rock Oscar winner (“Black Panther”) Ruth Carter’s colorful and over the top costumes with “This is Me” type confidence.  The most entertaining participant of which is clearly Snipes whose garish ensemble matches his ruthless personality perfectly.  Neither Murphy or Hall stand a chance in a scene when Snipes’ General Izzi enters the fray.

     In nearly every example of a long time coming sequel of this magnitude, the result has been a clear recommendation to choose watching the original instead, and “Coming 2 America” does nothing to break the trend.  Perhaps younger audiences will equate the realization of Zamunda on screen to what they liked about the same with Wakanda in “Black Panther”, but locations aside, the reason the original stands as a classic today is the fish out of water aspect of seeing Akeem, arriving from a rich and conservative country, navigate the treacherous waters of urban America with innocence and a complete lack of the necessary street credibility.  It was truly funny.  

     Seeing Lavelle doing essentially the same in  Zamunda doesn’t translate into as satisfying a story.  He’s already pigeonholed into a role decided by the culture, choosing to fight it instead of bowing to tradition, but the wide eyed enthusiasm displayed by Murphy is completely missing.  Instead, we’re given the overwrought idealism of female empowerment in a film where the women remain in the back seat, save for a few well earned moments of questioning the norm.  It gives you the idea the filmmakers were trying to make “Coming 2 America” more than it really needed to be.  Something you would never accuse the original film of doing.  GRADE: C+

“Minari” Movie Review


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     Writer / director Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” is a heartfelt and clearly personal story of which he has said he waited until his experience level as a filmmaker ascended to the proper heights before tackling the most important film of his career.  And the result is nothing short of astonishing, particularly given the simplicity of the story and emotional pitch nearly every scene achieves.  Beautifully photographed and expertly acted, this is what prestige filmmaking is supposed to look like.  With no pretense to be found, the characters portrayed, even given the fact they speak Korean while at home, project that of hardworking Americans who share a common dream of succeeding and making a life for themselves and their family.  There’s inspiration to be had from beginning to end.

     “Minari” introduces us to Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), a married couple who immigrated from Korea in the early 1980s, and after a stop in California have bought a substantial plot of farming land in Arkansas where they plan to start a business and raise their family.  Along with their two American born children, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim), the family arrives at this new home, greeted by a large trailer sitting on cinder blocks which we learn immediately is not to the liking of Monica.

     One of the toughest obstacles any young couple with children will face is coming to a consensus on the brightest  and most logical path for the family to take. A notion that more often than not will bring a difference of opion between men and women.  Jacob bought the land simply because the fertile dirt reminds him of the same he grew up with in Korea, leading him to believe a fruitful business is a near certainty.  Monica, thinking about the kids, doesn’t share Jacob’s vision, instead focusing on the fact they are isolated from any significant populations in the area.  Where will the kids go to school? Who will they befriend and will they be accepted?  What church will the family attend?  All of which are questions Jacob seems to have overlooked since his primary focus remains on investing whatever money they have scraped together on farm equipment and supplies in order to get the family business up and running.

     Chung’s focus remains on the dynamics of the family unit as they attempt to get through a significant rough patch in both their relationships, as well as the inherent pitfalls of farming.  These issues are not compounded necessarily by the introduction of two of the film’s most interesting characters, but both seem to have no problem stealing scenes, while also elevating the material to even higher emotional heights.  The first is Paul (Will Patton), a Korean War veteran who delivers a tractor to the farm and ensures Jacob knows he would be an excellent hand for him to hire, which he does.  Paul can be all business when there is work to be done, but can also instantly transform into a cross carrying servant of God on a whim.  His jovial demeanor often brings a needed smile to the proceedings, but given the conservative nature of Jacob and Monica, it can also leave him judged as being a bit too strange.

     Perhaps the most important character introduced about a quarter of the way through is Monica’s visiting mother, Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn).  And it’s the budding relationship between Soonja and the family’s 7 year old David that really brings a sense of authentic cohabitant interplay to every scene.  They have their ups and downs together, with David regularly complaining of the fact she isn’t the kind of grandmother they expected.  After all, we want our grandmothers to spoil us and bake cookies, but this one isn’t exactly the preconceived type.  Clearly, Soonja has something else in mind for her grandchildren and none of it fits within the stereotypes primarily created in America.  But the two of them together is something to behold on screen, with one shining example being how they share a recurring inside joke about Mountain Dew.  The chemistry achieved in these performances allows for some of the very best acting you will see this year.

     As we watch, you can’t escape the parallels with practically any family story that sees them starting from scratch and working toward building something everyone can be proud of.  But it’s the journey that can be difficult and often unforgiving.  Jacob and Monica continue to struggle to find a shared path towards their goals, even finding themselves on the brink of divorce as they fight for what they believe individually to be the most important.  It’s the kind of story where we are meant to picture ourselves in the same scenario and realize that life is hard, regardless of your skin color or nationality.  But at the same time, if you want to succeed, you must take the good with the bad and understand no one else’s life is perfect either.  Effectively and artfully conveying that point alone makes “Minari” one of the best films of the year.  GRADE: A

“I Care a Lot” Movie Review


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     Writer/director J Blakeson’s “I Care a Lot” takes full advantage of the persona created by Rosamund Pike in 2014’s “Gone Girl” and utilizes those character traits for a more sinister purpose.  In this case, we have Marla Grayson (Pike), an ambitious business woman who runs a company that seeks out and oversees individuals, typically older ones, who can no longer care for themselves and are now considered wards of the state by law.  Of course, that in itself would be boring, so Blakeson’s idea here is to not only create a scenario that is unethical, but wildly criminal, complete with lesbian love affairs, tiny gangsters with an affinity for baked goods, and double crosses galore.  Sound fun?  Well it is.  Particularly if you’re a fan of Pike’s ability to morph into these sleazy, yet can’t take your eyes off her type of characters. 

     The main issue with “I Care a Lot” is just how much plot convenience needs to happen in order for you to actually accept all of this is plausible in the first place.  Early on, Marla sets the stage for her ongoing scam where court proceedings see her arguing against the adult son of one of her wards as to why it is imperative his mother stay under her care.  The judge sees it Marla’s way, as we learn her network of cohorts includes the manager of a live in care facility, Sam (Damian Young), and a doctor, Dr. Amos (Alicia Witt), whose opinion and orders are the very thing that tips the scales in Marla’s favor.  At this point, she can keep a ward under close guard and control at the care facility, all while liquidating the person’s sometimes considerable assets and lawfully paying herself to do so.  Scary, I know.

     The thrust of the story centers around an opportunity presented to Marla by Dr. Amos in the form of an older wealthy woman named Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), who lives alone and has no known family on file.  Marla and her business partner, Fran (Eiza Gonzalez), refer to this type of person as a “cherry”, meaning this is the kind of referral that can pay dividends for years to come.  And this is also where we run into a multitude of issues with Blakeson’s script, given how fast this process moves and how simple it is to literally remove someone from their home and put them in a prison like facility with virtually no defense at all.  No in person court appearance.  No ability to obtain counsel.  Just an unknown to her person knocking on the door and saying pack a bag, you’re being moved to a care facility on an “emergency order”.  It’s a far fetched scenario, even within the confines of a crime story.

     Obviously, Jennifer is right there along with the audience, but with her cell phone confiscated and the sudden isolation alone in a room, drugged and disoriented, she has no way to call for help.  But who would she call?  Remember, she was said to have no family.  But to the detriment of Marla and Fran, they begin to realize she is not who they originally thought.  The second and third acts of Blakeson’s film move directly into that of mob bosses and gangsters, some of which are dimwits who can’t seem to complete even the simplest of tasks, while others, like Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), are cold and calculating, setting up what appears to be a game of wits between Marla and the mysterious family members of Jennifer’s past.

     Much of this is quite entertaining.  Particularly as Marla is engulfed within the violent outbursts of her adversaries, but doesn’t seem to blink an eye under the intense pressure.  There’s a point where you would think cutting bait is the best solution, but then we realize her unwillingness to lose and clear passion to succeed means these ongoing threats are merely a chess move in a much bigger game.  Marla wants to be rich and powerful and she knows side stepping a few landmines is a part of the anticipated path to stardom.  She says as much in an opening voice over where she quips about society being made up of bad people and no good people.  Regardless of whether she’s looking eye to eye with Roman or one of her wards, she enters the scenario with a level of mistrust, so as to be prepared for the inevitable double cross.  I mean, she should know right?

     As with all good crime films, a certain level of style must be present along with a solid core of performances in order to set itself apart from the heap.  For most of the time, “I Care a Lot” accomplishes both.  Blakeson clearly embraces visual flair, utilizing a bright colorful palette in every shot as each composition has the appearance of significant thought and planning well beyond just pointing and shooting.  But movies normally succeed on the backs of their stars and the believability of their performances.  And this is where the film tends to shine more often than not.  Pike is fabulous as always, even when her dark side might remind us a little too much of a previous character.  Both Wiest and Dinklage provide exactly the kind of impact you want from the supporting roles, often stealing scenes from even Pike at times with hilarious takes on their characters.  Each bring forth the necessary ingredients for a solid cautionary tale, even when some of the details are left out in order to ensure the plot moves in the desired direction.  GRADE: B-

“Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” Movie Review


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     Some ten years later after teaming up to write the Academy Award nominated screenplay for 2011’s laugh out loud comedy “Bridesmaids”, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo return with a new twist on silliness with “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar."  In addition to penning the script, the duo headlines as the title characters whose outgoing midwestern personas are sure to make you smile.  It’s the kind of film that ignores the rules of conventional plotting and characterization, choosing instead to create its own game plan as the story genre bends everything from the standard Bond style spy flick to the zany Zucker style parodies.  Such an approach means you really will never know what they’ll do next, which is actually what makes the entire experience such a hoot.

     Barb (Annie Mumolo) and Star (Kristen Wiig) are the very best of friends.  The kind who can live together during their middle aged years, and still chat it up for hours nonstop during a flight from their hometown in Nebraska to central Florida.  All while giggling like teenagers at the constant thought of a make believe person of whom they both share within their respective imaginations.  There’s no question these two are in sync.  And apparently, they’ve never left Nebraska after Star became unceremoniously single when she found out her husband had cheated on her, and Barb lost her husband to cancer.  So after coming to that realization, spurned by their sudden loss of employment when the furniture store they work at closes permanently, they decide to take a long overdue vacation traveling to a posh Florida resort.

     Directed by Josh Greenbaum, the story moves directly into an almost “Austin Powers” like setting and scenario when it is revealed a young paperboy, Yoyo (Reyn Doi), is actually a henchman for an evil powder skinned sun light adverse woman named Sharon (also Kristin Wiig in true Mike Myers fashion).  Along with a would a would be lover, Edgar (Jamie Dornan), and a disposable mad scientist, the group forges ahead with a plan to commit mass murder at an annual Vista Del Mar event by way of deadly controllable mosquitoes.  Yes, really.  All of this is hatched in an evil lair that would certainly meet Dr. Evil’s approval and you begin to understand really fast that this film will not be apologizing for the liberties it has chosen to take.  As much of this seems wholly original, there’s always a backdrop, setting, or character arc that seems oddly familiar.

     But how can you not like Barb and Star?  After all, they may very well be the most likable pair of characters you’ll see in a film all year.  And who’s to say something that makes you feel happy isn’t sorely needed right now?  From the moment they arrive at their Florida resort, where the entire staff breaks out into a lavish and colorful musical number, to the ongoing antics surrounding their chance meeting with Edgar and subsequent lusting after, who remember is on a mission to ensure everyone at the resort is killed, there isn’t a dull moment to be had.  

     Practically every scene shifts to something unusual.  Whether it be a piano player randomly singing a song about his favorite female body part in the resort lounge, or Barb and Star’s squirrel like tendencies to ignore the task at hand in favor of a sea shell kiosk that suddenly catches their eye, you start to wonder if any of this will actually ever conclude in the way one might expect.  It doesn’t, believe me.  And that’s ok, because the story never loses its momentum.  There’s always a new character introduced at just the right time in order to keep you on your toes.  You think a typical love triangle is afoot, but then suddenly the world’s worst covert spy shows up in the form of the bumbling Darlie Bunkle (Damon Wayan’s Jr.) and you’re left guessing again.

     And while this might not work for those with a discriminating taste in film consumption, those who did see merit in films like “Austin Powers”, “The Naked Gun”, and virtually any other spoof type movie, will find the trip with Barb and Star more than worth it.  The film provides an opportunity to yet again see Wiig And Mumolo working at the height of their creative and imaginative powers, providing a much needed break from the onslaught of downer material we’ve all been watching this awards season. “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is colorful, hilarious, and most of all, fun, leaving me to wonder what color culottes they’ll be wearing in the sequel? GRADE: B

“Nomadland” Movie Review


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     Writer / director Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” is that film which comes along ever so often proving incomparable to anything else we have ever seen.  The touching story of a middle aged woman who has lost everything, and her subsequent journey across America in a cargo van, brings forth the kind of authenticity seen only in the best documentaries.  This is a film truly about something, exploring the inner depths of loneliness, loss, and the strange and obscure places we tend to find life altering inspiration.  If there ever was a complete film, “Nomadland”, boasting awards worthy performances, direction, screenwriting, and cinematography, may come the closest to achieving the perfection every filmmaker strives for.

     Empire, once a populated mining town in rural Nevada, was one of the many casualties across the country resulting from the Great Recession.  Imagine a place whose economic viability is solely dependent on one business operation and you’d have a picture of the town where Fern (Frances McDormand) and her husband lived for their entire adult lives.  He as a proud employee of the mining company, and her working support jobs within the community.  But suddenly a perfect storm of bad luck and tragedy hit the couple, with a terminal cancer diagnosis ultimately leading to his death, and the long time plant where they both worked shutting down, leading to a mass exodus of the town and hundreds of people without work or a place to live.

     So Fern decides to store her belongings and travel the country in a van, both to find work and to somehow create a new life after losing everything.  Seasonal jobs means parking and living at RV parks or desert encampments with others who are similarly situated.  And so we follow her from site to site, job to job, taking her through Northern Nevada and as far East as South Dakota.  She meets several interesting characters along the way, many of which are actual nomads Zhao has cast in the film.  How real all of this feels is astonishing.

     Zhao works from a screenplay she adapted from Jessica Bruder’s book, a chronicle of her own journalistic experiences alongside people who have chosen to live on the road.  The film makes a compelling statement against our broken financial system that seems to leave behind many who find themselves in circumstances well beyond their control.  For Fern, she had lost her husband and was forced to walk away from a home that was now worthless.  After all, who would buy a home in a place where the primary economic driver was permanently shut down?  We buy homes for both the promise of a future and the ability to build a strong financial foundation.  But what happens when you don’t see a winning return on that bet?

     The subculture sees people with very little, often with a mere few precious possessions or heirlooms they have room for in their ultra small living spaces.  When someone is in need, it seems everyone tries to support one another, whether it be through trading a sandwich for a cigarette, or alerting someone to a perspective job opening at a tourist stop a couple states away.  Fern has only been at this for about a year (the story takes place in 2011), but her likable personality and clear empathy for others allows her to survive and in many cases flourish in the role of providing comfort for many who have fallen on hard times.

     For McDormand, one of our most exceptional acting talents who has twice won a Best Actress Oscar (“Fargo” -1996 & “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” -2017), she may very well be on her way to winning a third trophy.  Her performance is the clear heart and soul of the film, having created a persona that seems to represent so many who share a similar plight.  She has her own story, and yet she sits and listens attentively to everyone she comes across.  But it’s her solo scenes that seem to really elevate the role beyond that of a typical character in a road movie.  As we follow along with Fern as she navigates through a series of never-ending set backs, Zhao creates a number of scenes that contain some very personal moments.  Some are meant to depict the harshness of this kind of life, while others allow the audience to feel the emotions that are running through her as she begins to discover a peaceful serenity while beholding some of the most beautiful landscapes throughout this country. 

     If you’re familiar with the term “magic hour” within the realm of filmmaking, cinematographer Joshua James Richards puts on a master’s class in the utilization of this time of day for a number of gorgeous shots throughout the film.  This is the hour just prior to sunset where the crew has a few precious minutes to get the scene shot before losing natural light for the day.  The orange, pink, and purple hues emanating from the sky, provide the right tone for the many sequences depicting Fern’s journey.  It’s as if each and every one of Chao’s compositions had the benefit of the perfect sunset to go along with the beautiful wide angle shots of snow capped mountain ranges and national park quality views.

     The only real question is will Fern continue this life after a year on the road?  Or will she finally come to terms with her tragic past and take one of several offers from both family, as well as one of her former road buddies, Dave (David Strathairn), to once again live with a roof over her head.  But like all great films, some questions remain unanswered.  There’s a mystery as to the path Fern will ultimately choose.  In a strange sort of way, she seems content.  Likely for the first time in a long time.  When you finally achieve inner peace, it’s difficult to change course and potentially give that up.  In a world where people struggle mightily to somehow find their way, Fern seems to have things just how she want them.  GRADE: A