Reviews


“Black Panther” Movie Review


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     For all the sociopolitical importance bestowed on Marvel’s “Black Panther”, it should not be ignored that the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, yet again, successfully able to bring forth new characters into the larger story and allow them to flourish in ways most movie franchises can only dream of doing.  Using many of the same storytelling devices already proven successful when Marvel introduced audiences to the characters in “Guardians of the Galaxy”, director Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) brings to vivid and colorful life the isolated African country of Wakanda, continuing the story of King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who was introduced in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” as the Black Panther.  And interestingly enough, there are so many outstanding and memorable characters throughout the film, that T’Challa himself has a bit of a problem maintaining the audience’s full attention.  There is just so much to see, explore, and experience.

     As is explained in the film’s prologue, Wakanda is an African nation whose land was long ago struck by a meteor containing an otherworldly ore called Vibranium, which is mined and used by its people to help create the advanced technology we see throughout the many sequences in the film taking place there.  The metal is responsible for everything from the ships and weapons that make up the nation’s defenses, to the energy absorbent suit the Black Panther himself wears when taking on missions in his country’s name.  Strangely enough; however, the country has isolated itself from the rest of Africa and the world, recognized by other nations as a third world country comprised of poor farmers and nothing more.  But what is found within their borders is a country flourishing with the kind of riches and technology one would compare to the grandest of cities seen only in a science fiction film, rather than the present day.

     Within its borders, the people who make up the country speak frequently of protecting their way of life, never allowing outsiders in, nor divulging the power they possess.  Coogler, and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole, have conceived an emotionally charged story that exposes the cracks within Wakanda’s isolationist structure and the fact they, like all countries, have secrets in their past which they go to great lengths to keep that way.  All of this didn’t prevent an arms dealer named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) from infiltrating Wakanda and stealing a piece of their precious metal, which he in turn uses to create a powerful weapon for his own exploits.  He also set off an explosion, killing thousands and leaving a price on his head that many within the Wankanda inner circle plan on having him pay for with his life.

     But a mysterious man within Klaue’s entourage seems to have an agenda of own.  Known for his penchant for killing men in combat, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), appears to be a powerful ally, but we soon realize there is something more to his participation in Klaue’s nefarious plan.  In fact, he has one of his own.  Through a previously unknown bloodline, Killmonger is set to challenge T’Challa for the throne and title of King of Wakanda.  And his cause brings chaos and uncertainty to a nation that has thrived without negative attention for generations.  The rhetoric spoken by Killmonger is that of an angry, hateful man who seeks to use the power and technology possessed by Wakanda to overpower the oppressors of people around the world who share the same skin color as they do.  There are some within the hierarchy who stand with Killmonger, including the leader of one of the most powerful tribes, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), and others who simply support the will of their King.  As these events unfold, T’Challa deals with what may well be a civil war of his own, with factions he once thought loyal now starring him down as the enemy.

     As good as Boseman’s T’Challa and Jordan’s Killmonger are, the best scenes in “Black Panther” are the ones featuring the three most prominent female characters.  Fans of “The Walking Dead” will love Danai Gurira’s turn as General Okoye, the leader of the King’s guard, who steals every scene she’s in with a combination of witty dialogue and athletic skill that instantly makes her one of the very best heroes in the Marvel Universe.  And right behind her is Lupita Nyong’o’s Wakanda spy Nakia, the love interest of T’Challa who can match both his physical prowess as well as his will to do what’s right for the country and the world.  And even Letitia Wright’s Shuri shines as a sort of “Q” from the Bond films, providing T’Challa with the various gizmos and suit technology that allow his Black Panther to come out on top against the fiercest of foes.  The supporting work here by all three of these ladies, as well as Forrest Whitaker, Martin Freeman, Sterling K. Brown, and Angela Bassett round out one of the most impressive non “Avengers” casts we’ve seen in a Marvel film to date, boasting a plethora of Academy Award winners and nominees to go along with many notable character actors.

     But it’s Coogler who ultimately brings this amazing vision to the screen, putting his stamp on the ever expanding Marvel culture and expertly giving life to incredible characters who will likely become staples within the universe for years to come.  The level of creativity demonstrated by the story, production design, costumes, and use of CGI effects is as good as I’ve seen in any of the  other Marvel films, giving the film a unique and unmistakable look all its own.  And while it’s difficult to rank or differentiate the 18 Marvel films from one another, especially when each occupies the same cinematic space, I will simply contend Coogler’s film belongs in the upper half of Marvel’s many outstanding creations that somehow have maintained such lofty standards and continue to evolve and get better with every entry.  Also, with the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War”, a film that will see the inclusion of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” characters, the Earth based offering just became a whole lot more interesting as King T’Challa and the people of Wakanda enter the fray.  From the looks of it, the Avengers will need all the help they can get.  GRADE: A

“The 15:17 to Paris” Movie Review


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     It brings me great pain to say this, but when you’re wrong, you’re wrong.  Though the act of bravery and heroism it eventually depicts cannot be denied,  director Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris” is a disaster of a film in nearly every aspect.  And that’s incredibly difficult to say, given Eastwood’s recent successes including 2014’s “American Sniper” and 2016’s “Sully” among many films we now refer to as classics, but here the director makes a fatal decision that completely derails any hope of the heroes in this harrowing scenario getting the kind of cinematic tribute they deserve.

     “The 15:17 to Paris” is the true story of the three Americans in the midst of a European vacation in the late summer of 2015, who while traveling on a train to Paris, found themselves face to face with a terrorist intending to gun down as many passengers as the 300 rounds of ammunition he was carrying would allow.  In choosing to have Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, the three heroic vacationers who subdued and neutralized the terrorists’ attack, play themselves in the film, Eastwood effectively ruins every scene that surrounds the five or so minutes of screen time depicting the actual incident.  Lets face it, acting is a professional endeavor, often requiring the path of years of hard work, practice, coaching, resume building, and honing your craft.  And considering the film chronicles the general life story of all three of these men, the need for actual actors in scenes that require real emotional depth has never been more glaring.  Can you imagine if Eastwood would’ve had Chesley Sullenberger playing himself in “Sully” rather than Tom Hanks?  And because the roles require an abundance of character building scenes, the result here is in no way comparable to the real life Navy SEALs who portrayed themselves in 2012’s “Act of Valor”, which relied mostly on the kind of action sequences those men were already accustomed to.

     Dorothy Blyskal’s script, adapted from Anthony Sadler’s book, does the film no favors either.  From the beginning, it’s filled with a series of odd choices for scenes used to convey certain aspects of these guy’s lives in ways that make absolutely no sense.  Various points in their childhood and early adult lives are given scenes that never tie into the bigger picture and thus make no sense in being included in the film in the first place.  And even where there are actual actors involved, they’re wasted in roles where they deliver inconsequential lines and then are discarded for the rest of the picture with no legitimate reason for them to have even made an appearance.  Particularly troubling are a series of scenes involving Stone’s and Skarlatos’s mothers, played by Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, in which they attempt to navigate the stereotypical pitfalls of single motherhood, but never once are you really sure what any of this has to do with heroic actions that will come ten plus year later.

     Two abysmal scenes come to mind.  The first is a sequence in which the moms meet with one of their son’s teachers who tells them both kids may have Attention Deficit Disorder and should consider medication to help quell their unwanted tendencies.  As the scene concludes, and I began to survey in my mind just how poorly written and acted it was, I suddenly wondered if Tommy Wiseau was brought in as a guest director for the scene, but then that thought creeped in over and over again since all of this gets progressively worse from there.  Someone must’ve thought it would be cute to cast Thomas Lennon (Lt. Dangle from “Reno 911!”) in the role of a Christian school principal who looks at the two mothers in a later scene and proclaims to one of them that Skarlatos should go live with his father.  This is said when we haven’t seen the father at all during the film and then you wonder since when do schools have any say which parent a child should live with?  But then, sure as the principal had said it, the very next scene we see Skarlatos getting into a truck with who we presume is his dad (His face is left out of frame and he doesn't say a word while Skarlatos’s mom is saying good bye.) and then off he goes with no explanation as to what led up to such a major change for the child.  Neither of these kids are delinquents or get in any sort of real trouble, so the entire sequence is baffling.

     Perhaps the details of the incident on the train have left most to determine the actions of Stone and Skarlatos were more important to the outcome, but the Sadler character is almost completely ignored during the childhood scenes, and in fact his parents are never seen nor mentioned.  It’s unknown as to why. When the film moves forward to their then current age, we are treated mostly to Stone’s struggles in losing enough weight to get into the Air Force, as well as Skarlatos’ being deployed in Afghanistan as a member of the Oregon National Guard.  None of these scenes make much sense either.  At one point, we endure a minutes long scene in which Skarlatos, who is part of a military convoy operation in Afghanistan, discovers he has forgotten his backpack in a village they had previously stopped at.  So we watch as the convoy turns around, goes back to the village, and retreives his backpack from one of the town’s inhabitants.  Are you telling me this is the most interesting experience Skarlatos had while serving, so as to necessitate its inclusion in a film attempting to document his life up until the incident on the train?  Again, not much is shown about Sadler and his story, but ultimately, the three decide to take a break and go on a lengthy tour of Europe, which as we know leads them to the point where they are on the train to Paris.

     Not surprisingly, Eastwood stages the terrorist sequence and its immediate aftermath with all of the skill and precision you would expect, even with the crippling effect of three non actors at the center of it all.  But getting there is a difficult venture.  For forty five minutes we are treated to scenes of Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler moving about various European cities taking selfies, hitting on women, and dancing at nightclubs.  All of which serves no purpose other than to document the steps they took in arriving on the train to Paris, all the while exhibiting exactly why each of them should've been played by real actors.  These scenes are as painful as they are unnecessary.  Which makes me wonder.  Why not produce a documentary on this subject and allow these three heroes to give their account without the pressures of acting and having them recall the incident with the kind of real emotion only someone who was there could possibly convey?  Such a project might have had the time to look into the motivations of Ayoub El Khazzani as well, examining what led him to choose that train on that day to complete such an evil act.  Eastwood never bothers to tell us anything about the terrorist, leaving him faceless for all but a moment and in the process doing no favors to the Muslim community and the stigma they must endure on a daily basis because of the actions of a rotten few.  Bottom line is there was a great film and a worthy story somewhere in there, but Eastwood apparently couldn’t find it.  GRADE: D

“The Cloverfield Paradox” Movie Review


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     Some may not have noticed.  Others might not understand the magnitude of the decision.  But Netflix not so quietly created a completely new model for releasing a feature film this past Super Bowl Sunday, launching the unexpected premiere of “The Cloverfield Paradox” on their streaming service after the big game’s end.  In doing so, they effectively shocked the entire Hollywood and entertainment community, as it was thought the film would be released in theaters by Paramount, the home to the first two “Cloverfield” features, which include 2008’s found footage mega monster thriller “Cloverfield”, as well as 2016’s post apocalyptic bunker mystery “10 Cloverfield Lane”.  The new film, again produced by J.J. Abrams, brings the franchise into the harsh confines of space with a sort of astronauts trapped in a space station scenario whose visual cues will instantly remind filmgoers of the “Alien” franchise, as well as its many imitators, namely last year’s “Life” and 1997’s “Event Horizon”.

     From the onset, “The Cloverfield Paradox” presents a well designed and thought out setting for the characters to occupy.  Director Julius Onah moves his camera throughout a number of colorful and technologically advanced sets created by Production Designer Doug Meerdink, as the sounds of Bear McCreary’s score give the emotional push every film like this requires, resulting in the apparent look and feel of a high concept film.  Even the cast is filled with the kind of Oscar caliber thespians (David Oyelowo, Daniel Bruhl, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and solid character actors (Chris O’Dowd, John Ortiz, Ziyi Zhang) who one would normally assume have signed on after reading a script they felt would allow them to deliver the kind of stellar performances that grace each of their previous filmographies.  But unfortunately, that’s exactly where things begin to go downhill since Oren Uziel’s script delivers a clunky and often convoluted storyline that has no apparent connection to the other two films at all.

     In what appears to be a dystopian version of the present day, the planet Earth and its population have found itself in the midst of an energy crisis so severe that nations are prepared to go to war over a proper solution.  One of the few hopes of peace, as well as solving a problem that could potentially wipe out the human race, is the work of a small crew of scientists currently manning a space station hovering in orbit above Earth.  The perfectly diverse crew allows for a representative from each of the world’s most developed countries (We know this because each wears their country’s patch on their sleeve.), as they conduct a series of experiments with a new form of energy they call a “particle accelerator”.  Should they be successful, the thinking is they will have solved the crisis and will help restore order to the planet.  Fail, and life as we know it is over.  Seems like a nifty premise right?

     Actually, things delve into a completely different direction in the interest of allowing for a few cheap thrills and having a reason to start picking off each character one by one in much the same way we have seen in countless other films.  During a trial run of their new found source of energy, the experiment goes haywire, apparently sending the space station into another dimension that shares an alternate reality of the same crew, but under different circumstances.  Strange things then begin to happen.  Weird stuff like a guy whose arm is suddenly sucked into a metal wall in a hallway and when he is released, his arm is missing, but he feels no pain or shock.  Then, a few minutes later, the crew is amazed to see his arm dragging itself down the hall with an apparent mind of its own.  But no one reacts with any kind of urgency or horror you would think people should in this situation.  Instead, they just stand there with their mouths open as O’Dowd’s now one armed Irish scientist quips one liners designed for comic relief.

     There’s plenty more odd happenings the crew deals with in the middle half, but none of it adds up to anything other than the theory that the particle accelerator somehow combined their realities with another version of themselves .  Not to mention they are no longer orbiting Earth and need to find a way back before their respective countries go to war.  If anything, you would expect that a film with the word “Cloverfield’ in the title would at least have some sort of connection with the other two films, but instead “The Cloverfield Paradox” manages to muddy the waters even further and bares no resemblance to the storyline of either of the first two films.  Standing alone, the film plays as just another entry in a long line of films looking to capitalize on the success and creativity behind Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, neither succeeding in enhancing the genre nor does it break new ground in any way.  Maybe the entire stunt with Netflix announcing during the Super Bowl that a new feature film would be premiering as soon as the game was over, was merely a last ditch attempt to generate interest in something that would’ve certainly bombed at the actual box office.  At least this way we’ll never know.  GRADE: D

“Kickboxer: Retaliation” Movie Review


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     Director Dimitri Logothetis’ “Kickboxer: Retaliation” continues the new story set forth by its predecessor, “Kickboxer: Vengeance”, in a simple easy to digest manner, choosing to follow the familiar path of taking our hero through a video game like whirlwind of savage opponents, as he moves closer to the behemoth awaiting him at the end.  In other words, it’s like a modern retelling of the video game “Mike Tyson’s Punch Out”, inserting Kurt Sloane (Alain Moussi) as the challenger.  And get this, Mike Tyson is actually in the film! Joining him are an endless lineup of UFC and notable MMA stars from the past and present including Frankie Edgar, Renato Sobral, Wanderlei Silva, Roy Nelson, Fabricio Werdum, Mauricio Rua, and of course, Jean-Claude Van Damme reprising his role from the previous film as Master Durand.  Toss in a blast from the past mobster role for Christopher Lambert and it seems you have the makings of a martial arts epic for the ages.

     Well sort of.  For those of us old enough to have appreciated 1989’s Van Damme starrer “Kickboxer” in which the fledgling action star took down the vicious Tong Po, the series has taken on a kind of classic feel in that these reboots seem to be required viewing for some unexplainable reason.  The newer significantly amped up versions, which feature Van Damme in the role of the trainer for the character, Kurt Sloane, who he played in the original, take full advantage of the now mainstream sport of Mixed Martial Arts in order to allow the series to gain a commercial appeal not available back in the 1980s.  Still though, the filmmakers, for the most part, stay away from available CGI techniques and present the action as full on choreographed martial arts, a welcome aspect that keeps the general spirit of those coveted 80s action flicks alive.

     “Kickboxer: Retaliation” isn’t a particularly well acted film, and you shouldn’t expect it to be.  The script, written by director Dimitri Logothetis and Jim McGrath, spares us the exposition and simply moves from fight sequence to fight sequence, with an occasional one liner thrown in for good measure.  With this sort of thing having already been done in countless films over the decades, Logothetis does a fine job injecting originality through lighting, set design, editing, and style in order to give these set pieces something standing out as being different.  Nearly every low light scene is lit with the yellows, greens, and oranges that are commonplace in Michael Bay films, giving the proceedings plenty of color and avoiding anything that looks drab or gritty.  There are several sequences staged during the daytime (one of which has Sloane moving throughout scaffolding outside a building, dispatching would be challengers in blood-soaked slow motion as he moves from the upper floors to the ground level.), something action films of all kinds seemingly avoid in order to hide what they don’t want you to see.  But here, the stunt players seem to take the actual shots being delivered and manage to fall in all sorts of painful to watch ways.

     There actually is a story to follow believe it or not.  Sloane, who had beaten and killed Tong Po in the previous entry, now makes his living as an MMA fighter in the U.S., enjoying an undefeated record in the process.  That is until he is kidnapped and brought back to Thailand, supposedly under the guise of facing charges for Tong Po’s murder.  Turns out that’s not the case at all, as a seedy mobster named Thomas Moore (Christopher Lambert) intends on having Sloane fight his new champion, a 6’8 400 pound monster called Mongkut played by “Game of Thrones” star Hafpor Julius Bjornsson.  Moore’s terms are simple.  Fight Mongut or be imprisoned for the rest of your life.  At first, Sloane chooses prison, but the story, which stretches to nearly two hours, has plenty for Sloane to deal with before he ultimately agrees to the fight.  The kind of stuff you will predict, given the film utilizes the very same martial arts and revenge flick tropes that have been used for years.

     All of this can be engaging at times.  The chemically enhanced Mongkut is certainly as powerful an adversary as they could’ve come up with.  You might be happy with the film’s endless array of homages to everything from “Enter the Dragon” and the famous house of mirrors fight sequence, to the use of an adrenaline shot in much the same way we saw in “Pulp Fiction”.  Iron Mike is hilarious in his brief role as a mentor and trainer for Sloane during his prison stint, and Van Damme manages a number of worthwhile moments himself as Sloane’s now jailed kickboxing master.  At no time will you feel like Logothetis and his team phoned it in, as each sequence has some aspect about it indicating the effort and craft that went into each and every shot.  As a martial arts film, “Kickboxer: Retaliation” delivers the kind of action and mayhem that was once commonplace and has somehow gone away in the digital age.  These guys are here to get down and dirty, and there’s something you have to respect about that.  GRADE: B-

“Maze Runner: The Death Cure” Movie Review


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     There was a lot written in 2015 about “Mad Max: Fury Road” director George Miller and the fact that at the age of 72, he was still showing the younger generation of filmmakers what a properly constructed action sequence looks like done properly.  You wont be watching “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” for more than ten minutes before you realize director Wes Ball was obviously paying attention.  In fact, you get the feeling Ball was likely busy watching everything from “Aliens” to “Resident Evil” during the three year long hiatus between the new film and the series’ second installment “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials”.  That’s not to say Ball hasn’t brought the franchise based on the popular YA novels by James Dashner to a satisfying conclusion, but one can’t help but to notice the debt the series owes to the production designs and action set pieces of several notable classic science fiction films.

     The first in the series, 2014s “The Maze Runner”, had a number of unique attributes even when compared to the glut of YA films at the time attempting to cash in on the success of “The Hunger Games” franchise.  When you think about it, it’s actually quite an accomplishment that this third installment made it the screen given the downfall of its one time competitor “Divergent” and the failure that series has endured in getting the final installment produced due to poor box office reception.  It’s likely what allowed “The Maze Runner” to succeed was the fact it features a male lead, Dylan O’Brien’s Thomas, and thus avoids the inevitable comparisons to Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” which Shailene Woodley’s Tris character in “Divergent” could not.  

     O’Brien, who spent the time between installments starring opposite Mark Wahlberg in 2016s “Deepwater Horizon” and Michael Keaton in 2017s “American Assassin”,  now seems like a grizzled veteran as Thomas, the first to escape the maze and currently the would be savior of human kind from the deadly virus plaguing the human race.  His confidence in the role is obvious, and the support he gets from several key characters only enhances his effectiveness as a leader within the band of rebellious teens who seek to take down the authority figures within the story, a hallmark theme of every YA novel.  Somehow we have come to a point in our own history where children have become so entitled and given so much so early in their lives, that they come to believe at a very young age they know enough to succeed on their own, adults be damned.  And of course, it’s the adults in these stories who possess all the power and wield it with an iron fist, setting up the reasoning as to why these kids feel the need to make a stand.  To them, I say good luck with that.

     But in a work of fantasy and fiction, it’s the youngsters who flourish against the nefarious evil doing grown ups.  Whether it be “The Hunger Games”, “Divergent”, or “The Maze Runner”, you can simply swap the likes of Aiden Gillen’s Janson (“The Death Cure”), Kate Winslet’s Jeanine (“Insurgent”), or Donald Sutherland’s President Snow (“The Hunger Games”), putting them into either of these well known series and you would have the exact same result, as the characters are carbon copies of one another.  And that’s what becomes frustrating about these YA franchises.  When characters can be interchanged between different films with no consequence to the plot or the end game of the story, that’s a problem.  A problem created by the fact that every studio has been chasing the success of “The Hunger Games” by attempting to duplicate the appeal of the characters and the arc of the story rather than creating something original.

     All that said, “The Death Cure” still works on a number of important levels.  Ball, who has directed all three installments, again works from a script by T. S. Nowlin who also has been on board the entire way.  The events of the first two films lead Thomas, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Brenda (Rosa Salazar), and Frypan (Dexter Darden) to the Last City where the evil WKCD (World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department) corporation has Minho (Ki Hong Lee) held prisoner, performing experiments on him and other immune children in an effort to find a cure for the virus that turns the population into blood sucking zombies.  At its core, that’s quite a common plot thread in today’s popular culture fueled by the likes of “The Walking Dead” among many other undead populated movies and television shows, but like the highly rated AMC drama, “The Death Cure” succeeds because of the characters and the fact we have been with them since 2014.  There’s been a lot development in these young pups, and along the way they’ve discovered a lot about themselves, who they can trust, and who they can not.

     A revelation from “The Scorch Trials” led to the defection of Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) from the main group to join scientist Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) of WKCD in an effort to find a cure.  That obviously didn't go over well with Thomas, as much of the emotional charge within the story relates directly to their relationship as the group attempts to find a way into the Last City and infiltrate WKCD’s headquarters to rescue Minho and put an end to the torturous experimentation being conducted.  A miraculous return of a character long thought to be dead fuels Thomas’ plan and leads to a non stop third act that owes plenty to “Blade Runner” for the futuristic cityscapes the characters traverse, as well as “Aliens” for the climactic life and death sequence that concludes the story.

     There’s also the unfortunate issue of seeing Giancarlo Esposito and Aiden Gillen on screen only to consistently conjure up images of their superior characters in “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” due to the bland and often pointless way in which they are used here.  But overall, the filmmakers succeed in giving the story a worthy conclusion, allowing each of the key protagonists to have several notable moments, while managing to interject a number of surprising turns by characters whose motives may not be what we once thought.  This results in a final installment that is certain to please fans of the series, even if the prevailing issue is we have seen this movie before and done at a higher level.  GRADE: C+

“Phantom Thread” Movie Review


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     “Phantom Thread”, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s sumptuous, almost too perfect opus about an eccentric dressmaker and his bizarro triangular relationship with his sister and his young lover is one of the best films of 2017, a sure fire awards contender, and represents some of the director’s most notable work in the last decade. Expertly acted and designed with the most minute of detail, Anderson’s work here may be one of the most subtly shocking narratives of any film in the last few years, utilizing the impeccable talents of three time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis to create one the most memorable and unique characters of his brilliant film career.  And the supporting turns by Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville fill each scene with both the kind of genuine love you would expect from people close to you, as well as a constant unnerving tension that bites at your heels.  The film is a master’s work in the study of close family relationships, examining the inner workings of each character’s personality and how they directly affect those beside them.

     Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) has built a reputation as the finest dressmaker and designer in London, sought after by the wealthiest of clients who seek to look their very best when in the public eye.  Taking place sometime in the 1950s, the film seeks to first establish Day-Lewis’ character through a series of scenes that indicate his meticulous nature.  He’s an older man who follows staunch daily routines which in his mind continue to contribute to his overwhelming success.  We may look at an individual like this as being set in his ways, but you quickly get the idea Reynolds lives his life a certain way because it is this regimented lifestyle that keeps him focused and gives him purpose.  He says he has never been married, preferring instead to live life as a sought after bachelor while also living with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who acts as a sort of manager for Reynolds business and personal affairs.

     One morning while having breakfast alone at a seaside hotel, Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress half his age whom he immediately takes a liking to and subsequently asks to dinner when she delivers the bountiful early morning meal just as he ordered it. The initial date has Reynolds taking Alma for a spin in his sports car and later back to his home where he insists she try on several dresses he has recently made.  Wearing only a slip and standing on a wooden box, Alma is examined by Reynolds as he surveys every inch and feature of her body, not in a sexual way, but rather as a master craftsman conducting the ritualistic processes that have led to his standing as a maker of the world’s finest dresses.  This excuses him to a certain extent after making several critical comments highlighting some of the less than perfect parts of her body, though Alma remains visibly shaken.  And then Cyril walks in the room as if this whole exercise is a well practiced routine amongst the many women Reynolds has likely utilized for this exact purpose.  She too examines Alma as if to pick through her with a fine toothed comb before sitting in a chair and writing down her dress measurements as Reynolds calls out the numbers.  It’s an odd situation at best.  One in which if you were Alma, you may have shown yourself the door.

     But the relationship blossoms and soon Alma moves into Reynolds’ home, assigned to her own room, but often sharing a bed with her new found love.  Strange as it may be, you never really understand what her function within the household is in Reynolds’ eyes.  She obviously irritates him with her various noisy, ill-mannered habits and inability to properly conduct business within the framework Reynolds is accustomed to.  Many times, this leads to profane outbursts in which Reynolds belittles her, which is done repeatedly to a point where the relationship comes into serious question.  And there’s Cyril always lurking between them, giving no indication as to whether or not she supports Alma and what she brings to her brother’s life.  There comes a point in the film where all of this reaches an interesting climax, leaving Reynolds unexpectedly ill.

     It’s during this illness where Alma’s true purpose is realized.  Early in the film, Reynolds speaks often of his deceased mother whom he misses dearly and is said to have been responsible for teaching him his lucrative trade.  What Alma discovers as Reynolds suffers from flu symptoms is a tender man who remains calm and appreciates her at his bedside, displaying the very same loving characteristics as his mother once did.  It becomes clear this is what he longs for the most, preferring to sometimes step away from the rigid confines of his otherwise stressful existence to be cared for while at his most vulnerable.  He becomes so moved by the experience that he decides to take Alma’s hand in marriage, not understanding the potential consequences her permanent residence in his and Cyril’s lives will likely cause.

     From the very first frame, “Phantom Thread” is beautiful to look at, exhibiting Anderson’s deft eye for scene composition and creating an endless array of glorious settings for his actors to occupy.  And it may be his best film since “There Will Be Blood” (2007), while being a departure from the frustrating nature of “The Master” (2012) or the befuddling storyline of “Inherent Vice” (2014).  It’s as if Anderson figured out a way to bottle up everything he does well and present it along with a very nuanced performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. “Phantom Thread” is a haunting vision of how a married couple deals with the wants and needs of their spouse while  still managing to flourish outside the home, examining on a deeper level what may become necessary in order to stay together with the one you love.  It also is a fine example as to why I don’t eat mushrooms.  GRADE: A

“12 Strong” Movie Review


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     There was time during the 80s, 90s, & early 2000s when producer Jerry Bruckheimer could churn out military films like “12 Strong” in his sleep.  With producer credits including everything from “Top Gun” (1986) to “Black Hawk Down” (2001), and plenty in between, the Bruckheimer name in front of a film meant audiences were in store for copious amounts of bombastic action sequences, explosions, and the kind of testosterone enhanced heroes people love to cheer for.  Aside from producing the mega successful “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise for Disney, Bruckheimer has mainly kept busy in the television world over the past decade, but the story of the first official post 9/11 military operation in Afghanistan has proven difficult to resist for one Hollywood’s most accomplished filmmakers.  Bruckheimer oversees director Nicolai Fuglsig in his feature debut, while Ted Tally and Peter Craig provide the adaptation of Doug Stanton’s novel “Horse Soldiers”, in what most will see as a patriotic tribute to the men and women who defend our freedom each and every day.

     The initial scenes of the film certainly treat the audience with a level of respect in that the events of 9/11 are shown briefly on a television being watched by Special Forces Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and his family.  Each and every one of us can remember that day and exactly where we were and what we were doing at the moment we became glued to the news, sitting helplessly in horror as the country was attacked and thousands of innocent people died.  Fuglsig smartly moves past the need for justification and immediately immerses us within the Special Forces unit most qualified and prepared to strike the first blow against those who perpetrated the attack on the World Trade Center.

     Of course, there are always scenes that seem obligatory when this kind of story is told.  Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), a grizzled Warrant Officer on the verge of retirement, pleads with his unit commander, Lt. Colonel Bowers (Rob Riggle), to allow Nelson to lead their team of operatives on the first strike against the Taliban, who at the time had taken rule over Afghanistan and was thought to be running terrorist sponsored training camps throughout the region.  As it turns out, Bowers, despite initial concerns, decides to send Nelson and his team for the first mission, leading to a series of set up scenes where the men are shown interacting in the kind of ways we see in virtually every film set within military circles.  Something we would call “smoking and joking” back in the day.

     Once in country, Nelson is briefed on his mission and the task proves to be a harrowing one.  As the clock ticks toward a brutal upcoming winter, the Special Forces team has mere weeks to lead a Northern Alliance Afghan army into battle against well armed Taliban fighters who now occupy key villages in the northern portion of the country.  Making matters worse, the leader of the Afghan forces, General Dostum (Navid Negahban), is in the midst of a turf war with other northern leaders.  Each of them fights against the Taliban, but they are also apt to fighting against one another.  It’s the politics that proves to be the toughest nut for Nelson to crack, but ultimately, he and his team know they must succeed in breaking the Taliban’s grip in the area or risk more attacks on the United States.

     It’s difficult to view “12 Strong” without conjuring images of Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo fighting along side the Taliban against the Russians in “Rambo 3”, especially given our heroes in this film join the Afghan army on horse back  as the primary means of attack due to the unforgiving terrain.  The 1988 film came out at the tail end of Russia’s war with Afghanistan, ironically highlighting our support for the Taliban at the time who was led in part by, yep you guessed it, Osama bin Laden, who would later go on to become the founder of al-Qaeda and the mastermind of the 9/11 attack.  But here, since they’re no longer fighting our Cold War enemy and are now in the business of supporting terrorists, they have become our enemy.  

     Fuglsig proves no slouch in constructing chaotic and realist battle sequences in which you often have no idea, with the exception of the Special Forces team, who the good guys are and who they’re supposed to be shooting at.  Some of the Taliban fighters are decked out in black clothing and headwear, but when the bullets begin to fly and the dusty smoke like desert clouds everyone’s vision, you have to wonder how these guys were able to be successful.  And when you really think about the fact it took until May 2, 2011 to find and kill bin Laden, it makes you wonder how many of these battles did our soldiers and Marines have to endure while fighting a well prepared enemy on their home turf.

     Of course, “12 Strong” is about a successful mission in which there were no casualties.  I wonder if a forthcoming Bruckheimer film will address the well over 2000 service members killed in Afghanistan since the events of “12 Strong” and the countless men and women who suffer from PTSD each day who were fortunate enough to make it back home.  Each time one of these pictures comes out, I always find myself conflicted, given the fact we know the attraction lies with the action sequences, the guns, and the killing of the enemy.  Take all that away, and what’s left?  Are there humanistic qualities to the characters as presented?  Fortunately, the answer is yes, as we get a number of well written and acted moments between teammates that bring enough levity and emotion to set the characters in “12 Strong” apart from the often mindless entertainment that audiences flock to.  It’s also a stunning tribute to the men who, against all odds, accomplished their mission when they knew their entire country was counting on them back home.  GRADE: B

“Call Me By Your Name” Movie Review


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     Once in a while, a film comes along which distinguishes itself in a way that makes it a truly original and thought provoking experience.  What’s normal and what’s not in our society will always be up to one’s own interpretation, but acceptance is the one virtue that can help heal our  often fractured and divided existence in so many positive ways.  Director Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” is a film that will take you along a path that, regardless of your sexuality, is certain to seem familiar, given we all fall in love in much the same way and for similar reasons.  Based on the 2007 novel by Andre Aciman and adapted for the screen by James Ivory, the film explores the budding relationship between a young research assistant and the seventeen year old son of the professor hosting him during the early 1980s in Italy.  Gorgeously shot and featuring standout performances by Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer, and Michael Stuhlbarg, “Call Me By Your Name” is a film that has those rare transcendent qualities which can shape the way we think about love and relationships moving forward.

     Guadagnino takes full advantage of his country’s beautiful landscapes, hill sides, and unique architecture, providing the setting of a story where a great deal of each act takes place outdoors.  Here, everyone seems to get around shirtless with shorts and deck shoes, as they traverse the scenery via bicycle and explore their colorful surroundings.  And these places are almost completely devoid of technology at the time, save for the occasional appearance of a small tube television or a transistor radio, as the characters pass the time during the summer by reading books, swimming in nearby lakes, playing cards at a local watering hole, or eating outside with their families.  Is it any wonder the kids of today are suddenly embracing the 80s as being cool?  Maybe it’s time parents started letting their kids out of the virtual prisons we’ve created for them.

     Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a European college professor who hosts a research assistant each summer to both help further his own work, as well as to give up and coming students the experiences they will need to succeed in their own endeavors.  He and his wife, Annella (Amira Casar), live in a sprawling home somewhere within the Italian countryside and within biking distance of a small town.  The couple seems to have taken a leadership role within their community, setting the example for the kind of gracious hospitality that seems commonplace amongst the various characters in the film.  They have raised a son, Elio (Timothee Chalamet), who at seventeen years old has reached the stage in his life where exploration with the opposite sex is clearly budding into a primary focus.  He doesn't seem to have the ambition of his father, nor is he lazy in any way.  Elio seems to be the product of his environment, and the academic nature of his family.  He is constantly reading books or playing Bach on the piano, but he also is always moving and taking full advantage of the wondrous surroundings he has grown up in.

     This summer’s research assistant is a 24 year old American named Oliver (Armie Hammer), who arrives with all of the fish out of water mannerisms you would think of when considering he comes from a different culture all together.  He is brought to the room he will be staying in by Elio and immediately makes an impression on the youngster as being arrogant with the way he seemingly dismisses the loving and attentive routines of the family.  Oliver, when not working with Mr. Perlman, disappears at night, often not staying for supper and presumably putting himself within the company of the many females nearby who have taken a liking to him.  Elio observes this, and though he won’t admit it, he seems to want to be Oliver, as if to in some way mimic the way he successfully carries himself with the people around him.

     But what may have started as mentorship by someone not much older who is achieving the kind of life he believes he wants, soon begins to become something more.  Oliver and Elio spend a lot of time together, sometimes through events created by the family, but also alone as a result of suggestion coming from both of them in different ways.  They create these situations because there is something driving them to be together.  Perhaps Elio doesn't know exactly why yet, but Oliver, being older and significantly more experienced, is fully aware of the feelings both are exhibiting towards each other.  The only question is whether or not to act on the impulses each is feeling as they begin to grow closer with the summer winding down.

     Aside from the awards worthy turns by Chalamet and Hammer in the lead roles, the work of Stuhlbarg, who has more than made his mark this awards season while also appearing in “The Post” and “The Shape of Water”, anchors the story, particularly from a much needed emotional level.  Ultimately, this is about someone’s first love, a feeling which at the age of 17, Elio is not likely to have a firm grasp on.  When he clearly struggles with these feelings, it’s his father who delivers some of the most heartfelt and important words you may ever hear in a film.  His performance is the sheer definition of the supporting role and provides the kind of emotional gravitas that is crucial for a story like this to be brought to a realistic conclusion.  

     Most notably, “Call Me By Your Name” is a master’s work in character study.  The manner in which Ivory’s script and Guadagnino’s vision come together on screen is a marvel to observe, as they effectively communicate the deep down feelings both Elio and Oliver have without rushing to what the audience will likely expect if they view the film having already read a synopsis or seen the trailer.  It’s a love story first and foremost, taking us through the beginning phases all the way to the point where both characters know there is something real between them.  Feeling that can’t be ignored.  And they proceed exactly as any couple would.  GRADE: A

“I, Tonya” Movie Review


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     It would seem the news media wrongly sensationalized a popular story in 1994, skewing the facts in order to make what actually happened sound better, thereby selling more papers and increasing ratings.  This is what you will come away believing after viewing director Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya”, a biopic on the infamous former member of the U.S. Figure Skating Team, Tonya Harding, and the up until now known culprit in the viscous attack on her fellow competition Nancy Kerrigan.  We all thought we knew the story.  Ask and most people likely believe it was Tonya Harding herself who smashed Kerrigan’s knee with a bat, but the film, written by Steven Rogers, debunks those theories while attempting to make sense of not only the events leading up to the incident, but also of Harding’s life, which was to say, a challenge.

     Lacing up the skates as Harding is Margot Robbie, who delivers one of those career defining performances that is certain to be recognized when Oscar nominations are announced next week.  But she is never expected to carry the film herself with standout performances by Allison Janney as her mother, LaVona Golden, as well as Sebastian Stan, who plays her on again off again husband at the time, Jeff Gillooly.  And while each actor flourishes with this material, it’s Rogers’ dialogue and Gillespie’s vision that ensures every scene plays well within the whole and gives the actor’s plenty of meaningful moments to shine.

     Janney establishes herself early on as a distastefully over the top chain smoking helicopter mom who insists her four year old daughter is good enough to be taken on at that age by coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), who reluctantly agrees, but is clearly taken aback by LaVona’s profane and often ugly disposition.  To an audience, this will illicit laughter, but to Tonya, none of this played out as a comedy.  Soon we see Tonya grow into a skater with world class potential, but we also see the physical and mental abuse she constantly absorbed from her mother.  And as teens ofter do, Tonya looked for an escape, which came in the form of her first boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).  Being depicted at the age of 15, it was probably a little early in the film to have Robbie and Stan portraying their characters, but Gillespie moves on quickly to the point in which Tonya began to have national level success on the ice.

     During the middle act of the film, there is a lot of reference to the fact Tonya Harding was the only skater at the time who had successfully landed a triple axel jump in an international competition.  As is the case in a number of productions like this one, the production designers go to great lengths in recreating the details and atmosphere of important events in lives of the characters.  Everything from the costumes to the venues match up perfectly with actual footage shown during the end credits, giving a notable authenticity to the ice skating competitions that made Tonya a household name.  Of course, we also see her off the ice struggles against an overseeing body who doesn't think she fits the image they are looking for, and thus her scores are not reflective of the difficult stunts she is completing, nor is she getting the notoriety of her less talented peers.

     Making matters worse is her relationship with Gillooly, now her husband, and a physical abuser in his own right on par with her mother.  Given the incidents we see on screen, it seems a minor miracle that Tonya was able to maintain the focus she did in making two Olympic teams.  But beyond her accomplishments, she will always be remembered and directly associated with an incident of which it turns out she knew nothing about.  Whereas the onus was on Gillooly and one of his friends who he kept around as a sort of bodyguard for Tonya, the incident was carried out without her knowledge, and yet the news media saw an opportunity to paint a different picture.  One that would have an Olympic skater cast as the mastermind behind a conspiracy to take out her competition.  The whole thing sounded so plausible, that everyone bought into it.  Now all of us are certainly accountable for those we choose to hold company with, and I’m sure Tonya herself regrets staying with Gillooly and his associates for as long as she did, but it wasn’t like she had her mother to go to for advice, and her father was no longer in the picture at all.

     “I, Tonya” will leave you wondering just how high Tonya Harding’s star would’ve risen if she had the benefit of better support system.  It’s another sterling argument for the root cause of many of our country’s problems being the issue of class, rather than race.  Plenty of white people grow up poor too, and as a result are subject to some of the very same stereotypes that minority populations deal with each day as well.  The way Tonya was raised gave her a very noticeable hard edge that came out in the way she spoke to people, as well as her appearance when compared to her more wealthy competition.  All of this is plays out on screen with Robbie leading the way in what will most certainly be remembered as her signature role.  But more importantly, the film finally gets the facts straight after Tonya Harding was convicted in a court of public opinion whose information was being provided by a merciless and blood hungry media looking for something new to sell.  GRADE: B+

“The Post” Movie Review


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     Prior to seeing Steven Spielberg’s new film “The Post”, you’re likely to hear a lot of people referring to the storyline as having been “ripped from today’s headlines”, a reference to the ongoing battle between Trump’s White House and the media over accusations of “fake news” and false reporting.  Interestingly enough, the landmark Supreme Court decision at the center of the film’s plot, which allowed The Washington Post, as well as the rest of the news media, to publish top secret government documents that divulged the truth about the Vietnam War in 1971, seems to have given the media enormous and unchallengeable power to spin information how they see fit, regardless of whether it represents the truth or not.

     Look at this way.  Newspapers and television networks are businesses.  And the difference between being profitable or an editor ultimately losing his/her job is delivering a story people want to read and follow over a long period of time, or at least until the next big blood laden scandal comes along.  Considering the power of influence the media can wield at any given time, my question is who is overseeing them?  The President, of whom they mercilessly condemn each day, is a mere one third of our government’s power structure, whereas the media operates without any sort of fact checking watchdog.  If it’s the difference between remaining a viable business, or the flip side of going out of business, which story do you think any given media outlet will choose to report?  “If it bleeds, it leads” they say, which makes you wonder why the inclusion of more positive human stories are not demanded by the very same public the news media claims they are standing up for.

     As you would expect, Spielberg’s film is meticulously crafted and expertly acted by what is one of the best ensembles of the year.  First time screenwriter Liz Hannah and Academy Award winning screenwriter Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) provide the dramatized story of Washington Post publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) whose newspaper finds themselves in the crosshairs of the Nixon Administration after coming into possession of a classified study, known as the Pentagon Papers, on the Vietnam War that implicates four Presidents as having lied to the American people about our country’s involvement early on.  As a period piece, the film plays a lot like the 1976 Watergate opus “All the President’s Men”, accurately depicting the newsroom setting and the way in which reporters gained information from sources and turned it into news worthy columns in the country’s most reputable newspapers.

     As Graham, Streep is fabulous as always, proving again why she is the finest actress of our generation.  Hanks, as Bradlee, is solid if unspectacular, consistently overshadowed by the powerful presence of Streep whose role allows her to have the best and most impactful scenes, some of which had the audience I saw the film with clapping and cheering. The work turned in by Bob Odenkirk as the reporter whose source is in possession of the Pentagon Papers lends a strong supporting authenticity to the proceedings, allowing viewers to see the relationships a reporter cultivates in order to get the biggest stories.  There are also notable supporting performances from Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Jesse Plemons, Carrie Coon, and Matthew Ryhs that round out an impressive cast who help flesh out the room in scenes mainly dominated by Streep and Hanks.

     An impeccable production design by frequent Spielberg collaborator Rick Carter provides a detailed look at the 1970s newspaper printing process, which was an arduous daily task requiring molds of each and every word placed together and organized into the desired layout of each page.  For those who are younger and accustomed to the perks of today’s technology, they may be surprised to see how the printed newspapers they might remember their mom or dad reading early in their lives were created each day and distributed throughout each city.  Spielberg guides all of this in his typically flawless manner, bringing to the screen another historical and lifelike depiction of important events in our history.

     The power of the news media is as significant an issue in our society today as anything else we consider to be critical or important to the way we live.  People tend to get their information via carefully constructed sound bites designed to peak the interest of the mainstream and take what is said or printed as fact without investigating the issue themselves.  Given this problem, the new media has the unspeakable power to shape how the majority of our population thinks.  The media controls what we fear and often determines how we should react to that fear.  All in the name of their own profitability.  Am I the only one who sees something wrong with that?

     There is no doubt Kay Graham and her paper’s 1971 fight to print the Pentagon Papers is a watershed moment in our nation’s history and a true test of the power of the First Amendment, but how are we currently ensuring that power is not being abused? For all the finger pointing in various directions, we rarely see them in the direction of the news media who chooses what they report each day with the all mighty dollar at the forefront of their priority list.  Are we to believe all they are after is the truth?  In the society we live in today, that’s just not possible.  GRADE: B+