Reviews


“The Favourite” Movie Review


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     Comedian Brian Regan performs a bit about airline travel in which he likens first class passengers to monarchs sitting on their thrones.  He hilariously describes the walk through the first class section on the way to coach, observing as these people say things to the airline attendants like “Bring me the head of a pig, and a goblet of something cool and refreshing.”.  I was reminded of Regan’s words as the first scene of Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” began to unspool and the wildly costumed buffoonery suddenly took center stage.  Taking place in early 18th century England, the film, written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara rifts on other notable love triangle fables such as “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Cruel Intentions” by setting the stage with a sick and desperate Queen, flanked by her best friend and an up and coming servant who looks to come between them.

     Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) suffers from an unexplained and painful infection on her legs which has left her bound to a wheelchair the majority of the time.  She is in the midst of ruling England as the country continues to forge ahead in a war with France, and is consistently dealing with the financial fallout amongst her people who can no longer afford the taxes necessary to fund the soldiers in battle.  At Anne’s side is her confidant and lover, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who given the Queen’s often frail state, takes charge when dealing with those within the royal court and has established herself firmly to a position of power and influence.

     Early on, we meet Abigail (Emma Stone), a servant who once held the prominent title of a Lady, only to have her father sell her into slavery in an attempt to cover his own debts.  She arrives at the Queen’s home covered in mud as she is introduced to Sarah, who promptly assigns her to the kitchen staff.  Ironically, when a joke is made about the flies surrounding her because of the dirt, grime, and other substances spread about her body and clothes, she compares herself to a monster and growls at her new boss.  Perhaps a bit of foreshadowing for the character given both of these ladies go well beyond your typical snake in the grass.  No, these women are power hungry Pit Vipers, whose sole existence is dedicated to ascending as high as possible within high society and brutally taking those down who dare step in their way.

     The characters in “The Favourite” speak much like those in “Game of Thrones”.  Nearly every sentence contains some reference to sex and is laced with the most profane of terms with an obvious affection for the term “c**t” when seeking to put someone in their place.  The royal court is populated by mostly men, who for some reason feel it necessary to look “pretty” for the women, as they don large curly wigs and make their faces up with white clown face and red blush.  The most prominent of these men, Harley (Nicholas Hoult), seeks ways to influence the Queen for his own gain, and has found his informant in Abigail.  The Queen has taken a sudden and obvious liking to Abigail, who is more than happy to take Sarah’s place in the Queen’s bed.  She’s a character who once lived an upscale life and has the motivation to do anything it takes to get back what she feels is rightfully hers.  And as the relationship between the Queen and Sarah begins to deteriorate, Abigail has positioned herself to strike.

     None of this is to be taken on a serious note; however.  Lanthimos guides the audience through the massive chambers of the Queen’s home, often using a fisheye lens and an abundance of wide shots to indicate the size and detail of every room the characters traverse.  And the characters seem to remain in a proverbial costume party, as they drink, eat, dance, and make fun of each other in public and behind closed doors.  Nearly every scene ends with some sort of quip that will bring forth laughter from the audience, as every line seemingly becomes more audacious than the last.

     The performances by Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone all stand out, providing a trio of female leads who command each and every scene.  And while Colman’s Queen Anne remains a tragic figure within the story, it’s the determined and devilish gaze we see between Sarah and Abigail as they compete for the power that comes from being at the Queen’s side which drives the narrative.  Some of the best exchanges occur over a series of scenes in which Sarah teaches Abigail how to shoot a rifle, as the duo fires at live birds who are released on their verbal order.  Abigail struggles initially, but she proves a quick learner and soon becomes a competent marksman.  I keep thinking about Abigail’s progression, mostly aided by Sarah herself, which culminates in her being there at just the right moments to take full advantage of the Queen’s softer more vulnerable side.  Of course it helps she knows the deepest secrets the Queen and Sarah would rather not divulge.  Knowledge that only helps in her quest to topple the competition.  

     There is no doubt each of these actresses are in top form, delivering some of the best performances of their respective careers, while the writing by Davis and McNamara ensures the actors are given a high level of material to work with and plenty of juicy moments to go around for everyone.  In addition, the standout costume design by Sandy Powell and the richly detailed production design by Fiona Crombie create quite the over the top royal spectacle, of which Lanthimos takes full advantage of with his unique methods in storytelling.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see nominations for best picture, directing, acting, writing, and plenty of the craft categories for this daring and extremely entertaining film.  All of which adds up to “The Favourite” being one of the best films of the year.  GRADE: A 

“Green Book” Movie Review

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     After viewing director Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book”, the last thing you would expect is to realize he and his brother Bobby have amongst their notable film credits the over the top raunchy comedies “Dumb and Dumber”, “Kingpin”, and “There’s Something About Mary”.  But then, after you take it all in, you begin to see the comedic calling cards of those past films littered throughout a story that while heartwarming and certainly topical in today’s society, is also flat out hilarious.  “Green Book” is easily the funniest film of 2018, but may also be the very best film of the year as well, featuring standout performances from both Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.

     Going into the theater, you already know what the premise likely has in store if you’ve viewed the trailer.  If you’re telling me the story revolves around a black musician touring the deep South in the early 1960s, that alone indicates the audience will be again reminded of just how sick and disgusting our country’s history is.  Particularly on the topic of racism, which still haunts us today in some ways that may actually be worse than the period this film takes place.  The title itself references a publication of the time which listed hotels and other establishments friendly to African-Americans while traveling.   In the first few scenes where we meet Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and his family, it isn’t difficult to understand why such a book would be necessary.

     Having grown up in an all Italian Bronx neighborhood,  Tony inherited a racist mentality from the time he was a youngster.  The male figures in his life utilized racist slurs and other demeaning comments as a normal form of communication.  Is it any surprise that thought process remained in Tony and his counterparts psyche once they reached adulthood?  I wouldn’t necessarily call it hatred, but there is definitely an obvious sense of superiority amongst these characters which comes out so naturally, it makes one wonder how we go about undoing those thoughts when you have been raised this way your entire life.  Of course, we often make these kinds of judgements about people we don’t really know all of the time, only to find out later what we heard was completely false. 

     Fans of “The Sopranos” will be delighted to see the many scenes featuring Tony and his extended family which are centered completely around tasty looking homemade Italian food. The characters gobble up pizza, pasta, and meatballs in practically every early scene, as they talk about each other and the neighborhood goings on, while the wives are in the background chatting up on the latest gossip (Mortensen is said to have gained 45 pounds for the role.).  Farrelly provides an immediate sense of authenticity with the sets and locations, taking the audience back to an era when interesting conversation and food ruled everyone’s free time.  And in the center of it all is Tony, as he hustles his way through bouncing at the local night club and participating in impromptu food challenges in order to support his family.  Boy could this guy eat!

     While looking for work, Tony is recommended for a job as a driver for Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a concert pianist whose record label has booked him for a tour throughout the Midwest and South.  Remembering this true story takes place in the early 1960s, it is clear the tour brings with it a number of real concerns given the racial situation in the South at the time.  I won’t go into those things here since I get queasy just thinking about it, but the film certainly makes this point several times during the duo’s two month journey from venue to venue and state to state.  But along the way, something happens between these two men while traveling in a car together through long stretches of countryside.

     Written by Tony Lip’s real life son, Nick Vallelonga, as well as Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly, the script allows for a heavy dose of back and forth banter between the tough guy act of Tony and the eloquent educated verbiage of Dr. Shirley.  In the process, they successfully break through those invisible barriers created from their individual upbringings by simply conversing about and debunking a number of stereotypes thought to be true on both sides.  And this is where much of that hilarity I spoke of occurs, as you come to realize how dumb a lot of the thoughts each of these men had going in were in the first place.  Of course, there are a number of encounters with evil along the way, presenting itself in the form of racist bar patrons, rogue and hateful cops, and the subtle, yet unacceptable nature of a hotel manager who spews racial hate with a smile.  But there was one such instance where the reason for the encounter came with assumption from both Tony and Dr. Shirley, but then they both realized the person was only there to help and their immediate suspicions were wrong.  It was a nice touch near the end that teaches everyone a valuable lesson in not judging a book by its cover.

     “Green Book” is one of those near perfect films where you just can’t help but shower accolades on everyone involved.  The screenplay provides some of the most entertaining dialogue of the year, but also creates a number of clever set ups for the characters that have tremendously satisfying payoffs by the end.  It’s funny, and there are some tough situations to get through because of the subject matter, but ultimately, you will feel a sense of satisfaction after leaving the theater.  Some may even change their mindset about race entirely, or at the very least will approach the subject differently.  It is that powerful of a film, if you pay attention and approach it with an open mind.  Fact is, each of us should be judged solely on our character, not our skin color.  And the only way that can happen is if you have the opportunity to know someone on a personal level.  Otherwise, your entire opinion becomes derived from nothing more than conjecture, rumor, and gossip.  A lesson learned by both Tony and Dr. Shirley which resulted in a life long friendship.  GRADE: A

“Widows” Movie Review


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     Director Steve McQueen’s “Widows” aims to be one those gritty streetwise thrillers in which the characters within the story are all in some way on the wrong side of the law.  There are no good guys to root for in other words, as each and every person seems to be in need of a major moral adjustment, even if some of these characters are forced into acts of desperation.  Based on the book by Lynda La Plante and adapted by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, “Widows” achieves its goal of creating a brutal crime underworld where crooks, politicians, and gangsters are seemingly all one in the same.  Taking place within a ward in Chicago in which the poor and the rich are just blocks away from one another, it appears everyone is either on the take, or directly involved in some form of criminal enterprise, with only those who are willing to cross the line surviving within the high stakes game of money and power.

     McQueen clearly seeks to make a statement about class and the disproportionate  distribution of wealth amongst our population.  Early on we meet Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), as he and his crew find themselves in a shoot out after stealing a large sum of money in what appears to be a professional and well organized job.  But suddenly their get away plan goes awry when the police are waiting for them outside of their transition location and the entire team is killed.  Problem is, the money they stole, which is incinerated in an explosion, belongs to a prominent local gangster who is obviously not thrilled with the substantial loss.

     That gangster, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), also happens to be running for the ward’s recently vacated city counsel seat when the long time representative, Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), is forced to step down due to health reasons.  His adversary in the race is Tom’s son, Jack (Colin Farrell), which has set up a race against the most powerful and wealthy family in the ward.  And the money that was stolen from Mannings?  That was money earned through criminal exploits and was meant to be used as the war chest in the campaign.  So much for Chicago’s campaign finance laws.

     We learn early on that each of the men killed within Harry’s crew have significant others, and the first place Jamal and his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) look for payback is the women who once stood at the side of each of these men, even though they were fully aware of how the bills were being paid.  And given Harry was the known leader who had an apparent understanding with Jamal’s crew as far as turf, Jamal first makes contact with Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis). Of course, this meeting is a blatant attempt to intimidate, as well as force her to liquidate her substantial assets in order to pay back the money her deceased husband stole from them.

     But a look inside Harry’s safe deposit box brings Veronica an interesting set of options, as the old school thief kept a journal of his past criminal activities, as well as his upcoming and planned jobs.  One of which could yield the millions necessary to pay back Jamal and set the participants up for life.  And because she chooses to embark on the extremely perilous attempt at stealing this money, Veronica recruits two of the women whose significant others perished along with hers, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), in order to have the bodies necessary to complete the job as is detailed in Harry’s journal.  It’s actually a pretty nifty set up as far heist stories go, changing the dynamic completely in that it is now a crew of capable and badass women who are doing the dirty work and are willing to do whatever it takes to succeed.  After all, their lives certainly depend on it.

     Perhaps the most standout aspect of “Widows” is the outstanding ensemble assembled by McQueen and the fierce commitment to the roles clearly demonstrated by each actor, who are all given plenty of great moments.  In truth, it’s actually surprising there were enough to go around, which is a clear testament to the writing.  The laid back go with the flow personality displayed by Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out” and “Black Panther” is no where to be found here, as his Jatemme is a menacing figure throughout, clearly capable of unspeakable violence in a world where these acts are sadly so common.  The ever dependable Robert Duvall, playing the patriarch of the ward’s most powerful family, conveys the highly volatile gamesmanship necessary to ensure his son is armed with the tools necessary to continue the family’s generational dominance and possession of the kind of power needed to remain on top for years to come.  It’s the kind of power people not only lust after, but are willing to kill for.

     Ultimately though, this film belongs to Viola Davis, as she delivers one of her best performances, combining the emotional grief associated with losing her husband with the desperation needed in order to survive.  Just when the initial act gives the audience the typical indications the story will revolve around men, Davis’ Veronica steps in midway through and ensures we know exactly who is in charge.  GRADE: B+

“Creed 2” Movie Review


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     It was actually surprising to me when director Ryan Coogler didn’t allow the mention of a  potential match up between an upstart Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in “Creed”, given the fact all parties, including Adonis, would certainly have known Drago’s son existed and was also an up and coming boxer.  But Coogler wisely went in a different direction, letting us learn more about Adonis as the character developed into someone relatable before going all in on what would be an obvious future storyline.  “Creed” was one of the best films of 2015 and in many ways is one of the best films in the “Rocky” saga, bringing another larger than life character to the screen who was effectively given the torch from Rocky Balboa and created his own appealing and charismatic persona.  Make no mistake, without the energy and passion Jordan brings to the table, we would not be seeing the story continuing with “Creed 2”.

     Taking over for Coogler, whose “Black Panther” commitments would not allow him to helm the sequel, is second time feature director Steven Caple Jr., a filmmaker who proves more than capable of delivering the required elements a film such as this requires given the rich history of the franchise.  “Creed 2” is not only a solid continuation of the story which began in the first installment, but it also stands as a worthy story all on its own.  As I previously stated, the storyline is a no brainer.  The key was always going to be how it was presented and what the best way to raise the stakes as high as possible would be.  It’s clear from the result Caple and screenwriters Sylvester Stallone and Joel Taylor figured that out and then some.

     The film begins with a cold open in which we see a fiercely hungry Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) rising from an old beat up couch early in the morning somewhere in the Ukraine as his father, Ivan Drago, accompanies him to a small venue where the young protege brutally dispatches the man in front of him, displaying the kind of raw power one only receives when your parent once possessed the same.  As a scheming promoter, Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby), looks on in the crowd, the elder Drago can only smile as they already have their sights set on the newly crowned Heavyweight Champion of the World, Adonis Creed.

     When the challenge is made publicly, Caple stages one of the best scenes of the film in which Drago shows up at Rocky’s restaurant where the two adversaries have a face to face meeting for the first time since their epic battle in “Rocky 4”.  It’s one of those anticipated scenes that immediately reminded me of the inevitable meeting between Pacino and DeNiro in “Heat”.  By the time the scene occurs, you know what the history is and can cut the tension with a knife.  There’s plenty of history between Rocky and Drago obviously, but the fact Drago has a son who has been raised to be a fighter brings forth a new conflict Rocky may not have seen coming.  And if you think Lavar Ball is the world’s most outrageous example of a helicopter parent, wait until you get a load of Drago and his relationship with Viktor.  The kid speaks only when spoken to and is apparently shouldering the burden of redeeming the family name after Drago’s loss to Rocky caused his wife to leave and the country to disown him.

     After winning the title, Adonis is ready to take the next step in his relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), which includes the potential of starting a family.  All of this adds up to the exact kind of distraction Rocky once faced when he fought Clubber Lang in “Rocky 3”, which culminates in Rocky refusing to train him when he accepts Drago’s challenge.  The fact Caple spends a fair amount of time fleshing out these various issues and conflicts bodes well for the fight sequences later on.  What made the first “Rocky” film work so well was the relationships fostered between the characters that ultimately made the fight memorable.  You could make the argument that after “Rocky 2”, the formula changed and instead became more of a crowd pleasing franchise dependent on over the top personalities, glorious training montages, and brutal boxing sequences that were nothing like real life.  But both “Creed” and now “Creed 2” seem to have gone back to what made the first film a Best Picture winner by bringing the emotional side of both our protagonists and antagonists back to center stage.  

     Truth be told, what stuck with me the most about “Creed 2” wasn’t the climactic battle between Adonis and Viktor.  When you look deeper, “Creed 2” is more about life and the struggles we all face each day.  It’s about overcoming the fears we have inside us, as well as realizing what is actually important and what is better left as a battle to be fought another day.  There’s a lot going on inside of Adonis’ head as he grapples with the notion of avenging the death of his father of whom he never knew.  At face value, it’s an easy decision.  But the young Creed hasn’t had the experiences of Rocky and his mother, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), who know all too well the pitfalls of sacrificing yourself when revenge or relevancy are the sole motivation.  It’s how Caple effectively guides the audience through all of this that gives “Creed 2” the kind of heart and soul most sequels are normally missing, all the while ensuring the fight sequences have the necessary and well earned emotional weight that make them so much more. GRADE: B+

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” Movie Review


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     After the enormous global success of the phenomenon that was “Harry Potter”, it’s no surprise author and creator J.K. Rowling would be enticed to bring forth new stories from the Wizarding World.  She did so in 2016 with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, a prequel exploring the lore and early beginnings of the world decades prior to the events of the first Potter film.  Franchise veteran, David Yates, who had directed four films in the series, brought forth his vision of Rowling’s latest work and did so without taking many risks.  In other words, “Fantastic Beasts” played it safe, while introducing new characters and settings that were far away from what we were used to previously.  Of course there was plenty familiar for the keenly aware Potter audiences to dissect and debate, but essentially this was an entirely new world for all of us to explore.  And more importantly, particularly for the studio and all involved, the story set up an endless array of sequel possibilities, to the extent we could easily imagine a new long running franchise that would match the length of the original Potter series of films.

     That process has now officially begun, with Yates returning to the director’s chair for “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”.  Again written by Rowling, the sequel makes a furious impression from the opening sequence where we immediately realize this won’t be the cute and cuddly monsters in a suitcase story we were treated to in the first film.  Instead, Yates harks back to his time in the Potter series by creating dark scenery and scenarios chalk full of magical spells used with bad intentions.  If one thing is clear, no one wants to find themselves on the business end of one of those wands.  In doing so, Yates and Rowling have created an entertainment that will play well beyond your small children, so I’d advise leaving them home.

     The focus here is on the once again rise of Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), a notorious wizard who believes regular humankind (Muggles) will someday exterminate those with magical powers due to their own conflicts during all out war.  In that opening sequence, Grindelwald is being transferred from the United States to London for reasons unknown, but it becomes immediately clear those in charge are in over their heads.  Grindelwald executes a daring prison escape in which his powers and abilities override those in charge, in what is likely the best action sequence in the film.  The scene takes place high above the New York sky line as winged horses pull a stagecoach through the stormy night, surrounded by lightning, rain, and an entourage of wizards whose job is to ensure the ride home goes smoothly.  It, of course, does not, and soon Grindelwald is back as the leader of a nefarious plot.

     We soon catch up with the lead character from the first film, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who is thrust into a mission ordered by his one time teacher, Dumbledore (Jude Law), to find Grindelwald and report on his current whereabouts.  Along for the ride is Tina (Katherine Waterston), Newt’s on again off again romantic interest who works for the Ministry of Magic.  Together, they begin to uncover Grindelwald’s plans, but not before they run into plenty of mischief along the way.  As in the first film, Newt’s suitcase and its contents come in handy when they find themselves in peril, as does the presence of Jacob (Dan Fogler), the Muggle squeeze of Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), whose comic relief provides a much needed break from the darkness the story wants to embrace.

     All of this hinges on a specific character named Credence, played by Ezra Miller, who while powerful, seems to remain fixated on finding out who he is and where he came from.  And Grindelwald, who sees the immense potential in his power is more than happy to coerce Credence into believing he has the answers he is looking for. This leads to a climactic third act where all of the parties finally convene, but the answers we are looking for are likely set for the inevitable third installment and beyond.  Which is fine since the filmmakers behind the lens appear game in making the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise every bit as good as its well known predecessor.

     Redmayne is excellent as Newt Scamander and has brought forth an exceptionally well drawn character who is more than capable of functioning as the lead protagonist in a story like this.  He may seem overmatched and even timid if you will.  But his over the top smarts and uncanny ability to think quickly when facing seemingly insurmountable danger is what allows him to succeed regardless of the obstacle.  And that really is the strength of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”.  The characters easily outweigh the spectacle, which is a solid attribute given the fact we have already seen much of what’s magical on screen countless times before.  But instead of being in awe of the latest spell, I keep going back to the quirkiness of Newt, the hilariousness of Jacob, the historical significance of Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), the pure cold evil of Grindelwald, and the frustration of not knowing who you really are displayed by Credence.  Knowing these characters well creates the need for seeing them again, and that’s where this film truly excels.   Fortunately for us, the third installment has already been set for 2020.  GRADE: B+

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” Movie Review


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     With director Fede Alvarez’s “The Girl in the Spider’s Web”, there have now been five films produced which are based on the characters created by author Stieg Larsson for his Millennium book series.  The first three films were made in Sweden and followed the original book trilogy in both name and storyline, while featuring Noomi Rapace in her break out role as Lisbeth Salander.  The Swedish trilogy was followed up in the United States with David Fincher’s 2011 adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, a film I thought so highly of that I named it my top film for that year.  Salander was played by Rooney Mara, who went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress after delivering a fiery performance as the relentless goth computer hacker with an ax to grind against men who hurt women.  After seeing Fincher’s film receive both critical praise and worldwide box office success, the initial thought was a sequel adaptation of both “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” would soon be on the way.  But Hollywood being Hollywood apparently meant the film’s two stars, Mara and Daniel Craig, had priced themselves out along with Fincher, leaving the project in development hell.

     Which brings us to the present.  Larsson passed away in 2004, several years before the original Swedish film trilogy was completed, which at the time meant the story had already seen its conclusion.  But later, the family hired author David Lagercrantz to write additional stories involving the Lisbeth Salander character, with the resulting book now the basis for the new film, which stars Claire Foy as the now third actress to sport the nose ring and infamous tattoo.  The result is a mixed bag for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the change in actors in the lead roles again forces the audience to reimagine these characters for a third time, and the immense ground gained by Mara and Craig is seemingly laid to waste with the realization the new duo simply can’t measure up.

     Alvarez, whose last project happens to be 2016’s nifty and clever horror film “Don’t Breathe”, collaborates on the screenplay with Jay Basu to systematically transform Salander into a sort of “Jason Bourne” type character with the sleazy sort of twist you would think was provided via a Joe Eszterhas script treatment.  The result is an all out spy flick, complete with the obligatory car chases, fight sequences, and explosions with Salander right in the middle of it all with her lap top or phone capable of taking control of virtually anything she wants.  Or more accurately, whatever the plot requires in order to further her progression to catching the bad guy, or in this case a very bad girl.

     Those kinds of plot conveniences are important when you’re dealing with a story that is built on being preposterous in the first place.  The film opens with a scene in which Salander has hidden herself in the home of a well known and wealthy Swedish businessman who also happens to apparently get off on abusing both his wife, as well as the women he cheats on her with.  And since we know from previous installments that Salander is a sort of superhero for women who can’t either defend themselves or just walk away, we get to see her string up another scumbag and ensure he rightfully pays for his crimes.  But it’s at that point the Salander we thought we knew is gone almost entirely, and replaced with a character who finds herself in the middle of a case involving international espionage, nuclear codes, and rogue agents seeking to acquire a dangerous computer program.  This new direction is a sharp departure from the revenge minded loner of the previous films, which ultimately means the very attributes that set the character apart have vanished in favor of characteristics we see all too often in these types of action films.

     “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is by no means a bad film.  Alvarez directs with an adept feel for the genre, delivering a number of tense moments involving some very creative stunt work.  But the lead characters seem to have been robbed of what made them so appealing in the previous films.  It’s kind of like the downgrade of going from Christian Bale to Ben Affleck playing Bruce Wayne/Batman.  It’s not a knock on either Affleck or in this case Foy or Sverrir Gudnason, who is the third actor to play Blomkvist as well, but rather a testament to how good Mara and Craig were in that they brought undeniable energy to the characters and left the audience wanting to see them again.  Tough shoes for Foy and Gudnason to fill, leaving “Spider’s Web” a notch below what came before it.  And save for a crafty NSA agent named Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), the supporting cast never really hits its stride until all is revealed in the third act, leaving mainly Foy to keep things interesting.

     To the filmmaker’s credit; however, the film often hits the right notes by ensuring the stakes remain high throughout and concealing the enemy for as long as possible in order to create a high level of suspense each time Salander finds herself in harms way.  There are times when some of the physical stunts she pulls off may seem unbelievable given her size compared to the bad guys, but Salander also uses her smarts to consistently ensure she remains one move ahead of the competition, something that is regularly foreshadowed in scenes where she is playing another character in chess.  The hope would be this version of Lisbeth Salander is given the opportunity to continue on, so as to give the series some much needed stability in much the same way Repace did with the Swedish films.  Only then would this character driven action series have the potential to become something more than just average.   GRADE: C+

“Bohemian Rhapsody” Movie Review


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     The challenges surrounding the production of a musical biopic are daunting enough, particularly when the story centers on a beloved rock band like Queen.  But amidst a chaotic change in the director’s chair before filming was concluded, “Bohemian Rhapsody” still manages to be an entertaining, if not an engaging story about the 1970s rise of the venerable groups’s stardom and the often turbulent life of their lead singer, Freddie Mercury, played here with a game performance by a brilliant Rami Malek.  “X-Men” and “The Usual Suspects” director Bryan Singer began at the helm, but was let go before shooting was completed due to unexplained absences and rumored tension between him and Malek.  Fortunately, unlike other recent troubled productions, his replacement, Dexter Fletcher, who is currently directing next summer’s Elton John biopic “Rocketman”, finished the film while ensuring Singer’s established tone remained intact, avoiding the kind of disaster that could’ve ruined the experience entirely.

     The screenplay, written by “Darkest Hour” and “The Theory of Everything” scribe Anthony McCarten, follows the band in what is generally a by the numbers presentation of their humble beginnings, through a meteoric rise to the top, and finally the inevitable egos that come into play when the lead singer decides to go solo.  The structure is not unlike 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton” in that the early acts focus on the experimental side of the band’s creation of its most well known and classic songs, in particular the one which gives the film its title.  And while the flamboyant life of Freddie Mercury remains a constant from scene to scene, what becomes abundantly clear is the fact the filmmakers set out to make a crowdpleaser honoring the songs and performances of Queen, rather than focusing on the tragic story of their lead singer.

     Early in the film, we meet Freddie (Rami Malek) during his early years in which his family sees him as an outcast who doesn’t quite fit the mold they had foreseen for him growing up.  He does; however have a talent for writing songs and after watching a band perform at a local club, decides to introduce himself and his abilities to the group who had just coincidentally lost their lead singer.  That band, known as Smile, included Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), both of which along with Mercury are the three original members of Queen.  It isn’t long before the group establishes themselves within the local scene, as they are quickly scooped up by their first mangers, John Reid (Aidan Gillen) and Jim Beach (Tom Hollander).  And with their early music a hit with audiences and record labels, a fictional executive named Ray Foster (Mike Myers) sends the group into seclusion for the production of their next album.

     Problem is, after months of recording, Foster hates the resulting title track, Bohemian Rhapsody, for a number of reasons but most obviously because it breaks the mold of a song playable on radio by clocking in at a then unheard of six minutes.  Of course, we already know the level of success the band would achieve from that point, with a countless number of hits rocking the air waves throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, leading to the film’s culminating re-creation of their set at 1985’s Live Aid.  In between, there is no end to the drama depicted amongst the main cast of characters, including the revelation by Freddie to his long time girlfriend, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), that he is bi-sexual and no longer wanted to remain in a straight relationship with her.  The exploration of these aspects of Mercury’s life indicates a lonely individual who doesn’t share the necessary things in common with his bandmates that would facilitate the kind of friendships he could count on in a time of need.  Instead, he fills his time throwing lavish parties without the company of those closest to him, resulting in a man who often feels empty and unloved.

     If you read up on the events depicted in “Bohenian Rhapsody”, you’ll find the screenwriters took a number of liberties in the order of which many of the events in the film are presented.  As an example, we are meant to believe, likely because of the emotional wallop it delivers, that Mercury received his diagnosis prior to Live Aid, which in the film serves as a springboard for the band reuniting when in actuality they never broke up in the first place.  But then again, telling the story of a band like Queen inside of two hours was bound to require a number of liberties in order to make the whole thing work.  And it certainly does, especially if you view the film through a lens that allows you to sing along and marvel at the set pieces constructed by the filmmakers which once again bring to life many of the band’s most iconic songs and moments.  It’s also fun to note the initial reactions of these supposed record executives who shunned the out of the box creativity Queen possessed that was responsible for their signature sound and constant reinvention which allowed them to remain relevant for so long.  As musical biopics go, “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t take a lot of risks, but it also doesn’t necessarily have to when the subject matter is bursting at the seams with the kind of entertainment we crave and want to hear over and over again.  And I’m certain Wayne and Garth would approve. GRADE: B

“Mid90s” Movie Review


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     It would likely be a surprise to no one who learns Jonah Hill is the writer/director behind “Mid90s”, given the fact he arrived on the scene in a near equally as raunchy, yet smart, teen coming of age story with 2007’s “Superbad”.  And given his age during the time period, there’s also no doubt Hill has drawn from his own experiences as a confused and impressionable middle schooler to fuel the story “Mid90s” sets out tell.  The result can be unsettling at times, but this raw and authentic look at the life of a group of teens from broken and troubled homes can serve as both a cautionary tale, as well as a look back to the pre-internet age where kids had to actually find something to do, unlike the kids of today who spend hours looking at their smart phone.

     Stevie, played by the excellent Sunny Suljic, is a 13 year old kid trying to figure things out.  He lives in Los Angeles with his mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), and his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges) in what appears to be a lower middle class neighborhood loaded with kids who aren’t receiving the kind of supervision they likely need.  Stevie is at the age where he’s enamored with the people around him and looks with a keen eye as to how they conduct and carry themselves.  Being cool, after all, is the first and foremost goal of every kid trying to make his or her way through the various social circles that will either accept them, or viciously destroy their fragile self image. 

     For Stevie, this starts with his brother and the mandatory exploration of his room when he’s gone.  What better way to start to plot your goals and aspirations than to see how your older sibling conducts his business?  And regardless of the definitive order to stay out, Stevie has to discover the details of the example being set right in front of him, but without the uneasy feeling of that person looking directly over his shoulder.  Ian’s room is clean and organized, with each and every item meticulously displayed and curated to indicate exactly who he is and what’s important to him.  CDs line the shelves.  Posters are neatly affixed to the wall.  And his Air Jordan sneakers line the floor, clearly wiped off and cleaned after each and every time they are worn.  Stevie sees this, but doesn’t exactly fall in line with his big brother’s habits, which may be because of the routine beatings he suffers at his hands when it is determined he has done something wrong, or sometimes for no reason at all.

     Stevie is impressed by the skateboarding culture and has his sights on a small group of older kids he sees hanging out around a local skate shop as his current focus of idolization.  The group, which features a character known as Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) due to his typical refrain to nearly everything he sees and hears, appear to have the kind of skills Stevie wants desperately to acquire and so he kind of just starts hanging out with them, and they don’t really seem to mind.  Aside from Fuckshit, there’s Ray (Na-kel Smith), Ruben (Gio Galicia), and Fourth Grade (Ryan McLaughlin), all of which are in high school, but are more than willing to show Stevie the ropes, who quickly gains the reputation of someone who can take a fall, and immediately gets back up.  But we also have to remember, each of these kids come from troubled upbringings, and they themselves are in this position because of being left behind by their families who don’t seem to care where they go or what they are doing at any given time.  As you can imagine, the group isn’t exactly a great source of advice for young Stevie.

     Hill guides the proceedings through a series of mishaps that put the boys in the exact kinds of situations one would expect.  There are skating practices in which the daredevil nature of the sport puts Stevie in harrowing scenarios he isn’t read to overcome, but somehow survives and in the process becomes an instant favorite of the group.  This also leads to this young child showing up to high school aged parties featuring alcohol, smoking, and the early stages of what I guess you would call a sexual experience.  I suppose there is somewhat of an acceptance for these behaviors when the kids are 17-18 years old, but these sequences become rather unsettling when Stevie becomes involved.  All of which has you asking the inevitable question of what will become of these kids?  Do they have a future that doesn’t include poverty or prison?  Or are we simply observing growing pains and eventually everything will turn out ok?

     It doesn’t appear Hill set out to really answer these questions.  Instead, the first time director looks to show the audience a snapshot that is simply one summer in these kids lives, and a series of not very extraordinary things that happens to them.  There are plenty of scenes in which the characters pontificate about their lives and where they see them going, but in true misguided fashion, they are ill-equipped to understand even a small percentage of what they are talking about.  You get the idea each of them was probably taught this nonsense when they were once Stevie’s age, and now this is the result, which certainly doesn’t bode well for the future of any of these characters.

     Fuckshit thinks he’s just gonna meander his way through life with no real thought as to how he will get anywhere, just as long as there’s an ample supply of women, booze, and a skateboard.  Fourth Grade is the resident filmmaker of the group, capturing every move of his friend’s exploits via a small camcorder with the intention of someday making movies.  Ruben is said to be abused by his mother and rarely goes home and his confidence seems to be fueled by the constant overshadowing of Stevie with his lame advice on how to avoid being labeled as gay.  But perhaps the most mature of the group is Ray, who sums up the entire film with one line in which he sits Stevie down and ensures he understands the fact that everyone has problems and all you can do is deal with it and move on.  Today, kids shield themselves of this by providing their friends and acquaintances with highlight reel infused feeds within their social media accounts in order to shift focus from the truth.  In the “Mid90s”, as well as before then, there was no such thing.  You were just who you were.  GRADE: B+

“The Old Man & the Gun” Movie Review


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     Writer/Director David Lowery takes the reigns on what will be legendary actor Robert Redford’s final screen performance with “The Old Man & the Gun”, a late 70s to early 80s period piece telling the true story of prison escape artist and serial bank robber Forrest Tucker.  Based on a New Yorker article written by David Grann, Lowery brings Forrest’s exploits to the screen as a sort of throw back to the era in which movies didn’t feature complex camera movements or flashy action sequences to tell this type of story.  The “A Ghost Story” filmmaker utilizes a series of long zooms and pans, along with wide scenic shots, and extreme closeups that accentuate every crevice and wrinkle within Redford’s worn face for the visuals that rely more so on the importance of situational dialogue than much of what we typically see today.  The result is a notable and worthwhile send off for the long time thespian. 

     When you read the synopsis for “The Old Man & the Gun”, the image of a classic cops and robbers shoot’em up may immediately come to mind, but “Heat” this is not.  Instead, Forrest Tucker (Redford) walks into the bank with the kind and carefree mannerisms you might expect from Clark Kent.  Adorned in a suit and fedora, and often a mustache as part of a minor disguise, Forrest smartly walks up to a teller or manager and carries on a conversation likely similar to someone doing an actual transaction.  He hands the teller a note with instructions, sometimes flashing a gun hidden in his coat, and proceeds to smile during the entire act, all the while comforting and encouraging the teller before exiting without anyone noticing what just took place.  

     Forrest works with two accomplices, Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits), the former functioning as the get away driver and the later as a look out inside the bank.  The trio operates from city to city, carefully choosing the banks they see as the most vulnerable, as well as the timing of the response from local police which Forrest constantly monitors via a scanner he normally listens to through an ear piece that seems to be dangling about during the entire film.  Eventually, the police do take notice, with one detective in particular, John Hunt (Casey Affleck) making the case his personal mission after actually being in one of the banks that is robbed without noticing until the manager announces the crime had just occurred.  

     In true early 80s style, Hunt constructs a push pin map that indicates a potential pattern and clue as to where the newly labeled Over the Hill Gang will strike next.  And as Forrest finds himself falling for a Texas woman, Jewel (Sissy Spacek), he happens upon on the side of the road shortly after committing a bank robbery, a series of unique coincidences allow for the fledgling criminal and the detective hunting him to cross paths under unique and memorable circumstances.  The only question is whether or not Hunt can predict the next target before the gang moves on.

     Affleck is his ever dependable self, delivering a brooding performance at times, but also showing a very human side of police work during several interactions with his wife and two children.  Spacek is also excellent as a struggling farmer and single woman who sees something genuine in Forrest, even though she’s aware of his chosen profession.  And the way Redford plays the sixteen time convict, there’s plenty to like.  He’s not exactly the stereotypical bank robber after all with his overly polite persona and ability to lull someone into a state of calm even when committing what is considered one of the most daring and violent crimes a person can do in this country.  The character is well carved out, utilizing past photos and footage of Redford to recreate the multitude of ways Forrest came up with to escape from prison, including an unprecedented exit from San Quentin in which he built the boat that would take him from the prison shore to the opposite shore only to disappear before authorities could catch up to him.

     Lowery’s script works wonders for the material, featuring several scenes that illicit laughs from the audience, while also succeeding in fleshing out several of the supporting players.  A scene in which Waller, flanked by Forrest and Teddy at a bar, describes why he doesn’t like Christmas gives a glimpse into these men and what motivates them to continue their crime spree even when they become aware the FBI and every local law enforcement agency is on their heels.  But this is clearly Redford’s movie and the camera remains squarely focused on him from scene to scene, ensuring no one is in position to steal the thunder from an actor who has certainly earned a rousing farewell after a film career spanning nearly six decades.  GRADE: B+

“First Man” Movie Review


     “First Man” brings “Whiplash” and “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle into what may be perceived by most as the kind of epic and crowd pleasing material the filmmaker should certainly flourish with, particularly given the All-American vibe the story of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon conjures in the mainstream.  But like all gifted filmmakers, Chazelle chooses to follow his own unique path in telling the story, and in the process takes the portrayal of Armstrong to places many are likely unaware of.  For all the unwarranted chatter about how the film depicts the events that took place July 20, 1969, “First Man” is an emotional and thought provoking tribute to the men and women who endured endless tragedy, ridicule, and self depreciation in order for Armstrong to become the first person to walk on the moon.  The flag is always there in the background, but this story is about something significantly more important to Armstrong, as most will certainly agree after viewing the film.

     “First Man” isn’t the glossy effects spectacle which made hits such as “Gravity”, “Interstellar”, and “The Martian” the kind of escapism entertainment the masses seem to crave.  Chazelle is clearly in this to achieve something different.  A film that puts the audience directly into the shoes of the astronauts, often from their point of view and without the presence of shots outside of the space craft.  Instead, we see the same minimized view from the small port holes they are looking through, as the endless movement and shaking, combined with the kind of continuous noise that would indicate the craft could break apart at any second, rocks the senses to a point where you wonder how anyone could think clearly when they really need to.  This isn’t a pretty theatrical experience, but it just may be the most realistic one of space travel ever committed to film.

     Chazelle re-teams with his “La La Land” leading man, Ryan Gosling, who portrays Armstrong as a quiet and focused man with an often brooding personality.  Much of this may be a result of the lingering effects from a recent and tragic loss, but it becomes clear to the decision makers that Armstrong has the chops to succeed under pressure and could be instrumental in NASA’s Space Program and goal to send a mission to the moon.  At times, it seemed as though Gosling was channeling many of the same mannerisms he utilized as “K” in the recent “Blade Runner 2049”, but there are also hints of a man whose singular focus and meticulous efforts are certain to lead to one of humankind’s greatest achievements.

     As Armstrong’s wife, Janet, Claire Foy provides the emotional spark when her husband seems to be in another place all together, at least mentally speaking.  In this era, she’s the stay at home wife who supports her husband’s career and the choices that come with it, all while raising their young children.  Of course, he spends his time training for the worst case scenario, attempting to stabilize a space craft while in a simulator that spins him every which way.  This and other training exercises in which various portions of the mission are tested out, leave many of the participants wounded or sometimes worse.  What Chazelle really hammers home here is the fact the prospects of space travel in 1969 were not easy, which also explains to a certain extent why we haven’t been to the moon since.

     The film is based on the book by James R. Hansen, who is the foremost expert on Armstrong, having spent years at his side conducting countless detailed interviews and gaining a full understanding of his experiences in the space program.  Chazelle explores a number of topics, including the Cold War competition between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. to be the first to send a man to the moon, as well as the politics surrounding the event in which the cost of the program became an issue during the Civil Rights movement when activists looked at the venture as a whites only endeavor.  The script by Josh Singer ensures many of these events are worked into the background, but the focus remains on Armstrong’s journey from a test pilot and engineer to the Apollo 11 mission that ultimately achieved a goal once thought impossible.

     In his third stint in the director’s chair, Chazelle has delivered yet another awards worthy film that is certain to remain on the short list for being considered one of the best of the year.  He is clearly one of the finest young filmmakers of his generation.  Stand out supporting performances by Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, Jason Clarke as Edward White, and the ever dependable Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton round out an impressive ensemble that brings an undeniable chemistry to every scene.  But the most impressive sequence by far is the moment when Armstrong and Aldrin land on the moon and open the hatch, revealing a barren, desolate sea of wonder and intrigue.  Those moments are some of the best you will see in any cinematic presentation intended to be a realistic portrayal of an important event in our history.  And Chazelle brings so much more to the thoughts going through Armstrong’s mind as he took those iconic steps.  Thoughts that eclipse the need to perform some random patriotic act, and instead resonate within the very things we hold closest to us, but all too often lose sight of.  GRADE A