Dark Waters basically tells audiences ‘your being poisoned and there isn’t anything being done to stop it.’ It’s a bitter pill and one that audiences will not swallow easily with their $10.00 popcorn and $7.00 soda. For all of the vital information in Todd Haynes’ polemical drama Dark Waters, the film is difficult to recommend on a strictly movie going experience level. I can recommend the skilled direction, the exceptional performance by Mark Ruffalo and the relevant and vital subject matter, but as an experience, Dark Waters is dreary.
Robert Billott was once an oblivious corporate environmental lawyer comfortable writing the occasional brief, strategizing with fellow lawyers on the clients dime and collecting paychecks on his way up the ladder to his partnership. Then one day, in walked a redneck farmer from West Virginia who ended Billott’s oblivious existence. Robert was recommended to Wilbur Tennant by his grandmother who only knows that her grandson is a lawyer and nothing else about his life or work.
Wilbur is a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia. Recently, a landfill was built by the DuPont chemical company on land adjacent to his farm. Now, Wilbur’s cows are dying of horrible diseases and Wilbur and his family are becoming ill themselves. Out of familial obligation and morbid curiosity about his former home town of Parkersburg, Robert goes to investigate and becomes obsessed with what he sees. Indeed, Wilbur’s livestock has been decimated and his land looks awful. Wilbur himself looks ragged and Robert can’t help but wonder what DuPont knows.
By happenstance, Robert is friendly with DuPont’s in-house counsel, Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) who decides to placate his colleague with a reveal of a few dry, almost indecipherable scientific documents that turn out to be the key in unravelling one of the greatest environmental frauds in history. Phil underestimated Robert’s talent and curiosity and in the process, Robert begins to risk his own health and livelihood to uncover the truth.
There is likely no better choice to play Robert Billot than Mark Ruffalo. A dedicated, even zealous, environmentalist in his own right, Ruffalo invests Robert with a deep passion and drive. Ruffalo’s bone deep dedication to bringing Robert and with Robert, the truth about the American chemical industry, to a mass audience, is immensely powerful. You can sense just how much this story means to Ruffalo in his every look and gesture. It’s a flawless performance.
The supporting cast struggles to keep up with Ruffalo’s intensity. Bill Camp chooses a sort of redneck burlesque that borders on the cultural definition of camp but still retains emotional resonance. Ann Hathaway is under-served as Robert’s wishy washy wife who avers between being supportive and critical depending on the aim of the scene rather than on anything established about her character.
Tim Robbins meanwhile, is barely more than an interesting wig throughout Dark Waters. Robbins, like Ruffalo, is a committed environmentalist and I admired the conflict inherent in his character, Robert’s supportive but also money-grubbing boss, but Robbins has no time to develop the character. This is fully Robert’s story and casting someone as talented and recognizable as TIm Robbins unbalances the role, he’s too big for such a small role.
Dark Waters is a severe change of pace for director Todd Haynes. Haynes is known for his more intimate dramas about romantic relationships under the strictures of an oppressive and unforgiving, usually mid-20th century time frame. That said, Haynes proves that he can bring the same kind of intensity to a story outside of the bedroom as inside one where he’s more familiar. Haynes captures the humanity and frailty of Robert Billott in ways that reflect Haynes’ usually observant and intimate style.
The look of Dark Waters is where Haynes is truly out of his comfort zone. Used to working in lush, warm, color, Dark Waters has Haynes working in grimy greens that reflect the seeping illness inflicted upon the people of Parkersburg. The look of Dark Waters, grimy, dirty, ill, and reflects the ungodly symptoms inflicted upon people by DuPont and their ilk. It’s an oppressive and unpleasant look but it is perfectly fitting for this story.
Dark Waters is a very good movie with a strong and important message. That message is delivered with passion and vitality. That said, it’s not a movie that is easy to watch or traditionally entertaining. The crux of the message of Dark Waters is that Robert Billott is a hero but also, we’re being poisoned on a daily basis and the government is doing almost nothing about it aside from battling against the man trying to stop them.
In a season when movies are doing their best to reach your emotions and move you in order to earn awards consideration, it is bold to release a movie that has little or no meaning. Knives Out is simply an entertainment. There is no deeper meaning, no revelation about the core of humanity and no deeper message about existence. Knives Out is simply an entertaining, at times highly convoluted, mystery for entertainment purposes only.
Knives Out tells the story of an elderly mystery writer named Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer). It has rather recently dawned on Harlan that his family is a miserable and selfish clan who’ve been thriving off of his success while never making anything of their own. At 85 and seeing his life coming to a close, Harlan decides that he’s going to cut off his family and everyone else except for his nurse, Marta (Ana De Armas), a genuinely kind woman who’s become his one true friend.
On the morning following Harlan’s birthday, his maid finds Harlan dead in his study. Harlan has cut his own throat and bled to death. Though not the type many would peg for a suicide, it appears to be an open and shut case until a private investigator arrives. Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has been hired by someone in the family to find out whether or not Harlan did kill himself and whether or not an expert level murder and cover up has taken place.
The suspects in Harlan’s death include his daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her cheating husband, Richard (Don Johnson), Linda and Richard’s spoiled son, Ransom (Chris Evans), Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) and Harlan’s daughter in-law from a son who passed away, Joni (Toni Collette). Investigating the case for the cops is Detective Lt Elliott (Lakeith Stansfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan).
Each of the family members attended Harlan’s 85th birthday and each informs the police and detective Blanc about their interactions with Harlan and what their motive might be to kill him. Holding the key to everything is Marta who is so innately good-hearted that she physically cannot tell a lie. You will have to see the movie to understand what that means but it is a wonderfully clever device in a movie filled with clever devices.
Knives Out was written and directed by Rian Johnson who became famous for directing Star Wars: The Last Jedi but has always been a mystery director at heart. Johnson’s debut feature, Brick, was a noir mystery that transposed a Phillip Marlowe-esque story into the hallways of a suburban high school and did so with ingenious technique. WIth Knives Out, Johnson is aping the style of Agatha Christie to equally strong effect.
Johnson’s hallmark is playfulness, a genuine delight with the mechanics of mystery. You can sense in the way he structures and paces his mysteries that he deeply enjoys leading audiences one way while taking his story the other way and bringing us around only when he’s ready. All the while, his wonderful characters keep us on edge with their colorful recriminations, shifting motivations and alliances.
Knives Out also finds time to be genuinely funny with Daniel Craig delighting in not being under the yoke of his James Bond performance. Taking on a theatrical southern affectation, Craig’s foghorn leghorn act is wildly entertaining in ways Craig has rarely shown in his career. I grew tired of his stoic yet emo Bond after his first adventure and I’ve mostly tolerated him since then Here however, Craig is effortlessly charming.
Ana De Armas is also a stand out as a young woman desperately in over her head. There isn’t much I can tell you about her arc in the movie, everything she does could be considered a minor spoiler. What I can tell you is that De Armas is brilliant in her wide-eyed, increasingly frenzied manner. Marta drives the plot more than any other character in Knives Out and it takes a strong actress to hold that center against a wide array of bigger name, more colorful performers.
Knives Out may be empty calories as a movie but who doesn’t love a few tasty empty calories. When something is this delicious it’s okay to indulge a little. It’s not a four course meal of Oscar worthy direction or performance but it is a wonderfully, singularly entertaining mystery populated by colorful characters and helmed by a director of impeccable taste and talent. If there is room on your Thanksgiving table for leafy greens, there is also room for pie. Consider Knives Out a delicious custard at the movie theater table.
The new Mr Rogers movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, is a revelation. The story of an Esquire reporter, Lloyd, played by Matthew Rhys, who is assigned to profile Mr Rogers for the magazine defies conventions in ways that are entirely unexpected and delightful. Director Marielle Heller has truly come into her own with this remarkable artful yet accessible movie that is not merely about the legendary PBS kids show host Mr Rogers, but about all that he stood for and embodied.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens with that oh so familiar theme song of the same name. Here, however, it is sung by Tom Hanks, who portrays Mr Rogers in a role that artfully incorporates elements of fantasy and reality. The opening Mr Rogers Neighborhood segment is a fantasy that has Mr Rogers introducing us to his new friend, Lloyd, a deeply troubled soul who writes for Esquire Magazine and struggles with being a new father while being estranged from his own father, Jerry, played by Chris Cooper.
Lloyd has alienated so many people in his career that, according to his editor, played with gravitas by Christine Lahti, no one wants to be interviewed by him anymore. Only one person of note has agreed to an interview with Lloyd and that person is Mr Rogers. The nice guy kids show host puff piece is not Lloyd’s style but with no other option on the table, he agrees and travels to Mr Rogers’ neighborhood in Pittsburgh for the interview.
Things are somewhat off-kilter from the start in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and it is a risky proposition. Director Marielle Heller, fresh off of the Oscar nominated success of Can You Ever Forgive Me starring Melissa McCarthy, risks alienating the audience by immediately having Hanks’ Mr Roger break the fourth wall and act as narrator of the movie, introducing the more straightforward, dramatic and familiar scenes.
Heller then chooses to transition from scene to scene using the models right out of the Mr Rogers Neighborhood set. It’s a style that evokes the esoteric direction of a Charlie Kaufman or Michel Gondry but in a decidedly more accessible fashion. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is stylistically bold yet lacking in pretension. That’s likely owed to the subject, Mr Rogers himself was notably unpretentious, a quality that Tom Hanks captures in his performance.
Another bold choice that Heller makes is casting Hanks and Mr Rogers in what is essentially a supporting role. The heavy dramatic lifting here is done by Matthew Rhys as Lloyd. The Emmy Award winning co-star of the hit drama The Americans, Rhys has the burden of being both a character in and of himself and the audience avatar, the one who must bring us closer to Mr Rogers and help us to understand what made him special.
Rhys’ performance is brimming with life and complex emotions. His backstory is brilliantly layered into the storytelling and Rhys evokes his past trauma effortlessly with his expressive, sad eyes. The scenes of Lloyd interviewing Mr Rogers are challenging and fascinating. There is a threat that Mr Rogers might come off as too all-knowing and benevolent as he gently yet inquisitively probes Lloyd’s obvious emotional wounds. Rhys and Hanks are remarkable for how well they ground these charged conversations in a way that feels authentic to the movie and to the memory of Mr Rogers.
Lloyd is exactly the kind of person who needs the kinds of lessons that Mr Rogers taught on his show. These are lessons of compassion, forgiveness and understanding that Lloyd missed out on as a child due to his myriad traumas. Having to learn these lessons as an adult via becoming a parent with his wife Andrea, played by Susan Kelechi Watson, and by the re-emergence of his estranged father, Jerry, finds Lloyd emotionally ill-equipped and Mr Rogers offers unexpected guidance.
What an absolutely lovely way to tell this story. Director Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, could have taken the easy way out, cast Tom Hanks as Mr Rogers and call it a day. Instead, they chose daring and artful devices to reveal the way Mr Rogers affected so many lives in so many ways and do it in a fashion that takes his lessons from the simplicity of childhood to the complexity of adulthood.
Now that I have seen it, I can’t imagine it being dramatized any other way. I had feared that 2018’s Mr Rogers Neighborhood documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, would render A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood redundant. Instead, what we have is an even greater tribute to the legacy of Mr Rogers, a film that masterfully evokes Mr Rogers’ best qualities while not making Rogers out to be a saint or a metaphorical martyr for some notion of family values.
Beautifully captured, boldly emotionally and deeply affecting, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood ranks as one of the most moving film going experiences of my life and one of my favorite films of 2019, a year that is truly coming alive with incredible movies.
Ford vs Ferrari is a triumph. This film about racing cars has the feel of a Hollywood, mainstream epic. The racing feels like a massive event and is filmed with urgency, suspense and excitement while also being based on actual events. I imagine even those who know about Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles and Ford will nevertheless find themselves at the end of their seat while watching this incredible action unfold.
Ford vs Ferrari stars Matt Damon as legendary car engineer Carroll Shelby. While history views Shelby as a legendary success story, prior to his triumph with Ford and LeMans, Shelby was struggling, selling the same Shelby Cobra to three different buyers just to keep the lights while he schemed to make more money to race with. Shelby was rescued by Ford and a young, up and coming executive named Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal).
Iacocca tapped Carroll Shelby to create the Ford racing team after Ford’s failed attempt at purchasing the legendary Ferrari company. The Ford racing team was born out of spite and Henry Ford Jr’s (Tracy Letts) desire to stick it to Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). So, Ford hired Shelby to build him a car that can win at the legendary Grand Prix of LeMans, a 24 hour endurance race that Ferrari has dominated for years.
For his part, Shelby sought out his old friend and go-to race driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). A mechanic and former soldier, Ken Miles has a unique, almost surreal ability to tune into what is missing from a race car. When Shelby approached Ken Miles, Ken was flat broke and retired from racing. Shelby entices him back behind the wheel despite Ken’s very reasonable mistrust of Ford executives he knows won’t be able to resist butting in.
The lead butt is Ford Executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), a composite character who stands in for the myopic Ford executives who were more concerned with image than with winning or building the best car. Beebe makes a big deal about how Ken Miles isn’t a ‘Ford Man,’ whatever that means and his pigheadedness costs Ford their first chance to win at LeMans by forcing Shelby not to put Ken on the racing team, though that isn't the narrative that goes back to Henry Ford Jr.
Once Ken Miles is actually allowed behind the wheel, Ford vs Ferrari kicks into another sensational gear. Christian Bale is an electrifying presence in Ford vs Ferrari. Bale delivers a full-bodied performance as Miles, he lives this man’s life and makes you believe it through the sheer force of charisma and grit. Bale’s Ken Miles is relentless, hard headed, intuitive and funny. He’s wiry with a bad haircut but ingenious in so many other ways. This is one of Bale’s finest performances.
Matt Damon’s performance has fewer fireworks than Bale’s but he’s just as effective in his way.
Much as Carroll Shelby facilitated Ken Miles in getting him behind the wheel and a shot at winning LeMans, Damon’s performance is perfectly calibrated to give Bale the spotlight, to tee up his performance so Bale could knock it out of the park. Shelby appears to fade into the background slightly in the middle of the second act but it’s fully calculated, the intention is specifically to give us more time to invest in Miles and his status as an underdog against the massive Ford machine.
One of my misgivings going into Ford vs Ferrari was whether or not the movie intended to play the Ford Motor Company as cheerful underdog, upstarts. I could not have accepted that Ford played the good guys who overcame the odds against those dastardly Italians from Ferrari. The title might lead you in that direction as well but the reality of Ford vs Ferrari is that is actually Shelby and Miles vs Ford vs Ferrari.
Director James Mangold, working from a script by Jez Butterworth, John Henry Buttetworth and Jason Keller, brings a singular vision to Ford vs Ferrari that helps the movie transcend its mainstream, Hollywood roots. Don’t misunderstand, this is still the mainstream, Hollywood, blockbuster, sports movie you think it is, but Mangold is unquestionably the captain of this ship and he demonstrates masterly control over the pace and tone of Ford vs Ferrari.
Mangold directs with the confidence of a filmmaker who knows he has an epic story to tell even if everyone else might be skeptical of a racing movie. Racing movies haven’t exactly blown up the box office in recent years. Only Pixar has really ever managed to strike gold with a racing movie but even Cars has its detractors.Regardless, Mangold knows there is more here than just a racing story and his superb confidence radiates off the screen.
Mangold is aided greatly by a sharp tongued script, brilliantly crisp cinematography by Academy Award nominee Phedon Papamichael, and to die for production design and costumes. The period detail is outstanding, especially in the costumes which are both of the time of the movie, the mid to late 1960’s, but also still look cool. The jackets alone in Ford vs Ferrari are worth the price of admission.
Ford vs Ferrari is some of the most fun and excitement that I have experienced at the movies this year. Not only is it an entertaining blockbuster, Ford vs Ferrari has the gravitas, artistry and storytelling that earns Academy Awards. Ford vs Ferrari belongs in the Best Picture conversation and Christian Bale should be standing shoulder to shoulder with Adam Driver (Marriage Story) and Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) in the Best Actor race.
Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) took years to recover from his father’s rampage at the Overlook Hotel. His mother died not long after his father attempted to murder them both and her death led to a spiral of self-destruction for her son. Dan fell hard into alcoholism in his attempt to quiet the voices in his head, the voices that he could hear any time via his ‘Shine,’ the psychic abilities that he discovered as a child at the Overlook and has run from ever since.
Now, several years sober, Dan has found friend, Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis), and a steady job as an orderly at a hospice in New Hampshire. Here, Dan’s Shine has a way of providing comfort to people when they need it the most, as they transition toward death. Dan becomes known at the hospice as Doctor Sleep as he shows up when it is time for the dying to enter their final sleep under his watchful and caring eye.
Meanwhile, Dan is also allowing his Shine to reach out to a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a fellow psychic, younger and more powerful than Dan. Their friendship is kind and Dan offers the kind of comfort, support and understanding that Abra’s parents cannot as they do not have her special ability. Abra fears her parents will not understand or worse, may fear her remarkable gifts.
Abra’s powerful shine unfortunately catches the attention of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). Rose leads a cabal of supernaturally powered villains who’ve discovered their own version of the fountain of youth, one that centers on people like Abra. The group is genuinely scary and the movie underlines how fearsome they are with visual flair. The ways in which we witness their evil are a little hard to watch as the terror of their victims has a visceral quality.
Abra proves to be Rose The Hat’s white whale, a shine more powerful than even her own. The hunt for Abra, and Dan’s attempts to protect her and guide her, make for a surface level take on the plot of Doctor Sleep. Thankfully, Doctor Sleep has a few surprises in store for those who give it a chance. This sequel to both Stephen King’s The Shining (novel) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (Movie) looks like a debacle at first glance but turns out to be a brilliant gamble.
Directed by Michael Flanagan, best known for such mainstream efforts as Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil and the Stephen King-Netflix adaptation, Gerald’s Game, Flanagan takes a big, bold step forward as a filmmaker in Doctor Sleep. Until now, Flanagan has been a rather mediocre horror director. Here, however, with Doctor Sleep, Flanagan arrives as a bold, risk taking filmmaker who is willing to bet big on a project that could have been his complete undoing.
There is no margin of error in making Doctor Sleep. Flanagan was always going to be under intense scrutiny by intending to sequelize both the Stephen King and the Kubrick movie that King was not a fan of. That Flanagan brilliantly bridges the gap between King’s novel and Kubrick’s movie is one of the great strengths of Doctor Sleep. Even the author himself has acknowledged that Flanagan did the near impossible of pleasing the two masters of this sequel.
Kyliegh Curran is a revelation as young Abra. A wonderful character, Curran infuses her with life, curiosity, humor and bravery. I loved how the movie allows Abra to be both youthful and naive and yet resourceful and more than capable of holding her own against Ferguson’s incredible villain performance. As a member of the Critics Choice Award voting mass, I can say for certain that I will be voting for Ms Curran in our Best Young Actor category. She’s just outstanding.
Just about everything about Doctor Sleep is outstanding. Seeing the Overlook Hotel again, the remarkable recreation of the period detail of the overlook. Even the logic that help us arrive at the Overlook is solid and compelling. The script by director Mike Flanagan, quite smartly establishes Abra as every bit the equal in power and bravery as her adult co-stars. I especially enjoyed the earliest scenes between Curran and Rebecca Ferguson whose Rose the Hat is a terrific villain, especially when she underestimates our young heroine.
Holding the whole movie together is Ewan McGregor as Danny. Though the when of the setting of Doctor Sleep is badly fudged so we don’t know how old McGregor is supposed to be, it turns out not to be an issue as McGregor melts into this performance. McGregor is a steady hand with strong instincts, the perfect leader for this movie. He has movie star good looks and charisma to draw in the mainstream and just the right amount of haunted conflict and a touch of madness needed for a great horror movie.
I had low expectations for Doctor Sleep based on the fact of it being a sequel to a Stanley Kubrick movie without, obviously, Stanley Kubrick, as well as an underwhelming trailer. But, after seeing it, I am now a huge fan. The tone, the pace, the characters, the scares, they are all working in Doctor Sleep and I was excited and entertained throughout. This truly is the sequel to The Shining that I did not think was possible, an absolutely brilliant movie that lives up to the original book and movie in a big, big way.
Terminator is the Frankenstein's Monster of movie franchises. Every few years, a new Dr Frankenstein emerges to attempt to reanimate the rotting corpse of this franchise and ends up creating yet another diminished, desperate copy of something that was once great. Terminator Dark Fate is the latest attempt to resurrect this moribund, hard luck franchise, and like the sequels and failures that came before it, it is yet another fading, rotten, copy of what was once great.
Terminator Dark Fate stars Natalie Reyes as Dani Ramos, the new version of John Connor, a woman who will grow up to play a major role in the fate of humanity and who must be protected by someone from the future sent to the past. In this case, our time traveling hero is Grace (Mackenzie Davis, a major step down from her brilliant role in Tully just last year), a human who has been enhanced by technology in a way that makes her nearly the equal of the new style of Terminator.
That new style of Terminator, sent back in time to kill Dani, is Terminator Rev 9, silently and quite flatly portrayed by Gabriel Luna. Where previous Terminator models were either just robots with human skin, ala the T-800, or moldable metallic goo, ala Robert Patrick's T-1000, the Rev-9 is both Robot and Goo. The Rev-9 can split itself into robot form and goo form for 2 on 1 attacks against their target. The filmmakers have now created a version of the Terminator that has any power it needs to have in order to move the plot along. Rather than call him Rev-9, we should just call him plot convenience.
With the Rev-9 being anything it needs to be at any given moment, the filmmakers attempt to even the odds by bringing back the legendary Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Sarah had once prevented the robot led armageddon but history corrected itself and a new, future, robot armageddon has taken its place as if the Terminator franchise actually existed within the Final Destination franchise universe. Sarah now spends her time trying to anticipate where she can intervene again to prevent the new armageddon.
Sarah has been helped by a mysterious person who sends her text messages just before new Terminator's arrive from the future so that she can be there to stop them. Though she is dubious about the source of her help, it comes in handy when the Rev-9 attacks and nearly kills Grace and Dani. Sarah appears out of the smoking ruins with a rocket launcher that slows the Rev-9 down long enough for the three to escape.
I will stop my plot description there. You know that Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as a T-800 but how that happens and his other relevance to the story as it plays, I will leave you to discover if you decide to spend your hard earned dollars on this once great, now desperately listless franchise. The going through the motions quality of Dark Fate stinks the most here. Schwarzenegger, Hamilton and even Executive Producer James Cameron are marketing based window dressing intended to tap those nostalgia dollars that drive far too much of Hollywood filmmaking.
The stinking, rotting, corpse of the Terminator franchise keeps coming back to life solely to poke us all in the side and say 'hey, remember this thing you used to enjoy, it's still sort of here and it needs your money.' No, they aren't going to give you anything for that money other than rehashing your nostalgia, but that's often enough for most audiences who prefer having their memories microwaved and served to them as musty leftovers.
The microwave chef cooking up this latest Terminator stew is director Tim Miller who made the first Deadpool movie. Miller became a hot property after Deadpool briefly became the highest grossing R-Rated movie of all time but since then it's become clear how much Ryan Reynolds meant to that franchise far more than Mr Miller. Since leaving Deadpool before the hit sequel, Miller has acted as Producer of the widely reviled Sonic the Hedgehog movie that's since been shelved for desperately needed reshoots and he's directed the lifeless marketing corpse of a Terminator movie, Dark Fate.
In fairness, the direction of Terminator Dark Fate isn't all that bad. The movie looks fine and the action is solid and well-produced. The CGI creations in Terminator Dark Fate live up to the technology and have a seamless quality to them that many modern, mass appeal, monster action movies might envy. There are plenty of good things about Terminator Dark Fate except the fact that it exists at all.
The story of Terminator Dark Fate stinks, it's rotten. The story of Dark Fate exists only as a cynical marketing ploy to extract money from the public that still holds fond memories of the past Terminator movies. The Terminator franchise is akin to the arena rock tours of bands like REO Speedwagon and Styx, familiar songs from once loved bands played at an extensive volume. Some of the band members are different but we still have the lead singers. Terminator is an aging nostalgia act just interminably playing the hits.
Terminator Dark Fate recycles the tropes of Terminator 2 but this time, John Connor is a girl. That's the level of innovation we get here. Mix in a female version of Kyle Reese in Mackenzie Davis's Grace and we have what the owners of the Terminator intellectual property consider innovative storytelling. The reality is that the screenplay simply performs a not so sly mashup of the first two Terminator movies and calls it Dark Fate.
I'm perhaps being to hard on the Terminator franchise. It's far from the only zombied franchise in Hollywood, one that gets rolled out to capitalize on our nostalgia with no futher artistic ambition. It's just that Terminator 2: Judgment Day means more to me than most other cannibalized I.P. Terminator 2: Judgment was the first time I ever had a favorite movie. T2 taught me what was possible in the world of movies. It showed me a vision of the technological future that my 16 year old mind could never have imagined.
People forget what a massive leap forward T2 was in terms of being a technological marvel and a monster blockbuster. T2 was game changing, it was for a moment, a flashpoint for the technological future of film. T2 told a strong story that transcended the original to expand on beloved characters and turn them into mainstream icons. It was a wonder of marketing but it was also genuinely innovative and entertaining.
All of the Terminator nonsense that has come since T2 has been a cynical cash grab. Any time Terminator has been revived since T2 it has been like a poor photocopy sold to us as something new and different. Terminator is now merely a marketing catchphrase and not a movie. The lack of effort that goes into innovating within this franchise is staggering with different filmmakers imposing ever more ludicrous twists on the original that are united only in bad ideas and that familiar title.
Terminator Dark Fate is perhaps the best movie that could have been made from the cynical attempts to continue to profit from the nostalgia of the Terminator Intellectual Property, but that's not saying much. It's not enough for me to recommend it. Terminator Dark Fate is simply too much of a warmed over leftover of a Terminator movie for me to say go see it. It's very existence is an indictment of the Hollywood machine that keeps composting our nostalgia and serving it back to us.
I was a big fan of Zombieland when it was released in 2009. Zombieland was a breath of fresh air in the zombie and horror comedy genre with its irreverence and incredible cast. Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin and Bill Murray made for a terrifically funny group dynamic, especially Murray’s subversive, 4th wall breaking cameo as himself, and the clever script created just enough frights to make Zombieland both funny and scary.
How did they screw up the sequel so badly? It boggles the mind, Zombieland Double Tap, the second attempt at making Zombieland a franchise after a failed TV pilot, is utterly awful. Lazy, sloppy, and irksome in tone and stakes, Zombieland Double Tap is an unbearably smug, self satisfied sequel. The cast is still talented but the scenario given to this remarkable group has completely let them down and they don’t appear to care.
Zombieland Double Tap brings us back into the world of Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) as they are finding a new place to live. In classically lazy screenwriting, the group chooses one of the few places in the United States that would make for a good visual gag and some lazy reference humor, The White House.
Barricading themselves inside the White House our heroes settle into uncomfortable domesticity. Tallahassee has taken on the role of over-protective father to Little Rock who is eager to strike out on her own and prove that she’s a grown-up, and especially get out from under Tallahassee’s overbearing protection. As for Columbus and Wichita, their romance has grown stale and Columbus’s idea for livening things up is to ask her to marry him.
The proposal goes poorly and the following morning, Wichita and Little Rock have stolen Tallahassee’s modified killing machine, the Presidential limousine,renamed ‘The Beast,’ and have hit the road. Distraught, Columbus mopes around for a while before he and Tallahassee decide to go shopping at a D.C shopping mall gone to seed. Here, they encounter Madison (Zoey Deutch), who claims she’s been hiding in a freezer at Pinkberry for an unspecified amount of time.
That’s pretty much it for Zombieland Double Tap. The introduction of the character of Madison pretty much had me checked out entirely. Deutch’s Madison is among the most regressive caricatures we’ve seen on screen in some time. Madison is bubbly, blonde and portrayed as lacking intelligence. She’s a walking dumb blonde joke at a time where such jokes have long fallen out of favor.
Even if blonde jokes still had a place in our culture in 2019, the character is such a lazy cliche that she’d still be regressive and offensive. Nothing against Zoey Deutch who has been quite good in other roles, but she is awful in this movie. Deutch is desperately mistreated by a supremely lazy script which invents no arc for her character. She makes no sense in this universe, her survival doesn’t fit with what we’ve been told, not just in the original Zombieland but in this very movie where we’ve been informed that there are even more evolving and dangerous zombies.
Therein lies yet another fault of Zombieland Double Tap, the movie doesn’t set a believable level where we can buy in on the survival of any of these characters. The movie opens with a voiceover that re-introduces this post-apocalyptic universe and tells us how things have changed in 10 years. We now have new zombies that have evolved and become more dangerous. We have ninja zombies that can open doors and sneak up on you.
We also have an even more dangerous group of zombies that get nicknamed Terminators because they are much, much harder to kill. They are quick and don’t go down from a simple double tap, the two shots it used to take to guarantee a zombie was down and out. These Terminator zombies create a problem for the narrative as they are so powerful and dangerous that it is impossible to buy in to the idea that even our well-honed zombie killing heroes could survive them.
The only way they do survive, in a truly awful final act, is a Deus Ex Machina involving a character played by Rosario Dawson. Fans of The Walking Dead, your Glenn hiding under a dumpster escape is topped here with four characters surviving an impossible to survive zombie scenario. That plus the setting, a hippie commune where guns are not alone and are indeed melted down if someone brings one to the compound, make Zombieland unendurably lacking.
A cast this talented deserved better than a hack script that renders their charm as characters in this strange universe as smug, self-satisfied and arrogant. If anything, complacency should be the narrative enemy of Zombieland Double Tap. A far better story than regressive blonde jokes and lazy dunking on hippies and pacifists, would be for these characters to find themselves so comfortable as zombie killers that they get complacent, lose their edge and come very close to death early on that they are forced to rethink the way they see the world.
Instead, there really is no villain in Zombieland Double Tap. I know the Zombies are the villains but I am thinking more in the thematic sense. The first film had inexperience, a terrifying learning curve and a developing trust versus mistrust of new people that provided plenty of narrative energy that when combined with Stone and Eisenberg’s romantic subplot, made Zombieland compelling, endearing and heart rending. You really wanted these characters to survive and your beat harder the more danger they were in.
Here, there is little to no narrative energy. The idea here has the movie resetting to the start of the first movie with our heroes divided and being forced to reconnect to each other in ways that are similar to the first movie. They changed up the setting with cliched destinations like the White House and Graceland but little else has changed. The screenwriters added Madison but we’ve already talked about how little that matters. In the end, the recycling and the laziness render Zombieland Double Tap unwatchable.
Gemini Man stars Will Smith as Henry Brogan, the world's foremost assassin. We meet Henry in the midst of a mission. Henry is perched on a mountain top waiting for a train. Henry's task is to kill a potential terrorist who is aboard this high speed, moving train. Henry is going to attempt to assassinate his target from 200 yards away while the train is moving. It's a shot only a few people in the world can make and Henry Brogan does not miss.
Unfortunately, Henry doesn't actually know who this target was. The information given to him by his intelligence handler says the man was a scientist working to create weapons for terrorists. In reality, the man was working for the American government. The assassination of this man has put Henry on someone else's hit list. Henry was set up and to stay safe, he will have to go on the run and try and find the people who set him up.
Opposite Henry and looking to take him out is Clay Veras (Clive Owen). Veras is Henry's former commander and the man who set Henry up. He's now also in charge of capturing or killing Henry now that he's a fugitive. Veras has a small army at his command as an independent military contractor but he's not going to use it. Instead, Clay has something more unique in mind. 23 years ago, Veras extracted Henry's DNA and set about creating a clone of his best assassin. The goal was to raise a new Henry, one with fewer flaws and no conscience.
Gemini Man was directed by Ang Lee and produced by Michael Bay from a script by David Benioff (Game of Thrones) and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass). The premise of the film is clever and with Ang Lee at the helm, Gemini Man has a sheen of professionalism and a genuine narrative energy. The look of Gemini Man is crisp and expensive with strong cinematography and the unique look of an Ang Lee movie with his odd angles and use of closeups.
Late period Will Smith movies showcase Smith's choice to appear dignified at the expense of his charismatic energy. He's still movie star handsome but less lively and energetic as in his earlier work such as Bady Boys or Men in Black. No longer chasing jokes, Smith is now more eager to appear youthful in action than in spirit. It's a tradeoff that doesn't resonate with me but I understand it. While I might prefer the more lighthearted version of Smith, his late period self-seriousness does lend gravity to the sci-fi lite aesthetic of Gemini Man.
In Gemini Man we see a youthful Will Smith CGI recreation and it's relatively convincing outside of a couple of rubbery, early 2000's shots. The narrative of the young Henry Brogan, nicknamed Junior by Owen as his surrogate father, is rather apt for who Will Smith is now. It's as if the current Will Smith had had his charismatic, live wire energy bred out of him in order to create a more perfect action star, badass persona.
Gemini Man is convincing enough in its technology and that lends a strong helping hand to the acton which which legitimately pulse-pounding. I was genuinely excited throughout Gemini Man by the big action set pieces, especially chases through Cartegena, Columbia and Istanbul, Turkey in which young and old WIll Smith match each other move for move wth the older Smith able to repeatedly out wit the younger version despite the younger version having superior physicality.
Strangely, Gemini Man is light on the idenity aspect of the story, the one you might expect to drive the plot more. Despite this being an Ang Lee movie with a script by a pair of writers who know a little about crafting characters, Gemini Man appears to be far closer to the vision of Jerry Bruckheimer rather than three authorial voices. The action of Gemini Man is far more at the heart of the movie than any examination of the notion of battliing oneself to find peace.
The theme of identity is so subtle as to only be implied just by the premise. Gemini Man rarely slows down long enough for Henry to think much about what it's like to face a version of himself that is trying to kill him. I appreciate the subtlety to a point. That said, there appears to be a scene missing that might deepen the subtext into something more memorable. Instead, the character of Henry Brogan appears to find it notable that he's facing a clone of himself but not much for him to spend much time thinking about it.
The script appears to take the easy way out rather than go into depth about the moral quandaries of being a professional killer. Instead, the movie appears to prefer the moral question of whether cloning is right or wrong, a quaint notion that feels like something from a movie in the 1990's. I'm not saying the argument over genetic cloning has been resolved but it hasn't been top of mind since Doly the sheep was a thing. Thus why it feels quaint and more than a little bit of a cop out to be the moral crux of Gemini Man.
It occurs to me now that I have reached the end of this review without once mentioning actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead who plays the female lead in Gemini Man. So forgettably underwritten and unnecessary is the character of Danny that I barely remembered to mention her. That's not a commentary on Winstead's performance, she's solid. Rather, it's a commentary on how bereft of interest in female characteristics that the filmmakers are.
At a loss to do anything with the character of Danny since she is not a romantic interest of either Henry or his clone, the filmmakers turn her into a plot convenience, there to move things along as needed, or as a nod to the modern aesthetic of the tough chick, the strawman of modern feminine empowerment. Through the character of Danny the filmmakers are saying "Hey look, she can beat up a guy. See, how progressive we are? She may not have complexity but she can do what the boys can do so we can consider ourselves progressive by association."
That said, I don't hate Gemini Man. It's legitimately well made with a terrific pace and gripping action. Ang Lee is a pro director and the fast paced action kept my attention while the characters invested me in their story. I don't think there is much more to Gemini Man than cheap thrills but as cheap thrils go, it's better than many other action movies. Will Smith is still an actor I am eager to watch in a lead role and I still enjoy his personality, even as he has dialed back on the aspects of his personality that I have always found most appealing.
Gemini Man is worth seeing on the big screen, if there isn't something you are more interested in seeing. It will also be a solid bit of distraction on Blu-Ray, DVD or streaming early next year.
Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix as the sad, damaged, mama's boy Arthur Fleck, who will one day in the near future snap and become the deranged criminal mastermind known as Joker. When we meet Arthur however, he's working as a sign twirling clown and it appears the world has it out for him. Not only is Arthur robbed of his twirling sign, he winds up beaten silly by the thieves and then told that he needs to pay for the broken sign.
At home, Arthur's mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), insists that he check the mail incessantly for a response from Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), her former employer whom she insists will come to their rescue and get them out of their impoverished hovel of an apartment. That letter never comes, while Thomas Wayne appears to be entering the political arena, running for Mayor of Gotham City and promising to rid the streets of the criminals and the trash.
Arthur doesn't care much for politics, everyday life is a challenge enough for Arthur whose dreams of becoming a stand up comic are made poingnant and tragic by his long term neurlogical issue. Arthur has a condition, likely developed from a head trauma, that causes him to laugh inappropriately and uncontrollably and rarely when called for. His condition renders his dream of becoming a stand up comedian darkly ironic and eventually humiliating.
Arthur is obsessed with many things but one that stands out is the Murray Franklin Show. Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) is the Johnny Carson of Gotham City, a television lifer who uses Sinatra's That's Life as a catchphrase and calling card. The two cross paths in person when Murray begins showing a video of Arthur's failed stand up gig and poking fun at Arthur. At this point, Arthur has lost his job, has murdered three men on a subway car after they attempted to beat him to death, and has gone off the medications that keep his delusions in check.
This is what Murray does not know when he decides to book Arthur on his talk show and let the kid show he's a good sport by taking Murray's jibes in stride and in person. This is the final set piece of Joker and by far the strongest and most shocking element of the movie. If the rest of Joker had the power and fierceness of this moment, which fuses Joaquin Phoenix's real life talk show persona with the spiraling terror of the Joker persona for an extra kick of discomforting energy.
Unfortunately, it's all downhill from here. Joker is an empty exercise in nihilism and troll culture. As directed by Todd Phillips, Joker mocks the audience by being all things to all audiences while not having a meaning of its own. The film uses a structure involving an unreliable narrator and the device is so clumsy that by the end the movie can use that unreliable narrator as a gimmick to deflect any reading of the movie, rendering the whole an empty shell and robbing the power from Joaquin Phoenix's performance.
If you want to see Joker as a call to violent uprising agains the rich you can read it that way. If you want to see it as a critique of what is lacking in American healthcare you can read it that way. If you want to read Joker as a critique of the policies of the Trump administration or as the ballad of the incel community or the most savage takedown of the policies of Elizabeth Warren, you can probably find all of that in Joker because the movie has know meaning of its own.
I get that perhaps the movie intends to pose Joker as a mirror held up to society to reflect whatever society wants to see but I can't see what is intended to be entertaining or even interesting about such a taunting and trolling of the audience. Most people probably won't mind because the movie, and especially Joaquin Phoenix, looks cool while all that is going on, but the cool factor wore out pretty quickly for me once the cop out of an ending arrived and the unreliable narrator wiped most of the movie away in one fell swoop.
I don't hate Joke, much like another nihilistic and childish swipe at those who choose to believe in things, Team America World Police, I don't care. I find such intellectual dishonesty and trolling exhausting and thus I find Joker and the discourse surrounding it wearying. I no longer care. I suffered this movie and its arrogant, aggrandized taunting and I am glad its over.
I watched another movie this week, Renee Zellweger in Judy, the story of the late, brilliant, Judy Garland, and I want to go live in that universe, sad as it is in the end, because it is a movie universe filled with love amid the tragedy. You guys can go play with Joker and see what you want to see, I'm going to cry at a true tragedy, the loss of a beautiful soul who was too good for this world. That's a story worth telling and with a much better, and more compelling, unreliable narrator.
“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy” Roger Ebert
There is a moment in my experience of the movie Abominable that reminded me of that Roger Ebert quote and why Roger was always the best of us, always so prescient. Our young protagonist in Abominable has a violin that means the world to her, a gift from her late father and it appears to be broken and lost forever.
Behind me, in the dark of the theater, a little girl, couldn’t have been older than 5 or 6 says to her mom, ‘oh no her guitar,’ with genuine concern and empathy. The poignancy of this moment cannot be overstated. Abominable inspires feelings like that and while it may not be perfect, if it inspires one child toward that kind of genuine empathy, it’s worth more than all of the greatest movies ever made.
Abominable features the voice of Chloe Bennett as Yi, an industrious teenager who, since the death of her father, has barely stopped working long enough to grieve his loss. Her absence from her mother (Michelle Wong) and her Nai Nai (Tsai Chai) is deeply felt but mom fears interfering in her daughters coping mechanism, even if it means not being able to offer the comfort she desperately wishes to give.
Yi’s multiple side hacks, including dog walking, babysitting, and emptying fish guts in the trash of a restaurant, are her way of avoidance and her way of raising money for a trip she and her father had planned and she’s determined to take. But all of that will have to wait when Yi finds a yeti on the roof of her apartment building. Yes, a yeti, a big, white furball of a yeti with more than a touch of magic and wonder to him.
The yeti, which Yi nicknames Everest, after his home summit, has escaped from the laboratory of a big game hunter named Burnish (Eddie Izzard). Burnish encountered a Yeti as a young man when he climbed Mt Everest and he intends to prove to the world the yeti exists. With the help of his Zoologist sidekick, Dr Zara (Sarah Paulsen) and his bumbling team of security Burnish will do anything to bring Everest back to his lab to exploited.
Helping Yi and Everest on their journey, as Yi has decided to return Everest to his home, are Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and Jin’s young cousin, Peng (Albert Tsai). Jin had no intention of helping but when Peng ran off to join Yi and Everest on a departing ship, he leapt after him to protect him. Jin also provides a lucky cover story for the trio as well as he had a trip to Beijing planned for his college visits and he claims Yi and Peng are accompanying him.
That’s all I will tell you about the plot of Abominable, an unfortunate title for this delightful movie. Truly, THIS movie deserves to be called Everest and it is a shame that the awful mountain climbing movie from earlier this young century claimed that title first. The two films are remarkably different in story but also in quality as Abominable is a wonderful adventure and Everest is a paean to the courage of people dying for no reason other than their ego.
Stepping off my soapbox, Abominable was written and directed by Jill Culton who has greatly improved her work since the slight and forgettable animated animal flick, Open Season, in 2006. Abominable has the heartfelt care and craft of a Pixar movie without the lowbrow pandering of most non-Pixar animated fair. The animation is lovely, even as the character design choices are a little odd. Not so odd as to be notably bad, just a few unusual choices. That’s just critical nitpicking.
The eagle eyed among you readers were likely struck by a name in the credits of Abominable, that of Tenzing Norgay Trainor. That’s not merely an homage to the man who joined Sir Edmund Hillary as the first men on the top of Mt Everest, Tenzing Norgay. Tenzing Norgay Trainor is the grandson of Tenzing Norgay making Abominable an apt tribute to his grandfather’s legacy. Trainor was an inspired choice for the role of Jin not just because of his heritage, but also because he’s a star on the Disney Channel and has a naturally expressive voice.
The most important thing about Abominable is that the story is full of heart. It’s the kind of movie that overwhelms you with a big, lovable heart. These are wonderful characters inside a terrific story filled with adventure and laughs and a few well earned tears. Watching Abominable in a theater full of children and watching even the most attention span challenged child slowly become mesmerized by the sights and sounds is an utter delight.
The experience of Abominable was nearly enough for me to recommend it. That Abominable is a genuinely wonderful movie, is icing on the cake.
Ad Astra stars Brad Pitt as astronaut Roy McBride. We meet Roy as he is working on what appears to be the International Space Station or some approximation of such. The station is just above the atmosphere of the Earth, something that becomes urgently important when the station is struck by some sort of energy surge. As the station begins to explode, Roy is sent hurtling back to the Earth.
By some miracle, Roy survives and upon his rather brief recuperation, he is brought into a secretive meeting of military brass. The men in this meeting inform Roy about a secret mission involving Roy’s father, Dr Clifford McBride, that sent him to what was believed to be his death on a space station near Neptune, the farthest that man has ever travelled in space. Roy was told that his father had died but here, he is told that his father may be alive and his survival is related to these energy surges that now endanger all mankind.
The military men want Roy to leave everything behind and travel to Mars where he will, via an American-martian outpost, be able to send his father a message that they hope will help to stop these energy surges. It’s a lengthy journey and there are many things about his father and his mission that Roy is not yet aware of. One man who does know is Col Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland). Despite his advanced age, Pruitt is to escort Roy on his mission and carrying with him a secretive agenda.
To say much more about the plot of Ad Astra would be to give away too much of this exceptional story. Directed and co-written by James Gray, the underrated auteur behind the brilliant Lost City of Z and The Immigrant, Ad Astra continues a remarkable hot streak for the director. Gray is a director who chooses challenging subjects and attacks them from unique angles. It’s been a hallmark of his work and it continues with the unusual journey of Ad Astra.
Ad Astra carries influences as varied and fascinating as Apocalypse Now and 2001 A Space Odyssey. Ad Astra lacks the bold un-commerciality of 2001, but for being more straight-forward than it retains some of the artistic touches of Kubrick’s legendary adventure including a colorful visual palette, a deliberate pace and a deep respect for space travel and the challenges therein. I know that making such a comparison is big but aside from being a good deal more mainstream in ambition, the 2001 comparison is reasonable in terms of the remarkable artistry and care on display.
The Apocalypse Now comparison is far more typical as a Marlon Brando delivered the definitive crazed man of authority in that Francis Ford Coppola masterwork. Tommy Lee Jones in Ad Astra however, earns that comparison. Jones is electric in the role of Brad Pitt’s father, a driven and desperate man on a mission. Jones has been great in any number of roles but I dare say this role exceeds even his greatest work in No Country for Old Men and his Academy Award winning performance in The Fugitive.
Yes, you can infer that issues of fathers and sons permeate the story of Ad Astra The issues of loyalty, duty, love and resentment are sewn into this story. These issues underline the action throughout and bring depth and a compelling emotionality to a movie that from time to time can feel as remote as the space wherein it exists. Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones have a tremendous chemistry but it’s the ways in which writer-director James Gray weaves them together when they aren’t on screen together that make Ad Astra so remarkably compelling.
Ad Astra is one of my favorite movies of 2019. The film ranks next to another ingenious and brilliantly artistic Brad Pitt movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as one of the best in an underrated 2019 at the movies. Brad Pitt went away for a little while, if you follow the tabloids you know he had some issues to overcome, and the time away from the spotlight has sharpened his gifts and helped to hone his eye for movies with great moments.
Ad Astra is filled with incredible moments that culminate in a final act that is one of my favorites of the year. The final act of Ad Astra is exciting, unexpected and filled with dramatic energy. It’s a perfect ending for a strange often off-kilter movie with a very unique energy and suspense. I adore the third act of Ad Astra and would put it up against the third act of any movie of the last decade or indeed the movies I have compared it to already in this review.
I am perhaps heaping too much praise on Ad Astra. I am risking hyping the movie to a degree that it may not be able to achieve for you, those who’ve not yet seen it. So be it, I think Ad Astra is deserving of my over-praise. The movie is exceptional and a must-see.
On the one hand, the strippers of the new movie Hustlers are criminals, unquestionably, they are criminals. However, it’s fair to also state that they are not the villains of this movie either. Hustlers operates in a most amazing gray area where we are able to sympathize with criminals and lustily boo the victims who are stand ins for the real criminals who tanked the American economy in 2007 amid the housing crisis.
Hustlers capitalizes on some of the tastiest schadenfreude you can imagine by positing a story wherein: too rich for their own good Wall Street criminals get taken for thousands of dollars of the money they stole from others by those who would otherwise be on the other end of the economic spectrum, a diverse collection of women and specifically single mothers in J-Lo and Constance Wu’s characters.
It’s hard not to take pleasure in watching these skeevy, criminal pigs get taken by the very people they intend to victimize with their ill-gotten gains. It’s not justice, that would be found in creating a just and fair economic system free from the kind of thumb on the scale manipulation that these men have championed, but it’s a tasty bit of minor karmic retribution that feels good, like a cookie for the soul.
Constance Wu stars in Hustlers as Dorothy or, on stage, Destinee. Dorothy is struggling to get by as one of the new girls at a high roller strip club in New York City. Her commute is barely worth the pittance in tips she walks away with after management and the rest of the support staff take their cut. Then, Dorothy meets the club’s Queen Bee, Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez). Ramona has the place wired to the point where she merely has to point her prominent backside in any direction and the room rains with money.
Dorothy dreams of being like Ramona and after introducing herself, the two become inseparable. Ramona takes Dorothy under her wing, they perform together, and they begin making incredible amounts of money together. Dorothy and Ramona start living an extravagant life off of the money tossed at their feet by Wall Street jerks for whom such money is meaningless compared to the horriific lies they tell to earn it.
Then, the housing crisis hit in 2008 and the gravy train came to a screeching halt. The club, once wall to wall with Wall Street money, is now nearly empty. Dorothy leaves to have a baby and get married, only to find her baby daddy is nearly as worthless as the Wall Street bros she once danced for and both she and Ramona are on the streets trying to find jobs in a real world that doesn’t exactly fit their very specific skillset.
Then, Ramona hits on a plan: what if there were a way to get what’s left of the high rollers back to the club? Her idea? High end, designer drugs that ease the inhibitions and open the high rollers to suggestions such as allowing a stripper to run your credit card unmonitored. Using her vast connections, Ramona, with Dorothy in tow, recruit two other struggling dancers, played by Lily Reinhart and Keke Palmer, to drug rich men, carry them to the club, take their credit cards to the limit and send them home with the bill.
That’s the premise of Hustlers but the payoff you will have to see for yourself. It’s not the destination that really matters in Hustlers, it’s the execution and the execution of Hustlers is top notch. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria has just the right touch for this material, lightly comic at times, self-serious when necessary, with just the right mix of dark comedy, sex and drama. It’s not a perfect movie, but it gets a strong point across.
Jennifer Lopez has not been this great in a movie in years. Playing the heavy support to Constance Wu’s more meaty lead role, Lopez’s mega-watt star power hasn’t been this notable since her pre-Gigli, pre-Jersey Girl, Jenny from the Block days. It’s refreshing to see Lopez so confident and relaxed on screen after suffering through years of her downplaying her remarkable beauty and presence in forgettable romantic comedies.
Constance Wu, if she can get out from under her own ego,- note her tantrum over her TV show not being canceled and ugly demands on her place on the Hustlers promotional material- will be a big star one day. She has dramatic chops that can turn quickly and wittily comic. She’s a natural screen presence and quite a beauty when she gets out from under a bad wig. She’s overshadowed plenty by Lopez but few actresses would not be. That said, she doesn’t get lost in the glare of Lopez’s star power and proves herself as the dramatic lynchpin of this incredible and well told story.
Hustlers is better than I expected from a movie that, in the wrong hands, could have been merely titillating. Instead, Hustlers is weighty, satirical, dramatic and quite funny, often within the range of a single scene. Don’t believe me? See Hustlers and watch the Usher Raymond cameo and you will get what I am saying about the remarkable range of this diverse and exciting movie. Hustlers is the great surprise at the movies in 2019.
It Chapter 1 overcame my skepticism about Stephen King adaptations to become one of my favorite horror movies of recent memory. I went from dreading the idea of two movies based on a 1000-plus page Stephen King monstrosity to being excited to see which big name stars would be chosen to play the adult versions of these wonderful child characters. With the same creative team involved it seemed like everything was on track for another surprisingly great King adaptation.
I should know better than to get my hopes up regarding Stephen King and the movies. Movies based on Stephen King novels tend to succeed despite the author and the book. The Shining, for instance, is a classic horror movie not because of the brilliance of Stephen King but because Stanley Kubrick is masterful auteur and Jack Nicholson is an iconic performer. Other King adaptations that have attempted to remain true to King’s… unique… vision, have ranged from not bad to unwatchable.
It Chapter 2 falls squarely into the ‘not bad’ category. Not band, but also, not very good. There are some really good things about It Chapter 2. The characters are easy to invest in and Pennywise is a well conceived villain and as played by Bill Skarsgard he resonates as a figure of menace even when he’s not on the screen. Bill Hader plays Richie Tozier and as every other critic on the planet has told you, Hader is terrific, he delivers the best performance in the film, among the protagonists known as The Losers.
It’s 27 years after the action of It Chapter 1. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) has never left Derry. Maine. Mike made it his mission to remember everything that happened in the summer of 1989 having discovered that if you leave Derry, such memories slip away. As the unofficial conscience of Derry, Mike has waited for the evil clown Pennywise to return and when he does, Mike will be ready to call the rest of the so-called ‘Loser’s Club’ to carry out their blood oath to kill Pennywise.
At a carnival in Derry a young, handsome, gay couple is lovingly enjoying each other’s company when they are menaced by a group of young thugs. The more outspoken of the couple is beaten severely and then tossed off a bridge into a raging river. As the thugs make their getaway, never to be heard from again in the movie, the young man’s boyfriend runs to the river bank to try to save his lover. On the opposite river bank he spots Pennywise who lifts the injured man from the water and... bad things happen. The living half of this couple is also never heard from in the movie again.
Mike hears of the grisly murder and while an adult victim is not typical of Pennywise, he tends to prey upon children, Mike's curiosity is piqued. The brutality of the murder, as described by careless exposition cop over a police band radio, tips Mike off, this is the return of the evil clown. Mike goes to the scene where a red balloon confirms his fears and he begins to call the Losers back to Derry where they will confront their past, regain their memories, and battle the evil clown once again.
Bill Denbrough (James MacAvoy) has grown out of his childhood stutter and narrow shoulders to become a handsome and henpecked author, screenwriter and husband. When Bill receives a call from Mike Hanlon he jumps at the idea of getting out of Hollywood, away from his demanding actress wife, and demandingly blunt director, Peter Bogdanovich, to head back to his childhood hometown, even as his memory of Derry has deteriorated.
Stanley Uris is a little more reluctant than Bill to jump back into the Derry fray. So reluctant is Stanley in fact that when he receives Mike’s call, he forgoes his vacation with his loving wife to take his own life so as not to have to go back to Derry and battle Pennywise. Richie (Bill Hader), Ben (Jay Ryan) and Beverly (Jessica Chastain) are only slightly more amenable. Richie is eager to see his childhood friends again even though returning to Derry makes him violently ill.
Ben is now a bored, super-rich architect who still pines for Beverly so of course he’s in. As for Beverly, she uses the trip to Derry as a good excuse to abandon her abusive husband. What about Eddie (James Ransone) you’re wondering? Honestly, I forgot about him. Eddie’s ‘arc’ in It Chapter is so forgettable that, well, I forgot to include him as I was setting the table in this plot description that has gone on far too long, not unlike the movie It Chapter 2 which also goes on far too long.
It Chapter 2 is an unnecessary 2 hours and 50 minutes long. The film is fat with scenes that could be cut from the movie to create a pace and story more amenable to the kind of pulse quickening, chest tightening horror that the movie is intended to inspire. The opening of the movie is a good example. I described the scene of the couple that is attacked and one of them is murdered by Pennywise, this scene does not need to exist.
None of the characters in this opening have any bearing on the rest of the story. I guess you could argue that what happens to them informs a part of another character’s arc but It’s a long way to go for a point that could be made any number of more efficient ways. The opening scene becomes doubly inessential when the movie includes the murder of a small child that serves the exact same purpose of underlining and highlighting the return of Pennywise.
The deathly inessential length of It Chapter 2 isn’t the film’s only problem. The performance of James McAvoy is a surprising and unexpected issue for the movie. From the moment he opens his mouth in It Chapter 2, something is off about McAvoy. The attempt that he is making at an American accent is one thing but the main issue appears to be an attempt on his part to evoke Jordan Lieberher’s characterization of young Bill. It’s genuinely cringe-inducing listening to McAvoy struggle to add an authentic stutter and slightly higher register to his voice and the strain is evident in his stilted performance.
Then there are issues with the special effects in It Chapter 2. A scene in the trailer for It Chapter 2 featuring Jessica Chastain’s Beverly being menaced by an elderly woman, plays, in the trailer, as terrifying and filled with creepy suspense. In the film, that same scene ends with an unintended laugh as the old woman morphs into a comically terrible special effect reminiscent of a low budget 80’s horror movie or the limits of special effects in the 80's as seen in, say, Ghostbusters, impressive in the 80's, silly looking in a modern movie.
Later, in a scene dedicated to how incredibly bland the Eddie character is, even when he’s being menaced by Pennywise’s terrors, we get another comically bad effect of a CGI zombie-leper character. I believe this monster was also featured in It Chapter 1 and I recall that visual being more effective than what we get here but I don’t recall completely. Anything featuring Eddie tended to leave my mind almost as soon as it arrived.
Eddie features prominently in yet another unnecessary bit of padding in It Chapter 2. Fans of the first movie recall the character of the bully, Henry Bowers. Henry is back here in a completely
inconsequential fashion. Forget the book, if you can, and consider Henry Bowers. His arc really finished when he was defeated in Chapter 1. Bringing him back for Chapter 2 is a choice that is made only as a sop to fans of the book. Bowers does not matter in this story at all as far as far as the narrative of the movie is concerned. The movie plays out exactly the same whether he has a subplot or not.
The fealty to the lengthy Stephen King novel appears to be a burden here that wasn’t part of It Chapter 1. That film relied heavily on the performance of Bill Sarsgard and the uniquely creepy images he helped create as Pennywise. Sarsgard is a wonder in the role. His vocal performance alone induces nightmares but it was his odd physicality that stood out in It Chapter 1 and is slightly lacking in Chapter 2. Pennywise is sidelined far too often in It Chapter 2 in favor of characters like Bowers or old lady CGI or Eddie’s leper-zombie thing. Sarsgard remains brilliant and effective but the movie could have used more of him.
I don’t hate It Chapter 2. The movie does have moments of genuinely chest tightening, heart jumping suspense. Unfortunately, the bad of It Chapter 2 outweighs the good. It Chapter 2 is overlong, overwrought and far too precious about mythology from a book that really should not matter in the making of the movie. The book is an inspiration, a jumping off point, but films and movies are different, they serve different masters and remaining faithful to what works on the page comes at the detriment to what works on the screen as demonstrated in It Chapter 2 and its many failings.
Don’t Let Go is a pulse-pounding stunner of a time travel thriller. David Oyelowo stars in Don’t Let go as Detective Jack Radcliff, an L.A cop with a very close relationship with his niece, Ashley (Storm Reid). Ashley’s dad, played in a cameo by Bryan Tyree Henry, is a troubled songwriter and part time drug dealer, who has recently gotten deep in over his head. It’s led him to neglect his daughter, and place his family in danger.
How much danger? When Jack goes for a visit to his brother’s home, he finds the door standing open. Inside, he finds his brother’s wife on the floor, shot dead. Upstairs, Jack finds the body of his brother, dead from a gunshot wound to the head which we see in grisly detail as Jack’s grief overcomes him and he clutches his brothers gaping skull, attempting to hold closed the already fatal wound.
The most devastating blow however, is yet to come. After finding his brother’s body, Jack goes looking for Ashley and finds her shot to death in the family bathroom, her attempt to flee through a window cut short. It’s a stunning scene and one played by David Oyelowo with a forlorn resignation and jarring emotionality. Oyelowo may be slight in build but his emotional stature is towering and in this scene, devastating.
In another universe, we would get a straight ahead cop procedural in which Jack tracks down the killers, held back by the rules of law and probably some insider corruption that keeps the baddies ahead of his every move until he’s able to outwit them. That’s not, however, what Don’t Let Go is. This is nothing remotely typical. Written and directed by Jacob Estes, best known for the indie thriller Mean Creek, Don’t Let Go has a time travel conceit that subverts expectations in wonderfully inventive and genuinely surprising ways.
Days after laying his family to rest, Jack’s phone rings and the display claims that the call is coming from Ashley’s phone. The calls keep coming until finally Jack answers and finds Ashley on the other end. No, she’s not survived by some miracle, she’s actually calling from two weeks in the past, a time before the murder. How is this possible? The filmmakers don’t appear to care about that and neither should we.
The most important thing to consider in order to find Don’t Let Go as compelling and excited as I did, is not to get caught up on why this is happening. For me, the rest of Don’t Let Go is so interesting, so unique and attention grabbing, I simply bought into the story and went where the movie wanted to take me. I bought into the suspense, I bought into the blood and guts and I bought into this complicated premise that might prove to be a dealbreaker for less committed audience members.
You cannot overestimate how incredible David Oyelowo is in Don’t Let Go. Oyelowo has remarkable instincts, his eyes are so alive and compelling. You never catch Oyelowo acting and yet the look on his face demonstrates wheels turning and remarkable effort. The blood, the sweat, the dirt, Oyelowo lives this role and I found his intensity and commitment impossible to resist. The same could be said of his young co-star, Storm Reid. Reid impressed me in Ava Duvernay's wonderful, A Wrinkle in Time and she's equally as impressive here as she attempts to solve her own murder.
Don’t Let Go absolutely came out of nowhere for me. The generic title made me believe this was going to be a minor and forgettable and perhaps that low bar helped a little. Writer-director Jacob Estes though makes a strong case that Don’t Let Go with its unusual time travel premise and heart-stopping suspense is just a really great thriller. The pace is perfectly calibrated and the film score is among the best of 2019.
Don’t Let Go is exceptional and at a time where we lack in great thrillers, the film stands out that much more for being a classic piece of genre filmmaking.
Angel Has Fallen stars Gerard Butler as Secret Service Agent, Mike Banning. Banning was the protagonist of Olympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen in recent years. In Angel Has Fallen we find a battered and bruised Banning suffering from post-concussion syndrome and relying on opioid to get by. Mike is hiding his condition from his wife (Piper Perabo) and even from his employer, President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman).
The only person aware of Mike’s issues is his closest friend, heretofore never mentioned in either previous movie despite also being a military and security expert whose tactical abilities might have come in handy in Mike’s previous adventures, Wade Jennings (Danny Huston). The two come together for beers and reminiscing and Mike confides that he is having some issues even as career-wise things are going well. Mike is soon to be named as the new head of the Secret Service.
The plot kicks in when Mike is guarding the President while he fishes on a private lake in Virginia. As Mike is taking a break to get more of his pills, the President’s security team is attacked by drones. All of the security team is killed except for Mike who also manages to rescue the President who is left in a coma from the attack. Mike is knocked unconscious and when he wakes up the next day he finds himself in handcuffs.
It seems that Mike’s fingerprints and DNA were found inside of a van from which the drones were launched. There is also the matter of some $10 million dollars traced back to Russia that has been found in an offshore account in Mike’s name. The FBI, led by Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith), is convinced that Mike is guilty of having orchestrated the attack on the President. He’s arrested and things get even weirder when Mike is busted out by a group of military trained mercenaries.
From there, Mike will escape the mercenaries and go on the run alone until he reaches the survivalist compound of his long absent father, Clay Banning (Nick Nolter), who gives him a place to hole up and regroup while the entire world searches for him. Mike has to figure out who set him up and how to prove to the good guys that he’s innocent so he can go after the bad guys and take them down while making sure the President is safe.
Where to begin with this idiotic plot. Angel Has Fallen is a singularly stupid movie. Most modern action movies are kind of brain dead but Angel Has Fallen takes brain death to a place of oxygen starved severity. Where movies like Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw are dumb loud action movies that also happen to be fun, Angel Has Fallen is dumb, loud and unwatchably insipid. Angel Has Fallen lacks the charm to be fun and dumb. Instead, we are simply inundated with one dumb action scene after another in service of a deeply idiotic plot.
The dopey script, in order to get to the Mike Banning as The Fugitive plot they pre-ordained, has every other character in the movie turn into a complete moron. I was reminded of how the original movie, Olympus Has Fallen, in order to set out Mike as the greatest badass in history, turned the rest of the American military into fumbling doofuses who couldn’t shoot straight, a plot so offensive I was shocked that the movie found an audience among those who claim to support our military.
In Angel Has Fallen, it’s US intelligence that gets struck dumb in order to put over Mike as the one smart person in a sea of idiots. Poor Jada Pinkett Smith is forced to try and make this uniquely moronic plot work but in order to do that, she’s forced to act as the single most fog brained FBI agent in movie history. Only the most obvious clues are the ones that matter to her according to the plot and her single-minded, unquestioning, performance renders her witless.
That shouldn’t be too surprising as the movie has an equal amount of contempt for the audience. The plot of Angel Has Fallen could not be more predictable if they had handed out laminated copies of the script, color coded with notes about which characters are good and trustworthy and which ones are duplicitous baddies. If you can’t identify the two big villains of this movie within the first 5 minutes of the movie starting, you might want to check into a hospital to have your faculties checked.
Then, there is Gerard Butler, arguably the most charm-free and talentless of our modern action heroes. While some might seek to compare Butler to the Stallone’s and Schwarzenegger’s of the 80’s action genre, a better correlative would be Steven Seagal. Both are lunkheads with an arrogance that far surpasses their talent and a doughy, gormless quality to their appearance that betrays their over abundance of confidence.
Butler’s Banning, like every one of the characters Seagal played, is invincible, indestructible and due to some unspoken supernatural force, always capable of outsmarting people clearly smarter than they are. Butler, at the very least, hasn't tried to bring the ponytail back and is actually capable of running where Seagal's heroes were more stationary than your average couch, but the two share far more in common with their utter lack of genuine talent.
The screenwriters of the Fallen movies sacrifice the dignity and self-respect of every other character in these movies in their vain attempt to convince us that the sweaty, grunting, lummox that is Mike Banning, is the most cunning and crafty character on screen. It’s a failing effort from the start and that becomes an almost poignant source of campy laughs as these movies where on.
I genuinely began to feel sorry for Angel Has Fallen screenwriter Mark Robert Kamen as this movie wore on. Kamen's blood, sweat and tears must be all over these pages as he violates basic screenwriting ethics and general good taste just to try to make this one character remotely believable in the hands of this lunk headed star.
Angel Has Fallen is thus far the worst movie of 2019.
Angry Birds 2 is a significant improvement over the original. The first Angry Birds in 2016 was not terrible but it was plagued by the notion that it was a mercenary effort that was solely capitalizing on the hit app game. That was an accurate assessment but the creative team and the actors did make some of Angry Birds palatable with some solid jokes and a reasonably logical narrative.
Three years later the app game is pretty much a relic and the creative team behind Angry Birds 2 don’t have nearly as much of the burden of being mercenary or soulless. With distance from the game, we can focus on big jokes and these likable characters voiced by talented stars. It may still be a minor effort, but Angry Birds 2 justifies its own existence by garnering way more laughs than you expect.
Angry Birds 2 picks up the story of the Angry Birds and their rival green pigs as both islands continue to prank each other via their oversized slingshots. Red (Jason Sudeikis) is basking in the glory of having rescued Bird Island from the pig onslaught of the last movie. Unfortunately, even as his heroic self esteem grew, his insecurity has grown as well. Red has a deep seated fear that the current esteem in which he is held could go away at any moment and the thought is keeping him from enjoying all of the positive attention.
One night, after Red’s friends Bomb (Danny McBride) and Chuck (Josh Gad) drag him away from the beach where he stands watch daily, to go to a singles night for fun, a giant ice ball nearly hits the island. Another similar ice ball had just nearly crushed the pigs and their leader, King Leonard (Bill Hader) is having a fit. Leonard inadvertently triggers even more of Red’s insecurity by begging the Birds for a truce so that he can try to convince the Bird’s to team with the pigs to battle whatever is sending the ice balls. But all Red can think of is what he might lose if he isn’t defending Bird Island from the pigs.
The ice balls are coming from an icy island somewhere in between the Pigs and Birds. The ice island is populated by Eagles and their leader, Zeta, wants off the island in the worst way. She wants to use the ice balls to run off the Birds and Pigs so she can take their islands for herself, her daughter, Courtney (Awkwafina), and all of Eagle kind. Zeta also has a long history with Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage), the fake hero of bird island.
Will the pigs and birds be able to work together long enough to stop Zeta from destroying their islands or will her strange technology that captures lava inside of ice destroy both islands. If you think that is going to be a genuine question filled with any real tension then you are expecting too much of a silly, kids animated movie. The point isn’t plot in Angry Birds 2, it’s gags and the gags are, for the most part, quite funny.
The creators of Angry Birds 2, director Thurop Van Orman and writers Peter Ackerman and Eyall Podell, have packed Angry Birds 2 with a lot of good natured laughs and big comic set pieces and most of those work. They are not reinventing the genre or anything but they do enough to get consistent laughs out of a property that for all intents should not be as winning and enjoyable it is.
On top of the laughs, I became legitimately invested in Red’s identity crisis. No joke, Jason Sudeikis and the writers of Angry Birds 2 actually made me care about Red’s crisis, his deep insecurity. It is not something the movie lays on thick, but it is woven well into the story. Red doesn’t want to go back to being forgotten, bullied or looked down upon. The first film chronicled his unlikely hero status and Angry Birds 2 takes care to address how that story is playing out in the wake.
Of course movie sequels should pick up story threads from their predecessors but given the episodic nature of so many franchises would anyone have noticed that Angry Birds, of all things, had let a few story threads fall away? It’s almost brave that anyone thought we cared enough about the first film to remember the plot, to have the nerve to make the repercussions of that plot central to the main character’s story in Angry Birds 2 is an impressive bit of continuity.
As I said earlier, this isn’t rocket science and the makers of Angry Birds 2 are not reimagining the genre or anything. Instead, they’ve simply taken care to make a movie they can be proud of. It’s a movie that could have been given to many creative teams who might have slapped together some lowbrow, childish gags and market ready tie-ins for videogames or toys and called it a day.
This team however, appeared to actually care about their work. They crafted this story. They took care in casting the voice cast, which also includes Angry Birds newcomers Rachel Bloom as Red’s love interest, This is Us superstar Sterling K Brown and Leslie Jones as a fantastically silly villain. The team behind Angry Birds 2 had every expectation that they would take the easy road to an easy paycheck and instead they made a genuinely funny and compelling sequel that surpasses the original.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a strange movie. This adaptation of the famed cartoon series, Dora the Explorer, attempts to bridge the gap from the toddler-centric cartoon to a modern day adventure aimed at tweens and young teens. That this bridge turns out to be rather solid is quite a welcome surprise. Dora and the Lost City of Gold isn’t exactly a mind-blowing cinematic experience but it is modestly entertaining and inoffensively fun.
Dora (Isabella Moner) grew up in the jungle with a monkey for a best friend and a backpack and a map as her toys. Fearless and curious, Dora from an early age explored every inch of jungle she could. Dora’s parents, Cole (Michael Pena) and Elena (Eva Longoria), are explorers who live to discover hidden places in the world. Distinctively however, Cole and Elena are explorers and not treasure hunters.
Cole and Elena instill in Dora a deep respect for not disturbing the places they explore but experiencing them as they are. This is a rare attitude unfortunately, as most people in the business of being in the jungle, do so for profit and glory. Dora shares her parents’ love of history and learning and her curiosity drives her to take risks, risks that unfortunately lead mom and dad to worry for her safety.
Mom and Dad are on the verge of discovering the Lost City of Gold, the Incan legend about an unimaginable treasure. They are ready to go and explore this hidden treasure but when Dora nearly breaks herself in half trying to find one more clue for them, they decide that the trip is just too dangerous for her. Dora will have to go to America and stay with her aunt, uncle and her cousin, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg).
Diego’s parents used to live and work and explore in the jungle just like Cole and Elena. This led to Dora and Diego growing up as best friends, going on imaginary adventure together with Boots The Monkey (voice of Dany Trejo), a talking Map and Dora’s animated backpack always filled with exactly the tool that they need. That was 10 years ago however, when Diego’s parents moved to California.
Today, Diego is as much a city kid as anyone at his High School. He has memories of his cousin Dora, but High School has made him anxious, cynical and self-involved, the antithesis of the bright, cheerful and eager to please Dora. The best friends reunion that Dora hoped for doesn’t go as planned, nor does her first days in High School where she’s picked on, mocked and struggles to fit in. This doesn’t deter Dora from being her cheerful self, but it is troubling for her.
Then, the plot truly kicks in. Dora’s parents go missing during their search for the Lost City of Gold and Dora is kidnapped along with Diego, and two classmates, Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and Sammie (Madeleine Madden), during a school field trip. The kidnappers want Dora to lead them to her parents and the trail to the Lost City of Gold. When they arrive back in the jungle however, a friend of Dora’s parents, Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez) is there for the rescue. He along with Dora and the gang will have to find Dora’s parents before the kidnappers do in order to survive this adventure.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold was written by Nicholas Stoller of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Neighbors fame and it is quite a departure for him. His wheelhouse is clearly raunchy comedy but, don’t forget, he was also producer on the most recent Muppet Movies, The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted so kids movies with an edge are not all that much of a stretch for Stoller. Not that there is much edge at all to Dora, but there is some experimentation.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold was directed by James Bobin who worked with Stoller on Muppets Most Wanted. In that movie, Stoller and Bobin used irreverent references to classic movies to tell the story of The Muppets in a fashion that bridged the gap between the target kid audience and an audience of nostalgic adults. Here, they employ a similar style, if similar is the right word for the direct lifting of entire scenes from the Indiana Jones canon.
The ending of Dora and the Lost City of Gold borders on being a shot for shot remake of the ending of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. It’s barely even heightened with the main difference being that the bad guy in Dora doesn’t die horrifically on screen. If you’re wondering why I haven’t issued a spoiler alert because I just talked about the ending, trust me when I say I haven’t spoiled anything. Dora and The Lost City of Gold is not a movie that gets its appeal from its plot.
So, did I enjoy Dora and the Lost City of Gold? Yes, for the most part. After I got over the fact that I was watching an adaptation of Dora the Explorer, I did legitimately find myself enjoying much of Lost City of Gold. Young Isabelle Moner is a fine young actress whose enthusiasm is rather infectious. She and the rest of the teenage cast are fun to watch, they appear to be having a great time making this movie and that feeling comes through the screen.
That said, it’s not all great. For one thing, I would be very pleased to never see Eugenio Derbez on the big screen again. Derbez’s comic style is basically being as clueless and obnoxious as possible. It’s a style that is akin to fingernails on a chalkboard for me but I could see where kids might enjoy his clownish behavior. That’s the nicest thing I can say about Derbez, he’s a giant goof that children may laugh at because they don’t know any better.
Derbez aside, it's rather improbable given its unique origin but, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a movie I recommend. Dora is fun enough, it's exciting enough, it has just enough laughs and fourth wall breaking fun. I never would have expected it but I am actually recommending Dora and the Lost City of Gold. That's with the caveat that it is not for all audiences, this is a kids movie, but it is a solid, inoffensive, good natured kids movie that parents won't hate.
Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw is as silly and nonsensical as a Fast and the Furious offshoot should be. The film is a blanket of utter nonsense from beginning to end. Little, if anything matters about this movie and that’s how it should be. Dwayne ‘The Rock'' Johnson doesn’t make movies that are deep or meaningful , he makes popcorn for a living and this is some tasty popcorn, soaked in fatty, bad for you real butter.
The Hobbs and Shaw of the title, for those who don’t follow the Fast and Furious franchise, are Luke Hobbs (Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). The two have been enemies and they’ve been reluctant allies alongside Vin Diesel’s Dominic Torretto. Now, they are partners in saving the world with Shaw’s equally capable and ass-kicking sister, Hattie (Vanessa Shaw) making sure the world saving gets done despite Hobbs and Shaw’s ego contest.
The big bad world ender in Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw is Brixton aka ‘Black Superman,’ that’s an unofficial nickname. Brixton is played by Idris Elba, a man who looks legitimately like the one guy who could, with many cybernetic enhancements, fight both The Rock and Jason Statham. Elba is a heavyweight movie star presence in Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw and his presence is enough to make me forgive the fact that I have no memory of what his nefarious, world ending plan is.
Legit, I cannot be forced to remember what it is that Brixton is fighting for other than the fact that most of the population of the planet has to die for Brixton to reach the goal set for him by an unseen presence whose voice gives Brixton vague directions. I sound critical but I am a major fan of the Fast and the Furious fan and I can’t remember the plot of any of the Fast and Furious movies either.
Plot and the mechanics of such are not remotely important as set pieces in a Fast and the Furious movie. The important thing about these movies and for director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) is to have big, banging, entertaining action set pieces and Hobbs and Shaw delivers with a series of well choreographed fights and well constructed, CG enhanced action scenes that combine silliness with ambition and subtracts brains.
A London set chase scene is a standout with Statham’s Shaw racing, Fast and the Furious style, through the streets with Idris Elba’s baddie chasing him down on a massively modified motorcycle that defies space and time to do anything Elba demands of it. I am pretty sure it flattened to the size of a piece of paper ala a Looney Tunes cartoon physics vehicle at one point. That’s the level of silly we are playing here, legit Looney Tunes, cartoon physics.
That’s only part of the fun of Hobbs and Shaw however as we also get really well choreographed fight sequences that feel real and practical. Vanessa Kirby gets into a fight with The Rock briefly that is quite fun. Kirby also gets to beat up a number of henchmen throughout and look cool doing it. Kirby has star presence and shines even amid the boys club of Rock and Statham. Rock and Statham are each quite generous in helping her get over with the audience but she’s doing the work.
I also really enjoyed the sequence seen in most of the film’s trailers with Statham using his mad fighting skills against a series of karate henchmen while Rock beats up one big guy and then mocks Statham while waiting for him to finish off 12 guys. It’s a funny scene in the trailer and it works just as well in the movie. Rock and Statham have a terrific adversarial chemistry, as they’d shown in their previous Fast and the Furious showdowns.
Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw does have some issues, it’s far from a perfect movie even as a big silly action movie. The biggest problem is a particular cameo from one Dwayne The Rock Johnson’s friends that lengthens the movie by a solid 15 minutes. This extra length might not be a problem if the endless riffing gags with this character were funny but they are not funny. The scenes featuring this cameo performance are deathly long, boring and unnecessary.
That however, is my biggest criticism of this movie. Otherwise, Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw is just as silly, over the top and fun as any of the Fast and the Furious movies on their own. The cartoon physics, the unsubtle characters and unintended and intended humor is all there and it is all a great deal of fun. I greatly enjoyed Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw even as I recognize all of the many things wrong with it. The film succeeds on being ambitious nonsense and if you accept it on those terms, the film is so much fun.
Quentin Tarentino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a masterpiece of mood, tone and directorial command. The film is at once a classically Quentin Tarentino style fetish film, a film that explores and lives within the things that Tarentino has long shown an obsession for and a much looser, more relaxed movie than what Tarentino has made before. Yes, the characters are still whip smart and the dialogue comes in bursts of wordy pop aphorisms, but the mood is much more subdued than we are used to with QT and it works really well for this story.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton. Rick is a former television star, the star of the NBC series “Bounty Law” on which he played famed bounty hunter Jake Cahill. However, since the series went off the air several years before the story we are being told here, Rick has struggled to get parts, settling most often to play bad guys to a new generation of Jake Cahill’s eager to get a shine off of punching Jake Cahill in the face.
This new reality for Rick is brought home in a conversation with an agent played by Al Pacino who does not mince words. The agent is trying to seduce Rick into using what is left of his star power to make several Italian spaghetti westerns, a move that would force Rick to move to Rome for six months. Rick doesn’t like the Italian westerns, he feels they are beneath him. The offer is an indication to Rick that his career has truly hit the skids.
Keeping Rick from a full on meltdown is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Cliff is a pragmatist who points out that spending six months in Rome making westerns is better than sitting at home doing nothing, something that he’s been forced to do more often of late since his stunt career hit the skids. There is a rumor about Cliff that has made the rounds in Hollywood and his work as Rick’s stunt double has come to halt.
Now, Cliff works as Rick’s driver and Man Friday, someone who handles tasks that Rick has no time for. Being that Cliff doesn’t have much to do, and because he genuinely does like Rick, Cliff actually appears content to live on this way, running errands for his friend, driving him around and generally just hanging out at his modest trailer with his dog, drinking beer and watching Mannix. It’s not much of a life but it is Cliff’s life.
Running parallel to the stories of Rick and Cliff is the story of Sharon Tate. History tells the tragic tale that Sharon Tate, the bright, young rising starlet, married to the hottest director on the planet, Roman Polanski, is best remembered for having been murdered. Sharon was one of the victims of The Manson Family, another thread moving through the background of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Margot Robbe plays Tate at her most breathtaking and youthful. Her beauty and effervescence underlines the tragedy of what is to come.
The Manson Family provide one of the most unique and fascinating sequences of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a brief mini-movie within the movie. Cliff becomes enamored of a young Hollywood hippie hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). After offering Pussycat a ride, Cliff finds himself at Spahn Ranch where he and Rick had filmed many episodes of Bounty Law some 8 years earlier.
Arriving at the ranch, Cliff is surprised to see the former film lot is now the home of a large group of hippies. The place is a full on commune but with a palpable sense of cultishness. Cliff was once familiar with the much older owner of Spahn Ranch, George Spahn (Bruce Dern) and is curious to find out if the old man has truly allowed this mob of young people to live on his ranch. You will need to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to see how this plays out but the tension and the tight, well held mood of this sequence is riveting. Brad Pitt’s movie star charisma carries the scene and I could not take my eyes off of him.
The Spahn Ranch sequence is part of the remarkable second act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which separates our three leads into their own mini-stories. For Sharon Tate, she is in downtown Hollywood and decides to go see herself on the big screen in her first major role, opposite Dean Martin in one of his Matt Helm adventures. Here Tarentino crafts a breathtaking sequence where his Sharon Tate is watching the real Sharon Tate on the big screen and it is magical. There is something so innocent and beautiful in the way Robbe’s Sharon delights in the antics and acting of the real life Sharon.
As for DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, he’s on the set of yet another younger star’s television series. Timothy Olyphant plays James Stacy, a long time fan of Bounty Law who is excited for the chance to best Jake Cahill on his show, Lancer. Rick is anxious and struggling with deep angst about his place in Hollywood when he encounters Trudi (Julia Butters), an 8 year old who practices in Method Acting, insisting on being called by her character’s name, Marjabelle.
Through his emotional encounter with Trudi, Rick will have a breakdown and breakthrough moment that is an absolute must see. DiCaprio is incredible in this sequence in ways that must be seen to be believed. DiCaprio has always been a terrific actor and movie star but here, in this series of scenes, we are watching some of the best work of DiCaprio’s career. DiCaprio has presented Rick as a star beset by anxiety and vainly concerned about his star status and DiCaprio makes him vulnerable and even likable in these moments even as he is also an arrogant, self-obsessed, over-privileged actor.
I won’t talk about anything regarding the third act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood other than to say it left me floored. It’s Tarentino in all the best ways and you need to see it for yourself. Mind you, it’s not for the squeamish, but it is incredible in the most unexpected and exciting ways. It must be experienced to be believed. The last act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood brings the fairy tale of 60’s Hollywood to a close in remarkable fashion.
I completely adore Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film is deeply compelling, remarkably cool and filled to the brim with those classically Tarentino moments. If you have loved Tarentino’s previous films, as I have, you are going to adore this one just as much. It’s a success of brilliant pace and unusual moments of ingenuity. The mini-story structure is perfection, each little story within the larger, overarching story works brilliantly into a whole movie that could not be more compelling or entertaining.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of the best movies of 2019.
The Lion King 2019 is an incredibly emotional and moving film. Putting aside the comparisons to the original, this version of the story is exceptionally well told. Director Jon Favreau has brilliantly captured this Shakespearean tale for the whole family with epic music and resonant themes and given it a modern flavor via a remarkable voice cast who elevate the material with their inventive riffing and gorgeous singing.
You likely already know this story, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is the King of The Pridelands. He and his beloved Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) have just had a son who will one day himself become the King. Simba, voiced as a cub by J.D McCrary, is a curious young lion who easily finds trouble but with the wisdom of his father, he will one day make a fine King. Unfortunately, Simba’s uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has other plans.
Scar seeks the throne and will use any nefarious means necessary to get there. Scar’s first attempt to get rid of young Simba sends the young lion and his friend, Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph), into an elephant graveyard where hyenas reign. Simba and Nala are rescued by Mufasa but Scar seizes the opportunity to convince the hyenas to become his very own army. It will be the hyenas who lead to the death of Mufasa while he tries to protect Simba.
Mufasa dies and Scar runs off Simba by accusing him of causing his father’s death. Scar also sends hyenas to kill Simba but the young lion manages to escape into the desert. Here, Simba begins a new life. With the help of Timon (Billy Eicher) and Pumba (Seth Rogen), Simba is able to leave his grief and shame behind and grow into mature lion without the strictures of royalty and duty while nursing the scars of his past.
Nala voiced by Beyonce as a mature lioness, eventually finds Simba is still alive and you know where the story is headed from there. The key to this telling of the story of The Lion King is how we get to the ending and in getting there we have a remarkably rich and fulfilling journey. The story of The Lion King 2019 is told with music and the music of this version of The Lion King is superb. I won’t be hyperbolic and declare the music here is superior to the original, I will only say that I preferred the ways in which Hans Zimmer and Beyonce, among others, have updated this score and the original songs.
The changes are seemingly minimal but they make a huge difference in how you accept The Lion King 2019. For instance, the Can You Feel the Love Tonight segment. In the 1994 version of The Lion King the scene is suitably romantic and filled with heartfelt emotion though it is slightly shorter than the new version. The slightly longer version here takes full advantage of this new style of The Lion King with Caleb Deschanel's rich and glorious cinematography underlining the romance and deepening the impact of the moment.
It also helps to have Beyonce and Donald Glover not just as the singing voices of Nala and Simba, but their speaking voices as well. The jarring shift from one vocal style to the other isn’t damning in the original, just notable. Here however, the seamless shift singing to speaking adds a little more verisimilitude. That and, of course, we are talking about Beyonce whose voice is transcendent. That’s not a dig at Sally Dworsky who is a Broadway veteran of immense talent, it’s merely that Beyonce is a global superstar whose voice connects to audiences in an epic fashion that fits the grandiosity of this CGI approximation of live action.
Donald Glover is also incredible but in a unique and different way. Glover’s voice acting in the song is superior to the original because he is singing in character and accounting for the fear and angst of Simba in a way that perhaps Joseph Williams cannot because the character is not fully his. He’s more focused on singing the song,Glover is singing the character and I found the difference to be notable.
Another notable improvement for me over the original was the performance of Hakuna Matata which benefits from the unique and recognizable voices and personas of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. Neither is well known for their singing but the way they perform this song feels as fresh and even more alive than the original. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella but they are notably stagebound in their energy, limited by the animation style.
Eichner and Rogen meanwhile had the advantage of working in the CG realm and director Jon Favreau’s ability to allow them to explore a little and riff within the music. Eichner and Rogen have talked in interviews about how they were allowed to improvise their dialogue and even improvise in their songs and that playfulness is part of what makes this take on The Lion King so lively as opposed to the original.
The best change however, from the original movie is the song Be Prepared. Performed here by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the song is transformed from a pop ditty talk sung through a thick English accent by Jeremy Irons, to an operatic dirge that is shortened to more specifically state Scar’s nefariousness. Where the original overstayed its welcome and tried to fit the pop nature of the rest of the soundtrack, this version of Be Prepared better serves the character of Scar while also cutting to the chase on Scar’s story.
Is there a calculated cynicism driving Disney to remake their animated catalog? Yes, it's unquestionably a mercenary effort. That said, the artists who have contributed to this version of The Lion King have transcended how The Lion King 2019 came to exist by delivering a resonant and lovely take on this grand material. They have brought the music into a modern context and stayed true to the remarkable themes of the original story and delivered a compelling, humorous romantic and touching film.
Sometimes the appeal of a movie has nothing to do with what the movie is about but how the movie is about its subject. Stuber is a good example of this phenomenon. Judging Stuber by its cover the first thing you notice is a terrible title, a pun on the main character’s name and his part time profession as an Uber driver, and a rather generic, mismatched buddy comedy with fish out of water characters.
That judgemental, surface perception of Stuber is pretty on the nose about what the movie is but thankfully, in execution, there is something slightly more to Stuber. In executing the same old cliches of the past, Stuber director Michael Dowse has upcycled those cliches via his two terrific stars. Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista may be enacting the familiar tropes of mismatched buddies past but they are having so much fun doing it that they make those tropes feel fresh again.
Stuber stars Kumail Nanjiani as Stu, a part time sporting goods store employee who moonlights as an Uber driver. Stu’s routine, mundane life is about to be upended by his latest ride share customer, Vic (Dave Bautista). Vic is a police detective on the trail of the drug dealer who murdered his partner. On this particular day, Vic gets a tip from an informant that may lead to the killer but unfortunately, Vic has just gotten lasik surgery and cannot see to drive.
Vic’s daughter, Nicole (Natalie Morales) happens to have just hooked her dad up with the Uber app, mostly so that she won’t have to haul him anywhere herself. Thus how Vic meets Stu and eventually takes him hostage and makes him his unlikely partner in a night filled with mayhem including gun fights, car chases and near death experiences. Along the way, naturally, Stu and Vic will become friends and that is the true heart of Stuber.
The first act of Stuber plays on the cliches of the masculine, man’s man Vic and the consummate metrosexual millennial Stu, butting heads over their view of what makes a man a man. For Vic, manhood is having been left in a forest overnight by his father as a pre-teen child with only a pen knife to get him through the night. Stu clocks that story as a form of abuse while rejecting the notion that manhood has anything to do with physical trials.
So yeah, the story of Stuber isn’t particularly special. Thankfully, Kumail Nanjiani is special as his dynamic with the burly and brusque Bautista. These two are clearly having a great deal of fun butting heads with each other and riffing great jokes off of what are otherwise well worn cliches of the action comedy genre. I could sit here for a while and describe the plot failings of Stuber but I was too busy laughing to catalogue the film’s issues.
The jokes come fast and furious in Stuber with Nanjiani throwing everything at the wall and director Michael Dowse keeping up a breakneck comic pace that covers for the few jokes that don’t land. The jokes aren’t memorable or brilliant, more often I found myself laughing despite myself. The speed and timing of Stuber matter as much or more than the actual content of the joke. Kumail Nanjiani is one of the funniest people on the planet right now and Stuber takes full advantage of his remarkable talent,
Stuber isn’t going to win any awards or be remembered long after it is in theaters but while you are there, it’s pretty entertaining. The makers of Stuber don’t try too hard to make the film memorable, they just want to make you laugh and for the most part, they succeed. Stuber is really funny even as the plot is so predictable that you could set your watch by the cliches on hand. Kumail Nanjiani is perhaps my favorite comic presence in movies today. Even his Men in Black International alien was entertaining and that movie was a steaming pile.
I do hope that Kumail dedicates himself to better material in the future but for now, I am glad to see him having fun in a big, silly, action movie. Not every movie has to be a transcendent work of humanity, humor and art like Kumail’s The Big Sick. Sometimes, a movie is just a big piece of cake, a rich, not so good for you, sugary mess that tastes delicious, even as it isn’t exactly good for your. Stuber is a piece of cake.
Spider-Man Far From home is a delight. This is just the kind of palette cleansing crowd-pleaser that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed in the aftermath of Avengers Endgame. Far From Home is filled with fun and excitement and a renewed sense of wonder in a world jaded by so many superhero adventures. As much as I appreciate the weightiness of Endgame, it’s just nice to relax into a superhero movie without the oppressive number of heroes and world saving excesses.
Spider-Man Far from Home picks up the story of Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the wake of the The Snap and the miraculous return of those who had been snapped out of existence. Peter is back in school but 5 years have passed for him and most of his classmates as well who also suffered The Snap. No rest for the weary however as the school is sending Peter and his class to Europe to study for the summer.
In a step toward renewed normalcy, Peter is back to pining for MJ (Zendaya) and he hopes that the trip to Europe will provide him the chance to tell her how he feels. Peter has an elaborate romantic plan in mind involving a gift he obtains for MJ in Italy that he plans on giving to her in Paris when the class visits the Eiffel Tower. Naturally, it won’t be that easy. Peter first has to overcome his own remarkable awkwardness around MJ. And, Peter has a new challenge from a fellow student who was one of the few not snapped out of existence. Brad (Remy Hii) was a five years younger afterthought before The Snap, and now Brad is a buff, handsome rival for MJ’s affections.
Oh, and there is one more obstacle in Peter’s way. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) has been trying to get in touch with Peter since before he left for Europe and he’s not a man who copes well with being ghosted. Fury is crashing Peter’s vacation from Spider-Man because he is tracking a global threat. Monsters called the Elementals are coming to Earth from some other dimension and with the Avengers in tatters, Fury needs Spider-Man to step up.
There is one other hero on hand however and fans are calling him Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). Mysterio’s real name is Quentin Beck and according to him, he comes from an alternate Earth where the Elementals rose up and destroyed the entire planet, including Beck’s wife. Beck narrowly escaped and now seeks revenge and hopes to keep the Elementals from destroying yet another multidimensional Earth.
That Quentin Beck has ulterior motives is perhaps the worst kept secret in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whether you are a comic book fan who knows where the character of Mysterio is headed or you are just someone with a keen eye for Roger Ebert’s theory of the Economy of Characters, it’s inevitable that we will arrive at a point where Mysterio and Spider-Man will be at odds. The key then becomes, how does the movie get there.
If you were to pull threads on the plot of Spider-Man Far from Home you might unravel this premise in a less than satisfying fashion. I won’t go into spoilers but I will warn you against asking yourself why character A is performing action B when he knows that the outcome is C. The plot mechanics here are faulty at best and lazy at worst. And that is coming from someone who is writing a positive review of Spider-Man Far from Home.
So, why do I recommend a movie that even I must admit is deeply flawed? First and foremost, I am a Spider-Man fan. Spider-Man is perhaps my favorite superhero dating back to the mindblowing, Spiderman 2 with Tobey Maguire, a movie I feel is a legit masterwork of the superhero genre. I am also becoming a huge fan of Tom Holland who has a winning charisma and awkward charm that I find incredibly entertaining. Holland appears to have been born to play Spider-Man.
I adore this cast and their wonderful comic chemistry. The teenagers in Far from Home are a super fun group with Zendaya bringing wit to MJ that has lacked in previous versions of this character and Jacob Batalon as Ned doing terrific work as Spider-Man’s wacky sidekick. Further down the cast list are the inspired duo of Martin Starr and J.B Smoove who play the teacher chaperones on the school trip. Too much of these characters would be irksome but director Jon Watts deploys them just enough in Far From Home.
The action and effects of Spider-Man Far from Home are spectacular. The big action scenes have a scope and scale to them that splits the difference perfectly from the oppressive armageddon of Endgame and the lightness and adventure that made Tom Holland’s first turn as Spider-Man so much fun. Director Jon Watts pulled off a pretty great trick in closing out the first phase of Marvel movies with something fun that also has some weight to it to kick into the next phase.
That weight comes from the stakes raised in the mid-credits scene of Far From Home. No spoilers but there is a big cameo here and he has some Earth shaking news for Peter Parker that throws his MCU arc for a loop. It’s an exceptionally smart choice for a cameo and a really effective set up for the next adventures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As many problems as I have with the narrative clumsiness of Far From Home, they absolutely nailed this mid-credit moment.
Spider-Man Far From Home overcomes some serious plot issues by being so much fun that I did not care about the problems. Jake Gyllenhaal chewing the scenery as Quentin Beck is Gyllenhaal at his most lively and exciting. His character is weird and offbeat but it works for Spider-Man. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Tom Holland is really enjoyable, they have a natural rapport that makes the issues of the movie so much less important.
Don’t think too much about it and you will find Spider-Man Far from Home as entertaining as I did.
Yesterday is a complete delight. Directed by the ingenious Danny Boyle, Academy Award winner for Slumdog Millionaire, and Love, Actually writer-director Richard Curtis, Yesterday is charming, romantic, and quite funny. The acting is wonderful as well with a core duo of newcomer Hamish Patel and Lily James providing romantic and friendly chemistry that leaps off of the screen. All of that, and some of the greatest music of all time and Yesterday becomes irresistible.
Jack Malik (Patel) has spent 10 years trying to make his music industry dreams come true with no success, but his trusted friend and manager Ellie (James) always at his side. Despite Ellie’s constant support, Jack finally appears ready to give up his dream and return to teaching when something dramatic happens. On his way home from his last gig, Jack gets in an accident just as all of the electricity on the planet goes out for 12 seconds.
When Jack wakes up in the hospital the following day, minus his front teeth, he makes a reference to The Beatles that Ellie dismisses in unusual fashion. Later, after Ellie gives Jack a guitar to replace the one he lost in the accident, Jack goes to play “Yesterday” by The Beatles and his friends react as if they have never heard the song before. A confused Jack returns home in a rush and begins googling The Beatles only to find that they no longer exist in any way.
Apparently being the only person on the planet who remembers The Beatles songs, Jack decides to start performing Beatles songs from memory, not without a serious struggle, as if he had written them. Jack finds success in a fashion not unlike the Fab Four, with a brief struggle and then a massive breakout, all while Jack wrestles with his conscience over the decision to capitalize off of someone else's art and his relationship with Ellie which he has misjudged for the past 20 years.
Director Danny Boyle is a directorial chameleon, leaping from genre to genre, country to country and masterwork to mediocrity. Yesterday, thankfully, is in the masterwork category. While the movie is minor in social relevance, unlike his Steve Jobs or Slumdog Millionaire, it is masterful as a work of genre. Yesterday is gloriously, ridiculously, heart on its sleeve romantic in ways that modern Hollywood has struggled to be for decades.
Much of the credit, of course, goes to screenwriter Richard Curtis, who has been at the forefront of the romance genre since the 90’s and the release of his Four Weddings and a Funeral. Curtis is a genius at giving a unique spin to the romantic cliches that are at the heart of the romance genre dating back to the early days of sound in film. What makes Yesterday even more unique is Curtis teaming with a visual master like Danny Boyle who places Curtis’s big romantic ideas into a wonderfully visual, eye-catching package.
Of course, both Boyle and Curtis are helped by the fact that they have somehow secured the chance to use some of the greatest music of all time to tell their story. It’s famously not easy to get the rights to use the music of The Beatles in a project but the team of Boyle and Curtis were apparently enough to get this movie a break. Of course, I am sure, $10 million dollars in rights fees also helped their case.
The music in Yesterday isn’t used as you might think. You might assume that Jack deploys the songs in a specific fashion related to his place within the story. Instead, the movie subverts expectations by having Jack simply record Beatles songs in an almost random order, just as he is able to remember them. It’s a clever approach that allows the story to exist outside of The Beatles. Was this done in case the producers could not get the rights to The Beatles and they acted accordingly in building the story? Perhaps, but the approach works nevertheless.
The supporting cast of Yesterday is exceptionally well chosen. Kate McKinnon of Saturday Night Live fame plays Jack’s new, high powered manager who treats him like dirt even as she is giving him worldwide fame. McKinnon’s oddball dialogue which combines radical honesty with a sociopathic zeal, rarely fails to get a laugh in Yesterday. It’s a brilliant comic performance. McKinnon is backed up by pop star Ed Sheeran who sheds all pop star ego to play himself as a fan of Jack who is willing to compare himself to Salieri to Jack’s Amadeus in one particularly great scene.
Yesterday, as I said at the start, is a complete delight. It’s a delight for any audience that gives it a chance but it is a special treat for fans of The Beatles. Yesterday is a love letter to The Beatles that balances idolatry and fandom without becoming overly precious. Yes, the film is entirely uncritical of The Beatles but it felt to me like a genuine appreciation and not overly worshipful. The Beatles are only part of this story and not the entirety of it.
The heart of Yesterday is the romance between Jack and Ellie and the struggle to escape preconceived notions of romance and friendship. There is a warmth and complexity to Jack and Ellie’s relationship that I bought into simply because I loved these two actors so very much. Hamish Patel and Lily James are just wonderful together and I fully believed in their choices, from Jack being blind to Ellie’s feelings to her heartache and his revelation. It’s a simple but well portrayed arc and I think everyone who loves a good love story will appreciate it as much as I did.
I was a little worried by the trailer for the film that Yesterday would simply be a movie with a clever premise and little more. What a wonderful thing to have all of my worries dashed in the first few scenes and then to grow more and more comfortably immersed in this movie as it unfolded. Yesterday invites you in and if you are open to it, especially if you love this music, and you simply fall in love with it. Yesterday is just so darn charming.
If you haven't heard of it by now, whether through your kids, your kids kids or just perusing through the internet, Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse has been one of the best superhero films to come out in the past few years. If your a fan of superheroes like I am, you would agree. And with the Oscar-winning film now on Netflix, I decided to have myself a rewatch last night. I gotta say, it does not lose its luster one bit. Let's get into it, shall we?
If you haven't seen it by now and want to avoid possible spoilers, turn back now, but if your curious about the soon to be animated classic, check out Sean's review by clicking here. Are you back from checking his review? Nice. One of the best aspects of this movie (there are many) is the art direction. The film's use of the classic comic-book dot art, known in the industry as the Ben Day process, named after Benjamin Henry Day Jr, is beautiful. It can throw you off at first but as the movie goes on, you get the feeling you are watching a comic book in motion. It feels even more like a comic when Miles' begins hearing the inner dialogue in his head.
Another great aspect is the character design. As the film deals with multiple dimensions with the base universe being dubbed the Ultimate Universe (confusing yes), classic villains like Green Goblin look totally different then what we are used to (Willem Dafoe anybody?) as he is just a giant flying beast. Heck, some villains are completely different from the original Earth-616 universe (the original Marvel universe) as Doctor Octopus is a woman in the film. Instead of Otto Octavius, we have Olivia Octavius. My favorite aspect of her design is the beehive haircut and robotic tentacles on her back. Not just the villains have great designs as the heroes sport some near perfect designs based on their comic book counterparts. But my favorite has to be the Miles' outfit he wears before saving the day. I'm not even mad it was spoiled in the trailer. The hoodie and basketball shorts he wears over the suit just shows he hasn't lost what defines him as Miles Morales.
Enough about the great character design. I would like to talk more about it, but you don't want to be here all day do you? This film has been loved and adored by so many comic book fans. It had so much heart put into it by Sony, Marvel, its producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller. It was a film comic nerds like myself needed at the time, as legend Stan Lee passed away a month prior. Seeing Stan in one of his final cameos made me cry in the theater with my friends from college and seeing the tribute to he and Steve Ditko (who also passed in 2018) made the film even more special to me. This film deserved its Oscar win for Best Animated Feature. Talks about a sequel being in the works gives me hope that more films like this are made. Thanks for coming along for this somewhat revisit to Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse. If you have a Netflix account go have a revisit of your own.