“Downhill” Movie Review

     An American remake of Ruben Ostlund’s 2014 Swedish film “Force Majeure”, “Downhill” follows the same premise, telling the story of a family’s ski vacation turned near tragedy when an avalanche abruptly makes its way toward them and the father runs for his life while leaving his wife and children helplessly within the jaws of potential doom.  What then drives the plot is no longer the vacation, but rather the now quickly decaying relationship between the husband and wife.  The American version of the story is a genre bending mess, where brutally awkward scenes are at first played for laughs, but then morph all of the sudden into emotionally weighty relationship melodrama which leaves the audience confused as to just how serious the story is intended to be.

     When you watch “Downhill”, it’s hard not to wonder if Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus have already reached their peak as actors and are now struggling to define themselves after two decades of stardom.  If this is the case, perhaps it will be this film that marks the beginning of the end for both, although it only takes the right script to come along and either of them could easily find their groove once again.  But this isn’t it.  Which is surprising given the talent behind the camera, boasting directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash whose screenplay for 2011’s “The Descendants” won them an Oscar, as well as their feature debut, 2013’s “The Way Way Back”, being well received critically.  Given the talent assembled, you have to consider this a miss for all involved.

     Even with the majority of the audience walking into “Downhill” knowing the premise, the expectation of clever and well written scenes designed to take full advantage of the legendary comic talents of both leads should be a given.  But there are hints of a darker tone within the first act, as we meet Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell) when they arrive with their two boys at a high end Alpine ski resort in Austria for a get away vacation following a recent death in the family.  If skiing is your thing, you’ll instantly delight in the breathtaking scenery as the family glides effortlessly down some of the most gorgeous slopes in the world.  All seems to be going according to plan when you consider a family coming all the way from America to ski here, until it is revealed one of the boys, Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford), is just learning and is not able to keep up with his parents and older brother, Finn (Julian Grey), causing an immediate source of tension.

     Pete is that middle aged film character who is experiencing a mid life crisis and longs to be more like his care free co-worker Zach (Zach Woods) and his girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao) who are in the midst of a globetrotting vacation and just happen to be swinging by Austria at the same time.  He seeks to not only maximize the adult fun by having booked the family at an all adult and non kid friendly resort, but he also wants his wife and kids to do all of the most difficult ski runs, even though he is well aware of Emerson’s beginner skill level.  

     The conversations between Pete and Billie resemble more of a consistent squabble then anything of real substance.  Billie doesn’t want Pete constantly on his phone, so he creates private situations where he can do it anyway and remain out of her view.  With all of the distractions, the couple always appears disconnected while operating from different points of view.  If you ask me, the events in this film could not have happened and they likely would be on the path to splitting up anyway.

     The climactic sequence in the film was already shown in its entirety in the trailer, as the family is about to enjoy a patio lunch at the ski lodge when an avalanche comes tumbling down the mountain directly towards them.  As they watch it get closer, the patrons on the deck begin to panic.  And that’s when Pete grabs his phone off the table and runs, leaving his wife and kids who remain huddled together at the table, as the massive cloud of snow impacts the lodge.  But seconds later, all is well.  The force of the avalanche dissipated before it got to the bottom of the hill and only a snowy mist actually made it to their location.  And about the time Billie realizes they are fine is when Petes comes back, orders lunch, and acts as though nothing happened.

     “Downhill” then spirals into a clunky final forty five minutes where the family deals with now being trapped in a week long vacation far from home where mom and dad are now sleeping in separate beds.  And most of it is played in a serious tone where Billie verbalizes her disdain for Pete regularly, forcing the family to detach and often do things on their own.  Various characters are inserted into these scenes, but none of them are worth mentioning.  Meaning we spend the entire third act essentially wallowing in these character’s misfortunes with no payoff and none of the expected laughs that should come from a film headlined by Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  GRADE: D

“Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” Movie Review


     When you are producing a spin off of a film like “Suicide Squad”, the bar isn’t set very high in order to match or surpass its overall quality.  So I’ll begin by saying while director Cathy Yan’s follow up “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey" certainly has a number of artistic merits thanks primarily to a feisty performance by Margot Robbie, the film suffers from an overused boiler plate superhero story that has become all too familiar.  And if the main draw here is meant to be the fact our anti-heroes are all women, than the filmmakers left quite a bit on the table as far as creating an original story for them to tell.  All that said, the film does manage to surpass its predecessor.

     There is wall to wall action, hyper kinetic fight sequences, and colorful imaginative sets to feast your eyes on, but once the movie ends and you walk out of the theater, you’ll probably forget you were there in the first place, or even more likely, confusion will set in a day or two later when “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” and virtually every other superhero film you’ve seen in the last ten years begin to blend.  Aside from Harley herself, I doubt any of these characters will resonate enough with mainstream audiences for them to even remember their names.

     “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” starts with an elaborate first act that both brings us up to speed on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker’s recent break up, as well as the back stories of some of the main characters, including mob boss bad guy Roman Sionis, played by a hammy over the top Ewan McGregor.  It turns out Harley has quite a few people around Gotham who have a score to settle with her for everything from breaking various parts of their bodies to stealing from them.  And now with the word out of her relationship’s demise, she must reinvent herself in order to survive.  Of course, as we already know, she is well equipped to take care of herself.

     Various characters on both sides begin to converge when a street level pick pocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), lifts a valuable diamond off of one of Roman’s henchman.  Now Harley, along with a cop working the case, Renee (Rosie Perez), Roman’s driver Dinah (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a vigilante seeking justice against the mob named Helena (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), find themselves ensnared in a hunt for the diamond with Roman and his army hot on their tails.  Along the way, we are treated to the group’s expansive repertoire of martial arts influenced fighting skills, most of which are rudimentary, yet effective in these circumstances.  

     Taking a cue from its R-rated counterpart, “Deadpool”, the action features slit throats, broken legs, and even the complete removal of faces, and yet there is always the feeling we have seen all of this before.  It is no longer a novelty to insert female heroes into ass kicking fight sequences with so many notable (and better) films having depicted the same.  “Kill Bill” anyone? “Atomic Blonde”? What about “Wonder Woman”?  There is nothing in “Birds of Prey” that will come across as anything more than standard fight choreography with Harley and company positioned to dispatch multiple assailants with demonstrative ease.  

     If Cathy Yan and her screenwriter, Christina Hodson, had not given in to so many over utilized comic book movie tropes, and instead explored their main characters in greater detail, sans the unnecessary action, they might’ve had something.  Remember, DC is coming off doing exactly that with “Joker”, but the tone of this one seems to be right at home within the realm of “Suicide Squad” instead, which results in the film suffering greatly overall.

     One thing that helps “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” remain watchable is the work of production designer K.K. Barrett, whose depictions of everything from the streets of Gotham itself, to the bizarre confines of Harley’s apartment, and the setting of the finale, all bring forth a catchy visual style that ensures practically every scene really pops.  Yan’s editors, Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff, contribute greatly to the frenetic pacing, as well as the insertion of various backstories at key moments.  These aspects of the film are huge since the characters outside of Harley are bland and boring.  In fact, Dinah and Helena are given nothing of substance to do at all (No, shooting people with a crossbow does not count.).  And the Rosie Perez character, Renee, often remains in the back drop as a stereotypical cop burnout whose best attribute is spewing lines from 80s cop movies.  There isn’t anything about these side characters who make you want to see them again.

     What’s really confusing is how does all of this play in the bigger picture?  Or is DC even thinking in those terms anymore?  There really isn’t any possible connection between “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” and “Joker”, particularly given the events of “Suicide Squad”.  And one has to wonder where the rest of the “Justice League” fits in as well.  Will the upcoming 2021 film “The Batman” from director Matt Reeves exist within its own world, or the ones created in “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” and “Joker”? What about “Shazam”?  There seems to be so much untapped potential here, but with no real “End Game” to look forward to, what’s the point?  GRADE: C

“The Gentlemen” Movie Review

     Writer / director Guy Ritchie, whose career began with the upstart 1998 indie film “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”, returns to his roots with “The Gentlemen”, a gangster comedy built primarily on the foundation of the filmmaker’s early work.  Once considered one of the hottest young directors in Hollywood, Ritchie has had a number of ups and downs working within the studio system, having churned out everything from the “Sherlock Holmes” films in 2009 and 2011, to the 2019 Disney mega hit “Aladdin”.  In between were big budget efforts like 2015’s revival of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, and a failed attempt at franchise creation with 2017’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.”  All the while, it’s fair to say audiences would likely have preferred Ritchie remain within the realm of which he clearly excels, and his latest offering is a strong indication of just how much he has learned along the way.

     “The Gentlemen” is loaded with the same kind of colorful and entertaining characters Ritchie created for his debut feature, as well as his breakout film, 2000’s “Snatch”.  Matthew McConaughey is Mickey Pearson, a high level marijuana grower and distributor working within England’s pot hungry criminal underworld.  And when you’re on top, you can bet there is a line of wannabe gangsters ready to take you down, but Mickey, being the professional he is, always seems to be one step ahead of the regular challenges to his Mary Jane encrusted throne.

     But where there is a will, there is a way.  We meet slimy tabloid reporter Fletcher (Hugh Grant) in the opening sequence, as he begins to lay out his over thought plan to blackmail Mickey for a large sum of money in exchange for not running a story chronicling an extensive investigation into the substantial empire the Hippy Lettuce stalwart has created.  In doing so, he corners Mickey’s right hand man, Ray (Charlie Hunnam), detailing his considerable evidence of which the film visually explores through flashbacks.  In addition, Fletcher has penned a screenplay of the events and offers to throw it in as part of the deal.  Essentially, what Ritchie has concocted here is a movie within a movie. 

     All of this fits around the notion Mickey is ready to retire and is looking for a suitable and wealthy buyer to purchase and ultimately take over his expansive operation.  The laughs seem to come as rapid fire as the frequent gun play, with a hilarious group of characters entering the fray at seemingly every turn.  There’s Mickey’s tough as nails wife, Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), who runs an all girls auto body shop and doesn’t flinch in the slightest when confronted by a number of intimidators sent her way.  A mysterious potential buyer named Matthew (Jeremy Strong) is clearly angling for some sort of play, yet he projects an all business approach that appears to convince Mickey he may have his man.  Others, like Asian gangster Dry Eye (Henry Golding), look to infiltrate their own nefarious plans when it comes to the potential sale of Mickey’s business, but the most damaging threat always circles back to Fletcher and the power he possesses to bring the entire operation down.

     Stealing every scene he is in, Colin Farrell appears mid way through as Coach, an Irish boxing trainer whose pupils make an unexpected visit at one of Mickey’s grow houses.  Save to say, the onus falls directly on the pugilist’s shoulders, allowing him to provide a number of satisfying ways to pay back his debt.  The character is a highlight amongst so many who are well drawn, giving each of the main actors an endless array of scenery chewing opportunities.  So much so that the action is limited to a few notable outbursts, instead favoring the bountiful supply of juicy dialogue provided by what is arguably the filmmaker’s best screenplay.  It is the kind of film only Ritchie could have made.

     As the third act sees the audience caught up to the present, the story is now set up to unravel a series of sub plots set in motion by Fletcher’s storytelling.  Is Matthew who he says he is and are his intentions to buy Mickey’s business genuine?  How big of a threat is Dry Eye to blow up the entire deal via the strong-arm tactics he seems to favor and strike one of his own? Does Fletcher actually have Mickey cornered? Or is the unquestioned leader of the local weed corporation already one step ahead of him as well?  The answers will surprise you, as McConaughey brings forth the lively performance necessary to ensure the audience is squarely behind him, regardless of the fact he operates on the wrong side of the law.  Mickey is the classic anti-hero drawn in the image of several of Ritchie’s other notable characters who constantly live on the edge of prosperity and total disaster.  Which way they end up going is always the best part of any gangster film and “The Gentlemen” is no exception. GRADE: B+

“Bad Boys for Life” Movie Review


     One viewing of co-directors Adil El Arbi’s and Bilall Fallah’s threequel “Bad Boys for Life” and you will immediately realize one thing.  The main reason for bringing back Will Smith and Martin Lawrence to reprise their characters some seventeen years later has more to do with the recent success of the “Fast and Furious” films than it does any thought audiences were asking for another helping of Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett.  You get the feeling someone within the Sony braintrust came to the realization that if the low level street criminals in “The Fast and the Furious” could become a high tech crew existing within the highest levels of international espionage, why not the smooth talking Miami cop duo as well?

     And here’s how they did it.  First, of course, the story must catch up the target audience who was still in diapers when the last film was out in theaters.  This means a standard plot involving revenge where the hardened criminals of their police past come looking for a little payback.  Next, the screenwriters (Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan) create a scenario where they are teamed up with newly created high tech unit made up of younger cops to play against their now ultra experienced and salty characters who will lean on their “old school” methods versus the advanced techniques of their counterparts.  The diverse group is led by Rita (Paola Nunez) and flanked by tech whiz Dorn (Alexander Ludwig), weapons expert Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens) and the team’s hot head Rafe (Charles Melton).  It’s all by the book franchise building, or in this case, rebirthing.

     Their off site base is a garage full of massive computer monitors and screens capable of finding and tracking virtually anyone in the world, as well as tech enhanced surveillance vehicles and heavy tactical rigs each armed with the latest weaponry.  In other words a place where Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto would feel right at home given the past four installments of that lucrative franchise.  Only in this case it is Mike and Marcus leading the way as they seek to find the man responsible for a string of assassinations that seem to be connected to one of their previous cases.

     Arbi and Fallah have obviously watched their fair share of recent action films and were likely impressed with what they saw in the “John Wick” trilogy, which has clearly inspired the settings, choreography, and tone of each of the film’s set pieces.  Early on, we meet the bad guy, Armando (Jacob Scipio), as he seeks to make a deal with a local drug cartel in Miami that goes south when he finds himself double crossed.  And that’s when Armando unleashes his inner “Wick” with a knife fighting display any hitman in that series would certainly envy.  All of these scenes are lit with shades of purple, yellow, and green, as the wet asphalt mirrors the cars, motorcycles, and people who speed through them during endless car chases, fight scenes, and gun battles.  You’ve seen these same stylistic approaches before and it doesn’t appear anyone involved in the film really cares since this is the first time the protagonists are Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett.

     Now all of this isn’t meant to depict any sort of realism, but these characters are played in a serious manner where the stakes are meant to be life and death,  something which surprises me given the way these two guys act as cops.  If Lowrey and Burnett are meant to be the heroes of the story, and the audience the film is primarily aiming for is African-American, than why would this audience cheer them on when they are exhibiting the exact same bad behavior, excessive use of force, and sociopathic tendencies that is obviously frowned upon when it concerns real life police officers?  The contradiction there is alarming. 

     Is it ok for two detectives to drive recklessly through the streets of Miami, even driving on a crowded beach at one point while yelling “Sorry rich white people, we’re cops!”, just to get to a hospital for a non emergency family matter?  Fact is, neither of these guys would last a week on the job in real life, never mind the twenty five years they now claim to have at the beginning of the film.  All this does is reenforce a narrative that is simply not true to an impressionable young generation who is already bombarded by false agendas and lies, while allowing them to laugh because Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are funny.

     The third act of “Bad Boys for Life”, as it continues to follow the “Fast and Furious” formula, devolves into a series of impossible and unrealistic action sequences meant to transition these characters into the globe trotting police unit I suspect they will become in the already green lit fourth installment.  All of it, of course, is absolutely preposterous (the post credit scene will no doubt leave one character who meets his demise rolling over in his grave), but if you’ve become invested in these characters over the course of three films, there is enjoyment to be had since the chemistry between Smith and Lawrence cannot be denied.  The cross town rivalry between studios has clearly created the strategy of seeing what has worked for the competition and simply injected your own IPs into the established formula.  There’s nothing overly astonishing about “Bad Boys for Life”, but just as the “Die Hard” template produced dozens of profitable knockoffs over the years, it appears the “Fast and Furious” franchise now boasts one of its own.  GRADE: C

“1917” Movie Review


     As would be expected given the talent involved behind the camera, the one thing standing out the most in director Sam Mendes’ “1917” is the exceptional demonstration of craft.  This is feature filmmaking at its highest level, bringing together all of the elements necessary to create a riveting and important story. The film goes well beyond spectacle and successfully puts the viewer side by side with two British soldiers as they attempt to complete a harrowing task at a juncture where World War 1 is reaching a crucial turning point.  Whether or not “1917” becomes known as a classic war film will be a matter of how well it continues to be received as time passes, but it is certainly one of the best films of 2019 and a crowning achievement in Mendes’ career.

     As many likely are already aware, “1917” unspools as one continuous shot.  Think of it as if a lone documentary film crew were installed with the two main characters and simply followed them for a day.  Of course, much of this is done by connecting each scene with CGI, thus creating the believable illusion.  The story doesn’t play in real time either, instead allowing nearly a day to go by during the two hour running time.  On board with Mendes is legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who again oversees a series of breathtaking landscapes, beautifully shot as the characters move about within them.  Deakins, as film buffs know, has been nominated a whopping 13 Academy Awards for Achievement in Cinematography, winning for the first time in his storied career for 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049”.  Given the stunning work here, a smart bet would see him winning his second in a row.

     “1917” begins with a common military scenario.  A superior approaches a soldier and tells him to choose buddy while directing the pair to accomplish some sort of detail.  Normally, this means doing something neither of them would want to do and they are chosen because of their low rank.  But this is different.  Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are led to a bunker near the British front line where they meet General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who tasks them with a mission bearing life and death consequences.  

     It is the belief of a forward British outfit that the Germans are on the run, and the time to strike is now while they are at their weakest.  But the circumstance is merely a trap, as the aerial shots in possession of General Erinmore indicate the Germans have dug in and fortified their position, expecting the British to charge.  Erinmore knows the result will see over 1600 men killed, with the Germans again seizing momentum and likely winning a key battle in the war.  With phone lines between them and the unit destroyed, the General sends Blake and Schofield on a mission to deliver the intelligence to the forward unit’s commander, Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), before he sends his men on what he doesn’t know will be  a slaughter.

     We leave the meeting with our two protagonists and follow them as they traverse deserted battle fields en route to a location said to be about 9 miles away.  Of course the terrain is treacherous and full of potential pitfalls in the form of obstacles, booby traps, and stray enemy forces.  The script, written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, provides an ample amount of character developing banter between the leads and succeeds in bringing forth the kind of emotional connection between the characters that is necessary to elevate the proceedings beyond that of a first person shooter video game.  And though this is achieved chiefly through the fact Blake’s older brother is a member of the unit about to be sent to their death unknowingly, it is the many characters in smaller roles throughout who supply a true sense of danger in virtually every step these soldiers take.

     When they are engaged by an enemy combatant, we never see the person up close, only the point of view that either Blake or Schofield is seeing.  But the damage they can inflict feels like the shots are coming at point blank range and the level of danger they seem to be in for the majority of the film is ever present and always unsettling.  This is the kind of film experience that gives you that white knuckle feeling people often speak of.  It feels real.  The gun shots, the explosions, and the various pyrotechnics on display rumble and shake the audience in a visceral way of which few films ever actually achieve.  And that appears to be the goal of the filmmakers here.  To put the viewer in the middle of all this in much the same way Spielberg did with “Saving Private Ryan”.

     With all of the bravado on the technical side, it’s easy to overlook the startling performances by both Chapman and MacKay, whose work explores the very depths of their character’s soul and provides a very human interpretation of what it is like to fight in a war, while leaving everyone you care about behind.  Often times not knowing whether or not you will ever see them again.  That the story begins and ends in a similar location is symbolic of what everyone in this situation already knows.  You may have survived the battle today, but it is now time to begin preparing for the battle tomorrow.  War is hell, and “1917” depicts this idea in its most raw form.  GRADE: A

“Little Women” Movie Review


     Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of writing about movies is it gives you the opportunity to follow a filmmaker’s early work and their ascension in the industry as they tackle more ambitious projects.  Having had her breakthrough with 2017’s “Lady Bird”, writer/director Greta Gerwig was clearly ready to move beyond the scope and budget of a smaller indie film and continue the mastery of her craft with a film more suited to her immense talent.  And that film is “Little Women”, a heartfelt and emotional story both adapted for the screen and helmed by Gerwig, as she makes a strong case to receive her second Oscar nomination for directing and writing.  Whether she makes that short list or not is up to the Academy, but either way, “Little Women” is one of the best films of 2019 and stands as a crowning achievement in what is only the filmmaker’s third feature.

     Based on the classic 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott, which follows four sisters as they navigate their lives through the fallout of the Civil War, the story has enjoyed no shortage of film and television adaptations through the years.  Likely the most notable for this generation is director Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film which featured Winona Ryder in her Oscar nominated lead role.  The film was a hit, led by a wonderful cast which also included Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale among others.  Remaking a time honored classic can be a tricky proposition, as audiences, particularly older ones, will be forced to compare and determine which version will stand the test of time in their own minds.  Just minutes into Gerwig’s film, you’ll realize these comparisons are unnecessary.

     Teaming up once again with her “Lady Bird” star, Saoirse Ronan, who plays the elder sister Jo March, Gerwig creates a time jumping narrative that will require the audience to pay close attention to the intricate storyline.  Scenes begin in one timeframe, and then jump to years earlier or years later without any real context in the first act.  This is something you get used to as the story progresses and its many plot threads become discernible.  As Gerwig’s film unfolds, you realize this may be one of the most complex and layered narratives of any film this year.  And yet it’s a joy to watch, bringing forth an experience that is sure to lift the spirits of audiences who prefer emotion over spectacle.

     Jo March (Ronan), an aspiring and passionate writer, struggles with her place in the world just like any other teenager.  Her younger sisters, Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh), each possess their own talents and aspirations as well.  Amy, who is greatly influenced by her Aunt March (Meryl Streep), dreams of someday marrying a rich man and living a life where she can both provide for her family, as well as continue to hone her abilities as an artist.  Beth and Meg seem to count their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern) as their primary influence.  Their giving nature and kindness, while doing more with less are hallmarks of what their mom stands for.  But Jo is one of those who beats to the sound of her own drum, choosing to ignore the advice of those around her in favor of discovering life via an unconventional path.  At the time, women were not able to make a living sans a husband and needed to marry in order to achieve their financial goals.  With Jo forging a career as a storyteller, can she break the common mold and succeed on her own?

     The men within the story are ever present, serving primarily as romantic interests for each of the sisters, but also as mentors and caregivers.  The most prominent is Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), a young gentlemen who lives in a mansion within a sight line of the March’s more modest home.  His father, Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) is one of the most kind hearted and compassionate people you will ever meet, and his fondness for the March family and the community as a whole remains a heart warming testament to the human spirit throughout the film.  With the family’s father, played by Bob Odenkirk, serving as a Chaplain in the Civil War, the story sees him absent the majority of the time, leaving his wife and daughters to take on many of life’s pitfalls alone.  But it was also the reality of the time with many families losing their husbands and fathers in a war that needed to be fought, but came at a substantial price many still pay for today.

     “Little Women” is a film that explores the relationships we all have in our life, be it with our family, our friends, our spouse, and even our business associates.  Jo leads us through her own story, one which isn’t perfect and has its share of flawed moments.  The irony, of course, being her publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), sees a different end to the story. And just like many do on their social media accounts today, the truth is masked in order to have people believe the protagonist’s tale ends in a way that is traditionally acceptable.  An astounding notion, given the age of the source material. 

     As we would expect, “Little Women” is beautifully shot, evoking the period with stunning costumes and an exquisitely detailed production design.  Ronan again establishes herself as one of the finest actors of her generation (and a sure bet to receive her fourth Oscar nomination), but it is the performances by the entire ensemble cast that bring the story to life.  All of which is made possible by Gerwig’s screenplay, which emphasizes aspects of the story that are eerily comparable to many of the issues we deal with today, including equal pay for women and their standing in an entertainment industry traditionally dominated by men.  In much the same way she did with “Lady Bird”, Gerwig has found a way to channel her own voice through these characters where the themes and ideas that comprise her vision come through loud and clear.  GRADE: A

“The Two Popes” Movie Review


     Director Fernando Meirelles’ “The Two Popes” brings to life one of the most talked about transitions of power within the Catholic Church in history.  Whereas the election of a new pope would typically be met with both overwhelming support of the electing body, as well as endearment from the religion’s followers around the world, the process in 2005 was marred by a growing liberal faction within the church who looked to change many of the outdated views still sanctioned by the Vatican, including stances on homosexuality and the celibacy of priests.  Nonetheless, the larger conservative group prevailed and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected, choosing Benedict as his pontifical name.

     Portrayed in the film by Anthony Hopkins, Pope Benedict was a staunch representative of the church’s conservative doctrine and defended these ideals at all costs.  But with changes in thinking as we enter a time in society where cultural sensitivity and inclusion are paramount, the church and its leader faced a crossroads.  As the oldest pope elected since the 1700s, Benedict felt his ability to speak to God waning, all the while watching as the church was consistently criticized for failing to adapt with the modern world.  Scandal besieged the church at every level, leaving Benedict no choice but to make a historical move designed to rebuild the religion’s damaged reputation.

     In 2012, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, played by Jonathan Pryce, had planned to meet with the Pope to ask for permission to retire.  Bergoglio, an Argentinian, was long known as a leader within the religion’s liberal think tank and was clearly Benedict’s loudest critic.  When the two of them meet at the Vatican, the initial conversations reflect their respective positions within the church.  Bergoglio is respectful, while Benedict is often crass and foreboding of any potential changes in the age old philosophies the church has never wavered on.  But as these conversations progress, it becomes clear Benedict will not allow Bergoglio to retire for reasons he only explains as for the good of the church.

     Adapted from his stage play “The Pope”, screenwriter Anthony McCarten imagines the continuing interactions between both men as a relationship that naturally progresses into what becomes like two everyday guys sitting together and simply talking.  We already know the issues they have significant differences on, but where can they find common ground?  In doing so, Meirelles installs a series of flashbacks to bring light to the difficult life Bergoglio has led in his journey to becoming a Cardinal.  It is these experiences where he develops many of his modern stances on the Catholic religion’s various moral codes, and with each conversation it seems as though his skills as a convincing orator are leading Benedict down a path of potential partnership.

     With the film being structured around two men verbally grappling over religious doctrine and the future of the Catholic Church, the success of “The Two Popes” hinges on two important aspects: the performances by the actors and the method in which the settings are committed to film.  Regardless of religious affiliation or belief, an audience must feel every scene is compelling, while also visually stimulating.  And that’s where the film really excels.  Meirelles and his cinematographer, Cesar Charlone, ensure these two legendary actors occupy some of the most gorgeous and colorful settings you will see in a film this year, including a full scale set recreating the Sistine Chapel, as well as other notable landmarks found throughout Rome.  Not to be ignored are the scenes shot in Buenos Aires, notable as the poor areas, where Bergoglio had served for his entire career, significantly contrast with the palace like confines of the Vatican.

     Both Pryce and Hopkins bring forth some of the most memorable and brilliant work of their storied careers.  And much like the talented work turned in by the makeup artists who worked on “Bombshell”, the team here transforms the actors into an astounding likeness of Bergoglio and Benedict which helps create a sense of authenticity in every frame of the film.  Though the filmmakers chose not to utilize de-aging technology, as their Netflix counterpart “The Irishman” did, in order to have Pryce play the younger version of his character, Juan Minujin fills in nicely with a crucial performance necessary to communicate to the audience the gut wrenching and murderous history his people endured while he was a young priest. 

     The exceptional work by the filmmakers has brought this incredible story to a medium where people can really understand the hardline politics at play within a religious organization desperately trying to find the right leadership during uncertain times.  And even today with the blame game continuing as various scandals have continued to rock the foundation of one of the world’s oldest institutions, many of these issues still remain divisive within the highest ranks of the church. But isn’t it comforting to know the two sides are at the table talking like a couple of regular fellas?  It’s often amazing how much can get done over pizza, beer, and the bonding that comes with cheering on your favorite sports team.  Life long friendships are born, ideas are exchanged, and we come up with something we can all live with.  GRADE: A

“Uncut Gems” Movie Review

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     Twenty five years ago, Quentin Tarantino’s acclaimed film “Pulp Fiction” entertained audiences and impressed critics with its unmatched blend of character and story, backed with fresh and original dialogue that gave several memorable characters distinctive and likable  personalities regardless of what side of the law they were on.  What we discovered was a talent in Tarantino to write conversational pieces between unsavory and often morally corrupt beings while giving them undeniable appeal.  People you wouldn’t likely relate to, and yet you still want to know more about them.  There is always intrigue in the unknown and that includes the criminal underworld, even when in real life we opt to stay as far away as possible from a culture we know is wrong.  To a certain extent, directors Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie have accomplished the same vibe, sans the appeal, with their film “Uncut Gems”.

     The Safdie brothers certainly possess a unique visual style, which is what brings the requisite energy to the proceedings as the story begins with a brutal set piece that sees a rare stone being found in a remote Ethiopian mining operation.  The valuable blue opal is brought to life as the camera moves inside the colorful rock only to transform into a video screen view of a colonoscopy as both images apparently share important characteristics, but also an interesting symbolism.  Shortly after, we meet Howard (Adam Sandler), a jeweler in New York City whose hour to hour life sees him hustling for the next deal, making the another sports bet, and avoiding the many goons looking to collect on his various debts.  All of this, plus the balancing act between his estranged wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), their children, and his girlfriend, Julia (Julia Fox), whom he supports financially.

     From the opening sequence, the volume remains turned up to its maximum.  Even when the characters begin conversing, I always felt like the background score was a few notches too high.  Just loud enough that the dialogue seemed muffled and ofter times unintelligible.  But maybe this is the Safdie brothers way of creating a constant state of uncomfortable chaos, where the volume of noise and energy within Howard’s world is at a relentless breaking point.  There is never a moment of calm.  He is either moving about the streets on foot, visiting his bookie, pawning various items for quick betting cash, or attending a school play his daughter is a part of while somehow laying low as money collectors seek him out at all hours of the night.  It’s the kind of life most wouldn’t last a mere twenty four hours, much less the fews days the film depicts.

     Howard’s store is nestled within the diamond district in a pad that has his customers go through two sets of buzzing doors in order to ensure he retains complete control of who enters and who leaves.  With all of the people coming and going, as well as several untimely mishaps, the doors feel like characters themselves.  His associate, Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) is charged with bringing in cliental (rappers, athletes, etc.) who are in the market for the flashy and high priced merchandise Howard specializes in.  And on this day, Demany has brought in Kevin Garnett of the 2012 Boston Celtics (The story takes place in May, 2012 during the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.) and his entourage who have been told of Howard’s impressive store and seem primed to buy big.  But this is also the day Howard receives the blue opal from Ethiopia and decides to show Garnett.

     As many athletes are superstitious, Garnett, while holding the valuable stone, believes it will propel him to a legendary performance in the Eastern Conference Finals and asks to buy it.  Howard, who already has the stone set for auction, agrees to allow Garnett to have the stone for the next game but ensures he bring it back the next day.  One thing we learn almost immediately is nothing goes right for Howard in nearly anything he does, and all of this, including his dealings with Garnett, take a series of twists and turns where there seems to be no possible way of recouping losses, mending relationships, or even staying alive.

     “Uncut Gems” remains one of the most divisive films I have ever seen.  Can I recommend it to someone?  Probably not.  The experience of watching the film is not just overwhelming, but a complete overload of the senses.  You will sweat.  Your heart will begin to beat faster.  Everything will feel uncertain and in a constant state of disaray.  And all of it adds up to a collection of low life characters where not one among them has any sort of redeeming qualities.  The Safdie brothers have created a frenetic mess of a film because their lead character is an absolute disaster himself.  And Sandler is nothing short of brilliant in his portrayal, as the longtime comic actor has worked his way into the Oscar conversation with a role one could easily argue he was born to play.  And while some may view Howard as a sort of anti hero who eventually becomes easy to root for, a closer examination will determine his methodology only ensures a swift and brutal spiral down to the lowest depths of human existence.  And everyone else in the film, save for Garnett, will likely be joining him.  

     Dinah quips to Howard late in the film “You are the most annoying person I have ever known in my entire life”.  That about sums up “Uncut Gems” and yet I know this vibe was created for effect and it certainly worked.  Now is there value in viewing a film like this?  Perhaps, but the headache the size of Manhattan you’ll have as you walk out of the theater may say otherwise.  GRADE: B

“Bombshell” Movie Review

     It wouldn’t be a stretch at all to convince an audience Megyn Kelly is playing herself in director Jay Roach’s “Bombshell”, a film dramatization chronicling the sexual harassment claims brought against former Fox News chief Roger Ailes in 2016.  But in reality, the talented makeup and hairstyling artists behind the film have transformed Charlize Theron into Kelly’s doppelgänger with the Academy Award winning actress providing the spot on mannerisms and news style that brought millions to the channel every night for her program “The Kelly File”.  In one of the best performances of the year, there is no question Theron will be on the short list for adding another Oscar to her mantel, but does the film equal her performance and bring forth a strong retelling of this watershed moment in the news world?

     Written by Charles Randolph, whose screenplay for 2015’s “The Big Short” took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, “Bombshell” was marketed as a star powered take on the material where an ever-present abundance of entertainment value would take center stage and provide the kind of juicy dialogue driven scenes the actors would presumably thrive in.  Now all of them certainly thrive, but the dramatic stakes in play are not only presented in a more serious tone, but there are a number of sequences that are difficult to watch.  What begins with Megyn Kelly breaking the fourth wall to give the audience a tour of the Fox News headquarters building and the power structure within, quickly devolves into a sexually charged male dominated work environment that was bound to crumble.  It was just a matter of who would speak up first.

     If you followed these events as they occurred, then some of the dramatic impact the film seeks to achieve may end up lost, but fortunately the main players are fueled on screen by powerhouse performances from the aforementioned Charlize Theron, as well as Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, and John Lithgow.  All four of these actors should be remembered during awards season.

     After her perceived demotion from the popular morning show “Fox and Friends” to a lesser watched afternoon slot, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is suddenly let go from the network when her viewpoints become a bit too moderate for the right leaning news channel.  And that’s when she brings a sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), who initially dismisses the claims and utilizes his immense platform to ensure Carlson is not only discredited, but also unable to work in the business ever again.  Carlson’s attorneys point out the need for others to come forward in order to strengthen the case, but the culture, which sees Ailes privately examining each perspective on air news woman to determine their suitability for a “visual medium” as he explains it, is awash with programming mandates that see women wearing short skirts and directors who frame every shot to include these women’s lower half.  As Kelly explains early on, it’s a rapid fire purposeful combination of conservative talking points and titillation in every show.

     “Bombshell” is not based on a book or news article written by any of the people involved, but rather a combination of interviews and conversations with dozens of people who worked at Fox News at the time and could provide detailed incite on how much of this transpired.  In doing so, Randolph and Roach create a fictional character named Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a wide eyed and ambitious producer who someday hopes to rise atop the ranks with her own show.  And after working for Gretchen Carlson, she is suddenly given a promotion to the staff of the highly rated Bill O’Reilly (Kevin Dorff) after a chance meeting with Ailes himself, who gives her advice on how to succeed.  All of which seems innocent at first, but a second meeting proves otherwise when lines are crossed and careers are potentially ruined.

     Some of the more intriguing bits follow the aftermath of the Fox News Republican Presidential Debate where Kelly famously called out Donald Trump for his constant demeaning of women, which saw Trump charging back on a news program the next day claiming Kelly "had blood coming out of her eyes and wherever”.  The back and forth between the Republican Presidential hopeful and the well known Fox personality was one of the biggest news stories during the 2016 campaign, and the blowback against Kelly affected not only her standing in the newsroom, but also moved into her family life where her husband and children often found themselves in the crosshairs of the nut jobs out there who wanted Kelly gone.

     But Trump’s antics aside, the film delves into several uncomfortable and incredibly difficult issues.  All of which are handled in a manner that effectively communicates the problems within the work environment and the systemic harassment nearly every woman had to endure in order to be accepted.  And if you’re wondering how it got like that, well, as they say, it all started at the top.  It seems everyone was well aware of what Roger Ailes was doing, and those directly below him were happy to not only defend their powerful boss, but were also inclined to engage in similar activities themselves at all levels of the organization.  “Bombshell” presents these events in a manner that puts us in the room where everything feels alive and fast paced.  Decisions are being made with rapid fire intensity as a Presidential Primary plays out before the country’s eyes.  But behind closed doors, another story was unfolding.  And it was the courageous efforts of these women who ended the reign of a vile predator once and for all.  GRADE: B+

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” Movie Review


     In the world of fandom we now live in, you have to really appreciate the position director J.J. Abrams found himself in when he took the reigns of the final installment of what for over 40 years now we have known as the Skywalker Saga.  With the backlash that unjustly followed Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” still fresh in everyone’s minds, the pressure to create a film that would both satisfy long time fans, but also bring forth a conclusion befitting of what is likely the most iconic film franchise of all time, had to be felt amongst everyone involved.  And while “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” will likely create an all new round of debate within the fan base, the resulting film brings the Skywalker story, as well as the events of the Sequel Trilogy, to a rousing and thrilling close. 

     Long before social media began applying its grip on our society in similar fashion to Darth Vader’s cruel and fearsome Force choke, Star Wars fans famously and loudly rejected the first film in George Lucas’ Prequel Trilogy, 1999’s “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace”.  Those self appointed critics, who grew from their Original Trilogy roots into self absorbed man children, had this idea that Lucas had made the film for them, when in reality, just like the Original Trilogy, he was creating a Star Wars experience for a new generation of children.  Well, many of those now in their thirties took offense to that notion and proceeded to tear “The Phantom Menace” down until it practically didn’t exist anymore.  For the record, Lucas was right.  “The Phantom Menace” went on to gross over a billion dollars world wide.

     A good friend of mine, who loves Star Wars as much as I do, recently explained his displeasure with both of the Sequel Trilogy installments, “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi”.  That’s where I challenged him to watch both again, but this time view the films from the perspective of the 12 year old boy I had hoped he could still find somewhere inside of him.  And you know what?  He got back to me a couple of weeks later, realizing Disney is simply doing what Lucas had done twice before, creating a Star Wars trilogy for today’s kids.  Giving them heroes to cheer for and look up to as they negotiate the obstacles of their formative years.  That’s what Star Wars was always about.  Nothing more and nothing less.

     Which brings me to “The Rise of Skywalker”.  Just as he had done with the “Star Trek” franchise, Abrams revived “Star Wars” with 2015’s “The Force Awakens” with near universal praise and financial success.  Critics lauded the film, while fans adored the nostalgic beats along with a swath of new and engaging characters.  To put it simply, “The Force Awakens” felt like a Star Wars movie.  And that’s exactly what Abrams set out to accomplish with “The Rise of Skywalker” with mostly positive results.  There are questions and loose ends to be answered from both of the Sequel Trilogy films, but also lingering plot threads still missing key details from the other six films as well.  

     Given the enormous command of the Force possessed by Rey (Daisy Ridley), is she really a nobody whose parents left her on Jakku with no explanation?  What will the First Order look like now that Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has assumed the position of Supreme Leader and continues his quest to turn Rey to the dark side?  What’s left of the Resistance after we last saw the remaining members, including General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), fitting comfortably on the Millennium Falcon?  And of course the biggest question of all is what role does Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) play after it was revealed in the film’s marketing he has somehow returned from the dead?  All of this and then a satisfying conclusion to the entire Skywalker story?  A tall order indeed.

     Given the tremendous and impossible expectations, “The Rise of Skywalker” delivers a classic Star Wars story with practically every desire of fandom directly addressed in some manner.  Abrams manages this while also bringing forth an adventure that can also stand on its own, as the characters join together in an effort to find a mysterious Sith device which can provide the road map to the Emperor’s secret location.  Meanwhile, Kylo Ren seeks to continue his obsession with following in the footsteps of his grandfather and leading the First Order in their ongoing efforts to crush the Resistance.  Leia, who is brought to life courtesy of some nifty effects and editing work utilizing unused footage of Carrie Fisher from the two previous films, continues to struggle with finding support for the Resistance while also attempting to decipher the validity of the Palpatine rumors.  Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) mention the fact no one answered the call when they and the remaining Resistance fighters were trapped on Crait during the climax of “The Last Jedi”, making all involved wonder if there is anyone left in the galaxy who is willing to take a stand and fight the First Order.

    Billy Dee Williams makes a welcome return as Lando Calrissian with a performance that brings an extra helping of the nostalgia many fans seem to crave over the continuing story arcs of the Sequel Trilogy’s secondary characters like Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) or Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran).  But even with his presence, “The Rise of Skywalker” never feels overstuffed, as every character is given several moments to shine and that includes new characters like Keri Russell’s Zorii Bliss and Naomi Ackie’s Jannah.  It is these new supporting players that give “The Rise of Skywalker” a sheen of fresh material to play against the obligatory call backs to the other films.

     The craft behind the “The Rise of Skywalker" is nothing short of exceptional, which is to be expected given Abrams’ pedigree and the production having some of the best people in the world working in every department.  But what stands out in particular are the fiery performances by Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, who carry the story, written by Abrams and Chris Terrio, to its dramatic and eye popping conclusion.  And with the “Star Wars” saga not exactly known for strong acting performances, their work is easily the best since Alec Guinness’ turn as Obi Wan Kenobi in the 1977 original.  John Boyega and Oscar Isaac often provide the comic relief with both playing off C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) in much the same way we saw Han Solo and Luke Skywalker do the same so many years ago.

     Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I’m sure there will be no shortage of varying takes on whether Abrams was successful in bringing this beloved story to a satisfying close.  The toxic culture we now exist within will find ways to criticize the film for everything from race inclusion to the retconning of events in “The Last Jedi” in order to muzzle the keyboard warriors who slather their Twitter feeds with unjustified vitriol from the comfort of their parent’s basement.  It’s really ashame these things even need to be addressed in the first place.  Do people still go to the movies to have a good time?  Or have we replaced the entertainment experience with an uncontrollable desire to rip a film apart or criticize it because the story is not the one you would have told?  Lucas himself retired from filmmaking because of the backlash against his Prequel Trilogy.  Can you imagine if those films were made today?  Actually we can.  Remember Kelly Marie Tran was forced to leave social media because of the incessent trolls who thought it prudent to bash her character in the “The Last Jedi”.  It’s all so unnecessary.  When was the last time a social media post changed anyone’s opinion anyway?

     For me, a life long Star Wars fan, I don’t view these films through the same lens as I would the latest Oscar contender, though “The Rise of Skywalker” certainly holds its own in the traditional areas of narrative, acting, editing, score, and direction.  Instead my viewing experience rockets me back to that of the young boy who long ago was searching for inspiration and hope during some tough times and found it in a galaxy far far away.  Its how Star Wars was meant to be. GRADE: A