Reviews


“I Care a Lot” Movie Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nomadland” Movie Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Little Things” Movie Review


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     Not even a trio of Oscar winning actors can save writer/director John Lee Hancock’s “The Little Things”, an early 90s set crime thriller similar in tone to many films within the genre that were actually released in the same time period.  Think “The Bone Collector”, “Along Came a Spider”, or even “Seven” and “The Silence of the Lambs”.  Some where seen as merely average and forgettable, while others remain classics because of memorable villains, as well as police detectives who could match their every move with smarts and ingenuity.  The characters in “The Little Things” possess none of those attributes, while continually making illogical and often dumb decisions that lead to a series of anticlimactic outcomes in the third act. 

     If you are watching the opening scene of a film like this and the first thought that arrives in your head is the Geico commercial that parodies horror movies where youngsters seem to ignore the obvious way out in favor of a hiding spot that plays directly into the slasher’s hands, you have to figure the story has no where to go but south.  This, after all, is a film that stars none other than Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto.  Expectations will naturally be sky high.  But then we see a young girl driving on a dark highway somewhere outside of Los Angeles.  In a call back to a similar sequence in the aforementioned “The Silence of the Lambs”, she sings loudly along with the song playing on the radio (the B-52s “Roam”).  Oblivious to the car behind her, until the driver starts to aggressively tail gate.  She’s suddenly scared out of her mind, as the two play cat and mouse on the road.  Although she never realizes the likely best course of action is to keep driving towards civilization which is shown to be a few miles ahead.

     But no, instead she pulls over to what is clearly a closed and abandoned gas station.  Gets out of her car, leaving it open and running, and starts banging on a window of the shuttered convenience store, desperately hoping someone will let her in.  Of course, no one is home and the person who was terrorizing her on the road has now taken the keys to her car, and is closing in on foot.  So she runs into the dark and poorly lit desert lot behind the store.  As if she thinks she’s invisible and won’t be seen by what we believe as an audience must be some kind of stalker or killer.  You see where this is going right?  And it only gets worse.  We haven’t met the cops yet.

     The first glimpse of Kern County Deputy Sheriff Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) sees the uniformed patrol cop being assigned by a superior to drive to Los Angeles and pick up evidence from the LASO crime lab.  There’s a serial killer on the loose and apparently the dots have been connected between murders in the Los Angeles area, as well as Kern County.  Early on, we are led to believe, with little detail, that Deacon was once an LASO homicide detective who left the department on bad terms.  Later, we find out his relentless methods utilized for investigating cases caused him to get divorced and suffer a massive heart attack.  This is why he left his job behind.  So what does he do next?  He becomes a cop in a neighboring county?  That’s how he tries to get himself right?  And why was he hired when a simple background check would reveal he left his previous agency after suffering a break down?

     Deacon's evidence pick up has him come face to face with a number of people he previously worked with.  All of which are surprised to see him.  He meets his replacement in the homicide unit, Sergeant Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who right away seems to be strangely intrigued with Deacon and his reputation as a detective.  And since the script needs a reason for Deacon to stick around in Los Angeles, it conveniently sees him take vacation from his Kern County job and work along side Baxter as they attempt to track down the person responsible for a string of grisly murders that have occurred in the area with a similar method of operation.  From this point, it’s all by the numbers. 

     After picking up Supporting Actor nominations from both SAG and the Golden Globes, you’ll likely hear a lot about Jared Leto’s performance as Albert Sparma, a greasy haired slime ball and refrigerator repairman who Deacon and Baxter eventually develop as a possible suspect.  Don’t buy into it.  Leto is a fine actor in the right role, but his character is all one note.  Constantly pushing a forced and unnecessary creep vibe that we have seen from countless serial killer villains many times before.  He wants us to believe the character is smart, but there’s absolutely no substance.

     And neither actor is helped much in the way of Hancock’s script, which fails to provide a single line of memorable dialogue.  What it does give us is a series of unrealistic decisions made by key characters that are done solely for the convenience of the plot.  It’s as if they are operating in a vacuum devoid of back up, superiors, or others within the criminal element that would have certainly played into much of what goes down.  And after everything finally comes together, it becomes clear Hancock had no idea how to end the story, resulting in one of those vague head scratchers that makes no sense and fails to satisfy after spending 127 minutes hoping for a bombshell or at least some semblance of a pay off.  Sure, something in Deacon’s past figures into this, but the matter at hand, bringing the perpetrator of these brutal crimes to justice, doesn’t materialize in a way that brings closure after a lengthy build up.

     Working against “The Little Things” is the fact that not only has this genre been thoroughly explored in far superior ways, but also the undeniable rise in popularity of true crime documentaries, which seemingly always deliver the shocking truths of a particular case in a way that gets the audience debating the outcome long after their initial viewing.  HBO’s “The Jinx” and Netflix’s “Making a Murderer’, as examples, are far more compelling and don’t have to rely on overused genre tropes in order to be effective.  Why make this stuff up, when you can see the real thing? GRADE: C-

“News of the World” Movie Review


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     Director Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World” is a sharp departure from his previous work.  All but abandoning the hyperkinetic shaky cam action sequences he has built his career on with films such as the final three chapters of the “Jason Bourne” series (2004, 2007, 2016), as well as “Green Zone” (2010) and “Captain Phillips” (2013), in favor of a traditional Western focused on characters whose journey is slow and methodical.  A testament of the time period, but also with the clear intent to tell a story driven by character dialogue rather than explosive set pieces.  The result is certain to be relished by purists of the genre.

     Working from a script by “Lion” (2016) scribe Luke Davies, adapted from the novel by Paulette Jiles, the story follows newsman Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) in the year 1870 (five years after the end of the Civil War), as he makes his post war living traveling from town to town reading the news in front of small information hungry live audiences.  Changes within the United States are plentiful, and the town’s folk he regularly encounters in the state of Texas are often displeased with the direction the federal government is going after the sound defeat of the Confederate Army.  He’s the kind of man whose job could use the modern day quip “Don’t kill the messenger.”, but since that phrase had yet to be said, he instead brings forth ice breaker quality humor to illicit laughs from the occasionally hostile crowds.

     It is during Kidd’s travels that he comes across a 10 year old girl, who he discovers had lost her parents years before and has since been raised by Native Americans known as the Kiowa people.  Referred to as Johanna (Helena Zengel) by Kidd, she does not speak English and is forced to communicate with hand signs when it is apparent her native language is not understood.  When Kidd attempts to turn Johanna over to the military, he is told it is now his responsibility to return her to the only living kin on record, requiring a lengthy journey across treacherous and often dangerous terrain to the purported location of her Aunt and Uncle.

     What Greengrass has concocted here is essentially a Western set road movie, as Kidd and Johanna forge a unique relationship while en route to a place she clearly does not want to go.  It’s also clear, at least initially, that Kidd wants to accomplish the task at hand expeditiously  and return to his wife in San Antonio, a motivating factor in the manner in which he looks to complete the mission.  And so they go, equipped with two horses and a run down stage coach, on a trip through the dusty plains of Texas.  An unforgiving landscape fraught with hidden threats who seem to be dug in and waiting for unsuspecting travelers unaware of their nefarious intentions.  A war veteran himself, Kidd seems mentally prepared, but can he protect Johanna and reach their destination unscathed?  Does Johanna want to live with a new family of whom she has never met?

     When you think of other recent Hanks performances, including the aforementioned “Captain Phillips” and 2020’s “Greyhound”, we see a very similar mild mannered, yet confident man whose experience guides him through a series of unthinkable obstacles.  His Captain Jefferson Kidd is cut from the same clothe, but the absence of dependable action set pieces means Hanks must provide one of his most nuanced performances.  Particularly given he is the only person actually speaking on screen for most of the film, while Greengrass commits from the outset to be restrained from utilizing the kind of high octane camera work and editing that has defined his style.  And though Kidd is through and through a prototypical Hanks character, if the director’s name wasn’t on the poster, I wouldn’t have recognized this as his work.

     “News of the World” is nonetheless a masterful piece of filmmaking.  And it won’t take a viewer long to realize much of the post war political climate depicted in 1870s Texas is quite relevant today.  Whether people receive their news from a traveling newsman as they did then or in the 24/7 always in your face manner in which we do now, the simple reporting of a decision made by the government will always cause some level of divide, regardless of what part of the country you call home.  

     Even a chance encounter with a business tycoon in a small Texas locale, boasting a news publication controlled by the same person who also owns and runs the town brings an interesting parallel to today’s bias news reporting where what channel you watch will determine what side of the aisle you currently reside.  While Kidd wanted to read something significantly more honest and dependable to the town’s people, the tycoon insisted he read instead his publication plastered with his image and the narrative he wants the people to hear.  His version of the truth, what ever that happens to be.  A stark reminder of the media’s power to persuade and how far the people behind the curtain will go to shape the mindset of the masses in an effort to stop us from thinking for ourselves.  You see a film like this and immediately begin to wonder what ever happened to the people who simply reported the news?  GRADE: B+

“One Night in Miami” Movie Review


     Following in the foot steps of several recent and successful adaptations of popular stage plays with “Fences”, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” among them, “One Night in Miami” brings together four 1960s icons, as they engage in a historic night of fiery banter amongst lifelong friends.  The film marks the feature directorial debut of Regina King, who skillfully brings these larger than life characters to the screen in the prime of their respective lives, while working from a script by Kemp Powers, adapted from his play. 

     Then known as Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), the legendary boxer had just defeated Sonny Liston, becoming the heavyweight champion in the process, in the first of their memorable battles on February 25, 1964.  What ensues is a hotel room gathering, initially planned as a sort of celebration, comprised of Clay, Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), singer and songwriter Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir).  Considering the personalities involved and the issues at stake, the story has all the ingredients for an intense, yet spirited and emotional debate about the future of the Civil Rights Movement.

     So how did these four men, who each have considerable celebrity and financial resources, find themselves together in what appears to be a hotel room well beneath their means?  Clay, who had just fought at the Miami Beach Convention Center, was required to leave the area because of Jim Crow segregation laws, forcing him and his trio of well known friends to take refuge in a hotel miles away and in an African American neighborhood where their presence was permitted.  Is it any wonder why the evening’s subject matter would quickly revert from reverence for Clay’s achievement to the politically and racially charged ideologies behind making positive change for their underserved communities?

     And the passion from these men flows with their every word, albeit from significantly differing viewpoints on what steps need to be taken and how progress should be defined.  Brown and Cooke seem to be cut from the same cloth, measuring success on their paychecks and the ability to be independent of their white counterparts within the business world.  Malcolm has taken the then 22 year old Clay under his wing, and has shown him the path to becoming a Muslim.  The loud and ego driven pugilist carries a certain persona in public, but is reigned in when in the presence of Malcolm, who seeks to parlay his star pupil’s fame into a higher level of notoriety for his cause.  A notion that doesn’t sit well with Clay, nor the others.

     Mind you all of this is fictional.  No one but the four men inside that room know exactly what was talked about that night.  And since only Jim Brown is still with us, one can only ponder how they may have spent their time after one of the greatest bouts in boxing history.  But given what we know about their personalities and how each of them are remembered, Powers’ dialogue is likely closer to the truth than we know.  This was a time when Jim Brown was undisputed as the best football player in the NFL, and had just set, in 14 games, the single season rushing record of 1863 yards, a feat that still stands today as the best in Cleveland’s franchise history.  He was also beginning his career as an actor, having starred in the 1964 western “Rio Conchos”.  There is no doubt he was a force in that room after having earned the credibility that came with his reputation for toughness on the gridiron.

     Cooke, ofter referred to as the King of Soul, was already a mainstream performer and prolific song writer.  And his thirst for success mainly centered around breaking barriers once thought impossible.  Why settle for a song to debut on the R&B charts when we can have a song hit number one on the Pop charts?  His celebrity allowed him to perform at the Copacabana in New York City for who Malcolm points out in one of the film’s most heated discussions are mostly rich white people.  In much the same why Black athletes of today are pushed to use their platforms to speak about social justice, Malcolm wanted Cooke to utilize his immense talents to write songs about the Civil Rights Movement, something he had yet to do.  Of course, at the time, barriers aren’t broken when your act is comprised of referring to your audience as “white devils”.  A common refrain from the Nation of Islam then and today.

     If you watched Muhammad Ali during his fighting career, you would probably be surprised to find out he’s actually the quiet one in the room, but he’s also the youngest and the most impressionable.  King stages one of Clay’s contender fights against Henry Cooper in which his in ring antics saw him struck solidly with a left hook and barely saved by the bell when the fourth round ended.  But humble would never be a part of Clay’s shtick (the origins of his persona are revealed in the film), and we see him go on to defeat Liston rather easily, as his self appreciation quickly becomes a reality.  

     The fight sequences are important because they set the stage for an even bigger battle within the walls of the hotel room.  Some questions are answered.  Others are left another day.  But one can learn so much from simply listening to what these guys are saying.  At times, the speeches are mesmerizing, as all four actors capture the screen in much the same way the people they are portraying once did themselves.  Something that shouldn’t be surprising given King’s ability to act at the highest level.  The “If Beale Street Could Talk” Oscar winner has masterfully directed her cast to do the same.  GRADE: A

“Promising Young Woman” Movie Review


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     Not since the likes of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” have we seen a feature directing debut as impactful and attention grabbing as Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman”.  Not that the “Pulp Fiction” director’s initial offering shares anything in common with Fennell’s, though there are notable similarities with “Kill Bill”, but everything from the visuals to the story and performances indicate a rare talent whose cinematic future is certain to be on the upswing.  “Promising Young Woman” ups the ante on the traditional female revenge thriller and dares to defy the common tropes within the genre as the lead character, fueled by a stunning performance courtesy of Carey Mulligan, systematically breaks down the barriers between a group of affluent wrongdoers and the street justice they clearly deserve.

     An opening sequence features a trio of young men discussing their skewed views of woman as they laugh and grunt through what appears to be a trip to the bar after work.  Fennell includes a montage of many of these guys gyrating on the bar’s dance floor, focusing on the oversized girth of their midsections as they plot the next move in their never ending quest of actually having a woman pay attention to them.  This particularly cocky group, comprised of Jerry (Adam Brody), Jim (Ray Nicholson), and Paul (Sam Richardson), are eying a lone woman sitting on a couch in the back of the main room.  She can barely keep her head up and seems to be on the verge of passing out.  As is the case in many of these situations, Jerry decides to go over and see if she’s “ok”, as his buddies look on knowing full well of his nefarious intentions.

     An Uber ride that is said to be a chivalrous good deed, quickly morphs into a change of destination, as Jerry has the driver go to his apartment instead.  The woman, Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), seems to be oblivious, though the driver appears more concerned of the growing possibility she may throw up in the car than anything else.  We then cut to Jerry’s apartment where he’s pouring drinks, a large one for her - a small one for him, as he begins to set the table for his next move.  As he kisses her, we can see the encounter is completely one sided.  There’s no movement or energy coming from Cassandra.  She’s completely emotionless.  Still suffering from the apparent effects of severe alcohol intoxication.

     They move to the bedroom at Cassandra’s request to lay down.  Jerry sees this as an opportunity to strike and continues his onslaught of sexual maneuvering as he works his way down to her skirt.  But suddenly, he hears her voice.  “What are you doing Jerry?”  He looks up from his position between her legs.  “I said, what are you doing?”.  In horror, Jerry realizes Cassandra is sober, completely focused, and now really pissed off.  The next scene sees Cassandra adding Jerry to an ongoing list of men she has presumably duped into thinking she was their next drunken victim to take advantage of, though we never see what actually transpires after her reveal.  What does she do to these men once they realize they’ve been had?

     Cassandra has just turned 30 years old.  She stills lives with her parents, who comically give her luggage for her birthday so as to maybe give a hint that it’s time to move out on her own.  We learn some years ago she dropped out of medical school and now works at a coffee shop, delivering the kind of work performance that would typically see her unemployed if not for her boss and friend, Gail (Laverne Cox).  It’s a seemingly empty and misguided existence for someone who is, shall we say, “Promising”.  But don’t mistake her outward malaise as a person who lacks a plan.

     “Promising Young Woman” follows Cassandra as she plots to teach a lesson to those involved in the cover up of an incident that happened to a close friend while in college.  A story no doubt inspired, in part, by the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings in 2018 which brought forth accusations of a drunken high school aged romp that included alleged sexual misconduct with Christine Blasey Ford.  Fennell delineates these  encounters with a roman numeral on screen as to chronicle the importance of each person’s culpability that will ultimately lead to the perpetrator himself. 

  A slimy attorney, a crooked college dean, and enabling friends all make the list, as Cassandra’s approach to each them is so well thought out, you won’t be able to predict any of the outcomes.  No, this isn’t some horror film gore fest.  Fennell respects this character too much to have her concoct some low brow scheme that includes torture or murder.  Instead, Cassandra remains smart and poised throughout, even when in the face of reliving the trauma of her past and the intense survivor’s guilt that occupies her mind each and every day.

     With Carey Mulligan delivering the best performance of her career, Fennell ensures she is surrounded by a long list of notable character acting talents, who even in small cameo appearances help bring life to the story.  Whether it’s Jennifer Coolidge playing against type as Cassendra’s concerned mother, Susan, or Christopher Mintz-Plasse showing up as a coked out nerdy sexual predator who finds himself on the wrong page of Cassandra’s lengthy list, the performances support the story in a way that invigorates practically every frame.  

     Even Cassandra’s would be love interest, Neil (Bo Burnham), a pediatric surgeon of whom she went to medical school with, ropes us in as exactly the kind of person who can pull Cassandra out of the nightmarish abyss of which she lives.  The real question is whether his appeal for a normal life will be enough to derail her all consuming quest to expose the sordid truth behind a group of people who will do anything to ensure it remains in the past. GRADE: A

“Pieces of a Woman” Movie Review


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     In the opening sequence of director Kornel Mundruczo’s “Pieces of a Woman”, what should have been a special moment quickly devolves into an unthinkable tragedy.  A young couple, who have chosen to have their child delivered by a mid wife, experience the elation of seeing their new born for the first time, only to helplessly watch as the baby dies minutes later.  It’s one of those cinematically gut wrenching scenes that bring forth a strong indication of what’s to come.  None of which will be positive.

     Working from a script with his frequent collaborator, Kata Weber, Mundruczo presents this opening scene utilizing the now common technique of creating the illusion of one take, as his camera follows Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and her partner, Sean (Shia LaBeouf) during the late stages of labor and the decision to call their mid wife.  Even the news the person they had been working with during the entire pregnancy is currently unavailable doesn’t change the fact the baby is coming and the replacement, a well mannered and extremely empathetic Eva (Molly Parker), appears ready to fill in and provide the kind of care and professionalism one would expect.  

     But something seems off.  While an initial portable ultrasound indicates the baby’s heartbeat is normal, later readings indicate to Eva the baby may be in distress.  At the height of the actual delivery where she has Martha move into different birthing positions, Eva tells Sean to call an ambulance when it becomes clear emergency care may become necessary.  Tension continues to build, but both Martha and Sean stay focused.  The concern on Eva’s face becomes evident as she implores Martha to push.  Almost suddenly, the baby is born.  The familiar cry is heard, bringing an instant calm to a situation we are meant to believe was heading in the wrong direction.  Martha holds the newest member of their family as Sean, obviously relieved, looks over her shoulder, as the two share the kind of emotion that can only happen when two parents see their new born for the first time.

     Sadly, this positive moment quickly becomes a nightmarish scenario when Eva alerts Martha that the baby is turning blue.  The worst possible outcome has now happened as the screen goes to black and we are presented with the film’s title some thirty minutes into it.  What ensues for the rest of the film melds together aspects of two recent Oscar hopefuls, “Marriage Story” (2019) and “Manchester by the Sea” (2016).  Stories which explored the terrible grief experienced after the kind of traumatic events in our lives that tend to not only change us, but completely reshape who we are.

     As Martha, Kirby allows us to examine the inner depths of her soul.  This is more an exercise in acting out the emotions involved after experiencing such a tragedy than it is an actual story.  Weber’s script calls for scenes that are spread apart over a period of about a year after Martha and Sean lose their child, looking in during various happenings that clearly will have an impact later.  There’s Martha’s mother, Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn), who looks to take advantage of the situation by driving a wedge between her daughter and Sean of whom we learn she never really approved of in a classic “no one will ever be good enough for my daughter” thought process.  She also appears intent on utilizing her niece, Suzanne (Sarah Snook), who happens to be a local prosecutor, as a pathway to ensure Eva is charged and convicted for her negligent actions as the couple’s mid wife

     In watching all of this unfold, there is a feeling that no family, regardless of their strength and unity, could possibly survive this kind of loss.  You naturally feel for all involved, particularly for Martha as she struggles in returning to some sense of normalcy.  A task not helped by her rubbernecking co-workers or her medaling mother.  As for Sean, he seems caught in the middle, while now coping with a relationship devoid of any kind of intimacy or communication with the woman he loves.  One of the characters eventually tells them “time heals all wounds”, but with the people in play here, one would have to seriously doubt this will be the case.  And with Sean’s long time sobriety now in question, yet another obstacle has appeared in this family’s quest to heal.

     It’s amazing how much LaBeouf has matured over the years, allowing him to now play these types of roles and do so at a level that has to be considered awards worthy.  In a film about losing a child, it’s easy for the focus to remain on the mother and “Pieces of a Woman” is no exception.  But along with Martha’s journey toward some semblance of coping, we also feel Sean’s frustration as a man who believed his life was finally heading in a positive direction after what we presume was a turmoil filled younger life.  He longs for acceptance, and knows Martha’s mother believes her daughter is entitled to someone more on her financial level.  It’s tough situation to be in and LaBeouf deserves a nod for ensuring the character remains relevant throughout when the majority of scenes are meant to explore Martha’s feelings as the people around her cave to other interests.

     Expect many accoclades for the performances by Kirby, LaBeouf, and Burstyn, who practically steals every scene she is in, toeing the line between supportive mother and overbearing matriarch.  All while the story excels in providing a poignant and important look into the mind of a mother whose excruciating loss leads to an unavoidable downward spiral where recovery can only be achieved one day at a time.  GRADE: B+

“The Midnight Sky” Movie Review


     George Clooney returns to both the director’s chair and the screen in “The Midnight Sky”, a brooding post-apocalyptic story chronicling what appears to be the aftermath of an Earth altering disaster that has forced the entire human race to flee.  Although we are never really filled in on the details.  Early on, we are told a manned mission to a moon orbiting Jupiter left some years ago to determine if scientists are indeed correct that they have found a place within our solar system habitable for human life.  It’s unclear why in the year 2049 we would’ve been planning on moving, but what is clear, based on the circumstances, is whatever we thought was going to happen most certainly has.

     Augustine (George Clooney) is the lone remaining crew member of a high tech observatory somewhere in the Arctic.  An initial scene sees the rest of the people who worked and presumably lived there, leaving in helicopters and attempting to compel him to abandon the station as well.  He refuses and we soon learn why.  Two reasons really.  Augustine is sick and we are meant to believe he doesn’t have a lot of time.  There is also the issue of the aforementioned mission to Jupiter, which is now on its way back to Earth, but is unaware of what has happened.

     As a director, Clooney employs a series of atmospheric shots and exceptional design elements in order to give the audience a clear understanding of his immediate surroundings, but also the ongoing feeling of loneliness and isolation.  He’s clearly driven in his purpose.  A brilliant man and scientist who is at least partially responsible for the discoveries beyond our planet.  But time is not a luxury he enjoys, as both his health and approaching radiation from the catastrophe means he must make contact with the crew on the approaching ship, the Ether, and implore them to avoid Earth.

     In doing so, Augustine finds a stow away in the form of a little girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall), who doesn’t speak and apparently was left behind.  We spend time with them as Augustine attempts to find out more about her, as he now has a new responsibility in addition to his own arduous maintenance and the central task at hand.  Mark L. Smith, one of the screenwriters for the Oscar winning film “The Revanant”, adapts Lily Brooks-Dalton’s source novel and not surprisingly crafts a survival story where the harsh weather and dangerous surroundings add tension to an already harrowing scenario for Augustine and Iris.  Meanwhile, the Ether barrels forward while dealing with issues of their own.

     Perhaps taking a cue from his work with director Alfonso Cuaron in 2013’s “Gravity”, Clooney depicts the dangers of space travel with a similar intensity.  Never mind what the crew may encounter once they arrive to their home planet, the pitfalls of cruising through space are aplenty and the fact they have now lost contact with Earth means an even more determined focus in order to find out why.  Led by Adewole (David Oyelowo), and accompanied by a crew of various scientists and engineers including Sully (Felicity Jones), Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), Sanchez (Damian Bichir), and Maya (Tiffany Boone), they seem to operate efficiently when considering the size of the ship.  And yet a small crew can quickly become a burden if something were to go wrong, which of course is a given.

     Initially, Augustine is successful in contacting the Ether crew, but the signal is somewhat akin to an extremely bad cell connection, leaving much of the communication unintelligible.  A matter made worse when a shower of space junk engulfs the ship and destroys their radar and communications array.  Recontacting Augustine becomes the obvious priority, meaning half of the crew must go outside and attempt to fix and replace the damaged equipment.  And this is where Clooney really excels in creating a truly white knuckle sequence that reintroduces the dangerous complexities of working in such an unpredictable environment.  It seems nothing ever comes easy.

     I think one of the most frustrating aspects audiences will point out about “The Midnight Sky” is how disjointed the narrative ends up becoming.  It’s as if we have two completely different stories that are being told with only a faint radio transmission connecting them.  Sure, there are plenty of other revelations late in the third act, but for the majority of the film, we have a long stretch with Augustine and Iris, only to leave them for an extended sequence with the crew of the Ether where it becomes easy to forget what it was Augustine had to do with all of this in the first place.  One could easily see two separate films here.  The more compelling of course being the desperation of the Ether crew to get home to their families, all the while not knowing they may no longer exist due to an unknown event on Earth.  Even a deep dive character study into a scientist’s mission to somehow determine if it is possible to save the Earth from certain doom while isolated in the Arctic would’ve made for an interesting ninety or so minutes if a payoff arrived at the end.

     Instead, neither story gives us what we think we want.  Answers.  Or maybe some semblance of closure.  But the ambiguity actually plays in the film’s favor, particularly when several of the plot threads come together late in the story.  Often times, we don’t know what we’re dealing with and it would be arrogant of anyone to believe one person could figure it out as if life always needs to be a series of happy endings.  We are never told what actually happened, but when the sight of Earth is finally seen by the crew of the Ether, it is abundantly clear turning around is the best option.  Which brings forth an obvious thought.  Maybe if the Jupiter moon ends up working out, the humans who go there won’t find a way to ruin that planet too.  GRADE: B-

“Wonder Woman 1984” Movie Review


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     Be careful what you wish for.  That seems to be the ongoing theme in director Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman 1984”, the sequel to the 2017 original, “Wonder Woman”, that provided the character’s origin story and set the stage for appearances in Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) as well as 2017’s “Justice League”.  Of course with the action in “Wonder Woman” taking place during World War 1, there remains plenty of time to explore the life and times of Diana Prince, which brings us to the events of “1984” where she now works at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. while moonlighting as a low level crime fighting superhero as needed.

     Gal Gadot returns in the title role, with Jenkins serving as both director and screenwriter alongside scribes Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham.  And it is that script which presents some of the most notable problems with the film.  Doing so in ways that not even Gadot can save with her undeniably charismatic screen presence.  Sure, Gadot has the advantage many of the Marvel actors enjoyed in that the character had never been portrayed on the big screen prior to her version, but she clearly has created a winning persona that is easy to root for and blends well with her DC counterparts.  But this outing seems trite and unnecessary.  Bloated and too over the top.  There’s plenty of spectacle, but too many long and clunky storylines that don’t seem to go anywhere.  And the third act is clearly nothing more than superhero film boiler plate with its forced CGI dominated showdown that leaves the audience bored and unsatisfied.

     The opening sequence, backed by Hans Zimmer’s rousing score, features a pre teen Diana back in her home of Themyscira and taking on significantly older competitors in a sort of obstacle course meant to test a series of skills one could only have if bestowed by the Gods themselves.  It’s a thrilling opening stanza that brings a greater understanding of Diana’s powers and abilities and how they were honed at such a young age.  There’s even a lesson learned, courtesy of Robin Wright’s Antiope, who teaches the young hero the importance of earning a victory without cutting corners.  It’s everything you’d want in a flashback taking place within the beauty of her Amazon upbringing.  But then the scene shifts.  And suddenly, we’re in a mall?

     As the title indicates, Jenkins and her collaborators have set the story in the mid 1980s, meaning a hefty helping of the now tired 80s nostalgia trope that seems to have populated everything these days from “Stranger Things” to “It”, while generally giving us the exact same thing.  To be fair, I lived it, having grown up in the era.  But the way it is presented here is nothing more than window dressing.  The aforementioned “Stranger Things” allows the characters to live within the spaces and lifestyle that defined the time.  “Wonder Woman 1984” doesn’t seem to have the patience for the characters to develop within these surroundings, instead opting for silly montages where characters try on everything from parachute pants to “Miami Vice” inspired leisure suits all in the name of a cheap laugh.  It’s as if the story intends to make a joke about 80s pop culture, even though these characters are living in the time.  It just doesn’t make sense.

     And that goes double for the convoluted plot that ensues.  As is commonplace within the comic book and superhero movie realm these days, an ancient and powerful artifact serves as the McGuffin.  This time the characters seek a mysterious relic called the Wishing Stone, which is said to grant its holder any one wish they desire.  I’m sure you can imagine the problems such a power would cause in the wrong hands, and that’s the main driver of the action as we meet two villains from Wonder Woman comic book lore, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) and Barbara Minerva - aka Cheetah (Kristen Wiig).

     Pascal hams it up like we’ve never seen him as Lord, a wannabe oil tycoon who sees his company in dire financial straights and is willing to do anything to be successful.  Wiig is serviceable as Barbara, a colleague of Diana’s at the museum who longs to be noticed amongst her peers and looks to perform better within her immediate social circles. It wouldn’t be too difficult to guess what both of these not really formidable villains would do if they got their hands on the Wishing Stone.  And given that Lord and Barbara are granted their respective wishes, we begin to get a general idea of where all of this is going.

     Of course a snag appears when Diana herself makes a wish, bringing back her long lost love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), albeit in someone else’s body.  Creepy.  He ends up becoming the victim of the aforementioned 80s style fashion show, as his cool and confident character from the first film devolves into your standard fish out of water buffoon who really has no place in the story.  And yet he accompanies Diana, who regularly transforms into Wonder Woman as needed, on a globe trotting quest to find Ward and the stone in order to stop him from creating irreparable havoc throughout the world.

     And this one really is all over the place, clearly taking its cues from Richard Donner’s 1978 “Superman” with a pointless action sequence in a triple decker mall where Wonder Woman not so efficiently apprehends a trio of petty thieves.  Not exactly the work a goddess needs to be involved in.  There are also obvious call backs, particularly in tone and visuals, which indicate the filmmakers were clearly going for a feel good tone, even as the bad guys continue to cause chaos and mayhem that could potentially end the world.  “Superman” was a tonal masterpiece.  And while “WW84” attempts to utilize many of the same story beats, the overall product comes through just a bit too messy and overdone.  And the constant lulls in action are too difficult to overcome, given the action set pieces are all inferior to both the 2017 film, as well as the action in her various team ups.

     At times, “Wonder Woman 1984” serves as a visually stunning piece of popcorn entertainment, and no doubt many will be perfectly fine sitting through 151 minutes of mind numbing eye candy.  But with the bar set so high by their cross town rivals, DC simply can’t absorb these misfires any longer.  There are now standards for this type of fare, and discriminating tastes won’t give a film a free pass after botching one of our most beloved comic book characters.  A notion that almost certainly will ensure “Wonder Woman 1984” will be dismissed and forgotten along with the rest of 2020.  GRADE: C-