“Montana Story”

June 2nd, 2022 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Montana Story””

Summertime usually means big blockbuster popcorn or super hero movies. Rarely do you get a meaningfully deep film that visually and emotionally pulls you into it. But this summer we are in luck as The Paramount is showing“Montana Story” starring Owen Teague as Cal and Haley Lu Richardson as Erin, half-siblings, who must confront their past actions, guilt, and relationship with their dying father. Set in the remote, desolate, yet breathtakingly beautiful mountains of the Big Sky state, Richardson and Teague create an authentic story of life’s difficulties and its consequences.

The writing team of Scott McGehee, David Siegel, and Mike Spreter drop the viewer into the story as Cal (Teague) arrives to say his farewells to his father, now on a ventilator attended by a hospice worker, Ace (Gilber Owuor). The tension Cal feels toward his father is palpable as well as his obligatory presence. We aren’t privy to what happened to this father or his backstory until much later in the film as the writers reveal only bits and pieces, hooking you to understand why Cal is estranged from his own father. The pace of the film picks up as soon as Erin (Richardson) storms into the picture. Her anger and discomfort of being in this situation, conflicted about even showing up, sets you on edge and we have to find out more. Who is Erin? What happened? What did Cal do? What happened to the father?

Without giving too much away, as this is an integrated approach to watching a film as we are a fly on the wall figuring out how all the dialogue and actions fit together to complete the puzzle, Erin and Cal battle over what is happening to their family home and its contents, now in bankruptcy; more specifically, the beloved old horse named Mr. T. Cal, set to euthanize him, finds that Erin will do anything to save this horse including buying a truck and trailer and hauling him to her new home across the country. Saving this horse is the vehicle by which the two confront their past, their demons, and ultimately pave a new path for their futures.

Gorgeously shot, “Montana Story” transports you into this story as we get to know Erin and Cal. The road map by which the writers tell this story delicately twists and turns, but always stays on the right path to propel it forward. We hear the wind whipping through the mountains and across the desolate fields speckled with boulders and we can almost feel the chill in the air it creates. Equally visceral are Richardson and Teague’s performances. Once we understand their characters’ relationship and discover a pivotal event, it connects us to each of them more deeply. All of this together allows an honest and raw portrayal of trauma, healing, and resiliency.

The small ensemble cast is stellar in supporting these characters, gently touching upon the way of life in the West. Kimberly Guerrero as Valentina, the family’s caretaker, subtly represents the difficult financial aspects while her son Joey (Asivak Koostachin) reminds us of what it means to feel a part of a place. It is Owuor’s performance, however, that stands out as he is the touchstone for Cal and Erin to see their past and confront it.

“Montana Story” is a gem of an independent film that will envelop you, pulling you into the story and making you a part of it. Seeing it on the big screen will make it an experience you won’t soon forget.

4 Stars

“Top Gun: Maverick”

May 25th, 2022 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Top Gun: Maverick””

36 years. That’s how long it’s been since the first “Top Gun” movie starring Tom Cruise; the film that is still quoted, referenced, and catapulted the young heartthrob to ever-lasting stardom. The sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick” picks up decades after the tragic ending of the original. Maverick (Cruise), the nickname defining him, continues to buck the system and all who regulate it as the first scene shows the veteran pilot taking a plane to unprecedented speeds, Mach 10 (plus) against orders. This lands him not in trouble—thanks to Ice (Val Kilmer)— but back at the Top Gun training facility in charge of 10 new green-pilots who must complete a death-defying mission to save the world from eminent nuclear threat.

Maverick’s unorthodox training methods allow him to earn the trust of his new students…all but one: Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, Goose’s son. There’s a beef between the two of them, something more than the fact that Rooster’s father perished in a tragic accident that perhaps was Maverick’s fault. This will become an integral storyline later in the film, driving the relationship between the two men to a crossroads.

This story predominantly highlights the skill of naval pilots, one which leaves you breathless and in awe. Beneath the surface, however, there are several relationships which mirror the original film almost exactly. There’s a love story with Penny (Jennifer Connelly) with a backstory, and an antagonistic one between Rooster and Hangman (Glen Powell). And “Top Gun” wouldn’t be complete without the taskmaster who doesn’t believe in Maverick now played by Jon Hamm as Adm. Beau Cyclone Simpson.

These relationships, while not the entire focus of the film, are what hook you, but the flying is what keeps you on the edge of your seat. Knowing that this is not a special effect or a green screen elevates your admiration to stratospheric levels. And the reactions of the pilots are actual reactions to pulling G’s makes your own heart rate skyrocket and sink to your stomach all at the same time. It’s cinematically stunning to have captured all of this as it stitches together the story of a final mission racing against the clock and enemy attack.

Cruise’s confidence pours over the film as he speeds in any vehicle he’s given. He is meant for this role and to reprise Maverick in this sequel. The supporting cast of pilots is balanced even with Hangman’s one-dimensional character. His non-stop cocky smirk grates on your nerves, knowing that that’s exactly what the director (Joseph Kosinski) wants you to feel. Teller, on the other hand, seems a bit awkward in this role as he flounders to find the right tone. And I question the use of the mustache to tie him to his dear old dad…was that really necessary? It makes him look like a character out of the ’70’s or worse. However, Connelly and Cruise give us an authentic relationship that is sweet and sincere particularly as Connelly’s character teaches this naval pilot how to sail the rough waters. Additionally, having Kilmer make an appearance is priceless.

“Maverick” exceeds expectations and takes the “Top Gun” franchise to a new level with a similar (and dare I say exact replication) of the first one, but the relationships and interactions create a better one. This is NOT to be seen at home! The cinematography that captures the intricacies, dangers, and precision of flying are meant to be seen on the big screen.

3 Stars

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is as flat as a pancake

May 3rd, 2022 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is as flat as a pancake”

For the record, I don’t hate super hero movies. I actually like several of them and, believe it or not, I have rewatched quite a few as well! What I do whole-heartedly dislike is a film without substance and story and from my perspective, most of the DC and Marvel movies fall into that column including our latest installation of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” (We will refer to it as “Madness” from this point on to save typing time as I already wasted so much in the theater watching this.)

“Madness” catapults us immediately into a chase/fight scene to introduce us to Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a young girl who we later learn is America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). The two battle a demon that may be the end of them both, desiring to harness America’s special gifts. Awakened to learn it was only a nightmare, Strange goes about his day, which of course, quickly devolves into battling (you guessed it) another demon. He also sees and saves young America only to learn that she can hop through different multiverses where alternate Dr. Stranges exist as do every other character. Searching for the root of all this evil, Strange and America, accompanied by variations of Wong (Benedict Wong), Christine (Rachel McAdams), and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), begin the onslaught of special effect battle scenes against Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen).

Here’s what’s cool about this film: the special effects. The various multiverses are so imaginative and creative that you look forward to this new dynamic duo jumping through the magic space to free fall into the next universe. Great attention to detail makes these lands of make believe (Sorry Mr. Rogers), feel vibrantly real. And the “magic” takes on a whole new realm as Strange crosses into forbidden areas in order to save not just the world from Wanda and her deep-seated desire to live happily ever after with her make believe children, but all the multiverses.

The story itself has interesting perspectives about a being’s alternate self and how Strange looks at the world through his eyes and his alternative selves. That love story that slowly burns just below the surface as we witness the various iterations of the couple of Strange and Christine is there, but just never explored to any meaningful depth. But to its credit, “Madness” incorporates more diversity which is a promising trend.

And here’s where the movie falls apart: story and substance. The characters are all one dimensional, especially Strange. This character who showed up in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” delighting and entertaining all who watched, was no where to be seen in “Madness.” The “comedy” falls flat every time, but what was most disappointing is the role of America Chavez who is given nothing more to do than run and look scared. The entire film is flatter than a pancake and as flavorless as one without butter and maple syrup.

Of course, comic book fans will love the appearance of beloved and thought-to-be-lost characters, but for those of us not invested in DC or Marvel, it lacks impact. As a movie with entertainment value, director Sam Raimi delivers a sophomoric attempt at bringing comic books to life. Not even Olsen’s dual personality can elevate this never-ending story that never takes off.

If you love explosions, special effects, and these characters, “Madness” will be up your alley, but if you’re looking for a story filled with meaning or even just entertainment, skip this one.

1 1/2 stars

“The Survivor”

April 28th, 2022 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Survivor””

“The Survivor,” directed by Barry Levinson and starring the incomparable Ben Foster, depicts the true life story of Polish-born Auschwitz survivor Harry Haft as he fights his biggest opponent, his memories, while he searches for his lost love. It’s a haunting tale of humanity and survival and the price of both.

The opening scene is a gut punch as we watch a young couple, happy and in love, living life on the brink of war just prior to the Nazi invasion of Poland. As the two are separated, we follow Harry’s life both in his present post-World War II days and flashbacks to his past. Recollecting how he survived 6 months at this death camp to a reporter, Emory Anderson (Peter Sarsgaard), and being privy to Harry’s memories that infiltrate his day, we better understand the atrocities he endured, and the choices he made forcing him to chose between death and survival. And while he survived, he paid and continues to pay a price particularly as “his story” is published in the newspaper.

Harry is a successful fighter, driven by rage and his longing to find Leah (Dar Zuzovsky) in the hopes that somehow she too survived the horrors of the War. His ineffective daily requests from Miriam (Vicky Krieps) at a government agency on Leah’s status push him to find an alternative way to locate Leah; fight the heavy weight legend Rocky Marciano. As Pepe (John Leguizmo) and Charlie Goldman (Danny DeVito) train Harry, his eye remains on the prize— not winning, but finding Leah.

Foster’s transformative performance brings Haft’s story to life. Ratcheting between the current times and the past, there is an unmistakable pain behind his gaze, filled with tragic power that eats away at his psyche and our hearts. While in the concentration camp and forced to fight or die, Foster’s character is emaciated but unwilling to leave this world. His endurance and will to live is unparalleled. And Foster brings that same drive and tenacity to the current day character allowing us to understand the trauma and its effects on not only his life but future generations.

Taking a piece of global history to depict the inhumane treatment of a people while at the same time remembering that there is hope in healing, is a difficult balance to maintain. Too much in either direction and the story fails. “The Survivor” solidly and steadily walks this fine line as we connect with the character and sit on the edge of our seats wanting to know if he ever finds his love. And more importantly, can he ever forgive himself for the “choices” he made so many years ago?

This non-linear style of story-telling is key to giving us just a perfectly measured amount of information to engage us in the most empathic of ways. And with this empathy, the sights and sounds are sometimes too much, but are vital to telling this man’s story. These horrific images are burned into our minds to remind us of what people are capable of, but again, the story offers life, love, and hope.

Writer Justine Juel Gillmer known more for television series writing, creates a powerful tale brought to life by not only a talented ensemble cast, but also the keen and seasoned vision of Levinson…and we’d expect nothing less.

4 Stars

“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” A hilarious action-drama-comedy-bromance

April 20th, 2022 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” A hilarious action-drama-comedy-bromance”

Nicolas Cage: icon and movie hero, a legend who “is back” with the hilarious new film “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.” He stars as himself, but an exaggerated (maybe?) version who has money issues, family troubles, and a consuming desire to work, work, work. Dejected from a role rejection and now, in an effort to pay off a $600k hotel bill — his home after divorcing his wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan)—his agent, Richard (Neil Patrick Harris) gets him a birthday party gig which pays $1M. Reluctantly accepting, Nick flies to Mallorca, Spain, meeting his birthday boy, Javi (Pedro Pascal) whose ties with the mob land him in a role he’s never played before…CIA agent who must fight for his life and his family’s.

Let me start by saying you have to be a Nicolas Cage and film fan to truly appreciate every hilariously nuanced line and situation in “Massive Talent.” But if you are, you’re in for a cinematically thrilling roller coaster ride filled with shock, laughter, and intrigue! There are so many layers — and themes to appeal to every movie goer — that it is impossible to dissect them all, but I’ll give it a try so you’re compelled to head to the ticket box and see this on the big screen.

Cage (the character) needs to work and is always looking for the next role of a lifetime even at the expense of his marriage and his relationship with his daughter, Addy (Lily Mo Sheen). As opportunities dwindle and his life seems to parallel his current career, Cage accepts a “role” in going to a millionaire’s birthday party in Spain. Javi, a screenwriter wannabe, corners Cage but not before the CIA plants a tracker on him and convinces him that Javi is one of the really bad guys responsible for a high profile kidnapping of a dictator’s daughter. Taking on this new “role” as CIA operative, he gets to know Javi as the two become screenwriting partners. Their “process” to augment their “craft” creates a hilarious journey which ultimately becomes a bromance…that is until they both come to a crossroads that will bury them or make them heroes.

“Massive Talent” is brilliantly creative in finding ways to showcase Cage’s cinematic career as well as highlight his perceived real life pitfalls. And Cage (the actor) rolls with every punch, pouring earnestly into this role to make us not only laugh, but connect with this man whose talents until recently with “Pig,” have been sorely overlooked. The role is a self-deprecating one in many ways, but Cage leans into it with ease to give us one of the funniest and highly energetic films I’ve seen since “Knives Out.”

Cage isn’t the only one who is having fun (at his own expense?). Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz pair up once again, this time as the CIA operatives who set up several of the comedic situations that both Cage and Pascal handedly utilize. And Horgan, known for her comedy, shows us that she can do an action flick as the stereotypical ex-wife of an actor whose fed up with her ex’s antics. The entire cast has fun and delivers a stellar performance and when the cast is having fun, we are, too.

Tom Gormican, the co-writer and director and relative newcomer to the writing and directing arena, is skilled beyond his years. Every line, every movement, and every interaction is impeccably delivered to give us total entertainment. And with the massive talent within this film, we ultimately have a dramatic, comedic, thrilling, bromance like no other before it.

See “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” on the big screen…put down your phones, block out life’s distractions, and be immersed in the world of Nicolas Cage for a couple of hours. It’s worth it!

3 1/2 Stars

“Dealing with Dad” finds heart and humor in this universal story of family

April 11th, 2022 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Dealing with Dad” finds heart and humor in this universal story of family”

Tom Huang’s feature film debut “Find Me” remains a favorite indie film of mine and now with his sophomore film “Dealing with Dad,” Huang polishes his edges, refines his themes and brings us yet another universal story—dealing with an aging parent who is depressed.

Margaret Chang (Ally Maki) is a smart, savvy, assertive working mom who is estranged from her parents. Learning that her father isn’t doing well, Margaret coordinates efforts to help with her brother Roy (Peter Kim) and younger brother Larry (Hayden Szeto) who still lives at home. This good-hearted deed will not go unpunished as we see this Asian-American family’s dysfunction get in the way.

“Dealing with Dad” is one of those films that has characters we can all relate to—the penny pinching mom who brushes everything rug, the brutally honest aunt, a brother who just can’t grow up, and another who wallows in self pity (and donuts). And then, of course, there’s the daughter, Margaret, who is the epitome of a woman who is still struggling with unresolved issues with her father as well as herself. With humor and love, we see Margaret find her way in life but not without several bumps in the road, many of which make us laugh, and all of which endear us to her.

Huang has a signature style of filmmaking as he finds a way to bring personal issues into a story with humorous and poignancy. Creating a family whose children are first generation Americans brings its own dynamic to the group. Huang then embeds in this tale how difficult it is to not only grow up and see our parents and our siblings for who they have become, but to also see our parents for who they used to be…the people who had lives and adventures long before you knew them as Mom and Dad; the people who sacrificed their hopes and dreams when they did earn that title and name that would stay with them forever; the people that aren’t perfect. But when you can see them from a new perspective, you also see yourself differently and that is what Huang shows us with “Dealing with Dad.”

To create what feels like a simple story but what is actually a rather complicated one complete with layers of humor takes just the right cast and Huang has found them. Maki shines in her role. We love her from the first scene as she takes charge in her son’s classroom parent meeting. She creates a fractured character who eventually binds all the pieces together as she juggles financial issues, a husband her family doesn’t respect, and the inherent racism of her parents toward their own grandson. There are heartbreaking moments, resentment, and yearnings for a different relationship with her family members and Maki finds the empathic ability to create a realistic Margaret.

Both Peter Kim (Roy) and Hayden Szeto (Larry) add the elements of humor in this family dynamic. Kim’s forlorn reactions to his wife’s divorce papers and how he reacts to his mother’s blind date for him is priceless. And Szeto fills the screen with his personality to give us more than comedy; he gives us someone we know. Page Leong takes on the role of the Mom with incredible ease as she utters dialogue in not-so-perfect English that will make your jaw drop. While you’re picking it up, she’s already on to her next line, completely unaffected by what she just said. She brings a level of credibility to her role that connects all of “the kids” to create that family.

Of course, “Dealing with Dad” has to have the perfect Dad and it does with Dana Lee as the depressed and difficult father. Huang adds a level of depth to this character as we see Dad in flashbacks as he interacts with his daughter. We also discover cultural differences and expectations when it comes to girls and to being the oldest.

Huang’s “Dealing with Dad” just may allow you to see yourself or your family just a little differently while it entertains and makes you laugh. Relationships are difficult and families can be crazy, but seeing the Chang family work through their issues may help open the doors of communication for yours.

“Dealing with Dad” will be the closing night film for the Asian American Showcase with Huang in attendance. To purchase your tickets, go to Siskel Film Center

3 1/2 stars

“Ambulance” crashes and burns

April 6th, 2022 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Ambulance” crashes and burns”

“Ambulance,” the new Michael Bay film (that should be a clue right there as to whether or not you want to waste your money on this one) stars Jake Gyllenhaal (Danny Sharp) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Will Sharp) as two estranged brothers, reunited to complete a bank heist. It’s a dizzying (think carsick) foray filled with never-ending car chase scenes, incompetent police officers, medical inaccuracies that even a child would notice, and, of course, Bay’s signature style of constant explosions. By the end, with your head between your knees to hold back the natural reaction, it’s a race to the exit as you try to recapture your lost 2 hours and 11 minutes … to no avail.

“Ambulance” starts off strong with two paramedics, fledgling Scott (Colin Woodell) and seasoned and hardened Cam (Eiza Gonzalez), saving a young girl in a car accident. This scene, using quick edits and unique camera angles, takes you into the action. It’s a critical situation and we feel the importance of every moment as the jaws of life come out to pull the innocent and brave victim from the clutches of death, then raced to the hospital in the hopes that she will live. We learn early on that Cam is the best in her profession but she’s got more armor than a medieval knight during a joust, protecting her from any and all emotion. These facts, of course, will come into play as she is taken hostage after Will and Danny, the only two survivors after their bank heist goes sour, and she attempts to save a shot police officer in critical condition on the gurney.

We also get a glimpse into Will’s life which targets a common theme in films right now; how our discharged military men are discarded with no support as he and his wife fight for basic healthcare to save her life. It’s a touching part of the film, that is drown out by all the ineptness of each and every situation to follow.

As strong as the film starts, it quickly plummets into the abyss of nothingness creating a repetitive action film showcasing how Bay can put on an explosion show with car chases and accidents all with a nauseating hand-held camera. If only there was one iota of common sense woven into the film. If only the studio could have hired a real police officer and doctor to offer some suggestions…I’m sure the budget was too tight after spending money on explosive devices.

This is Gyllenhaal’s second recent foreign flick remake. The first most recently was “Guilty” and while the American version of this film was good, it couldn’t touch the Danish version. My guess is that “Ambulancen,” also a Danish film, was heads and shoulders above Bay’s remake of it as well.

Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen II (“The Trial of the Chicago 7” “Candyman”) somehow find a way to create intense characters amidst the chaos and mess of a threadbare story. However, thanks to the writing, Danny’s background feels disingenuous, but the cool anger Gyllenhaal gives him is real. Abdul-Mateen’s sensitivity, natural pauses, and gaze connects us to this man barely holding it together. Unfortunately, Bay discards Abdul-Mateen’s skill as he’s lost in his own world that has nothing to do with storytelling. Gonzalez, throughout this rough ride remains beautiful and determined as the heroine who won’t leave her patient behind, although she does try a couple of times.

Bay has taken a bank heist story with relevant underlying issues about healthcare and our government’s treatment of our service men and blows it out of the water as we all drown in a sea of ridiculousness. What could have been a thrilling and entertaining story became just another, well, Michael Bay film.

1 Star

“Julia” is simply delightful

March 31st, 2022 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Julia” is simply delightful”

The female icons who paved the paths for all to follow a smoother, less barricaded one seem to be back in the spotlight again, decades after their rise to fame. Lucille Ball is on the airways and the topic of both fictionalized and documentary films and we see Julia Child’s name rising once again as well. The topic of Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s 2021 documentary brought us into Mrs. Child’s life from infancy to her final days on the WGBH public television set “The French Chef”, cooking up a proverbial storm. And now, HBO Max and Daniel Goldfarb bring us the fictionalized version of the French Master Chef in “Julia” with the first of 3 episodes available to stream now.

If you know nothing about this culinary creator other than an SNL spoof, that’s ok. And if you’re not into cooking, that’s ok, too because this is a story about a woman who had the audacity to become one of the most renowned television stars in her 50’s. Not unlike Lucille Ball who had very little success as a star until she was in her 40’s, Julia Child’s passion for teaching, creating, sharing and entertaining could not be quelled. We find out about the bold, vibrant, and even spicy personality behind the apron as Julia pushes the gender and age boundaries of the 1960’s.

Goldfarb doesn’t attempt to have too many ingredients in his recipe for this series’ success, adding just the right amount of flavor to each of his characters. The first three episodes introduce us to Julia (Sarah Lancashire), her hubby Paul (David Hyde Pierce), sister-in-law Avis (Bebe Neuwirth), and her two producers Russ (Fran Kranz) and Alice (Brittany Bradford), all who in subsequent episodes have their own stories to tell. (And “Lilith” and “Niles” still have that chemistry we loved in “Frasier” so many years ago.) These ancillary stories never overshadow Julia’s tale, but lift it and shed light on the times at hand.

Goldfarb only tackles the portion of Julia’s life as it relates to her public television show, the first of now a myriad number of cooking shows on the air. Logistical issues are tantamount, many of which Julia and her team’s innovative thinking created new ways of filming that are still used today. Again, it’s quite similar to the Lucy and Desi story of broadcasting hurdles and solutions. And “Julia” is at its heart, a love story…a love of her husband, life, friends, family and the treasure of French food.

Lancashire is simply brilliant in the role of Julia as she becomes this legendary television host. Giving life and light to Julia, we feel we get to know her, who she really is and what makes her tick. Her passion for life and love and, of course, food, connect us with her. As she cooks and tastes her way through life, we experience her every culinary adventure almost motivating us to try a coque au vin which I will forever pronounce quite differently in my mind from now on. And she’s funny! Her quips and raucous laughter is infectious making our appetite for more insatiable.

The entire ensemble cast illuminates the story of Julia bringing us back in time to experience life in a different way. The story finds love, laughter, and drama in the perfect amount to deliver a series that satisfies your palate. “Julia” is also full of surprises even if you’ve seen the documentary. It’s like biting into a chocolate dessert only to be surprised by a zip of heat from a chili pepper…it’s simply delightful!

Live, laugh, and love with “Julia,” now streaming on HBO Max.

4 Stars

“The Contractor” can’t find its target

March 30th, 2022 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Contractor” can’t find its target”

“The Contractor” has an all-star cast which, lucky for writer J.P. Davis and director Tarik Saleh, elevates the familiar and predictable story with a few poignant messages interwoven into this thinning veil of a story. Chris Pine stars as James Harper, a dishonorably discharged Special Forces officer who, when struggling to make ends meet and provide for his wife and son, joins forces with fellow former officer Mike (Ben Foster). Connections are everything and Mike’s confidant and employer Rusty (Kiefer Sutherland), also ex-military, who could use a skilled militia man like Harper to execute his next directive. This mission, going blindly and following orders as a soldier is trained to do, pushes Harper to his limits as he awakens to the realities that lie just below the surface.

Harper’s discharge from the military is shrouded in a cloud of uncertainties. Unable to verbally defend himself, he is left to tell his wife he no longer can provide for them as they slowly drown in a sea of debt. Rusty promises to make all this stress go away with the completion of one mission in Berlin. Mike and Harper along with countless masked and unnamed men and women coordinate the plan but of course, everything goes awry. Mike is injured and Harper is left on his own where he finds he can trust no one.

“The Contractor” initially finds an elegant tone to convey some of the disservices our service men receive. Pine’s character lives to serve and when his one and only road is blockaded, he must pave his own path with no backup. Harper plunges into the depths of government espionage, secrets, and political mayhem while soldiers are pitted against one another all for the almighty dollar and power.

Unfortunately, the writer feels that a tense drama must have more gun fighting scenes than the Netflix film “Extraction.” OK, perhaps not that many, but the writer didn’t allow the material to develop as he interjected dizzying battles and chase scenes that make you forget why we are rooting for our hero.

Pine pulls off the confused and conflicted role with ease, but always edging too closely to imitating a Jack Ryan-type of character. His skills are as dizzying as the machine gun battles repeat and we see Harper dodging bullets, and swimming underwater and through sewers better than a NYC rat. Foster also brings his A game to a C level script adding depth to a character who could have easily been one-dimensional. His own family issues and the path he has taken seem almost justified as long as he keeps his head down and his brain turned off.

Finances, support, mental health, treating our returning service people with honor and teasing out who the “bad guys” really are, is at the heart of the film, but it’s overshadowed by the need to be more action than thriller with its countless battles and explosions. “The Contractor” is a predictable, formulaic story that has the bones upon which to build an interesting story, but drops the ball, lacking confidence in itself to do so.

2 stars

“Butter” melts your heart

February 25th, 2022 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Butter” melts your heart”

“Butter” is not a sequel to the 2011 Jennifer Garner film (although that one is well-worth seeing), but finds a unique story as it duplicates that title. Tackling the topic of obesity and suicide through insight and comedy, writer and director Paul A. Kaufman adapts Erin Jade Lange’s book of the same name into a movie that is funny yet poignant.

Butter (Alex Kersting) is a a teenage boy’s nickname, obtained in a bullying attack that literally will have you choking. We meet this young man, a morbidly obese yet talented jazz saxophonist, who lives his life in his room on the internet and through his music. But like any youngster, he dreams of love and a different life. In a desperate attempt to do so, he announces publicly that he plans to eat himself to death on New Year’s Eve.

As the deadline of the event draws near, Butter has somehow found the life he wanted. No longer is he invisible or worse, the brunt of all the kids’ ridicule and jeers. He now has friends. They invite him to hang out, to party, and to live. He also has befriended his love from afar, Anna (McKaley Miller) who, unbeknownst to her, is also the boy with whom she is having an anonymous on-line flirtatious conversation.

Butter narrates much of the film as it allows us to understand not only his feelings and perspectives, but also his relationships with his parents and teachers. His mother (Mira Sorvino) inadvertently contributes to the obesity problem while his non-communicative father dwells in the outskirts of his life. Professor Dunn (Mykelti Williamson) bridges the gap of school and reality, and his doctor (Ravi Patel) both provide a safety net of adults with whom to go, but Butter just can’t see through his own pain and how to reach out for help.

On the surface, “Butter” is certainly a comedy, but at it’s heart, it’s a drama as it explores a time period in our lives that most of us wouldn’t go back to for any amount of money; high school. Navigating this time is difficult enough without being obviously different; being excessively overweight. As we begin to know Butter better and have hope that he will see his own value, the emotions run high and we brace for the ending.

Kersting is a treasure in this role as Butter with his comedic timing and expressive face and voice. His interactions with his classmates, his awkward love interest, and the adults in his life are all quite authentic even when some of the others feel a bit contrived. Jack Griffo (Parker) and Matthew Gold (Tucker) stand out as Butter’s new-found friends and Miller finds the right notes to play the pretty girl who has her own issues to unwrap.

Kaufman takes our hand to lead us along Butter’s journey, exploring what happens psychologically and physically to someone in emotional pain. Kaufman also beautifully allows his main character to find not only who he really is and can be, but how to take control of his life.

Butter is a film that dares to talk about these tough topics that may help start your own conversations with your teens at home.

3 stars

“The Last Bus” The ultimate love story

February 16th, 2022 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Last Bus” The ultimate love story”

“The Last Bus” starring Timothy Spall takes us on a journey in and through time as a man attempts to fulfill a promise. Writer Joe Ainsworth and director Gillies MacKinnon deliver the ultimate love story filled with life’s treasures and regrets as Tom (Spall) treks from Northern Scotland to Southern England via bus.

We meet the youthful versions of Tom (Ben Ewing) and Mary (Natalie Mitson) decades ago, filled with hopes and dreams for their future together. That time morphs into the present as Tom, now an elderly gentleman, thoughtfully gazes out into the now abandoned raised garden that Mary once tended. Seated at a desk with pencil in hand, he traces a path on a map, carefully laying out his bus route from home to Land’s End, plotting his arrivals and departures to the second. Toting just a small weathered briefcase and dressed as a proper gentleman, he begins his adventure at a bus stop.

Meeting an eclectic array of fellow bus riders and residents in various towns and villages, Tom forges ahead along his lonely journey driven by a promise to which we are not yet privy. There are plenty of bumps and unexpected detours along the way, all of which trigger memories from both happier and more painful times. Gently and methodically, much the way Tom travels, the viewer understands Tom’s current situation and the meaning behind each and every stop he makes. We also keenly understand who Tom is as he defends others or is taken advantage of by less savory scalawags. And with these interactions, bus by bus, travelers take and post photos and videos resulting in Tom’s journey becoming a newsworthy one, and he, the unwitting subject.

The strangers he meets along the way, many of whom show kindness and love, renew our faith in humanity. And with every stop Tom makes and those he misses, our love and appreciation of him grows exponentially. His life was full, but it wasn’t perfect. By his side, his love — again, not perfect — Mary was with him. She held his hand. They danced. They loved. And they cried.

To elicit such a visceral reaction requires not only a great script and direction, but an intuitive performance. Spall is magical. Using minute nuances, he is transformed into this character. Spall understands his character from the inside out as he embraces Tom’s memories and emotions. Because of this, “The Last Bus” (the name has even more meaning than I could have imagined) is the ultimate story of love and life.

4 Stars

“Book of Love” Unrealistic yet fun

February 4th, 2022 Posted by Review, women reviews 0 thoughts on ““Book of Love” Unrealistic yet fun”

Just in time to set the mood for Valentine’s Day is “Book of Love,” starring the newest version of Hugh Grant, Sam Clafin as Henry Copper, a young, uptight published author who gets schooled on writing his own book thanks to his Spanish translator Maria (Veronica Echegui). The story may be rather predictable, but it has heart and charm as it closes one chapter and begins another.

Copper’s British sensibilities harken back to the repressed Victorian ages which allows him to write one of the worst books on the shelf, “The Sensible Heart.” “Buy 1, take 3” says the sign punctuating this author’s failures until his publisher Jen (Lucy Punch) calls him in to convey the good news: he’s the number one author in Mexico. (Punch is a highlight in this film which could have used a few more scenes with this comic genius.) Jen sends Copper on a book tour of the Mexican regions, guided by his book’s translator, Maria, as he learns that she has turned his book into a racy romance novel. Of course, Copper is livid, but there are sparks flying between the polar opposite writers as, you guessed it, they fall in love despite their superficial animosity.

The story is most certainly flawed with its rather contrived concept and execution, but there’s something about the premise and its characters that is endearing. The performances are frequently over the top, but again, this is total escapism and fun to watch the ups and downs of this relationship, and you stick with it to find out how the screenwriters, Analeine Cal y Mayor and David Quantick, are going to tie up all the loose ends.

Clafin’s charming yet unassuming persona as Henry whose ideals sever him not only from meaningful relationships but also with reality, has the right element to make us cheer for him…chemistry with his costar Echegui. And Echegui’s Maria, a strong, divorced mom who cares for both her grandfather (Fernando Becerril) and her son, finds that perhaps love is a possibility if she’s willing to see it right in front of her. She’s a ball of fire and helps keep the energy and pace of the film going.

Both characters, accompanied by Maria’s son and grandfather, travel a physical and an emotional journey as we watch them all grow. Director Cal y Mayor takes full advantage of the Mexican landscape with all its bright colors and equally vibrant characters, and we forgive the story for any of its exaggerations so that we may relish in the concept of love.

Sit back and pour a glass of wine to watch “Book of Love,” escaping into a land of unrealistic yet entertaining love.

2 1/2 stars

“June Again”

January 15th, 2022 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““June Again””

Writer and Director JJ Winlove takes us on a journey we all fear and many of us have experienced from the periphery: watching a loved one decline from dementia. But what if one day your loved one “woke up” from that debilitating disease and had a fleeting chance to be whole again? This is the premise of “June Again” starring Noni Hazlehurst.

We meet June in a nursing facility, privy to her memories of a cherished time many decades ago. Unable to process what’s happening around her, we watch as a speech therapist assesses her basic linguistic skills of identifying a common object. The frustration and embarrassment is obvious, but one day, June’s condition is in complete remission and she is lucid once again. Taking advantage of her situation, she escapes from her confines and steps back into her life that stopped 5 years ago.

She quickly learns that while her life was on hold, her adult children’s lives were not. The business she started and left in the capable hands of her daughter Ginny (Claudia Karvan) is failing. And her son’s life has seemingly spiraled out of control. The world she left behind is a different one and June dives in to right the sinking ship.

Winlove allows us to view June’s world through her eyes. We understand her confusion and her longing to take advantage of this indeterminate time she has been given. What we don’t predict is that the story morphs into a love story — a beautiful, heartbreaking love story.

For those of you who are questioning the premise of the story, I can personally attest to its validity. Winlove did his homework about types of dementia and cerebral vascular events. And as a former speech-language pathologist and daughter of a woman who experienced “terminal lucidity,” this fleeting time of seeing your mother become mom again can be deemed a curse or a gift which is exactly what is accentuated in the film.

Winlove’s keen understanding of relationships and life’s unfair hands that are dealt to each of us eloquently and even comedically unfolds in “June Again.” Hazlehurst is perfectly cast as she becomes June, an intelligent, insightful yet controlling woman with regrets in life who rides an internal emotional rollercoaster. Karvan and Hazlehurst deliver a mother-daughter performance that rings true, connecting us more deeply to the situation and the characters.

“June Again” finds all the right notes to tell a story of love in unexpected ways. It’s a surprising story that tugs on all your heartstrings, making us laugh and cry, and reminds us of the precious gifts that we have in our lives.

3 1/2 Stars

You can stream “June Again” on major digital platforms.

“American Underdog”

December 21st, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““American Underdog””

“Destiny belongs to the underdogs,” a quote from the newest film “American Underdog” directed by the duo Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin and starring Zackary Levi (“Shazam”) and Anna Paquin as Kurt Warner and Brenda Meoni. It’s a Cinderella story of a man with a dream of being the next Joe Montana who loses his way only to find his way back through the love of Brenda and the coaches who see how special he is. The true life story of this MVP Hall of Fame winning quarterback is uplifting and inspiring even with its rather contrived musical score.

Warner’s story is a familiar one, but this one accentuates on man’s vulnerable psyche and how others play a vital role in his resiliency and success. It’s a lesson for us all as we attempt to accomplish our own dreams and goals and have the opportunity to help others do the same.

Warner’s rags to riches story takes us back in time to Warner’s college days where he shined. The stars of fate weren’t yet aligned and he found himself hopping from job to job, near poverty level. Meeting the woman who would later become his wife, Brenda, and her two children one of whom is blind, Warner finds new inspiration in life and living. With Brenda’s faith, the two still struggle, but they do it together.

We watch as his dreams are shattered year after year, stocking shelves on the graveyard shift at a grocery store to help makes ends meet, but as luck would have it, he gets an opportunity to Arena Football coached by Jim Foster (Bruce McGill). Thinking this may open doors, and they do, many are still slammed shut for this man some of which he helps close due to his lack of self confidence. It isn’t until Warner finds his way to the St. Louis Rams, coached by Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid) and Coach Mike Martz (Chance Kelly), that Warner is allowed to become the shining star he was destined to be.

The story, as many of you know, has a brilliant ending, and as newscasters and coaches actually said, “A better script couldn’t have been written,” screenwriters took this story and transformed it into a heartfelt drama filled with love and a message.

Casting actors who appear to be doppelgängers of the real life characters (be sure to stay all the way through the credits to see actual footage and photos), Levi easily embodies the star football player with a heart. His easy-going demeanor and ability to allow us into his mind and feel his emotions is exactly what this role requires. Levi is immediately likable and we are connected, the very essence of what the film relies upon to carry it. Paquin’s spunk and spark ignite the story as her character creates the stress and tension of real life. Protecting her children (and herself from more heartache) we feel this push and pull between the two making it believable.

“American Underdog” reminds us of the importance of believing in yourself, finding the courage to do so and those who lift us when we cannot walk alone. Warner’s story is an inspiring one as he defies the odds, going from a grocery stock “boy” to 5 years later, winning the Super Bowl as an undrafted player and achieving more accolades than imaginable.

3 Stars

“Being the Ricardos”

December 21st, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Being the Ricardos””

I love Lucy. You love Lucy. Let’s face it, we all love Lucy and the title of Lucille Ball’s first television series couldn’t have been more aptly named. Aaron Sorkin writes and directs a slice of Lucy and Desi Arnaz’s life amidst one of the most pivotal week’s in this couple’s history with “Being the Ricardos.” That week Lucy was named a communist. The fallout could have been the end of her, her marriage, countless employees of the show, and her future…but it wasn’t. And this is their story.

Sorkin takes us back to1953 as the “Red Scare” continued to plague Hollywood elites rendering many of the writers, directors, and actors without a job; black listed. Radio show host and gossip monger Walter Winchell made the announcement that Lucy was a Communist on a live broadcast on a Sunday night just before the beginning of Lucy (Nicole Kidman) and Desi’s (Javier Bardem) work week to create another episode of the sitcom that changed how people viewed and made TV shows.

Before we enter the tumultuous week which brings us behind the scenes to the hardened and serious business of making people laugh, Sorkin creates “interviews” with the movers and shakers of the time. Madelyn Pugh (Linda Lavin), a female screenwriter, recounts her memories of that week and Lucy’s impact upon the world. Intermittently, but with no predictable timing, we hear from the heads of companies and studios — all portrayed by actors — to give us a retrospective of that week and of Lucy. We are also privy to Lucy’s memories and visions which takes us into her thought processes. All of these aspects give us an intricately complete picture of her life, her history, and her future.

For fans of Lucy — and I am an avid one having grown up in the same area of gorgeous Chautauqua Lake, NY — we see a different side of this woman. She’s tough as nails and isn’t afraid to show it. She’s cutting and demanding. And she’s progressive in her thinking as obstacles, to her, are nothing more than things to be pushed aside. But most of all, she loves her husband and her work.

Learning about the making of this one week’s episode and the burden both Lucy and Desi carried as they attempted to pull out all the stops to put the Communism theory to rest once and for all, we are introduced to both critical and ancillary people within her life. Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) valiantly yet quite ineffectively attempts to reign Lucy in as she announces her pregnancy; a word and concept never before addressed on television. Within the comings and goings over the course of 5 days before performing and recording in front of a live television audience (Desi pioneered this concept), we get a glimpse into the turmoil of “Fred and Ethel” and the overall pragmatics of this foursome who entered 60 million homes every week.

The stress of the situation is palpable, but Lucy’s strength and tenacity shines through thanks to Kidman’s version. We see Lucy and Desi as a solid team, never to be shaken by the likes of Hoover or the shenanigans of the ensemble cast and crew. Bardem becomes Desi in mannerisms and charisma. He finds a way to demonstrate Desi’s intelligence and passion with sheer credibility. It’s a memorable performance that will certainly capture voters’ attention during the Awards season. With equal fervor is J.K. Simmons’ performance as the cranky curmudgeon William Frawley who felt that happy hour began at 10 am. Not for a minute did I think I wasn’t watching the real Frawley. And the antagonistic relationship between he and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) allows you to watch with awe how they found a way to make us all laugh.

Kidman is the lead and it’s a heavy burden to carry. Playing one of the most influential female comic actors and a woman who paved the way for other females in the industry isn’t an easy task, but Kidman, for the most part, adequately does so. Occasionally, her look is identical and even with her voice, but her dialect took me out of the character. Lucy lived briefly in NYC, but was raised in NY State and her dialect was wrong and took away her believability. Perhaps it was Kidman’s own Australian dialectical differences that she imbued, but it doesn’t work. We never forget that it’s Kidman playing the part of Ball.

Sorkin tackles a very complicated story and using flashbacks and memories he is able to tell a much more elaborate one. The unexpected “real time” interviews, however, is jarring and takes us out of the story. Had these interviews occurred on a predictable timeline, perhaps the stylistic choice of doing so would have had a different result.

I do love Lucy and while there are some flaws within the making of “Being the Ricardos,” the overall effect pays homage to this brilliant pioneer of television.

If you want more, be sure to listen to TCM’s “The Plot Thickens.”

3 Stars

“Nightmare Alley” visually beautiful with a story that slogs along

December 15th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Nightmare Alley” visually beautiful with a story that slogs along”

“Nightmare Alley,” directed by the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, is a remake from the 1947 film of the same name starring Tyrone Power, both based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham. The latest version, starring Bradley Cooper as the huckster carny Stanton Carlisle whose need for greed takes him down dangerous paths of love and lust, is almost unmemorable story if it weren’t for del Toro’s stylized vision.

It’s an all-star cast lead by Cooper as his character stumbles into the home of Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette) who’s been to this carnival scene many times before. Carlisle has a sordid past, but is welcomed by Zeena and her con-artist/magician hubby Pete (David Strathairn) as they take Carlisle under their wing, Zeena a little more tightly than is appropriate. Learning, improving, and honing the tricks of the trade of mentalism, he falls in love with the talented Molly (Rooney Mara). The pair are convinced there are bigger targets to be had and run off to this better life. But greed smothers all other aspects of Carlisle’s life as he swindles a wealthy, powerful and “innocent” man named Ezra (Richard Jenkins).

The web del Toro weaves is a complicated one as it plummets into the abyss of greed and characters who are moralistically bankrupt. Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the intelligent, intuitive, and manipulative psychologist is the epitome of this type of character, matching Carlisle blow for blow. Unfortunately, it takes much too long to get to these seedy yet high profile and vibrant characters as the film slogs along back at the carnival, spinning its wheels as it readies itself to take off to the meat of the story.

Visually, however, del Toro keeps us entertained even when the story flounders. He takes us back in time to an era none of us have experienced and to places we are unfamiliar. Amplifying colors and palates he introduces us to this world of despicable behavior, some overt, some hidden, and places his characters in a variety of situations. The burden, however, lies with Cooper to give us a man who is broken and defies his fate. We just never hate him enough or care for him enough to feel that we have stakes in his game of life. Blanchett, on the other hand, is chillingly captivating, appearing to bask in this character’s charade, but she arrives on the scene a little too late.

Fine performances from an almost unrecognizable Jenkins as a man with a deplorable past seeking forgiveness finds a way to be the story we really want to know. And there are several subplots and ancillary characters that are introduced and then taken away making them just that, ancillary.

Guillermo del Toro’s vision in storytelling is unparalleled, but he stumbles in pushing his narrative and allowing his main character to be who really is; a sociopathic narcissist. While the all-star cast shines, the story dampens them as it focuses on being artistically beautiful and not what matters—telling the story and keeping the pace.

2 stars

“Don’t Look Up”

December 7th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Don’t Look Up””

Michigan State University PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and supervising professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) have unexpectedly discovered a comet the size of Mt. Kilamanjaro hurtling toward Earth with an expected global destruction impact date in 6 months. They must alert the US Government and ultimately the general public in an effort to save our planet, but the hurdles they encounter just may make it impossible to do so. Thankfully, we are laughing out loud almost the entire time, a surprising effect, as the masterful writer and director Adam McKay finds a way to make annihilation hilarious while not so subtly burying the issue of climate change just below the surface to open our eyes.

From the opening scene portraying Kate’s revelation, and confirmation by Mindy, of a comet that will destroy Earth is accurate, the reactions of these ordinary — yet brilliantly intelligent — people is what sets the comedic tone to the film. The pair set out to alert NASA who then alerts the president of the United States, President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), with whom the pair will meet and explain and hopefully prevent the end of mankind. After waiting hours in uncomfortable rooms and purchasing cheez-its (this becomes a running joke), Mindy and Kate finally get a chance to explain their findings. While not falling upon deaf ears, although it is the Midterms and Congress may never pass the budget she and her Chief of Staff (and son) Jason (Jonah Hill) who has a few mommy issues, the most powerful woman in the world attempts to find a way to spin this whole thing into a profitable position with the help a major contributor who is also a leading scientist and business man Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance).

Mindy and Kate have hit a dead end and with the help of Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), head of NASA, they hit the streets to let the public know about the comet. Getting some air-time on a popular morning show hosted by the effervescent Jack (Tyler Perry) and the superficial alcoholic Brie (Cate Blanchett), Kate finds her performance to be as catastrophic as the comet named after her. And this is just the beginning of their 6 month-long adventure into chaos, turmoil, and life in the fast lane which neither Kate nor Mindy navigate well.

McKay’s attention to detail in comedy is extraordinarily precise while always feeling free-flowing and fun. Never missing an opportunity to weave social narratives into the picture, the film, surprisingly written before Covid hit, finds ridiculousness in our truth while exaggerating it slightly to entertain us. McKay’s loose yet focused direction gives each of his actors an opportunity to explore, develop and ultimately run with their characters bringing aspects to life that no one could have written. We experience Hill’s oedipus complex with Streep’s expressive comedy as pure gold. Their performances lend a hand to the frustrated character of Dr. Mindy as DiCaprio hones in on his passion of saving the Earth as the fictional character of Mindy. McKay also takes full advantage of our instantaneous and reactionary population as Lawrence’s demonstrative effects find their way into memes, gifs, and notoriety.

“Don’t Look Up” is a complicated and tangled story weaving together so many characters (even Ariana Grande’s performance and improvised lyrics make you laugh), but never losing focus and strategically circling back to the path we’ve already traveled. This makes for not only great storytelling, but great comedy.

With a cast like this, there’s not a weak link in it, all having performances of a lifetime, and even more evident, having fun! However, Mark Rylance as the Elon Musk-type of character is one of the most surprisingly hilarious performances. His teeth alone will make you laugh, but his mannerisms are what makes our jaws drop as he expresses his thoughts and decisions about how to avert imminent doom and make a few bucks. On that same note, Blanchett finds a way to make Brie a caricature of a television host who lives for the day into a mesmerizing yet deplorable woman. And then there’s Timothee Chalamet in a role that he was meant to play, a skateboarder named Yule, who brings the entire story together.

McKay ushers us into our comfortable seats to see his film, but we quickly find that we are in the launch position of a rocket. We are strapped in for an incredible ride filled with laughter and revelations, the comet as a metaphor for so much of what’s happening in our world today. Hang on tightly! This is a ride you don’t want to miss.

4 Stars

“House of Gucci”

November 22nd, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““House of Gucci””

“House of Gucci,” directed by the renowned Ridley Scott, has taken a lot of heat about his actors’ inability to nail an Italian “accent.” The story, however, is what should bind this film together like gorilla glue so that we don’t even notice the atrocious inconsistencies and inaccuracies in their dialectical difficulties. Unfortunately, it does not. The story is nothing more than a dull mess that spins its wheels as the actors appear to have all been given different interpretations of the script. Lady Gaga gives us a soap opera-esque rendition of “Patrizia,” her character, and Jared Leto and Al Pacino (the most entertaining of the massive ensemble) thought it was a comedy, while Adam Driver delivers a subdued dramatic performance in his supporting (?) role. He has the lead, he just doesn’t know it. The list goes on and on, and while these different tones in a film can add depth and layers like a symphonic harmony, “House of Gucci’s” mixed tones creates a cacophony like toddlers given percussion instruments.

The story begins, warning us that the name Gucci is cursed, back when this fashion forward family ruled the industry. With its roots strongly held in Italy, the family branched out to the United States with Aldo (Pacino) at the helm here. The family dynamics alone should have and could have been a salacious joy ride, but becomes nothing more than a journey on a jam-packed Greyhound bus…you’ll want to get off as soon as possible without reaching the end.

Scott takes his time in setting up the relationship between Patrizia and Maurizio Gucci (Driver). It’s a sweet and innocent courtship that results in Maurizio leaving his father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) and his entire family fortune behind to marry the love of his life. Warning his new head-strong wife that money is the root of all evil, Patrizia re-establishes relationships across the sea with Aldo, estranged from his brother Rodolfo and whose son Paolo (Leto), a bumbling idiot and complete disappointment, lures the young married couple back into the Gucci privileged lair. With plenty of backstabbing and undermining relatives to relinquish their stock shares in the company, along with affairs, legal issues, and death, the curse continues on the Gucci name. The rest, if you recall from the news, is history, but this is Patrizia’s story of her demise and its cause.

The film is based on the book by Sara Gay Forden with the screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna. As is typically found in adaptations, you can’t include every detail from the book on the screen, but Scott seems to try with the running time of 2 hours and 37 minutes. With so many characters who had the potential to be developed more completely, this easily could have been a limited television series. However, we get disjointed and incomplete stories and subplots and characters with whom we have no connection.

Lady Gaga is physically transformed into Patrizia, but it is Leto who is unrecognizable as Paolo. He and Pacino — both have totally different speech styles — are the highlight as the father and son who ride an interesting and gut-wrenching roller coaster of life. Together these two actors and their characters attempt to resuscitate the film, but alas, it is too much for them. Not even Salma Hayek’s Pina the Tarot Card Reader can stop the inevitable catastrophe of the film.

“House of Gucci” tries too hard to be too much in too little time. With distracting accents, no real focal point, too many tones, and actors appearing to have little direction, the film slogs along to its bitter end.

1 1/2 Stars

“Tick, Tick, Boom”

November 17th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Tick, Tick, Boom””

“Tick Tick Boom” was explosive from the very first scene to the final credits. Andrew Garfield embodies Jonathan Larson, the creative force behind the successful and long-running Broadway Musical “Rent.” While this man achieved success only posthumously, Larson’s life the week before his 30th birthday is told in musically dramatic form in the Lin-Manuel Miranda directed film “Tick Tick Boom.”

Reflecting on life and his lack of accomplishments — a list and bar set by everyone else he knows — Larson (Garfield) dreams of his musical “Superbia” on Broadway’s stage. Struggling to make ends meet or even pay the electric bill, Jonathan hits a road block both in his writing and in his life. This crossroads forces him to make life-altering decisions with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and to look in the mirror to see who he is and can be.

Steven Levenson is responsible for this screenplay and intricately, delicately, and with utmost care weaves together a complicated story and with an unusual style. Part musical, part drama, we follow Larson as he struggles, recalls, and lives those pivotal days prior to entering his third decade of life. Intertwining musical numbers that augment, not jar us out of the story, is a difficult task, but with the writing and directing talents behind the film, it flows naturally and most importantly, in an entertaining and stimulating fashion.

As capable the talent behind the camera is, Miranda surrounds himself with extraordinary acting and singing talent in front of it. Garfield’s stellar performance as he belts out impassioned lyrics while he plays the piano is heart-stopping. His character finds himself in various situations — performing for an audience as he tells this contemporaneous story, re-enacting his past, and living his daily life — it’s a cognitive juggling act which requires inexhaustible levels of acting energy and Garfield delivers.

Levenson also takes us into the complexities of what is required to just pitch a musical let alone get one on stage. We see Larson’s “Superbia” requirements, the musicians and singers, as they rehearse the songs to be performed to the powers of Broadway including Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford). The talents of Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens), Roger (Joshua Henry), and other gifted singers are mesmerizing as they deliver their songs with clarity and emotion. Additionally, we are taken back in time to the ’90’s when being gay and the AIDS crisis was hitting hard. It’s not all drama and hardship, though. There’s plenty of laughter as the likes of Judith Light as Larson’s unresponsive agent Rosa Stevens hits the screen and Laura Benanti as a focus group leader helps develop marketing for a potential product.

“Tick Tick Boom” is a unique story filled with vibrant music and characters and a narrative arc that is at once compelling. With Miranda at the helm, luring us in to care about Larson, Garfield shows us he is so much more than Spider-Man…he truly can do it all. The entire cast rises to the occasion to tell us the story of a man who chose to follow his dream with determination and perseverance. It’s as if Larson knew life was going to be short for him and he needed to make the most of each and every precious moment. Perhaps we should all take heed from this man.

For all of you who say you don’t like musicals, I dare you to watch this one and continue to believe you don’t like them.

3 1/2 Stars

“King Richard”

November 17th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““King Richard””

Venus and Serena Williams, the unstoppable, formidable sister duo steamrolled over every opponent in the tennis world for decades. These girls who became women in the circuit were the best players in history, but how many of us know the obstacles they overcame to triumph professionally and personally? “King Richard,” written by Zach Baylin and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, brings us this inspirational tale of rags to riches via a very unlikely path: a father who had a dream.

Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton star as Venus and Serena, respectively, as the powerhouses before their notoriety and fame. A mere 10 and 12 years of age, Venus and Serena, growing up in the dangerous and well-known Los Angeles area called Compton, are coached by their eccentric father, Richard (Will Smith). Living in a 2 bedroom home, they and their 3 sisters worked incredibly hard while their parents, living meagerly to make ends meet, provided love and stability with the hopes of having a better future. Richard’s knew this would come via his two tennis players daughters…he wrote it in his “plan” before the girls were even born.

Richard followed his plan religiously, gaining access to the best tennis coaches in the country including Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and the renowned Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal). But Richard’s approach, a very unconventional one, leads to frustration by the powers that be and awkward moments for all of us watching the events unfold.

Richard’s perseverance and spot-on clairvoyance of events to come are the thread that stitches the story together, but the foundation of the story comes from the love of a father and a mother who stand firm for their beliefs. While they buck the system, keeping their daughters’ humility in check and finding a way to let them still be kids, Richard’s mantra of “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” rings true, much to Goldwyn and especially Macci’s chagrin.

The story tackles the obstacles of living in poverty and in a gang-ridden environment where survival is a part of each and every day. The racial prejudice is evident, but frequently this is presented with ironic humor. Incredibly, there is a lot of humor in the film balanced delicately by the dramatic elements to create one of the most entertaining films of the year.

Richard’s past is a part of this racial prejudice as he relays heartbreaking tales of his own childhood. The heartbreak continues with beatings from gang leaders, but never does Richard break. It’s as if he always sees the end goal in sight, all supported by his wife, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis). While they present a united front to the public and to their girls, Oracene and Richard have two pivotal scenes that allow us to see the reality of their relationship.

Making a biopic is a tough task as they frequently become watered down versions of the truth seen through rose colored glasses. “King Richard” boldly tells the story with warts and blemishes of their lives, making this a story that feels real. Richard comes off at times as selfless and other times embarrassingly selfish. His strength in his marriage and Oracene’s loyalty comes from faith, but it’s not perfect by any means. And we see the sisterly bond between all of the girls, watching Serena live in Venus’s shadow, and learn lessons from watching “Cinderella.”

While we know how the story ends, it’s vitally important to see how the story began and the journey these two women traveled to get to that end point. Sidney and Singleton shine in their roles as the tennis stars who trust in their parents’ lead. Their innocence and confidence is brilliantly demonstrated both on and off the court as their characters attempt to rise through the ranks even when their father unilaterally pulls the rug out from beneath them. Both Sidney and Singleton’s soft spoken demeanor fits their characters, but there’s a light that shines within them that brings a sense of vibrancy and emotion.

The entire cast finds just the right cadence and affect, and Bernthal’s unique character as he embodies Macci is standout, but Smith’s transformative performance creates a Richard Williams that has depth and heart, with so many layers reminding us to never judge a book by its cover. He easily finds the wackiness of Richard, complete with his odd speech style and body posture, but also delivers love and determination with his voice and eyes to give us a complete picture. Smith has found another role that should put him in the spotlight come Oscar time.

Of course, this is a film about a specific sport which requires incredible cinematography and editing to bring us into the tournaments and games. It’s intensely paced as we hang on for this exciting ride, watching the line and calling the game in our heads. “King Richard” is an inspirational film filled with humor, heart, and humility…you can’t ask for more.

4 Stars

“Julia”

November 17th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Julia””

Whether or not you were around in the 1960’s and watched Julia Child’s infamous television show, know the SNL skit, or have one of her cook books as a staple in your kitchen, the name Julia Child is synonymous with gourmet home cooked meals. Academy Award nominated documentary filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen who gave us the engaging film “RBG” in 2019, bring us the new film “Julia.” Taking us on a long and luscious journey of her life and career, Cohen and West bring her back to life and into our kitchens.

The filmmakers bring us back in time to the early 1900’s when Child was exactly that, a child. We explore her family life, her education and her circuitous route in becoming the kitchen icon that her name remains today. Using old photos, clippings, and hilarious clips from talk shows and her own show, we get a very clear picture of who she was and what she did to pave the way for women in show business and business in general. Her zest for life is seen, felt and heard as she added that spice to her dishes as well.

Along this journey, we feel as if we sample the culinary delights she creates, learn a few more tips from one of the most ingenious and engaging chefs our modern world has known, and have a fire lit to get back into the kitchen and really cook. The dishes are Julia’s— her creations, her inspirations, and her personality. And with that personality, we are entertained, delighted, and completely sated.

We learn of her rise to fame, the love of her life, and those who waxed and waned in her life, professionally and personally. And Child, undeterred and undaunted by the logistics of live television, is never flummoxed by it, but we the viewer sit in awe and laughter.

Cohen and West are masterful storytellers bringing us into the life of yet another innovative and bold woman who influenced us. “Julia” reminds us of what it takes to succeed — the sacrifices, determination, and the love — but perhaps even more than her success, she paved the road for all who came after in the cooking media world and women in the workplace.

“Julia” is simply delightful as it satisfies all of our senses although it left me feeling hunger pangs!

3 1/2 Stars

“Belfast”

November 12th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Belfast””

It’s 1969 Belfast, Ireland. The heat of the “The Troubles,” a sectarian war between the Catholics and the Protestants of Northern Ireland, is in full gear and infiltrates the which idyllic blue collar neighborhood where Buddy (Jude Hill) and his brother Will (Lewis McAskie) and parents (Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan) live. What appears to be a typical day instantly becomes a brutal one, filled with fear and violence. Buddy’s view of the world is forever changed in an instant and “Belfast” is his story seen through his eyes.

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast” is a this semi-autobiographical story. He shares his memories, correct or not, these are his views painted in his childlike lens as Buddy, our main character, attempts to process the events, live a new normal life, and find a future. His grandparents (Judi Dench, Ciara Hinds) a strong presence in his life, weigh in on navigating these rough waters, protecting their children and grandchildren.

Buddy’s childlike processing of a new concept — categorization of people — is heartbreaking as he and Cousin Vanessa (Nessa Eriksson) discuss how to tell the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant by name alone. Equally disturbing and somehow also humorous is this little guy’s interpretation of Catholicism as viewed by a Protestant. The innocence imparted with his words brings clarity as Buddy attempts to make sense of the violence and danger surrounding him.

Ma and Pa struggle as Pa finds work in England, but it’s not home. Home is Ireland, but more specifically, Belfast and this tight-knit community. These changing times push this family to make decisions that will change them forever, but again, as Buddy’s childhood innocence is shattered, he focuses and holds on to the normalcy of being a kid — his crush in school is of particular focus — and the insular relationships within the neighborhood including his grandparents.

“Belfast” rings true no matter who you are or where you live. It’s a story of family and the bonds that are developed and embraced with the heart and soul seen through the eyes of a young boy. Buddy’s perception and interpretation of the events and consequences are heartbreakingly raw, but there’s a blurred hue that is superimposed on the events and that is from the love and resiliency he receives from Ma, Pa, Gran and Pops.

Branagh’s vision into his past beautifully imbued by black and white and frame-filling faces captures a myriad of emotions. Frequently, Branagh chooses to take us to Buddy’s level, seeing the world literally from his perspective. Gorgeously shot, “Belfast” takes possession of your heart, relating to your own childhood relationships, no matter how rose-colored we remember it all.

Branagh’s cast is a family, a family of actors who immediately create the intimacy of having spent years together. Belfe and Dornan delicately impart the push and pull of a typical married couple under extraordinary circumstances demonstrating confusion and sorrow as they make their sacrifices. Dench’s Gran portrayal hits home with her strength, wisdom, stoicism, wit, and never-ending love. Her final scene eviscerates you as you realize what she has done. Of course, the story balances on the innocence and authenticity of young Jude Hill who plays Buddy and this child shines brighter than any star in the sky. His brilliance is captured by the camera, but it is the genuine relationships he has cultivated among the adults that endears you to him. Never does it appear that he is acting. He lets us into his world and we see the devastation and the love through him.

“Belfast” may be Branagh’s best film to date as a love letter to Ireland, to Belfast, and to the roots that connect us to our friends and most importantly to our family.

4 Stars

“Violet”

November 8th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Violet””

We hear Violet’s (Olivia Munn) inner voice talking to her, critiquing her, in the very first scene; calling her a pig because she eats a sno-ball for breakfast. That voice stays with her as she jumps in her car, racing to get to work as a production head at a film company lead by a demanding, misogynistic boss (Dennis Boutsikaris). This angry, condescending voice inside her head competes with another voice, one which is eloquently scrawled across the screen as we watch Violet proceed with her daily tasks.

Violet is her own worst enemy as she encounters her colleagues, subordinates, family members, and even friends. On the outside, she is a beautiful, confident, and a successful woman, but just below the surface, using this inner voice and flashing back in time to a younger Violet, we learn so much more about the emotional trauma and constant undermining of the development of her psyche.

Violet finds herself in a rut, spinning her wheels in her career as well as her love life. Temporarily living with Red (Luke Bracey), a childhood friend and now successful filmmaker while her home is completing renovations, Violet longs to be caught by a safety net, but just doesn’t know how to reach out and ask for help.

Within all of us, we have the same voices; one which is constantly narrating our situations and the other which pops up when we are stressed. This is our inner critic. It’s the one that can shame us, make us feel incompetent, and block us in our attempts to reach for things outside of our comfort zone. Violet’s inner critic voice (Justin Thoreau) or “The Committee” as she calls it, undermines her every move and we are privy to this voice…every gut-wrenching word. It warns her that she will be labeled a bitch if she says what she actually thinks at work, or she’s not good enough to get a different job. She’s cloaked in a shield of negative armor and all the while her mind is screaming for what she really wants or what she really feels. “I feel like I don’t know who I am anymore” or begging for those who could help not to leave, but verbalizing something far different because “The Committee” has won this battle.

It isn’t until she shares with a good friend that she has these competing voices in her head that she begins to take charge of her life. This negative armor is peeled away to reveal, as she says, and a new raw skin. Her life begins to change, but it’s not without consequence and not without her own internal battles continuing in a decrescendo.

“Violet” is many things — a smart psychological drama using bold filmmaking choices — but more than anything, it’s a representation of us all. Each and everyone of us deals with our own thoughts as well as that inner critic voice which can save us from taking unnecessary potentially harmful risks, but too often, that voice overpowers rational thought and deters us from growing and succeeding in life. Who hasn’t been to a work party and sized up everyone around, comparing and feeling inadequate? How many of us settled for a job or were afraid to jump to the next level because we didn’t think we could do it? Perhaps “The Committee” is stronger in some than in others, but we all have it and this is what connects us emotionally with Violet as she attempts to balance her life.

Just like Violet’s secret cognitive battle, her outside world has two antagonistic extremes as well. Red wants nothing more than to be her rock and Tom, her boss, wants nothing more than to cut her at the core. A work meeting with a client depicts one of the most angering and heartbreaking scenes as Violet endures Tom’s harassment with no escape route. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Lila (Erica Ash), Violet’s good friend who provides the pivotal words which change Violet’s world. She can begin to see life and those who undermine it more clearly. Bateman skillfully provides Violet with several opportunities to explore her past and her present and how she can change her future. And Bateman, a first-time feature screenwriter and director, shows us that she’s a powerhouse in storytelling, daring to push the envelope.

Munn has the difficult task of creating Violet, a flawed woman filled with anger, resentment, and fear who on the outside looks strong and confident and she does so with perfection. In many ways, Munn creates three different characters in one with absolute authenticity and nuanced skill. To do this, writer and director Justine Bateman takes her own chances which pay off. She finds a way to use emotionally loaded scenarios and sub stories all of which have their own climactic arc, as well as interjecting visual and/or auditory bombardment to tell this tale. When Violet’s inner critic becomes overwhelming, the screen bleeds into a red hue and the music becomes uncomfortable. Additionally, Violet’s internal voice is accentuated with written words covering the screen and the dark resonant voice that is the inner critic haunts and angers us. It’s literally and figuratively a complete picture.

“Violet” is a bold and relatable story of one woman, a woman who represents us all in varying gradations, on an evocative journey of life and finding harmony. With a strong cast and an exceptional lead, “Violet” is a searing exploration into the human psyche that has a rippling real life effect.

3.5/4 Stars

“Finch”

November 4th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Finch””

Did you ever think that there could be a sweet apocalypse movie? Apple TV has done just that with “Finch” starring Tom Hanks as a man surviving a cataclysmic solar flare leaving the world a dangerous radiation-filled place where those left behind have no regard for others.

Finch is no ordinary man, a robotics engineer whose keen mind has helped him survive, but it is his relationship with his dog GOODYEAR, whose name will be explained in the film, that keeps him going. Finch is ill, though and in order to plan for his dog’s remaining life, he creates Jeff, a robot who goes through the stages of life and development on hyperdrive, but not without its flaws as it misunderstands literal language and attempts to grow up fast making us laugh and endearing us to Jeff and the story.

Finch and Goodyear load up the Winnebago to travel from St. Louis to San Francisco as the weather is destined to annihilate their current bunker. This road trip is one for the memories as we learn more about the world and how it came to be. Hanks has found his new Wilson in Jeff, but this time the object can talk back. If there is anyone who can carry the film making it appear to be effortless, it’s Hanks. He brings heart — sometimes a heavy one — and soul to a dire situation.

Writers Craig Luck and Ivor Powell take us along on Finch’s journey, literally and figuratively, while director Miguel Sapochnik brings the story to life. Hanks, working with Caleb Landry Jones as the robot Jeff as well as a well-behaved canine actor, brings his “Cast Away” roots into full play. The artists behind Jones’ Jeff create a viable and lovable giant sized toddler who grows into a caring creature before our eyes. At the heart of the film is the power of love between a man and his best friend, but this film will stimulate many other conversations about climate change and survival. While the latter is the driving force of the film, it takes a back seat for what’s most important.
“Finch” could have easily been an ridiculous film filled with tropes and “lessons to be learned,” but that’s not the case. It’s a thoughtful and evocative film that hooks you from the beginning as we are reeled in for the finale.

You can stream “Finch” on Apple TV+ beginning Friday, November 5, 2021.

3 1/2 Stars

“Marionette”

November 4th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Marionette””

“Marionette” is a chilling psychological drama washed with Twilight Zone-esque hues. Co-writer and director Elbert van Strien takes trauma and turns it into a question of the meaning of life with undercurrents of religion as his star, Dr. Marianne Winter portrayed by Thekla Reuten searches for a new life. With every twist and turn, van Strien has you questioning and attempting to put together the complete puzzle, but his imagination is greater than ours, surprising us with an ending that will haunt your next move.

The story begins as Dr. Marianne Winter has traveled from a secure therapist’s position in Upstate New York to the dreary backdrop of Scotland to take over a psychologist’s position who has abruptly left. Welcomed by the warm staff, she studies her client list in the dreadfully depressing office she now calls her own. Her patients, all children, have severe issues, but one boy, Manny (Elijah Wolf) says, and more importantly, draws things yet to come. Her reaction is initially inquisitive as she brushes it off as coincidental, but as the pictures, dark and foreboding, become a part of her life, she begins to spiral out of control.

Marianne’s reactions and the boy’s menacing looks countered by angelic expressions for those who feel nothing but sympathy for this orphan, take her down a path of no return. Questioning her own actions, free will, as well as good and evil, Marianne must find answers and protect herself, but even those actions and thoughts are in question.

The setting, equally important to the script and actors, envelops us as we sink deeper and deeper into the story. The institution in which the story is set is more like a castle or a prison. The formidable structure seems impenetrable foreshadowing what lies ahead. Van Strien captures the land’s dampness and chill which augments the overall feel of “Marionette.” And as the story ramps up, the weather gets worse.

“Marionette” is a smart thriller with performances by a small ensemble cast that finds just the right pacing and tone to deliver believable characters. Reuten’s authenticity as a woman trying to bury her tragic past and find a new future as it is derailed by a mere child connects us to her. The dialogue is never forced, but has a sense of reality to it even given the strange circumstances. As genuine as Reuten’s performance is, Wolf is equally skilled in his portrayal of a menacing boy who can turn on a dime with his expressions, but never is this over the top. Together, Wolf and Reuten create a story that is both engaging and cognitively stimulating as we push our abilities to predict the outcome.

“Marionette” is an original concept — something we just don’t see anymore — that takes us on a psychologically chilling ride. Attention to every detail with exceptional performances makes this a breathtaking film that is sure to stick with you.

3 1/2 Stars

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