Book Club: The Next Chapter

Book Club: The Next Chapter has all the hallmarks of a Hallmark movie, with a few differences: the cast is older and better known, the budget is bigger and the script is more risqué. It’s rated PG-13 so you can take your mom but not your church group.

“White women drinking wine in gorgeous locations while talking about men” could be the slug line for several Hallmark Channel movies. It also describes Book Club: The Next Chapter.

The white women are Vivian (Jane Fonda), Sharon (Candice Bergen), Diane (Diane Keaton) and Carol (Mary Steenburgen). The gorgeous locations are Rome, Venice and Tuscany. The wine keeps being poured and consumed throughout the film. 

The men they talk about are Don Johnson (Viv’s fiancé) , Andy Garcia (Diane’s boyfriend) and Craig T. Nelson (Carol’s husband). Sharon, whose personality is similar to that of Murphy Brown, does not have a regular guy but that fact lets her cast her net toward a handsome gent she meets in a bar. And one of the gals runs into an old boyfriend from back in the day and spends part of the evening with him in his van.

Would you believe that the movie’s climax features a wedding? And that there are a few last minute surprises just before the “I do’s”? Well, that’s another Hallmark hallmark. 

As mentioned, Italy is gorgeous. And the women, despite their advanced ages (70, 77, 77 and 85), look pretty good, too. Well, the current version of Jane Fonda looks more like the latter day Mary Tyler Moore than the beautiful Jane we remember but, hey, give her credit for hanging in there. 

The wardrobes are fun, too. Despite luggage issues, the cool outfits just keep on coming. On a visit to a bridal designer, all four try on wedding gowns. And where does Diane keep getting all those hats?

Oh, the book the group refers to on several occasions is The Alchemist, a novel by Paulo Coelho. The author is from Brazil. The English translation was first published in 1993, per Wikipedia.

Book Club: The Next Chapter is a big dollop of gooey fluff with a few laughs along the way. If you’ve been to Italy or fantasized about traveling there, add BC:TNC to your Italy movie list. This one will stream in a few weeks but looks better on the big screen.

Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 3

Pull out an arsenal of adjectives for this one: huge, mind-blowing, hilarious, emotional, loud, clever, surprising, uplifting, satisfying. They all apply. James Gunn has topped himself with Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 3. It’s a must-see!

The story, the effects, the art direction and the soundtrack are damn good. But it’s the character development of the Guardians that makes GOTG3 special.

Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt) leads the crew but focuses much of his attention on Gamora (Zoe Saldana) who rebuffs his romantic overtures. The best word to describe her character: fierce. 

Drax (Dave Bautista) is funnier than in the previous GOTG films and gives indications that he may not be as clueless as he sometimes seems. 

Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) play key roles as the Guardians’ mission is a total team effort.

Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) plays a bigger role in this newest GOTG and even—whoops, gotta stop before a spoiler leaps out!

Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper and others), his origin and the crisis he faces form the main component of the plot line. Again, dodging spoilers here. (You can find plot summaries online but I suggest you see the film with no more pre-knowledge than you can obtain from trailers.)

The first two GOTG films were notable for their use of popular hit songs. GOTG3 gets a bit more, um, adventurous in its music choices. The film kicks off with Radiohead’s classic Creep.

Manchester, Missouri’s own and SLU grad James Gunn (who wrote and directed) achieves full redemption for his years ago Twitter sins with GOTG3. Nothing can top the thrill of seeing the first Guardians film nine years ago but Vol. 3 comes close with its fun and surprises.

Brother Sean Gunn plays side character Kraglin who gets screen time at the beginning and end of the movie, along with his amazing dog Cosmo.

Two tips: You might want to buy your tickets before you show up at the theater—you could encounter big crowds this first weekend. Also, stick around for all the credits and extra scenes and hints about the future of the franchise. Runtime is 2:30. Rated PG-13.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Is it as good as the book? Short answer: No. Because movies adapted from books are never as good as the book. Well, almost never.

But is it a good MOVIE? Yes. Entertaining. And, yes, charming.

Along with beginning to mature into a new life stage, Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) has to handle a move from New York City to the Jersey suburbs AND a spiritual awakening. The film’s other title character, God, gets significant attention in the story. Margaret’s frequent prayers and religious exposure from her grandma (Kathy Bates) and friends open her mind to new ideas and concepts.

Margaret’s parents are a Christian mom (Rachel McAdams) and a Jewish dad (Ben Safdie) who have chosen not to raise their daughter in either religion. This leads to an ugly episode when Margaret’s maternal grandparents come to visit.

Margaret’s interactions with her friends Nancy (Elle Graham), Janie (Amari Price) and Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer) are the highlights of the film. Their meetings in 2023 would likely be conducted via text messaging or other cyber connections. It’s nice to see them hang out in person in their 1970 world.

The important question here is: can a story set half a century ago still be relevant in our more sophisticated modern day? Absolutely. Sixth grade girls in 2023 are vastly different from those of 1970 but much of this tale is about the things all girls—and their parents—deal with as they transition from childhood into puberty.

Today’s girls are much better informed about many things, receiving details from their peers who are better informed than Margaret’s peers were. And, of course, the internet provides info. And today’s school libraries offer materials that tell girls more than was available back in the day.

Also, can a male moviegoer relate to this story of a young girl who is anxious about getting her first bra and her first period? Puberty is a weird time for boys, too, but women will identify with the film’s central characters and their travails more closely than most men might. 

Director Kelly Fremon Craig is to be credited for not overplaying the nostalgia aspect of the production. There are old cars, telephones with cords, girls wearing skirts and dresses instead of slacks, etc. But we’ve seen other filmmakers take the nostalgia route to such an extent that it distracts from the story. Craig, who also scripted the film, does an admirable job of weaving character development with storytelling in a quick-moving hour and forty-five minutes.

Fortson handles well her duty of carrying the title role which is always a concern with juvenile actors. Her talent is obvious. And she’s a cute kid without being cloying. Graham who plays Nancy is impressive as well and her career, too, bears watching. And McAdams always adds to any film she’s in. 

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. is rated PG-13. Might be okay for some preteens but that’s where your parental guidance comes into play.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

A quest! To throw as many fantastic, magical happenings as can be crammed into just over two hours at a movie audience!

And to follow four likable questers as they try to avoid dungeons and dragons and evil wizards and other forms of peril. Throw in a few chuckles along the way. Result: success!

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves works on many levels, among them—with one notable exception—its casting. Chris Pine is Edgin who is seeking a magical tablet to bring his dead wife back to life. Pine is handsome but he can do the action stuff. Michelle Rodriguez is Holga, a fierce female who helps Edgin recruit two younger team members: aspiring sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith) and Doric (Sophia Lillis) who is an elf and a shape shifter.

The quartet faces challenge after challenge and has outrageous experiences and surprises, some of which may remind you of magical things you’ve seen in the Lord Of The Rings movies, the Harry Potter movies and even Game Of Thrones. Teleportation, reviving dead people, fending off monsters, etc. 

The exception to the film’s clever casting is Hugh Grant as Forge who starts the story as a rogue but becomes a lord. Grant is an excellent actor. Charming. Funny. But he’s badly miscast here. Did the producers feel they needed another big name? Is he supposed to be eye candy for moms and grandmas who bring their kids to the movie? Hard to justify.

Speaking of kids… D & D: H A T is rated PG-13. Little ones may be spooked by some of the scary bits. But I know that preteens today have seen more wild and weird stuff than I had seen when I and even my own kids were in that age range. So parental guidance is in order here.

Full disclosure: I have never played D & D but I have several family members who have told me in great detail about campaigns that they have been part of. Remember this is a movie, not a board game. It works as a movie.

The budget was $151 million and it shows. Almost all of the effects look great. Co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein have to be anxious to see how audiences respond to this movie that has been sitting on the shelf for nearly two years. My guess is they will be happy. Not just that the film is now finally released but also that box office and buzz will be good. 

John Wick Chapter 4

Is it an orgy of violence? Yes, but it’s not JUST an orgy of violence. It is ballet.

John Wick Chapter 4 has battle scenes you will remember forever. The grace and skill of the actors. The choreography of the stunt teams. The filmmaking techniques and skills that make you wonder what is real and what is the work of special effects crews. 

The result of these talents is one of the greatest action movies ever made. Best not to wonder “how did they do that” but instead just let the tale unfold and enjoy the ride.

Keanu Reeves as the taciturn Wick leads a gallery of memorable characters. Caine (Donnie Yen) is a blind man who leans on his other senses to employ formidable killing skills. An enormous man with gold teeth called Killa (Scott Adkins in a fat suit) deals a fateful poker hand before engaging Wick in a chase through a crowded Paris dance club. Sadistic bad guy the Marquis (Bill Skarsgård) dresses nice but with a wicked smirk sets into motion the mission to eliminate Wick. 

Back from previous Wick films are Winston “the manager” (Ian McShane), Charon (Lance Reddick who, sadly, just died at age 60 on March 17) and the Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne). 

John Wick Chapter 4 has a story, centered around scads of people looking to kill John Wick. But the real hooks of this film are the one-on-one and one-vs-many battle scenes with combatants using guns, knives, axes, swords, nunchucks, fists, cars and other means of offing opponents. 

Director Chad Stahelski who also helmed the first three Wick flicks is back in the driver’s seat, this time bringing a bigger Wick. Nearly three hours long! (2:49 officially.) But you will not be checking the time once the show kicks off. It opens with a Western flavor as John Wick mounts a sturdy steed and pursues three horsemen across a sandy desert before confronting the Elder (George Georgiou).

The John Wick universe with the High Table and its rules and protocols is an interesting setup. Yes, they try to terminate with extreme prejudice but they have a modicum of respect for one another.

Among the more memorable sequences in this new film is the overhead shot via drone of a battle inside a residence with activity moving from room to room. A chase that runs through traffic on the Arch de Triumph roundabout in Paris is mind-blowing. A battle in the Continental Hotel in Osaka gets Caine into the film’s early action.

Could the action sequences help lead to an Oscar category for the stunt performers? Director Stahleski (who has a stunt background) said in a recent interview: “We (the stunt community) want to be recognized because we’re one of the 11 main departments. We’re in every fucking trailer. Most movies are sold on what we do.”

Is this the final John Wick story? Keanu is only 58 and is in excellent physical shape. To close the door on this iconic character now would be folly. In a year or so, after Chapter 4 has played out its run, keep your ears open for news about more John Wick.


Champions is a Woody Harrelson movie. But the more important characters in this film are the folks with “intellectual disabilities” on his basketball team.

Marcus (Harrelson) gets bounced from his gig as an assistant coach on a minor league hoops squad for insubordination. He drives drunk… right into a police car. He is given community service: coach this untalented team of apparent misfits.

If you’ve seen one sports redemption movie, you’ve seen ‘em all. You can guess what’s going to happen here. But… the journey to the unsurprising outcome has its fun moments.

Quick warning: Champions is not a movie for little kids. It’s PG-13 with sexual references and language but no nudity. Champions is directed by Bobby Farrelly who, with his brother, directed Woody in the funny and downright weird 1996 bowling movie Kingpin (which also had some crude humor).

As Champions begins Marcus is sending off his one-night stand Alex (Kaitlin Olson) only to have her reappear as the sister of one of the intellectually challenged players. She and Marcus ramp up their relationship. (Olson is best-known for her work on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.)

Alex is a Shakespearian actress who plies her trade for school groups. Her van that takes her act on the road also serves as a transport for her brother and his teammates.

Marcus has one truly talented player. But Darius (Joshua Felder), a brain damaged young man, refuses to play for him until Marcus learns why.

In these ultra sensitive times, it may be borderline courageous to focus on young adults with learning disabilities. Ben Stiller was recently roasted again for his film Tropic Thunder and that film’s ridiculous suggestion that an actor portraying a person with learning disabilities never go “full (R-word)” if he wants to win an Oscar. 

There could be criticism for the portrayals of these individuals in the movie from friends and family of persons existing in similar circumstances. But thumbs up to Farrelly and Woody for presenting this crew with good humor and appropriate respect.

Also in the cast are Ernie “Ghostbusters” Hudson as the coach who fires Marcus but later befriends him. And Cheech Marin as the director of the team’s community center.

Champions clocks in at just over two hours. Which seems about 15 minutes too long. But the soundtrack is fun. Tubthumping by Chumbawamba! Among other cool tunes.

Not a “must see.” But an upbeat underdog movie can bring a bit of joy and who doesn’t need some of that these days?

Cocaine Bear

Fun, comic horror/gore with a goofy bear. And Ray Liotta, too! 

Cocaine Bear lives up to the promise of its viral trailer with a story that’s inspired by true events. But that story comes with a whole lot of embellishment. 

The film’s opening scene signals the light-hearted tone of the movie. The ill-fated pilot dances wildly inside his soon-to-crash plane as he ejects the parcels of nose candy just before he ejects himself.

Yes, a bear discovers the coke in the north Georgia woods and appears to like it. Much to the dismay of the St. Louis-based (!) drug kingpin (Liotta) who sends his son (Alden Ehrenreich) and the son’s chum to fetch it. 

The cast also includes Keri Russell as a single mom whose daughter is lost in the woods where the bear is romping, high on flake. And Margo Martindale as a park ranger. They, like everyone else in the cast, are all looking for the bear, the coke or both. But the real star of the movie is the bear.

And the bear looks good! Okay, it’s mostly a CGI bear plus some scenes with a guy in a bear suit. But it looks real. And it is huge. (The bears I’ve seen in the wild in the Smokies are smaller and almost cuddly looking.)

The film, directed by Elizabeth Banks, has sufficient blood and gore to satisfy fans of that kind of thing. (In addition to dismemberment and contusions suffered by humans, the bear slobbers. Gross!) And Cocaine Bear has enough chuckles to tickle audience funny bones.

Considering that Ray Lotta died last May, you might presume this would be his last on-screen appearance. You would be wrong. According to IMDB, there are still three more Liotta roles yet to come.

One more thing: the St. Louis advance screening of Cocaine Bear was held at the city’s new Alamo Drafthouse theater multiplex at City Foundry. The seats, the sight lines, the sound were terrific. Let’s hope this place is a success.

George Carlin’s American Dream

The new two-part documentary George Carlin’s American Dream is a must-see for baby boomers. And a probably-should-see for gen-Xers and millennials. Because Carlin, who died in 2005, has influenced not just other comedians but also for much of our pop culture over the past few decades.

Would there be as many f-bombs in movies and music as we encounter today had Carlin not tested the boundaries with his 7 words you can’t say on TV? Probably yes, but Carlin certainly moved the needle for what’s acceptable. The documentary shows how Carlin and his content evolved in much the same way many of us boomers did.

This retrospective follows the usual pattern: video/audio clips of Carlin’s work, photos, comments from numerous show biz folks. Carlin himself tells parts of the story via recordings he made for his autobiography. The remarks from his older brother Patrick are candid and often hilarious. Those from his daughter Kelly reveal many personal details, especially of George’s relationship with his first wife Brenda and Brenda’s heavy drinking.

Of course, George had his demons, too. Particularly cocaine. The marriage survived their addictions until Brenda’s passing. Interestingly, the doc never hints that either of them was unfaithful. George Carlin’s second wife Sally Wade mentions that Carlin waited until a full year after Brenda’s death before he asked her out.

Carlin mentions in interview clips that he likes people as individuals but does not care for them so much when they form groups and try to exert influence on others. That’s a timely comment considering that one particular group has come down recently on Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais for some of their bits which that particular group finds offensive.

I first became familiar with Carlin in 1966 when he and Richard Pryor were featured on the Kraft Music Hall TV show. I listened to Carlin’s hilarious albums in the early 70s. I saw him at Valley Forge Music Fair near Philly in the early 80s. 

I have enjoyed all the iterations of George Carlin—but I was less enchanted by the last few years of Carlin’s work. Like Mark Twain in his old age, Carlin’s later work was marked with a tinge of bitterness. Parts of his performances became more about pushing an agenda than about getting laughs. But the latter day version of Carlin and his HBO comedy specials resonated with audiences and he went out on top.

It is interesting to recall that even after Carlin went from suits to jeans and grew his hair and a beard, he still hung out with the mainstream talk show hosts: Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore. From the clips included in the doc (and from my personal recollections), it’s obvious why they kept inviting him back: he always had clever things to say.

The main credit for assembling this documentary goes to Judd Apatow, who famously interviewed comedians when he was still a teenager. He and Michael Bonfiglio are the co-directors. The doc is available via HBO Max on cable or stream.

The Tomorrow War

“We are food. And they are hungry.”

“They” are some fierce and ugly aliens who are threatening to destroy human life in the new Amazon movie The Tomorrow War. That’s why Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) leaves his family behind to jump ahead in time. To help save the world.

Among the things to like about The Tomorrow War: A diverse cast. A respect for scientists. Snowmobiles. Betty Gilpin (as Dan’s wife). Family generational drama. Good pacing. And… the audience is not kept waiting too long to actually see those creepy creatures.

Forester is at a Christmas party in December 2022 watching a World Cup soccer match when soldiers from the future fly in to the stadium and interrupt the game to solicit support from the entire world. Their “cry for help across time” is answered by a joint effort of all nations.

(Wait, what? The World Cup at Christmas time? Actually, yes. Since the 2022 World Cup will be played in Qatar, the event is set to run from mid-November to mid-December. So they got that right.)

Dan is drafted. He visits his estranged father (J.K. Simmons) to see if dad can help him avoid the war. That doesn’t work out, so Dan (a vet who served in Iraq back in the 00’s) joins a group of citizens to jump ahead to 2051. At that point, the worldwide population is less than 500,000 and things don’t look good for humanity.

Time travel can be a confusing mess as a plot device. In The Tomorrow War it’s simplified: from 2051 to 2022 and back again. No variations. That’s it. (Not so tricky to keep up with as, say, the movie Tenet.)

After Dan and comrades ascend skyward a la the Rapture, they jump ahead and descend on a devastated Miami. (Unfortunate setting choice given the recent condo tragedy.) The action begins quickly as they pursue, then elude the aliens, grabbing vital vials from a research lab as they go.

After a female creature is captured, a scientist (Yvonne Strahovski) creates a toxin that figures to take the aliens down. But only if Dan can go back in time, produce enough of the toxin and then jump back to the future to wipe out the aliens.

But after he returns to 2022, the time travel mechanism stops working and other actions must be taken.

The face-offs with the aliens are intense. The settings (especially that ocean facility that looks like a gigantic oil drilling platform) look good. And Chris Pratt, the erstwhile Star Lord of the Galaxy and velociraptor handler at Jurassic World, as the everyday guy who gets a shot at being a hero, is an ideal choice for the lead role. Strap in and stream some action via Amazon.

Chris McKay who did the Lego Batman Movie directed The Tomorrow War. The script is by Zach Dean. Rated PG-13.

The Truffle Hunters

A bunch of old men and their dogs traipse around the forests of northern Italy finding and digging up truffles. That’s the quick synopsis of The Truffle Hunters. But, of course, there’s a bit more to the story.

Along with the elderly gents who harvest the coveted white truffles, the film spotlights their dogs and the love the dogs receive from their humans. Dogs are shown sharing meals and baths with their owners and even being blessed by a local priest.

Truffle dealers buy from these hunters with whom they haggle over compensation. And later the dealers engage in more negotiation with the people they sell to.

The aroma of the truffles is a key element of the story. Truffles on display are sniffed by an assortment of folks. “The scent is all that matters,” says one man of the truffles. A dealer, on a call to a potential buyer, talks up their pungent fragrance and bemoans the fact that “I can’t send you the aroma by phone.” 

This new documentary consists mainly of static shots—no camera movement at all—with a couple of exceptions. The brilliant opening shot of the film is a slow zoom in that lasts a full ninety seconds, gradually revealing a truffle hunter and his dogs scrambling up a woodsy hill. 

The other exception is a pair of sequences shot from a camera mounted atop a truffle-sniffing dog. That dog’s eye point of view recalls similar segments from the early days of David Letterman’s show.

My favorite truffle hunter is Carlo who reminds me of my wife’s 90-year-old uncle on his farm in Minnesota. Carlo’s wife tells him that he should give up his pursuit of the underground fungi—especially heading out at night—but he persists.

The film’s “money shot” In my opinion is the scene featuring a dealer dining alone, enjoying a meal of fried eggs topped with truffle shavings. We should all savor tasty delights as slowly and contemplatively!

The Truffle Hunters is a nice change of pace from the politics, proselytizing and crises often encountered in documentaries. The men and the dogs are charming and the pace of the film is moderate.

The Truffle Hunters is in Italian with subtitles. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw share directing and cinematography credits.