The Photograph

Photograph poster

The Photograph strongly resembles a Hallmark Channel movie, but with an African-American cast. And, instead of that one chaste kiss at the end of many Hallmark movies, The Photograph has just enough mild sexual content to merit a PG-13 rating.

Here are a few Hallmark Channel movie tropes that appear in The Photograph:

  1. One of the characters is a journalist. Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) is a writer for a New York based magazine.
  2. One of the characters leaves her small hometown for the big city, but comes back home to visit. Christina (Chanté Adams) is a photographer who leaves Louisiana for New York.
  3. One of the characters spends a lot of time reading a letter left by a person who is no longer around. Mae (Issa Rae) reads and rereads the letter left by her mother who is recently deceased.
  4. One of the characters has a parent die. (See #3.)
  5. One of the characters stays in the small town and has a reunion with one who comes back. Isaac (Rob Morgan) is one who is left behind.
  6. A surprising revelation occurs. Although some might say, “I saw that coming!” (Sorry, no spoiler here.)
  7. A number of coincidences move the plot along. (No spoilers here either.)
  8. Several conversations include glasses of wine.
  9. Romantic attraction for the two main characters, Michael and Mae, is obvious to the audience if not to the characters.
  10. Family members caution against moving too fast into a serious relationship. Michael’s brother Kyle (Lil Rey Howery) shares his thoughts over wine and beer.
  11. A sad goodbye.
  12. A happy ending. (Well, duh.)

Stanfield and Rae each have lots of charisma and they have great onscreen chemistry. The parallel tales of the two generations are presented with a bit of melodrama—but that’s a good thing.

The Photograph is a romantic movie for grownups. Yes, the film was written and directed by a woman, Stella Meghie.

Like many Hallmark Channel movies it touches emotional buttons, it has some contrived plot elements and most of the situations get resolved in satisfying ways.

 

 

 

 

 

Downhill

DOWNHILL

If you’re looking for a romantic comedy starring two popular stars to make you feel all warm inside this Valentine’s Day weekend, Downhill is NOT it.

If you’re looking for a disappointing movie that will make you feel uncomfortable, maybe then Downhill IS for you.

One might think that married couple Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) would have some madcap adventures on the ski runs that would result in loads of laughs. One would be wrong. Downhill is a “drama/comedy” with the emphasis on family drama.

On a positive note, the scenery in Downhill is gorgeous. The Alpine slopes glisten in the Austrian sun. The action shots make skiing look like more fun than it really is.

Another positive note: the film is mercifully short, clocking in at a mere 85 minutes.

Pete and Billie and their two young sons head to Europe ostensibly to ease the pain brought on by Pete’s dad’s recent passing. But when a “controlled” avalanche goes out of control, it becomes apparent that Pete and Billie have other issues beside Pete’s ongoing grief.

Some of the side characters add a bit of spice to the show. The horny hotel manager Charlotte (Miranda Otto) is fun but also a bit off-putting. The cocky ski patrol leader (Kristofer Hivju) throws more cold water on the anticipated good times. Billie’s ski instructor Guglielmo (Giulio Berruti) has some success trying to perk up her spirits.

Pete’s co-worker Zach (Zach Woods) and his girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao) are unwitting witnesses to Pete and Billie’s big blow up—not much fun there.

Downhill was inspired by a 2014 French film Force Majeure, which has a similar plot. Force Majeure‘s IMDB rating is 7.3.

Downhill has an IMDB rating of 4.0. Downhill is the kind of movie you might watch a year or two from now on cable or Netflix when there’s nothing else on. Rated R.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just Mercy

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Just Mercy is a movie with a message. It is a moving, emotional, visceral film.

Based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who comes to Alabama to work on behalf of a death row inmate, the film succeeds because of the strong performances by its cast, especially its two leads. And because it handles the legal movie set pieces with restraint and grace. Just Mercy has its tense moments but does not overwhelm with melodrama.

It’s important to note that Just Mercy is rated PG-13, which means it is more likely to be seen by younger viewers than an R-rated version of this story would be. The film moves at a brisk pace and should keep moviegoers of all ages engaged.

Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) sits in Alabama’s Holman Prison sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard Law grad, comes south to examine the case. He discovers that testimony which was key to McMillian’s conviction was false.

In telling McMillian’s story, Just Mercy also presents those of others on death row. An execution is presented in stark detail, stopping just short of showing the actual event.

The cast includes Brie Larson as local woman Eva Ansley who helps Stevenson set up the Equal Justice Initiative. (She previously worked with Just Mercy director Destin Daniel Cretton in the excellent 2013 film Short Term 12.) Tim Blake Nelson appears as prisoner Ralph Myers, a man whose damaged life is spared by giving false testimony. Rob Gordon plays McMillian’s death row neighbor Herbert Richardson in a heart-breaking performance. The ensemble of players who portrayed McMillian’s Monroeville, Alabama family and neighbors is a natural and likable crew.

Stevenson’s real life message and the message of the movie is that injustice is real, not just a plot in a novel written by a woman who was also from Monroeville, and it remains an issue today.

Stevenson has played a role in overturning numerous convictions around the U.S. He advocates against the death penalty.

Will this movie change minds and behaviors? We’ve seen dramas such as Twelve Angry Men that cause us to reconsider the true meaning of justice. Even that one episode of The Andy Griffith Show—where a guy played by Jack Nicholson(!) is accused of a crime and the only one who believes (correctly) that he’s innocent is Aunt Bea—informs us that what our natural prejudices might suggest may not always be accurate.

Just Mercy may be the perfect vehicle for Stevenson’s ideas to reach an broad audience beyond those who’ve read his book or attended his speaking engagements. That is, if people go see it.

 

 

 

 

1917

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1917 is a really good war movie. The reason it is not quite great is… its gimmick.

Some have hailed the gimmick as a major accomplishment even though another movie did pretty much the same thing a few years ago.

The gimmick is: the entire movie is what appears to be one continual shot that seems to run in real time. The gimmick is impressive, without a doubt. It is also distracting.

As I viewed 1917, my concern was less for the film’s characters and more for the camera and sound crews as they had to navigate trenches, rough terrain and water hazards to get the shots.

The “one continual shot” bit was a feature of 2014’s Birdman but it did not distract quite as much from that film’s compelling story. Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture five years ago.

1917’s story is simple. Two young British soldiers in Europe during World War One are chosen to deliver a message to the commander of another unit of Brit troops. The message: “don’t proceed with your planned attack… it’s a trap.” Oh, and one of the two guys has a brother in that group that’s planning to attack. Oh, and they have to walk all the way to get to that other battalion.

Of course, the journey is perilous. Hey, it’s WWI and the Germans are bad people. (Well, they were bad people then. And then again a couple of decades later. But we like them okay nowadays, right?)

1917 has appearances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth but their screen time is fleeting. The two young guys are played by relative unknowns Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay as Corporals Blake and Schofield, respectively. Both are good! (Chapman played King Tommen on Game Of Thrones.)

You may be able to enjoy this film and appreciate the feeling of immersion that director Sam Mendes hopes to achieve with this special perspective. You may not be distracted with thoughts about the welfare of the crew behind the camera. You may, as some critics already have done, praise the one continual shot thing as genius.

Or, you may, as I have, find it to be a distracting (and unnecessary) gimmick.

1917 was included on several top ten lists for 2019 releases. The film won Golden Globe awards for Best Drama and Best Director. Its imdb.com rating (from a small sample of users) is 8.6, the same as Saving Private Ryan.

1917’s wide release was pushed back from a Christmas Day 2019 opening to the less competitive January 10. (Although 1917 is still competing for IMAX screen time with Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker.)

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Awards Season And I Don’t Care Who Wins

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Awards are nice. I’ve prepared materials that led to PR clients winning significant awards. I have been a finalist for national broadcast awards. Recognition for one’s efforts can be gratifying.

But I seriously do not care anymore who wins the big awards. Oh, I have been passionate in the past! Michael Keaton should’ve won an Oscar for Birdman but an actor who played an especially sympathetic character won that year. I got in trouble in the 80’s when I joked on air that a certain rock group must’ve shared their cocaine with lots of music industry voters to win a Record of the Year Grammy (which they should not have won).

One reason I don’t care anymore is voting for most entertainment awards is not transparent. We do not know who the voters are nor do we know how many votes a winner receives. It has been suspected Harvey Weinstein (and others) have called in favors and swayed voting to nab awards for a particular film or actor. Is a record company executive likely to vote for Grammy nominees based on their performances or based on their business connections to that exec? Also, it is generally not revealed whether a winner wins with a 90% majority or a 39% plurality. Should those numbers be made public? I don’t know. And I don’t care.

Voting for many sports awards, on the other hand, IS transparent. We know how many votes Joe Burrow received for the Heisman Trophy and the identity of many Heisman voters is known. Similarly, with baseball MVP and Cy Young awards, we know who votes and by how big a margin the winners win. Sometimes I agree with the choices; sometimes I don’t. It’s interesting to see who wins and I do have my sports favorites. But I don’t care who wins those votes.

More controversial are Hall of Fame votes. Will the Pro Football Hall of Fame choose Isaac Bruce this year? They should. But because they’ve overlooked him in the past, I don’t care anymore. Peter Gammons posted an impassioned plea on The Athletic last week for baseball HOF voters to vote for Curt Schilling for his baseball accomplishments and to overlook some of Schilling’s obnoxious behaviors in his private life. Will they? I doubt it. But I don’t care. (Let’s not even get started on the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame and its shortcomings. I used to care. I do not anymore.)

Another reason I don’t care is that there are now such a huge number of awards handed out. I recall one season a few years back when I was more impressed by certain actors’ abilities to act surprised when they won award after award after award for the same acting job than I was for their actual on screen performances. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration AND a badly constructed sentence. For that I apologize.)

The Golden Globes were handed out this past Sunday. The Critics Choice Awards will be presented Sunday, January 12. Oscar nominees will be announced Monday, January 13. The SAG Awards will be handed out on Sunday, January 19. Grammy winners will be announced Sunday, January 26. The big Academy Awards show with Oscar winners will be telecast Sunday, February 9.

Awards shows can be a pleasant amusement and entertaining TV. I’ve attended a few of the country music awards shows in Nashville and Los Angeles and they (and the after parties) are fun. Awards shows are useful because they generate lots of discussion and plenty of publicity for artists and their works.

I’ll watch some of the upcoming awards shows. I’ll groan at the hosts’ attempts to be funny. I will be curious to see who gets to walk up and accept the various trophies. I’ll be happy for some of the winners. I’ll enjoy the occasional surprises. I’ll read the inevitable online rants afterward about who got snubbed. But, sorry, I really don’t care who wins.

My Top 20 Movies Of The Decade

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  1. Silver Linings Playbook. (2012) This movie has, as they say, “all the feels.” Bradley Cooper and J-Law as damaged individuals who muddle through. Script by David O. Russell who also directed.
  2. The Descendants. (2011) George Clooney at his best. Shailene Woodley’s debut. Alexander Payne directed and co-wrote.
  3. The Grand Budapest Hotel. (2014) A zany Wes Anderson classic. If the Marx Brothers were still making movies they might’ve made one like this. Features Ralph Fiennes and Edward Norton among a stellar cast.
  4. Skyfall. (2012) The best Bond movie since Goldfinger. Javier Bardem is a great villain and Judi Dench as M delivers an emotional performance. Director is Sam Mendes.
  5. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. (2019) The best pacing of any recent Quentin Tarantino film with tons of entertaining scenes. Leo and Brad are given memorable characters and they make the most of the opportunity.
  6. Ex Machina. (2015) Thoughtful sci-fi. The old “robot who looks and acts human” bit. But beautifully written and acted. Oscar Isaac as a tech guru, Alicia Vikander as the robot. With Domhnall Gleason.
  7. Snowpiercer. (2013) Aboard a train in a dystopian future, this movie is full of surprises around every bend. From Korean director Bong Joon-ho.
  8. Inside Llewyn Davis. (2013) The Coen brothers tale of an early 60’s hard luck folk singer. Oscar Isaac in the lead.
  9. Argo. (2012) Mostly true story of effort to remove diplomats from Iran during the hostage crisis. Ben Affleck directed and starred.
  10. Drive. (2011) Ryan Gosling is a moody guy who drives getaway cars and stunt cars. Great supporting work from Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks.
  11. Deadpool. (2016) Way more entertaining than the films and characters it makes fun of. Best opening credits ever! Ryan Reynolds makes it work.
  12. Get Out. (2017) Jordan Peele’s debut as a writer and director. Weirdness, screams and a message, too.
  13. Incredibles 2. (2018) Pixar’s best characters in a great story with cool mid-century modern settings.
  14. Birdman. (2014) Creative, mind-blowing film. Michael Keaton should’ve won the Oscar.
  15. The Revenant. (2015) Leonardo Di Caprio in a stunning performance. This film’s cinematography is among the best ever.
  16. Steve Jobs. (2015) Not a biopic but a slice of his life. Michael Fassbender as the Apple leader. Script by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Danny Boyle
  17. The Big Sick. (2017) Kumail Nanjiani delivers the funniest line of the decade when he replies to Ray Romano’s question about 9/11. Film is funny and touching.
  18. Bladerunner 2049. (2017) The long-awaited sequel to the 1982 classic. Amazing images and a story with many layers to unfold.
  19. Whiplash. (2014) J.K. Simmons is an unforgiving, abusive music teacher. Miles Teller is good, too. Director Damien Chazelle’s breakout.
  20. The Social Network. (2010) The story of the beginning of Facebook, released before the platform became the behemoth it is today. Great script from Aaron Sorkin with strong acting throughout.

Cats

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There are two kinds of people in America: those who’ve seen Cats performed live on stage and those who haven’t. Despite numerous roadshow performances across the U.S. since the 1980’s and its nearly two decade run on Broadway, most Americans have not seen Cats performed live.

If you have seen it on stage, you likely recall the songs, the costumes, the sets and general vibe of the show. Many embraced it for its creativity. Others found it cheesy.

If you have never seen Cats on stage, you need to know this about Cats the movie: It’s a musical. Not much of a plot. Songs with lyrics by St. Louis’s own T.S. Eliot and melodies by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Several cool cat costumes. A variety of fun, clever sets.

The new Cats movie from director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl) combines the show’s catchy tunes with flashy dance numbers performed by a talented cast. Some of the stars you know: Idris Elba, Judi Dench, James Corden, Ian McKellan, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson and Taylor Swift.

One performer who you don’t know is one of the film’s dance stars, Francesca Hayward from London’s Royal Ballet. Not only is she a joy to watch as a dancer, her elfin appearance is a reason the camera so often focuses on her face.

As with most musicals, some songs are better than others and the energy of the show fluctuates throughout. Highlights include Taylor Swift’s Macavity (Elba is Macavity the cat; Swift sings the song) and the Fosse-like dance bit that goes with it. Jennifer Hudson’s performance of the show’s “hit” tune Memory is the most moving version I’ve ever heard of this emotional song.

Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy provides an enjoyable endnote as she recites How To Ad-Dress A Cat. The amazing Dench, who just turned 85, is a beloved presence who adds class to most everything she’s in. (In all the stage versions I’ve seen and soundtrack albums I’ve heard, Old Deuteronomy was a male cat. Now OD is a female.)

Cats the movie is a fun, mostly lightweight amusement that the whole family (except maybe the young squirmers) can enjoy. And a movie ticket at your local cinema will set you back quite a bit less that the inevitable roadshow revival ticket at the Fox in a few years.

 

Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker

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Action! Of course, there’s action in a Star Wars movie but in Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker the action is plentiful without ever bogging down. The kinetic action to standing around talking ratio is high. The pacing is swift, allowing many things to happen in the two hours and fifteen minutes between John Williams’s famous opening fanfare and the start of the end credits.

The anticipated faceoff between the good guy (woman) Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the bad guy Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is complicated by the return of the baddest of the bad Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).

Rey is the brightest light in the galaxy. She’s fierce. She’s smart. She can levitate. Her swordplay (well, light saber play) is skillful. She flies and flips in ways that recall the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She can communicate telepathically. And, although she does not flaunt her sexuality, it’s obvious that pilots Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) have their eyes on her.

Considering that The Rise Of Skywalker is said to be the conclusion of the nine Star Wars episodes George Lucas originally envisioned, it’s appropriate that this film includes a good amount of “fan service.” That’s a term from the anime community that refers to elements of a movie or book which may not be vital to the narrative but might provide a thrill or two to viewers or readers. In the anime world, fan service is often racy or suggestive, but in SW:TROS it is mainly nods to prior Star Wars films.

Not mere fan service but a major presence in the film is Lando Calrissian, played by 82-year-old Billy Dee Williams who appears to be having a blast in the role.

Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker hits all the right notes and should make fans of the series quite happy. That includes those of us who saw the first film 42-and-a-half years ago as well as relative newcomers who are just now catching up.

It is, however, hard to believe that Disney and Lucasfilms will, after establishing Rey as a major player in the Star Wars universe, abandon the character and move on to totally different Star Wars scenarios. Especially after the success of strong females in the Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel movies—and with a Black Widow movie coming in just over four months—it’s easy to imagine a Rey-centered feature popping up a few years down the road. Quoting a James Bond title, “Never say ‘never again.’”

Tread carefully as you bound about the interwebs during the next few days, keeping a careful eye out for spoilers and leaks about this film. Even the best reviewers sometimes share vague hints which, when churned through the mind of a series fan, can lead to conclusions that are often accurate. If you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, stay off Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Best Food Movies of the Decade

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  1. Chef. (2014) Jon Favreau wrote, directed and starred. He delivers a tirade to a restaurant critic (like many chefs have probably fantasized about doing) and the video of his rant goes viral. This movie hits Miami and Austin as well as L.A. and addresses the value of social media in the food business.
  2. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. (2011) This documentary shows the great care Jiro puts into each meal at his tiny restaurant in Tokyo and how he addresses succession issues with his son.
  3. City Of Gold. (2015) Jonathan Gold (who died last year) widens the scope of food writing in Los Angeles beyond fine dining by going into parts of town and the sorts of eating places that have been historically overlooked. This documentary allows him to share his love for the food of L.A.
  4. The Hundred-Foot Journey. (2014) Helen Mirren stars as the owner of a Michelin-starred restaurant in the French countryside. A family of émigrés from India sets up their own place right across the street. You might be able to guess what happens. The beauty shots of the food are gorgeous.
  5. Step Up To The Plate. (2012) This leisurely-paced documentary focuses on chef Michel Bras and his plans to hand over his restaurant in rural France to his son.
  6. Burnt. (2015) Bradley Cooper stars as a chef whose flame burned out in Paris. After getting clean and sober, he attempts a comeback in London. He is a perfectionist and bit of a jerk. As with some of the other films on this list, the food porn beauty shots are stunning.
  7. A Place At The Table. (2013) This documentary focuses on families in rural Colorado and Mississippi and in Philadelphia and their efforts to put nutritious food on their tables. Jeff Bridges and Tom Colicchio (whose wife co-directed) appear on screen to offer their thoughts.
  8. Spinning Plates. (2012) A documentary that visits the extraordinary Grant Achatz and his creative meals at Alinea in Chicago. Less interesting are visits to a family restaurant in Iowa and a Mexican spot in Tuscon.
  9. Eat Pray Love. (2010) The “eat” part is the best of the three segments. The pasta that Julia Roberts eats in Rome looks delicious. The movie has its moments but the general verdict is the book was much better.
  10. Sausage Party. (2016) I did not see this film about animated food items but heard that it is very funny and very dirty.

 

My Ten Best Movies of 2019

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  1. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt are at their best with wonderful characters from the mind of Quentin Tarantino. The music of the late 60’s with audio clips from the KHJ boss jocks is infused throughout this story of a washed-up actor and his loyal stuntman and sidekick. QT’s best since Pulp Fiction.
  2. Parasite. What a story! And such terrific acting! This tale of modern day class structure and envy is set in Seoul but could be told in any large city in the U.S. Writer/Director Bong Joon-ho keeps the surprises coming from start to finish in this comedy/drama/horror/suspense film.
  3. The Lighthouse. This looks like some Bergman film I might’ve seen in film class in college 50 years ago. It’s in black-and-white with an almost 1:1 aspect ratio. Two men working together in a remote, isolated lighthouse in the late 1800’s. Willem Dafoe should be up for acting awards. Robert Pattinson is good, too.
  4. The Irishman. Martin Scorcese’s epic seems familiar but also fresh at the same time. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are top notch, as usual. But Joe Pesci steals the show by low keying it.
  5. Toy Story 4. How many times can Disney/Pixar go to the well with this setup? As long as they deliver new stories and new characters, there’s no limit, really. Number 4 is a delight.
  6. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Voice. Not just another biographical documentary. Yes, it employs the standard pattern of clips and talking heads but this film has more music than most similar films. And it does a good job of showing us how Linda is living life now.
  7. Us. In addition to being one of the funniest men alive, Jordan Peele is an immensely talented filmmaker. Us is a horror movie that is imaginative and outrageous but also relatable to our modern lives. Peele wrote and directed Us, which lends itself to multiple interpretations.
  8. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers in a feel-good film. Can he really be this nice? This film shows the positive effect Mr. Rogers had on one specific adult. Which jibes perfectly with what we’ve seen of the real Fred Rogers on TV.
  9. Marriage Story. It’s not exactly Kramer Vs Kramer redux, but Marriage Story follows a similar path 40 years later. The script by director Noah Baumbach and the performances by Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Laura Dern are all awards worthy.
  10. Richard Jewell. This film is embroiled in controversy over its depiction of a newspaper reporter. But the real reason this film soars is the performance by relative unknown Paul Walter Hauser in the title role. He’s great. The always dependable Kathy Bates and Sam Rockwell are strong in their supporting roles.

Some other movies I liked this year:

Stuber. It was funny! The fight scene in the sporting goods store is classic stuff.

Yesterday. Fantasy rom-com with Beatles music. Nostalgic fun.

1917. This WWI movie’s gimmick (subjective camera with long takes a la Birdman) is impressive but sometimes distracting. (Opens in STL in January.)

Judy. Renee Zellweger is excellent as a strung-out Judy Garland.

The Current War. Edison versus Westinghouse. Well-told with several nice directorial flourishes.

The Mustang. Prisoners in Nevada find value in breaking wild horses.

Penguins. My favorite animals. Beautiful footage of their lives in Antarctica.

The Addams Family. Silly fun with all the familiar characters.

Long Shot. Ridiculous romcom with Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron. Nice to see Andy “Gollum” Serkis in his natural human form!

Captain Marvel. Yes, a woman can be the main star of a Marvel movie. Brie Larson was more than up to the task. And the 90’s nostalgia was cool.