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.


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. 

French Exit

How do you make an art film? You might start with some eccentric characters and have them doing odd things in exotic places. Say, for instance, Paris. But a gray and rainy Paris, not the colorful one.

Add a soundtrack dominated by pensive piano music with the occasional woodwinds. Throw in some an assortment of side characters, some of whom are a bit off-center. And maybe have something gimmicky like a séance and a black cat that may be… special.

To get the money to make such a film, line up a well-known star like Michelle Pfieffer. And cast an up-and-comer like Lucas Hedges. They co-star in the new movie French Exit.

Here’s the good news: Michelle Pfieffer, now in her early 60’s, looks great! She is rocking red hair in this film. Her wardrobe is spectacular, even her housecoat. 

Here’s the bad news: French Exit is a bore. 

When New York socialite widow Frances Price (Pfieffer) is told that her money is running out, she liquidates what’s left of her valuables and takes her adult son Malcolm (Hedges) with her to Paris. Frances carries huge stacks of currency which she hands out freely. 

Early in the film Frances says, “my plan was to die before all the money ran out.” Later in Paris, she writes, “when the money runs out I’ll kill myself.” Throughout the film the stack of bills on the closet shelf keeps getting smaller.

Frances is not an especially likable person. Nor is Malcolm. The relationship between mother and son, testy at times, should have been better developed. 

Sadly, it’s hard to root for a happy ending. Or for an unhappy ending. What I was rooting for when I watched French Exit was simply… an ending. (But Michelle Pfieffer does look good, even as she makes her… French Exit.)

(For what it’s worth, Wiktionary says the term “French exit” means “A hasty exit made without saying farewells to anybody.”)

French Exit is rated R. (Language. No nudity. A smidge of violence.)

The Father

What is it like to experience dementia? The new film The Father provides a glimpse. The picture is not a pretty one. And not just for the individual suffering cognitive decline.

Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is the father of Anne (Olivia Colman). He has trouble remembering. Little things. And big things. When she tells him she is moving to Paris, leaving him in London, his difficulties become worse.

A cleverly constructed screenplay presents the film’s events with some ambiguity. What is real and what is imagined is conflated just as Anthony’s recollections are mashups of his life’s experiences.

That screenplay is co-written by French playwright Florian Zeller. He also wrote the play. Oh, and he is also making his feature film debut as a director with The Father. Wow!

Sometimes a stage play loses something when it is adapted for the movie screen. But in the case of The Father, the film version allows for facial closeups that display depths of expression one might not perceive from the distance of a stage performance.

Faced with the dilemma many baby boomers have had to address (and now some gen-xers, too), Anne seeks outside help to care for her father. One candidate, Laura (Imogeen Poots), when told about his unpleasant tendencies by Anne, assures her that her father’s behavior is “quite normal” for those in his state. 

Paul (Rufus Sewell), the man in Anne’s life, suggests she put her dad in a home. Is he being selfish or is he offering the objective view that she does not have about Anthony’s condition? 

If you have cared for aging parents you may identify with Anne and her stressful circumstance. And if you are approaching senior status—or just hope to live a long life—The Father might be a preview of what could await you or some of your contemporaries unless you are lucky.

Anthony Hopkins recently turned 83. (His character Anthony in the film gives his birthday as December 31, 1937—same as the real-life Anthony.) His performance in The Father has already netted him award nominations (and losses to Chadwick Boseman). And when the Oscar noms are announced on March 15, expect him to be on the list. 

Olivia Colman has also received multiple nominations this award season. 

Just as 2001’s A Beautiful Mind tries to show what life is like for a person with schizophrenia, so does The Father reveal a subjective view of dementia. Like that film from twenty years ago, this new film is not just entertaining but also instructive. 

The Father is rated PG-13. 

Coming 2 America

Coming 2 America is funny. The costumes are amazing—quite colorful. There are many surprises. Music and dance sequences are lit.

Eddie Murphy commands the screen. But co-star Arsenio Hall brings his A-game, too.

Add Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan to the mix for more laughs.

Has it really been 33 years since the first Coming To America was released? Actually 32 years and eight-and-a-half months but, as they say, who’s counting? In an industry that loves sequels and reboots, the big question is what took so long? Murphy, after all, made two sequels to Beverly Hills Cop with another rumored to be in development.

(There’s actually a conversation about movie sequels in the film with one of the characters uttering the line, “If something is good, why ruin it?” Irony intended.)

Prince Akeem (Murphy) of the fictional African country Zamunda is reminded by his dying father (James Earl Jones) that the throne must eventually be passed to a male heir. But Akeem and his wife Lisa (Shari Headley) have only had girls. Word comes that Akeem may have a son in America from barely remembered one night stand in the U.S. in the 80’s.

Akeem and his sideman Semmi (Hall) head back to America and find the son. Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) agrees to come to Zamunda but insists that his mother Mary (Leslie Jones) and uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan) be included in the entourage. Jones is a brilliant addition to the cast—she brings laughs and, yes, charm.

Another wrinkle is General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), leader of the neighboring nation Nexdoria, threatening to declare war on Zamunda unless one of Akeem’s daughters marries his son or, later, unless Lavelle marries his daughter. Meanwhile, Lavelle falls for his royal groomer Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha).

As with the 1988 Coming To America, a major highlight of the sequel is Murphy and Hall portraying multiple characters, including the barbershop guys in New York. The makeup and prosthetics crews have done great work here, but Murphy and Hall are the guys who make these characters hilariously memorable. 

The film is filled with with entertaining bits including a ridiculous “ceremonial circumcision.” Surprise faces pop up throughout—not naming names here; they’ll be out there soon enough.

Coming 2 America is rated PG-13 with some suggestive material. But it’s a bit tamer than the first one which was rated R. 

Coming 2 America is available on Amazon Prime Video with no upcharge for Prime members.

The Mauritanian

After 9/11, the United States sought to round up all the bad guys responsible for the attacks and bring them to Guantanamo Naval Air Station in Cuba. Their fates there were to be determined.

Among the detainees: a Mauritanian, Mohamedou Slahi (Tahar Rahim). In the film The Mauritanian, Nancy Hollander (Jody Foster) is the Albuquerque-based attorney who is drafted to defend Slahi. Assisting her is Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley). Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Marine, is the government attorney assigned to prosecute Slahi. 

But what is the charge against him? The film, based on Slahi’s book Guantanamo Diary, reveals the nuanced form of jurisprudence practiced by the U.S. toward the detainees. The scope of the 9/11 attacks made the nation less concerned about the rights of those accused of perpetrating such horror and more concerned about meting out punishment.

Slahi’s initial meetings with inquisitors at Gitmo are shown to be civil, sort of the “good cop” approach. Slahi, as presented in the film, does not appear to have the temperament one might expect of someone accused of being part of the Al Qaeda terrorist conspiracy. 

Slahi is slow to warm to the Hollander-Woodley team’s effort to obtain justice for him. But as their visits continue and his frustration builds, he comes to appreciate their work on his behalf.

Did the opposing barristers Hollander and Couch actually first meet in Cuba at the Gitmo airport or is that an invention of the screenwriters? Doesn’t matter. It serves to show that the two, while sharing beers in the airport bar, are steadfast in their beliefs regarding Slahi.

Both the Hollander-Duncan team and Couch have difficulty gaining access to documents that might help them in their respective cases. When they do finally get it, some of the info is so heavily redacted as to be useless.

The telling of Slahi’s story by director Kevin McDonald progresses at a modest pace before concluding bombastically with revelations of some missing elements of the narrative. 

Jody Foster as the stern-faced, doggedly committed advocate is at her best and, in the wake of her recent Golden Globes win, may be Oscar nomination-worthy. Her bright red lipstick gives her a more mature look compared to some of her prior roles. Cumberbatch brings one of the most authentic Southern accents I’ve heard in a while to his portrayal of Couch. (Sorry, but as a native Alabamian, I often cringe at the terrible attempts by some actors to sound Southern.
Especially Brits.)

Rahim brings a multi-dimensional performance as a man who is, at times, charming but who may also have been involved in the terrible events of 9/11. To cast an unknown in the title role was a risky move, but Rahim shows it to have been a good choice.

The weakest aspect of The Mauritanian: its title! Hard to believe that that’s the best they could come up with.