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.

 

 

Richard Jewell

Jewell

When the fate of your movie depends on the talents of one single actor—a relative unknown in the title role, no less—he (or she) had better be up to the task.

Paul Walter Hauser was director Clint Eastwood’s choice to play Richard Jewell, the man falsely accused of placing a deadly bomb at Centennial Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. Houser delivers a stunning performance.

The ordeal Jewell endured that summer at the hands of the FBI and local and national media outlets was brutal. He and his mother Barbara (Kathy Bates) managed to survive the intense pressure.

More than just the story about Jewell being named the FBI’s prime suspect and the media attention that followed, Richard Jewell presents a close look at Richard Jewell the man.

As I watched this movie, I felt a special connection to Jewell because he reminded me of my brother who died in 2013. Jim was heavy. Okay, obese. He lived his entire life in the South (Birmingham). He had worked security jobs. He had law enforcement ambitions. He got an associates degree in criminal justice several years after obtaining his BA degree. And he died at an early age. (Jewell’s passing is noted in the film’s end notes.)

Much like Jewell is portrayed in the film, my brother was a nice guy with a good nature. Overly trusting, sometimes gullible. But despite all the crap life threw at him, he maintained an upbeat attitude.

The culprits in Richard Jewell are FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) and Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). The FBI pegs Jewell as the possible bomber based on profiling and Shaw leaks to Scruggs that Jewell is the prime suspect. The paper breaks the story in a page one headline that transforms Jewell from hero to accused terrorist.

(There is controversy about the role of Scruggs, a real life journalist who is now deceased. The movie indicates she may have traded sexual favors to Shaw for his tip about Jewell. The newspaper denies this. Much has been written and more will be written about the movie’s accuracy and about the media’s obsession with the Jewell case. Does this possible embellishment call other details of the story into question? Not necessarily.)

The hero of the story is attorney Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) whose efforts to keep Jewell from talking to the FBI are futile. Because Jewell feels that he, too, as a security guard is a sort of law enforcement brother to the FBI guys.

This movie will be attacked by numerous media outlets because it portrays news media as vultures who are eager to convict based on hearsay. But if you enjoy a story about heroism and humanity, don’t skip this film.

One more note about Hauser. As a native Southerner, I’ve heard actors—Oscar winners, even—try to replicate an authentic Southern accent and fail miserably. Hauser, who was raised in Michigan, sounds like a native son of the South. Good job, buddy!

One more note about Clint Eastwood. The man turned 89 in May and keeps turning out quality work. He is a true national treasure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

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How could they make a movie about Mr. Rogers? Is there some untold story? Was he different in real life? Did he have secrets the world never knew about? What could this movie tell us that we didn’t already know about Mr. R? Where’s the conflict?

Well, the film A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood does focus on a guy who has lots of conflict in his life. But it’s a magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) who has issues (pun intended), not Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks).

The real-life Mr. Rogers was a genuinely nice guy who had a special connection with his young viewers, as was shown in the 2018 documentary about him (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). In this new film, which is “inspired by true events,” Rogers connects with and counsels the adult, Lloyd, who has come to profile him for Esquire.

Tom Hanks is, yes, a bit chunkier than Fred Rogers was. But Hanks has that nice guy image and is an apt choice for the role. His big smile is a bit unnatural compared to the real Mr. Rogers’ smile, but at least he tries.

Hanks is at his best when he slows down the pace of the movie and, in one case, pauses silently for several seconds before continuing. He delivers guidance to the journalist but he also… listens!

Is Hanks’ performance Oscar-worthy? He’s not a shoo-in, but he should be in the mix for consideration.

Credit goes to the writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Hapster along with director Marielle Heller for structuring a film that imitates a real Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood episode. The Pittsburgh and New York City skylines are represented by miniatures similar to those used on the Neighborhood show.

The cast also includes Chris Cooper as Lloyd’s estranged dad and Susan Kelechi Watson as Lloyd’s wife.

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is a true feel-good movie with several scenes that will bring a smile. If you and/or your kids watched Mr. Rogers on TV, this story will touch your soul. If you are less familiar with Fred Rogers and his show, you will still appreciate the humanity and sweetness of the man.

 

Parasite

ParasiteThe new movie from Korea called Parasite has everything: drama, comedy, suspense, terror, sex and violence. It is one of the year’s best.

The lower middle class Kim family (dad, mom, adult son and adult daughter) manages, via a series of lies and deceptions, to become support staff for the upper class Park family (dad, mom, young teen daughter and preteen son). As they say in click bait headlines, you won’t believe what happens next!

Here’s an interesting catch: neither family is composed of bad people. The Kims scrape by in a small basement apartment because the outfits that dad has recently worked for have gone belly up or had layoffs. The other family members are also not employed. Yes, they misrepresent themselves to the Parks but they are not immoral people.

The Parks live in a gorgeous modern design home and, while they enjoy the perks of wealth, they are not obnoxious. They, too, are generally likable people. There’s no real villain here.

Parasite won the Palm d’Or award for best film at the Cannes Film Festival and is the 2nd highest rated 2019 film (after Joker) on the imdb.com Top 250 at #36.

Bong Joon Ho who co-wrote and directed 2013’s Snowpiercer and 2017’s Okja (both in English) is the director and co-writer of this film, which is in Korean with English subtitles. The cast and crew for Parasite are all Korean.

Although the story is set in Seoul, this is a story that could be set in almost any American urban area and acted by an American cast. This clever, imaginative film hits several emotional buttons. Parasite is “must see.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Irishman

The Irishman

The story seems familiar. It includes elements we’ve seen in other mob movies, including its three main cast members. Nevertheless, The Irishman is an epic. For many reasons.

Yes, it’s long. Three-and-a-half hours. But it rarely drags. Could the story have been told in a shorter movie? Yes. I compare this film to a 600-page novel. Could such a story be trimmed to 350 pages? Sure, but you lose character development and small episodes that contribute to the texture of the whole narrative.

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is The Irishman. His story is told in flashbacks and in flashbacks within flashbacks. (Don’t worry, there’s no Christopher Nolan Inception-type business to decode.)

Frank is a Philadelphia truck driver. Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) takes Frank under his wing and connects him to a variety of mob types including numerous real-life hoods such as Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). Frank quickly moves from small tasks to “painting houses,” which is code for killing.

Eventually, Frank, a loyal Teamster, is pegged to be bodyguard and travel partner for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Although Hoffa’s real-life legacy is that of a ruthless strongman, he is also shown to be a teetotaler family man whose main vice is ice cream.

It’s always good to see De Niro in a non-comedic role. Some of his reactions in The Irishman recall those from his Focker movies, SNL bits and other lighter roles, but this character is serious about what he does.

Pacino as Hoffa is loud and boisterous, a bully. Hoffa is recalled nowadays mainly from old news clips but Pacino gives him new life.

Pesci’s character is a low-key guy who communicates directly and clearly but without the bombast some of his other characters have employed. Of the three principal stars, Pesci’s performance is best because he does not overact. Also, while De Niro and Pacino have been seen in movies and on TV in recent years, Pesci has been mostly MIA. It’s great to see him back onscreen.

Because the story is told in flashbacks, Frank and Russell are depicted at various stages of life over a 50 or so year span. Makeup and special effects teams on this movie have done a spectacular job of making these depictions believable. Bravo!

Martin Scorsese directing another mob movie with old mob movie stars? Could’ve been a lame imitation of his past work but The Irishman is fresh and compelling from beginning to end. An epic.

 

 

Frozen II

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Frozen II is a no-brainer. Of course it will be a hit! The story and the songs are new but the characters that fascinated girls (and boys too) in the 2013 original Frozen are back.

In F-II, Elsa (Idina Menzel), the fair-haired sister with the magical powers, is lured by voices to an enchanted forest. Yes, it’s a quest!

Accompanying her on her mission is her ginger sister Anna (Kristen Bell), the sister who has no magical powers but has a boyfriend. Also along for the ride are Olaf the snowman (Josh Gad), Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and a reindeer named Sven.

In the enchanted forest, several characters are introduced who don’t have the Scandinavian look of Elsa and Anna. Among them are a soldier of African descent voiced by St. Louis native Sterling K. Brown and several members of the “Northuldra” tribe who may represent Native Americans.

Quick Q and A:

Is the music as good as in the first Frozen? Yes, but there is not a standout song that has that “instant earworm” charm of Let It Go.

Is the animation as good as in the first one? Better!

How’s the story? It might not resonate with the very young viewer but there’s just enough conflict and peril to keep most viewers engaged. And, of course, some Elsa magic!

Is Elsa gay? No. She has other things on her plate right now. (Seems like a silly thing to promote or worry about.)

Will this be one that kids watch over and over on home video screens? Yes, but the sourcing may be different. Will it be available first on the new Disney+ streaming channel? Or will Disney stick with DVDs and straight digital downloads? TBD.

Will the world have to wait 6 years for Frozen III? Probably, but with a “straight to video” product or two in the interim.

Will Frozen II outgross the first Frozen at the box office? It could. But that would be a mighty feat. The 2013 Frozen became the highest grossing animated film in history but was dethroned by last summer’s Lion King reboot (which was technically animated although it had that live action look.)

How long is it? Right about 90 minutes before the end credits. Unless your young guests are particularly restless, stick around for cover versions of Frozen II songs (as the credits roll) by Panic! At The Disco, Kacey Musgraves and Weezer. Yes, Weezer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Motherless Brooklyn

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Edward Norton’s new movie Motherless Brooklyn is a nice try that doesn’t quite hit the spot. It’s a decent film, just not the home run that Norton was shooting for.

Norton is the director, the writer and the star of the film.

It’s a suspense mystery that some have referred to as Chinatown: East. Yes, Motherless Brooklyn does share some elements with that 1974 classic: a power hungry municipal public works figure, secret family dynamics and a murder of somebody who knew too much.

MB, set in late 50’s New York City, also has some cool vintage cars—as does Chinatown—though the auto livery here seems a bit heavy on big tail fin cars of the era.

Lionel (Norton), nicknamed Brooklyn by his boss and mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), is a private detective. Lionel has Tourette’s. He has a number of vocal and physical tics. He has great memory skills which he demonstrates throughout the film. He is fully functioning and has good awareness of his problem—not quite Rain Man.

When Minna is murdered by a group of thugs, Lionel follows clues that lead him to jazz musicians in Harlem, equal housing advocates and a ruthless power broker named Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

Randolph’s character resembles the real life mid-century New York development leader Robert Moses, the man who was sometimes blamed for the Dodgers relocation to Los Angeles. (Moses rejected the Dodgers’ plan for a new ballpark in Brooklyn.)

Lionel is fascinated by a mixed-race woman he meets at the housing office, Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). For two reasons: she gives him information and she’s gorgeous.

Also among the cast: Bobby Cannavale as a fellow detective and Willem Dafoe as an activist, who is another of Lionel’s key info sources.

A couple of questions to consider: Does Norton merit best actor Oscar consideration? Not a slam-dunk but he should be in the conversation. Norton takes the advice of Tropic Thunder‘s Kirk Lazarus and does not go full (that way). Norton has played damaged individuals before so he knows restraint. Also, does Baldwin’s ruthless character bring to mind a certain power hungry NYC developer who now occupies the White House? Yes, actually.

Motherless Brooklyn is an ambitious project that, to borrow a classic movie quote, could’ve been a contender. But it falls just a bit short.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Current War: The Director’s Cut

Current War

The Current War: The Director’s Cut is a brilliant movie. A complicated, nuanced story is boiled down to its vital plot points via a tight script by Michael Mitnick and the clever, often thrilling, quick cut direction of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

Character development is thrifty but, thanks to a strong cast, effective. The film clocks in at just under an hour and forty minutes. (This film has a real-life backstory which is noted below.)

The film features numerous stylish overhead shots, subjective shots and special computer effects (such as a panorama of Chicago in the 1890s). The soundtrack adds tension and tempo to actions and conversations and helps the narrative maintain its momentum.

The sequence that contrasts the bright lights of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago with the nation’s first capital punishment electrocution is contrived but makes an interesting point. And even if the film’s penultimate action set at Niagara Falls didn’t really happen, its irony is sharp.

The battle between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) over whose system of electricity generation/distribution would power the nation was fierce and nasty. Spoiler alert: the device you are reading this review on is powered by (or its battery is charged by) a version of the Westinghouse system, alternating current.

Edison stubbornly stuck with direct current which was soon revealed to have significant shortcomings.

Some online commenters have complained that the film does not give Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) enough credit for his role as a contributor to both Edison’s and Westinghouse’s efforts. That may be valid but the film is about the promoters of the competing technologies, not about the engineers and support personnel who did much of the dirty work.

A few imdb.com users gave the movie low scores simply because they felt Tesla got shortchanged. TCW: TDC’s version of Tesla is a highly intelligent young man who has more than a few quirks. His amazing life story has been told elsewhere and is worth checking out.

It’s good to see Michael Shannon portray a solid citizen, not a dark, evil wacko. Cumberbatch might not be the obvious choice to play Edison but he embodies the inventor’s huge ego and intensity admirably. The cast also includes Tom Holland as Edison’s assistant Samuel Insull.

The backstory: The Current War was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 and was due to be released later that year. Then came the Harvey Weinstein scandal. His company controlled the film and delayed release. Eventually a new distributor obtained rights. Since 2017, the director trimmed the runtime and perked up the soundtrack. His cutting and pasting have resulted in the film being officially titled The Current War: The Director’s Cut, even though only a mere handful of people saw the original version. Got it?