Not Movies, but Movie BOOKS


I’ll admit it—I miss going to movie screenings and posting my reviews on this site. The last film I saw in a theater and reviewed was The Hunt which I saw on Tuesday, March 10.

During the lockdown I have watched a handful of older movies on cable: The Apartment, Valkyrie, Of Mice And Men, Mystery Men and a few more. This weekend I saw the new HBO movie Bad Education starring Hugh Jackman. It is excellent. I recommend it.

During my inside time I’ve read books including these that deal with movies and some of the people who make them.

You know Dr. Seuss (real name Ted Geisel) for his famous kids’ books. The 2019 biography Becoming Dr. Seuss, Theodor Geisel and The Making Of An American Imagination is filled with details of Ted Geisel’s work on movies during World War II. Working alongside Frank Capra and others in Hollywood, his focus was on propaganda efforts. His output included several Private Snafu cartoons, many of which can be seen on Youtube. A few were considered racy for their time but that was to get the attention of the young male troops.

He also made films informing American troops how to treat German citizens during U.S. occupation of that country. (Geisel’s family had emigrated to the U.S. from Germany and he had visited relatives there.) One film he worked on was repurposed for general release after the war. The War Department production was not copyrighted and did not contain individual credits. The reboot version did contain credits and those folks nabbed an Oscar for best documentary.

Geisel also created a strange movie called The 5000 Fingers Of Dr. T which was released in 1953. (He came up with the story, wrote the screenplay and wrote the music.) The film was plagued with production problems including budgeting issues and Geisel was not happy with the result. It soured him on his short-lived goal of becoming a screenwriter. The film has a decent 6.8 rating on IMDB but some of the user reviews note the film’s shortcomings.

The animated How The Grinch Stole Christmas premiered on TV in 1966 and has become an annual holiday tradition. Other movies based on his work were made after his death in 1991.

It’s interesting (to me, anyway) to note the parallels between Geisel and Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. Each had newspaper roots: Geisel as an advertising and editorial cartoonist before WWII, Schultz with a daily comic strip. Each moved to California as their careers took off: Geisel to La Jolla near San Diego and Schulz to wine country just north of San Francisco. Both began affairs in California and, after divorcing their first wives, married their west coast paramours. And, while their legacies live on via the printed page, they also are best known to many for their classic TV shows. A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired a year before The Grinch debuted on the tube. (The 2007 book Schulz And Peanuts by David Michaelis is an entertaining bio.)

Among the tales I enjoyed in the Seuss book is the revelation that his publisher Bennett Cerf (yes, the old What’s My Line panelist) challenged Geisel to write a book using no more than fifty unique words. They made a $50 bet. The author delivered his 1960 classic Green Eggs And Ham and won the bet.

Last year at the St. Louis Book Fair I scored three books by screenwriter William Goldman and during the past few quarantine weeks I have read and enjoyed them.

Adventures In The Screen Trade, published in 1983, is dishy with many anecdotes about the films Goldman was involved in and the people he worked with. His biggest hit at that point was Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid which netted him his first Oscar. Goldman makes it clear that he admired Paul Newman as a person and Robert Redford as a star. Goldman also scripted All The President’s Men and Marathon Man and has recollections and opinions about the making of those films and his thoughts about the final products.

Goldman’s adventures include working with Joseph E. Levine and Richard Attenborough on the WWII film A Bridge Too Far, a film with many production challenges. Levine put up a huge chunk of his own money for the film and it was a decent sized hit.

The most important person in the making of a film, Goldman writes, is the studio head who says yes and authorizes a budget to start the filming effort. In this book and in his later book Which Lie Did I Tell he considers directors. His favorites are George Roy Hill, Clint Eastwood and Rob Reiner. Goldman feels that directors sometime get too much credit for elements of a movie that may be mainly attributable to production designers, cinematographers and, yes, screenwriters.

Which Lie Did I Tell? (More Adventures In The Screen Trade), published in 2000, has more of Goldman’s thoughts on screenwriting including tips on the structure of a film’s story. The book is not quite a screenwriting textbook but if one wanted to pursue that occupation, reading this book with a highlighter in hand would be a good place to start. He won his second Oscar for The Princess Bride and while he is proud of that movie, he also spills the tea on some of the movies he wrote that were not so successful.

Goldman analyzes movie scenes he had no involvement in, such as the zipper accident at the start of There’s Something About Mary. He is critical of Saving Private Ryan—the part after the bloody opening sequence. As in his 1983 book, Goldman is again candid with his thoughts and opinions.

Goldman’s book Hype And Glory came along in 1990. Two years earlier, Goldman had been invited to be a judge at the Cannes Film Festival in May and the Miss America pageant in late summer. This book recounts, via his chatty observations of those events, what goes on behind the scenes. His tales are revealing and often hilarious.

My copy of the Dr. Seuss book will be returned to the county library when it reopens. The trade paperback version of the book will be released May 26 and is available for preorder now. Click HERE for info.

When I am reading books that I’ve bought, I often think about who among my friends and associates might appreciate a particular book if I were to pass it along. As I was reading these Goldman books, though, I was thinking I’ll just hang on to them and read them again in a few years. Definitely worth a future re-read!




The Hunt

The Hunt

What if a bunch of smart ass, politically correct, NPR-loving, elite liberals decided to kidnap a bunch of gun-owning, Trump-supporting, Hannity-loving right-wingers and then… turn ‘em loose and hunt ‘em down for sport? Wouldn’t that be something!

That’s what happens in The Hunt, a film whose story features many clever surprises and a highly entertaining final face off. The film contains lots of blood and violence, some of which is comical.

A key thing to know is that the movie pokes fun at both sides of the political divide and questions what we may believe about those on the left and those on the right. The rich folks here are the lefties. They are also the ones with the vast arsenal of weaponry.

The right-wingers who are hunted appear to be more simple folk. Although one, Crystal (Betty Gilpin) is smarter and braver than the others. Another, Gary (Ethan Suplee), a man who shares conspiracy theories via a podcast, turns out to be more perceptive than he initially appears to be.

Hillary Swank is the best-known star in the film. Her screen time, thought brief, is effective. Also in the cast—which is, FWIW, almost exclusively white—are Amy Madigan, Ike Barinholtz and singer/songwriter Sturgill Simpson.

The script for The Hunt is by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse. And, although Lindelof should never be forgiven for the way his TV show Lost ended, he brings fun twists and turns to a century-old short story. Speaking of short, the movie clocks in at an efficient, fast-moving 90 minutes.

You may notice that the release date for The Hunt was revised on its poster. Because of its violent content, the film’s release was postponed from last year in the wake of multiple mass shootings.

The Hunt is a smart satire of the current polarization in America. Unless you have no sense of humor, you are likely to be amused. It will certainly give you some good fodder for conversation on your drive home from the theater. Rated R.




The Invisible Man

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Have you ever thought you were losing your sanity? Have other people ever wondered if you were losing your mind? Have you ever been in a toxic relationship that led you to take desperate measures?

Cecelia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) answers yes to all three questions in the highly entertaining suspense thriller The Invisible Man.

In the film’s terrific opening sequence, Cecelia executes an escape from her abusive husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) with help from her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer).

Two weeks later, after taking refuge at the home of her friend James (Aldis Hodge), Cecelia is informed that her husband has died by suicide. Her husband’s attorney Tom (Michael Dorman), who is also her husband’s brother, informs her that a generous inheritance will come her way.

Soon after, weird things begin occurring in Cecelia’s life that lead her to question her own sanity. When she shares her suspicions about what is happening, others are dubious about her claims.

Revealing more about this setup and the story that follows might include spoilers or near spoilers. It is okay, I think, to mention that the film is likely to keep you guessing about what’s going to happen next and what will be the ultimate resolution. That pretty much defines suspense, does it not?

But a few words about the production shouldn’t spoil anything. The film’s writer/director Leigh Whannell, co-creator of the Saw movie series, uses shots of doors and hallways effectively to create subjective views of places where trouble may lurk. His use of shadows and low light situations adds to the creepiness. The sound design featuring loud, low-pitched ominous notes creates just as much tension as the violin-dominated Psycho soundtrack did sixty years ago.

The modern house that Cecelia and Adrian share is large and spectacular and provides a great setting for the film’s opening shots. It’s even cooler than the Park family’s home in Parasite.

Big applause is due for the performance of Elizabeth Moss. Her character refers to herself as “just a suburban girl” who met her husband at a party. But she is resilient and tough. Moss can play gorgeous and also rugged (as in, no makeup and dirty hair) in the same film and do both believably.

The Invisible Man is rated R because of blood, gore and violence. Tread lightly on the interwebs before you see it… spoilers are likely to abound.

The Call Of The Wild

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If you see The Call Of The Wild, you will understand why it’s better that the filmmakers used a computer animated- dog instead of a real dog. Stunts and fights might’ve put a real dog in peril.

Buck, the big galoot of a dog, looks almost real. He does things Rudd Weatherwax could only imagine his dogs doing. (Look him up if you need to.)

But the reason you want to see The Call Of The Wild is not just to see how the animals are rendered. You want to experience the story of Buck, a 140-pound St. Bernard-Collie mix, and how he copes with dognapping, cruel mistreatment, work on a sled team and a fight to be top dog.

Buck also discovers his connection to the wolves he sees, hears and imagines during his time in Alaska.

His human benefactor is John Thornton (Harrison Ford) who takes up for Buck and ultimately takes him in. Their interspecies bond is heartwarming. The communication between the two reveals a closeness many of us aim to have with our pets. (Although most of us might not care to have our dog monitor and police our drinking habits.)

Harrison Ford, who turns 78 this summer (a smidge older that Joe Biden, a smidge younger than Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg), sounds older but looks amazingly spry for an old guy. He, of course, remains a favorite of many movie fans. Much of that fandom likely has as much to do with his many iconic roles as with his personal charisma and talent. It’s almost always good to see him onscreen and it is good to see him in this role.

The Call Of The Wild film, based on the classic Jack London novel, is not a “must see” movie. It entertains but lacks elements to elevate it to the beloved status of the book. Does it have the appeal of, say, the classic Disney dog movie Old Yeller? Not hardly.

Disney spent a ton of money to create many cool visuals in The Call Of The Wild—not just the CGI animals—and will likely recoup some of that budget when the film trudges over to the new Disney+ streaming service in a few months, resulting in more signups.

The Call Of The Wild is rated PG.









The Photograph

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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.








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.






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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 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.