Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

The Favourite

The Favourite -- review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

This is the third Yorgos Lanthimos film we have seen, and at this point part of the thrill is enjoying the crazy stuff he pulls off.  The first was The Lobster, a black comedy we liked less than the critical mass did, finding his insistence on having his actors deliver their lines without affect or inflection both distracting and self-indulgent.  We did appreciate its absurd originality, though.  The second was The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an update of the story of Agamemnon, the legendary Greek king who accidentally kills a deer belonging to the goddess Artemis.  In retribution, he must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia.  Lanthimos' interpretation was riveting, though uneven.

Those films were written as well as directed by the auteur.  Not so with The Favourite, the first Lanthimos film not written by him, and this might be the magic solution because it reined in his propensity toward excess.  Screenwriter Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara penned this one, and either they are perfectly attuned to Lanthimos or he to them. This is easily his best film; a period piece with a touch of madness, nastiness, and absurdity.  As a bonus, he lost the signature flat delivery of his characters and allowed his excellent, charismatic cast outlets for their talents.

It's the early 18th Century, and England is pitted against France in the War of Spanish Succession. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is ditzy, depressed, and distracted--in other words, uninterested in governing.  Thank goodness her childhood friend Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is around to handle the affairs of state (and other affairs) whila Anne fusses over the 17 rabbits she keeps in her stateroom.  Steely and blunt, Sarah is the match for any man, including Tory opposition leader, Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult), who opposes Sarah's intention to keep the war going and her husband, Lord Marlborough (Mark Gattis) at its head of the army.  (Fear not, The Favourite is about as interested in the war as is Queen Anne; it is merely backdrop to inspire court intrigue.)

Enter Abigail (Emma Stone), a victim of circumstance--her father lost everything, including her, to gambling.  She introduces herself to her cousin Sarah and begs for a job at Kensington Palace.  Sarah takes pity and employs her as a scullery maid, but as we soon learn, Abigail is not the ingenue she appears.  She soon maneuvers herself into the Queen's good graces, setting up a rivalry with Sarah to become the titular "favourite."  Abigail also caught the eye of Masham (Joe Alwyn), Harley's best friend, and the Tory leader sees opportunity.  Frustrated by his inability to win against Sarah in head-on confrontation, he believes he can manipulate Abigail though Masham.  Thus sets up the most devious, humorous, and scandalous merry-go-round of period drama intrigue since 2016's Love and Friendship.

The Favourite pulls off any number of things a lesser film could not.  Cinematographer Robbie Ryan often employs wide angle fish-eye shots, production designer costume designer Sandy Powell elected to use only two colors--Oxford blue and white--for the dresses of all of the ladies of the court, the only differences among them being the patterns.  The film is a comedy, and Lanthimos--or the screenwriters, or both--walk the tightrope of what we can accept.  Their eccentricities bring a delightful originality to the period piece: champion racing ducks, pelting a naked man with pomegranates, a ballroom scene with dancers voguing, and a sprinkling of contemporary termiology, like "OK."  The pitched rivalry between Abigail and Sarah is hilarious, reminiscent of 1989's War of the Roses in its inventive nastiness, but Weisz and Stone sell the underlying pain and desperation each woman feels.  It is Colman, though, who grounds the film.  Though her behavior is at times farcical, her insecurity and the sadness at her failing health bring depth, and when we learn the reason for her devotion to her rabbits, it is heartbreaking.   We beieve this is a major awards player, destined for 8-10 Oscar nominations, and perhaps the best film of the year.
9.5 oiut of 10

Free Solo * Can You Ever Forgive Me? * Fantastic Beasts

Free Solo -- review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Most rock climbers believed the sheer rock face of El Capitan's Dawn Wall was the ultimate challenge.  To attempt the sheer, nearly vertical climb at all seemed attainable by only a few of the very few experts, to do so without ropes or any safety equipment seemed folly.  And yet that is the goal of  Alex Honnold in this National Geographic documentary by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and Jimmy Chin.  This film shows the minute details that go into planning a climb in which one false move means certain death, but its focus in on the man himself, even though it provides precious few insights into what drives Hannold's particular passion.  Perhaps it is simply in the study of his brain, which shows his amygdala--the part of the brain that detects fear and responds to it--seems "dead" to normal stimuli.  Some hints could also be derived from Hannold's upbringing in a family almost pathologically bereft of affection (attachment issues?).  His educator mother expects nothing less than perfection, and his father, who may have had Asperger's Syndrome left the family and died within a year of his departure.  Wherever the answers may lie, Hannold is a quiet, inward individual who leads an ascetic life (he lives out of a van and eats chili out of a can with a spatula as his utensil) and whose sole raison d'etre is to free solo ever more challenging rock precipices.

This simple, if risky, life becomes complicated when Sanni McCandless enters the picture.  They met at one of his book signings, and through sheer force of will she has become part of his life.  Despite  Hannold's protests that she is not as important as his quests, not to mention his fear that she is a distraction that could lead to his literal downfall, McCandless perseveres.  To be fair, Hannold is just as concerned about the distraction that a film crew provides, but Chin and his crew, as well as other climbers like Tommy Caldwell, do not provide the existential threat to his self-actualization that McCandless does.  For, to Hannold himself, he IS what he does, no more no less.  Sanni McCandless wants him to be more, and embace his humanity in the little pleasures that a house and buying their own furnishings can bring.  But can he respond to domestication?  We don't yet know, but just like Hannold, we really want what we came to the theater for: his free solo climb of the dawn wall, and after all of that set-up, we care very much whether or not he makes it.
8.5 out of 10

Can You Ever Forgive Me? -- review by FilmZ

Biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has fallen from the New York Times bestseller list to the bargain rack, and as her fortunes have declined so have her earnings.  With troubles deepening and no friends to turn to, the reclusive writer relies increasingly on the bottle to cope, which in turn kills her initiative to write.  Even her cat, the only creature with whom she has a connection, has fallen ill.  Desperate, she begins to sell personal possessions, including a signed celebrity letter.  Later, while  researching a biography of Fanny Brice, Lee comes upon two signed letters from the vaudevillienne. She sells them, too, and the idea strikes that a formidable career can be had by using her writing skills to dupe memorabilia collectors with forged celebrity letters.  Along her path to crime, she meets roguish Englishman Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a match made in Hell: his love of drink matches hers and his scruples are even lower.  Together, their basest natures multiply, and success leads to greed and greed to ruination.

The movie itself is not be the mad romp one might have expected, given the stars and the tone of the trailers.  Director Marielle Heller sees the morality tale at the core of Israel's autobiography, and she refuses to take the easy path, much to her credit.  Although the film has humor, Heller refuses to romaticize the crimes and unflinchingly shows how addiction greases the skid onto depravity and ruination.  And along the way, she coaxes possible Oscar nominations from McCarthy and (especially) Grant, exposes the live wire of the adapted screenplay, and makes herself a slight possibility for a directorial nomination.
8.0 out of 10

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald -- review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling’s follow-up to her world-wide phenomenon Harry Potter series, had big shoes to fill.  And it didn't.  That film's sequel continues the slide--not to say the ongoing story of “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is bad.  It's just that, considering the lofty standard, an ordinary fantasy no matter how dazzling to the eye, is still ordinary.  It's New York in 1926; Newt he and Ministry auror (think marshal), Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), have captured dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), a "pure-blood" Hitlerian wannabe.  The Crimes of Grindelwald opens with his escape, Tina in parts unknown, and Newt recruited by a younger Dumbledore (Jude Law), to bring him to justice.  Dumbledore cannot deal with Grundelwald himself, you see.  Of course, none of this could be set in motion without the machinations of interspecies lovebirds, baker-extraordinaire Muggle Jacob (Dan Fogler) and mind-reading Witch Queenie (Alison Sudol).  The action takes us from New York to London to Paris with much sturm und drang, part of which is a muddled subplot that includes Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) whom we learn through flashbacks held Newts heart while they were Hogwarts schoolmates.  But the slowly revealed main plot concerns the true identity of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a powerful but troubled young wizard whom some want to kill and others long to embrace.

All of the tricks and eye-candy are present in The Crimes of Grindelwald, and it valiantly tries to mke connections with the mother series: spells, portkeys, Prof McGonigle, help always available to those who ask for it, and of course magical creatures.  Director David Yates' roots go back to the original series, and we have to hope he and Rowling have a master-plan in the current five-film series that approaches the magic of the original.  But, truth be told, episode two, at 134 minutes feels too long by a half-hour, and try as it might to tie into the mythology and drive the story forward, it feels like a place-holder.
6.0 out of 10


Widows review by FilmZ

Director Steve McQueen teamed with writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) to adapt the Widows screenplay from Lynda La Plante’s 1980s British TV series.  Rather than make a breezy, implausible Oceans 8-style romp, though, he crafted a dark, implausible heist film. We aren't saying Widows is implausible because women are pulling off the job. All of the male-dominated Oceans movies have been implausible, too.  Heck, most heist movies are, but some are inventive in planning and execution and don't rely on coincidence, dumb luck, or simply ignoring plot holes.  In this respect, Widows is better than Oceans 8, but not up with the genre's top films.  But then, McQueen and Flynn have bigger ideas: Black citizens taking back their communities, Chicago backroom politics, feminist agency, and Black Lives Matter.  And it is yet another example of a strong, original content film with terrific actors that underperforms at the box office.  [Listen folks, stop begging for movies like this if you're not going to go out to see them.]

Veronica (Viola Davis), a teacher's union rep, Linda (Michelle Rodriquez) a dress shop owner and mother of two, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) a physically abused wife, find themselves alone and in trouble after Veronica's husband Harry (Liam Neeson) led the husbands to their deaths in the getaway from an armed robbery.  The women are in dire circumstances because their husbands robbed $2 million from local hood Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry).  Jamal visits Veronica and gives her a month to repay her husband's debt, the implicit threat insured by the reputation of his psychotic  brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya).  Jamal must present an air of respectability, though, because he hopes to become the first Black alderman of his community, unseating Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), scion of a family dynasty that includes his father and advisor Tom (Robert Duvall).

Veronica comes upon Harry's notebook which includes meticulous plans for his next heist.  The notebook itself would be worth the debt she owes.  But Veronica proposes that she, Linda, and Alice finish what their husbands started with an even bigger payday.  Initially, Linda and Alice are reticent, but when Linda learns that her husband had gambled away her dress shop, and Alice's mother (Jacki Weaver) suggests that the only thing her daughter is qualified to be is an escort, desperation pushes all three women together.  The plan requires a reliable driver, though, and none of the women qualify.  Enter Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairdresser and single mom who babysits Linda's kids to make ends meet.  Now they are four.  Unbeknownst to Veronica, Jatemme has been tailing her. Meanwhile, the Alderman's race heats up, with an insiders look at politics, Chicago-style, where neither incumbent nor challenger is admirable, much less ethical.

If all of this seems cluttered and disjointed, it's really not.  Yes, one might argue that McQueen is taking on too many issues, but he and Flynn slowly leak revelations that lead to several cool-to-excellent plot twists as all characters and subplots come together.  The issues also intertwine and meld.  The Hans Zimmer score is a highlight, establishing a sense of urgency and intrigue while remaining unobtrusive.  A small complaint: for a thriller, things grind along slowly at times.  And one more.  Why hire a talent like Carrie Coon for a couple of scenes, ones in fact that any competent actress could do?  Here, she feels like little more than a plot device.  Overall, though, the film is well-cast and boasts uniformly outstanding performances   We initially thought Widows was going to be a significant Oscar player, but the disappointing box office, despite critical enthusiasm, dampens that.  Still, though, it leaves us with a really good heist film with important social commentary.
8.0 out of 10

Notes on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and The Girl in the Spider's Web

Notes on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and The Girl in the Spider's Web 
by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

If you like Coen brothers films like we do, you are always ready for the laugh you shouldn't be laughing at and the violence that comes unexpectedly, and sometimes these elements arrive at the same time.  This anthology, combining some of the best features of O Henry and Night Gallery, won the Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival.  It was originally meant to play as six stand-alone stories in a Netflix miniseries.  We watched it as a feature length film with a 2:13 runtime, its tales of the Old West transitioned by hands turning pages on a Zane Grey-style volume that introduces and closes each vignette.  Given their ouevre, the Coens love the Western genre, and they have assembled an impressive array of talent to carry it all off.

The stories are:
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Coen mainstay Tim Blake Nelson is perfectly cast in the eponymous role as a singing cowboy in the tradition of Gene Autry, but by way of Bugs Bunny.  Innocent and seemingly harmless, he proves to be a hilariously lethal gunhand in this morality tale.
Near Algodones - James Franco is a dim cowboy bank robber who runs across a lunatic bank teller (Stephen Root) and ends up firing off the best, and most literal, example of gallows humor we have seen in a long time.
Meal Ticket -  In a near silent-movie style, Liam Neeson plays a traveling sideshow huckster whose only act is an armless, legless young mand, played by Harry Melling (Harry Potter's Dudley Dursley)  who recites "Ozymandias" and Shakespeare with dramatic aplomb but to ever dwindling crowds.
All Gold Canyon - This Jack London tale features Tom Waits as a prospector who learns to watch his back.
The Gal Who Got Rattled - Inspired by SE White's short story Zoe Kazan is a young woman crossing the Great Plains in a wagon train who finds herself suddenly alone and destitute.  As she and the assistant wagon master fall in love, a lost dog brings a sudden and twist to the tale.
The Mortal Remains - A devout Christian (Tyne Daly), a crusty mountain man (Chelcie Ross), and a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) share a stagecoach with Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O'Neill, bounty hunters ferrying a cargo (a corpse) across a twilight landscape in a tale of the macabre.
The stories range from good to excellent, so let's average them out to:
8.0 out of 10

The Girl in the Spider's Web

Having read and enjoyed Stieg Larsson's Dragon Tattoo trilogy, we didn't know what to make of David Lagercrantz's continuation of the series after the author's untimely passing.  Larsson's Lisbeth Salander story unfolded, taking surprising twists and ended in a satisfying way.  Where would Lagercrantz take it?  We didn't read his book, but the movie, while a decent story about stolen keys to a computer program that can set off unilateral nuclear destruction moves the tone from intelligent intrigue to hard-core actioner, and thus it is a letdown for fans of the series.

Claire Foy makes a good Salander (we've seen criticisms of her portrayal, and we conclude that those critics have not read the books).  She is sullen, boyish, and badass.  But while Spider's Web paints the cold, bleak Swedish setting, it doesn't capture the spirit or the body of  Millenium Trilogy.  The plot is pedestrian yet implausible, and the protagonist could be any bright woman with mad computer skills.  The vengeful feminism, integral to the character and the plots, is here just a tacked on, unrelated scene.  It also messes with her back story, and interrelationships we've come to know, most egregiously that of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) here a moon-eyed bit player rather than an integral partner, and Vicky Krieps, who needs to have a talk with her agent about the cameo role that is Erika Berger, a secondary but significant character.  New to the scene is Ed Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) American agent and computer expert in his own right who brings his own convenient and implausible skills to the party.
Stream it for a decent action movie, but see the originals.
6.5 out of 10

Green Book

Green Book Review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Director Peter Farrelly is best known for comedies--Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal, There's Something About Mary--so we were surprised to learn that he produced, directed, and co-wrote Green Book, one of the prestige films of 2018.  The "Green Book" was a travel guide aimed at African-Americans of the Jim Crow era who found themselves bound for southern states, advising them of safe routes, lodging, and dining.

Green Book is inspired by the true story of a 1962 concert tour arranged by the brilliant African-Amerian pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) that took him through the Deep South.  Given the year and the particulars of the tour, it is understandable that Shirley might seek a driver with an, um, particular skill set.  Enter Tony "Lip" Villalonga (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer at New York's Copacabana nightclub.  Come to think of it, Farelly is perfect to do a mash-up of a road trip/odd couple movie.  But Green Book is so much more than a Driving Miss Daisy clone, and a lot of the set-up comes from contradictions: Shirley fits in, but is not really accepted into White high society; Tony is accepted (because he is White) but does not fit in.  Shirley is on a mission; Tony just wants to make a few bucks to keep his beloved wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and two children in food and shelter.  Shirley is a loner who lives in a chilly apartment above Carnegie Hall, gorgeously appointed with African artifacts; Tony is from a huge and huggy Italian clan that frequents his family's apartment with meatballs on the stove and rotting linoleum on the floor.

Despite all of that and an interview process in which Tony seems to consciously undermine himself, he is hired as Shirley's driver, but only after Shirley seeks and obtains Dolores' permission for Tony to be away from home for two months (the real engagement took a year).  That the tour is not a smooth drive goes without saying, and the contract states that Dr. Shirley must make every performance or the tour is cancelled with no pay for anyone.  While interactions with local denizens at the various performance venues provide dramatic interludes, the interpersonal adjustment to the quirks and foibles of Dr. Shirley and (mostly) Tony delivers most of the laughs and more than a few head-shaking moments.  But the heart of Green Book is in the evolution from an employer-employee relationship to that of two men who have developed deep feeling for each other, and the chemistry between Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen make it work beautifully.

The screenplay crackles with wit and just enough pathos to make important statements without bludgeoning the audience, and the entire cast is excellent, particularly Cardellini.  But the film belongs to the two men.  The guess here is that Ali's reserved, nuanced role finds Supporting Actor nominations while the showier in-your-face bombast of Mortensen is recommended for Best Actor consideration.  This is not to demean the latter's performance; in fact, the Danish Mortensen so inhabits Tony's Italian skin, he may become the favorite in his category.  In many ways, this is the perfect movie for the holidays; it even ends on Christmas Eve, and its present may be a best Picture nomination.  On a down note, the film has faced some backlash with a few deriding its "White Savior" trope.  We would be among the first to detest that, particularly in these times, but in this case we call BS.  Such critics are looking for trouble, based on surface appearances; in fact, we might argue that those critics haven't seen the film.  If the only way one can "save" another is through brute force, then, yes, it is a white savior film.  But Dr. Shirley also "saves" Tony, albeit in quieter, gentler ways.  In sum, each member of this odd couple helps the other; lifts the other up, and in the end, they complete each other.
8.5 out of 10 on both Artistic and Entertainment Scales.

Too Early Academy Award Nomination Predictions

Too Early Academy Award Nomination Predictions by Guy Malone, Researcher

This time of year, we're gnashing our teeth and/or beating our breasts, trying to decide what films are worth seeing as we begin the mad dash toward Awards season.  After all, we're not in the one percent, so we base our movie spending on which ones are the most highly regarded.  If you are the same, you are in the right place, because we have meticulously researched the field.

Some of the films listed below are already available through streaming in the comfort of your home, but many will be crammed into theaters in the next eight weeks, or so.  To get brief plot synopses and release dates, you can cross-reference the movies below with previously published guides on this blog, specifically:
September 1 - September and October Movie Guide
October 31 - Fall and Holiday Movie Guide

Below is our look at the contenders as they stand in 12 of the most high-profile categories.
NB: Within each subgroup, films/individuals are listed alphabetically, not as we predict them to finish:

BEST PICTURE - (maximum of ten nominees)
For a while, even Oscar seemed to have no idea what it was doing in the Best Picture category.  First, it decided to split it into two sub-divisions--ironically referred by some as "blockbusters" and "real films."  For a while, it also looked like there would be a bumper crop of contenders in all major categories, but things are beginning to crystallize as we are beginning to see films.
Potential surprises:  First Man and A Star is Born could face backlash; Roma might be confined to the Foreign Film category; the yet-unseen Mary Poppins Returns could blow everyone away; much beloved Black Panther could overcome the blockbuster stigma and make waves.

(Following each Best Picture candidate, in parentheses, we've included a prediction of the range of total Oscar nominations.)

The Favourite  (7-9)
First Man  (5-7)
Green Book  (4-6)
Roma  (6-7)
A Star is Born   (8-10)
Vice  (6-7)
Widows  (5-6)

BlacKkKlansman  (4-6)
Black Panther  (3-5)
If Beale Street Could Talk  (4-6)
Mary Poppins Returns  (2-4)

Boy Erased  (1-3)
Can You Ever Forgive Me?  (1-4)
Crazy Rich Asians  (1-4)
Eighth Grade  (1-2)
First Reformed  (1-2)

DIRECTOR - (five nominees)
This is a crowded field that bears watching over the upcoming weeks as some films push to the forefront and others fall off.  Right now, critics anticipate great things from many films, but audience reaction to these directors' movies will have something to say about it.  Regrettably, so will industry politics and the dreaded backlash.  Right now, it looks like there are eleven contenders, and frankly, we wouldn't be surprised if any of them receive nominations.

Damien Chazelle - First Man
Bradley Cooper - A Star is Born
Alfonse Cuaron - Roma
Yorgos Lanthimos - The Favourite
Spike Lee - BlacKkKlansman

Ryan Coogler - Black Panther
Peter Farrelly - Green Book
Marielle Heller - Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Barry Jenkins - If Beale Street Could Talk
Adam McKay - Vice
Steve McQueen - Widows

ACTRESS - (five nominees)
The big questions here: how much love will Roma get and thus carry Aparicio upward; can the Academy voters overlook genre and acknowledge Collette's incredible performance; will Nicole Kidman be recognized for several dynamic 2018 roles; will Blunt's as yet unseen Mary Poppins catapult her into frontrunner status?

Yalitza Aparicio - Roma
Glenn Close - The Wife
Olivia Colman - The Favourite
Viola Davis - Widows
Lady Gaga - A Star is Born

Emily Blunt - Mary Poppins Returns
Toni Collette - Hereditary
Nicole Kidman - Destroyer
Melissa McCarthy - Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Julia Roberts - Ben is Back

ACTOR - (five nominees)
Bradley Cooper is the only lock here, and Ethan Hawke or Lucas Hedges could slip in and replace one of the frontrunners.  Dafoe won the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival, but few have seen his film here, and no one has seen Eastwood yet.  Mediocre reviews from TIFF could hurt Jackman.

Christian Bale - Vice
Bradley Cooper - A Star is Born
Willem Dafoe - At Eternity's Gate
Ryan Gosling - First Man
Viggo Mortensen - Green Book

Clint Eastwood - The Mule
Ethan Hawke - First Reformed
Lucas Hedges - Boy Erased
Hugh Jackman - The Front Runner
Rami Malek - Bohemian Rhapsody
Robert Redford - The Old Man and a Gun

SUPPORTING ACTRESS - (five nominees)
Some of these choices are speculation.  That may be because we haven't seen most of the contenders yet.  Adams, Stone, and Weisz are usual suspects here and King is getting a lot of positive buzz, but only Foy is a known quantity.  At this point, any of the contenders could move up.

Amy Adams - Vice
Claire Foy - First Man
Regina King - If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone - The Favourite
Rachel Weisz - The Favourite

Elizabeth Debicki - Widows
Nicole Kidman - Boy Erased
Natalie Portman - Vox Lux
Michelle Yeoh - Crazy Rich Asians

SUPPORTING ACTOR - (five nominees)
The general consensus has Chalamet among the favorites, but our gut sees other favorites.  The only shoo-in is Ali, but industry love of Elliott is strong, and word of mouth for Grant is exuberant.  We thought BlacKkKlansman was Driver's best performance to date.  Jordan is always terrific, and we hear that Kaluuya is chilling in Widows.

Mahershala Ali - Green Book
Adam Driver - BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott - A Star is Born
Richard E. Grant - Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell - Vice

Timothee Chalamet - Beautiful Boy
Michael B. Jordan - Black Panther
Daniel Kaluuya - Widows

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY - (five nominees)
Conventional wisdom predicts A Star is Born to be a nominee, if not a favorite, in this category.  Considering that this is the fourth go-round for this film, we don't really follow the wisdom here.  We're feeling pretty good about our frontrunners as the final group of nominees, but hey, we've been wrong before.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
First Man
If Beale Street Could Talk

Beautiful Boy
Crazy Rich Asians
The Front Runner
A Star is Born

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY - (five nominees)
The Favourite and Green Book seem like certainties, and Eighth Grade is a festival and critical darling that could get a nomination here as a nod to the fondness with which it is held.  Again, Paul Schrader's First Reformed is believed by many to be headed for a nomination, but we're thinking Adam McKay (Vice) better hits the zeitgeist.  A Quiet Place is a very cool movie and it deserves recognition, but it seems like the experts touting it are being ironic.

Eighth Grade
The Favourite
Green Book

First Reformed
A Quiet Place

CINEMATOGRAPHY - (five nominees)
The favorite is, of course, The Favourite; period pieces always have a leg up in this category.  First Man makes us feel as if we were in the '60s, in space, on the Moon.  A Star is Born is immersive.

The Favourite
First Man
If Beale Street Could Talk
A Star is Born

At Eternity's Gate
Black Panther
Cold War
Green Book

EDITING - (five nominees)

The Favourite
First Man
A Star is Born

Black Panther
If Beale Street Could Talk
Mission Impossible: Fallout

PRODUCTION DESIGN - (five nominees)
Again, the well-done period piece has an advantage here, thus The Favourite.  But we also give props to the world building in the other films.  This will be an interesting race.

Black Panther
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
The Favourite
First Man
Mary Poppins Returns

Crazy Rich Asians
If Beale Street Could Talk
Nutcracker and the Four Realms
Mary Queen of Scots
A Star is Born

ORIGINAL SCORE - (five nominees)
Whether it's stirring us, mesmerizing us, or setting the atmosphere of the film, we have some clear-cut delineations among the competing films.

Black Panther
First Man
If Beale Street Could Talk
Isle of Dogs
Mary Poppins Returns

TheNutcracker and the Four Realms

A Star is Born at the El Royale

A Star is Born at the El Royale by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Welp, we're going to talk briefly--very briefly-- about two movies, one you've probably already seen and one you've probably shoved to the back seat until it becomes available via streaming.  We were probably the last Americans to see A Star is Born.  FilmZ and the Czarina dragged me along as their driver and note-taker.  Then, a few days later, the Serfers got together for Bad Times at the El Royale.  We're going to attempt summarizing both in capsule accounts.

A Star is Born
As there is an obscure federal law that requires this movie to be remade every decade or so, we needn't go into great depth describing the plot, but here's the gist: Established but troubled megastar makes chance discovery of young talent of the opposite sex.  Artistically and romantically smitten, megastar gives newbie's career a boost, and newbie takes country by storm.  Newbie rockets to stardom as megastar's career spirals downward in a swirl of alcohol and drugs.
Bradley Cooper produced, directed, and stars as Jack, a megastar singer-songwriter; Lady Gaga is Ally, the newbie, and Sam Elliott is Jack's brother, Bobby.  Cooper's acting is superb, his singing serviceable; Gaga's singing superb, her acting serviceable, and the two were involved in many of the songs on the terrific soundtrack. Elliott is his typically excellent self.  And it would be no surprise if ASIB leads all contenders in nominations, as it has received both critical and audience acclaim.  The question is, will this film suffer the same late-season backlash as did La La Land, or will it maintain its momentum?
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
9.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale--8 to 10 nominations would not surprise

Bad Times at the El Royale
In 1969, a group of strangers converge on a glitzy but run-down hotel that straddles the California-Nevada border.  Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), a sweet soul singer on her way to a gig in Reno; Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a curious but troubled man with a taste for whiskey; Laramie Sullivan (John Hamm), a jovially grating salesman who is even more curious; Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson) a sullen Hippie with a strange cargo.  Seemingly the sole El Royale employee is Miles (Lewis Pullman), a twitchy fellow who can't repent enough for past misdeeds, some of which are attached to the El Royale, with its secret passages and seamy criminal history.  When Manson-wannabe Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) shows up, things go from intriguing to catastrophic.
Cynthia Erivo is a revelation as both an actress and as a singer (a star is born?); keep an eye on her.  The rest of the cast gets with the spirit of the show, too.  Writer-Director Drew Goddard has the tacky noir hotel atmospherics right--a la the Coen's Barton Fink--and he brings together cool characters whose back stories and motivations reveal themselves through a non-linear time warp--a la Tarantino. These two elements, though derivative, work winningly for two acts.  But with Billy Lee's arrival on screen, Goddard dials Coens and Tarantino to "11", to the film's detriment, and lasting a hefty 2:22, time is not on his side.  There is one MacGuffin on top of the real MacGuffin, a film reel Goddard seems to have included for the sole purpose of spiking conspiracy theories.  El Royale is a good movie, and we recommend it, but for real, and reel, thrills and chills we recommend the film that seems to have influenced Goddard more than anything, 2003's Identity.
7.0 out of 10; not an Awards player

Fall and Holiday Movie Guide

Fall and Holiday Movie Guide by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

As usual, movie studios will stock this holiday season with prestige fare, blockbusters, film festival darlings, and kids movies, a veritable glut that can boggle the mind.  It's our job to sift through the hundreds of films and winnow them down to a manageable list.  We've included--and noted--awards contenders, some that will be sheer entertainment, and a few that look like promising sleepers.  But fair warning, in our opinion a few of these will be absolute dreck.  They are included only because they will be heavily promoted and will make a ton of money, despite their assault on taste and decorum.

First a note: Release dates, though official, can change, and platform releases may arrive in smaller markets several weeks after advertised date.

And check our key, legend, or whatever you want to call it for each blurb below:
First line -- Release date, Title - in Bold and Italics, Genre(s)
Ensuing lines --Thumbnail sketch of story, plus stars, and in some cases the director
Last line -- [Awards potential, if any, in brackets], (a brief note, or not, in parentheses)


02 Bohemian Rhapsody - Musical Biopic 
The rise of legendary rock-group Queen and their iconic and (erm) mercurial lead singer, Freddie Mercury.  Rami Malek, Joseph Mazzello, Tom Hollander, Allen Leech, Mike Myers.
[Probable awards nominations, possible wins]

02 Boy Erased - Bio-drama
A teenager (Lucas Hedges) is outed by his Evangelical parents (Nicole Kidman & Russell Crowe) and forced into church-related gay conversion therapy.  Joel Edgerton also stars and directs.
[Probable awards nominations]  (bring the hankies)

02 Nobody's Fool - Comedy
For those who can't get enough Tiffany Haddish, Tyler Perry directs her as a parolee who helps her naive sister (Tika Sumpter) wend her way through the deceptions of online dating. Whoopi Goldberg
(This one will make a mint at the box office--that is not necessarily an endorsement) 

02 The Nutcracker and the Four Realms - Fantasy, ballet
Directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston adapt Tchaikovsky's famous ballet, with Mackenzie Foy discovering a Nutcracker doll that reveals our world's realms. Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Richard E. Grant; also, ballet legend Misty Copeland

02 The Other Side of the Wind - Satirical Biopic
Iconoclastic film director Orson Welles returns from his self-imposed exile to make an innovative new film. John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Random, and many other legends and lesser lights.
(A film for cinephiles, but not the ones who call themselves cinephiles)

02 Suspiria - Horror
Luca Guadagnino's remake of Dario Argento's 1977 classic: A young American (Dakota Johnson) joins a dance academy run by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) where strange and deadly events occur. Jessica Harper (who was in the original), Chloë Grace Moretz
(This one looks very cool--and Helen Mirren!)

09 Bel Canto - Romantic Thriller
Ann Patchett's best-seller about a worldrenowned opera singer (Julianne Moore) invited to perform for a wealthy industrialist (Ken Watanabe) at a South American estate.  A pleasant evening becomes a nightmare when the people in the house are taken as political hostages.
(Another hankie wringer)

09 Dr. Seuss' The Grinch - Animated Family Comedy
This latest version adds an origin story (which differs from the Jim Carrey version): Grinch grew up in an orphanage watching Whoville celebrating Christmas without him. Years later, Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets his revenge.  Angela Lansbury, Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson
(We would be a lot less charitable with this one if Mr. Cumberbatch weren't attached)

09 The Girl in the Spider's Web - Thriller, Crime Drama
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo returns, this time with Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) and investigator Mikael Blomqvist (Sverrir Gudnason) busting the slime of crime.  LaKeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Stephen Merchant 
(Earlier episodes were terrific, looking forward to Claire Foy as Lisbeth)

09 Outlaw King - Action Biopic
14th Century king Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) leads his people to drive the greater and better equipped British forces out of Scotland.  Florence Pugh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Stephen Dillane
(Can go either way, but so far, Pine has had a nose for good stories)

09 Peterloo - Historical Drama
Mike Leigh writes and directs, a re-enactment of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre wherein British cavalry charged into a crowd of more than 60,000 citizens demonstrating for democracy in Manchester.  Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peak
[Possible awards player]  (Mike Leigh will give this one a richly historic look)

16 At Eternity's Gate - Bio-drama
A dramatization of Vincent VanGogh's (Willem Dafoe) life during the time he lived in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Rupert Friend, Oscar Isaac, Emmanuelle Seigner, Mads Mikkelsen
[Possible awards nomination] (Small film, with most of the attention on Dafoe's performance)

16 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Western/Comedy/Drama
Given the genre-bending, we should know it's to Coen brothers spinning six yarns of the Old West.  Liam Neeson, Zoe Kazan, James Franco, Tim Blake Nelson, David Krumholtz, Tom Waits, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson
(Always, always pay attention to a Coen brothers film)

16 Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald - Action Fantasy
Sequel to J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World in which Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) travrls to 1920s Paris to help Dumbledore (Jude Law) defeat the evil Grindelwald (Johnnie Depp). Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, and Ezra Miller return.
(One for the J.K. Rowling IMAX crowd)

16 A Private War - Biopic
The life of journalist Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) as she risks life and limb covering some of the most war-torn lands on Earth.  Tom Hollander, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci
(To become known as "the Rosamund Pike eye-patch movie")

16 Widows - Crime Drama
Four women, drawn together by the debt their criminal husbands incurred, execute their own job.  Viola Davis (Best Actress threat), Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell.
[Definite awards nominations, probable wins] (Socially conscious heist film and TIFF darling)

21 Creed II - Action/Drama
Michael B. Jordan reprises his role as the son of Apollo Creed, getting revenge by fighting the son of Viktor Drago, the Russian who killed his dad in Rocky IV.  Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Wood Harris, Dolph Lundgren
(Airplane was right, there will be a Rocky XXVII)

21 The Front Runner - Bio-drama
The story surrounding Senator Gary Hart's star-crossed run for President in 1988.  Jason Reitman directs Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, Sara Paxton.
 [Possible awards nominations]  (A nostalgic look at a time when an affair hurt a candidate)

21 Green Book - Biography, Comedy, Drama  
An Italian-American bouncer becomes the chauffeur for an African-American classical pianist touring the 1960s South.  Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
[Definite awards nominations, probable wins]  (Must-see movie)

21 Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 - Animated Comedy
This sequel finds Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) traveling into the Internet, via a new router to find a powerful game piece.  Kristen Bell, Gal Gadot, Kelly MacDonald
[Definite animated awards nominations]  (Yeah, the kids/grandkids will be demanding to see this one)

21 Robin Hood - Action, Adventure
The retelling no one was clamoring for, but Taron Egerton plays the intrepid archer, assisted by Little John (Jamie Foxx), Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan), and Maid Marian Eve Hewson) as they square off against the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn).

23 The Favourite - Historical Drama
Early-1700s: England and France are at war, and ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) relies on her bestie Lady Sarah (Rachael Weisz) to govern.  Sarah hires Abigail (Emma Stone) to help, and she quickly becomes the favorite of both older women. Yorgos Lanthimos directs. Nicholas Hoult.
[Definite awards nominations, probable multiple wins]  (Absolutely, positively see this one)

27 The Little Stranger - Horror, Mystery
In 1948, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to examine a child in a dilapidated mansion where his mother once worked.  The residents, a mother (Ruth Wilson) and her two children, are living under a dark menace somehow attached to Faraday's family.  Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter
(Creepy house, creepy kid thriller should have been released a month earlier)

30 Anna and the Apocalypse - Comedy, Horror
It's Christmas, and a zombie apocalypse faces quaint Little Haven.  Anna (Ella Hunt) and her friend John (Malcolm Cumming) must fight their way through zombified snowmen, Santas, and elves, and in the process learn that it's tough to be a teen.
(All right, this is one FilmZ and I ain't missing, no matter what)

30 If Beale Street Could Talk - Drama    
Director Barry Jenkins adapted James Baldwin's acclaimed novel about a pregnant Harlem woman (KiKi Layne) desperately trying to expose her fiance's (Stephan James) false imprisonment by a racist cop.  Regina , Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry
[Definite awards nominations, probable wins]  (This year's Moonlight?)


07 Ben Is Back - Drama
Peter Hedges directs his son Lucas as Ben, a substance abuser who returns to his family on Christmas Eve, pledging a desire to recover, but is he sincere. Julia Roberts plays his mother, Kathryn Newton his sister.  Courtney B. Vance
[Possible awards nominations]  (There's a sequel to Boy Erased already?)

07 Mary Queen of Scots - Historical Drama  
Mary Stuart's attempts to overthrow her cousin, Elizabeth I, landing her in the Tower of London for hard time and a date with the executioner.  Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, David Tennant.
[Possible awards nominations]  (This one seems better on the drawing board than on the screen)

07 Under the Silver Lake -  Crime Dramedy
Bright slacker Sam (Andrew Garfield) finds a mysterious young woman (Riley Keough) swimming in his apartment pool.  In the morning, she disappears, and Sam launches a search that leads him on a surreal journey into a dark conspiracy in the depths of the LA underworld.
(Surreal Times at the El Royale?)

14 Mortal Engines - Fantasy
Based on the novel and produced by Peter Jackson: Steampunk vision of "municipal Darwinism," where whole cities are literal vehicles, traveling the land, devouring smaller cities for their resources.
Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Stephen Lang
(One for the J.R.R. Tolkien IMAX crowd)

14 Roma - Drama
Director Alfonso Cuarón's semi-autobigraphical chronicling of a year in the life of a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City.  Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey
[Definite awards nominations, probable wins] (Venice awards for Best Bilm and Best Director)

14 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - Family Animated Action
Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) enters the multiverse and joins up with other Spider-Men to battle against a threat to reality.  Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Jake Johnson, Liev Schreiber, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin
[Probable awards nom for Animation]  (The multiple Spider-Men idea sounds like self-parody)

19 Mary Poppins Returns - Musical  
In this sequel to the 1964 classic, the supercalifragilistic Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns to the Banks family.  The kids are grown, but a family tragedy requires the help that only Mary and her brolly can bring. Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Emily Mortimer, Ben Whislaw
[Probable awards nominations, possible wins]  (Emily Blunt looks fantastic in this role)

21 Alita: Battle Angel - Action Romance
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, co-written by James Cameron--The story of a young woman battling evil in a quest to find out who she is. Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley
(Considering the talent involved and the combination CGI and live actio, this could be good)

21 Aquaman - Action Fantasy
Sequel to Justice League (FWIW) has Aquaman (Momoa) caught in the middle between earthly polluters and his home people of Atlantis who are sick of the land-dwellers and want to invade.
Nicole Kidman, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Dolph Lundgren
(We hope the movie is better than the trailer because this looks monumnetally awful)

21 Bumblebee - SciFi Action
Trying to find refuge, Bumblebee hides in a junkyard, disguised as a VW bug when Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a young girl learning to drive, buys him and finds adventure. John Cena, Justin Theroux, Angela Bassett, Pamela Adlon
(Could this be the first decent Transformers film?)

21 Holmes and Watson - Comedy
A quirky take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. Watson (John C. Reilly).  Kelly Macdonald, Rebecca Hall, Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Laurie
(Does the plot matter?  These heirs to the slob comedy throne haven't missed yet)

21 Vox Lux - Musical Drama
In 1999, teen Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is singing at a memorial service following a national tragedy.  With the help of her songwriter sister (Stacy Martin) and manager (Jude Law), she becomes a superstar, but by 2017, adult Celeste (Natalie Portman) must mount a comeback.
[Possible awards nominations]  (Looks like a surreal twist on A Star is Born)

21 Welcome to Marwen - Bio/Comedy/Drama
Robert Zemeckis directs the true story: Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), brutally assaulted, emerges from a coma with brain damage; he copes by creating a miniature town with people in from his life, a work of art that makes him famous.  Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Janelle Monáe, Gwendoline Christie
[Possible awards nominations]  (You'll laugh, you'll cry; it'll move you, Bob)

25 Vice - Bio-drama
Writer-Director Adam McKay's story of  Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), the most powerful VP in US history and his Machiavellian worldview. Terrific cast: Amy Adams (Lynne Cheney), Sam Rockwell (George W. Bush), and Steve Carell (Donald Rumsfeld)
[Probable awards nominations, possible wins] (Can't miss take on unfettered power)

28 Destroyer - Action/Crime Drama
The moral and existential odyssey of LAPD Det. Erin Bell, who, as a young cop, was placed undercover on a case that ended tragically.  Now, she needs to reconnect and face a reckoning.
Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Bradley Whitford Tatiana Maslany
[Possible Awards nominations]   (Transformative performance by Nicole Kidman)

28 On the Basis of Sex - Biopic
The life story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), who broke down barriers in her fight for women's rights.  Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates
[Possible awards nominations]  (Natural follow-up to the terrific documentary RBG)

First Man

First Man Review by FilmZ

We finally got the whole gang together (a rarity) and took Don Swedanya's hearse to the nearest IMAX, 30 miles away.  Ambrose had already seen First Man on a regular screen and was blown away, but he now believes that IMAX is the way to go, if possible.  Guy Malone, Researcher, and I agree; add in Justin Chang of the LA Times, and that gives us one person who knows what he's talking about.

Another thing all of us agree on is that Damien Chazelle's paean to Neil Armstrong is very good.  Despite his previous directorial achievements,  we were a bit concerned because the 33-year-old Chazelle has only two to his resume--Whiplash and LaLa Land--both musicals.  It is odd, then, to note that just about the only thing that doesn't work in his latest effort is frequent-collaborator Justin Hurwitz's score, which reminded us of LaLa Land's as performed on a theremin--which seems almost satirical, considering the context.  What does work is Josh Singer's screenplay, which emphasizes Armstrong's personal odyssey from early family tragedy to his step onto the Moon.

The cast is uniformly excellent.  The leads, Ryan Gosling as Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife Janet, give nuanced performances as a man whose response to tragedy is to turn inward as he throws himself into his work and a wife whose admiration for her husband grows even as her love fades.  Kyle Chandler (Deke Slayton) and Ciaran Hinds (Bob Gilruth) wrangle the Gemini and Apollo programs and their astronauts, most of whom are familiar names, all worthy of honor): Ed White (Jason Clarke), Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham_, Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), Mike Collins (Lukas Haas).  We should also mention Olivia Hamilton's touching performance as Pat White.
8.0 out of 10 on both Artistic and Entertainment Scales.

Catching Up With Recent Watches

Catching Up With Recent Watches by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Even though Writing 101 warns that we should never open a message with an apology, I apologize on behalf of FilmZ for falling behind on entries to this blog.  Edith Piaf and I have no regrets, though.  First, we write 'em when we're ready, and besides, no one has been beating at our electronic door asking where we've been.  Well, we have seen a few movies over the past few weeks, and thanks to laziness, ennui, or both they never got write-ups.  So, we're going to give each one a thumbnail sketch and a grade.  I'll write them up in the order in which they were seen.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, streaming)
If you aren't familiar with the work of New Zealand writer/director/actor Taika Waititi, let me introduce you.  He was one of the creative forces behind Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows and director of Thor: Ragnarok, arguably the most entertaining Marvel movie to date.  The Hunt for the Wilderpeople brings Waititi's signature humor with heart and a touch of the absurd to the dramatic adventure.
Ricky (Julian Dennison), an angry outcast teen sent to the backwoods to live with foster parents, the gleefully enthusiastic Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband the cranky and barely housebroken Hec (Sam Neill).  After some unfortunate events, Child Services decides Hec is unfit to raise the boy (indeed, Hec was never excited about the prospect, anyway).  Rather than return to an orphanage, Ricky runs away with Hec in reluctant pursuit.  Vile social worker Paula (Rachel House) insinuates that Hec may be abusing Ricky, setting off a nationwide manhunt.  As the chase unfolds, orphan and foster dad run into obstacles, dangers, and an odd assortment of forest residents.  And despite their mutual resistance, they begin to bond as two sides of the same coin.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale

Director Carlos Lopez Estrada makes a meteoric impact in his first feature film, but Blindspotting belongs to Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs, who wrote, co-produced, and star in this drama set in their hometown of Oakland, CA.  Their drama crackles on-screen, at times wildly hilarious, suddenly terrifying; the dialogue is quick and incisive, veering off into hip-hop riffs and rants (and those of you who know me are aware of my dislike of that genre, so if I like it, that's saying something).  Back on track: this is a movie that moves.
Diggs is Collin, a Black ex-con serving his last three days of parole, a situation jeopardized by his childhood best friend, White wild man Miles (Casal).  The two work for a moving company, where the dispatcher, Val (Janina Gavankar) was once in a relationship with Collin.  Now though, Val keeps Collin at arms length and avoids Miles completely.  Both on and off the job, the men watch their neighborhood become ever more gentrified, and the influx of young, affluent professionals brings an increased police presence to ensure safety and security.  One night as he hustles home to beat curfew, Collin is stuck at a red light when he witnesses an act of violence that tears at him throughout the rest of the story.  Meanwhile, Miles' reckless behavior only makes the situation worse, endangering both his family and Collin.  As events unfold, we learn how Collin became a felon, why Val wants nothing to do with him, and why she detests Miles.  And, in a remarkable climactic moment, one of the most suspenseful since the gas station scene in No Country for Old Men, we see film elevated to art form.
8.5 out of 10 on Entertainment and Artistic Scales

The House with a Clock in its Walls 
Let's make this clear: this is a movie aimed at children.  This is not what one would expect from Director Eli Roth (Cabin FeverHostel) but Eric Kripke adapted John Bellair's 1973 young adult fantasy and keeps under the PG umbrella.  An intriguing cast helps buoy it; any movie that has Cate Blanchett is worth seeing, and Jack Black and Kyle MacLachlan are always good. 
Young orphan Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is still grieving his parents' fatal accident.  He is sent to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Black), a warlock whose Victorian home has paintings that move and change prophetically, monsters in closets, and a forbidden door. Jonathan introduces Lewis to his kindly neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett), a powerful witch.  Enchanted, Lewis begs them to teach him magic, and he learns that the house contains a secret: a clock hidden in the walls by a now-deceased evil wizard named Izard (MacLachlan).  Between good-natured insults, Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman team to find the clock before it ticks down to a horrific event.  Meanwhile, in hopes of overcoming his outsider status at school, Lewis uses his new skills to impress the cool kid, Tarby (Sunny Suljic), and in the process unwittingly helps the evil wizard toward his goal. 
The movie's 1955 setting provides the canvas for a colorful aesthetic that takes us back to a coolly weird caricature of the Eisenhower era. The special effects, with lightning-bolt spells, menacing pumpkins, and automaton dolls, are fun.  On the down side, the dialogue is clunky, jump-scares substitute for real suspense, and the jokes trend toward the juvenile.  Adults will tolerate the film, but more back story for Mrs. Zimmerman and Jonathan would have given us more connection to the characters and raised the substance a bit.
7.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale

Fahrenheit 11/9
Michael Moore is a muckraker, and what slimier muck to rake than recent events in America?  It may surprise many viewers that Moore lays blame on both parties--albiet Republicans as presented are more proactive, while the Democrats range from neglectful to complicit.  Moore also cites the media, and he even blames himself. 
Of course, he begins with a humorous hook, positing that Trump's election is Gwen Stefani's fault.  When NBC paid her more for The Voice than Trump was offered for The Apprentice, he threatened to make a presidential run.  Using archival footage, he covers the run-up to the early morning hours of November 9, 2016, when Trump's election shocked the world.  Moore then turns serious, asking how this came to be.  He spends surprisingly little time on Russia and barely makes a wave at the four pillars of the Culture War: racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and antiLGBTQ+.   One theme does course through Fahernheit 11/9: the danger of unfettered capitalism.  Most prominent is the example of Rick Snyder, ex-CEO Michigan Governor and cold-blooded perpetrator of the Flint water crisis.  Moore also spends time with the heroic Parkland students as they confront the NRA and its bought-and-paid-for politicians.  He moves on to West Virginia, with its statewide teachers strike over health coverage and the Democratic Party's betrayal of the state's voters.  He also features the influx of progressive working class, minority, and female political candidates who promise to shake up the Establishment. 
Making the point that democracy is an ideal rather than a fait accompli, Moore lauds the our growing grassroots activism.  But he ends the film on a cautionary note, drawing parallels between Nazi Germany and the current Washington power structure.  Most effectively, Moore features 99-year-old Ben Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremburg Trials, who tearfully tells us that the US must be alert to the danger of fascism.  This warning might have seemed sensationalism two years ago, but strikes us as all too possible today.
8.0 out of 10

Operation: Finale Mini-Review

Operation: Finale mini-review by FilmZ

A comment to Holocaust deniers out there: it happened.  Find any legitimate history source, and a late chapter will include Adolph Eichmann.  This fact tasks Operation: Finale with a responsibility: The burden of history is on the filmmakers to earn credibility through accuracy.  Hey, you want to throw in a love subplot, OK, but just a little; and make sure you explain why El Al balked at helping Mossad.  Yet, at the same time, a film has to, as they say, put butts in seats, so the challenge is to make it exciting and fresh, especially a story that has been filmed several times in the past.  O:F succeeds, for the most part.  It is a procedural spy/crime story that starts with a chance meeting that leads to a leak, which sparks a mission that breaks international law, some ill-timed snafus, and ends with an international trial of the century.  Great films will find a way to still bring tension and anticipation to familiar material.  That is the main problem with O:F: while we learn particulars of the mission and are reminded why it is important, we rarely get a sense of tension or urgency.

Ben Kingsley plays a soft-spoken, taciturn Eichmann--as he evidently was, in reality.  Historically correct, but not Hollywood-effect; some might prefer the "Architect of the Final Solution" to be larger than life.  Credit and blame Matthew Orton's script.  His Mossad pursuers are led by Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll), but the focus here is on Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac).  He carries the emotional weight of his beloved sister having been murdered by Nazis, yet he is the one who gets what he wants by connecting on a human level with Eichmann.  Other methods are considered, up to and including murder, but this is also a morality tale, with the balance of empathy and sociopathy struck in the conversations between Malkin and Eichmann.  The team also includes, among others, Dr. Hanna Elian (Melanie Laurent), and ethical anesthetist; Isser Harel (Lior Raz), a government facilitator.

The story gets rolling when Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) tries to impress young Sylvia (Haley Lu Richardson), boasting that his father was a big deal during WWII.  This comes on their first date when Klaus takes Sylvia to a Nazi rally in then-Fascist Argentina.  Frightened, the half -Jewish girl runs out and tells her father (Peter Strauss).  Word travels to post-War Germany and on to Israel.  And the game is on: how will Mossad forces spirit Eichmann out of a hostile nation and bring him to justice?  Director Chris Weitz delivers an involving if not compelling story, and, although there are action scenes this is not an action film, even the suspenseful escape at the airport pales in tension to a similar scene in Argo.  Still, an excellent cast delivers an intriguing story depicting an important page in 20th Century history.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.0 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale


BlacKkKlansman Review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Because of conflicts, we weren't able to get a quorum to see Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman until Wednesday.  This only whet our appetite even more for one of our most anticipated movies of the year so far.  Afterward, we all had the same reaction anyone who knows our gang would expect: we found it culturally relevant, a film that will be held up in the future as an accusing finger at the political leadership in 2018 America.  Possibly our favorite movie of the year, so far.  That's why we like to wait a few days after the film to let it marinate in our mind before writing a review.  Stepping back provides clarity and perspective.  Given that, and reading a little about Ron Stallworth, we do see a few blemishes that temper our enthusiasm.  To be clear, though, our gang unanimously enjoyed the film.

The set-up:
It's 1972 Colorado, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is sworn in as a rookie cop, the first African-American on the Colorado Springs force, fulfilling his lifelong dream.  Ron is enthusiastic and ambitious, agitating to work undercover.  His Chief (Robert John Burke) finally gives in, sending him to monitor a speech by Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), who has changed his name to Kwame Ture. Ron becomes smitten with the event organizer, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), in full Angela Davis mode.  Romantic conflict: she hates cops.  Later, as the men in the operation debrief, Ron gets the support of Det. Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi), cementing their mutual trust.  Soon after that (almost seven years, actually), Ron sees a Ku Klux Klan recruitment ad.  On a whim, he calls, and to his surprise, they want to meet him.  There's only one problem: Ron's skin tone.  So, they hatch a plot to have Flip become Ron for the face-to-face meetings, leading us into a standard undercover operation, punctuated by typical Spike Lee lampooning of small-minded yet dangerous bigotry.  We meet a slew of klansmen, from affable group leader Walter (Ryan Eggold) to the psychotic Felix (Jasper Paakkonen).  But Lee saves the best ironies for phone conversations between Ron and David Duke (Topher Grace), the Grand Wizard himself.  As the investivation evolves, the investment of the force intensifies, especially Flip, Jewish by birth only, who learns to appreciate the significance of his culture.  Meanwhile, through his evolving relationship with Patrice, Ron learns more about the Black Power movement.  But the investigation also unwittingly draws the most dangerous elements of the Klan toward Patrice.

Among the many talents Spike Lee possesses is his ability to elicit a visceral response from the audience.  BlacKkKlansman has many such moments, but three stand out: during the stirring Kwame Ture speech (with content taken from actual Carmichael speeches, I am told), the camera scans the audience's faces, fading from one as it focuses in on another, closing in on the pain recalled and the victory foretold; later, Harry Belafonte, an aged activist, with a group of young people relates vividly the horrors of growing up in the Jim Crow South; and an epilogue that jumps forward to the violent 2017 Unite the Right march in Charlottesville and quotes from the President.  Rightfully, Lee portrays Klansmen on a spectrum ranging from buffoonery to vile bigotry; somewhat ideally, he shows African-Americans always in a righteous light.  We have to give him major props for sending a strong message that good cops are the rule, bad ones the exception.

The moral lessons Lee presents are, at times, heavy-handed, the soliloquys overtly inflame our passions; some characters are caricatures. Are these bad things?  They could be in the hands of a charlatan who wishes to indoctrinate through misleading propaganda; Spike Lee, is not a charlatan, nor is he misleading.  True, he is a grand story-teller who uses fictional elements to dramatic effect, but not at the price of the truth.  Ron, for example, performs a climactic heroic act that never occurred in real life, but that vignette is part of the drama that drives the suspense and the story; it's not a twisting of the history.  And if there is one person who shows true bravery in the film, it is Ron's partner, Flip, the Jewish cop who went face-to-face with the Klan, risking exposure every day.  This is in stark contrast to Lee Daniels', The Butler, which implies that a White House servant was responsible for most Civil Rights gains from Kennedy through Reagan; Nor is he Ava Du Vernay, who in Selma falsely portrayed LBJ as anti-Civil Rights.  Spike Lee's dramatic elements do not bend the truth; they provide the glue that binds the facts, driving the cohesive and compelling narrative.   He holds a 40-year old mirror up to America, and it reflects America today.
8.5 on an Entertainment Scale
8.5 on an Artistic Scale (this one will be in the hunt for many post-season awards)

September and October Movie Guide

Early Fall Movie Guide by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

The first two-thirds of the year mete out enough good movies to see us through, along with a few dry spells and a lot of mediocrity.  The last third gives us a glut of films, more than we can see, in fact, with the quality building to a crescendo, like the end of a fireworks display.

We thought about posting the fall and winter film offerings in one fell swoop, but reconsidered for several reasons:
1 - For just the first two months, we feature 30 movies, enough to boggle anyone's mind;
2 - The picture of worthwhile awards contenders (and their release dates) will become more clear by the end of October, so we will publish he Holiday Film Guide then;
3 - We aren't exactly sure what a fell swoop is, so it would be irresponsible to post a film guide in one.

So, below please find our movie guide for September and October.  As usual, we acted out our petty prejudices, refusing to bring the movies of Nicolas Cage and Chloe Sevigny to these parts.  Still and all, there will be enough trash to sift through before you find the gems, but recognizing that one person's Adam Sandler bobble-head is another person's Oscar, we tried to be comprehensive.



07 The Nun - Horror
The Vatican thinks it's a good idea to send a priest (Demian Bechir) with a checkered past and a novice nun (Taissa Farmiga) to investigate the apparent suicide of a young nun.  In Romania.  Ah jeez, I guess the Church has made worse decisions.

07 Peppermint - Action
Jennifer Garner dips her toes in revenge-porn as a mom who loses everything and comes back to take everything away from the bad guys.  John Ortiz

14 A Simple Favor - Thriller
Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks) directs this story of a mother and blogger (Anna Kendrick) who follows a twisty mystery of her best friend's (Blake Lively) sudden disappearance.  Linda Cardellini, Henry Golding

14 Bel Canto - Romantic Thriller
Ann Patchett's best-seller about a world renowned opera singer (Julianne Moore) invited to perform for a wealthy industrialist (Ken Watanabe) at a South American estate.  A pleasant evening becomes a nightmare when the people in the house are taken as political hostages.

14 Operation Finale - Historical Bio-Drama  
In 1960, Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) leads a team team of Mossad operatives to track down and arrest Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), a major architect of the Holocaust.

14 The Predator - Sci Fi Horror
Writer-Director Shane Black returns to his 1987 creature when a boy (Jacob Tremblay) unwittingly causes the hunter's return, and only a crew of crusty mercenaries and a science teacher (Yvonne Strahovski) can save Earth.  Sterling K. Brown, Olivia Munn

14 White Boy Rick - Crime Drama
In the 1980s, a teen (Richie Merritt) becomes an underground drug informant, assisted by a strong supporting cast. Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie

21 Colette - Historical Bio-Drama
Based on the life of the French novelist (Keira Knightly), who begins writing under her husband's (Dominic West) name, and then must fight her way out from under his shadow.  Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw

21 The House with a Clock in its Walls - Fantasy
Young, recently orphaned Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to live with his uncle (Jack Black), a warlock, in his house of magic. They, along with Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), must foil an evil wizard's (Kyle MacLachlan) plan to bring about the Apocalypse via a ticking-down clock.

21 Life Itself - Romantic Drama
Dan Fogelman (This is Us) wrote and directed this examination of the drama of the lives of a college romance (Olivia Wilde & Oscar Isaac) that follows through to parenthood.  Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart

21 Love, Gilda - Documentary
Archival footage and a slew of Saturday Night Live veterans pay homage to the sweet and inspirational funny woman who died way too young.

21 Quincy - Documentary
Chronicle of the life of Quincy Jones, musical icon whose impact on popular culture has spanned 70 years.  Rashida Jones,

21 The Sisters Brothers - Western
Amid personal crises, two bounty-hunter brothers (John C. Reilly & Joaquin Phoenix) track down a prospector (Riz Ahmed) at the height of the 1850s Gold Rush.  Jake Gyllenhaal

21 Tea with the Dames - Documentary
Dames Eileen Atkins, Judy Dench, Joan Plowright, and Maggie Smith quaff tea and discuss life and films.  This might not even make it outside major cities, but it looks like eventual must-see TV.   

28 Night School - Comedy
Dysfunctional adults returning to school to attain GEDs is the backdrop of comedy for the likes of Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Mary Lynn Rajskub.

28 The Old Man and the Gun - Crime Bio/Drama/Comedy 
A 70-year old (Robert Redford) breaks out of San Quentin and goes on a crime spree that baffles the cops but enchants the public.  Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover

28 Smallfoot - Animated
A Yeti begins to believe that humans exist.  Voice talents of Zendaya, Channing Tatum, James Corden, Gina Rodriguez, Danny DeVito, Common, LeBron James


05 A Star is Born - Musical Drama
Re-re-re-make of a classic--say it all together: A famous musician (Bradley Cooper) helps a rising star (Lady Gaga), and as her career takes off, his fades.  Sam Elliott, Dave Chapelle, Cooper also directs.

05 Venom - Sci Fi/Horror
Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) acquires the powers of a symbiote, and his alter ego threatens alternately to save and destroy him.  Michelle Williams, Woody Harrelson, Jenny Slate, Riz Ahmed

10 The Happy Prince - Bio-Drama
Rupert Everatt wrote, directed, and stars in this labor of love depicting the last days of Oscar Wilde, who fended off his sad end with wry humor.  Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson

12 Bad Times at the El Royale - Crime thriller
A group of strangers meet at the El Royale, a disreputable Tahoe hotel.  Each individual with secrets, each wanting something, but maybe not the craziness they find.  Jeff Bridges, Chris Hemsworth, John Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Offerman

12 Beautiful Boy - Drama
Fact-based (on father-son memoirs) chronicling a young man's (Timothee Chalamet) drug addiction, his cycling recoveries and relapses, and the tests it places on his parents (Steve Carell & Maura Tierney).

12 First Man - Historical drama
A look at America's ambitious and dangerous mission to put a man on the Moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the first man to set foot on the lunar surface on July 20, 1979. Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler

12 The Kindergarten Teacher - Drama
The eponymous pedagogue (Maggie Gyllenhaal) becomes obsessed with nurturing a child she deems to be a prodigy (Parker Sevak). Gael Garcia Bernal

19 Can You Ever Forgive Me - Bio/Comedy/Drama
A celebrity biographer resorts to stretches and fabrications to sell her memoirs.  Based on a memoir (are we to believe it)?  Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtin

19 The Hate U Give - Crime Drama
Starr (Amandla Stenberg) straddles two worlds: her poor Black neighborhood and her White prep school.  Both worlds crash down when she witnesses a White cop shoot her best friend, and she must stand up for what is right.  Anthony Mackie, Regina Hall, Common

19 Halloween - Horror
Laurie Strode's (Jamie Leigh Curtis) last (yeah, right) confrontation with Michael Myers (Nick Castle).  Judy Greer, Will Patton

19 What They Had - Drama
As a woman (Blythe Danner) fades into Alzheimer's, her son (Michael Shannon) summons his sister (Hilary Swank) to cope with grief and the determination of their father (Robert Forster) to keep his wife near.

19 Wildlife - Drama
Paul Dano directed and adapted (along with Zoe Kazan) the Richard Ford story of a boy (Ed Oxenbould) witnessing his parents' (Carey Mulligan & Jake Gyllenhaal) marriage disintegrate when his mother finds another man (Bill Camp).

31 Slaughterhouse Rulez - Comedy, Horror
Teachers at a British boarding school discover, much to their dismay, that nearby fracking near has opened a sinkhole to Hell.  Expect Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to revive their Shaun of the Dead and The World's End sensibilities.  Michael Sheen, Asa Butterfield

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace review by FilmZ

Director Debra Granik has made only three feature films in her 21-year career, which is unfortunate because she has a unique voice and eye, and she is a true feminist filmmaker.  Her tone is naturalistic, not quite documentarian, but her films elicit the sense that lives are unfolding before our eyes.  We are omniscient observers, close-up voyeurs, witnessing young female protagonists, dirt-poor and on the fringes of American society, as they strive to overcome existential threats.  They are in sink or swim situations, but where most modern films create viscerally satisfying fight scenes or bombastic verbal confrontations, Granik avoids such cheap externalized thrills.  Her heroines' tensions and turmoils are internal; they don't talk a lot; they don't act tough; they don't rush into danger with fists flying or guns blazing.  Granik's heroines sidle forward slowly but inexorably; as their challenges grow so do they, and they have grit and determination, quietly refusing to lose.

In Leave No Trace, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) is a 13-year-old living with her father Will (Ben Foster) in a public forest on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.  They live in a tent for two, foraging for food, and scrimping pennies--they use a flint to start kindling to cook their meals instead of wasting precious propane.  They only walk into town when necessary, they move campsites frequently, and they practice evasion and concealment drills in case rangers show.  We learn that Tom's mother is no longer around, but back story is not what LNT is about; in fact, we only learn gradually that Will suffers from PTSD--a nightmare of a helicopter, strained reveries in private moments, selling his meds for the cash they need, and, of course, his withdrawal from society.

Then one day they are caught, and the two are separated as police and social workers try to sort out the situation.  Tom is questioned and tested by Jean (Dana Millican), a caring social worker who discovers that the youngster is intelligent and well-cared for by a loving father.  Meanwhile, Will, is undergoing a grueling battery of questions meant to assess his stability and parental adequacy.  At this point, the obvious plot move would be to have the system try to take Tom from Will, but LNT is not the obvious film.  Here, Jean sets up a job for Will, public schooling for Tom, and a pre-fab home.  Tom naturally takes to socialization, even meeting a boy, (Isaiah Stone) and going to a 4-H meeting; at the same time, Will's internal struggles deepen.  Forced interpersonal relationships and work responsibilities are bad enough, but his trauma reaches the tipping point when he is handed a stack of legal documents that will bind him and Tom to their new society.  After work one day, Will packs up and informs a reluctant Tom that they are fleeing back to the wilderness.  It is here where their paths begin to diverge.

In her directorial debut, Granik headed a team of writers and directed Down to the Bone.  That film gained recognition at Sundance and with the Film Independent Spirit Awards and brought then 29-year old Vera Farmiga to prominence.  Her performance caught the eye of Martin Scorsese, who cast Farmiga in The Departed.  It was six more years before Granik directed and adapted the screenplay with Anne Rosselini for Winter's Bone, which did even better on the awards circuit and was nominated for four Academy Awards--Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (John Hawkes), and it catapulted Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence to stardom.

It follows that, in just two films, Debra Granik became known as something of an actress whisperer.  So, it should come as no surprise that comparison are drawn between McKenzie, an 18-year old New Zealander, and her predecessors. Comparisons may be unfair at this juncture, but the quiet intensity of her performance is certainly places her somewhere on the continuum with them.  But Granik pulls quality performances from all of her actors.  She is known to use non-actors to fill minor roles that bring texture and realism to her films, and she does the same here for scenes about beekeeping, and Christmas tree cutting.  She also brings along Dale Dickey an old hand from Winter's Bone to play Dale.  And in a combination of the two, Granik pulled Isaiah Stone, an Ozark local who played a part in Winter's Bone to play Isaiah here (Granik likes to call people by their names).  We've been saying for a couple of years now that Ben Foster risks typecasting as the hair-trigger crazy man, so teaming with Granik was a smart move.  Foster's Will is a man quietly being eaten from the inside out.  The only thing Will has in life is Tom, but as she grows, his protectiveness becomes a millstone to her, and he knows it.  Thus lies the crux of Leave No Trace.  As a film, it falls a little short of the rural noir classic Winter's Bone, but that's no insult.
8.0 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale

Mission: Impossible - Fallout, an Essay

Mission: Impossible - Fallout, an Essay by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

We have written this before, but it has never been more valid: regardless of what you think of Tom Cruise as an individual, the guy makes hellaciously entertaining action movies.  Mission: Impossible - Fallout is one of the best action films you will see this year, and it is arguably the best of the M:I series.  But before we talk about his latest hit, let's take a moment to talk about spy movies as a genre and provide you with an entertaining and informative link.

Spy movies come in two flavors: "Action" and "Cerebral."  Both can be excellent, but moviegoers need to be prepared beforehand for what they are about to see, especially "action" fans who show up at a "cerebral" spy film.  It's like walking into an arena, psyched to see the Warriors, and finding Bobby Fischer methodically working a chess board.   Suddenly, one must forego the expected adrenaline rush and engage patience, concentration, and "mind" in order to get the reward.  Some undeservedly well-placed film critics seem only capable of handling action type films, and they grade them on a much more lenient scale than they do a cerebral film--unless informed beforehand that said cerebral film is based on a classic book--and for reasons we've discussed in other essays, a critical mass of the filmgoing public turns off a movie if it requires them to turn on their brains.  One of the rarest creatures is a film that succeeds on both action and cerebral levels; the Matt Damon Bourne trilogy comes to mind.  Excellent films that have skewed toward the cerebral, like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; A Most Wanted Man; and Red Sparrow have suffered at the domestic box office--although it should be mentioned that all three of those films were highly successful overseas.  Draw your own conclusions.  In fact, all domestic top-grossing spy movies have been action-oriented.  Among that group are, naturally, the Bond, the Mission: Impossible, and the aforementioned Bourne films, most deservedly so, but ranked at number four on that list is the awful, The Fate of the Furious, whose $226 million doubled the combined domestic gross of the three cerebral films mentioned above.  Collider has compiled their rating of the best spy movies of the 21st Century so rar.  Follow the link below and then return for more about Mission: Impossible - Fallout:

All right, we're back.  Mission: Impossible - Fallout is most decidedly an action-type spy movie.  Christopher McQuarrie (who also wrote the screenplay) is the first director to return for an encore engagement in the M:I series after helming Rogue Nation.  In another series first, Fallout is a direct sequel to that film.  This is good news.  Fallout brings back Alec Baldwin as Alan Hunley, now Ethan's boss as head of the IMF, and Sean Harris as turncoat British Agent now terrorist Solomon Lane; even better, Rebecca Ferguson reprises her role as MI-6 operative Ilsa Faust, who provides both kickass counterpoint to Cruise's Ethan Hunt and also adds sexual tension to the mix.  They join in the fun with Ethan's core team, now winnowed down to two: Benji (Simon Pegg) a geeky tech expert, and Luther (Ving Rhames), a gruff tech expert.  Still around but pushed to the background is Ethan's erstwhile wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), whose presence provides our protagonist's inner conflict, angst, and grounding.

Since Rogue Nation ended with Solomon Lane in custody, worldwide law enforcement and intelligence agencies have depleted the numbers of his Syndicate.  What's left is a hardcore group that calls itself the Apostles and has adopted the catchy slogan, "The greater the suffering, the greater the peace."  Three plutonium cores have gone missing, and the fear is that the Apostles want to bring that slogan to fruition, prompting the "mission, should you decide to accept it" tape to Ethan.  As the IMF swings into action, they are halted by the CIA Director (Angela Bassett), who informs them that her top assassin, August Walker (Henry Cavill) will be joining them.  And so they're off, Ethan and Walker--equal parts animosity and distrust between them--jump out of a plane at 30,000 feet into a thunderstorm, dropping in on a Paris fundraiser hosted by part-time arms dealer, full-time vamp, White Widow (Vanessa Kirby).  But first, they have to dispatch the guy that's supposed to make the plutonium swap with her, John Lark (terrific stunt man Liang Yang), in the process getting their butts handed to them in the best bathroom brawl this side of Bourne. Complicating matters, Ilsa shows up, refusing to tell Ethan why she's involved and refusing to tell Walker anything at all.

All of the chess pieces are now on the board and the plot is laid out, so we can continue in a series of crosses, double-crosses, IMF-patented false identities, good guys who are bad, bad guys who are good, and tracking devices.  Everything unfolds at a breakneck pace: car and motorcycle races the wrong way on one-way streets--is there any other way--through Paris, chases across rooftops in London, dogfights in helicopters between the mountain peaks of Kashmir.  Meanwhile, Ilsa saves Ethan's bacon while simultaneously attempting to fry it, Walker skulks nefariously, White Widow confounds, and Luther and Benji display their whiz-bang technology and problem-solve acumen, various law enforcement agencies are props, and if it weren't for the White Widow's stoogish brother Zola (Frederick Schmidt) we wouldn't be able to differentiate between her associates and the Apostles.  But that doesn't matter any more than the logic behind the solutions Benji and Luther come up with or how, after a series of random events--including a vehicle accident--Ethan can fall into his partners' waiting laps.

We don't have time to reflect on all of that, though; as soon as we get through one roller coaster loop we're banking into another.  We buy it because we want to buy it, because it is ingenious trickery, because so many cool and/or beautiful people are performing insanely fun stunts with such good-nature, but mostly because Ethan Hunt is the can-do iteration of Tom Cruise, who puts his 56-year old body through impressive tortures just to give us two hours and twenty-seven minutes of enjoyment.  He doesn't do it alone, of course.  His supporting cast is talented, and somehow, whether they have been around for a while or are new, all seem to develop chemistry with the star.  Off-camera, Eddie Hamilton's smash-cut Editing never misses a beat.  Rob Hardy's Cinematography captures both interior and exterior settings of Paris and London that travelogues either miss or overlook for their off-kilter beauty, and the outdoor location photography from Norway, New Zealand, and Kashmir make this a must see on the big screen.  Most impressive, though, are the filming of the parachuting plummet and the helicopter chase; those scenes had to be as dangerous to film as they looked.  The cherry on top is the pulsing Lalo Schifrin score that takes us back decades even as it immediately immerses us in matters at hand.  Finally, as the Czarina observed, be sure to check out the Fellowship of the Ring-type ending.
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale

Avoiding Dogs in the Dog Days

Avoiding Dogs in the Dog Days by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

We enter the second half of summer, and the list of decent movies dwindles as studios and distributors gear up for the fall and winter awards season offerings.  Still there are some good ones, along with some that will arrive with much hype but little substance (Skyscraper).

Below, we've listed 19 movies by genre.  None will be to everyone's tastes, but sift through and you're sure to find a few to your liking.  Films are in bold and italicized, with best bets in ALL CAPS, preceded by their reputed release date--remember, some of the smaller films may come to a theater near you a week or two later than the date shown.


07/13  Skyscraper - In this Die Hard/Towering Inferno mishmash, Dwayne Johnson leaps tall buildings, this time as a war vet with an amputated leg and a tough past. Neve Campbell, Pablo Schreiber.
07/20  Equalizer 2 - The main attraction to this revenge-porn flick is Denzel as Robert McCall, delivering very satisfying vigilante justice, but what if it's someone he loves? Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Pedro Pascal.

07/27  MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT - All together now: Ethan and his IMF team race against time in a mission gone wrong.  Rebecca Ferguson is back, does the plot matter? Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg.


07/13 Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation - Drac receives a vacation on a monster cruise so he doesn't have to serve others at his hotel.  Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Steve Buscemi.

08/03  CHRISTOPHER ROBIN - Adult Christopher (Ewan McGregor) reunites with Pooh (Jim Cummings' voice) who helps him to enjoy simple pleasures.  Hayley Atwell; voices of Chris O'Dowd, Toby Jones, Brad Garrett..


07/13  SORRY TO BOTHER YOU - Sundance favorite, Telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield) finds success using a "White voice," then things become absurd.. Tessa THompson, Terry Crews, Danny Glover, Armie Hammer

07/20  EIGHTH GRADE - Bo Burnham story of a put-upon middle schooler toughing out the end of 8th grade before moving on to high school.

08/03  The Spy Who Dumped Me - Comedy, two best friends (Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon) become embroiled in international intrigue when one of the women discovers her former boyfriend was a spy.

08/10  BLACKkKLANSMAN - True story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer who goes undercover to infiltrate the Colorado Ku Klux Klan.  John David Washington, Adam Driver

08/10  Dog Days - Various Los Angelenos' lives are changed as they are brought together through their mutual love of dogs.  Nina Dobrev, Vanessa Hudgens, Eva Longoria, Lauren Lapkus, Adam Pally, Finn Wolfhard

08/17  CRAZY RICH ASIANS - An Econ prof (Constance Wu) travels to her boyfriend's (Henry Golding) hometown of Singapore to find she is the target of an army of gold diggers who want her man.  Michelle Yeoh.


??/??  LEAVE NO TRACE - Debra Granik drama, a father (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie), living off the grid outside of Portland, OR are pulled into urban social services and fight to get back to the wilderness.

07/13  DON'T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT - Gus Van Sant dramedy/biopic, Joaquin Phoenix as a man using art to rehab from a life-changing accident.  Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill

07/20  BLINDSPOTTING - Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal co-wrote and star in this dramedy about race and class clashing in a gentrified Oakland, CA.

08/03  THE WIFE -  A wife (Glenn Close) gives up her career aspirations to support her Nobel Laureate husband (Jonathan Pryce). Also, Elizabeth McGovern, Christian Slater.  Close finally scores an Oscar.


07/20  Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again - Against our better judgment, we mention this, and we believe they had this sequel's name before they made the original. Meryl Streep, Lily James, Amanda Seyfried.


08/03  The Darkest Minds -  Based on Alexandra Bracken's YA dystopian thriller, four teenage plague survivors develop strange skills and must escape bounty hunters. Amandla Stenberg, Mandy Moore, Gwendoline Christie.

08/10  The Meg - Guilty pleasure as Jason Statham pursues a shark that makes Jaws look like a minnow to save folks trapped in a submersible.  Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose.

08/31  Kin - Earthly and alien forces pursue an ex-con and brother, who are in possession of a strange weapon. James Franco Dennis Quaid, Zoe Kravitz, Carrie Coon.

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