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

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:
/http://collider.com/best-spy-movies-of-21st-century-so-far/

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.


ACTION

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.


ANIMATED

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..



COMEDY

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.


DRAMA

??/??  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.


MUSICAL

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.


SCI-FI/FANTASY

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.




Ant-Man and the Wasp


Ant-Man and the Wasp review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) gets a lot more right than it does wrong, and in Ant-Man and the Wasp it hits on all cylinders.  The third movie from the studios this year, it is also the most modest.  It isn't the mega-blockbuster that gives us a whole new nation and MCU's first person-of-color lead, nor is it a mega-superhero apocalypse.  But it is the first Marvel Studios movie with a female character in the title--Evangeline Lilly's "Wasp" AKA Hope Van Dyne--and it's arguably the funniest film in the canon, thanks to Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a regular guy and ex-con who is the most ill-suited superhero (thank goodness his "Ant-Man" suit sizes change at the push of a button).  Rudd also wrote the script, along with Erik Sommers, Chris McKenna, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari.  The writers and Director Peyton Reed inject enough heart to keep the story grounded but not so much that it's schmaltzy, and they add just enough humor to enhance the strengths of a gifted array of actors, keeping the exposition and sciency talk light and palatable.

As the movie opens, Scott is still under house arrest for becoming one of "Cap's" outlaw allies in Captain America: Civil War, which also explains why Ant-Man is missing from Avengers: Infinity War.  Those exploits, unfortunately, also put Hope and her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) on the run, but they are also on a mission.  Harking back to the first Ant-Man, when Scott entered the Quantum Realm and returned unscathed, father and daughter rekindled hope that Hope's mother, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) might still be alive after entering that subatomic realm some 20 years earlier.  Using Hank's size-changing technology, they stay on the move with a laboratory that can shrink to suitcase size, complete with travel handle and wheels.  As angry as they are at Scott, they find that they need him in their quest, an adventure Scott doesn't want with only three days remaining on his two-year house arrest.

With that set-up, a mind-boggling array of characters and subplots complicate matters: Scott wants desperately to be the father his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) deserves and to work together with ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her new husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), a cop, to bring it off.  Speaking of cops, FBI Agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) makes a habit of surprise house checks, trying to catch Scott violating his house-arrest.  And, along with his former prison mate, Luis (Michael Pena), Scott is trying to get a security business off the ground with partners Dave (T.I.) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian).  Meanwhile, Hank and Hope purchase black market quantum technology from Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a profiteer who double-crosses them.  Hank solicits help from Dr. Bill Foster, (Laurence Fishburne), who left Hank's lab years ago under a shadow of suspicion.  And we haven't even gotten to the big villain yet--"Ghost"/Ava Green (Hannah John-Kamen), who wants Hank's Technology for her own ends.

There was a point, about one-third of the way in where we thought, there's too much going on; like a juggler with too many balls in the air.  But by the midway point, the tangents started connecting, and by the last act, everything fit nicely.  This is a credit to both Reed and the writers, who deftly intertwined all of the moving parts.  One of the smartest moves was one of the most original: having Scott and his family, including the man who took his place, be mutually supportive.  This convention-defying plot element gives Scott a stable base amid the chaos that surrounds him.  The writers do a marvelous job of setting Walton Goggins up to play the cheerfully verbose baddie he excels at.  Randall Park is equally effective as Scott's socially and emotionally conflicted watchdog.  It seems odd to mention comic relief in what is essentially already a comedy, but Michael Pena's manic enthusiasm, with T.I. and Dastmajian playing off of him, create a team that rivals the Marx Brothers for zany antics.  On the more serious side of the movie is our "villain": Hannah John-Kamen is electric.  We first saw her playing a terrorist in season 2 of The Tunnel, and she is a force on-screen.  Like Killmonger in Black Panther, Ghost has reasons for what she does, and we can sympathise, to an extent.  But it is Evangeline Lilly as Wasp/Hope, who steals the movie.  She has trained all her life, and when Hank lets her take wing (literally), she does so with passion and gusto.  Rounding out the cast with Douglas, Pfeiffer, and Fishburne, we are hard put to think of a better ensemble in the MCU.  See this one on the big screen for the full visual treat.
9.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale


  

Incredibles 2


Incredibles 2 review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

First, we have to mention the Pixar short, Bao, that preceded Incredibles 2.  It's the story of a Chinese mother coping with becoming an empty nester.  A tearjerker for parents and a giggler for kids; we are convinced it's going to win awards.  Everyone in the theater loved it, except Guy S. Malone, Researcher.  Needless to say, we think GSM,R needs to get out of the dungeon more, or stay in it more, we're not sure which.

The original Incredibles was released in 2004 to critical acclaim, huge box office, and awards recognition--it was nominated for four Oscars and won two, including "Best Animated Feature Film."  In other words, it produced the kind of results that would normally have inspired Hollywood to drop a dozen sequels, prequels, and spinoffs by now.  But here we are, a decade-and-a-half later, finally getting Incredibles 2.  It's a mystery of the faith.  Fortunately for us, the sequel is nearly as good as the first, and though the plot may lack originality, it more than makes up for that in striking at the heart of the zeitgeist.

Fourteen years later, and superheroes are still illegal, but writer-director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, Ratatouille) is about to change that, thanks to his imagination, a terrific cast of voice actors, some, erm, incredible, eye-popping animation, and a very cool jazz soundtrack.  He has brought back the Parr family: Bob "Mr. Incredible" (voiced by Craig. T. Nelson), Helen "Elastigirl" (Holly Hunter), and their kids, Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huckleberry Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), and, yes, the Parrs' best friend, Lucius "Frozone" Best (Samuel L. Jackson).  Incredibles favorite Edna Mode (Brad Bird himself) returns, but her part is disappointingly small.

The reason our superheroes are not allowed to use their powers is, a la The Avengers, their crime-busting tends to wreak a lot of collateral damage on the town.  As they eke out a living in a seedy motor court, their ennui is broken when the Deavor siblings Winston (Bob Odenkirk), salesman extraordinaire, and Evelyn (Catherine Keener), tech whiz, approach them with a proposition.  Great admirers of the Incredibles, the Deavors want to give them the opportunity to redeem themselves and all superheroes--specifically, they want to give Helen the opportunity.  When Bob protests, Winston points out that Mr. Incredible  is particularly destructive of municipal property; besides, as Evelyn points out: Girl Power.

So it is, Bob is to stay home with a sulking Violet and her boy problems, Dash and the challenges of learning new math ("Who can change math?" Bob grumps), and Jack-Jack, just as he begins to display an array of powers that would be the envy of an entire Avengers team.  The crime-busting is left to Helen, powered by a super motorcycle and a bodycam to record her derring-do.  A new, mysterious supervillain, "Screenslaver" and one or two plot twists challenge even the flexibility of Elastigirl.  Family, friends, foes, and a few new superheroes with impressive (some, hilarious) gifts join in on another riotous adventure, leading to a "Marvel"-ous conclusion.

Incredibles 2 is certain to be one of the enduring hits of the year.  As we expect from Disney, it is family-friendly.  Bird is a gifted storyteller; he realistically portrays family love and devotion, even as they drive each other a little nuts, especially as each deals with the double-edged sword of super powers.  He also supplies ample self-aware humor that will appeal to adults.  The animation is mesmerizing: Helen's first motorcycle chase delivers the exhilaration of a roller coaster, and other scenes bring almost overwhelming kaleidoscopic effects.  As is the case with all Bird films, Incredibles 2 is a treat for senses; perhaps our favorite aspect is returning collaborator Michael Giacchino's score, which both complements and enhances the film.
8.0 out of 10 on both Entertainment and Artistic Scales.


American Animals


American Animals review by FilmZ

A brief aside before we begin: This film had our very own Quincy Wagstaff Googling Transylvania University, hoping for Vlad Tepes references, but he realized to his disappointment that only Jefferson Davis, two Supreme Court justices, and a ton of statesmen count among its alums.  Also, after the film, Guy Malone, Researcher, hustled out the door, saying he had some business to conduct at the Franklin and Marshall College Library.  We haven't seen him since, hence my name on the review.

American Animals has nothing to do with any of that.  Documentary filmmaker Bart Layton wrote and directed this account of four college students who planned and executed (we use the term loosely) the heist of rare books from the Transylvania University Library.  It opens with the disclaimer: "This film is not based on a true story"--and then the words "not based on" are lifted from the sentence.  True to his original calling, Layton's story is a docudrama with a twist: as the film unfolds, the director cuts away from the story and to the actual robbers who annotate the events we are watching actors dramatize.  This gives the film layers that critics who disliked it seemed to miss.  But we'll get to that.

Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), a laconic teen from a solid upper middle class family is entering Transylvania (KY) University as an art major.  On Spencer's campus orientation tour, librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) takes his group into the rare book room and shows them an original edition of John James Audubon avian paintings.  The book, worth $12 million, is kept under a locked glass case, inside the secure room, all of which is under Ms. Gooch's close watch.  The seed of temptation is planted.  Spencer tells his best friend and loose wire Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), a disaffected jock from a disintegrating family.  Warren interprets this information as an invitation to join in on a daring heist. As much as Spencer denies he meant to suggest they steal the book, he isn't sure about that; either way, the idea takes hold, and as Warren's excitement builds, Spencer becomes swept up in it.

The conspirators watch heist movies, they draw up floor plans, Warren Googles how to pull off a robbery, and they even locate a "fence" on a trail that leads to New York and Amsterdam.  As they begin to develop fine points, Warren decides that they need two more men to pull off the heist: pensive accounting major Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) and the aggressive, entitled Chas Allen (Blake Jenner).  But as the plan becomes more complex, their impatience leads them to go lax on details.  And what to do about Betty Jane Gooch? As heist films go, we are accustomed to slick jobs, performed with Swiss watch timing by experienced crooks, each with a particular set of skills.  This ain't those movies.  These are kids, amateurs feeling their way.  Juxtapose this film with the slick, high-budget Oceans 8 that we discussed a few weeks ago, and you have two opposites; in Oceans 8, the plan is pat and foolproof, and whenever a glitch arises coincidence and deus ex machina combine to ensure that everything falls into place.  The heist works, but the film doesn't because there is no sense of risk.

 Amplifying the sense of risk in American Animals are the aforementioned cutaways to the actual robbers, now in their 30s, and their parents. The real Spencer and Warren relate their own memories about how it all went down, and in some areas their recollections don't match, but we never get the sense that they are whitewashing their culpability.  Eric, perhaps more than the others, expresses a wistful sadness over his dashed dream of working with the FBI, and Chas just wonders how they could have been so stupid.  Layton captures their personalities, their reflections, and especially the introspection that Spencer expresses.  Most revealing is the conviction held by all four that they were raised to think they were destined to become something special and the dawning realization that, in order for it to become actualized they would have to make it happen. These documentary interludes are what makes the film work.  The men mention a line they were about to cross that would change their lives forever, no matter the result.  Before that line is crossed, they are fearful, seeing risk as well as reward, and the promise of reward wins out.  After crossing that line, we see regret.  As our own Captain HE put it, "It was a gut check on our moral compass ... a forensic examination of the psychology of morality [that] demands an introspective review of what keeps the majority on the 'right.'"

As you have probably guessed by now, things don't go well, or as Serfing Dude put it, "The execution of the caper by those students was how it would probably go if FilmZ and his merry band would have plotted to steal popcorn from the concession stand."  Keeping things from becoming too tragic are the layered performances by talented actors on the cusp of stardom, especially Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse, American Horror Story), who captures Warren's manic charm and whose wry grin and glint in his eye give low-key enhancement to the films lighter moments,  Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk) is more nuanced, but equally effective as a pensive fatalist.  The always excellent Ann Dowd (Hereditary, The Handmaid's Tale, The Leftovers) is perfection as the, erm, dowdy, dutiful librarian.  This is one of those films people look back on in ten years and say, "Damn, all that talent in that cool little movie."  The entire gang enjoyed American Animals immensely; in the end, I agree with Don Swedanya's final grade:
8.0 out of 10 on both Entertainment and Artistic Scales.



Three Names and Two Movies to Know - A Short Essay


Guy S. Malone, Researcher, Searches and Researches

Three names to know: Debra Granik, Taika Waititi, and a young lady named Thomasin McKenzie, who ties them together through the films Leave No Trace and JoJoRabbit

Debra Granik should already be well-known, but we can understand if you don't recognize her.  On June 29, the director/screenwriter's Leave No Trace goes into limited release.  It is the story of Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) living off the grid in state game lands near Portland, Oregon.  Theirs is an idyllic life, Will teaching Tom survival skills, Tom learning from an encyclopedia, both free.  When they are caught and brought into social services, they rebel at the alien "civilization," and Will's war-related PTSD kicks up.  Father and daughter become determined to return to the wild, no matter the obstacles that arise.

Leave No Trace is only the third feature film by the 55-year old Granik, unfortunate for us because she has a finger on the pulse of the rural poor, and no one brings noir verisimilitude like her.  She also has a knack for discovering female talent.  In her first film, Down to the Bone (2004), she discovered Vera Farmiga; her second, the slow-burn suspense classic Winter's Bone (2010), was nominated for four Academy Awards, including a Best Actress nomination for then 18-year-old newcomer Jennifer Lawrence.  We don't understand why Granik doesn't make more films because she seems to have a golden touch.

So, you can see why we believe you will be hearing a lot from 17-year old New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie, maybe as soon as next Oscar season.  If not then, it will surely come with her next movie, an exciting gem we found while researching the young actress: JoJo Rabbit, a World War II satire, filming now in Prague. It's based on a novel by Christine Leunens, but here is what ramps up our anticipation: it has been adapted for the screen and directed by Taika Waititi.  If you have seen Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, or Thor: Ragnarok, you know why FilmZ and I are pumped for a new effort by the half-Maori, half-European Jewish auteur. 

About Waititi's film: JoJo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a na├»ve ten-year-old German boy who doesn't fit in.  Bullied by peers, misunderstood by his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), JoJo feels increasingly isolated.  And then he finds out Mom is harboring a Jewish boy in their home.  As he struggles to cope, he resorts to an imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler (Taika Waititi), who offers advice and solace.  Hitler also tries to instill a fanatic nationalism in JoJo, who begins to go down a nasty rabbit hole until a young girl named Elsa (McKenzie) befriends him and changes everything. The dark comedy also stars Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Stephen Merchant.  

Thumbnail Sketches: Solo, Deadpool 2, and Ocean's 8


Solo, Deadpool 2, and Ocean's 8 by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

We're not going to spend too much time on these movies because, entertaining as they may be, they don't warrant a lot of keystrokes.  Except Deadpool 2, that is, but even though I could wax poetic about the sheer joy of that film, I'll keep it brief.  After all, these are popcorn flicks, and they do what we want them to: divert us from the grim affairs of the day, light fare to see with a few friends to put you in a good mood before going out for crabcakes and a couple or eight IPAs.  So, let's take them in order from good to best:

Ocean's 8
The main charms of Ocean's 8 are the likability of Sandra Bullock, the scene-stealing performance of Anne Hathaway, and the unparalleled talent of Cate Blanchett (we can argue the merits of this thesis at another time).  Throw in the gifted Sarah Paulson, Helena Bonham Carter, and Mindy Kaling, and round out the crew with Rihanna and Awkwafina--there that's eight.  Throw in Richard Armitage as a foil and writer-director Gary Ross is off to a flying start.  There are problems with having such a large cast, though: first, we only get a surface glimpse of what makes each character tick, which makes it difficult to relate or empathize; second, these are some talented women, and I want to see them be more than caricatures--Bonham Carter is reduced to silly clothes and wide-eyed ditziness.  What about the dozens of superheroes in Avengers movies, you ask?  Well, those films don't need character building because we know them all so well; the writers know them, too; so they can make the most of limited screen time.

Which brings us to the writing.  Ross has made his bones both writing and adapting screenplays, and he has a rich kernel of an idea--a jewel robbery at the Met Gala (complete with some unexpected--and expected (Elliott Gould) cameos).  But heist films are a different animal; they require inventiveness and twists.  Ocean's 8 has a few twists, and enough inventiveness to keep our interest; however, it relies too much on deus ex machina and other contrivances.  Whenever a hurdle springs up, our heroines have some coincidental convenience that gets them around it rather than developing a novel way of leaping it.  At one point, an unanticipated plan-buster arises--that is, until Rihanna's character makes a call and the problem is preposterously fixed, spit-spot.  If you're looking for a nice evening at the theater to enjoy popcorn and watch beautiful people plot and cavort in ritzy surroundings Ocean's 8 will do.  If you want an original heist film, though, toggle through the index and find The Italian Job, The Inside Man, Charade, Inception, Reservoir Dogs, A Fish Called Wanda, Heat, Hell or High Water ...
7.0 out of 10 on a popcorn scale, only because of our great affection for the cast and director.
Not an awards player


Solo: A Star Wars Story
Anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows the depth of my cynicism toward the Star Wars franchise.  After starting off as a fan of Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977, my ardor increased with The Empire Strikes Back, then it took a veritable sucker-punch to the groin, thanks to those hirsute little cretins, the Ewoks.  The main achievement of Episodes I, II, and III was to nearly ruin Natalie Portman's industry respect.  In 2015, The Force Awakens gave us the big trifecta: a thinly-veiled remake of A New Hope, an over-emoting Daisy Ridley, and the totally unnecessary John Boyega.  The next year brought Katniss in Space Rogue One. a decent film.  But last year, The Last Jedi arrived and it was ... good!  It was relatively original, Daisy Ridley toned down the grimaces, and we had less John Boyega.  Still, we were skeptical when Solo hit the multiplexes.  After all, they fired their director and brought in Ron Howard to salvage the film. And I asked, "What's the deal with a young Han Solo?  I mean, wasn't Harrison Ford pretty young in 1977?"

Well, shut my mouth.  Solo isn't bad.  Some have complained that, as Solo, Alden Ehrenreich lacks Ford's charisma. True, but he ain't bad.  The film starts off a parsec a minute as Han and his love Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) try to escape the slum planet where they live.  They are separated and Han's motivation throughout is to reunite with Qi'ra.   Of course, what Star Wars movie would be complete without rehashing something that already had been done -- young Han Solo is just a bit too much like one young James Tiberius Kirk.  Anyway, we get to see how Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) meet and how both encounter Lando Calrissian (a well-cast Donald Glover).  Han and Chewie join forces with pirates Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his love Val (Thandie Newton), reunite with Qi'ra, and work for and against crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).  As you might have guessed, a major theme here is, "Trust no one."  And one of the very pleasant surprises of Solo is the sheer number of surprises and twists (pleasant and otherwise) that permeate the plot, written by longtime Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan.  This is an underrated entry into the series.
7.5 out of 10 on a popcorn scale as the Kasdans and Ron Howard provide a fun ride.
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Deadpool 2
Yes, the best of this trio is in my opinion is Deadpool 2.  Perhaps that is a commentary on something, but best we all drop that thought before it blossoms into a weed we would all like to forget.  First and foremost, do not take children to this movie!  It's a hard "R" folks; you bring your kids, then it's on you when your seven-year old says, "Gimme the f**king popcorn" and jams a handful up her brother's nose.  Deadpool 2 is, of course, the continuing adventures Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) the anti-hero X-Man who isn't an X-Man.  In fact, we finally learn why only a few X-Men ever appear at Prof. Xavier's mansion, and it's not--as Deadpool surmises to the camera--because the studio wants to keep production costs down.  As you can guess, it involves iconoclastic humor and breaking the fourth wall.  Throw in imaginative profanity and a level of violence that lands somewhere between Tarantinoic bloodshed and Road Runnerian mayhem and you get an idea of what to expect.  As directed by stunt expert David Leitch and written with love by Reynolds, Rhett Reese, and Paul Wernick, D2 brings joke-a-minute comedy (Serfing Dude, Ambrose, Captain HE, FilmZ, and I haven't laughed so hard at a movie since Aubrey Plaza's equally raunchy and rollicking The Little Hours), but what sets this sequel a smidge above the original is its unexpected heart.

As we open, our sardonic motormouth is still with the love of his life Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), who coaxes out the best in him--in this case, to have empathy for orphaned outcast teen Russell (Julian Dennison).  As a mutant, Russell becomes Firefist, and when he gets angry, watch out.  A dangerous cyborg named Cable (Josh Brolin) arrives from the future to kill Russell, so Wade sets up interviews with his friend Weasel (T.J. Miller) to build his own team (a bit if a ripoff of the 1999 superhero comedy Mystery Men).  The results are spotty, at best: Bedlam (Terry Crews), Zeitgeist (Bill Skarsgard), Vanisher (you'll see), and Peter (Rob Delaney), just a guy who answered the ad.  And then there is Domino (a charismatic Zazie Beetz) whose superpower--being lucky--at first seems like a dubious strength.  Just watch.  Returning are Colossus (Stefan Kapicic), Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), next-door neighbor Blind Al (Leslie Uggams) and cab driver Dopinder (Karan Soni) and en masse, the gang makes an impressive force--X-Force, in fact, as Wade dubs them, a derivative name, Domino points out.  They are, nevertheless, powerful as they face the real enemies, who reveal themselves to be worse than any cyborg.  As we've come to expect in superhero movies, there is an overextended battle at the end, as Deadpool cynically points out.  But the film's surprises and aforementioned heart give Deadpool 2 the edge over its predecessor.
8.0 out of 10 on a popcorn scale
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June is Busting Out All Over


Movies in June by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

A few days ago, one of my very few friends said, "You know, June doesn't have many good movies.  Most are garbage."  
I answered, "Just because Ethan Hawke is in two them doesn't mean they're all garbage."

Below, I've listed 18 movies, some released in late-May;17 of them are in theaters and one big one on Netflix. 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, followed by release date in parentheses (remember some of the smaller films may come to a theater near you a week or two later than the date shown):

First, the one on Netflix: Thor: Ragnarok (June 5), one superhero movie that even non-Marvel fans can enjoy.  Chris Hemsworth (Thor), displaying a nice comic touch, plays half of the film off of Jeff Goldblum (in full Goldblum mode), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Bannon/Hulk), and Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie).  The other half is serious mythology, with Cate Blanchett (Hela) bringing Ragnarok (think the Apocalypse) down on Asgard.  Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Anthony Hopkins round out the excellent cast.

ACTION/THRILLERS
It's all a matter of personal taste in this genre, and I'm not going out on a limb for any of them.  The first two are originals, the third a female version of a proven heist tale, the fourth a remake, and the fifth a sequel.  

Adrift (06/01) - Based-on-true-story about a young couple (Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin) who agree to sail a boat across the Pacific, not counting on crossing paths with a Category-5 hurricane.

Hotel Artemis (06/08) - in riot-torn future LA, Jodie Foster runs a hospital for criminals; Sterling K. Brown tries to save his brother. Jeff Goldblum, Sofia Boutella, Jenny Slate, and Dave Bautista join the action, sci-fi crime fun.

Oceans 8 (06/08) - Female Oceans 11, starring Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Matt Damon.  Hopefully, Gary Ross plus great talent equals the ultimate summer popcorn flick.

Superfly (06/15) - Trevor Jackson in the title role remake of the 1972 blaxploitation movie.  With Jason Mitchell and Michael K. Williams.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (06/29) - Sequels of excellent movies don't always work if they forget what made the original good.  This looks like twice the killing, half the surprise and intrigue.

ANIMATED
Only one worthwhile entry this in the genre this month, but it's the long-awaited (14 years to be exact) sequel to a huge hit

INCREDIBLES 2 (06/15) - Elastigirl/Helen (Holly Hunter's voice) heads out to save the world, turning  Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson's voice) into Mr. Mom. Voices: Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Kathleen Keener. 


BLOCKBUSTERS
It's that time of year, and you'll have no trouble recognizing the franchises here.  We'll probably see all three, like two, and love one.

DEADPOOL 2 (in theaters now) - Ryan Reynolds is back as the rowdy, raunchy superhero he was born to to play.  This time, he's up against Thanos, erm, Cable (Josh Brolin).  Morena Baccarin returns as Vanessa, along with a new slew of super and not so super heroes.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (06/22) - Want to know why dinosaurs went extinct?  Oversaturation.  Now, they are rescuing the dinosaurs from a volcano.  Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Ted Levine.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (05/25) - Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke help beat Star Wars into the ground, though I bet this cynical remake rakes in $500 million and gets 90+ from RT and EW. 



COMEDY - It's also the time of year for comic popcorn flicks, but there only seems to be one in June worth the drive and the price.

TAG (06/15) - Highly-competitive friends annually play a kids game; John Hamm, Annabelle Wallis, Isla Fisher, Ed Helms, Hannibal Buress try to tag elusive Jeremy Renner.


DOCUMENTARY
It's nostalgia time for, as the saying goes, kids of all ages.  Don't miss this one. 

WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (06/08) - On the heels of the excellent RBG comes our favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers, to take us back to the days when neighbors meant something and kindness ruled the day.


DRAMA
Four films here, all of the art house variety, and probably all worth your time and money.  Leave No Trace might be the top choice of the month.  American Animals looks very cool and entertaining.  Octogenarian Christopher Plummer (Boundaries) is working as hard as ever, but not as hard as Saoirse Ronan (On Chesil Beach) who is seemingly in a couple dozen movies again this year.

LEAVE NO TRACE (06/29) - Debra Granik (director of Winter's Bone who discovered a callow kid named Jennifer Lawrence) brings us a father (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie), living off the grid outside of Portland, Oregon, who are pulled into urban social services and must find a way to escape and return to the wilderness where they were happy.  The 84 Metascore says she may have done it again.

AMERICAN ANIMALS (06/01) - Based-on-fact story of four college students who plan a heist--from a college library.  Ann Dowd, Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan.

Boundaries (06/22) - Pot-dealing dad (Christopher Plummer) is thrown out of his nursing home; what's a daughter (Vera Farmiga) to do?  (Saving Grace, Part 2?)  Film recommended by Babs de la Cine.

On Chesil Beach (05/18) -  Based on Ian McEwan's dramatic romance novel, a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) struggles with love and freedom in 1960's England.  Emily Watson, Billy Howle

FANTASY
When Neil Gaiman is spinning the yarn, we at least have to pay attention.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties (05/25) - Based on a Neil Gaiman short story, Elle Fanning hitch-hikes across the galaxy, lands in a London suburb, and finds love.  A punked-up Nicole Kidman is in pursuit.  Ruth Wilson.


HORROR
Hereditary carries an impressive 86 Metascore, based on 25 reviews (24 positive And one mixed)

HEREDITARY (06/08 - Horror tale of a family--Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro, and Alex Wolff--experience Ancester.com gone mad. Those who have seen this Sundance hit say the grIm suspense is unremitting.








RBG Documentary


RBG Quick Review by Guy S Malone, Researcher

On the surface, Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems too quiet, mousy even, to be one of the leading minds of American jurisprudence for more than a half-century.  Indeed, if confronted with that truth, she might drop her eyes for a moment, blush, and go silent.  We don't know if RBG ever read Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, but she seems to be a living emblem of Taoist philosophy:

Silence is a source of great strength.  This diminutive woman comes across as so soft-spoken and unassuming it is hard to believe that she was arguably the strongest influence during the seminal days of the women's movement.  In the 1970s, as Director of the Women's Rights Movement of the ACLU, she argued six landmark cases before the US Supreme Court, winning five.

When the best leader's work is done, the people say, 'we did it ourselves.'  Even many of RBG's most ardent fans are not aware of her standing at the summit of women's rights--or her many other accomplishments.  It is only in retrospect that her achievements are recognized.

Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.  She wasn't even one of Bill Clinton's top choices for Supreme Court nominee.  As he worked down his list of candidates and met her he was even less impressed--until she spoke.  She sold him in minutes, and then she sold the Senate Committee; even Conservative Orrin Hatch ended up singing her praises, despite deep philosophical differences.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.  She graduated first in her class at Cornell in 1954.  One of the first women accepted into Harvard Law School, she became the first woman to be named to the Harvard Law Review (top 25 out of more than 500 in a hostile, male-centric program).  When her husband Martin took a job as a New York tax attorney, she transferred, finishing first in her class at Columbia Law School where she later became the school's first tenured law professor.

Being deeply loved gives you strength; loving someone deeply gives you courage.  As impressive as is her legal career, equally so is the love story of Ruth and Martin.  They were college sweethearts, Ruth was quiet and reticent while Martin was a gregarious jokester, both were as driven professionally as they were smitten with each other--potentially a recipe for disaster, in reality a story of strength and courage rooted in love.

At 1:38, RBG might seem long for a documentary.  It's not.  Serfing Dude, Don Swedanya, FilmZ, and I joined a near-capacity crowd in our art house cinema.  At times during the film, spontaneous applause broke out; other times, tissues dabbed at eyes.  In the end, in these divisive times, it was a wonderful shared experience to see what an American hero and true patriot looks like.
8.5 out of 10



Streaming Thor: Ragnarok, Annihilation, and Molly's Game --Quick Reviews


Three Brief Reviews co-written by FilmZ and Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Even with Guy S. Malone, Researcher and I sharing writing duties, it's difficult to write film blogs and at the same time keep up with the manuscript for our second novel, grant writing, and various research projects.  Some good movies, like the ones we discuss today, fall through the cracks. And now that all are available for streaming, we're going to take time for mini-reviews.  Depending on your taste, all three are worth your time.  With that intro, here are our mini-reviews.
Enjoy. -- FilmZ

Thor: Ragnarok
If you are an adherent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), you've probably already seen this third entry in the Thor series; if you're only a casual follower or non-follower, you might have missed it or dismissed it entirely.  Without going into the gory details, Thor (2011) was most notable for misusing Natalie Portman, introducing the charismatic duo of Chris Hemsworth as the stolid Thor and Tom Hiddleston as his mischievous adopted brother Loki, and bringing the powerful Tesseract to the MCU canon.  The sequel, Thor: The Dark World also misused Ms. Portman and is generally considered one of the weaker entries in the MCU.  Conversely, Thor: Ragnarok is one of the strongest of the Marvel series, and it provides the integral jumping-off point to Avengers: Infinity War.  It is also the film where Chris Hemsworth emerges a both a super superhero and a fine comic actor (and it finally admitted it didn't know what to do with poor Natalie and mercifully let her stay home).  Director Taika Waititi takes the team-written plot of two stories that converge in the third act, and by throwing out the chaff and keeping the strong comic and action kernals, he gives us an epic that plays fast and loose with Norse mythology but is loads of fun.

One thread has Thor's sister Hela (an enthusiastically evil Cate Blanchett) along with a mountainous wolf and an army of undead invading Asgard.  Hela shows imposing strength, crushing Mjolnir (Thor's hammer) in one hand and casting him out of Asgard.  That leaves only the blind but imposing bridgekeeper to the Nine Realms Heimdall (Idris Elba), the ethically equivocating Skurge (Karl Urban), and lesser military leaders to prevent Ragnarok (Norse for Apocalypse).  Thor lands on Sakaar, a garbage planet, where he is captured by an alcoholic bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson)
 who coincidentally, is a derelict Valkyrie.  Sakaar's ruler Grandmaster (a delightfully Jeff Goldblumy Jeff Goldblum) is a tin-Caesar who loves gladiatorial contests, and so, Valkyrie knows exactly what to do with Thor.  In Grandmaster's court, we also find Loki, who has escaped servitude by his wiles.  In the gladiatorial pit we find The Hulk, who in human form is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).  Between Marx Brothers-style shenanigans and deus ex machinas galore, our friends make their way out of Sakaar and back to Asgard.  The Sakaar thread is more entertaining, the Asgard thread follows the mythology better, and Thor: Ragnarok is the rare action movie where the action is the least entertaining part.  But put together, we have a unanimous high recommendation.
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale


Annihilation
Speaking of deus ex machina and Natalie Portman (see above), Annihilation is writer-director Alex Garland's first outing since his breakout sci-fi hit Ex Machina.  In this case, Garland is adapting from the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy.  And he does provide a much better role  for Ms. Portman than Asgardian arm-candy.  Here, she is Lena, a Johns Hopkins biologist, whose class lecture on cells is strangely reminiscent of the real-life Hopkins test subject Henrietta Lacks and is eerily prophetic, as we shall see.  Lena is morose, living a hermit's life, we learn, because her husband has been missing for a year after his top-secret military mission disappeared while investigating the "Shimmer," an iridescent, fog-like veil that has surrounded a coastal salt march after a meteor struck a nearby lighthouse.  One day, her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns, but he is different, and not just because he is spewing blood.  A military unit swoops in and rushes him and her, to a top secret facility with a rear-deck view of the ever-expanding Shimmer.  There, Kane can be studied by a medical team led by Dr. Lomax (Benedict Wong).

With time on her hands, Lena, who we learn is ex-military and prone to revelatory and disturbing flashbacks, joins an all-female team of volunteers to explore the shimmer in order to research it and search for other survivors, rather than remain alone with her thoughts.  All of these women, in fact, have disturbing secrets that compel them to volunteer for the dangerous mission.  Led by prickly psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the team consists of a diverse group, including paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson).  Armed to the teeth with weaponry and scientific gear they slide into the heart of darkness with the lighthouse-vortex as their goal.  What they find is as mind-boggling as it is mystifying.  Rob Hardy's cinematography matches their hallucinogenic experiences, and we feel the same time-warp as the exploratory team, as Annihilation is simultaneously suspenseful and slow-paced, intense and gloomy.  Trippy revelations abound, and there's a payoff at the end; perhaps if our expectations hadn't been set so high by Ex Machina, we would have joined others in their raves.  As it was, it was still pretty good.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale


Molly's Game
When we first heard of this film, we were intensely ambivalent.  We are Jessica Chastain fans, but the subject matter, however autobiographical, didn't seem thrilling.  Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball, The West Wing) is a gifted writer, but he seems a bit arrogant and misogynistic--and this being his directorial debu, too, well ...   And so, we demurred, waiting until well after the awards season to see it on its second run through the theaters.  Sorkin adapted the film from Molly Bloom's eponymous memoir, a portrayal of a young woman who had trained all her life to become an Olympic caliber skier who then, after a career-ending injury, switched gears to climb the summit of high stakes poker and eventually run the most expensive game in the world.  As one expects from Sorkin, the patter is clever and fast paced, and the athlete-turned-gambling queen delivers soliloquies with depth recalling the Sermon on the Mount.  If you buy that, you buy the film.  For the most part we did, but Sorkin's creative self-satisfaction made Molly's Game run about a half-hour too long.

The film begins with the FBI investigating Molly (Chastain) for consorting with the Russian Mafia, and her Attorney Charles Jaffrey (Idris Elba) asserting that her problems will go away if she just gives the Feds some names.  But Molly has a code, and she insists on taking her (slim) chances in federal court.  We then enter flashback mode to her early years in Colorado, growing up in a family of bright high achievers, driven on by a domineering father (Kevin Costner).  A terrible accident on the slopes that ends her Olympic hopes, she decides to leave everything behind and start a new life, escaping to Los Angeles.  To make ends meet, she lands a job with nasty entrepreneur Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) who also runs a high stakes poker game involving some of the biggest movers and shakers in Hollywood.  Molly is intellectually gifted and clever enough to know that the job requires a delicate balance between consummate discretion and control while pandering to the players' egos.  Soon she is running the game, successfully building it until one of the players, Harlan (Bill Camp), falls apart and another player, a narcissistic and cruel actor, Player X (Michael Cera) runs her out of her own game.  But Molly is nothing if not resilient and resourceful.  She moves to New York with a mind full of experience and ideas, and she begins anew.  Unfortunately, it is here where undesirable and dangerous influences insinuate themselves into her game.  Also unfortunately, the tightest part of the film was left on the West Coast.  In New York, events build and unravel too fast, and they come back together again with facile convenience, but not before Idris Elba delivers a typical Sorkin monologue with typical Elba passion and conviction.  That performance, along with a convenient but compelling return of her father, save the second half of the film.  Chastain's captivating Molly, Elba's charismatic (if poorly-cast) Jaffrey, and Costner's gripping Larry Bloom save Sorkin's bacon.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale




The Death of Stalin


The Death of Stalin review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Director Armando Ianucci transports his Emmy-winning Veep sensibilities across space and time to the Soviet Union in 1953.  Working from a script he developed with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows--from a comic book by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin--Ianucci chronicles the events leading up to and following the despot's demise.  And "chronicle" is the correct word in the sense that they nail much of the history, and how better to skewer this terrible period than to hold a mirror up and point out its absurdity?  Of course, horrific is horrific, so the director assembled a brilliant cast of American and English actors and allowed them to amp up their on-screen personas, delivering lines about pogroms and torture without a wink or a nod.

The action unfolds as we follow Stalin's inner circle; a group of men--some cunning, some dim-bulbed, all suck-ups--whose behavior seems more in line with the Marx Brothers than Karl Marx (that was too obvious, right?).  And therein lies the satire: these men wield unchecked savagery in the service of a paranoid and sadistic leader, yet they do so in a casual, almost off-handed manner, saving their emotional investment for currying favor and getting the upper hand on each other.  After a humorous but overlong concert vignette that establishes the level of fear and paranoia among Russian citizens, we settle in at Stalin's (Adrian McLoughlin) country dacha where he relaxes, eating, drinking, and watching American cowboy movies with his inner circle. A thin veneer of forced gaiety shrouds each man's fear of getting on “the list” and results in fawning over their leader, juvenile jealousies, and timid jokes.  Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) even memorizes Stalin's responses to his jokes and has his wife, Nina (Sylvestra Le Touzel) record which did and didn't work.  That night, Stalin has a stroke and goes undiscovered until well into the next day because the guards are afraid to disturb him, and once he is discovered, his deputies are too fearful to make a decision.  In the end their dithering and frets are for naught; Stalin has died.

And so it begins: the jockeying for succession to become General Secretary, complicated by the need to cope with Stalin's children: the manic Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and the maniac alcoholic Vasily (Rupert Friend).  When those two aren't disrupting the worst-laid plans, the plot focuses on the rivalry between between Khrushchev and Deputy Prime Minister Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale, surprisingly effective at emanating farcical terror), the ruthless head of the NKVD--Soviet secret police.  Where Khrushchev is a hand-wringing improvisor, Beria is a Machiavellian plotter, both men ambitious, but both must move carefully because the nominal successor is the skittish Georgi Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, a marvelous performance in which he portrays simultaneous pomposity and insecurity).  Another insider is Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin, in full Monty Python form), who was reputedly on "the list" and thus seems more interested in ingratiating himself to whatever successor arises.  This sets Palin up for one of the films highlights: as the leaders sit around the conference table making one of their frequent show-of-hands decisions, Molotov finds himself with the tie-breaking vote; what ensues is 30-seconds of dizzying verbal vacillation culminating in his nervous smile of satisfaction and the bewildered frowns of his compatriots.  Beria does manipulate the decision to put Khrushchev in charge of funeral arrangements while he takes charge of security.  This infuriates Nikita, but ends up working to his favor as Beria replaces the Soviet Army with his own NKVD troops, infuriating our last major player: the proud, bombastic General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), who responds, “I’m smiling, but I am very fucking furious.”

Iannucci's strength is developing satire seasoned with slapstick while never leaving the reality plane.  In his world, truth is as strange as fiction, and both seem equally plausible.   One area where he departs from film realism is his decision to allow his performers to act as the stereotypical characters we've become familiar with in Boardwalk Empire (Buscemi), Arrested Development (Tambor), a Monty Python sketch (Palin), or in Harry Potter (Isaacs).   This strategy follows even to rejecting attempts at Russian accents in favor of voices ranging from American wise-guy to British upper-class twit.  These gambits have determined the success of the film to some critics.  We bought it; and the film.
8.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
8.0 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale


Avengers: Infinity War (No Spoilers, Kind of a Review)


Avengers: Infinity War (No Spoilers, Kind of a Review) by FilmZ and Guy S. Malone, Researcher

We're supplementing the writing duties of Guy S. Malone, Researcher, today because, frankly, we need checks to avoid spoilers.  Also, we will only talk about Avengers: Infinity War in the most tangential, abstract way while still making sure you get some helpful information, but we can't emphasize enough that you need to see Avengers: Infinity War ASAP.  There are some serious trolls and idiots who derive sick pleasure out of ruining surprises for people. 

First, let us say that we liked it--a lot.  Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo have multiple Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies under their belts, and they've got the style down pretty well by now.  For substance, they brought along chief screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely from Captain America: Civil War, which featured a dozen heroes.  At the release of that movie, we were worried super elbows would be flying as characters vied for screen time.  As it turned out, my fears were baseless.  But Infinity War featured nearly two dozen heroes; how was that going to work?  Pretty well, thank you, although the 149 minutes run-time helped (and, no, I didn't check my watch).

The very basic, no spoilers premise is: super-villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) has set a career goal of collecting all six Infinity Stones (several of which have been located in previous films).  If he gets them all, he will become virtually indestructible and rule the Universe. 

All that stands between him and his goal are:
The Avengers (Earth and Asgard)- Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Incredible Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), War Machine/James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Black Panther/T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Vision (Paul Bettany), and fledgling Avenger Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland).
The Mystical World - Sorcerer Supreme Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong).
The Guardians of the Galaxy - Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn), Groot (Vin Diesel, Terry Notary), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Gamora's sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). 

Rounding out the crew of good guys are several other familiar and pivotal characters: Americans, Asgardians, Aliens, and Wakandans--like Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and others.  So many superheroes and friends splash across the screen that the movie doesn't have room for regular folks, except as backdrop.

How can Thanos possibly defeat such a fearsome array.  Well, first, he is a Titan, so he's imposing in  his own right.  Second, he has bred an imposing gang of family and friends, several of whom would carry a film's archvillainy on their own: Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Proxima Midnight (an unrecognizable Carrie Coon), Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), and Corvus Glaive (Michael Shaw).  Third, every time Thanos picks up another Infinity Stone his powers increase exponentially.

If you have seen even a couple MCU movies, you've got the formula down, and you could probably write a rough outline to be filled in by specifics: a threat is posed; heroes are introduced, individually or as small groups in touching, meet cute, heroic, or humorous ways; each vignette is interspersed with evidence of a mounting peril; Tension mounts to critical mass proportions; a climactic battle that lasts too long ensues in which our super-heroes are poised on the precipice of defeat ... .

Avengers: Infinity War has it all.  To put it into perspective with the other movie in the series, it has more tender and emotional moments than most and barely enough humor to lighten this, the most gravitas-laden of the 19 MCU films extant.  (It would take Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok-level laughs to balance the tone here, but the weight is intentional.  In several ways A:IW is reminiscent of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, not surprising in that it serves as prelude to the next Infinity War 2.

Ideally, by this time, you have seen all 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) leading up to Avengers: Infinity War, but honestly, you can bag The Incredible Hulk.  Although it's a decent movie, it stars Edward Norton, who was replaced by Mark Ruffalo in subsequent films.  So, 17 movies.  Wait.  Ant-Man pulls a no-show, too.  And some of the movies stray enough from the ongoing mythology that they are not requisite to your understanding and enjoyment of A:IW.  In truth, though it helps to have seen a few, including one from each of the main characters/groups, plus the most recent few.  There is not a lot of exposition to catch the viewer up with what is going on; we are expected to know what is happening from the opening scene onward.  Having said that, is it critical to have seen all 18 precursor films?  No.  In fact, you can get away without having seen any.  Here is what you do:
1) See the movie with someone who has already seen it.
2) Do not, repeat, DO NOT ask questions during the movie.
3) Go out for coffee or drinks afterward and ask away.
4) See it a second time (you will likely want to).

Is Avengers: Infinity War the best of the MCU movies?  A lot of critics say no, but I don't know how we can judge it at all since only half of the tale has been told.  Considering everything mentioned above, I'll have to rate it:
8.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.0 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale


Summer Movie Guide


Summer Movie Guide by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

What better way to spend a sunny summer day than in a movie theater?  Lots of ways, you say?  Then read no further and go darken someone else's blog.  Some folks want to get out of the heat, and if the choice is a dungeon, a cave, or the local cineplex guess where you will find me?  Your darned tootin'.

Below, you will find my assiduously researched and arbitrarily filtered summer movie guide, chronologically ordered by release date.  Included are blockbusters, art-house films, date movies, documentaries ... heck, you will even find movies you couldn't drag me to with Wonder Woman's lasso of truth. I've added my own snark, cynicism, and even fearless predictions (Glenn Close for an Oscar).  All that with an economy of verbiage for which Paul Komisar, my old Philosophy of Ed Prof would approve.

You're welcome,

Guy S. Malone, Researcher

04/27  Avengers: Infinity War - 22 superheroes fight for screen time and against Thanos, who aims to collect all six Infinity Stones so he can rule the Universe.  Too many stars to name, go check IMDb.

05/04  Tully - Dramedy from Diablo Cody, reteaming with director Jason Reitman (Juno, Young Adult); Charlize Theron, a mother of three, is gifted a nanny (Mackenzie Davis) who teaches her how to be a Mom.  Awards Watch.

05/04  RBG - Documentary about the notorious RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, focuses on her 25 years as a SCOTUS Justice, even catching her gym workout. Sure to win some judgments come Oscar time.

05/11  Life of the Party - A mom (Melissa McCarthy) mortifies her daughter (Molly Gordon) when she decides to return to college to finish her degree. With Maya Rudolph.

05/11 The Seagull - Chekhov dramedy, a son's love for his narcissistic mother plays out in rustic Russia.  Amazing cast: Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Elizabeth Moss, Brian Dennehy = Awards

05/18 Book Club - Comedy, Diane Keaton, Candace Bergen, Jane Fonda, and Mary Steenburgen use Fifty Shades of Grey as how-to manual with Richard Dreyfus, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, and Craig T. Nelson.

05/18  Deadpool 2 - Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is back for hard-R-Rated fun, this time battling arch-villain Thanos, er, Cable (Josh Brolin), and Morena Baccarin returns to keep the "merc with the mouth's" ego in check.

05/18  On Chesil Beach - Based on Ian McEwan's dramatic romance novel, a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) struggles with love and freedom in 1960's England.  Emily Watson, Billy Howle

05/25  How to Talk to Girls at Parties - Based on a Neil Gaiman short story, Elle Fanning hitch-hikes across the galaxy, lands in a London suburb, and finds love.  A punked-up Nicole Kidman is in pursuit.  Ruth Wilson.

05/25  Solo: A Star Wars Story - Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke help beat Star Wars into the ground, though I bet this cynical remake rakes in $500 million and gets 90+ from RT and EW. 

06/01  Adrift - Based-on-true-story about a young couple (Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin) who agree to sail a boat across the Pacific, not counting on crossing paths with a Category-5 hurricane.

06/01  American Animals - Based-on-fact story of four college students plan a heist--from a college library.  Ann Dowd, Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan.

06/08  Hereditary - Horror tale of a family--Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro, and Alex Wolff--experience Ancester.com gone mad. Sundance hit.

06/08  Oceans 8 - Female Oceans 11, starring Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Matt Damon.  Hopefully, Gary Ross plus great talent equals the ultimate summer popcorn flick.

06/08  Hotel Artemis - in riot-torn future LA, Jodie Foster runs a hospital for criminals; Sterling K. Brown tries to save his brother. Jeff Goldblum, Sofia Boutella, Jenny Slate, and Dave Bautista join the action, sci-fi crime fun.

06/08  Won't You Be My Neighbor? - Documentary about our favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers, from back when neighbors meant something and kindness ruled the day.

06/15  Incredibles 2 - Elastigirl/Helen (Holly Hunter's voice) heads out to save the world, turning  Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson's voice) into Mr. Mom. Voices: Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Kathleen Keener. 

06/15  Superfly - Trevor Jackson in the title role remake of the 1972 blaxploitation movie.  With Jason Mitchell and Michael K. Williams.

06/15  Tag - Highly-competitive friends annually play a kids game; John Hamm, Annabelle Wallis, Isla Fisher, Ed Helms, Hannibal Buress try to tag elusive Jeremy Renner.

06/22  Boundaries - Pot-dealing dad (Christopher Plummer) thrown out of his nursing home; what's a daughter (Vera Farmiga) to do?  (Saving Grace, Part 2?)  Film recommended by Babs delaCine.

06/22  Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - Want to know why dinosaurs went extinct?  Oversaturation.  Now, they are rescuing the dinosaurs from a volcano.  Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Ted Levine.

06/29  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.

06/29  Sicario: Day of the Soldado - Sequels of excellent movies don't always work if they forget what made the original good.  Thia looks like twice the killing, half the surprise and intrigue.

07/06  Ant-Man and the Wasp - Sequels of excellent movies sometimes do work if they don't take themselves at all seriously--and if they have cluelessly cool superhero Paul Rudd, plus Evangeline Lilly (Wasp).

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.

07/13  Shock and Awe - In the wake of 9/11, two journalists (Woody Harrelson, James Marsden) work to uncover the truth about the Bush Administration claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

07/13  Skyscraper - Hostage-team rescuer Dwayne Johnson leaps tall buildings in a single bound, but this time with an inner-world as a war vet with an amputated leg and a tough past. Neve Campbell, Pablo Schreiber.

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.  

07/20  Equalizer 2 - Only makes the list because it's Denzel as Robert McCall, delivering very satisfying vigilante justice, but what if it's someone he loves? Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Pedro Pascal.

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.

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.

08/03  Christopher Robin - An adult Christopher (Ewan McGregor) reunites with Pooh (Jim Cummings' voice) who helps him to enjoy life again.  Hayley Atwell; voices of Chris O'Dowd, Toby Jones, Brad Garrett, Sophie Okenodo.

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.

08/03  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.

08/03  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.

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

08/10  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.

08/17  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 golddiggers who want her man.  Michelle Yeoh.

08/24  The Bookshop - In small-town England in 1959, a woman (Emily Mortimer) opens a bookshop, becoming an unlikely political and social lightning rod of polite tyranny.  Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson.

08/24  Papillon - Remake of 1973 Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman biopic of Henri Charriere's time on Devil's Island, this time with Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek. 

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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