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

Ad Astra

Ad Astra -- a review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Writer-Director James Grey's films seem to resonate with critics better than they do with audiences.  We have a hypothesis, at least with regard to Ad Astra and Lost City of Z, his most recent previous movie: the former is science fiction adventure, the latter is a historical Indiana Jones-style adventure flick.  That's what we, as movie-goers expected.  What we got were moody, meditative dramas of existential quests that have some intense action set pieces.  We say this not to criticize Gray; we merely want to prepare our friends who intend to see the film.

We open in the indeterminate future where astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is working on a towering space antenna when an intensive power surge hits, damaging the tower and hurtling him to Earth.  After miraculously surviving, Roy is called to a secret meeting where he is told that the surge was just the beginning is a series of events that threaten life in the solar system.  More, it is emanating from Neptune, in the area where Roy's father, legendary space pioneer H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) was lost and presumed dead in an expedition aimed at contacting extra-terrestrial life.  The space agency believes Roy's father is alive and has knowledge of the surges.  Roy is tasked with going to the Moon and then Mars--where there is equipment capable of communicating with Neptune--and sending a message to his father, pleading for contact.  This dredges up a well of feelings in Roy--abandonment, isolation, the inability to connect--so his journey is not only one of discovery but also of the soul.  Along the way, we meet Roy's estranged wife (Liv Tyler); Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), Clifford's old associate who holds a key to the mystery, Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), a planetary administrator on Mars whose parents died at the hands of Cliff McBride; and various others.  Roy narrates, so we learn his inner voyage as the mission moves onward to outer space to discover the secret of whether Clifford McBride is hero or villain, and if Roy can stop the life-threatening power surges.

One can be forgiven if Ad Astra invokes an aura of 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Apocalypse Now.  Comparisons are obvious.  The stunning images Hoyte Van Hoytema provides, along with the sedate but eerie soundtrack by Max Richter immediately invoke Kubrick's film, even as Pitt's meditative narration and the quest itself derive from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which begat Apocalypse Now.  Gray's and co-writer Ethan Gross's vision of the future, replete with bureaucratic machinations, invasive bio-psychological probing, and exploration that marries the efforts of capitalism and science are thought-provoking and set up much of the dramatic tension.  An excellent cast is largely wasted in roles that could have been played by any competent actor.  There has been talk of multiple Oscar nominations, especially for the film itself and Brad Pitt,  The belief here is that Ad Astra is so subdued and leisurely-paced, and that it has been released so early in the Oscar season, that it will leave no indelible marks to be remembered by the awards voters come January. 
7.5 out of 10

Echo in the Canyon -- Review

Echo in the Canyon -- Documentary review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Laurel Canyon is a peaceful wooded enclave separated from the bustle and concrete of Los Angeles by a steep hill.   In the late 1960s, an astounding collection of musical talent settled along its twisting roads.  Many became friends and collaborated on some of the most memorable music of that era.

In 2015, producer-director Andrew Slater and Jakob Dylan collected a group of contemporary artists to perform a tribute concert, and this documentary is Slater's and Dylan's way of sharing both with the world.  Dylan, as host, toggles between roundtable discussion with the concert performers (Fiona Apple, Beck, Jade Castrinos, Cat Power, Norah Jones, and others) and stars of that era (Michelle Phillips, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and record producer Lou Adler, to name a few), and he ties them together with interviews of rock legends who both influenced and were influenced by the Canyon gang (Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Jackson Browne, and, most notably, Tom Petty, who acts as a co-narrator and to whom the film is dedicated).

We learn the inner dynamics of this society--why Crosby was bounced from the Byrds; how Stills got out of a drug bust, leaving Clapton, Nash, and Neil Young holding the bag; Phillips' embracing of the free-love spirit of the era.  But these gossipy items pale in comparison to meaty observations: the profound effect Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds, had on Canyon artists.  Stills of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash adds that one group’s influences became another’s inspirations. There is agreement that it all started with The Beatles and the sounds George Harrison produced with his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar.  McGuinn, for example, used the sound to meld an “old folk song and souping it up with a Beatle beat.”  Regina Spektor provides one of the most interesting insights during a contemporary round table when she observes that the songs of that era have a more dreamlike quality than their predecessors, and she wonders if the Laurel Canyon musicians were getting in touch with their unconscious minds.  These are but a few insights among the many highlights of the film.

This is not to say it's perfect, though.  The presence of former Capitol Records CEO Slater, despite his obvious contributions and expertise, detracts from the doc.  Witness his hyperbolic (and wildly inaccurate) claim that The Byrds’ 1965 debut album was the first time “a song of poetic depth and grace had become a hit.” (We wonder what Capitol Records co-founder Johnny Mercer, who wrote Moon River and Days of Wine and Roses-- would say about that.)  There is also the head-scratching decision to use footage from Jacques Demy’s 1969 film Model Shop for historical atmosphere.  Rather we would have seen time devoted to Laurel Canyon neighbors Carole King, pictured but uncredited for her contributions and brilliance; Frank Zappa referenced not for his mad talent but only as a kind of mad street preacher.  But at least they show up, which is more that we can say for Joni Mitchell and Jim Morrison.  Oh well, Slater had his narrative--to tie his and Jakob Dylan's eponymous concert with the documentary.  We only wish Slater had absented himself and the French art film and added time to the trim 82-minute film and paid tribute to these other legends, as well.
7.5 out of 10 

Honeyland (Doc) The Peanut Butter Falcon (Indie) Quick Reviews

A Documentary and an Independent Film -- by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

While waiting for the big fall movie season to kick into action, we ventured out to arthouses to see some interesting little films that we recommend heartily.  They will be difficult to find, and by the time you read this, they soon will be available for streaming.  Here are some brief reviews:

Honeyland - Documentary

"Take half, leave half” is the mantra Hatidze, a 55-year-old Macedonian beekeeper relates as she scales a precipitous mountain terrain to harvest honey from a golden hive she has hidden behind rocks in a cliffside.  She also visits a hive in a tree that has fallen across a rapid stream, "Half for me, half for the bees."  And in her rugged settlement nearby, she also keeps bees, handling the hives deftly with her bare hands, the bees unperturbed by her presence.  She shares a meager but happy life in a tiny candlelit hut with her aged and ailing mother, Nazife, living off of the sale of the golden nectar she bottles and sells after a long trek to market in the city of Skopje.

The gorgeously photographed documentary is an enthralling and ultimately bittersweet study of the symbiotic coexistence of species and how easily the harmonious balance of life can be upset by greed and disregard of Nature.  Honeyland's directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov earned three awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for World Cinema - Documentary: Cinematography, the Grand Jury Prize, and the Special Jury Award for Impact and Change.
9.0 out of 10

The Peanut Butter Falcon - Drama

The personal odyssey is a popular trope in filmdom.  It captures the imagination; the greater the goal, the greater the odds, the more compelling the story. IN PBF, we have the odds, and the ultimate goal depends on one's perspective, but to Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young adult with Down Syndrome the goal is worthy.  Misplaced in a Richmond retirement home, Zak plots more escapes than Steve McQueen, despite the personal interest and care of his social worker, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson).  Inspired by an old VHS tape in which professional wrestler, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). invites all comers to attend his training center, and aided and abetted by his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak finally makes a successful break.  Down the road, Tyler (Shia LeBeouf) is also held captive, but his escape is not so easy, for his prison is guilt, which manifests in anti-social behavior.  When Tyler strikes out at some fishermen, he too must hit the road as their vicious redneck leader Duncan (John Hawkes) seeks revenge.  So do the paths of Tyler and Zak converge.

Writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz were inspired to make PBF after meeting Zack Gottsagen, and they quickly assembled an excellent cast of believers who signed on, even given the fact that some roles are mere cameos--Jon Bernthal exists merely in flashbacks as Tyler's brother and Academy Award nominee John Hawkes does his best in a severely underwritten caricature.  On the other hand, Shia LeBeouf and Dakota Johnson have never been better.  This is a true indie in every sense of the word, but the commitment of Nilson, Schwartz, and the cast, along with a warm and inspirational story, led by the appealing Gottsagen show why independent films, for all of their budget constraints, are often the most rewarding.  This SXSW Film Festival Audience Award winner if definitely worth your time.
7.5 out of 10

2019 Fall and Winter Movie Guide

Fall and Winter Movie Guide – by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

After the cinematic dead zone of August, things jump-start in September with the monster--literal and figurative--that is It: Chapter Two.  The season builds momentum, peaking in mid-to-late November with a slew of Oscar contenders; more than most of us will have the time to see.  Between now and the new year more than 150 movies will be released; for your convenience, we have winnowed away two-thirds of them and provided you with thumbnail sketches of 50 films.  

The 50 films listed are not necessarily recommendations; in fact, there are some that FilmZ and I would not touch with a ten-foot battle lance--you can decide which ones they are.  Also, full disclosure: you will only find a few foreign films (as John Cleese would say, that's not our metier) and no documentaries.  What we feature are popular movies, promising genre flicks, and films with potential for major awards.  

Speaking of which, here is a group of films we believe will join already released fare, such as Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, The Farewell, Avengers: Endgame, and Booksmart in Oscar, Golden Glode, and other awards conversations in the new year.  These films are shown with release dates so you can refer to them in the thumbnail sketch section that follows:

The Goldfinch (09/13)
Ad Astra (09/20)
Joker (10/04)
Pain and Glory (10/04)
Parasite (10/11)
JoJo Rabbit (10/18)
The Lighthouse (10/18)
Harriet (11/01)
Ford v Ferrari (11/15)
The Report (11/15)
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (11/22)
The Irishman (11/27)
Marriage Story (12/06)  
A Hidden Life (12/13)
1917 (12/25)
Little Women (12/25)


Key for the thumbnails:
Release Date,  Title  -- Genre(s)

Brief Synopsis, Cast, and at times Director & Screenwriter(s)

** Release dates are notoriously changeable


05  It: Chapter Two – Horror
Follow-up to the 2017 blockbuster, 27 years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away ... until a devastating phone call brings them back.  Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa

13  The Goldfinch -- Drama 
John Crowley (Brooklyn) directs this adaptation of the bestseller about a boy (Finn Wolfhard) in New York who is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, Ansel Elgort

20   Ad Astra -- SciFi SciFi Mystery  
Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) takes a dangerous mission to investigate what happened to his father's (Tommy Lee Jones) expedition of 30 years before, a voyage that imperils the universe. Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga. James Gray (The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z) directs.

19  Downton Abbey – Period Drama
The continuing saga of the Crawley family, wealthy owners of a large estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.  Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Joann Froggatt, Rob James-Collier, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Laura Carmichael, Tuppence Middleton

19  Rambo: Last Blood – Action 
Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) must face his violent past and revive his combat skills for one final (?) mission of vengeance. You know, like the other Rambos.  Paz Vega, Yvette Monreal, Louis Mandylor

27   Judy -- Biographical Drama
Legendary performer Judy Garland (Renee Zellweger) arrives in London in the winter of 1968 to perform a series of sold-out concerts. Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Finn Wittrock


04   Dolemite Is My Name -- Comedy, Drama 
Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), a comedy and rap pioneer who overcomes the system to produce Dolemite, a wildly obscene 1970s Blaxploitation phenomenon. Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chris Rock, Mike Epps

04  Joker -- Crime, Drama, Thriller
Joaquin Phoenix stars in the origin story of the iconic villain from Batman, but departing from formula it is untethered from that mythology, focusing rather on the making of a sociopathic killer.  The film drew raves at Venice.  Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Marc Maron

04   Lucy in the Sky -- Sci-Fi, Drama
Astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) has an otherworldly experience in space and starts to lose touch with reality upon her return to Earth.  Zazie Beetz, Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens, Ellen Burstyn, Nick Offerman.  Noah Hawley (TV's Fargo, Legion) directs, so expect surrealism galore.

04   Pain and Glory -- Drama  
Pedro Almodóvar's (Volver) portrait of a film director Salvador Mallo (Cannes Best Actor Antonio Banderas) reflects on his life as the roads he has taken have led him to defeat and destruction.  Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas

11  The Addams Family -- Animated Comedy
Follows the Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Morticia (Charlize Theron) as they confront a sneaky reality-TV host (Allison Janney) while also preparing, along with Wednesday (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard), for their extended family to arrive for a family reunion.

11   Gemini Man -- Sci-Fi Action,
An over-the-hill hitman (Will Smith) faces off against a younger clone of himself.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Douglas Hodge.  This movie gets a mention only because Ang Lee directs.

11  Parasite -- Comedy, Thriller  
Bong Joon Ho took the Cannes Palme d'Or, for his story of the unemployed family of Ki-taek, who take an unnatural interest in the famously wealthy Park family until they get entangled in an unexpected incident.  Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi

18  Jojo Rabbit -- Comedy, Drama
Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, What We Do in the Shadows) adapted and directed the story of a boy (Roman Griffin Davis) in the Hitler Youth who is bulled and alienated, and when he finds out his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home, he develops an imaginary friend (Waititi) to help him cope.

18  The Laundromat (Netflix) - Current Events Drama
Widow Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) investigates insurance fraud, leading to Panama City law partners (Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas) and the tip of an international financial scandal, involving some of the world's wealthiest people.  Sharon Stone, Matthias Scheonaerts, Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell.  Steven Soderbergh directs

18  The Lighthouse -- Drama, Fantasy, Horror
Robert Eggers (The Witch) directed this story of two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson) on a strange, isolated island off the coast of  New England island in the 1890s

18   Maleficent: Mistress of Evil -- Fantasy
In the followup to the 2014 hit, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and her goddaughter Aurora (Elle Fanning) find their relationship strained by their complex family history and an impending marriage, while together they face new dangers and enemies.  Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, Juno Temple

18  Zombieland: Double Tap -- Horror, Comedy
Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), and Little Rock  (Abigail Breslin) Bonds are both strengthened and tested as they face evolved zombies and join up with fellow survivors.  Bill Murray, Zoey Deutch, Rosario Dawson, Luke Wilson

25  The Last Full Measure -- War Drama
William H. Pitsenbarger, Jr. is belatedly awarded military honors for his heroism, 34 years after his death.  Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Irvine, Sebastian Stan, Bradley Whitford, Peter Fonda (in his last role)


01  Arctic Dogs -- Animated Adventure
Swifty (Jeremy Renner), an Arctic Fox and mailroom clerk of the Arctic Blast Delivery Service but dreams of one day becoming a Top Dog (the Arctic's star husky courier). James Franco, Michael Madsen, Alec Baldwin, Angelica Huston, John Cleese

01   Harriet  -- Biographical Drama, History 
Harriet Tubman's (Cynthia Ervo) escape from slavery and rise to become a true American hero, responsible for the freedom of hundreds of slaves and shaper of history and culture.  Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Tim Guinee.  Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou) directs

01   The King -- Historical Drama
Rebellious Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) is crowned King Henry V of England after his despotic father (Ben Mendelsohn) dies, and he must wend his way through politics, wage a war he inherited, and come to terms with his past.  Lily-Rose Depp, Robert Pattinson, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris

01  Motherless Brooklyn -- Crime Drama
Edward Norton adapted the screenplay, directed, and stars as a private eye afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, as he tries to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend (Bruce Willis), set in 1950s New York.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Leslie Mann, Michael Kenneth Williams, Bobby Cannavale

01  Terminator: Dark Fate -- Sci-Fi Action
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and a hybrid cyborg human (Mackenzie Davis) join forces to protect a young girl (Natalya Reyes) from a newly modified liquid Terminator (Gabriel Luna) and lurking film critics. Arnold Schwarzenegger

01  Waves -- Romantic Drama
Two young couples (Lucas Hedges, Alexa Demie; Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Taylor Russell) and the struggles of growing up and falling in love. Clifton Collins Jr., Sterling K. Brown

08   Doctor Sleep -- Horror 
Inspired by The Shining, this film follows an adult Dan Torrence (Ewan McGregor) who meets a young girl (Kyliegh Curran) possessed of "the shining" and tries to conceal her from a cult that preys on children with powers. Rebecca Ferguson, Bruce Greenwood, Jacob Tremblay, Cliff Curtis

08  Midway -- Historical War Action
Roland Emmerich (The Patriot, Independence Day) directed this story of the Battle of Midway, which turned the tide in the Pacific Theater during WWII.  Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Luke Evans

12  Lady and the Tramp -- Animated Comedy
CGI and live-action re-imagining of the 1955 Disney classic. Lady (Tessa Thompson) and Tramp (Justin Theroux).  Other voices: Sam Elliott, Janelle Monae, Kiersey Clemons, Benedict Wong

12  Noelle -- Fantasy Comedy
Noelle Kringle (Anna Kendrick), Santa's daughter, has to take over the family business, with the dubious help of Nick (Bill Hader) and Gabriel (Billy Eichner) Kringle, and Elf Polly (Shirley MacLaine), with Julie Hagerty as Mrs. Claus.  

15  Charlie's Angels -- Action, Comedy 
Elizabeth Banks produced, co-wrote, directed, and co-stars (as Bosley) this reimagination, based on the 1970s TV series. A new generation of private detectives--Sabina (Kristen Stewart), Elena (Naomi Scott), Jane (Ella Balinska)-- working for the mysterious Charlie.  Sam Claflin, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou

15   Ford v Ferrari -- Action, Biography, Drama
Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) hire car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to develop a car and team to defeat Ferrari at LeMans in 1966.  He hires talented and ruthless driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Caitrona Balfe; James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Logan) directs

15  The Good Liar -- Drama
Con man Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) conspires to defraud wealthy widow Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), but finds that it is important to avoid getting too close to one's mark as a simple crime turns into a tightrope. Jim Carter, Russell Tovey; frequent McKellen collaborator Bill Condon directs

15 The Report -- Drama
Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), an idealistic young staffer to Sen. Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening) is directed to lead an investigation into the CIA's post 9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program and discovers a systematic pattern of torture that defies the Geneva Convention. Jon Hamm, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Ted Levine; Scott Z. Burns wrote (The Bourne Ultimatum) and directed.

22  21 Bridges -- Crime Action
A disgraced NYPD detective (Chadwick Boseman) shuts down Manhattan to hem in a cop-killer and uncovers massive police corruption. Sienna Miller, J.K. Simmons, Taylor Kitsch; Brian Kirk (BBC's Luther) directs.

22 A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood -- Biography, Drama | Post-production
Based on the real-life friendship between Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) and journalist Tom Junod (Matthew Rhys).  Enrico Colantoni, Wendy Makkena  Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me) directs

22  Frozen II -- Animated Comedy
The further adventures of Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), Elsa (Idina Menzel), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Olaf (Josh Gad) as they travel to find the origin of Elsa's powers and save their kingdom.  Evan Rachel Wood, Sterling K. Brown

27   The Irishman (2019) -- Historical Crime Drama 
Martin Scorsese directs this musing about a hitman (Robert DeNiro) hired in a conspiracy among mobsters Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and others to kill Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).  Anna Paquin, Jack Huston, Jesse Plemons, Bobby Cannavale, 

27   Knives Out -- Comedy, Mystery 
A detective (Daniel Craig) and a policeman (LaKeith Stanfield) investigate the death of a patriarch (Christopher Plummer) of an eccentric, combative family: Chris Evans, Jamie Leigh Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, Katherine Langford, Ana de Armas, Don Johnson, Rian Johnson (the newer Star Wars films) wrote and directed


06   The Aeronauts -- Adventure, Biography
Balloonist Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) and scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) ascend to record-breaking heights to learn more about weather science and face a fight for survival in the thin atmosphere.  Himesh Patel, Anne Reid 

06  Marriage Story -- Romance, Comedy 
Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale) wrote and directed this bittersweet musing about a married couple's (Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver) breakup. Mark O'Brien, Laura Dern

13  A Hidden Life -- Biography, Drama
The much too rarely-seen auteur Terrence Malick wrote and directed this story of Austrian Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a conscientious objector who refuses to fight for the Nazis in World War II.  Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jürgen Prochnow, Bruno Ganz

13  Jumanji: The Next Level – Action, Comedy
The world's most dangerous game resumes as the friends (Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Kevin Hart) return and encounter new dangers.  Awkwafina, Colin Hanks, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover; Jake Kasdan (TV's Freaks and Geeks) wrote and directed.

20  Bombshell -- Biographical Drama
Female employees of Fox News stand up to boss Roger Ailes and the toxic atmosphere he presided over at the network.  Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Elizabeth Röhm, Alice Eve; Jay Roach (Meet the Fockers, Trumbo, Game Change) directed

20  Cats –  Animated Musical Fantasy
Tom Hooper's (Les Misérables, The King's Speech) CGI-enhanced remake of the stage hit, based on T.S.Eliot's poetry collection. Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen

20  Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Action. Fantasy
J.J. Abrams once again picks up the light-saber as the remaining ragtag band of Resisters face the First Order final (finally?) chapter of the Skywalker saga.  Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Greeson, Keri Russell, Billie Lourd, Richard E. Grant, Kelly Marie Tran, Lupita Nyong'o, John Boyega

20  The Two Popes -- Drama
In a confrontation of willful men, conservative Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and reformist future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) must put the Church ahead of their personal ideologies. Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole; Fernando Meirelles (City of God) directed.

25  1917 – War Drama
Sam Mendes (Skyfall, Road to Perdition) directed and co-wrote this story of two WWI  British soldiers (Richard Madden, George MacKay) who must venture deep behind enemy lines to deliver orders that will prevent their own men, including one messenger's brother, from entering a trap. Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Teresa Mahoney, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott

25  Little Women – Period Drama                                                                      
Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Frances Ha) treatment of the classic in which the four March sisters—Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson),  Jo (Saoirse Ronan), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen)--come of age in New England during and after the Civil War.  Timothée Chalamet

25  Spies in Disguise -- Animation, Action
When the world's best spy (Will Smith) is turned into a pigeon, he must rely on his nerdy tech officer (Tom Holland) to save the world.  Karen Gillan, Ben Mendelsohn, Rachel Brosnahan, Rashida Jones, Reba McEntire, Masi Oka

25  Uncut Gems -- Comedy, Crime, Drama
Bennie and Josh Safdie (Good Time) directed and co-wrote this story of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a New York City jeweler to the wealthy, who falls into debt and danger when a couple absconds with his inventory.  Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, The Weeknd, Idina Menzel, LaKeith Stanfield

Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood -- a review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Several things we can expect from a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino: sex, dialogue strewn with profanities, violence, drug and alcohol use, and originality.  Well, QT has some surprises in store for you, in a good way.  As always, his love of films and filmdom is palpable, so it stands to reason that his supposedly penultimate movie would take place at the end of the glitzy, tacky 1960s and on the cusp of the 1970s golden age.

We've also come to expect a huge cast (200, by one account), consisting of trendy present-day TV and film stars alongside lots of nostalgia-inducing character actors we grew up with.  In fact, that's pretty much what this film is about.  Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a TV Western star on a hit show, but that was a few years ago, and now he is on a slow mosey toward the has-been corral.  He will never be insignificant to Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), though.  Cliff has been Rick's stunt double ever since Rick's salad days, and he also doubles as Rick's handyman, bodyguard, confidant, drinking buddy, and shoulder to cry on.

On Rick's quest to remain relevant, he meets Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) who puts Rick's plight in bold relief.  Making him feel worse, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) move in next door.  In a symbolic moment, the couple tools past Rick and Cliff toward their home, slightly higher in the Hollywood hills.  These events drive the plot--what there is of it.  In true Tarantino fashion, Once follows a series of loosely-related vignettes featuring, randomly, Rick, Cliff, and Sharon, all of which converge on the fateful night of August 8, 1969.

Part of the fun of a Tarantino movie is picking out familiar faces, and there's plenty of opportunity with a cast of around 200.  We meet real folks, like Steve McQueen (an eerily look-alike Damian Lewis), and other pop culture notables of the time, such as rising star James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant); and fictional ones, like precocious child actor Trudi (Julia Butters) who shares some humorous--and heart-rending--scenes with Rick.  Bruce Dern shows up as George Spahn, owner of the Spahn Ranch, once a spot where Westerns were shot, now the commune of the Manson (Damon Herriman) Family commune, where several members stand out:  Squeakie Fromm (Dakota Fanning), Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Flower Child (Maya Hawke), and most notably Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), an underaged Hippie who tries to seduce Cliff.  Also look for card-carrying members of the Tarantino film troupe--Zoe Bell, Michael Madsen, James Remar--as well as newer and rookie members of the club: Kurt Russell, Brenda Vaccaro, Emile Hirsch, Luke Perry, Lena Dunham, Scoot McNairy, Rumer Willis, Martin Kove, Rebecca Gayheart, Kate Berlant, and others.  Fun fact: QT is now even using children of alumni in Maya Hawke (Uma Thurman) and Rumer Willis (Bruce).

Once ... may or may not be Quentin Tarantino's best film--an argument can be made for almost any of them, based on individual likes.  It's certainly his most restrained.  True, Tarantino's screenplay counts over 100 f-bombs, and he continues to find interesting ways to deal out violence.  But missing here is the excessive bloodbath, like the overlong slaughter of Django.  And who would have thought that Quentin would film a scene at a Playboy Club that is as innocent as anything in Beach Blanket Bingo?  The most controversial thing to my mind is his portrayal of Bruce Lee (a perfect Mike Joh) as an arrogant phony.  But anyone who can revive the old 1950s name for a disreputable character, "owl hoot", is all right in my book.  And anyway, Tarantino movies succeed because he makes us care about colorful, flawed characters by putting them in difficult, sometimes bizarre situations.  Rick is a depressed, self-pitying diva and Cliff, for all of his affable "bro"-ness has one seemingly fatal flaw, and yet we love them--and this film.

9.0 out of 10 -- Expect Awards recognition for Picture, Director, Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Brad Pitt), Cinematography, Editing, Original Screenplay, Production Design,

Four Movies We've Seen Lately

What We've Seen Lately -- Thumbnails by FilmZ and Guy S. Malone, Researcher

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Writer, director, producer (along with Brad Pitt) Joe Talbot collected three Sundance awards for the film: Best Director, the Jury Award for Dramatic Film, and the Grand Jury Prize for Best Film.  It is a visual poem to the San Francisco we don't see in the travel brochures.  Jimmy Fails plays himself as a man who tries to regain a tangible piece of his broken family by reclaiming his ancestral home, a spiritually beautiful Victorian house in a gentrified neighborhood.  Along with his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors, Hostiles) an aspiring artist and playwright, Fails decides to exert squatters rights in the abandoned house.  This move ripples through the lives of his family and assorted neighborhood folks whom Montgomery sees as characters in the play he is writing.  Also stars Danny Glover, Omar Epps, and Finn Wittrock.  You'll find this only in arthouses.
8.5 out of 10 - Could vie for awards

The Dead Don't Die

With Bill Murray as the police chief, Adam Driver as his laconic deputy, Tilda Swinton as a Samurai funeral director, Steve Buscemi as a lunatic-fringe farmer, and Tom Waits as a hermit, this film is must-see for some, including me.  But with the fact that it is written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, a notoriously divisive director (Only Lovers Left Alive, Broken Flowers, Coffee and Cigarettes), comes the realization that any recommendation must be tempered by what you think of his style.  His style?: improvisational, which at times can seem like the film is an unedited run-through; a sense of humor that has its uproarious belly laughs but often is arid to the point of imperceptibly downbeat, a sketchy plot that seems more like notions slapped together and which relies on his casts to pull off.  In this case, we have an homage to George A. Romero--a zombie movie set in Western Pennsylvania.  Also stars Chloe Sevigny, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Selena Gomez, with zombie cameos by Carol Kane, Iggy Pop.  In arthouses.
7.0 out of 10 - strictly for Jarmusch, zombie, and Murray/Swinton/Driver/Buscemi fans

Men in Black: International

I see what you did there, Hollywood: You recognized the chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok and thought, now, where could we capitalize on that in a buddy film?  I know, another Men in Black.  Then, throw in Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson as MIB bosses for a touch of class, Rebecca Ferguson as a bad-girl/former love interest, Rafe Spall as a foil, and alien voice work by Kumail Nanjani.  We have to admit, it seemed like a good idea, and if you really like the cast (we do), then check it out.  This film relies on visual spectacle and the magnetism of the stars, but even the most engaging actors need a screenplay and direction.  Unlike many action spectacles, this one can wait for streaming.
6.5 out of 10

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Now, Kevin Feige, the mastermind behind  Marvel, there's a man who knows how to make an action film, even when it's set among the high school crowd, he engages superhero film lovers of all ages.  We're on a class trip to Europe with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and crush M.J. (Zendaya), best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon), and nemesis Flash (Tony Revolori).  Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and resident S.H.I.E.L.D. badass Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) hijack the holiday when dangerous "Elemental" creatures threaten the citizenry of Venice.  Luckily, Quentin Beck, AKA "Mysterio" (Jake Gyllenhaal) is around, and with the help of a disguised Spider-Man, they defeat the creature.  As you know, though, that is just the beginning, and the game is afoot--who are these "elementals" and where did they come from?  The film also makes good use of Happy (Jon Favreau) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) whose budding romance adds its own smiles and heart to an already humorous, heartening, and exciting film. And, in case you were wondering, it offers an adept explanation the five-year loss of so many characters (here called "the blip").  Not among Marvel's very best efforts, but even that is worth heading out to the theater to see.  [Stay until the very end--two teasers]
8.0 out of 10 based on entertainment.

Streaming Update: Good Omens and Catch-22

Television has seen fit to do treatments on two of our favorite books with widely varying results. Neil Gaiman turned Good Omens, the cult classic he wrote with the late Terry Pratchett, into a wonderful labor of love; George Clooney took the 20th-century American classic Catch-22 , a tenderloin if there ever was one, and sliced it into chipped beef on toast. Guy S. Malone, Researcher and I critically review both efforts.
-- Yours, FilmZ and GSM,R

Good Omens streaming on Amazon Prime (6 episodes) -- a review by FilmZ

We are huge Neil Gaiman fans, and it all started when Morgan Rasputin, the godmother to our youngest, gave us Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophesies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, which Gaiman co-authored with his friend, brilliant British humorist Terry Pratchett.  This witty and loopy take on the Bible's Revelations is a soul-sibling to Monty Python, and it's no surprise that the authors sent it to Terry Gilliam for critique.  Gilliam did more than critique; he wanted to make it into a film himself.  For whatever reason, those plans fell through, and it took until now for the stars to align, sadly, four years after Pratchett's death. Gaiman has poured loving care into the series in honor of his great friend and colleague.  In addition, as talented as Gilliam is, the whimsical, nuanced story needed more room to breathe than a two-hour film could contain, and, as it turns out, a six-episode series is just about as nice and accurate as it gets.

In the beginning (couldn't resist), there was Adam and Eve, of course, and the Tree of Knowledge.  As we all know, the serpent--AKA the demon Crawley--tempted Eve, Eve took the bait, and the first couple was expelled from Eden.  Fearing their fate in the wild, the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen), gave them his flaming sword, which God had entrusted to him.  Crawley, in a PR makeover, changed his name to Crowley (David Tennant), and he has been jousting with Aziraphale ever since.

Flash forward to 11 years ago and Aziraphale, who now owns a rare book shop, and Crowley, who hot-rods around London in a vintage Bentley, have become quite comfortable with Earth and mortals (as a superior says, they've "gone native").  So, when two dukes of Hell present Crowley with the Anti-Christ. to be placed with the family of--who else--American diplomats, the demon becomes understandably distraught.  He turns to his longtime angelic adversary and the two conspire to avert the Apocalypse, scheduled for the child's 11th birthday.  Complicating matters, the inept Satanic nuns who run the hospital inadvertently lost track of the Anti-Christ and placed him with a nice English family in the village of Little Tadfield.

In the ensuing years, Aziraphale and Crowley dodge the bureaucracies of Heaven and Hell, including the Archangel Gabriel (Jon Hamm) and Beelzebub (Anna Maxwell Martin) and stave off the Four Horsemen--actually motorcyclists--led by Death (Brian Cox) as they try to locate the lost Anti-Christ, now named Adam (Sam Tayler Buck), who leads his own pre-adolescent gang, called Them.  At the same time, several humans are catching on.  Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), a witch and descendant of Agnes Nutter, also a witch, whose 16th-century prophesies are accurate but difficult to decipher, and they may save the human race; Newton Pulsifer, Witch Hunter Private, who falls hard for Anathema; Witch-Hunter Sgt. Shadwell (Michael McKean), a fanatic; and Madame Tracy (Miranda Richardson), a medium and part-time Jezebel.

If that sounds like a large cast of characters, it is, but Director Douglas Mackinnon and Neil Gaiman work hand-in-glove.  As the characters hurtle toward the End Times, we encounter inventive and outrageous occurrences and the actors seem to be having a blast in the process.   Good Omens' good-natured humor and thoroughly likable cast all serve to leaven its satirical bite, though backlash from some Christian groups is not surprising.  Some sensibilities have been offended by a Black Adam and Eve, and a female God (Frances McDormand).  To paraphrase Patrick Henry: If this is blasphemy, they made the most of it.
9.0 out of 10

Catch-22 streaming on Hulu (6 episodes) -- a review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Catch-22 is our favorite book of all time.  Joseph Heller's classic anti-war satire is a one-of-a-kind novel; a critique of war, bureaucracy, and capitalism condensed in 400-some pages that swing from hilarity to tragedy.  Also, though we are George Clooney fans as an actor, as a producer and a director his results have been spotty, giving us the excellent Syriana and the Edward R. Murrow biopic Good Night and Good Luck, but also churning out highly anticipated but ultimately disappointing fare like Suburbicon and The Monuments Men.

In fairness, anyone who has read Catch-22 knows it doesn't lend itself to film.  Over 40 characters and the Moebius strip chronology Heller employed to portray the random chaos of both war and the military-industrial complex -- it's enough to make a screenwriter quit the business.  Credit Clooney's ego for taking on the task; discredit Clooney's ego and the writers, Luke Davies and David Michod, for artistic choices that defang the biting satire and bring order to the purposeful chaos.

Having also seen Mike Nichols' 1970 film treatment, we were optimistic when we learned Clooney and Grant Heslov had planned a six-episode series.  Nichols hired an excellent cast and he captured the surreal insanity of the novel, but the two-hour film could only provide a Cliff Notes version of Catch-22.  And yet somehow it better captured the soul of the novel.  Clooney's series is beautifully shot, the air raid sequences are jarringly immersive, and, in the #MeToo era, taming the novel's 1960s misogynistic moments was wise (though the misogyny was a product of its time and a device the novel uses to show the animal brutality of war, and Heller does vilify it).  The chronological layout of the series, however, and the sketchy characterizations leave us with a run of the mill story.  Christopher Abbott's portrayal of the protagonist, Yossarian, comes across as a sad-sack malcontent and suffers in comparison with Alan Arkin's on-the-nose frantic, desperate hero.

Other gripes: calling Yossarian "Yoyo" throughout when it's only a momentary diversion in the novel; underutilizing the estimable talents of the likes of Kyle Chandler as Col. Cathcart and Hugh Laurie as Major ___ de Coverley; bracketing the Snowden incident--the main reason for Yossarian's insanity--as a vague hint in the first episode to be addressed only in the last half-hour (whereas in the novel it is an ongoing stem, revealed by dribs and drabs, building tension until it comes crashing down emotionally at the end); arbitrarily introducing new--and inferior-- material while neglecting parts of the novel that gave the story its soul (Nately's Whore, Chief White Halfoat); and finally, completely changing the ending.  Incredible.  Watch Catch-22 if you wish, but please understand that you will not have experienced anything akin to the novel.
5.0 out of 10

Rocketman: a Brief Evisceration

Rocketman -- a review by FilmZ

I'm taking the reins from Guy S. Malone, Researcher on this one for the sake of Elton John.  Full disclosure: I didn't want to see the movie, either; after being a huge Elton John fan in the '70s, his songs became so overplayed that I'm just done (except for "Your Song").  And the Czarina warned me that the movie was dark, dark, dark, which cinched it.  But Serfing Dude, a connoisseur of classic rock said he "really wants to see it," and Don Swedanya said he would see anything that didn't have super heroes in it.  So, off we went, despite my desire to see Dark Phoenix--a Monty Python romp, by comparison.

First the positives.  The foundation is solid: it's directed by Dexter Fletcher (the man who saved Bohemian Rhapsody after Brian Singer was fired); it contained some of the most iconic music from a rock icon; it had an excellent cast, headed by Taron Egerton as Elton John, Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin, Bryce Dallas Howard as EJ's Mum, Gemma Jones as Grandmum, and Richard Madden as John Reid, EJ's manager.  Fletcher brought out convincing performances, top to bottom.

Rocketman, though, seems unable to decide what it wants to be: a rock biopic, a musical, a surreal fantasy, a group counseling session on excessive behavior, a poison pen letter to EJ's parents.  So, it tries to be everything and ends up being less than the sum of its parts as it jolts from genre to genre and backward and forward in time like a kidney-busting wooden roller coaster.  Even songs are played out of chronological order--as a pre-fame late 1960's teen, he performs "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting," a song not introduced until 1973's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" album.  The film does check all of the tropes of musical biopics: the sensitive child, misunderstood by his parents; the recognition of talent; the skeptical recording executive; the rapacious (in this case, literally) manager; the big break, followed by a (ahem) rocket-ride to stardom; the downward spiral of substance abuse; the reckoning; the recovery.  The focus--too much--is on the excesses and the demons they rain down on Elton, and it's only in epilogue that we see happiness come to him.

Inevitably, Rocketman will be compared to Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born, to its detriment, we believe.  Several small warnings and one big one: While BR and ASiB are dramatic films with music, Rocketman is a musical with some big choreographic numbers.  Those musical pieces and the flights of fantasy take us away from the story (big turnoffs to Serfing Dude).  As good as Egerton is (he does his own singing, unlike Rami Malek in BR) and as great as Elton John's music is, those interludes are not energetic enough to lift us from the downbeat pall of self-indulgence, self-loathing, and self-destruction that weights the film.  Compared to Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody is inspirational, and A Star is Born provides much better balance, leavening humor and drama and a cinematic flow and synergy between story and lyrics.  But the worst, as pointed out by Don Swedanya, is the portrayal of Elton John's homosexuality.  This is surprising for an effort championed by John himself.  As portrayed in Rocketman, a person of the evangelical persuasion could conclude that Elton John's homosexuality was not genetic but rather a product of an overly strict, uncaring father and a vapid, distant mother, and thus make EJ a candidate for gay conversion "therapy."  To us, this is the major crime of Rocketman.
5.0 out of 10, strictly for the attempt at originality and the across the board performances

Avengers: Endgame - No Spoilers

Avengers: Endgame -- a review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

This 22nd entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon brings a fitting, if bittersweet end to this storyline and this group of Avengers.  Again, Anthony and Joe Russo provide stellar direction, but the real brains behind the canon are the creator Stan Lee, of course, and producer Kevin Feige, who, over the past 11 years has fine-tuned this series to a point where we truly appreciate the intricacies and attention to detail throughout Endgame.  Realistically, even at a tad over three hours, this finale could not bring every character into play to a level one might desire, but Feige and the team of writers give us an engrossing story, full of terrific twists, Easter eggs, and absolute bombshells so that we left the theater exhausted and overwhelmed, but also in animated discussion and active Googling to gather in the massive event and all of its nuances.

A caveat: those looking forward to action scene after action scene, adjust your expectations.  Don't worry, Endgame has plenty of action, and it is scintillating, but remember, this is a film about endings, the end of this story line and the last we will see of the original team of Avengers.  So, yeah, there's a lot about the relationships and family, both blood ties and those among the superheroes.  So, more than most of the other films in the series, this film moseys along at times, but for those of us who care about these characters, it is at the quiet times where we see how much they care for each other, where story lines are brought to a climax, and where loose ends are tied up.  Trust us, you won't be looking at your watch, first because Endgame is engrossing, and second because, if you are like us your eyes will be too misty to check the time.

OK, to set Avengers Endgame up for those who have forgotten the events of Avengers: Infinity War: Thanos (Josh Brolin) had been a bit player for most of the past six years of the series, in the background but menacing,  In Infinity Wars, Thanos reveals his concern about an infintely increasing population in a Universe that has finite resources.  His solution: gather all of the powerful Infinity Stones, each with a special power (specifically, Reality, Mind, Time, Space, Power, and Soul).  The Avengers mission throughout the film is the frantic efforts by all to prevent Thanos from acquiring them.  In the end, though, he did indeed obtain all six, set them in a special glove, and with a simple snap of his fingers eliminated at random half the population of the Universe.  Among those dusted are Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch.

And, as Avengers: Endgame picks up, among the living are, conveniently, the original Avengers.  It is a difficult time, a time of both remorse and guilt--questions about those things they could have done differently (personally, I blame Peter Quill, and am having a lot of trouble forgiving him).  During this time of mourning, we get to see how these superheroes have handled losing.  As we all expect, though, a kernel of an idea comes to them, the idea sprouts into hope, and the hope fleshes out into a very cool plan.  Soon our original gang--Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)--aided and abetted by several surviving newer heroes (remember that signal Nick Fury sent out at the end of Infinity War?) reunite to try and undo Thanos’s genocide.  Our Avengers assembly comes with the stirring strains of Alan Silvestri's Avengers Theme and the Russos (along with the screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) witty, engaging dialogue and our superheroes are on their way again. Of course, the Avengers wouldn't be the Avengers without squabbling and setbacks, but watching these charismatic characters work their way through their problems--both technical and interpersonal--is part of the joy.

Those steeped in the Marvel Cinematic Universe will find Avengers: Endgame immensely satisfying because of their familiarity with the characters and their interrelationships and also because the film pays homage to moments from previous films, some of which are most pleasantly surprising.  Those not familiar with the MCU may want to at least watch Avengers: Infinity War in preparation; otherwise, they are likely to find the film confusing. maybe even contrived.  Sorry about that, but Avengers: Endgame is a reward for 11 years of geekish loyalty.
9.5 out of 10

The Mustang

The Mustang -- a Review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Director Laure De Clermont-Tonnerre spent time at the Sundance Institute to develop this story about a man and a horse.  Yes, we know it's been done before but rarely like this, enough so that Robert Redford took it on as executive producer.  Using the severe canvas of the Nevada desert, beautifully captured by cinematographer Ruben Impens, De Clermont-Tonnerre tells an equally stark story forwarding the the belief that even the most broken among us can develop empathy and thus start on the path toward redemption.  The success of this film is rooted in the performance of its star, Matthias Schoenaerts (The Drop, Red Sparrow, The Danish Girl), as Roman, a violent convict serving hard time in a high security prison, and we believe it is one of the best you will see this year.

Roman has served 12 years for a violent crime, the specifics of which we don't know.  As we meet him he has just returned from isolation. and is meeting with a no-nonsense prison psychologist (Connie Britton).  In response to her probes, he merely stares, but as she persists, she finally asks, "How does Roman feel about reentering the prison's general population?" His response is an understatement: "I'm not good with people,"  As a result, she recommends he have a solo job outdoors mucking manure.

We learn that this prison takes part in a Bureau of Land Management initiative which saves some of  the 100,000 wild mustangs who roam the West.  They are herded by helicopter and a dozen or so are brought to the prison for an equine therapy program whereby they are tamed, then trained by inmates to be sold at auction.   The foreman of the project is Myles (the aptly cast Bruce Dern), a cranky piece of hickory who knows men as well as he knows horses.  Myles notices  Roman has a strong interest in the wildest of these mustangs, and we see at once the parallels between man and beast.  Myles assigns another inmate, Henry (Jason Mitchell--Mudbound, Detroit), the self-professed best trainer, to show him the ropes.

At the same time, Roman gets a visit from his estranged 16-year old daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon), who is pregnant and only wants him to sign papers for her emancipation so she can sell her grandmother's home, which was left to them.  For the first time, we begin to touch on the details surrounding Roman's crime, as Martha's hostility and resentment and his social maladjustment make for a brief, unpleasant meeting.  Just when Roman is at his most alienated he turns his energies to the mustang.  He gets an equestrian magazine to learn more about his charge, but from academics to corral the conflict beteen two wild and headstrong creatures rains frustration down on both--Myles even banishes Roman for a time.

Just as Roman seems like a lost cause, Henry tells him, "if you wanna control the horse, first you gotta control yourself."  Only then he begns to make progress. and that progress extends to both his psychological counseling and his relationship with Martha.  In his restorative justice anger management sessions he pries himself open as he gains insight into his own impulsive behavior.  In subsequent visits from his daughter (he still hasn't signed the papers) we also see him opening up more to her, culminating in one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the movie.  Though it is not in Roman's nature to be outgoing, as he gains insight into himself, he allows the light to shine into his soul, the greatest manifestation of this is his relationship with the mustang.

De Clermont-Tonnerre's sidling pace brings slow-burn tension and tiny revelations as the film moves toward resolution.  It should be added, though, that the film never seems slow, and at a sparse 96 minutes, it left all of us wanting more.  Although it's early, we see The Mustang as an Independent Spirit Awards player for "Film," Director," Cinematography," Supporting Actor" (Dern), and Schoenaerts should lead the way, even making a strong bid for an Oscar.
8.0 out of 10

Spring and Summer Movie Guide

Happy New Year by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Allow me to explain.  The movie year doesn't run with the calendar year.  January, for example, is still part of the previous calendar year, dominated by late arriving awards hopefuls, leading up to the Oscars, which ends the year.  Then there's a brief post-Oscars dead period, when Hollywood dumps the dregs into theaters--in truth, most of the spring used to be that way, with nary a movie worth seeing until late May, when the summer blockbusters landed.

Not any more.  Back in 2012, The Hunger Games arrived in March to record-breaking audiences, and studio bigwigs realized they were onto something.  Ever since, the new movie year has kicked off with a blockbuster, with even an Oscar contender or two sneaking in (The Grand Budpest Hotel released on March 28, 2014).   Last year, Black Panther arrived on February 16 and dominated the movie scene for months.  This year, it's Captain Marvel.

So, with the spring equinox, let me wish you a Happy New Year.

Below, we've broken down the films into two groups.  First, the BEST BETS; 19 sure fire box office hits; the last one could be be the kickoff to the awards season. You'll note that the list is dominated by sequels, series, and remakes; no matter how much critics and fans say they want original content films; they don't support them when they are released.  The animated offerings also will show up for awards, and a number of these biggies will earn technical honors.  The second list, THE REST, is a carefully selected group that might be sneaky good or appeal to niche audiences.

BEST BETS  (Note: studios sometimes change release dates)

Captain Marvel - In theaters now - Action, Sci-Fi
Follows USAF pilot Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) as she makes an unplanned detour into space and returns ... changed, joining forces with a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) when Earth becomes the target of an intergalactic war between two alien races.  Jude Law, Clark Gregg, 

- March 22  - Horror, Thriller
Writer/Director Jordan Peele's follow-up to his hit, Get Out: Gabe (Winston Duke), Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), and their children face an existential threat when  doppelgängers invade their lives.  Elisabeth Moss, Anna Diop, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

 - March 28  - Fantasy, Family
Director Tim Burton's reimagination of the Disney classic about a young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly and in the process save a failing circus, but danger lurks below the sawdust.
Eva Green, Michael Keaton, Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito

 - April 5 - Sci-Fi Comedy 
We all have a superhero inside.  In Billy Batson’s (Asher Angel) case, he brings it out by shouting "Shazam!" and this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult super hero Shazam (Zachary Levi), courtesy of an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounsou).  Mark Strong, Meagan Good

 - April 12  - Action, Fantasy 
Based on the graphic novels by Mike Mignola, Hellboy (David Harbour: Stranger Things), caught between supernatural and human worlds, battles an ancient sorceress (Milla Jovovich) bent on revenge. Ian McShane, Daniel Dae Kim 

Avengers: Endgame
 - April 26  - Action, Sci-Fi 
After Thanos (Josh Brolin) randomly destroyed half of all life (luckily leaving the original Avengers unscathed) in Infinity War, things look bleak. Bowed but unbeaten, our heroes regroup for one last desperate attempt to undo the tragedy and restore order to the universe.  Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Brie Larson, Paul Rudd, Karen Gillan

Pokémon Detective Pikachu
 - May 10  - Animated Family 
When a detective goes missing, his Pokémon partner, Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) seeks to solve the mystery.  With the help of a boy (Justice Smith), he uncovers a plot that threatens the coexistence of Pokemon and humans. Suki Waterhouse, Kathryn Newton 

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
 - May 17  Action
A $14 million open contract is on the head of super-Assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) because he killed another assassin on forbidden ground.  He's given a head start by a man named Winston (Ian McShane) before the baddest and best assassins go after him.  Halle Berry, Jason Mantzoukas

 - May 24  Adventure Comedy, Family
Guy Ritchie directs the live-action retelling of the 1992 Disney film. Recall Aladdin (Mena Massoud) finding a lamp with a genie (Will Smith) inside and turns himself into a prince to win the heart of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). Enter the evil Jafar (Marwan Kenzari).  Alan Tudyk voices Iago

Rocketman - May 31 - Biography/Fantasy
A musical fantasy about Elton John's (Taron Egerton) transformation from shy piano prodigy Reginald Dwight into international superstar, including his inspiring collaboration and relationship with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). Bryce Dallas Howard, Richard Madden

Dark Phoenix
 - June 7 - Sci-Fi Action, Adventure
Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) develops powers she can't control that turn her into Dark Phoenix.  The X-Men will have to save her from herself before she destroys the world.  Simon Kinberg directs Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain

The Secret Life of Pets 2
 - June 7 - Animated Comedy
The continuing story of Max (Patton Oswalt) and his pet friends after their owners leave them each day.  Voices of Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Harrison Ford, and others

Men in Black: International - June 14 - Sci-Fi Comedy
The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.  Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Rebecca Ferguson, Liam Neeson

Toy Story 4
 - June 21 Animated Family
Woody (Tom Hanks) helps newcomer Forky (Tony Hale) embrace being a toy by leading the gang on a road trip.  Tim Allen, Jordan Peele, Keanu Reeves, Patricia Arquette, John Ratzenberger

Spider-Man: Far From Home
 - July 5  Sci-Fi Action, Comedy
Peter Parker (Tom Holland) leaves his Spidey-suit at home when he and his friends go on summer vacation to Europe, but then he comes up against a villain known as Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal).  Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Cobie Smulders, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau

The Lion King
 - July 19 Animated Adventure
Director Jon Favreau presents the CGI re-imagining of the 1994 Disney classic.  Voices of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood - July 26 Comedy-Drama
Amid the backdrop of the Manson family murders, a fading actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Brad Pitt) strive to reclaim fame in a 1969-noir Los Angeles.  Quentin Tarantino directs.  Al Pacino, Luke Perry, Margot Robbie, Dakota Fanning

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
 - August 2  Action
Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and disgraced MI-6 operative Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) are unhappily teamed up when a cyber-genetically enhanced villain (Idris Elba) threatens the future of humanity.  David Leitch directs.  Eiza González, Vanessa Kirby, Eddie Marsan

Where'd You Go, Bernadette
 - August 9  Comedy, Drama
Based on a runaway best-selling novel about a runaway wife and mother, Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) has disappeared and her daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) and husband (Billy Crudup) set out to track her down, discovering her troubled past in the process.  Director: Richard Linklater; co-stars Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, Laurance Fishburne, Troian Bellisario 


Arctic -  (in limited release)
The lone survivor of a plane crash (Mads Mikkelsen) is stranded in the Arctic and must decide whether to remain in the relative safety of his makeshift camp or to embark on a deadly trek through the unknown in hopes of making it out alive.  Maria Thelma Smaradottir.

The Aftermath - March 15
In post-WWII Germany, Rachael (Keira Knightley) is reunited with her husband Lewis (Jason Clarke), a British colonel charged with rebuilding the shattered city of Hamburg.  Unbeknownst to Rachael, Lewis has arranged to share their house with its previous owners, a German widower (Alexander Skarsgård) and his troubled daughter. 

The Hummingbird Project - March 15 Thriller
Cousins (Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård) involved in high frequency trading go up against their old boss (Salma Hayek) who is intent on beating them at their own game in a fiber-optic cable deal.   Michael Mando

The Mustang - March 15
Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a violent convict, is given the chance to participate in a rehabilitation therapy, training wild mustangs. Led by a tough ranch hand (Bruce Dern) and a fellow parolee (Jason Mitchell), Roman learns to control both the horses and his own savage emotions.

Pet Sematary - April 5  Horror
Reprise of a Stephen King-based film of Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two children who move to a rural home where they are enlightened about the eerie 'Pet Sematary' located nearby.  John Lithgow, Naomi Frenette

Little - April 12  Comedy, Fantasy
When pressures build too high, a tough tech-mogul (Regina Hall) is transformed into her 13-year-old self (Marsai Martin), and the only person in on it is her personal assistant (Issa Rae).  Justin Hartley,  Tone Bell

Long Shot - May 3  Comedy
A talented, unconventional journalist (Seth Rogen) reunites with his first crush, now a powerful diplomat considering a run for President (Charlize Theron).  His self-deprecating style charms her and she hires him as her speechwriter. Romance ensues. June Diane Raphael, O'Shea Jackson Jr.

Tolkien - May 10  Biography, Drama
The formative years of the orphaned author (Nicholas Hoult) as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school, and the ourbreak of WWI, which threatens to tear the "fellowship" apart.  Lily Collins, Genevieve O'Reilly, Pam Ferris

The Souvenir - May 17  Drama, Mystery, Romance
A young film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) becomes romantically involved with a charismatic, untrustworthy man (Tom Burke), in defiance of her mother's (Tilda Swinton) warnings, and the resultant relationship threatens to destroy her dreams.  Richard Ayoade

Ad Astra - May 24  Sci-Fi Adventure, Mystery
Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travels across space to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who went missing on a flight to Neptune 20 years before, and he uncovers a mystery that threatens life on earth.  Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga

Booksmart - May 24  Comedy
Two academic superstars (Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd) are best friends who, on the eve of their high school graduation, realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram 4 years of fun into 1 night.  Director: Olivia Wilde, co-stars Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis

Brightburn - May 24  Horror
A nightmare version of the Superman story: a child (Jackson A. Dunn) from another world crash-lands on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, will he prove to be a nemesis?   Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner

Godzilla: King of the Monsters - May 31  Sci-Fi Action,
In this throwback to the golden age of Japanese mega-monsters, Godzilla clashes with Mothra, Rodan, and his ultimate nemesis, the three-headed King Ghidorah.  Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Sally Hawkins, Bradley Whitford

Late Night - June 7  Comedy, Drama
A legendary late-night talk show host (Emma Thompson) fears she may soon be losing her long-running show.  John Lithgow, Mindy Kaling, Megalyn Echikunwoke

Shaft - June 14  Crime Action,
John Shaft's son ((Samuel L. Jackson), a cyber security expert with a degree from MIT, enlists dad's (Richard Roundtree) help to uncover the truth behind his best friend's untimely death.  Regina King, Avan Jogia, Luna Lauren Velez, Alexandra Shipp

The Art of Self-Defense - June 21  Comedy
A bookkeeper (Jesse Eisenberg) who is attacked by a motorcycle gang, enlists in a local dojo, led by a charismatic and mysterious Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).  An aggressive brown belt (Imogen Poots) helps in his effort to learn how to defend himself.  Steve Terada

Child's Play- June 21  Horror
A reimagining of the 1988 thriller of the same name, a mother (Aubrey Plaza) gives her son (Gabriel Bateman) a toy doll for his birthday, unaware of its sinister nature. Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson

[This is the dead zone of summer, except for the three blockbusters listed at the top]

The New Mutants - August 2  Sci-Fi Action,
Five teenaged mutants, including Native American Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt), Scots girl Wolfsbane (Maisie Williams), Brazilian ladies man Sunspot (Henry Zaga), a Kentuckian code-named Cannonball (Charlie Heaton),and Russian teen Magik (Anya Taylor-Joy), hone their abilities at the Xavier Institute.  Antonio Banderas, Alice Braga

Artemis Fowl - August 9  Fantasy
Artemis Fowl II (Ferdia Shaw), an adolescent millionaire, genius, and criminal mastermind, kidnaps the fairy LEPrecon officer Holly Short (Lara McDonnell) for ransom to fund the search for his missing father  and restore the family fortune.  Director: Kenneth Branagh; co-stars: Judi Dench, Josh Gad.

Midsommar - August 9  Drama, Thriller, Mystery
Writer-Director Ari Aster follows up his frightfest Hereditary with this confection about a group of young travelers--Florence Pugh, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper, Jack Reynor--who head to a Scandinavian summer festival, evidently inspired by the Wicker Man.

The Angry Birds Movie 2 - August 16  Animation, Family
The adventure takes flight (or not) a second time.  Peter Dinklage, Bill Hader, Josh Gad, Dove Cameron, Awkwafina, Jason Sudeikis
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