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

Brief Reviews: JoJo Rabbit and Parasite

Well, Gang, we got to see two small films that should garner big awards in early 2020.  First, Don Swedanya, Capt. HE Albano, Guy S. Malone, Researcher, and I saw JoJo Rabbit.  Yesterday, unable to coax either family or the few friends I have to see it, I paid GSM, R overtime and bought him popcorn as an enticement to see Parasite.  Here are our reviews:

JoJo Rabbit -- a review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

All right, I will come out and say it since I'll have to stand by it later: JoJo Rabbit is the best film we have seen so far this year, and it should push Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok) into the upper echelon of writer/directors.  OK, we get it, we understand that directors known most for their comedy don't garner the same respect as the "serious" ones and neither do their films; we know that Waititi's brand of filmmaking isn't for everyone; we've seen the reviews ranging from hate to love with all of the PITA politically correct squawkers who have homogenized moral complexity and thus bravery out of American films.  But Waititi has adapted Christine Leunens 2008 novel, Caging Skies, into a film that is much more than one would glean from the trailers.

Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old Nazi fanatic who can't wait for his first weekend camping/training with the "Jungvolk" (Hitler Youth--think angry Cub Scouts).  The camp, led by Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) with Freulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) heading the ladies auxiliary is as silly as it is sinister, and it's not a good experience for Jojo.  He fails a test of his sociopathy, resulting in his "Rabbit" nickname, and when he tries to reassert his ruthlessness, the attempt goes comically wrong.  Sent home to his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), he sulks, seeking consolation from his imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler (Waititi himself), who gives nothing but bad advice.  Just when he thinks he has hit bottom, a new horror reveals itself, he finds that his mother is harboring a 16-year-old Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie).  What is a good Jungvolk to do?  Turn Elsa in, and his mother dies for harboring a Jew; hide Elsa, and he becomes complicit in the crime.  What would Adolph do?  Study the Jew and publish his research, it seems, which leads JoJo to cognitive dissonance that only he can resolve.

To say that JoJo Rabbit is original is an understatement.  But what is more important, Waititi--whose father is Maori and whose mother is of Ashkenazi Jewish, Irish, Scottish, and English descent--imbues this satire with understanding and heart.  Yes, the Nazis are painted as preposterous, but only those who question the Fuhrer are given any sympathy.  Their hatred of Jews and their illusion of Aryan supremacy is turned on its head with touching grace, and the horrors of war come home with surprising power.  Credit Waititi with masterfully walking the delicate balance, and bringing a satire with sensitivity and a comedy with heart.
9.0 out of 10

Parasite -- a review by FilmZ

Two disclaimers: 1 - foreign language films are usually no fun for me, 2 - Cannes Film Festival entries are often too hoity-toity for me, and those that win the Palme d'Or (Best Picture) are like salt in the wound of my artistic Achilles heel.  Parasite fits both categories.  But I do like Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer, Okja, The Host), who co-wrote and directed.  Those familiar with his films know they are difficult to classify.  Let's call the genre Bong.  OK, if you need a classification, we'll call them social satire, and if so, this film satirizes class struggle.  Many say his films are highly metaphorical, and Bong may be satirizing himself (or us) when several times he has one of his characters observe how metaphorical a very unmetaphorical situation is.

Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and his family are underemployed, folding pizza boxes for a pittance as they live in a basement urban hovel in Korea.  Their dubious skills include pirating wi-fi signals, forgery, and scheming.  One day, Ki-taek's college-age son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) gets a visit from a friend who brings a good luck rock and an offer to take over his English tutoring job for Da-hye (Ji-so Jung), the daughter of the wealthy Park family who live in a fabulously cold architectural masterpiece on a hill high above town.  Indeed, the family's luck is changing, for soon, Ki-woo schemes to get his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam), a computer whiz, hired as an art therapist for the Park's troubled 8-year-old son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung).  Then, through cruel but hilarious chicanery, Ki-jung conspires to get her father Ki-taek hired as Mr. Park's (Sun-kyun Lee) driver, and they all work toward getting mother, Chung-soon (Chang Hyae-jin) hired as the housekeeper for the sweet but gullible Mrs. Park (Yeo-jeong Jo).  The trick is, to pull off the coincidental nature of the hiring, every member of the family has to pretend they have just met the others.

That's the set-up, and it's a comic high-wire act until hidden rooms, surprise characters, and unwitting class distinctions enter.  Then, in typical Bong fashion,  Parasite effortlessly moves from comedy to drama to thriller to tragedy and its tone from farce to moral relativity to righteous anger until it reaches its trancelike ending. Kyung-pyo Hong's cinematography captures the stench of the city and the sterile chill of life on the mountain, even as it tilts askew at the characters that inhabit both realms.  The score by Jaeil Jung is immersive, most effective when it tours the Park mansion.  I'll leave it to others to hail this as Bong's best film to date (I haven't seen enough of his oeuvre to judge), but it is a true original, quite self-aware, and if Roma deserved a Best Picture nod last year, then Parasite does in spades.
8.5 out of 10

Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn -- a review by FilmZ

If you love film noir, then Motherless Brooklyn is for you, though it's not typical of the genre's tidy, slim stories.  MB's convolutions and complications bulge into a 144-minute runtime.   Based on Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, which we admit we haven't read, its strongest points are the sense of time and place--we have the costumes, the cars, classic club jazz, and the cinemagic that recreates late 1950s New York and the smoky backroom smell of urban political corruption and crime.  As screenwriter and director, Edward Norton acquits himself well; as the eponymous star (whose real name is Lionel Essrog), he reminds us of his dynamic big-screen debut in 1996's Primal Fear.  We're happy to see a stand-alone film with a terrific cast and high production values, but without knowing the source material, it seems like Norton tried to honor it while adding both historical and present-day relevance and that attempt, though admirable, might have overstuffed the suitcase.

Lionel, our protagonist, is a private eye dealing with Tourette’s Syndrome and a touch of obsessive-compulsiveness.  He is the protege of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), a hard-bitten WWII vet-turned shamus. When the film begins, Lionel and fellow junior partner Gilbert (Ethan Suplee) are backing Frank up from a distance as he meets with some gangland types.  The meeting becomes tense, and the mobsters take Frank for a ride, losing Lionel and Gilbert.  When they finally catch up, Frank has been shot, and he dies leaving only the vaguest of clues: "Formosa" and something about a "colored girl."  Fellow partner Danny (Dallas Roberts) follows a lead and gets beaten to a pulp, so he begs off of the investigation, and another gumshoe, Tony (Bobby Cannavale). seems more interested in Franks' widow (Leslie Mann) than getting justice for his deceased colleague. Meanwhile, at City Hall, we find Moses "Moe" Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a power broker whose only interest is more power as chief of several city-planning departments.  Opposing him is community activist Gabby Horowitz (Cherry Jones) and her assistant Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha Raw). Other Characters include Paul (Willem Dafoe), a down on his luck architectural engineer; William Lieberman (Josh Pais), Moses' fixer; Lou (Fisher Stevens), a shady thug; and Trumpet Man (Michael Kenneth Williams) a friend of Laura.  Lionel's job is to wend his way through corruption and sift clues while remaining alive long enough to avenge his fallen mentor.

As we said above, the casting is excellent. Of particular note are Baldwin, bombastic and as serious as a heart attack; Dafoe, twitchy and intense; Jones brings an  Elizabeth Warren vibe; Williams, ever cool but dangerous; and, of course, Norton, who raises afflictions to high art.  His mannerisms are at once unpredictable, humorous, and sensitive, and they are wrapped into a performance that should garner Oscar consideration.  Dick Pope's cinematography and Daniel Pemberton's music made the experience immersive.

We were informed by our resident historian Captain HE Albano that Moe was inspired by real-life New Yorker Robert Moses, who inspired Robert Caro's book The Power Broker.  Plot points parallel Moses projects where he displaced viable Black neighborhoods by labeling them "slums" and replaced them with parks, making him a folk hero among White citizens.  Then he built bridges with low overhangs so that buses carrying minorities could not access those parks.  The omniscient observer of our group, Don Swedanya, said the film is reminiscent of Chinatown, and though he enjoyed it, he noted, through that prism, Motherless Brooklyn pales in comparison.  It's not fair to demean this film by comparing it to an all-time classic because it is a good movie.  But Norton's efforts in blending the source material with Moses' biography and a touch of Trumpism might have been a bridge too far.
7.5 out of 10

Zombieland: Double Tap

Zombieland: Double Tap -- a Review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

If you don't have to be told what "double tap" means, you're probably going to like this sequel to the 2009 cult hit, and that's because you probably saw the original.  If you haven't seen the first film, it's not a big deal; there's a half-a$$ed explanation to catch you up.  But still, you know, if you want the full experience see the first one.  The original gang is back, their egos intact, even after a decade of achievement--Emma Stone has won an Oscar and is content to hang in the background, as Wichita (yes, every character is still named after a US town), playing behind the two male leads, Jesse Eisenberg (Columbus), the love interest, and Woody Harrelson (Tallahassee), the leader of the band and involuntary father figure.  Abigail Breslin (Little Rock), as Wichita's sister, rounds out the group of Oscar-nominees who decided to have a blast crushing Zombie skulls.

Just like the first edition, there's a lot of self-awareness but not much plot.  The gang has discovered, for example, that zombies fall into several categories, ranging from humorous (called "Homers") to horrifying ("Ninjas").  The film is nominally about family, the conflict between the natural need to assert independence and the security of having a family--even one that's not related by blood.  But don't expect schmaltz.  Serious, touching moments never last long amidst gags flung by the armful to see what sticks and zombie brains splattered by the skullful to, erm, see what sticks.  New to the fun are Rosario Dawson as Nevada, a badass so badass that even Tallahassee is impressed; Luke Wilson (Albuquerque) and Thomas Middleditch (Flagstaff) as eerily familiar zanies, and Avan Jogia (Berkeley) with whom Little Rock becomes smitten.  But the revelation is Zoey Deutch (Madison).  She plays the dumb blonde, but her take is so energetic and delightful that she transcends stereotype and steals every scene in which she appears.  She is central to the best bit in the film when she comes up with the idea for a Lyft/Uber invention that is scoffed at by her more intelligent fellow travelers.

Ruben Fleischer returns as director, and Dave Callaham (Wonder Woman: 1984) joins Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, co-writers of the Deadpool films to pen Zombieland: Double Tap.  All knew they weren't going for Gone With the Wind, but then neither were FilmZ, Captain HE, and I.  We were looking for the product of a bunch of good actors having fun together.  Mission accomplished.
7.5 out of 10

Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg Get Cranky

A Note from the Management
-- Introduction by FilmZ, Dialogue between Guy S. Malone, Researcher and CG Bear

Not long ago, Martin Scorsese said Marvel movies are "not cinema," that he tried to get through one and couldn't finish it. He added: “Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

 Francis Ford Coppola joins his buddy Scorsese in putting down the Marvel franchise  "When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration…I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again,” ... Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”

Steven Spielberg doesn't think "Netflix" movies deserve consideration for Oscars.  He plans on petitioning the Academy, arguing that films must have a least a four-week theatrical run in order to be considered for Oscars.

We truly respect the directors named above for their contributions, especially those they made during the golden decade of the early '70s through the early '80s.  And we understand Spielberg's argument to the extent that he is concerned with preserving the theatrical experience.

These three venerated filmmakers went too far, though, when they upset Guy S. Malone, Researcher.  Joining in his umbrage the even more ornery screenwriter and Emmy winner, CG Bear.  They fire back with both barrels, making that four barrels in all, to our reckoning, and the three filmmaking legends in their own time get taken down a few pegs by two rumors in their own time:

GSM, R:  We love Martin Scorsese, but the guy who made Wolf of Wall Street, a movie that glorified Jordan Belfort, a predatory capitalist who happily robbed poor and aged people of their worldly possessions, has no room to question the value of the Marvel franchise.  (Cue all Scorsese cult members to tell me I "didn't get" WoWS)

CG Bear: (Posts a Twitter notice wherein Scorsese, Coppola, and Spielberg are paraphrased, as noted above, and another source notes, George Lucas' disappointment with Star Wars: The Force Awakens visuals.)

GSM, R:  Somewhat hypocritically, I think there have only been three good Star Wars movies in the series, and the rest have ranged from mediocre to awful.

CG Bear:  "Right? These guys, some of them, responsible for the concept of "blockbusters," which is actually what destroyed what they so sanctimoniously call "cinema," turning around and criticizing the very thing that's STILL BRINGING AUDIENCES TO MOVIE THEATERS as something not just less than (what they call) art, but "despicable"?  Jesus wept, here's the tiniest violin in the world. You know? *facepalm*

(Guy Malone, Researcher nods in agreement whilst rubbing his chin sagely, in hopes of imparting an aura of something resembling wisdom.)

CG Bear:  If it's not their jam, fine. They don't have to publicly disparage other people's work. Especially when they know how much work goes into it, how hard it is to get anything made.
And all this is *before* I actually think for five seconds about any of them saying this to Captain America's face. 🤣🤣🤣

GSM, R (chuckles sagely) Excellent points all, CG, especially the one about how these guys helped destroy the viability of original content, stand-alone films.  (And critics don't help; they squawk about how much they want original single-story films, but then they almost always hatchet them--I see you, Rotten Tomatoes lemming bro-bloggers.)  Let me add one more point to the ones you mentioned above: Scorsese admits that he never even watched the films he so disparages. He says he tried to watch one and couldn't get through it.

(CG Bear smiles uneasily, taken aback as Guy S. Malone, Researcher's voice rises and he wildly waves his index finger in the general direction of his computer screen.)

GSM, R: And another thing, though a bit off-topic Spielberg has never, ever featured a female as the protagonist in his films. In fact, he has had films in the works that featured women and he dropped them for blockbuster-type films.  Some will say, how about The Post? Meryl Streep starred as Kay Graham. Nope, no, no! If you watch the film, yes, Kay Graham had to make a momentous decision, but Tom Hanks Ben Bradlee is on the screen a lot more. Furthermore, Spielberg has Bradlee dominate Graham face-t0-face, even though she is his boss.

CG Bear: Re: the Post, I think you may be ascribing to Spielberg stuff that was in the script written by Liz Hannah.

GSM, R: True, but I'm making the point that some have given him credit for having a female as the featured protagonist. Besides, as director, he has the power to reshape a character's tone. That dinner table conversation where Bradlee tells Graham to basically f-off could easily be redirected to make her more forthright.  And furthermore, who is Spielberg to disrespect Netflix movies? Wasn't it a little TV movie named Duel, starring Dennis Weaver, that made his name for him?

CG Bear: Yeah, he disparaged streaming right before he signed a big deal with Apple to stream, so... I don't listen to his opinion anymore. Also re: your earlier point--I'm not sure a single one of his movies would pass the Bechdel test, which is the lowest possible bar. I still love his movies, but to claim he's focusing on women is, like... *shrug*

Hey, Gang, FilmZ here again.  I'm not sure how or why the dangling conversation.  Perhaps, Simon and Garfunkel can help.  So, as Porky Pig might say, "Abba-de, abba-de, that's all folks,"

Judy and Hustlers by Guest Reviewers

As many of you know, we have a moviegoing Gang of Six (known as the "Serfers").  Afterward, we get together for food and beverages and FilmZ and I get to hear our cohorts' reflections on said movies.  Then, as we write our reviews, we either ignore their thoughts or actively oppose them.  It's also true that we can't get to every movie, and Serfers end up seeing the movies themselves or dragging their significant others along to them.  By absolutely no popular demand, here are two film observations from members of our august contingent. 
--  Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Judy -- a guest review from Captain HE

Judy focuses on Judy Garland's youth training at MGM, seeds of her substance abuse, psychological fragility and tragic career end. It's a story we know but it deserves to be told.

The movie opens with a harried, middle-aged Judy comforting her children (Lorna and Joey Luft) while desperately searching for housing after being turned out from the hotel they called home. She turns to former husband Sid, with whom she has a contentious relationship. It's the late 60's and the former "girl next door" is at the bottom of a decade long spiral caused by heavy drinking and drug abuse.

 As the story progresses viewers are transported to 1938-39. Judy is on the set of Oz. Louis B. Mayer is giving her a pep talk to get her through her fatigue, reminding her of her commitment and duty. Scenes like these are sprinkled through the movie as we see the origins of her amphetamine addiction and her desire to be like "normal kids."

 Alcohol is a constant companion and sleep is always an elusive desire. Insecurity about her abilities rises when she lands a London concert gig which becomes a mixed triumph and debacle. The story closes with the London audience helping her finish "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" as she contemplates her life during her final performance.

 There are numerous uncomfortable moments during the film as the audience is drawn toward Judy's desperate fight to be a good mother and the expectations of her fading stardom. She dies of an overdose 6 months after her London engagements.

SHE went with HE to see Judy and agree, Renee Zellweger gives a marvelous performance and the story is poignant.  Maybe an Oscar nod for Zellweger.  It was a hit with the septuagenarians who attended the Geezer matinee at the Montage Mountain Cinemark.
7.5 out of 10

Hustlers -- guest review from a different He, but One Who Shall Not Be Named

Hustlers presents a story of four women who use their entrepreneurial skills to gain financial independence.  Their attempt, however, involves criminal activity and unravels with police intervention.

The film paints a vivid picture of the goings-on in "Adult Entertainment Clubs".  It highlights the conditions facing the women who willingly perform for paying male patrons.  Viewers are exposed to nudity, pole dancing, and lap dances.

Unhappy with the conditions facing the dancers, the story shifts to the dancers leaving the confines of their employment and becoming independent contractors, using previous clients and gaining new ones through previous contacts.  Drugs and alcohol become the means of taking advantage of their customers and ultimately is responsible for their financial destruction.

The acting is acceptable but the storyline is weak.
One note of caution to solo male movie-goers:  while watching the film, do not place an overcoat on your lap.
5.0 out of 10


Joker -- a commentary by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Frankly, I am intensely ambivalent about this movie.  Director and co-writer Todd Phillips claims that he aimed for the spirit of a film era--the decade of 1973-83.  In several ways, he did.  He gets the gritty urban underbelly of Gotham City and the rising intensity of underclass unrest and individual paranoia so prevalent in films of that period.  Credit Cinematographer Lawrence Sher and Production Designer Mark Fredberg for the visual verité and Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir for the intense, moody backdrop (augmented by slyly ironic classic rock and pop selections).  Joaquin Phoenix inhabits the title role in his best, and most disturbing performance since Freddy Quell, the alcoholic zealot in The Master.  There have been many Joker portrayals over the years.  Most of us consider Heath Ledger's turn in 2008's brilliant The Dark Knight to be the standard by which all others are compared.  Only two have dared attempt it since; ironically, they have been Jared Leto's much-ridiculed attempt in 2016's Suicide Squad and Phoenix's much-praised performance here.

Phillips has assembled a tremendous cast in support of Phoenix's Arthur Fleck/"Joker." Frances Conroy as his invalid mother with whom he shares a tenement apartment, Zazie Beetz as a single mom who lives down the hall and serves as his fantasy love, Bill Camp and Shea Whigham as a pair of homicide detectives, Brett Cullen as investment magnate Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce), Brian Tyree Henry (underused) in a single scene as a records clerk, and most significantly Robert DeNiro as late-night talk show host who is also Arthur's idol.  It's appropriate that Robert DeNiro is featured in this film, because he not only exemplifies one of Joker's strengths, he also reminds us of where the film falls short.  Despite Phillips' claims of an era inspiring Joker, it is highly derivative of two of DeNiro's best films: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy

Arthur Fleck is so psychologically disturbed that he alienates those around him.  Not only is he socially awkward, but he also is afflicted with the bizarre tic whereby he falls into uncontrolled maniacal laughter when under stress.  He dreams of being a standup comedian because his mother has told him his purpose in life is to bring joy and laughter to others.  Arthur's lack of self-awareness is such that he believes the insane scrawlings of his journal entries are jokes that will propel him to stand-up comedy stardom.  He watches Murray Franklin's (DeNiro) late-night talk show and fantasizes about being a guest.  He meets Sophie (Beetz) by chance on the tenement elevator and their small talk convinces him that they have chemistry.  Still, Arthur is relatively harmless, except to himself.  His -- and Gotham City's -- real problems are attributable to Reagan-era cuts that widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots.  Social unrest simmers, needing only a spark to create an explosion. Arthur's access to counseling and his seven med prescriptions are eliminated, and this coincides with a traumatic revelation about his past.  Arthur's fantasies become more grandiose, his rage turns outward, and he inadvertently becomes the spark that ignites a firestorm. 

Joker is as divisive as it is riveting.  As of this date, audiences like it a lot more than critics do: on IMDb, it enjoys a phenomenal audience score of 8.9 (out of 10), based on more than 324,000 moviegoers; contrast that with a Metascore of 59 (out of 100), based on 58 critical reviews.  Phoenix is magnetic, and from the beginning, the film s mesmerizing; seizing our attention, it doesn't release its grip until the screen fades to black. It is not entertaining but rather relentlessly downbeat; further, we are often so embarrassed for Arthur it is difficult to watch, and the third act has unnecessarily vivid spasms of violence.  Some have made much of the portrayal of Arthur's fantasized love for Sophie and how this might incite incels to violence.  Wow, just wow! Talk about missing the forest for the trees.  This film is about the danger posed by the government being in bed with predatory capitalism; it is about the ever-widening wealth gap and class divisions.  And in the end, the failed stand-up comedian finally gains acclaim as an urban terrorist.
8.0 out of 10

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

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