Category Archives: Movies

A Star is Born – A Movie Review

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StarSometimes I joke about the five-tool players who are Hollywood stars and just how mad they make me. I am kidding, of course, Hollywood stars do not make me mad (usually). What I am is jealous, jealous of the stars like Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.

In A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper directs an amazing Bradley Cooper who is pure fire as Jackson Maine, a country-pop star who may well be on the down side of his career. As Maine, Cooper is magnetic, singing songs that the actor himself wrote, playing guitar himself and keeping up with a band that is truly terrific. Cooper the actor is captivating here. Cooper the director is more than accomplished. His work is riveting.

Bradley Cooper: instrumentalist, singer, writer, actor, director. Five tools. That is pretty darn good and well worth the price of admission.

But, wait, there’s more.

Lady Gaga is, somehow, even more compelling than Cooper. As Ally, an ultra-talented unknown, Gaga sings songs she wrote for the film, accompanies herself on them, acts like the Emmy Award (soon to be Academy Award nominated) actress she is and manages to steal almost every scene in which she appears. If Cooper is great, and he is, Gaga is something else altogether.

If you think you got goosebumps hearing her sing in the trailers for the film, wait until she uncorks the song Shallow at you in full voice and in full scene. She is breathtaking.

Clearly to concept of A Star Is Born is somehow timeless. This is the fourth film of the same name, the third remake of the original. I must admit that I have seen none of other versions but, based on how good this one is, I will.

Cooper’s Jack meets Gaga’s Ally in a bar and the rest you probably know already. He senses her talent. She sense his demons. They fall in love. He helps propel his career. And a star is born.

The two are ably supported by a quirky but stunning supporting cast headed by Sam Elliot as Bobby, Jackson’s manager. He is ever bit Sam Elliot and every bit as good as Elliot always is. Cooper also somehow lured reclusive Dave Chappelle into the movie and it is very good to see him on screen. The most stunning supporting actor, however, has to be an unrecognizable Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father. Talk about a transformation.

There is, frankly, nothing inherently original about the movie. Even for someone who is not familiar with the original material, there are few surprises here. But that does not matter. Gaga and Cooper rise above what would be a paint-by-number pastiche in lesser hands. They wring emotion out of the music and the music is truly special. Their performances are, too.

And Cooper’s direction is special as well. For a first time feature director, Cooper is in complete command from the opening frame. He never lingers too long on any one shot and keeps his camera in as much motion as the story will allow. His staging of the concert scenes is as vast as his blocking of the character moments is intimate.

This is an excellent movie. It is powerful and emotional. It is stunning to watch. It is lovingly directed and brilliantly scored. And, forgive me here, but two stars are born: Cooper the director and Gaga the film star.

I cannot wait to see what they do next.



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Life Itself – A Movie Review

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CaptureDan Fogleman is the creator and driving force behind one of the best received and most watched television shows of the decade in This Is Us. His new film, Life Itself, which he wrote and directed, shares some of the DNA of that hit television show: it deals with family and the power of love and the interconnectedness of people’s live. And, like This Is Us, it features a wonderful cast. With Fogelman at the helm and in complete creative control, Life Itself seems like a surefire hit.

It is not.

The performances are terrific. Oscar Issac’s work as Will is grounding and affecting, Antonio Banderas shines as Mr. Saccione, Olivia Wilde is magnetic and almost impossibly bright as Abby and Laia Costa is truly breathtaking as Bella. The supporting cast around them, including Annette Benning and Mandy Patinkin give memorable turns as well. There is no problem with the cast. I simply wish they were in a better movie.

If you see Life Itself, come prepared. There are some gut wrenching tragedies here. Part of the problem with the film is that none of them feel “earned” or developed. They seem interjected and unpredictable and, while, perhaps, that is part of the point of Life Itself, they seem gratuitous and cruel.

Part of what should be engaging about Life Itself is the complex narrative structure and the surprises the structure reveals over the course of the film. Given this, it is difficult to say much about the actual plot of the film without giving things away. Told over four separate chapters, each chapter centered on a different character, Life Itself has an opportunity to hook its audience in to four individual vignettes. I was open to each, but found them alternately too dark or too confusing to truly enjoy. However, one of them which features Costa and Banderas is both poignant and affecting. I wanted this story to be the whole film.

I suspect writer/director Fogelman would say that it is the whole film and that I missed the point. That aside will make sense (I think) to someone who has seen the movie.

Life Itself has an interesting dichotomy: it wants to show not tell, which is good writing 101 but the heart of the film has a character – in the form of a doctoral thesis and in a long and overly wordy monologue – tell and not show. In this scene, the movie quite literally tells the audience: this is what everything you are watching means. This is how it holds together. You get it, right?

I did not or, rather, I did. But I did not buy it.

One of the elements on which This Is Us hinges is coincidence. In the television show, coincidences play out over weeks and months in 42 minute installments. They are given time to build and to engage. The audience is given time to consider them. Rarely do these coincidences feel manipulative in This Is Us. In Life Itself, they rarely feel anything but manipulative.

In some ways, the entirety of Life Itself feels like a two hour emotional manipulation. The movie wants to evoke emotional reactions through trickery more than through narrative structure and connection with character. It takes place over the course of decades, but there is little on screen that distinguishes the passage of time beyond the graying of the characters’ hair and complexions. It is wildly uneven, poorly paced and confusing.

There is a kernel of something special here, but one cannot help but conclude that Fogelman’s creative juices have been all but drained by This Is Us. There did not seem to be much left over for Life Itself.

The stellar cast deserved much better.

As did the audience.


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Link’n’Blogs – 9.21.18: Marvelous

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I loved Lincoln Logs when I was a kid. Though I never entertained the idea that I would be a designer, engineer or architect, something about putting together these wooden and plastic pieces was simply simple fun. Connecting to ideas through the blogosphere seems similar to this pursuit, hence the title of this weekly post. Each Friday, I intend to post something interesting I’ve read out there on the internets. Hopefully others will find these posts as fun or thought provoking as I have.

Sometimes something comes along that speaks for itself.

Welcome Marvel’s newest (greatest?) hero:

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Teen Titans Go! to the Movies – A Movie Review

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TeenLooking for some brilliant silliness? Looking for a laugh-out-loud time at the movies? Looking for a self-aware, self-conscious, self-skewering narrative? If the answer to any of the above questions is “yes,” Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is for you. Based on Teen Titans Go! which is, itself, based on a classic DC comic book, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies takes the barest of plots (Robin believes himself the only superhero who has not had a movie adaptation of his adventures and sets out to get one) and manages to fill 75 minutes with some truly inventive and involving, hilarious scenes.

For Robin to get a film, his friends (Beast Boy, Cyborg, Raven and Starfire) help him with two plots. The first, and most uproarious, is eminently logical: if there were no other superheroes, the powers that be in Hollywood would have to make a movie about Robin. If he is the only show in town, what choice would they have? Thus ensues a devilish skewering of the origins of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and others (the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?). This may well have been the high point of the movie and it is so very good that it warrants a second viewing.

The second idea the Titans posit is that, if Robin had an archenemy, then he would be A-list enough to inspire a film. To that end, the Titans try to make an enemy out of Deathstroke the Terminator – a name not particularly kid friendly. It is changed to Slade in the television show (as Deathstroke’s civilian name is Slade Wilson) and the movie follows suit. One of the best running gags of the film is that the Titans consistently mistake Slade for Deadpool. Since Deadpool was most likely based on Deathstroke (you can read about that here if you choose… it is a pretty twisty story), this joke is all the more fun.

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is fun overall. There are terrific voice performances (including Nicholas Cage as Superman and, if you do not get the significance of that one, here is another piece for you to enjoy) and the movie goes down incredibly easily. There is much for adults to marvel at (pun intended) while the kids laugh at fart jokes and, frankly, the fart jokes themselves are highly entertaining, too.

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies was one of my favorite movies of the late summer. Go see it. Sit back, relax and let the silliness and meta-humor wash over you. You will be glad you did.

Boo-yah! Bravo, Warner Animation!


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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again – A Movie Review

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mamma Mia

If you are a connoisseur of fine films, you may wish to take a pass on this one. But, if you liked the first film and enjoy outlandish musicals, take a chance on

You get it.

I had a great time. Seriously. I had a great time at Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again That does not, however, mean it is a great movie. It is not. In fact, it is, likely, a bad movie held together by the thinnest of plots and propped up by the audience’s affection for the first film and for the returning cast.

And that is fine. Not every comedy has to be Tropic Thunder. Not every movie musical can be La La LandMamma Mia: Here We Go Again! knows precisely what it is and it has no pretensions to be anything else. It is completely self-aware  and in on all its own jokes and conceits. It does not pretend to be anything other than what it is.

That is very refreshing.

Who is the audience for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again? Anyone who saw the first film and knows the “story” of Donna and her daughter Sophie and of the trials and tribulations that face them on the occasion of Sophie’s wedding. The antics of the first Mamma Mia! were set to the Abba catalog and the movie itself is a full fledged musical, based on the Broadway hit of the same name. Needless to say, the film is a direct adaptation of that play and this sequel is a direct adaptation of… nothing. It is all original, featuring the characters and situations from the first movie. And it is set to the what is left of the hits in the Abba catalog – those that were not used in the first film.

This is the first issue with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. It turns out that Abba has great hits, yes, but most were used in the first movie. The hits here play more like B-Sides and leave you wanting the As. When the audience gets those, the music really rocks. But, sadly, the high points for the musical numbers in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again do not hit as high as they did in the first film.

In this movie, we are treated to the flashback narrative of Donna and the fleshing out of the story of how she came to be with child and how she was not precisely sure of the identity of the father of the baby. Though the movie (distractingly for those of us who re-watched the original in preparation for this film) breaks with some of the narrative established in the first film, the flashbacks are gamely staged and Lily James, as the young Donna (a role originated by Meryl Streep) is utterly charming and delightful as the founder of Donna and the Dynamos. She gives herself over completely to the overt goofiness of the character and the proceedings and outshines all of her flashback co-stars by, conservatively, about 1000 watts. It is not that they are bad, but James is simply so much better. She is a rising star and is wonderful here. She has a lovely voice.  Side-note: Jessica Kennan Wynn as a young Tanya (Christine Baranski’s character) is far-and-away the most spot-on doppelganger.

In the present, the entire cast returns for more, yes, I will say it, fun. They are just as conscious of the ridiculousness of the proceedings as the filmmakers are and they are just as committed to it. Pierce Brosnan gets the most screen time with Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie and the two are very good together. Seyfried has a lovely voice and, mercifully, Brosnan has less to sing than the first time around. Both Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard come aboard in Act Three as, for reasons that only work in a movie like this, does Cher as Donna’s mother, pronounced dead in the first movie… c’mon, folks. Andy Garcia rounds out the group and he, too, knows his place. He is surprisingly funny and seems (seems?) to have a good voice.

If one can ignore the plot holes, forget that the best music was spent in part one and embrace the silliness, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a fun time at the movies.

But even I do not need to see Mamma Mia 3.


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Mission: Impossible | Fallout – A Movie Review

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mission impossible falloutMission: Impossible | Fallout is a breathlessly-paced, loud, overwhelming, brash, brave, fun and intelligent movie that is a perfect, popcorn, summer entertainment and will, likely, be an enduring example of the zenith of the action movie genre. At some point, a discussion of whether the Mission: Impossible movies do this type of thing better than the James Bond movies will be required.

Perhaps we have reached that point.

Not only is Mission: Impossible | Fallout crackling with energy derived from increasingly amazing set pieces (more on those below), it is also engaging and charming, funny and poignant with a final problem that makes the heart race both from an extended action sequence and from character drama created by writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s taut and compelling script. This installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise is the most sequel-like, with action and characters picking up very close to where the excellent Mission: Impossible | Rogue Nation left off, and McQuarrie wastes little time in set up. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his team must contend with simultaneous threats from missing balls of plutonium, a former foe who is shockingly back on the loose and a new group of antagonists calling themselves The Apostles. They must do this while saddled with a CIA watchdog in the form of wry and imposing Henry Cavill’s August Walker. Cavill is terrific in the movie.

McQuarrie’s script is top-notch, boasting a plethora of twists and turns along with featured moments for each of the main characters and just the right smattering of humor to balance the proceedings. And it also provides some stunning action sequences.

Much has been written of Tom Cruise doing his own stunt work in the movie but, truly, seeing is believing. In an age when computer generated images has made it so we cannot trust our eyes and almost anything seems possible on screen, there is something deeply authentic and utterly gonzo about Mission: Impossible | Fallout’s set pieces. Cruise seems to throw caution and concerns of his own well-being to the wind here (he famously broke his ankle filling one of the stunts for this movie) and the audience is the beneficiary of this part of his seeming insanity. Mission: Impossible | Fallout sets the bar so high for future installments (and for any other like-minded movies) that it hard to believe it will be easily cleared. From halo jumps to helicopter battles to the most compelling car chases put on screen in quite a while, action movies your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to contend with a new standard.

Good luck.

Cruise is both breezy and weighty as Ethan Hunt, a role he has now assayed for over twenty years. In recent films in the series, he and the writers have discovered that a more human and flawed Ethan is a better version than an almost cold, Jason Bourne-like superhuman he might have developed into and the movies are better for that choice. Cruise does crazy stunt work, for sure, but he also brings much to the portrayal that is not about risking life and limb. Returning teammates Ving Rames (the only actor outside of Cruise to be in all six Mission: Impossible movies), Simon Pegg (a delight) and Rebecca Ferguson (a welcome addition) are engaging and more than 2-dimensional set dressing. Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett (along with the aforementioned Henry Cavill) are also excellent and lend gravitas to the movie. Sean Harris is the only villain to return in a Mission: Impossible movie, likely because he is the only one to have survived his installment, and he is more than a match for the I:M team.

Mission: Impossible | Fallout does everything an audience would want it to do, and more. The “more” might be the only problem with the movie. The brilliant action sequences might try the patience of some audience members, up-to-and-including the final one which plays out in increasingly amazing though, possibly too draining ways. Mission: Impossible | Fallout is a long film. A stronger editor’s scissor may have improved it.

But this is a minor quibble. Mission: Impossible | Fallout is the gold standard of action films for the summer of 2018 and, quite likely, beyond.


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Equalizer 2 – A Movie Review

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equalizer 2The first installment of this Equalizer franchise was a far better movie that most might have thought. Inventive and surprisingly heartfelt with the star power of Denzel Washington, The Equalizer was one part Punisher, one part McGyver and one part action opus. So what is the second chapter missing that the first one has?

Not much, as it turns out.

Denzel Washington, brilliant and ageless as ever, is utterly engaging as Robert McCall, an ex-CIA agent who has, before the first movie opened, had left that life behind by faking his death. Living a quiet life was not in the cards for McCall, so began to address – violently – wrongs that came across his path.

Spoiler alert: if you are a bad guy, do not cross McCall’s path.

Following a James Bond-like, gripping opening sequence (and how, since Washington is American, how about a Felix Lighter spin off starring him?), The Equalizer II finds McCall driving for Lyft, mentoring a neighborhood tough and equalizing in his spare time. He seems calm. He seems relaxed. He seems at peace. He has made friends or, at least, he has sustained acquaintances and he has settled into a routine which, for his character (who Washington subtly and never exploitatively plays with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is a very good thing.

The harmony will not last and McCall is pulled back into the government life he left. He does not want this, but, when the challenge comes, he meets it with steely intensity.

The movie is surprisingly slow paced and introspective for a film of this type and that suits Washington fine. His McCall is a philosophical man with a firm sense of what tips the scales of justice. He follows a code and it is a compelling one. Washington is so good in the part and so effortlessly embodies McCall, imbuing him with dignity of purpose  that, before the final credits rolled, I was rooting for part three of this planned trilogy.

On an interesting side note, this movie is the only sequel in which Denzel Washington has ever appeared. In today’s Hollywood, that is something of a shock.

The only drawback of the film is that Washington is so strong, so good and so magnetic that everyone else on screen (including the talented Melissa Leo who – no spoiler if you have seen the trailer here – is dispensed with rather quickly and Pablo Pascal who takes a two-dimensional role and does some fine things with it) suffers by comparison. They seem disposable whereas Washington is indispensable. In at least one way, that is fine as the television show on which the movie is based handled ancillary characters in just the same way and Washington is simply so good that one hardly notices anyone else anyway.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, The Equalizer II does not play out in the manner in which the trailers suggested. They hype the action and the violence and, while there is some (Fuqua is well established as a director who knows how to handle these sorts of films), there is much, much more here. In some ways, and it is strange to say this, The Equalizer II is almost meditative in its approach to McCall’s story. That was a refreshing take on a genre that can be overly loud, overly violent and overly crass.

The Equalizer II is none of these things. What it is is a solid film with a taut character arc at its heart.


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