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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – A Movie Review


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MV5BOTg4ZTNkZmUtMzNlZi00YmFjLTk1MmUtNWQwNTM0YjcyNTNkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjg2NjQwMDQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_I cannot think of a movie I have recently seen that left me with one immediate impression upon leaving the theater that morphed into a different impression within a few days. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of the strangest, weirdest most self-indulgent movies I have ever seen. I defy anyone who has seen it to describe the plot of the movie in one sentence. 

First, let me state that I understand having a discernible and clear plot is not the point of the movie. I do get that. There were, however, multiple times – especially during the first two acts of the movie – where I wondered just what in the hell was going on. And, upon reflection, I understand, too, that that is part of Quentin Tarantino’s point.

I am not a Tarantino aficionado. No expert in his movies (I’ve not seen his classics), I came to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood not knowing what to expect but excited by the story (I am interested in the Manson story), by the director’s renown for brilliant use of music (and the soundtrack is so very well composed and evocative) and by actors assembled for the movie. What a shockingly stocked set of performers Tarantino had with which to play. 

The cast does not let one done. Leonardo DiCaprio has been labeled the last real movie star in America for all kinds of reasons – from his acting choices to his image to his talent. He is a towering presence in the movie in a role that requires far more bravery from him than one might gather watching the previews. Paired with Brad Pitt, whose Cliff Booth is just as an indelible creation as the actor’s Rick Dalton, DiCaprio shines even as his character is supposed to be fading into the background. His friendship with Pitt’s Booth – the character I loved best in the film – is the through line of the picture, and it’s a good one. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is at its best when the two are on screen together, although Pitt’s solo scenes – especially as tension mounts as he tours the infamous Spahn Movie Ranch – is commanding.

Rounding out the trio of mega stars is the ubiquitous Margot Robbie. Playing the ill-fated actress Sharon Tate with a light, comedic and blissful air, Robbie is captivating. As pressures mount towards the end of the movie, the mind juxtaposes this beautiful creation of Robbie’s with the end that is coming. Robbie’s work here is a love letter not only to the actress, but to a time in Hollywood that has passed by and will never return.

And this, clearly, is one of the themes on which Tarantino built the movie. In 1969, Hollywood was being blown apart by forces within and without and actors like Rick Dalton were discovering they no longer had a clear role to play. One wonders if Tarantino in this age of CGI and superhero franchises and re-cycled concept after sequel films wonders if his time is almost up.

I believed this was on his mind right up until the last act of the movie. In that last act, Tarantino through his 3 lead characters issues a most visual and visceral middle finger to the idea that his time is up. And the last act is simply stunning. 

The more time that passes the more I want to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood again. It is a lyrical sledgehammer that remains with the viewer far after the brilliant closing credits wrap.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD receives THREE AND A HALF SPAGHETTI WESTERNS out of a possible FIVE

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Yesterday – A Movie Review


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No movie is perfect but, for my taste, Yesterday comes very, very close. It is the most fun, most feel good, most fulfilled time I have had at the movies this summer. Without question.

Hamish Patel, delightful and charming, plays frustrated singer/guitarist Jack Malik. After a decade of playing D-List gigs at dumps and to empty rooms, he has all but given up his hope of becoming a professional singer when something strange happens. Hit by a bus during a strange, world-wide event, Jack awakens to discover that he is the only person on Earth who remembers the Beatles and their music. He begins to share their songs as if they were his own and rockets to stardom as a result.

In the process, he leaves behind his old friend and manager Ellie Appleton, played by the ubiquitous and delightful Lily James. Jack and Ellie have been working on his career ever since they were kids and knew each other in school and, as things finally take off for Jack, Ellie – a school teacher – has no choice but to stay behind and watch him from afar. The movie manages, however, to keep them onscreen together quite a lot, and this is a good thing. The two have great chemistry.

One cannot discuss the movie without a brief mention of the scenery chewing turn by Kate McKinnon. She is wonderfully terrible as Jack’s new manager and injects friendly venom in every line reading. And Ed Sheeran should be saluted, too, for his persona mocking work as himself.

Yesterday is a movie that is pure fantasy and knows it. It does not try to explain why people have forgotten the Fab Four (and forgotten other, amusing things, too) or what the global event was. It does not need to do so. It asks the audience to go along for the ride and quite a pleasant ride it is.

Richard Curtis, the writer of Love Actually is behind this movie and there are more than a few pleasant resonances from that film in this one. He has a knack for romantic comedy and a love of high concepts (as evidenced by his criminally underrated About Time). He imbues his characters with a sweetness that never crosses into cloying. He also is a lover of coincidence and that plot element is on display in Yesterday.

Directed with much style and a sure hand by Danny Boyle, the movie is a rollicking romp. It only asks for a suspension of disbelief and a desire to get caught up in a little magic. If you cannot do that, Yesterday is not the film for you. But, if you want some joy, want some romance and want some great music, this is the film for you. Yesterday knows exactly what it is. It also knows exactly what it wants to do: it wants to take its audience down to Strawberry Fields, where nothing is real, but everything is wonderful.

YESTERDAY receives FOUR AND A HALF YELLOW SUBMARINES out of a possible FIVE

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Spider-Man Far From Home – A SPOILER FREE Movie Review


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Once the full trailer for Spider-Man Far From Home was released and it became clear that the post-Avengers | Endgame setting was critical to the story, my expectations were altered. I went in to Far From Home feeling I was about to see an extension of Endgame that would clear up some ambiguities (like Spider-Man’s entire class was snapped out of existence?) and answer some questions (like how is the world coping with all the returning people?). The movie supplies some of those answers but flips the script and the tone from the Wagnerian epic that was Infinity War and Endgame so readily that I was caught off guard.

I shouldn’t have been. It is clear that these Spider-Man movies are meant to be, first-and-foremost, high school comedies. That the main character has super powers and is involved in a wider narrative is secondary to the story. Settling in to that perspective and watching Far From Home in that mindset changes my reactions to the movie.

In a bit of meta-casting, Jake Gyllenhaal, who was once rumored as the replacement for Tobey Maguire for Spider-Man 2, plays Mysterio, a superhero from a newly discovered alternate dimension. He has come to Spider-Man’s earth to warn of a new cosmic threat and to pitch in in defeating it. Gyllenhaal is game for the role and somehow seem at home in what is – without a doubt – the most silly Marvel costume yet. Dude is wearing a fishbowl on his head and he makes it work. He also shares a very nice chemistry with Tom Holland, who remains absolutely spot-on as Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

In this film, Peter is dealing with the events and the deaths of Avengers | Endgame and not even the quirky and engaging Aunt May (Marisa Tomei is ideal and having a great time in the part) and the suddenly gruffly lovable father figure Happy Hogan (played by Jon Favreau in increasingly and amusingly “I’m too old for this S%^& manner) can help. Peter is questioning his place in the superheroing world, the demands of an oddly out-of-character Nick Fury (always perfectly embodied by Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (once again realized by Cobie Smulders) notwithstanding. Rather than join Fury for superheroics, Peter dedicates himself to his fun group of classmates (Zendaya as MJ and Jacob Batalon as Ned are standouts) and to their summer trip to Europe. Friendly neighborhood Spider-Man no more!

It’s in Europe that things get complicated – really, really complicated – and Peter realizes, as any audience buying a ticket for a Spider-Man movie knew he must – that with great power comes…

The movie is breezily directed by Jon Watts and he clearly loves the material. Packed full of Easter eggs, Marvel comics references and clever dialogue, this is the most family friendly of the Marvel movies and the most action figure friendly, too. Spider-Man wears no fewer than four different costumes and faces more than a handful of adversaries in the course of the movie. Let’s mold plastic!

The drawback of the film might be a problem that challenges all Marvel movies going forward. Spider-Man Far From Home is the mind-boggling twenty-third film in the series and the baggage it carries is significant. With each passing installment, the pressure to amaze and thrill the audience while staying true to a broader tapestry is building and it makes this movie too clever by half. Many of the things that seem odd or out of place or shoehorned into the narrative only make any kind of sense when the after the credits sequences rolls (and I do mean AFTER the credits – stick around!). Don’t get me wrong. I love these movies and I love the interlocked nature of them. I am so impressed by the scope. It is simply that, for the first time in a long time, I felt the overall story of the main character was compromised by the needs of the franchise.

That does not mean I won’t be seeing Spider-Man Far From Home again, however!

SPIDER-MAN FAR FROM HOME receives THREE AND A HALF TINGLES out of a possible FIVE

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Late Night – A Movie Review


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Jumbled, simplistic and disappointing, Late Night is a significant let down for anyone who enjoys the typically sharp humor of Mindy Kaling and the usual engaging acting of Emma Thompson. The plot of the film is paper-napkin thin, the chemistry between the main characters is implausible at best and the themes of the movie (such as they are) are ham-handed to the point of ridiculousness.

Thompson sleepwalks through the movie as Katherine Newbury, a long reigning late night talk show host who cares little about her staff and less about her audience. Much is made of the face that the character hates women (though the film goes out of its way to mention that many of the guests she books are, in fact, women) so, in the kind of plot requirement that only movies as bad as this one employs, a diversity hire is made. A woman is added to her all male writing room – any woman as it turns out, even one with no experience and no credentials.

Enter the usually charming Mindy Kaling (who also wrote the movie). To call her Molly Patel 2 dimensional is too kind a description. Unconvincing and uninvolving, Molly never connects with the audience and each attempt at adding depth to her comes off poorly.

The movie wants to be a cross between the excellent The Devil Wears Prada and the very good Morning Glory. Instead it comes off as a high schooler’s interpretation of what writing for and producing a late night talk show is. Throw in some overly simplistic ideas about the role of women in society and sexual politics and you have the makings of a disastrous misfire.

This is a shame. Not only are Thompson and Kaling wasted but a broader impact is made here. Society could use more movies written and directed by women with women in lead roles. Movies like Late Night are not going to aid in that cause.

LATE NIGHT receives ONE FAKE EMMY AWARD out of a possible FIVE

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Toy Story 4 – A Movie Review


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While Toy Story 3 was an almost perfect swansong for Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest of the gang from Andy’s room, Toy Story 4 is not simply a nostalgic cash grab. The movie has a story to tell that is actually worth telling and, if the themes seem slightly revisited from previous installments, no one will be complaining when the lights come up.

As the movie begins, the gang is settled in with a new child and is fulfilling their life’s work of keeping her happy. Within a few moments, though, the audience comes to realize that Woody is in an existential crisis over his purpose as he has been left in the closet for a series of consecutive days. Looking for a way to remain relevant in a changing world, Woody discovers it in a very unlikely place: the new character called Forky.

Forky, an anthropomorphized piece of, well, garbage, is one of the least visually appealing characters ever introduced in the Toy Story films. Colorless, odd looking and weird, this spork is a strange choice around which to build a film but the minds behind Toy Story 4 make the character work and, further, make him the crux of a new story featuring some of the most beloved animated creations of all time.

Bonnie loves Forky and Woody decides that his life’s work is now ensuring that nothing happens to Forky.

Spoiler alert: something happens to Forky. Many somethings happen to Forky.

One of the subversive elements of the Toy Story movies has been the fact that most of the primary motivations of the characters are edgy and Woody’s actions in Toy Story 4 are no exception. As he goes to great lengths to save Forky from various impending dooms, it is never clear whether these actions are purely altruistic or if they come solely from a place of self preservation. The complexity of this dynamic has set these movies apart from other animated fare and the audience can expect no less than this kind of layered story-telling in Toy Story 4.

This is a very good movie. It is visually stunning, actually hewing closer to amazing in many scenes. The rendering is light years ahead of where it was when the original movie hit theaters some 24 years ago (a longer interval than between Star Wars and The Phantom Menace, by-the-way) and it should be. The characters are all the more charming, though, and the action all the more out-of-this-world. That the entire living voice cast returned speaks to the love they have for this world and Pixar does not waste their or the audience’s good will.

Toy Story 4 is a worthy addition to the franchise and the best family summer movie of 2019. While it does not plumb the emotional depths of prior installments, it is far better than most of the movies in theaters today. Provided they are always treated with the kinds of respect this movie affords them, Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest of the toy box gang will always been welcome on our screens.

TOY STORY 4 receives FOUR PLASTIC SPORKS out of a possible FIVE

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Dark Phoenix – A Movie Review


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Dark Phoenix, the latest and last of Fox’s Marvel mutants movies (since Disney has purchased back the rights to the characters) ought to be an epic swan song for the franchise which has seen highs (X-Men, X-2, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and lows (X-Men Last Stand, X-Men Apocalypse). Instead, the movie makes a second attempt at telling one of the most iconic X-Stories of all time and bungles it.

Again.

This time, the story is told with the “new cast” of younger actors and, for the casual fan, that is confusing in-and-of itself. Those who have passing familiarity with the franchise might know they have seen a version of this movie in the past. Perhaps that’s okay. That rendition was not much good either.

This movie starts off in fairly promising fashion, with some snappy effects in a set piece involving a space shuttle (remember when we had a space program?) and a daring rescue by the X-Women (more empowerment is always a good thing) which entangles super powerful mutant Jean Grey with some kind of cosmic force. Things go quickly downhill from there.

Following the rescue, the team realizes there’s something wrong with Jean and spend the rest of the movie in various states of denial about the changes she is obviously undergoing. Compounding her challenges is the realization that Charles Xavier (played, again, by the very solid James McAvoy) has kept part of her past from her. Between the increased power coursing through her and her anger at her mentor, Jean seems very motivated to break with the X-Men and go rogue.

And she does.

She seeks out bad/good guy Magneto (the fiercely talented and totally committed Michael Fassbender) for good/bad advice in a scene that advances the plot Not. One. Inch.

There are far too many scenes that amount to nothing here and one begins to suspect that the plot of the movie is almost entirely based on a comic book cover and not the story contained within. Nowhere in the movie is this more obvious than with a major plot point that NEVER comes together. Jessica Chastain is on hand to play an alien villain that wants Jean’s new power. I think. The characters’ motivations are ambiguous at best even though she is made to constantly explain what she is doing. It’s possible that a better and more coherent cut of the movie would have resulted from removing her and this plot all together.

The bottom line on Dark Phoenix is this: it is boring. Through no fault of the actors who are all doing their best with limited material, the movie never makes the audience care about the characters or their plight. When a major X-figure dies, the scene does not land because the death does not matter. It is just as underwhelming as the rest of the movie is.

Which is a shame. This could have been a good story. It should have made a good movie. We could have had a fitting end to Fox’s X-Saga.

We did not get one.

DARK PHOENIX receives TWO ANGRY MUTANTS out of a possible FIVE

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Rocketman – A SPOILER FREE Movie Review


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Taron Egerton has arrived. Make no mistake about this point. Following his work as Elton John in the explosive, propulsive and ebullient Rocketman, Egerton leaps from nice actor to leading man.

“Leaps” is it the correct verb.

His work in the movie will, likely, be endlessly compared to Rami Malek’s as Freddie Mercury in last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Obviously, Malek was terrific (and took home the Best Actor Academy Award) but Egerton goes him one better. In Bohemian Rhapsody Malek provided an almost note perfect impression of Mercury. In Rocketman, Egerton makes the audience believe he is Elton John and when the movie launches into a frame-by-frame recreation of one of the singer’s most iconic music videos, Egerton owns it in a way only a performer can. He does not simply ape Elton John, he becomes him and, for the run of the movie, manages to replace him.

It is amazing work.

From its opening scene, Rocketman tells the audience that it is not a rote biopic and, for some, I suspect that will be a bit off putting. The trailers have only hinted at the extent that the tagline “Based on a True Fantasy” is an operative directive for this movie. Believe it. This movie, while concerned with telling Elton John’s amazing and often quite sad story, is not preoccupied with delivering in pseudo-documentary fashion. Rather it invites the audience into the frenzy and fashion and frenzy of Elton John’s life and it does so rather well.

Egerton is terrific and does remarkable work with Elton John’s music. In the run up to the movie, it seemed an odd choice not to use the music icon’s voice and accompaniments during the movie, but the structure of the film more than justifies this decision and Egerton holds up his end of the bargain. Supported by Jamie Bell and collaborator Bernie Taupin and Richard Madden as unscrupulous manager John Reid (along with a dark turn by an all but unrecognizable Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton John’s mother), Egerton explodes off the screen in musical numbers that are electric and in despair that is endless.

The movie looks amazing with a production design that befits the flamboyance of the lead character and each time period in Elton John’s life is masterfully recreated. That director Dexter Fletcher was able to mount this production while pinch hitting in the eleventh hour on the troubled Bohemian Rhapsody is something of a feat in-and-of-itself.

There are a few moments where Rocketman seems to struggle against itself, losing its momentum as it illustrates scene after scene of Elton John’s struggles with self doubt and isolation. Perhaps this is by design – as the character bogs down in his challenges, the movie does as well. That it sacrifices a bit of the excitement of the early reels in this shift is to be expected and it does regain its energy with a terrific number by the end. Rocketman ends as a wonderful if sometimes distressing love song about one of the greatest pop artists of all time and does so – seemingly – without sugar coating its subject. It is not perfect, but it is perfectly earnest and engaging. And the performance by its star alone makes it worth seeing.

ROCKETMAN receives FOUR CRIES FOR HELP out of a possible FIVE

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