Little Women (2019) – A Movie Review

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My wife, eleven and seven year old daughters, and I wanted to make special plans for New Year’s Eve. We decided on a movie and dinner, which, while not especially original, sounded delightful to us. My oldest daughter and wife wanted to see Little Women. The youngest daughter didn’t much care either way, nor did I.

I feel that it may be important at this point to mention that I’ve never read the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott. (Yes, I’ve read a lot of novels. Yes, I know it’s a travesty I haven’t read this particular novel. Yes, I understand I’m obligated to read every book ever written.) I also have never seen a theatrical adaptation of Little Women. In other words, I came into this film knowing almost nothing about the plot or characters.

Without a doubt, Little Women is one of my favorite films of 2019. Trust me, no one is more surprised by that statement than the person who wrote it.

In the beginning, I thought I’d made a huge mistake. The first ten minutes were, well … boring.

However, as you begin to meet the sisters and experience their interactions, the charm of the film comes into full effect. The chemistry between the four actors playing sisters Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth render Little Women irresistible.

Saoirse Ronan plays Jo, the lead character. I’ve seen Ronan before in Lady Bird. There’s no denying she’s among the best at her craft. Ronan delivers a fully developed Jo March, a young woman capable of earning our love and also of instigating our frustration. Like any real person, Jo has moments of wonderful triumph and horrible judgement. However, Ronan’s performance is so charismatic that we can’t take our eyes off of Jo, and we can’t stop hoping for her happy ending.

I won’t break down everyone, but Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen also offer fully realized characters. When they are laughing, we are laughing. When they are crying, we are crying. They make us part of their family, which is why this movie won me over so thoroughly. In fact, though I hesitate to admit it, the death in this movie brought a tear or two to my eye that escaped and trickled down my cheek. I could count the number of times this has happened to me in a theater on one hand.

By the way, Laura Dern, who plays the mother, fits perfectly with these actors. First of all, I think they all actually look like they could be family, and you see aspects of her in all of their performances. It really is quite amazing. I don’t know if this is simply the result of the novel’s characterizations, if it’s natural chemistry among the troop, or if it happened due to careful direction. Whatever the case may be, the multifaceted Dern also captured my heart.

Speaking of direction, I’d like to address Greta Gerwig, the director. I liked Lady Bird, but I’ve also heard that it’s essentially her life story. I have conflicted feelings when I hear that a director is basically just replicating actual events. That may be small-minded of me, but it’s the way I feel. With Little Women, though, I think Gerwig made some brilliant decisions. Again, I have not read the book, so perhaps this is done in the novel, but Gerwig depicts these people as actual human beings. They are not prim and proper, they are not saints (though they certainly have more charity in their hearts than most), and they are not above petty retribution. Best of all? They fight. Not just verbally, but physically. There’s a moment in the film where a brawl breaks out between two of them and I started laughing. Not because it was meant to be funny, but because it was so fresh. I’ve never seen a movie taking place in the 1800s, based off of a classic work of literature, willing to show young women having a knock-down, drag-out fight. Do sisters fight? Yes! Did sisters fight in the 1800s? Of course! Yet such realism, and bluntness, is rarely shown on film. There are many themes in this film, but chief among them is that women are people, too. I think Gerwig was very smart to show us women actually being people–not cherished artifacts, dainty assets, or beautiful trophies, but real people.

Gerwig chose to also unveil the plot in a broken timeline. In other words, the film does not start at the beginning and run through to the end. Instead, it starts in the middle and then jumps back in time at relevant moments only to return back to the present. It can be a little confusing at times, but, overall, it proved very compelling.

If you follow my reviews, you know that most of the movies that I see in theaters involve laser swords, muscular men in mo-cap suits, and robots with varying degrees of sentience. Bearing that in mind, I highly recommend Little Women to fans of any genre. Like Shakespeare did in his plays, this film captures the essence of that for which we can all relate: love, family, hope, death, anger, and living life.

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker – A Movie Review

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I loved The Rise of Skywalker because it pandered to my every desire.

I realize that this is something of a backhanded compliment, yet I don’t care. Did it have problems? Absolutely. Did those problems impede my enjoyment of the film? Not at all.

The Rise of Skywalker left me emotionally fulfilled–perhaps even giddy. It did its best to adjust to The Last Jedi, a film that, while well made, did not settle well with me. It wrapped up multiple story lines while leaving ample opportunity for future stories. We were also afforded the opportunity to say goodbye to everyone just the way we hoped we would.

I’d be lying if I said The Rise of Skywalker broke any kind of new ground. Even the surprises, once contemplated, proved to be obvious choices.

However, this did not bother me at all. I’ve been watching Star Wars movies since childhood. I’ve been on this ride for forty years. In regards to the main story line, the Skywalker saga, there are certain expectations that simply can’t be altered. Call this extreme fan-service, call it an adherence to the archetypal blueprint upon which Star Wars is built, call it whatever you want. When destiny and hope are firmly entrenched in a film series’ themes, there aren’t that many choices pertaining to the conclusion.

Without getting into spoilers, I found the action of The Rise of Skywalker impeccable, the dialogue snappy, the emotional resonance potent, and the characters engaging. The film moved so fast that it nearly achieved hyperspace, which resulted in an incredibly fun experience. There were a few “I can’t believe that happened!” moments, and there were several greatly appreciated cameos. Furthermore, Poe, Finn, and Rey were actually together for most of this film. Their on-screen chemistry guaranteed a victory.

Unfortunately, there were some issues. Quite honestly, The Rise of Skywalker felt more like a series of vignettes than a coherent, interconnected plot. Truthfully, unlike the Lucas films, Chapters VII, VIII, and IX felt quite disjointed from one another. I’m not convinced the new guard had a three-film plan in place before unveiling The Force Awakens. The movie moved so quickly, in fact, that the audience didn’t have time to process in real time the enormous plot holes arising.

The big reveal regarding Rey, while utterly satisfying, literally came out of nowhere and, frankly, made no sense at all. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it, but I’d be lying if I said there were clues throughout the previous films to lead us to that exact revelation. In the end, Rey’s lineage left me with more questions than answers.

Consequently, if you’ve seen the posters or trailers, you know that Emperor Palpatine (or Darth Sidious, if you prefer) plays a role in The Rise of Skywalker. His entire presence, while emotionally gratifying, also made very little sense when viewed against the entire new trilogy. I just cannot believe he amassed the army he did in total secrecy for thirty years. It served this final movie very well, but it also proved a little too convenient.

The fate of Kylo Ren also ended up being just a little too convenient. Again, I adored what they did with him, but his character arc ended up being a little too neat–a little too tidy. This is a man responsible for millions of deaths, after all.

Do not go to The Rise of Skywalker if you’re looking for a movie that breaks molds, bucks the system, spits in the face of fans, or any other appropriate cliche. But, if you want a satisfying ending to a forty-year-old story that will get you a little misty-eyed, entice you to whelp in delight, and perhaps even prompt an applause or two, this is the film for you.

Enjoy.

Joker – A Spoiler-Free Movie Review

Let’s first talk about what Joker is not.

Joker is not for children.

Joker is not a superhero movie.

Joker is not a super villain movie.

Joker is not funny.

Joker is not part of a shared comic book universe. 

However, Joker is a psychoanalytical movie exploring a mentally ill man who eventually comes to embrace criminality. 

I have not stopped thinking about this movie since seeing it on October 3rd. I honestly can’t remember a movie that left me so disturbed and … unsettled. 

It’s not that Joker is particularly violent–it’s not when compared to most R-rated crime films. It’s more that this movie feels so … real. Joker does not have any kind of a fantasy element. It’s absolutely rooted in reality. We watch this man slowly fall apart in a way that is completely plausible. We watch the world keep kicking him and kicking him and kicking him until he fights back, and he strikes back in a manner that is far too familiar. 

I think this is what has me so conflicted about Joker. He is a killer–that should come as no surprise. He’s not an anti-hero, he’s not a vigilante, he’s an average man who elects to murder people. However, throughout most of the film, he’s victimized by bullies. He’s beaten up by society. He’s shunned by the world. We feel bad for him … until we don’t. This kind of complexity is rarely executed in mainstream Hollywood.

In regards to the acting, Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerizing. I left the theater believing that this man may actually be insane. I don’t mean for that to sound insensitive or flippant, but his portrayal proved thoroughly convincing. His body language, his movement, his voice, his facial expressions, his laughter, the way he seemed to transform once he became “Joker” … it was unreal.

Also, the film looks to take place forty years ago. I felt like I walked into a time machine. The clothes, the cars, the props–it all looked authentic.

Furthermore, the “feel” of the movie cut to my core. This is a cramped, gritty, almost claustrophobic film. It’s literally uncomfortable to watch. It’s not a horror movie, but it certainly isn’t interested in coddling the audience.

People keep asking me if it’s a good movie. I don’t know the answer to that just yet. I’m still processing it. I can tell you that I can’t stop thinking about it. I can tell you that it left me with questions that I can’t stop trying to answer. I can tell you that it provoked me. In my opinion, those are all signs of a “good” movie, yet I can’t claim that I enjoyed Joker. It definitely wasn’t fun. This is not a movie to go see on a date or if you’re just looking to pass some time. This film takes effort to watch. 

On the other hand, though, Joker will certainly change the industry. I’ve never seen anything quite like this, and I believe it will strike a chord with audiences which will result in massive earnings. My hope is that we don’t get cheap knock-offs. I don’t want a Two-Face or Killer Croc movie made in the same style as Joker. I don’t want a sudden deluge of intense, psycho-dramas featuring comic book villains. Joker is a perfect storm created by unique talent. Let’s try not to replicate it. 

Believe it or not, Joker is a complicated movie that elicits complex thoughts. I still don’t know if I like it, I’m still not sure if it’s “good,” but it certainly made an impression upon me.

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Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw – A Movie Review

I have a terrible confession to make: I’ve never seen a single Fast & Furious movie. Not one. They just didn’t really seem like my thing. Also, I’m not a big Vin Diesel guy.

With that being said, you might be wondering what attracted me to Hobbs & Shaw, which is a spin-off of the Fast and Furious franchise. Honestly, it was the director–David Leitch.

Leitch is a former stuntman turned director with a lot of work in between those two things. I’ve read and heard interviews detailing his work ethic, his love of action, and his appreciation of buddy comedies. Combining him with the always-entertaining Rock, as well as the very physical Jason Statham seemed like the kind of summer action movie that I would like to see. Furthermore, Idris Elba and Vanessa Kirby are legitimate actors capable of serious range. The trailers looked action-packed, funny, and well-shot. I considered this a can’t-miss good time at the movies. Seriously, as my friends and I walked into the theater, I felt authentically excited about Hobbs & Shaw.

After about an hour of this thing, I’d had enough. Unfortunately, I looked at my watch and realized that I still had roughly seventy four minutes to endure. It didn’t get any better. In fact, it got actively worse.

There is no story. Not really. The plot is something that could be dropped into any movie, any time, in any era. The dialogue is just one cliche after another. No one says one original line in this entire movie. It drove me nuts.

The Rock and Jason Statham were funny at first, but then the jokes wore very thin and I realized that these guys actually don’t have any chemistry between them. I believe Dwayne Johnson can be a very good actor with the right supporting cast and the right director. He apparently had neither with Hobbs & Shaw. Furthermore, this movie convinced me that I will never see another Jason Statham film again. Nothing against him (especially if he’s reading this), but his brand just isn’t for me. He has one tone of voice, three facial expressions, and a type of action that gets very old very quickly.

My gosh, even Idris Elba stunk in this one. He, too, fell victim to terrible writing and poor directing.

Consequently, the alpha-male testosterone of Hobbs & Shaw bore me from the start. Everyone is the toughest. Everyone glares off to the side. Everyone walks with a strut. Everyone makes crude jokes. Everyone can’t be told anything by anyone. Almost two and a half hours of this nonsense proved too much.

It’s not even a great action movie. It’s had good action, yes, but not great action. Mission Impossible: Fallout is a great action movie. Hobbs & Shaw didn’t even come close to Fallout and seemed intent on borrowing shots you’ve already seen in other movies. I literally groaned when they blatantly swiped a scene from Captain America: Winter Solider.

And poor Vanessa Kirby. She deserves so much better.

I’m afraid I can’t recommend Hobbs & Shaw unless you just really love Jason Statham or Dwyane Johnson. It’s basically those two men running around a lot and making lewd jokes.

However, I will say this: there are a few cameos in this film that were fantastic. I won’t spoil it for you, but these scenes alone prove that The Rock does indeed shine when sharing the screen with the right person. Johnson can be funny, but he needs to play off of people who are even more funny. He literally cannot have Jason Statham as his straight man or you end up with … Hobbs & Shaw.

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Once Upon a Time In Hollywood – A (Spoiler-Free) Movie Review

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio proved the biggest draw for me in regards to Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. I can’t remember ever seeing them on screen together even though they are two of Hollywood’s biggest names. I generally like what Quentin Tarantino does with these two men as well, so I figured this movie would be right up my alley.

I honestly didn’t know much about Once Upon a Time In Hollywood going in. Like you, I heard it involved DiCaprio playing an actor with Brad Pitt playing his stunt double. I also saw from the trailers that Margot Robbie played Sharon Tate and that Charles Manson’s cult would be a factor as well.

Now that I’ve seen it, I really don’t want to tell you any more than that. Even the slightest bit of revelation could ruin the whole experience for you, so I’m going to abstain.

I will say this, though. Both Pitt and DiCaprio are fantastic. I love their performances, I love their chemistry, and I love their characters. Margot Robbie didn’t get quite as much screen time as I expected, but she portrays Sharon Tate as the lovely, kind, charismatic person, which, by most accounts, seems true to reality.

The story is sprawling even if, at times, plodding. My friend and I joked that Tarantino could have gotten the running time down to ninety minutes if he cut out all of the driving scenes! However, the truth is, by story’s end, every single moment of the movie is worth it. I feel that this could be Tarantino’s strongest story yet. The plot is strong, the pacing is appropriate, the dialogue is perfect, the characterization is rich, and the climax is astonishing.

Furthermore, I think this is also among Tarantino’s strongest directing efforts. This movie takes place in 1969, and it looks like 1969. It feels like 1969. It sounds like 1969. I felt like I stepped into a time machine. Once I realized just how authentic everything appeared, I started looking for anachronisms. I didn’t see one. Not one, which is amazing. That attention to detail made the movie a blast.

Also, for the most part, this is not a violent movie, nor is it an explicit one. By Tarantino standards, I found it rather tame, even funny at times. Of course, as you would expect, there is some violence at the end, but other than that, there’s not that much blood or language.

About that ending–I promise, no spoilers–I found it deeply moving. It touched me in a way I hadn’t expected.

If you are a Tarantino fan, I would consider this a must view. If you love Brad Pitt and/or Leonardo DiCaprio, this could be their best work yet. If you simply feel like hopping into a time machine and reliving the 1960s, this will be a thrill ride for you as well. In other words, I believe Once Upon a Time In Hollywood has something for everyone.

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The Lion King (2019) – A Movie Review

This new photo-realistic version of The Lion King is both exhilarating and redundant.

It’s a visual feast in that everything looks absolutely real. My understanding is that this film is almost entirely CGI, yet the animals, the environment–all of it–looks not only real, but also rooted in reality. You see labored breathing, you see real weight coming down on shoulders as the lions walk, you see dust in the air, you see ears twitch, you see plants in the background swaying in the breeze. It’s unreal how real it looks.

However, it’s also repetitive in that it’s a virtual copy of the original animated film. The scenes are the same, the pacing is the same, the jokes are the same, it’s all almost entirely the same. After having seen the original film several times as well as the musical, this latest version felt too much like a rote reproduction.

I also felt that the voices were detached from their characters. Yes, the animals’ mouths looked fantastic and even natural as they spoke, but the voices didn’t seem to be coming out of those mouths. The voices were too clear, too clean, and too undisturbed by the wild surroundings. In other words, the voices sounded straight from the recording booth. They didn’t match the environment I saw on the screen.

But even with that being said, I definitely recommend that you see this film. We took both of our kids, and because it’s the same, there were no surprises, and thus no scares. They do not increase the violence, nor do they display any blood. The hyenas were a little more intimidating than in the original, but my seven-year-old didn’t seem to mind them and she’s generally not a big fan of dogs or wolves.

It’s the CGI that makes this a must-see. At times, I literally could not believe my eyes. From a purely technological standpoint, there are moments in this film that will take your breath away.

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Spider-Man: Far From Home – A Movie Review

Spider-Man: Far From Home is an impressive exhibition of visual effects with some great one-liners, but the most interesting thing about the movie happens during the middle and end of the credits.

If you’re not familiar with the plot, Spider-Man: Far From Home sends Peter Parker and his classmates on a European vacation.  While there, Peter is drafted by Nick Fury to help Mysterio defeat monstrous elementals intent on destroying the world.

This movie is simply a run little romp.  It’s not too heavy, it’s not too serious, and it’s not too meaningful … until those end credits.

In fact, I think it’s maybe a little too light.  I understand the need to break away from the cosmic gravitas of Avengers: Endgame, but Far From Home didn’t delve quite deeply enough into the ramifications of that movie.

I say “deeply” because, yes, Far From Home absolutely acknowledges Endgame and goes out of its way not only to catch us up on how those who disappeared are adapting to their return, but how the world is adapting to those who reappeared.  The movie also centers itself around the death of Tony Stark.  (We can talk about that now, right?)

However, all of these things are never deeply explored.  Peter feels like he can’t live up to being Iron Man … and that’s what we get about that for most of the movie.  We are not allowed a deep dive into Peter’s psyche regarding this loss.  It’s all kept very surface-level.  I literally felt the movie pushing forward, forward, forward at a harrowing pace.

I found this shallow treatment of such important events in Peter’s life troubling.

Furthermore, I really do not care for the depiction of Peter Parker’s personality in Far From Home.  I kept track, and he apologized at least four times in a single scene.  They’ve made Parker a little too apologetic, a little too full of doubt, and a little bit of a whiner.  We’re not getting much of Spider-Man’s famous quips in Far From Home.  The movie is funny, but Spider-Man is not.  I think this is the fifth appearance of Spider-Man in the MCU … I believe his confidence should be growing by this point, not weakening.  I have no doubt Spider-Man will eventually become the linchpin of the MCU.  He’ll be the moral compass, the selfless hero, and the intellectual leader years down the road.  However, he should be further along in that journey than what we see here.

Finally, the European setting just didn’t work for me.  Maybe I’m too rigid, but I love my Spider-Man set squarely in New York City.  Peter returns to NY at the end of the movie, and you could just feel the energy boost in the film when that happened.  Something about his red and blue set against the NY skyline–it’s iconic.

On that note, I do admire the movie makers for taking such a risk.  Putting Spider-Man in Europe was a bold move, and not an obvious one.  They are trying to give us things we haven’t seen before, which I appreciate.

Speaking of which, I also appreciate the fact that they had the guts to put Mysterio in this movie.  He’s one of my favorite Spider-Man villains in the comics, and they do him justice in Far From Home.  I’ll be honest, I did not like Jake Gyllenhaal’s depiction of the character in the beginning.  I think Gyllenhaal is a talented, multifaceted actor, so I felt shocked when I found his performance wooden, lifeless, and forced soon after his introduction.  Trust me, that all changes pretty quickly.  Give Mysterio time.  They use a fantastic approach with him and I think Gyllenhaal nails it.  Just like with Vulture, they don’t ignore his comic book roots, but they also add a modern day twist.

Consequently, the special effects are magnificent in Far From Home.  There are some breathtaking scenes of Spider-Man jumping and swinging around, especially at the end of the film.  And, because Mysterio is a master of illusion, they lean heavily into that area and deliver some very cool moments.

You also can’t deny the charisma of Tom Holland and his supporting cast.  Zendaya is a star, Sam Jackson is always a blast, Jon Favreau is lovable even when he’s trying to act gruff, Marisa Tomei is a living legend, Jacob Batalon should be everyone’s best friend, and Tony Revolori somehow plays a jerk we all like.

Is this the best Spider-Man movie that I’ve ever seen?  No, but it’s a fresh approach and tried hard to give us something different.  I love that they are not going after the low-hanging fruit.  It would have been so easy to use Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus again, to have them fight in NYC again, but they fought that urge.  Spider-Man has such a vast array of villains–they should have no trouble finding foes for him if they are willing to go for it like they did with Vulture and Mysterio.

I will say this: after watching the end credits, I cannot wait for the next Spider-Man movie, and I am extremely excited for the next phase of the MCU.  Both end credit scenes truly surprised me.

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Are you in need of a new epic series? Try Dr. Nekros, a trilogy that I like to describe as Moonlighting meets The X-FilesKindle: https://amzn.to/2X3S7vO or NOOK: http://bit.ly/2JTFXm1