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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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

Toy Story 4 – A Movie Review

Yesterday, I think you would have been justified to feel that Toy Story 4 is largely unnecessary.  After all, Toy Story 3 ended just about perfectly.

However, if you happened to watch the Toy Story Toons shorts, you know that Woody and the gang embarked upon a whole new set of adventures with young Bonnie.  These were five minute shorts, though, not a complete movie.  Could Disney and Pixar recreate the magic of the first three Toy Story movies after a nearly twenty-five year run?  Could they continue to hold our interest for two whole hours?

The answer is “yes.”  Most definitely.

Toy Story 4 is a fun, lighthearted adventure that wisely breaks convention with the first three films.

For example, there is no true villain in Toy Story 4, which I thought was really smart.  There are characters in opposition trying to achieve personal goals, but no one is truly “evil.”

Also, Toy Story 4 backed off of the emotional gut punches.  They tease a few of them, but then choose to play them for laughs.  Again, I found this decision very refreshing.

Adults will pick up on a story about finding purpose once you’ve raised your kids as well as the turmoil of finally living for yourself, but young children are unlikely to decipher all of that.  Kids will relate to the comforting power of toys, the way they help confront challenges, and how they ultimately serve as a coping mechanism when difficulty arrives.

Young and old will love new characters, especially Forky (perfectly voiced by Tony Hale).  Other new additions include Gabby Gabby played by Christina Hendricks, Ducky and Bunny given life by the hilarious Key and Peele, and an understated but lovable character called Duke Caboom, performed by Keanu Reeves.  (It’s taking every ounce of willpower not to go out and buy  a Duke Caboom toy right now.)  Annie Potts plays Bo Peep, who makes her triumphant return and is given a really cool, captivating story to explain her absence.

While Toy Story 4 didn’t have to be made, some very important developments occur that could open the door to future movies.  I’m not going to spoil anything, but I see great potential for some of these characters to spin off into their own adventures.  Perhaps not into the movies, but maybe through a certain streaming service arriving soon?

Toy Story 4 is a funny, enjoyable, appropriate movie for the entire family.  It’s not scary at all, there will be no tears, and you can look forward to some hearty laughs and charismatic new characters.

Like I said, Toy Story 4 didn’t have to be made, but I’m glad they made it.  I’ve enjoyed these characters for twenty-five years, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy them for twenty-five more.

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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