The Vast Of Night – A Movie Review

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I watched this Amazon Original mostly because Amazon Studios rarely go wrong and the subject matter interested me … and because it’s only ninety minutes long.

The premise is that during the 1950s a small town radio DJ and his friend start to investigate a strange sound emitting through the radio and telephone. They determine that the sound could be extraterrestrial in nature, and that it’s previously appeared in their locale. But how close will they actually get to the sound’s source? You’ll have to watch the movie for the answer.

I actually enjoyed this movie quite a bit because it’s so different from most conventional fare. First of all, it takes place during a single night. Furthermore, it’s almost entirely dialogue–there’s very little action. The camera is usually tight on the actors’ faces, but then it also goes on these long sprawls throughout the town and countryside. These nighttime tracking shots weave through the streets, into active high school gymnasiums, across fields–you definitely get a sense of the entire environment. In fact, the camera work in this film is quite pleasing to the eye. It certainly worked in conjunction with the film to intensify the appeal.

In terms of acting, everyone was very good, but I have to admit that I recognized no one. I don’t know if this is a cast full of unknowns or not, but the fact that I had no preconceived notions about them allowed them to exist fully within the skin of their characters.

I admit that it takes awhile for The Vast Of Night to hit its maximum pace, but it does a brilliant job until that point of establishing the available technology of the time, the mood of the small town, and the rapport of the two main characters. I wasn’t alive in the 1950s, but the film seems to have captured that time period’s authenticity well.

Also, the film’s score is exquisite. When the climax finally arrives, the music wonderfully guides our emotions and builds the excitement.

Though The Vast Of Night is a little slow compared to most movies today, I found it absorbing and well made. In fact, it’s one of those works that’s hard to stop thinking about once it’s over. If you’re looking for something different from the typical yet still maintaining an adherence to high quality, I recommend The Vast Of Night.

 

 

HBO’s Perry Mason – A Few Thoughts

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I’m not going to pretend to be a fan of the 50s and 60s Perry Mason. In fact, I’m not sure I ever watched a single episode (in reruns, of course). However, something about the HBO revival of the show caught my interest–probably Robert Downey Jr.’s involvement as an executive producer.

I took in the premiere episode a few days after its debut and have kept up with it every week since. The third episode aired last night, and I believe I’m ready to share my opinion of the show.

Simply put: I like it.

I wouldn’t say I love it, but I do look forward to watching it each week. Truthfully, it’s not the story that’s captivated me. Rather, it’s the performances, the costumes, the set pieces, and the cinematography that keeps me coming back.

Set in the early 1930s, this Perry Mason is a private investigator suffering PTSD from WWI, struggling to hold on to his family’s farm, and basically down on his luck in every way possible. He’s rough around the edges, cynical, and not afraid to get his hands dirty. Yet, somewhere behind the weary exterior is a good man, a man who could have shined under different circumstances.

There are some excellent performances in Perry Mason. Matthew Rhys has truly brought Perry Mason to life. The slight expressions, the body language, the voice inflection–it’s all working to create a dynamic character that is, though incredibly flawed, deeply appealing. Tatiana Maslany is always fantastic. I haven’t seen her since Orphan Black, but she’s as potent as ever. Of course, there are other superb actors in the show as well such as Juliet Rylance, John Lithgow, Robert Patrick, Chris Chalk, Gayle Rankin, and Stephen Root.

The “look” of the show is gorgeous. Some of it is CGI, but much of it is actual reproduction of architecture, clothing, and vehicles from the 1930s. The costumes are beautiful, by the way. The suits, the hats, the leather jackets–outstanding. It’s just an interesting show to watch.

Be warned, however, there are some disturbing images from time to time. A podcast warned me to be ready regarding a dead baby during the first few moments. There’s also an intense scene taking place on the battlefield of WWI, gun violence, and regular visits to the police morgue.

Again, I can’t say that Perry Mason has connected with me at a visceral level, but I appreciate it for what it is: a very good show with beautiful costumes, exquisite set pieces, and superb acting.

Hamilton On Disney Plus – A Few Thoughts

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When Disney Plus announced that Hamilton would be coming to their service, my family got very excited. Yes, my wife and I saw the Chicago production back in 2018, but my nearly twelve-year-old daughter has never seen it and desperately wanted to for years.

Friday night, July 3rd, my wife and daughter hunkered down in the basement and watched it together–they both loved it.

Yesterday, July 4th, I put it on the main TV as we were going about our day. It wasn’t long before I found myself completely captivated by it, on the couch, abandoning my other pursuits.

Because here’s the thing: as good as the Chicago cast was back in 2018, there is something hypnotic about Lin-Manuel Miranda and the rest of the New York cast. In my opinion, Miranda is not a great singer, nor does he have a beautiful voice, yet it’s undeniable that he is a star on that stage. You simply can’t take your eyes off of him.

I also discovered something else about myself in regards to stage theater. Before I get to that though, it’s important to understand Disney Plus’ concept of Hamilton–they simply presented a version that was recorded in 2016. Someone had the forethought to record the musical on the actual stage, which results in closeups on the actors’ faces and the dancers’ movements. The camera weaves in and out of the action, but completely maintains the stage theater’s atmosphere. Hamilton has a rather unique set that is both stationary and dynamic–that is, the set pretty much remains the same but there are several moving components within that set.

Which leads me to my discovery in regards to stage theater: I feel the same way about stage theater as I do about live sporting events. If I’m not close to the front row, I much prefer just to watch it on TV. At the Chicago production, we were so high up that I couldn’t see every little detail of the actors’ expressions, and, though people were moving, the view appeared fairly static. The screen version’s quick cuts and closeups, just like with sports, made for a more intimate, exciting experience.

If you haven’t seen Hamilton, I recommend you do so. Honestly, a year’s subscription to Disney Plus is still a fraction of the cost of an actual Hamilton ticket. I think it’s amazing that seeing Hamilton is no longer an elite experience–now everyone can partake in the event.

It is, frankly, impossible to walk away from Hamilton without feeling some kind of inspiration. It will motivate you to think more, to be more politically active, to be more creative, to better appreciate diversity, and to recognize more often the astounding steps it took to construct this great nation.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – A Movie Review

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I totally misjudged what this movie would be about from the little advertising I saw promoting it. The promotions made it look like Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams are avant-garde, haughty, powerful musicians bent on world domination. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a silly, comforting, fun–sometimes even touching–movie featuring two actors who have incredible chemistry and seem to truly enjoy each other’s company.

Will Ferrell plays Lars Erickssong (yes, really), a middle-aged man living with his father and determined to win the Eurovision Song Contest. Rachel McAdams plays Sigrit Ericksdottir (read that last name out loud), Lars’ best friend and possible sister. Together, they make up Fire Saga, a two-person band that can’t seem to find an audience, appreciation, or even respect in their homeland of Iceland.

Through a series of incredible events, they find themselves representing Iceland at the Eurovision Song Contest. There they meet a cavalcade of eccentric European performers. Their friendship is put to the test as temptations, missteps, and even conspiracy threatens their dream.

If all of that sounds very serious … it’s not. This film is full of goofy jokes, ridiculous pratfalls, and hilarious costumes. Yet, the movie does not have a mean spirit at all (other than constantly making fun of European music). When it ended, I actually found myself surprised by the fact that, overall, the whole things was kind of … sweet.

Be warned, though, if you’re watching it with little children, there are some strange moments of violence. I won’t spoil them for you, but I think one might actually be a little frightening for small children. Other than that, though, there isn’t any overt language, nudity, or sex. Oh. Wait. There are some Greek statues that … are rather ambitiously sculpted.

Perhaps most astonishing is the fact that the music is oddly catchy. The final song is actually beautiful. We all know Will Ferrell can sing. What I didn’t know was that Rachel McAdams can carry a tune very well, too. I assumed she lip-synced through the whole thing, but a little research afterwards revealed that she sang all of the songs herself and then they blended her voice with a professional singer’s to create a kind of hybrid.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga features two very likable actors at their absolute most likability. Their characters are strange, naive, and even a little backwards, yet their passion, kindness, and faith in one another takes what could have been a complete farce and turns it into something uniquely sincere.

 

CW’s Stargirl – A Few Thoughts

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Do I feel a little weird recommending a CW show featuring a twenty-year old actress playing a fifteen-year-old high school student? You bet. But, I’ve got my reasons …

Stargirl is a beloved character who primarily appeared in DC Comics’ Justice Society Of America. The JSA was DC’s original super team, a precursor to the Justice League of America. In the late 90s and early 2000s, they brought the team back with its original heroes from the 1940s. They were intent upon training new heroes to continue on the JSA’s legacy, and Stargirl was one of those new recruits.

As a devout JSA fan, the CW’s Stargirl is a delight because they are not shying away from the JSA’s stalwarts whatsoever. Starman, Green Lantern, Hourman, Johnny Thunder, Dr. Mid-nite, Wildcat–they are all either seen or referenced. Furthermore, due to circumstances I won’t reveal, Stargirl takes it upon herself to create a new JSA. She starts with a new Wildcat, Dr. Mid-nite, and Hourman. I have to be honest, though Hourman is a ridiculous concept and perhaps even a troubling premise, he’s always been one of my favorite characters and seeing his incredible costume on the screen is fantastic. Additionally, I loved James Robinson’s Starman, and seeing Stargirl use the cosmic rod is deeply satisfying.

For me, however, the real joy of the show is Luke Wilson. Remember him? I’m not sure what happened to Wilson’s movie career, but he is every bit as good as you remember (if not better). Whenever I see him on screen, I think, “Wow. He’s probably a little too good for this.” Another great blast from the past is Amy Smart, whom I haven’t seen in a long time but is still charming and charismatic.

Finally, the show’s villains are a fresh take compared to the other CW DC shows like Legends Of Tomorrow, Arrow, The Flash, and Batwoman. They have real motive, real depth, and are played by actors with real talent. Collectively, they call themselves the Injustice Society, and if you think that’s kind of a dumb name, you can only blame the folks from 1947 who created them. You’ll see classic villains on this team such as Icicle, Solomon Grundy, Sportsmaster, Tigress, and Brainwave. For a DC fan, this is kind of a big deal.

The show isn’t perfect–there’s quite a bit of teen drama. The action tries very hard, but still looks a little too reliant on “good enough” special effects. And, while some of the actors are quite talented, others still have room to grow.

However, I think the costumes are extraordinary from top to bottom, especially since they’ve decided to go with the more classic “tights” approach versus leather and armor.

By the way, if the name S.T.R.I.P.E. means anything to you, you’ll be very pleased with Stargirl. I suspect this is where most of their special effects budget went.

So while it’s a little awkward for this forty-something to recommend Stargirl, I have to admit that it is a real pleasure to see fan-favorite DC characters brought to life both joyfully and authentically.

 

HBO, Watchmen, and the Tulsa Massacre

Watchmen is an HBO original series based on a highly regarded graphic novel. It depicts an alternate world where super heroes are real, but most of them are psychologically damaged and ill-prepared to wield the power they utilize.

The HBO series picks up thirty years after the graphic novel ends, which I thought was a clever direction to take.

The first episode begins in the 1920s with an awful, awful race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where black American citizens are being killed indiscriminately by their white neighbors. It is violent, heartbreaking, and potent.

I’m ashamed to confess that I thought it was a plot point for the alternate world of Watchmen. However, something about it rang true–it just felt authentic. So I Googled “Tulsa Massacre.”

Imagine my horror.

I’m embarrassed that, as a 42 year old man, I learned about the Tulsa Massacre from a TV show. I don’t ever remember hearing a word about it before that moment. I don’t remember seeing anything about it on TV, in books, in school–nothing. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention. Or, perhaps it was overlooked by modern society.

I have to wonder what else I don’t know about. What else hasn’t made it into the history books? What else hasn’t been allowed to remain at the forefront? Have we been uninformed or misinformed about anything else?

Of course we have.

And, obviously, I could work a lot harder at trying to learn about these forgotten events.

During this weekend, HBO is allowing you to view the entire Watchmen series for free. It delves deeply into issues of race, police brutality, and the legacy of hatred. It also exists well within the realm of science fiction, though, so be prepared for that aspect of it, too. I personally love it when genres intersect; I found the series enthralling.

You can start viewing it here: https://www.hbo.com/watchmen. (Remember, it’s only free this weekend.)

You can also learn more about the Tulsa Massacre at this link that HBO provides on the Watchmen page: https://www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/hbo-2019/the-massacre-of-black-wall-street/3217/

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Netflix’s Bright – A Movie Review

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I’ve been meaning to watch Bright since 2017. Yes, you read that correctly. For some reason, I started it last night at around 11:00 p.m. and thought I’d watch for an hour or so before going to bed. Before I knew it, the movie was over and it was 1:00 in the morning!

That probably tells you all you need to know.

Though I wanted to see it, I always hesitated to watch Bright because of the strange premise–I just didn’t see how it could work. If you’re not familiar with the concept, imagine that Lord Of the Rings happened 2,000 years ago on Earth. Bright is the modern day consequence of that.

Bright is mostly grounded in the world as we know it. It is gritty, dirty, and sweaty with everyone struggling to pay their bills and earn their pensions. However, it’s slightly different in that orcs, centaurs, fairies, elves, and even an occasional dragon also occupy this reality.

Will Smith’s character, a cop named Ward, has been forced to partner with his precinct’s first orc officer, Nick, played by Joel Edgerton. As you can see in the picture above, orcs are not very pleasant to look at. However, Nick only wants to please Ward and is actually quite unwillingly funny. Smith and Edgerton have great chemistry with each other in what is essentially a cop movie. In fact, though Smith is playing a character with some pretty rough edges, that old Will Smith charm is in full effect and proved delightful to behold.

Though Ward and Nick don’t get along all that particularly well, when an elf fleeing for her life crosses their paths wielding an incredibly rare magic wand, Ward realizes they have to hide both she and the wand or chaos will erupt. Nothing in Bright’s world is more coveted than a magic wand for it can fix any problem ailing someone’s life. That’s when the movie really picks up. Everyone wants that wand. The cops want the wand; the gangsters want the wand; humans want the wand; orcs want the wand; the wand’s owner wants the wand back.

Bright is essentially an action movie with touches of fantasy. That fantasy, though, operates within the confines of the real world, not vice versa, and it is a world fully realized. This world looks lived in, aged, even historical. You will believe all of these different lifeforms have been uneasily living among each other for centuries.

It all sounds so ridiculous as I write about it, and it should not have worked, but it did. Bright was a really interesting, fast-paced movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend that you do.

 

Da 5 Bloods – A Movie Review

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With Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee has delivered a film full of incredible performances and stunning visuals, but also a film that is inconsistent.

Da 5 Bloods is a Netflix original movie. Netflix is an attractive collaborator for creators because they reportedly exert very little resistance. Spike Lee, Damien Chazelle, Martin Scorsese, Joel and Ethan Coen, Steven Soderbergh, and Alfonso CuarĂ³n are all noteworthy directors who have opted to throw in with Netflix. Such creative freedom, though, can sometimes lead to overabundance.

At just over two and a half hours, Da 5 Bloods is simply too long for the story it chooses to depict. The plot centers around four black Vietnam veterans who have returned to Vietnam in order to locate their squad leader’s body, which they had to leave behind decades before … and also to find dozens of gold bars they hid in the wilderness.

If the film had centered on either one of those two things, it would have been far stronger. As it stands, however, it tries to do both, which results in tone shifts that are jarring to the viewer. The portions relating to their felled leader are poignant, insightful, and evocative. The parts pertaining to the lost treasure are cliched, forced, and borderline absurd.

Even so, there are some amazing performances in Da 5 Bloods. Delroy Lindo deserves nothing less than a “Best Actor” Oscar for his work. He offers a very real, very conflicted human being that we both love and hate. His trauma from Vietnam is heartbreaking. Watching Lindo act makes the film worth your time. He is mesmerizing.

Furthermore, Chadwick Boseman yet again lights up the screen. Frankly speaking, other than Delroy Lindo, no one can keep up with Boseman in Da 5 Bloods. He shines during his scenes in a way that simply overpowers everyone else. Boseman is a gifted movie star, through and through.

Jonathan Majors plays David, the son of Delroy Lindo’s character. I’m not familiar with Majors, but he also won me over. Lee keeps David a bit of an enigma in the beginning of the film–we aren’t quite sure what to think of him. Majors plays the part perfectly as David is the only character that actually shows real change throughout the duration of the movie.

That being said, I liked the other three men played by Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr., just as I was supposed to like them. If I’m being honest, though, the writers didn’t give them much to do or say beyond their initial introduction. Those three men seem to essentially repeat the same lines throughout the entire film. Which leads me to my next issue …

Da 5 Bloods’ writing is erratic. I found the dialogue overly repetitive and one-dimensional which, in my opinion, gave the actors less to work with. Lee likes to sprinkle in some history throughout the film, which I enjoyed and learned from, but as the characters talk about this history it seems very wooden and pedantic–not natural to the characters at all. Though the actors are not stiff, their dialogue is.

Also, there were some outlandish coincidences in Da 5 Bloods, coincidences that, at times, stupefied me. I won’t spoil anything, but there are at least three unbelievable moments that are, shall we say, verging upon ridiculous.

Finally, as touched upon earlier, Da 5 Bloods’ tone is literally all over the place. The film starts out as a buddy story with old veterans reconnecting. (There’s a scene where they actually strut dance in a Vietnamese nightclub.) Then they go on a fun-loving treasure hunt. Then they haphazardly search for their dead friend’s body. Then things get very, very violent.

There is no doubt that Spike Lee is a brilliant filmmaker and a tremendously relevant voice. His timing with this movie is both cosmically coincidental and monumentally important. As a nation, we need to remember that black soldiers and freedom fighters have been guaranteeing our country’s ideology since the very beginning even as their own personal rights were being trampled upon. Lee also successfully portrays the PTSD not just of soldiers in general, but even more specifically of African Americans who served in the military.

I truthfully wanted to love Da 5 Bloods. I entered the movie without a shred of objectivity–I was fully prepared to write a rave review, especially because critics seem to adore it. But it would be a disservice to Spike Lee himself if I denied my criticisms. It’s still a very watchable film, however, with extremely important messages. And, like I said, Delroy Lindo’s performance alone is well worth your time.

HBO’s The Outsider – A Few Thoughts

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I have heard a lot of rave reviews about The Outsider, so once I caved in and subscribed to HBO Max, I made sure that it was among the first shows that I watched.

Honestly, I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot because it would be a shame to spoil even the slightest aspect of the series. It’s based on a Stephen King book, so that probably informs you quite a bit.

My wife and I watched this show together, and even though it is gruesome, unsettling, and even sometimes scary, we loved it for several reasons.

First of all, the pacing is superb. When each episode is nearly an hour long, ten episode seasons can get lost around the midway point and become a chore to watch. The Outsider did not. Every single episode added to the overall story, moved at a quick clip, and just kept building the suspense moment after moment after moment. It was incredible.

This leads to something else that I appreciated about the series–the writing. There are no wasted scenes in this show. Everything is important. They kept the big picture in mind at all times, which is very, very rare. The dialogue is crisp, the plot is tight–it just doesn’t get much better than The Outsider in terms of execution.

Furthermore, the locations are astounding. For the most part, nothing about the show’s environments are particularly special, which is what makes them incredible. The scenery in this show is real. The Outsider very much takes place in the world most of us see on a daily basis, and that does a great deal in grounding the show and, as a result, making it all the more creepy.

Finally, the acting is simply superb. You’ll recognize some of the talent in The Outsider, but some of the faces will likely be new to you. It doesn’t matter. Everyone is top-notch. From the main players to the small roles, everyone is stellar, which, again, makes The Outsider feel so rooted in reality. Every character in the show feels like a real person.

Be warned, The Outsider is violent, disturbing, and frightening, but it’s also extremely well made and wildly entertaining. I highly recommend it.

ESPN’s The Last Dance – A Few Thoughts

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I was born in 1977, so I got to experience the Bulls’ championships while in high school and college, which was pretty cool. I loved the NBA during those years. I remember staying up late on school nights every season during the playoffs to take it all in.

When The Last Dance debuted on ESPN, I felt disappointed because we don’t have cable–we’re cord cutters. I kept hearing it was on Netflix as well, but I came to find out that was just for the international market.

However, last week I learned that the ESPN app is free on smart TVs and that The Last Dance is available to stream via that app. Guess what my wife and I have done for the last few nights? That’s right–we binged The Last Dance after the kids went to bed, and we loved it!

I have to be honest–I know Michael Jordan is the greatest player to have ever picked up a basketball, but I forgot just how damn good he actually was. Seeing those years compressed into ten hours … wow. Amazing, amazing stuff.

The documentary played with time in an interesting fashion. It kept bouncing back and forth between the first championship run and the second. This juxtaposition made for some interesting viewing as you compared the “young” Michael Jordan to the “old” Michael Jordan.

Plus, it was fantastic to see those players I loved to watch so much back in the day. Not just the Bulls players, either. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Charles Oakley, John Starks, and very young versions of Shaq and Kobe.

If you enjoyed 90s basketball, The Last Dance is extremely fulfilling. Keep in mind, though, that this is pretty much Michael Jordan propaganda. There are no hard questions for the man, no controversies, no awkward moments for him to tackle. This is purely reliving his glory years, and I’m absolutely okay with that.

Here are a few things I learned from The Last Dance that I didn’t know back then …

  1. Michael Jordan tormented every teammate and opponent he encountered.
  2. Scottie Pippen was a little more selfish than I thought, but, even so, he wasn’t very selfish at all under the circumstances.
  3. Dennis Rodman’s shenanigans were far more calculated than I imagined.
  4. Phil Jackson cursed pretty hardcore for a zen master.
  5. Steve Kerr has always been hilarious and really, really smart.
  6. Scott Burrell was on the team.
  7. Horace Grant was a bit of a whiner.
  8. Jordan had a security guard who could have been a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
  9. Before Jordan joined the Bulls, they were a traveling cocaine circus.
  10. Michael Jordan had a very special relationship with his dad.

The Last Dance proved incredibly fun. I still enjoy the NBA, but nothing will ever replace those formative years spent watching the League and Jordan.

Oh, and I’ll finally admit that Jordan was better than LeBron, but I still like LeBron more and I always will.