Film Review: “The French”

  • THE FRENCH
  • Starring: Bjorn Borg
  • Directed by: William Klein
  • Ratied: unrated
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 10 mins
It was the Spring of 1981. A former Hollywood actor was the new president. The Soviet Union was a threat to world peace. (Some things haven’t changed.) Tennis rackets were predominantly wooden, but the sport itself was alive and thriving in what was truly a golden age. Originally released in 1982, “The French” is a re-released documentary that gives us unfettered access to some of the greatest legends of tennis as they make their way through the French Open tournament. Thanks to filmmaker William Klein, who is now 96 years old, tennis enthusiasts can bask in the nostalgia of watching the likes of Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, and Ivan Lendl during their peak.
Taking placed from May 25th through June 7th, 1981, the 85th French Open was held per tradition on the outdoor clay courts at Roland Garros in Paris. Klein gives us a backstage pass that allows us to watch private interactions between players as they warm up or as they hang out in the locker room. Better than any “Hard Knocks” episode, “The French” is honest without any frills. We get a true sense of the almost happy-go-lucky nature of Yannick Noah compared to the somber, cool, and determined Borg.
This was an age of tennis when there were all sorts of personalities involved, and the game was played in a much purer form rather than today’s version where titanium rackets smash tennis balls at over 100 mph. The film’s pacing barely hits the speed limit, though, as it often drags along with way too many elongated shots of the crowd rather than focusing more on the players. Furthermore, “The French” focuses most of its time on the men while the female greats are left as almost an afterthought with Evert getting the bulk of the screen time.
The film’s biggest highlight is when McEnroe faces off against Lendl in the quarterfinals. Younger generations have no clue about his legendary tirades on the court and McEnroe does not disappoint during his match. Overall, the lone notable fact about the 1981 tournament is that it was Borg’s 11th Grand Slam title and would ultimately be his last.
Overall, “The French” is a neat look into a time capsule, but will be most enjoyed by tennis fanatics with little appeal beyond that.

Film Review: “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” – REVIEW 2

 

  • DR. STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS
  • Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olson
  • Directed by: Sam Raimi
  • Ratied: PG-13
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 6 mins
  • Walt Disney Studios
Second only to the Oscar-nominated “Black Panther” of 2018, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is the best Marvel film to be released to date. Having made over $230 million domestically in its first seven days of release (Box Office Mojo), the Sam Raimi-helmed story about everyone’s favorite doctor of mystical arts is a visual spectacular with plenty of excitement, great acting, and a complicated story that demands your full attention. It is nothing short of marvelous and easily the finest since “Avengers: End Game.”
(For those who have yet to see the newest “Doctor Strange” don’t worry, you won’t find any spoilers here.) We are instantly thrust to a weird place in between universes where a pony-tailed version of Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a teenager named America Chavez (Xochitil Gomez) are chased by a demon as they try to reach a powerful spell book. The incredible situation goes from bad to worse before America, who has the ability to travel across the multiverse, ends up in “our” universe where she is saved by Strange and Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong).
After realizing there were witchcraft runes on the demon that chased America, Stephen finds Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olson) to request her help. He soon discovers, though, that what transpired during the events of “WandaVision” have left Wanda psychologically imbalanced. In fact, she reveals her full embracement of her dark alter ego – The Scarlet Witch. She demands Stephen turn America over to her so she can be with her children in an alternate universe. This leads to an epic magical showdown at Kamar-Taj from which Stephen and America flee across the multiverse to another Earth that is governed by a powerful group named the Illuminati.
Stephen does not receive a warm welcome from the Illuminati council despite his grave warnings about the impending arrival of the Scarlet Witch. Ultimately, he must rely upon his ex-romantic partner Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who on this version of Earth is an expert on the multi-verse, to help him and America defeat the increasingly unhinged Scarlet Witch.
Cumberbatch gets to explore many more facets of a character who when first introduced to us was an egotistical narcissist on the same level as Tony Stark. However, Stephen grows significantly in this newest story and becomes a hero that can be fully embraced and understood. (A stark contrast to Peter Parker who never seems to mature past be a mistake prone, bumbling stumbling man child.) Stephen Strange may still have elements of over-confidence, but with Cumberbatch’s undeniable skill and some solid writing, he becomes fully developed hero in this second film devoted to the Master of Mystic Arts.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” easily has some of the best eye candy of the entire Marvel collection with dazzling special effects and colorful imagery. It is also has some moments of brutal violence, hence the PG-13 rating, as it alternates between dark moments of despair and flashes of levity that we have come to expect in all of the Marvel flicks. The assembled cast is nothing less than fantastic with particularly stand-out supporting performances from Olson and McAdams.
In the end, “Doctor Strange and Multiverse of Madness” is the best entertainment you will find currently at any cinema.

Film Review: “The Northman”

 

Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Anna Taylor-Joy
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Rated: R
Running Time: 2 hrs 17 mins
Focus Features

If you have not seen the Viking action/drama “The Northman” yet, then you are missing out on a classic work of historical fiction by director Robert Eggers (“The Lighthouse,” “The Witch”). Headlined by a superb performance from Alexander Skarsgard, “The Northman” is based upon a Scandinavian folktale written by Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150-c. 1220), which served to later influence William Shakespeare’s writing of “Hamlet.” Eggers’s glorious cinematic take on the ancient story of Amleth is violent to the core with an emphasis on historical detail and Viking mythology.

The story, which is a tad slow occasionally, begins in the year AD 895 when King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns to his island kingdom of Hrafnsey. A celebration, organized by his wife, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) is held to honor his triumphant return. However, King Aurvandil, who bears a terrible wound, refrains from too much revelry as he is focused on preparing young Amleth to be his successor. As such, they participate in an ancient ritual overseen by the king’s jester, Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe).

During the morning after the king’s return, he is betrayed by his brother, Fjolnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang, “The Square”) and Amleth must flee the island to stay alive, but not before he vows repeatedly to get his revenge. This fire within serves him well as he is taken in by Vikings who raise him as a berserker. During one of their forays into the lands of the Rus people, which encompasses parts of modern-day Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, Amleth (Skarsgard) learns that his uncle was overthrown by King Harald of Norway and lives in banishment in Iceland.

Seizing the opportunity to get his vengeance and rescue his mother, Amleth disguises himself as a slave before slipping onto a ship bound for Iceland. It is during the voyage that he meets a Slavic slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Queen’s Gambit,” “The Witch”) who claims she is a sorceress, something she proves later. A connection develops between them as Amleth bides his time while continuing his ruse under his uncle’s nose.

Skarsgard, a native of Sweden who had long wanted to do a film about Vikings, is a powerful, physically imposing presence on the screen. He makes Thor the God of Thunder look weak and insignificant and could have possibly been a better choice for that role as he immerses himself into Amleth as seamlessly as Daniel Day Lewis on his best day. The one quibble with his performance is that sometimes it is a little difficult to understand his dialogue.

While Hawke is delightful in his role, his performance is all too brief, and it feels like he was underused. Kidman enjoys a little more screentime, but her presence is overshadowed by Taylor-Joy’s who is enchanting. While Olga may have some magical abilities, Taylor-Joy doesn’t let it be the defining characteristic of her pivotal role.

Eggers’s work is genuine homage to Viking culture and lore without losing itself in special effects-generated magic. Sure, you can sense a pinch of “Conan the Barbarian” and even “Lord of the Rings” in parts of “The Northman,” but in the end it remains true to itself and retains its own special identity.

Theater Review – Mean Girls: The Broadway Musical” – Kansas City

 

  • MEAN GIRLS
  • The Music Hall
  • Kansas City, Missouri

 

“Mean Girls” captures the pitfalls of trying to fit in
Since its release as a feature film in 2004, “Mean Girls” – starring Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, Amanda Seyfried and Lindsay Lohan – has achieved and maintained a cult following during the years since its moderately successful theatrical run. Nowhere was this more evident than on Tuesday night at the Music Hall in downtown Kansas City, Missouri where an abundance of teen to twentysomething women were dressed like characters from the Tina Fey-written comedy.
Based partly on the 2002 book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” by Rosalind Wiseman, “Mean Girls – The Broadway Musical,” also written by Fey with music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, begins with North Shore High School students Janis Sarkisian (Mary Kate Morrissey) and Damian Hubbard (Eric Huffman) breaking the fourth wall with powerful voices to invite us on a “cautionary tale.”
As in the original film version, young Cady Heron (Danielle Wade) moves from Kenya to Chicago with her parents when her mother gets a new job. Being the new girl in a large high school, Cady has a hard time fitting in, something anyone who was a teenager can identify with. She is helped, though, by Janis and Damian, a pair of loners who take her under their wing. The song “Where Do You Belong?” punctuates the process of finding out which clique she belongs to and is a poignant reminder about what those days were like.
As belted in “APEX Predator” by Morrissey, the one group they don’t want Cady to join is a trio of girls known as “the Plastics.” Consisting of the most feared girl in school Regina George (Nadina Hassan), her keeper of secrets Gretchen Weiners (Megan Masako Haley), and the stereotypical dumb blonde Karen Smith (Jonalyn Saxer). They are intrigued by Cady and she is invited to join them for lunch, something that never happens to anyone else in school.
Janis sees this set of circumstances as a means to get revenge on Regina for a past transgression. So, she convinces a reluctant Cady to spy on Regina for her. Mix in competing affections for a dreamy boy named Aaron Samuels (Adante Carter) and the stage is set for a chaotic series of events that cause nothing but heartache and ruined friendships. However, can simple, heartfelt apologies overcome the emotional damage and allow them to accept each other’s differences?
Overall, the production value was what you would expect from a Broadway touring show – nothing but solid. Good performances were sprinkled throughout the well-written show, highlighted by Morrissey who dominated the stage with her power vocals. Additionally, the entertaining Hubbard played off her with ease as the duo shared the best onstage chemistry of the entire cast. The other cast member who often stole the show was Saxer who absolutely nailed the role of Karen and generated some of the night’s biggest laughs.
Whether it’s in Kansas City or some other city on its current tour, “Mean Girls” makes for a fun night of entertainment.
“Mean Girls – The Broadway Musical” will run through March 20th at the Music Hall.

 

Film Review: “The Matrix Resurrections” (Michael D. Smith)

THE MATRIX: RESURRECTIONS
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss
Directed by: Lana Wachowski
Rated: R
Running Time: 2 hrs 28 mins
Warner Bros.
Eighteen years have passed since we last saw Neo and Trinity in “The Matrix Revolutions.” Eighteen years of patiently waiting for a fourth film even though for a long time it appeared to be a hopeless dream. (Unless you were like yours truly and was happy enough that the trilogy story was over despite its ambiguity at the end.) The question now is whether the recent release of “The Matrix Resurrections” was worth the wait. The short answer is – not really. (And while it is already in theaters, rest assured you will find few spoilers here.)
To begin the trip down the rabbit hole (again), we find Thomas Anderson/Neo (Keanu Reeves) thriving as a successful video game developer whose fame is derived from his creation of “The Matrix” game series. In fact, he is looked upon as almost a god among programmers. However, Mr. Anderson is both uncomfortable with the adoration and being in his own skin. To deal with his issues, he sees a benevolent therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) to keep a handle on reality, which is helped by taking a blue pill daily.
Mr. Anderson gradually succumbs to what his therapist calls delusions, mainly by his own choosing, and thereby becomes open to the possibility that the Matrix is real. He is helped by a young woman named Bugs (Jessica Henwick, “Game of Thrones”) who stumbles upon “the one” thanks to a repeating old code that depicts when Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) first found Neo in the Matrix. With the help of a program embodying the prophet Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, “Aquaman”), Bugs frees Mr. Anderson before his business partner, Smith (Jonathan Groff, “Hamilton,” “Glee”) can stop them.
Neo learns much has changed in 60 years since his “death,” including the free human population now led by an elderly Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and the Matrix itself. What hasn’t changed is his desire to reunite with Trinity, who doesn’t know him but nonetheless feels like she has an inexplicable connection with him. Their chances at being free again from the Matrix comes to head in a showdown with The Analyst (Harris), who wants to keep them under his thumb, and Smith, who has his own designs.
“Resurrections” is interesting to begin with as it casts some doubt on whether the Matrix is real. Again, it’s the struggle with what is reality and what is not. However, this angle soon fades away, disappointingly, into an unimaginative storyline focused on Neo trying to unplug Trinity from the Matrix. Genius. Unlike the original “Matrix,” which was revolutionary filmmaking and even its successors to a degree, “Resurrections” falls flat as its script does not deliver anything fresh or creative.
Harris was a nice casting choice as The Analyst, a program who seems to have replaced The Architect from the previous films. Other than that, there is a lot to be desired about the cast. The replacement of Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus with a digital program is fine, but the use of another actor is a gigantic failure as Abdul-Mateen II cannot capture the iconic character’s nuances. The same is true for director Lana Wachowski being unable to procure the services of Hugo Weaving as Smith again, although the inclusion of Smith at all in the story is nonsensical anyway.
Overall, “Resurrections” is one story that should have been left in the grave.

Film Review – “Respect”

  • RESPECT
  • Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker
  • Directed by: Liesl Tommy
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 25 mins
  • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin was one of the most gifted singers the 20th century produced. As such, she deserved a biopic of the same high caliber that has been made for the likes of Johnny Cash (“Walk the Line”), Ray Charles (“Ray”) and Freddy Mercury (“Bohemian Rhapsody”). Unfortunately, her life story in the August 2021 film “Respect” is told in an underwhelming, sluggish manner that leaves much to be desired. However, while it is more akin to a lump of coal than a glass of sparkling champagne, “Respect” does contain a couple of noteworthy performances that give it a little dignity at least.
The story begins in the 1952 Detroit home of Baptist pastor C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) who proudly puts his 10-year-old daughter, Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner) on display to sing for a celebrity-filled party he is hosting. Of course, her father’s guests are amazed by her talent, but it almost never bears fruit when her mother, who is estranged from C.L., later dies unexpectedly. It is only through being forced to sing at C.L.’s church that she even speaks again.
Seven years later, 17-year-old mother of two Aretha (Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson, who would have been about 39 at the time of filming), meets local producer, Ted White (Marlon Wayans) at one of C.L.’s parties. Aretha’s often controlling father wants her to have nothing to do with the charming Ted, but nine unsuccessful albums later Aretha essentially dumps C.L. as her manager and pairs up with Ted instead.
Aretha’s career starts to take off with hits like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” yet her life is put in the headlines for the wrong reasons when a “Time” magazine story depicts for all the world to see how physically abusive Ted is towards her. She goes on to experience several ups and downs, both career and relationship wise, over the next several years until she has an epiphany to record what would become a double platinum gospel album.
Hudson does a solid job at presenting what turns out to be a thoroughly cursory depiction of Aretha. It’s not the former “American Idol” contestant’s fault as she has proven in the past that she can delve much deeper into a character’s soul. The criticism must lay at the feet of her director, Liesl Tommy (“Jessica Jones”). Too much of Aretha’s life is glossed over, minimized, or simply swept under the rug, which prohibits us from getting a true grasp of who she was. Tommy’s pacing is also sluggish as molasses on a below zero day and the film should have been trimmed by as least 20 minutes. At points it becomes boring for lack of a better word.
Whitaker is a powerful force when he is on the screen. He dominates every moment he is in the camera’s frame as he skillfully fleshes out the emotions of a flawed man who manages to command the admiration of thousands of followers. Wayans is a revelation in a role that requires him to display charm on the surface while also letting loose the anger, jealously, insecurity, and controlling nature of a man who desires all the credit and adoration that Aretha’s receives.
Overall, while the late Aretha Franklin deserves all the respect in the world, her biopic does not.

Film Review: “The Harder They Fall”

 

THE HARDER THEY FALL
Starring: Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz
Directed by: Jeymes Samuel
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hrs 19 mins
Netflix
Add one part Quentin Tarantino, one part Sergio Leone, and one part Sam Peckinpah and you have the recipe for “The Harder They Fall,” or at least that’s what it initially promises it could be. This violent western, which goes over the top during its crescendo, is a breath of fresh air at first with a great aura of originality, modern hip hop music, and a pair of stellar supporting performances. However, its lead actor in the form of Jonathan Majors (introduced as the next main Marvel super villain in the mini-series “Loki”) does not deliver a commanding performance nor one that contains meaningful depth. Moreover, the story itself devolves from its promising beginnings into a myriad of boring western cliches.
The origin of Nat Love (Majors) as a vengeful, bad-good guy is rooted deep in his past. At the age of 11, Nat watches his father and mother shot to death at the dinner table by an unflinching Rufus Buck (Idris Elba, “The Suicide Squad”) who leaves his mark by carving a cross into the young boy’s forehead. Years later, Nat, who has turned to a life of crime himself, gets revenge on one of Rufus’s associates.
When Nat reunites with his on again, off again lover and saloon owner Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz, “Deadpool 2”), he learns that members of his gang inadvertently stole money intended for Rufus, who has been sitting in prison for several years. About this time, Rufus’s gang, led by the remorseless Trudy Smith (Regina King), free their leader after getting paid to kill the corrupt soldiers who are guarding him on a transport train.
The two men and their respective gangs, which are filled with largely unimaginative characters, are destined to collided, especially after an aging U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves (Delory Lindo) decides to help Nat get his revenge. This results in a long stretch of gunplay that becomes downright silly after a while.
The pluses to “The Harder They Fall” include a diabolical performance by Elba who commands the silver screen in every shot he is in. He exudes a tangible sense of authority that makes it easy to understand why his cohorts follow him without question. Unfortunately, Elba is vastly underused. Kudos also go to King as she skillfully displays a ferocious brutality while maintaining a look of cold steel, something the rest of the cast, besides Elba, fail to do.
The infusion of modern music in a western setting is akin to what was also done in “A Knight’s Tale” as it heightens the overall entertainment value of the film. Director Jeymes Samuel (“They Die by Dawn”) does a fantastic job with grabbing our attention, yet it slips through his fingers as the story becomes painful to endure. Every aspect of “The Harder They Fall” becomes a caricature of everything that’s ever been done in the Western genre. Majors’s performance is lackluster as he comes off completely unbelievable as a man that’s supposed to be filled with traumatic pain and vengeance. He plays it too, happy go lucky and soft.

Film Review: “Being the Ricardos

 

BEING THE RICARDOS
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem
Directed by: Aaron Sorkin
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hrs 11 mins
Amazon Studios
Director/writer Aaron Sorkin again demonstrates why he is one of the greatest screenplay writers alive today with the wonderfully entertaining “Being the Ricardos.” A quasi biopic told over the span of five days in 1953, “Being the Ricardos” contains rich, rapid-fire dialogue spoken with expert craftmanship by its exemplary cast, most particularly between Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. Although Sorkin missteps a couple of times, it doesn’t mean this newest creation of his should not be considered for a few Oscar nominations.
When we are first introduced to Lucille and Desi, it’s clear that they have a tumultuous relationship, one in which she always lives in fear that her husband is cheating on her. This proves to be just part of the issues they have over a five-day span that begins with influential syndicated radio news commentator Walter Winchell announcing to the world that Lucille is a communist. It was the age of McCarthyism and if you were accused of being a “Red” then it meant your career was over. In the case of Lucille and Desi, it is presented as a looming specter that could end their show.
As the saying goes, the show must go on and so, they forge ahead with getting the next show ready to be performed in front of a live TV audience. The process makes for an interesting, backstage glimpse into how a television comedy was made in the 1950s, but more importantly, Sorkin lets us into the inner workings of America’s favorite couple for a sliver of time. Of course, like with any TV family, reality is not the fantasy everyone sees on the screen. Their relationship is a roller coaster and spills over to involve everyone around them.
Sorkin, a four-time Oscar nominee for screenplay writing, including one win in 2011 for “The Social Network,” throws the fast-paced rhythm of the story out of whack when he intersperses documentary-style interviews in “modern day” with two writers and an executive producer who were there. These scenes are more of a distraction than anything else. He also plays with the historical timeline a bit by having Lucille and Desi announce their pregnancy even though in real life it occurred a year before the events of “Being the Ricardos” occurred. While it’s a bit misleading, it does help add another layer of tension to the story since saying the word “pregnant” was taboo on television then. (One of Sorkin’s greatest moves is when he puts us into Lucille’s mind as we watch in black and white how she devises corrections to scenes in the script.)
Kidman delivers one of the best performances of her career, never mind that the makeup department for “Being the Ricardos” made her face look plastic. She channels Lucille’s strength and determination in a blatantly sexist world where men always had the last word. Her Lucille comes off as someone who was not only a genuine trailblazer, but someone who can be looked upon with enhanced respect and admiration. However, she brings out her frailties as well, including an unwillingness to bend at times.
Bardem may not resemble Desi, who was 36 in 1953 and his portrayer was 51 when the film was shot, but it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things as he brings out the soul of the Cuban born singer/actor in spectacular fashion. Like Kidman with Lucille, he portrays a myriad of complexities in his character that no one could see by watching “I Love Lucy.”
Additionally, Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”) and Tony-award winner Nina Arianda deliver brilliant supporting performances as cantankerous William Frawley, who played Fred Mertz, and Vivian Vance, who played Ethel Mertz. They nailed their portrayals of two people who may have shared great on-screen chemistry yet could hardly get along with each other off screen.
Overall, “Being the Ricardos” is a delightful drama, especially if you love fantastic, fast-paced dialogue with a focus on character development.

Film Review – “Stillwater”

STILLWATER

Starring: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin

Directed by: Tom McCarthy

Rated: R

Running Time: 2 hrs 19 mins

Focus Features

 Matt Damon delivers a performance worthy of being on his career highlight reel as a father trying to free his daughter from a French prison in the controversial drama, “Stillwater.” Directed by American filmmaker Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight,” “Win Win”), “Stillwater” was shot in in the second half of 2019 and was supposed be released in November 2020, but because of the COVID 19 pandemic, it was delayed until this year when it premiered on July 8th at the Cannes Film Festival where it received a standing ovation.

 A small Oklahoma town has been recently demolished by a devastating tornado. Amidst the cleanup effort is laid-off oil worker Bill Baker (Damon) who is also busy trying to pick up the pieces of his family that has been laid waste by tragedy. For the past four years, Bill’s estranged daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin, “Signs”) has been serving time in a French prison for murdering her roommate. It is a heinous crime she says she did not commit, and Bill is steadfast in his belief in her innocence.

 Despite their troubled past, Bill has been flying to France on a regular basis to visit Abigail in her Marseille prison. When we meet them on this trip, Allison asks Bill to hand deliver a note to her French defense attorney. In it, Allison begs to have her case reopened, but the attorney refuses because the new evidence she presents is hearsay. When Bill has it translated it to him by an English-speaking neighbor, Virginie (Camille Cottin, “Allied”), he learns Allison has zero confidence in him. 

Spurred to investigate on his own to free Allison, Bill enlists the aid of Virginie, a single mother and aspiring actress, to help him with getting around and with translations. However, Bill is a fish out of water and his actions end up putting his life in jeopardy. After taking a step back, Bill settles into a new life in Marseilles that includes living with Virginie and her daughter, which provides a chance to redeem himself as a father figure … that is until a “shocking” opportunity presents itself for him to be a screw-up again. 

It is not shocking that “Stillwater” has been compared to the high-profile case of American student Amanda Knox who in 2007 was arrested in Italy and charged, along with her then boyfriend, of murdering her British roommate. Knox was wrongfully convicted and was not completely exonerated until eight years later. Clearly, the Knox case served as an inspiration to some degree for McCarthy’s film. Knox herself has criticized the film for its quasi depiction of her ordeal. At the very least, “Stillwater” comes across as unimaginative and a little predictable. 

What makes “Stillwater” watchable is the stellar performance by Damon who nails his portrayal of a man with a lot of demons who cannot seem to avoid screwing up. Damon manages to infuse him with a sense of likability even though we should probably be as disgusted with him as Bill’s daughter is. His performance captures the old, male blue-collar mentality of not wearing your emotions on your sleeve, which makes the brief moments of tenderness all the more powerful. 

Overall, if you’re a fan of anything Damon is in, then you will probably enjoy “Stillwater.” If not, then “Stillwater” may not be your cup of tea when it comes to looking for over two hours of cinematic entertainment.

Film Review: “A Quiet Place Part II”

  • A QUIET PLACE PART II
  • Starring: Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds
  • Directed by: John Krasinski
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Running Time: 1 hr 37 mins
  • Paramount Pictures 

Three years ago, “A Quiet Place” became THE breakout film of the year as it grossed over $188 million domestically and landed in many top ten lists. Its long-awaited sequel, “A Quiet Place Part II” picks up right where its predecessor left off and it does not disappoint. From the get-go, we are put on the edge of our seats as this fast-paced, sci-fi/horror flick keeps our hearts racing a million miles per hour. A smart script and superb direction by John Krasinski help make this film the first true “must-see” of the year. 

(If you have somehow not seen the original film yet, then do not read this any further.) When we last saw the Abbott family, the father, Lee (Krasinski) had sacrificed himself so that his family would have a chance to live. Thanks to the subsequent resourcefulness of his deaf daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and the tenacity of his wife, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), not only were they able to survive, but they also found a way to kill the sound sensitive aliens by utilizing Regan’s cochlear implant. 

“Part II” takes us back to Day 1 when a normal afternoon of little league baseball turns into an extinction-level event for humanity. After this brief flashback, we are flung forward to day #474 of the invasion. Evelyn and her three children – Regan, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and her infant son – gather up what possessions they need and make a silent, perilous walk into town. 

As they reach the deserted town’s railroad depot, they accidentally make enough noise to attract an alien. It is at this point they stumble upon Emmett (Cillian Murphy, “Inception”), an old friend of theirs who has lost everyone and everything. He is initially adamant they leave, warning Evelyn there is not anyone left worth saving. However, Regan figures out a way for a much broader application of her cochlear implant and it sets into motion events which put everyone’s lives in serious jeopardy. 

“A Quiet Place Part II’ is a superb work of cinema as it excels in all three major phases – writing, acting, and directing. Good luck in finding a flaw with the script. In fact, you will have a better chance at finding a needle in a haystack first. Blunt delivers a perfect blend of strength and vulnerability as does Simmonds, who again demonstrates with a wonderful range that she is a star in the making. Lastly, Krasinski successfully duplicates the pacing, tension, and thrills of the first film, which earned an Oscar nod for Best Sound Editing. 

Overall, “A Quiet Place Part II” already has a good shot at being on a lot of top ten lists again when 2021 is over.

Film Review: “Cruella”

  • CRUELLA
  • Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson
  • Directed by: Craig Gillespie
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 14 mins
  • Walt Disney 

There is nothing cruel about watching the new Walt Disney prequel “Cruella,” starring former Academy Award winner Emma Stone in a role she absolutely nails. Unlike 1996’s “101 Dalmatians,” in which Glenn Close played Cruella with over-the-top, maniacal behavior, Stone infuses Cruella with emotional complexities that draw us into a character who becomes much more than a punchline. Ultimately, there is an almost Joaquin Phoenix-as-Joker vibe to Stone’s performance, just not nearly as dark. However, do not be worried, “Cruella” is not all doom-and-gloom as there are enough light-hearted and even tender moments to keep it from falling too far down the rabbit hole. 

As a little girl, Cruella goes by Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, “Krypton”). Raised by her loving mother, Catherine (Emily Beecham, “Daphne”), Estella manages to get into a private boarding school. Her mother warns her, though, to not be rebellious and cruel, but the fashion curious Estella cannot prevent herself from getting into continuous trouble. Eventually, Estella wears out her welcome and is expelled. 

Estella’s expulsion does not turn her world upside down. In fact, she views it as a new adventure complete with a new puppy she finds. However, reality of how cruel the world can be takes place when Catherine dies and Estella becomes homeless in London’s city streets when she encounters two young boys who are always up to no good. 

Flash forward ten years later when the trio of Estella, Jasper (Joel Fry, “Game of Thrones”) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, “Richard Jewell”) are busy stealing from anyone they can. Yet Estella still has her eyes set on the world of fashion and a series of lucky events puts her into the employment of the most powerful fashion designer in London – The Baroness (Emma Thompson). At the pinnacle of her happiness, Estella learns a dark secret and Cruella begins to take over. 

Stone has all the appearances of being born to play this role in what is an overall terrific origin story. Her portrayal never becomes too unhinged, and she even manages to do the previously unthinkable – make Cruella De Vil a sympathetic character. Of course, she was guided with the steady direction of Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya”), had a fresh and inventive script to work with, and shared the screen with the equally fantastic Thompson who makes The Baroness about as unsympathetic and diabolical as they come. What should also be mentioned are the film’s fantastic costume designs which will hopefully not be forgotten about when Oscar season rolls again, not that more than 10 or 12 people will be watching it anyway. 

Overall, “Cruella” is probably not for small children. Let them watch the 1961 animated version instead. Otherwise, “Cruella” is a wonderful, two-plus hour escape.

Film Review: “Spiral”

  • SPIRAL
  • Starring: Chris Rock, Max Minghella
  • Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
  • Rating: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 33 mins
  • Lionsgate 

Part of the premise of the “Saw” franchise is that the story’s victims are put in horrendous situations and then forced choose to do something terrible to escape or die horribly. Except possibly the 2004 original, I have desperately wanted to run away from each one of these dismal death traps as they begin to flicker to life on the screen. The newest installment, “Spiral” is easily one of the most unsurprising, stereotypical works of cinema I have ever seen in my career as a professional film critic. 

The story, which is a nice way to describe what is presented to us as entertainment, begins during a 4th of July celebration when an off-duty detective does not call for any backup before chasing a purse snatcher down into a darkened subway tunnel. Shockingly, he never sees the light of day again. Enter Det. Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), a lone wolf cop who is hated by every police officer in his precinct as they all view him as a rat. 

Divorced and estranged from his father, former police chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), Zeke is forced to take on a younger partner, Det. William Schenk (Max Minghella, “The Handmaid’s Tale”) as he begins his investigation into crimes committed by a Jigsaw-inspired killer. Despite his efforts, the body count climbs as more dirty cops are killed in such horrific ways that you cannot help but wonder how the writers who come up with these ideas sleep at night. 

At the risk of ruining any surprises those who wish to spend their hard-earned dollars on seeing “Spiral,” I will refrain from going into any more details about the story. It should be noted that while there has been a total of eight “Saw” films in the franchise, “Spiral” is technically not part of the franchise’s ongoing tale as villain Tobin Bell (John Kramer) is only mentioned in this endeavor. 

Directed by Overland Park, KS native Darren Lynn Bousman, who also helmed “Saw II,” “III” and “IV,” “Spiral” overflows with unbearable, over-the-top grotesqueness matched only by ridiculous stereotypes (e.g. a captain who yells and waves fingers at a “rogue” detective) and plot points so predictable that you could go to the bathroom for ten minutes and not miss a beat. A good chunk of Rock’s dialogue feels like a stand-up comedy routine and when he wants to present himself as intense, he often resorts to squinting his eyes like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western. Minghella is stoic while Jackson is too underutilized. The rest of the cast delivers choppy performances with dialogue that may have been written in crayon. 

Overall, “Spiral” spirals down into an abyss of mindlessness so bad that not even a stiff drink could help salvage it as being watchable.

Film Review: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2)

  • MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
  • Starring: Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman
  • Directed by: George C. Wolfe
  • Rating: Rated R
  • Running Time: 1 HR 34 MINS
  • Netflix 

With the 93rd annual Academy Awards just days away, it is a good time to take a look at “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a film unforgivably snubbed in the Best Picture category. Garnering a total of five nominations, “Ma Rainey’s” is a fantastic drama with a brilliant cast punctuated by memorable performances from Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. 

Based upon the 1982 stage play by the late American playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) and wonderfully directed by George C. Wolfe (2005’s “Lackawanna Blues”), “Ma Rainey’s” is set on a hot and steamy July day in 1927 Chicago. Popular Georgia-born blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (Davis) is scheduled to record a song – “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – for a pair of white producers anxious to make a profit off her music. 

Ahead of her much-anticipated arrival, Ma’s band arrives to prepare for the day’s recording session. Her musical quartet is made up of three seasoned veterans (Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts) and an ambitious trumpet player named Levee Green (Boseman). Levee has a head full of dreams of becoming a star on his own, but his fellow players scoff at his ideas, at least until he tells them in a powerful scene about a disturbing racist experience he had while growing up. 

When Ma (Davis) arrives late there is heavy tension in the air, especially when it comes to her interaction with one of the white producers, Mel (Jonny Coyne, “The Blacklist”). Neither likes the other as Ma does not take any guff from anyone and Mel does not like her because she is black. In the middle is the other producer, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos, “Better Call Saul”) who will do anything to appease her. After many hiccups, the recording session finally begins but it is afterwards when the story’s haunting climax occurs. 

The real Ma Rainey lived from 1886-1939 and is often regarded as the “Mother of the Blues.” The Columbus, Georgia native was a force of nature in life and Davis drives this home with a tour de force performance that dominates the silver screen. It’s almost no wonder that Davis thrives so well on the script since she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2016’s “Fences,” another of Wilson’s works.

 Equally spellbinding to watch is Boseman whose last performance before his untimely passing is one never to be forgotten. His progression from a bravado-filled, star-seeking musician to a broken man seething with rage, pain, and frustration is done with amazing skill. It is arguably the best acting of his brief career and makes his death that much more tragic. 

Overall, “Ma Rainey’s” is an important, transformative work of cinema. How it was ignored in the Best Picture category is a travesty of the highest order.

Film Review: “The Violent Heart”

THE VIOLENT HEART

Starring: Jovan Adepo, Grace Van Patten

Directed by: Kerem Sanga

Rating: Unrated

Running Time: 1 HR 47 MINS

Gravitas Ventures 

The brutal murder of a young woman leaves a family in agony and for her little brother, an intense anger that while growing up is a powder keg ready to explode at any given moment. “The Violent Heart” is a dark crime drama with a dose of young romance that keeps your attention from start to finish. With fresh, young actors who have talent to spare and some nice twists and turns, “The Violent Heart” provides some nice entertainment for an evening at home. 

A nine-year-old boy named Daniel watches his older sister load a suitcase into a strange car and get in before it speeds off down the road in the middle of the night. Concerned, Daniel sets out after them on his motorbike. He spots the car sitting vacant on the side of the road. After shutting off his bike, Daniel hears voices in the nearby woods. Through the darkness, Daniel follows the sounds until he sees his sister and a man standing in a clearing. A pair of shots soon ring out and Daniel’s sister is dead. 

Fifteen years later, his sister’s unsolved murder hovers like a dark cloud above his family. Daniel (Jovan Adepo, “Fences”) now works as a mechanic while helping to take care of his mother (Mary J. Blige) and younger brother. However, he still desires a life in the Marine Corps like his father. On one fateful day, 18-year-old high school senior Cassie (Grace Van Patten, “The Meyerowitz Stories”) drops off her father’s car to be serviced. There is an instant attraction and a romance soon blossoms between them. 

Unlike Daniel, Cassie is close with her father, Joseph (Lukas Haas, “Inception”), who is an English teacher at her school. This fact makes an affair she uncovers all that much more devastating for her, but it does her closer to Daniel who has his own newfound struggles to deal with. Ultimately, “The Violent Heart” shows that no matter how deep secrets are buried, they seem to always rise back up to the surface. 

Written and directed by Karem Sanga (“First Girl I Loved”), “The Violent Heart” has steady pacing throughout with a pair of nice lead performances by Adepo and Van Patten. Adepo demonstrates solid depth as he portrays someone who erroneously fears that his life will amount to nothing if he does not get into the military. 

The film’s weaknesses can be found in a lack of serious relationship development between the characters within Daniel and Cassie’s immediate families. Therefore, we feel a sense of disconnection which makes it hard to be truly impacted when crisis hits the families towards the third act of the film. It is particularly disappointing that Daniel’s career military father is omitted from almost the entire story. 

Overall, “The Violent Heart” is well worth your time.

Film Review: “Sound of Metal”

  • SOUND OF METAL
  • Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke
  • Directed by: Darius Marder
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 2 hrs
  • Amazon Studios 

To be succinct, the Oscar-nominated drama “Sound of Metal” is a cinematic revelation which will sear itself into your memory. With six total Oscar nods, including Best Picture, “Sound of Metal” is a powerful story by first time, feature-length film director and co-writer Darius Marder. Riz Ahmed (“Venom”) in the lead delivers the best performance of the year with gritty and powerfully emotional acting as a man whose tenuous hold on sobriety is put to the test. 

Trying to make a go of it as the heavy metal duo Backgammon, Ruben Stone (Ahmed) and Lou Berger (Olivia Cooke, “Ready Player One”) travel across the United States from one small gig to another in their RV, which also serves as their home and studio. It is a grueling lifestyle, but the couple, who are recovering addicts, are devoted to their music no matter their circumstances. 

Without warning, Ruben begins to experience hearing loss, putting his role as the duo’s drummer in jeopardy. Eventually, Ruben is referred to a specialist who informs him that his hearing is deteriorating rapidly, and he will lose it permanently if he continues to perform. Angry, frustrated, and desperate not to lose his creative outlet, Ruben pushes forward anyway and tries to keep playing. 

Scared that Ruben’s volatility might lead him to return to his addiction, Lou tearfully convinces Ruben to stay at a rural shelter that treats recovering addicts who are deaf. Run by a mild-mannered Vietnam veteran (Paul Raci), the shelter is supposed to be a place for Ruben to find peace with his new condition. Despite learning sign language and establishing relationships, Ruben’s desperation to get cochlear implants, and return to Lou, threatens his newfound stability.

Also nominated for Best Film Editing, Sound and Original Screenplay, “Sound of Metal” is a masterful tale of a man trying to find his footing in a world that has been turned upside down. Marder places us in Ruben’s head by allowing us to hear what he is going through. It is a strong tool that punctuates his deafness and how he attempts to adapt to it. 

The emotions conveyed through the script are raw and brought with ferocity to the silver screen by Ahmed. Of course, Ahmed had a terrific co-star to bounce off of in the form of Cooke, who was snubbed horribly by the Academy in this writer’s humble opinion. They exchange a chemistry of the highest sincerity and her individual performance is just as remarkable. Last, but not least, Raci, a veteran TV series actor, is an absolute delight to watch as a genuinely good man who tries to show Ruben how he can overcome his challenges. 

Overall, “Sound of Metal” is a heavy work of brilliant, cinematic art.