Theater Review: “Hairspray”

Starlight Theatre
Kansas City, Missouri

With one of the most energetic productions you could ever hope to see, “Hairspray” is a beat you just can’t stop. Currently playing at Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, the national tour of the hit Broadway musical, which won eight Tony Awards in 2003, is a delightful show overflowing with wonderful dance choreography, terrific vocals, and a timeless story about the power of love.

In 1988, the first incarnation of “Hairspray” was released in movie theaters with Ricki Lake in the lead role as Tracy Turnblad. Crafted by director John Waters, the film’s screenplay was based upon a 1950s and 1960s era Baltimore dance party television program called the “Buddy Deane Show.” That real life program served as the inspiration for the fictional “The Corny Collins Show,” an equally popular show in our story set in June 1962.

An overweight high school girl named Tracy Turnblad (Niki Metcalf), who gets in trouble at school for having “inappropriate hair height,” dreams of being on the dance show. So, it’s no surprise that she begs her shy, overweight mother, Edna (Andrew Levitt) for permission to go to an audition being held for a newly opened dance spot. Edna refuses out of fear Tracy will be ridiculed because of her weight. However, Tracy gets permission from her happy-go-lucky father, Wilbur (Christopher Swan) who is always encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

Edna’s world changes forever after her arrival at the television studio where Corny Collins (Billy Dawson) hosts his show. She swoons over teen heartthrob Link Larkin (Will Savarese), gets in the crosshairs of the show’s racist producer Velma Von Tussle (Addison Garner) and her prima donna daughter, Amber (Kaelee Albritton), and sees firsthand the ugliness of racism, which ultimately pushes her to be an agent for change.

Metcalf is nothing less than a pure bundle of delightful energy while on the stage. Her vocals were spot-on all the while she was seemingly forever dancing across the entire Starlight venue. Still, the most memorable moments of the opening night performance came first during a duet between Levitt and Swan. Their characters are suddenly destitute, but they express with humor and love how they can never part from one another in the sweet song “You’re Timeless to Me.” It easily produced some of the night’s biggest laughs. The moment that completely stole the show, though, came when Sandie Lee as Motormouth Maybelle, a confident and strong-willed downtown record shop owner and host of “Negro Day” on “The Corny Collins Show,” belted out “I Know Where I’ve Been.” After lots of humor, it was a starkly serious moment in the production as Motormouth sings about the struggles against racism. It was powerful and soul stirring. If it had been at the end of the show, it would have brought about a standing ovation from the audience. Lee’s voice was superb and the emotions she put into the song struck a chord with everyone there.

Overall, “Hairspray” provides a rousing night of entertainment for all.

“Hairspray” will run through June 12th at Starlight Theatre.

Film Review 3: Top Gun: Maverick”

 

  • TOP GUN: MAVERICK
  • Starring: Tom Cruise, Jennifer Connelly
  • Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 11 mins
  • Paramount Pictures
Pure, blissful summertime entertainment. Over thirty years in the making, “Top Gun: Maverick” lives up to all the hype and box office returns it has garnered over the past few days. It is nothing less than an epic thrill ride as Tom Cruise proves that a film does not need costumed heroes, grandiose special effects, or special cameos to be a great movie experience. In that respect, Cruise is a throwback to when a movie could be carried by the weight of the just one star’s name at the top of the movie poster. “Top Gun: Maverick” is moviemaking at its best and is a guaranteed good time at the theater.
Naval aviator Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise), whose insubordination has prevented him from ever rising up the ladder in rank, comes close to being kicked out of the military by Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris) after he crashes an experimental aircraft. Instead of having to return to civilian life, Maverick’s champion, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) gets him transferred to the Top Gun school where he first made a name for himself. It’s not an option to his liking, but Maverick is left with little choice.
When he arrives in San Diego, Maverick is told he is to train an elite group of U.S. Navy aviators for a high-risk mission to knock out an underground uranium enrichment facility in an unnamed, rogue state. Complications abound as he not only has to deal with an antagonistic, clearly jealous superior officer in Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), but he also has to be the teacher of Lieutenant Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of his late wingman, Goose. It’s an estranged relationship and Maverick continues to be haunted by the tragic accident that occurred in the original film.
Of course, the film would not be complete without a bit of a love story, which comes in the form of Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), the bartender of a local drinking establishment. Their relationship is of the on-again, off-again variety and while Penny was not in “Top Gun” she was mentioned by name as being an admiral’s daughter.
Cruise is in top form with a role reprisal that has him dig far deeper into his character than he ever did before. While there is still a reckless abandon about Maverick, Cruise and the script take it to a whole new level. It’s not that he has a death wish, but he is willing to take any risk afforded to him to seemingly fill a void. There is a deep seeded pain in his soul that is nothing less than PTSD from the experience of losing Goose. It haunts him daily and nightly, and the risks appear to be a way to drown it out. Cruise dominates the silver screen with his presence as he pulls off an incredible performance, punctuated in part by a heart-tugging scene with Kilmer.
Director Joseph Kosinski shot some of the greatest fighter jet footage ever put on film. The visuals are jaw droppingly wild with clearly some of the best pilots in the world demonstrating some absolutely insane skills. No greater recruiting film for the U.S. Air Force or Navy has ever been made.
Overall, if you have not seen “Top Gun: Maverick” yet, then why haven’t you?

Film Review: “Firestarter”

 

  • FIRESTARTER (2022)
  • Starring: Zac Efron, Ryan Kiera Armstrong
  • Directed by: Keith Thomas
  • Rating: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 34 mins
  • Universal Pictures
In 1980, one of author Stephen King’s most iconic novels was published – “Firestarter.” The 426-page epic blend of science fiction and horror is just as good of a read now as it was then. As with a lot of King’s works, an inevitable movie adaptation was released in 1984 starring a young Drew Barrymore as the title character with the legendary George C. Scott and Martin Sheen playing her antagonists. While it remained relatively faithful to the book, the film was roundly panned by critics of the day and King himself was dismissive of the effort. Flash forward to present day when someone decided it was a great idea to remake the story with near-total disregard to King’s work. The newest incarnation of “Firestarter,” currently in theaters, is a jaw-droppingly bad film with a bland script, boorish acting and bad direction.
Through an experimental drug known only as Lot 6, college students Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon, “Helstrom”) develop supernatural powers – telepathy for the former and telekinesis for the latter. They prove to be the only ones who survive experiment, or at least the only ones who remain sane. When they went on the run from a company known as DSI is unclear, but we are left to assume it started after the baby they had together began to exhibit pyrokinetic abilities.
After Captain Jane Hollister (played with melodramatic zeal by Gloria Reuben) is notified of their possible location, she reinstates cold-blooded assassin Rainbird (played with one dimensional abandon by Michael Greyeyes, “I Know This Much Is True”), who was also a guinea pig for Lot 6, to retrieve Charlie for study at her secret facility. Initially, he fails in his assignment as Andy and his 11-year-old daughter Charlie elude him. However, their freedom is short-lived when Andy is captured after they become separated. Desperate to return to her father, Charlie works to control her powers, which are numerous, over the course of just a few hours in the woods.
The newest incarnation of “Firestarter” should have never been released in theaters. It is not even worth a direct-to-streaming release. Its final destination should have been the scrap heap of horrible ideas. Ideas that involve someone thinking, “Hey, let’s ignore an already perfectly written story and turn it into a trainwreck.” There is nothing redeemable about this film. Period.
Efron’s performance exhibits the same amount of range as a tone-deaf piece of wood. There’s nothing in it to pulls us in and care about his character. However, this can be said of virtually every other bit of acting in the film. Armstrong is unable to shed tears when needed to and when one tragic event occurs, neither she nor Efron react with any sense of loss.
The pacing is boring, and the lack of suspense is palpable. If King didn’t like the 1984 film, which looks like a classic compared to this one, then he must despise this version ten-fold as it bears almost no resemblance to his book. Overall, stay away from “Firestarter” or you may get burned.

Film Review: “Memory”

 

  • MEMORY
  • Starring: Liam Neeson, Guy Pearce
  • Directed by: Martin Campbell
  • Rating: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 54 mins
  • Open Road Films

 

Liam Neeson’s long career was reinvented in 2008 with the thriller “Taken.” Fifty-six years old at the time of its release, Leeson went on to play in numerous action films including “Cold Pursuit,” “The Grey,” “The Commuter” and, of course, two more “Taken” flicks just to name a few. Now at the age of 69, Neeson stars in yet another action film titled “Memory,” which is about an aging hitman struggling with the onset of dementia. Initially a discombobulated story, “Memory” remains at least interesting throughout simply to watch Neeson navigate his tough guy character through the struggles of a losing war against an unstoppable enemy.
A remake of the 2003 Belgian film “The Memory of a Killer,” “Memory” introduces us to hitman Alex Lewis (Neeson) when he eliminates one of the many targets of his career. Already forgetting small things, which forces him to write notes on his arm as reminders, Alex lets a colleague know that he wants out. Begrudgingly, he accepts a contract that takes him to El Paso, Texas. After he completes his first task, Alex refuses to proceed further when he discovers his second target is a young girl and that she is the victim of a sex trafficking ring. At this point, Alex decides to take justice into his own hands.
Meanwhile, an F.B.I. task force led by Special Agent Vincent Serra (Guy Pearce) is investigating a sex trafficking operation with the assistance of a law enforcement liaison from Mexico, Det. Hugo Marquez (Harold Torres). Serra’s investigation is upended when a sting goes wrong, but a series of killings by an unknown hitman causes his superior to force him to assist local law enforcement with the case. Somehow, Serra and his team are always one step behind Alex, a man you may recall who has dementia. Needless to say, the F.B.I. and police look like Keystone Cops at times. It all leads to a crescendo of violence and “ah-ha” moments that do not take your breath away.
Director Martin Campbell has a history of either making a hit (“Casino Royale”) or a dud (“Green Lantern”), and “Memory” is more on the dud side of the equation. The story is often like a bunch of jigsaw pieces that have been tossed up in the air, the pacing is all over the place, and more focus should have been placed on Neeson’s character. The script is so poor, that Pearce’s Serra and the other supporting F.B.I. characters are irritating distractions without much substance beyond cliches. James Bond alum Monica Bellucci has proven in the past to have the ability to chew up a scene with her skill, but her antagonist character is so badly developed that her performance is sadly underwhelming.
Overall, while Neeson has some good moments on the screen, “Memory” is a film that you may want to forget about after seeing.

Film Review: “The Innocents”

 

  • THE INNOCENT
  • Starring: Rakel Lenora Flottum, Sam Ashraf
  • Directed by: Eskil Vogt
  • Rating: unrated
  • Running Time: 1 hr 57 mins
  • IFC Films
Once upon a time, there were a plethora of western movies and television shows. Now, decades later after their demise in popularity, the superhero genre has become its replacement. Most films involving people with incredible abilities are generally straightforward. However, there are those that attempt to take a different path. The M. Night Shyamalan trilogy – “Unbreakable,” “Split” and “Glass” – comes to mind or the 2012 film, “Chronicle.” The newest addition to the more offbeat stories involving comic book-like powers comes from Norway in the form of the sci-fi/thriller “The Innocents.” Written and directed by Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt (“Thelma”), “The Innocents” is a spine-tingling, edge-of-your-seat story that lingers long after its final credits have ceased rolling.
“The Innocents” is set entirely in a Norwegian housing complex where nine-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Flottum), her nonverbal older sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) and their parents have recently moved in to. Anna receives a lot of attention from their parents as she has a severe form of autism. This makes Ida jealous, which often causes her to do things that are petty and mean.
Ida soon befriends Ben (Sam Ashraf), a young boy about her age who transforms from being a lonely, sympathetic kid to a burgeoning sociopath who has no problems crushing an animal’s head while it’s still alive. Amid it all, Ben shows Ida his special talent – telekinesis. It starts off with being able to move a bottle cap, but the more he practices the more he can do with it.
Ben turns out to be not the only who has a gift when another little girl, Aisha (Mina Yasmin Brenseth Asheim) begins to play with Anna. The duo demonstrates some type of telepathy and when all four are together, their powers are enhanced. As Ben’s darker side grows, so does the suspense as he becomes increasingly challenged by the girls.
While “The Innocents” could be construed as an origin story, it’s more of a one-off tale with a simmering build-up of suspense with a pinch of horror tossed in for good measure. The four central characters are thrust into a world they don’t quite understand yet as they grasp the concepts of good versus evil. Vogt keeps us in the dark as to how the children got their powers in their first place, which is fine because no knowing is better than trying to be convinced it is the result of touching a weird, glowing crystal in a cave. Nor does Vogt overwhelm us with an overabundance of special effects. Instead, he lets his intelligent, breath-of-fresh-air story do the talking. All four young actors handle themselves well throughout the film, although none of their performances are particularly awe inspiring.
Overall, “The Innocents” is one of the best “superhero” films you can possibly see. Just be prepared to jump in your seat a couple of times and be ready to discuss it long afterwards.

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.