Film Review: “Avatar: The Way pf Water”

 

  • AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER
  • Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana
  • Directed by James Cameron
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Running time: 3 hrs 12 mins
  • 20th Century Studios
When the director James Cameron’s “Avatar” was released in 2009 yours truly opinioned that while it was a visually stunning, epic popcorn movie, it was in essence a spin on 1990’s “Dances with Wolves,” albeit one on steroids. Under its gloss it spoke to anti-imperialist themes and the conquering of native peoples all in the name of greed. The recipient of four Oscar nominations and one win for Best Achievement in Visual Effects, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which will be available June 7 on streaming.
The original was set in the year 2154 when all of Earth’s natural resources had been depleted. The Resources Development Administration (RDA) showed up on the moon of Pandora to mine a valuable mineral needed for humanity’s continued sustainability. Sixteen years after he helped repel the RDA’s invasion, Jake Sully/Na’vi (Sam Worthington) is now chief of the Omatikaya clan along with having a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).
Their peaceful lives come to an end as the RDA arrives with a new invasion and plans to colonize, this time headed by the ruthless General Frances Ardmore (Eddie Falco). To enhance their chances to defeat Na’vi’s clan, the RDA employs recombinants implanted with the memories of deceased human soldiers including those of the tree hating Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). After a human boy is captured by Colonel Quaritch that proves to be his long-lost son, Na’vi and his family are forced to flee to Pandora’s eastern seaboard to ensure his clan’s safety.
Upon their arrival, Na’vi’s family seek refuge with the Metkayina clan, who reluctantly accept them in. Their haven is only temporary as Colonel Quaritch, with the help of his son, begins learning how to adapt to his surroundings, which leads to a relentless campaign to find Na’vi and destroy him.
That is a brief, cliff note version of the story without giving much away because the full story takes so long to get through that people have celebrated a couple of birthdays while watching the film. Visually it’s just as stunning if not even more so than the original. The story, which could be called “Dances with Wolves 2,” is entertaining although pacing is sluggish at times and requires caffeine and sugar to get through. The bringing back of Colonel Quaritch is okay as Lang plays a superb villain, but it demonstrates a sense of laziness with inability to create alternatively diabolical evildoer. Of course, if what seems like a 52-hour movie isn’t enough entertainment then no fear, there are three more sequels to be released beginning in 2024.
Overall, “Avatar: The Way of Water” is a terrific popcorn flick, that is if you have an entire weekend free to watch it.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” receives three stars out of five.

Film Review: “The Pope’s Exorcist”

  • THE POPE’S EXORCIST
  • Starring: Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto
  • Directed by Julius Avery
  • Rating: R
  • Running time: 1 hr 13 mins
  • Lionsgate
Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, the 1973 supernatural horror film “The Exorcist,” starring Max von Sydow and Ellen Burstyn, is regarded by many as a true, cinematic classic. The newest entry in the demon possession genre, “The Pope’s Exorcist” is not so much. It is loosely based on two books – 1990’s “An Exorcist Tells His Story” and 1992’s “An Exorcist: More Stories” by Italian priest, Father Gabriele Amorth (1925-2016) who claimed to have performed tens of thousands of exorcisms during his career. Filled with cliches and horror scenes too reliant on over-the-top special effects rather than true psychological terror, “The Pope’s Exorcist” should probably be exorcised from theaters for everyone’s well-being.
Set in 1987, “The Pope’s Exorcist” takes us to a small Italian village where Father Gabriel (Russell Crowe), the Pope’s personal exorcist, drives a demon out of a man and into a pig, which is subsequently shot dead. The incident gets Father Gabriel, a practical man with a sense of humor, in trouble with a Catholic Church tribunal who questions him for acting without permission. There is a sense that there are forces within the Church working against Father Gabriel, but this aspect of the story is inexplicably dropped and not further developed.
Meanwhile, a recently widowed mother (Alex Essoe, “Doctor Sleep”) and her two children – a traumatized son, Henry (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) and an angst-ridden, rebellious, moody teenage daughter (isn’t that how all teenage girls are portrayed in horror films?), Amy (Laurel Marsden) – have traveled to Spain to move into a spooky old castle that’s undergoing renovations. Shockingly enough (insert sarcasm), strange things start happening and Father Gabriel, under direct orders by the Pope (Franco Nero, “John Wick: Chapter 2,” “Django Unchained”), comes to the rescue aboard his motor scooter.
Assisted by a local priest, Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto, TV series “Station Eleven,” “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”), Father Gabriel encounters a demon possessed Henry as the two priests must overcome their own sins to defeat evil.
Directed Julius Avery, who brought us the forgettable 2018 film “Overlord” about a bunch of American soldiers fighting Nazi zombies in World War II, “The Pope’s Exorcist” is a rather silly film that lacks thrills, chills, or even mild goosebumps. Fear is replaced by a few laughs and sheer boredom. Crowe is entertaining in the role and seems to be having a good time with it. There is also somehow one good, albeit brief scene, when Crowe’s character first encounters the possessed boy. The remaining time is just unimaginative schlock.
Overall, say a prayer to give you the strength to not watch this film.
“The Pope’s Exorcist” receives one star out of five.

Film Review: “65”

 

  • 65
  • Starring: Adam Driver, Ariana Greenblatt
  • Directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Running time: 1 hr 33 mins
  • Sony Pictures
A cross between “Jurassic Park,” “Predator,” and every other science fiction flick where a human, with or without companions, somehow ends up stranded on an alien planet, “65” is a forgettable foray into subgenre that has become as lifeless as the void of space. Adam Driver, who has a wide spectrum of genres to his acting credits, delivers a solid performance, but it’s not nearly enough to overcome the shear boredom that comes with watching this film.
On the fictional planet of Somaris, a pilot named Mills (Driver) is reluctant to leave his family behind to go on a two-year space expedition. However, the payment he will receive for doing it will save his ill daughter’s life. While his passengers are asleep in cryostasis chambers, Mills’s ship encounters an unexpected asteroid field. Extensive damage causes the ship to crash land on an uncharted planet – Earth approximately 65 million years ago when dinosaurs were the top of the food chain.
All the ship’s passengers are killed except for one – a young girl named Koa (Ariana Greenblatt, who played a younger version of Gamora in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War”) who speaks a different language than Mills. With a giant asteroid on a collusion course with Earth, Mills must traverse hostile terrain with Koa to reach an escape pod that has the potential of getting them off the planet in time.
There is nothing that is all that thrilling or exciting about “65.” The story gives a good motivation for Mills to want to stay alive and the initial premise seems like it could have some promise. However, everything that’s done in “65” has been done a million other times. Thankfully it’s only 93 minutes long, but in reality, it feels like it’s twice that long, although not as long as “Avatar.” It does have plenty of scary looking dinosaurs but the mystique of seeing these extinct species on the silver screen evaporated a long time ago.
Overall, “65” is perhaps a good film to fall asleep to on a rainy, Sunday afternoon where there is absolutely nothing else to do and football isn’t on.
“65” receives one star out of five.

Film Review: “She Said”

 

  • SHE SAID
  • Starring: Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan
  • Directed by Maria Schrader
  • Rating: R
  • Running time: 2 hrs 9 mins
  • Universal Pictures
There are films made which serve an entertainment purpose only. You get a few laughs, some thrills, or maybe a couple tears. Occasionally, a film is made that reaches a level of importance that causes it to be something every person should see. “She Said,” currently available on streaming but was released last November in theaters, is one such film. Detailing how two “New York Times” reporters were able to bring down one of the biggest figures in the film industry and sparking a revolution, “She Said” is absolute classic that belongs in the same breath as “All the President’s Men” and “The Post.” The fact it was snubbed at the Oscars in favor of a silly film about time travel, is a complete travesty of epic proportions and shows just how ridiculous the once king of award shows has become a joke. And a bad one at that.
This biographical drama takes back to 2017 when “New York Times” reporter Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan, “The Big Sick”) is tipped off that actress Rose McGowan is about to make some serious allegations about sexual misconduct and assault involving Miramax chief, Harvey Weinstein. Kantor also learns of similar sickening incidents involving actresses Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow. However, no one wants to speak on the record out of fear for their careers. To help get others to talk on the record, Kantor recruits fellow “New York Times” reporter Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman”).
While juggling the demands of being mothers and aided by the unquestioning support of their husbands, Kantor and Twohey set about on an arduous task that requires patience, diligence, and tenacity from both as they struggle to get women from Weinstein’s past to speak on the record. However, little by little they inch closer to their ultimate story that causes 82 brave women to come forward with horrific allegations against a monster who landed a 23-year prison sentence because of their voices.
Not only should have “She Said” been nominated for best picture, among many others, but it should have also given nods to Kazan and Mulligan who are nothing short of spectacular with their inspiring performances. Hats off to them and director Maria Schrader for infusing their characters with genuine realism. While they pour everything into the challenge of getting their story right, both are humanized by showing the effects the stress of the task at hand has on them personally and with their families. Kudos also to Ashley Judd for playing herself and re-living on the screen the pain she went through at the hands of Weinstein.
Overall, “She Said” is a borderline cinematic masterpiece and is a work that every single person, minus small children, should see to help appreciate the beginnings of the Me-Too movement.
“She Said” receives four-and-a-half stars out of five

Film Review: “The Little Mermaid” (2023)

  • THE LITTLE MERMAID
  • Starring: Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King
  • Directed by Rob Marshall
  • Rating: PG
  • Running time: 2 hrs 15 mins
  • Walt Disney
With its origins in the 1837 story of the same name by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75), who also created “The Princess and the Pea” and “The Snow Queen” among others, the 1989 animated film “The Little Mermaid” became a classic in the Disney library. It is one of many that parents everywhere have probably seen a million times. To cash in even more money, Walt Disney in its infinite wisdom has created a live action version of this beloved musical fantasy. The magnitude of this underwhelming achievement can be summed up in one word: meh.
This overly long, uninspiring cinematic punishment has a simple premise. Ariel (Halle Bailey), the youngest of several princesses/daughters of the protective King Triton (Javier Bardem), has a fascination/obsession with the surface world. Even though her father reminds her that it was surface dwellers who killed her mother, Ariel remains undeterred to learn as much about them as possible.
Ariel’s fascination turns into infatuation when she saves Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from drowning near his island nation. Watched from afar by the sea witch Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who is also King Triton’s banished sister, Ariel is manipulated and tricked by her aunt who desires to possess her siren song. It is left up to Ariel’s friends – Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) the crab, Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) the fish, and Scuttle (Awkwafina) the dimwitted Northern Gannet – to make sure a romance blossoms between Ariel and Prince Eric, and thereby thwart Ursula’s schemes.
“The Little Mermaid” is one of the most uninspiring flicks in recent memory and is emblematic of Hollywood’s problem with coming up with any new or inspiring content. Just look around to see that the 23rd installment of “Fast and Furious” and the 25th of “Transformers” are coming out this year. Director Rob Marshall (“Mary Poppins Returns,” “Chicago”) has fallen into a trap of serving unoriginal content and covering with fancy special effects and pretty costumes. All that’s left now is for Walt Disney to make sequels entitled “The Littler Mermaid” and “The Littlest Mermaid.”
I would make comments about the acting performances, pacing, action, etc. but it is so dull and unwatchable that there really is no point. The only exception would be that this version of “The Little Mermaid” is probably a smidge dark for your littlest ones.
Overall, if you go to the movie theater, go watch something else. Anything else. Please.
“The Little Mermaid” receives one star out of five.

Film Review: “The Banshees of Inisherin”

 

  • THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN
  • Starring: Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson
  • Directed by Martin McDonagh
  • Rating: R
  • Running time: 1 hr 54 mins
  • Searchlight Pictures
A recipient of nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor, “The Banshees of Inisherin,” currently available on multiple platforms after being released in the United States last September, is a dark comedy/drama with well-crafted lines of dialogue and excellent acting. It also provides some interesting insight into Irish culture. However, while not as high on the overhyped scale as “Everything, Everywhere All at Once,” “Banshees” remains a long-winded affair that has the pacing of molasses that can lead to a feeling of outright boredom.
Set on the fictional Irish island of Inisherin, “Banshees” takes place in 1923 towards the end of the Irish Civil War. We know that fiddler Colm (Brendan Gleeson) and his drinking buddy Pádraic (Colin Farrell), a bit of a dullard, have been lifelong best friends. When we meet them, Colm, without any warning or explanation, has decided he no longer wants anything to do with Pádraic. This turns the latter’s life upside down as he struggles to figure out why his friend has discarded him.
Pádraic repeatedly attempts to understand why Colm has ended their friendship, even though Colm tells him that he wants to be remembered for something and has been wasting time with dull conversations with Pádraic. Eventually, Pádraic’s dogged determination leads to Colm threatening to cut off his own fingers if Pádraic doesn’t leave him alone, which he incredibly follows through with. It’s all a weird series of events that include Pádraic’s sister, Siobhán (Kerry Condon, the voice of Friday from “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame”) leaving for the mainland after getting tired of their senseless feud, something I wanted to do as well while watching it.
English Director Martin McDonagh, who wrote “Banshees” as well as “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” created dialogue that’s masterfully delivered by co-stars Gleeson and Farrell. The accents are not so thick that the actors cannot be understood, but what is not understandable is how overly drawn-out the story is. It’s a one-trick pony that gets old halfway through at the latest as the story leads to nowhere. Essentially, it’s easy to sympathize with Colm.
Great performances and beautiful shots of Irish countryside aside, “Banshees” is an overhyped film that probably require a pint to help get through it.
“The Banshees of Inisherin” receives two-and-a-half stars out of five.

Film Review: “SISU”

 

  • SISU
  • Starring: Jorma Tommila, Aksel Hennie
  • Directed by Jalmari Helander
  • Rating: R
  • Running time: 1 hr 31 mins
  • Lionsgate
If “John Wick” and “Nobody” had a baby, and Quentin Tarentino served as the surrogate mother, then its name would be “Sisu.” Bloody, grotesque, gritty and violent, “Sisu” is everything you could ask for in a film in which a multitude of Nazis are killed in a multitude of ways. Its story, set against the backdrop of the waning days of World War II in Finland, is elegant in its simplicity. However, while it may have its element of fun, the film is nothing we have not seen before.
During the early years of World War II, Finns fought alongside Germans against the Soviet army, which became known as the Continuation War. This changed in September 1944 when an armistice between Finland, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom brought this part of the conflict to an end. As part of the agreement, Finland was required to launch what became known as the Lapland War. From September to November 1944, Finland launched a military campaign against retreating German forces in the country’s northernmost area. Within this context we have “Sisu,” a word that has not literal English translation but is akin to a grim determination against adversity.
Gold prospector Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila, “Rare Exports”), with only his faithful dog and horse, is alone in the barren Lapland wilderness. Wanting nothing to do with the ongoing conflict, he digs pit after pit trying to strike it rich until one day, he hits the motherload. With a large amount of gold nuggets in his saddlebags, Aatami sets out on a long ride to the nearest town to cash in.
Unfortunately for Aatami, or perhaps more so for the Nazi soldiers, he encounters a 30-man platoon led by SS commander Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie, “Headhunters”). The Nazi officer lets Aatami pass without harm as he is more interested in joining the rest of the German army in Norway. However, when Aatami later encounters a small, second group of soldiers on the same trail, and kills them all after they try to take his gold, Bruno turns his men around to find out what the commotion is about.
Bruno’s chase of Aatami becomes an obsession as he realizes the Finn’s gold haul could be his ticket to escape the gallows once the war is over. The violence only escalates as we learn that Aatami was once a member of Finland’s special forces and was credited with killing hundreds of Soviet soldiers. Bruno and his men soon discover what sisu means.
Finnish writer and director Jalmari Helander (2010’s “Rare Exports”) has created a fun, albeit violent work of cinema set during a little-known period of World War II history. It does get ridiculous by the end and is often more unbelievable than watching John Wick survive a fall from a multi-story building. Tommila delivers solid, near-silent performance, but it is something we have seen multiple times from actors Clint Eastwood to Keanu Reeves. Hennie provide an interesting performance as a German officer who has resigned himself to his fate only to have a light at the end of the tunnel fall into his lap. Yet, even his character does not separate itself from the plethora of other Nazi officers seen depicted on the silver screen.
Overall, if you want to watch an almost equally violent World War II flick with a much better story and acting, then find “Inglourious Basterds” on your streaming service and watch it instead.
“Sisu” receives two-and-a-half stars out of five.

Film Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3”

 

  • GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOLUME 3
  • Starring: Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper
  • Directed by James Gunn
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Running time: 2 hrs 30 mins
  • Marvel Studios
To be blunt, “Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3” is not only by far the most brilliant film in the “Guardians” trilogy, but it is also one of the best films to be released within the Marvel franchise. A stellar piece of filmmaking by director James Gunn, “Guardians” contains a surprising amount of emotional depth mixed in with the terrific humor we have come to expect from the series. It also doesn’t disappoint with its entertaining action sequences and wonderful soundtrack.
Gunn’s endeavor included tying up multiple character story arcs while emphasizing those of Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper). As for the latter, “Guardians” starts off with taking us back to when Rocket was a baby raccoon and was forced to endure horrible scientific enhancements, something that was alluded to in the first “Guardians.” These were performed at the direction of the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji, “John Wick: Chapter 2”), a prototypical mad scientist who goes from simple instability to complete insanity as he attempts to create a perfect lifeform. (In many respects, he is far dastardlier than Thanos or any other villain our Marvel heroes have faced on the silver screen.)
The movie’s current timeline takes place a few years after the events of “Endgame” with Peter still desperately mourning the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldana). It’s to the point where he will eventually drink himself to death if something doesn’t give soon. He is temporarily distracted when Rocket is gravely wounded by the almost childlike Adam Warlock (Will Poulter, “We’re the Millers”), a creation of the Sovereign who want justice because Rocket stole from them. The powerful High Evolutionary has other plans and forces the Sovereign leader, a creation of his, to retrieve Rocket so he can examine his brain.
With the help of the Ravagers and a reluctant, alternate version of Gamora, the Guardians, including Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), go on a quest to save Rocket’s life and put an end to the High Evolutionary’s madness. During their adventures, they still manage to work as a dysfunctional team with Peter trying to come to terms with why the “new” Gamora won’t give him the time of day, not to mention coming to a reckoning with the past he left behind on Earth.
Plenty of heartstrings are pulled within Rocket’s gut-wrenching backstory and will certainly cause a few watery eyes in the theater. Credit to Cooper’s great voice work as he gives the pain Rocket goes through a tangible, almost haunting quality. Pratt delivers his best to-date performance as Peter/Star Lord undergoes true growth as a character. (This contrasts with Thor devolving into buffoonery and Peter Parker never growing at all.) Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention Iwuji who succeeds in not going over the top with his performance. His character’s cruelty and madness are disturbing to say the least, and Iwuji pulls it off fantastically, even when he is spitting as he screams and rants.
This last incarnation of the “Guardians” team we have become accustomed to succeeds beyond all expectations by delivering a story that is entertaining in every way possible. Whereas “Wakanda Forever” restored faith in Marvel films being great again, after a long period of meandering, “Guardians 3” reinforces that faith. (No offense against the last “Ant-Man” film but it was merely a cute popcorn flick that lacked gravitas in comparison.)
Overall, this movie is a thrill ride of emotions, adventure and some songs that will stick in your head for days to come.
“Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3” receives four-and-a-half stars out of five.
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Film Review: “The Whale”

 

 

  • THE WHALE
  • Starring: Brendan Fraser and Hong Chau
  • Directed by Darren Aronofsky
  • Rating: R
  • Running time: 1 hr 27 mins
  • A24
A box office star in the 1990s and into the 2000s, Brendan Fraser seemingly disappeared in recent years even though he continued to find work. Of course, this thread was discussed ad nauseum during the months leading up to the recent Academy Awards where Fraser’s years of hard work paid off with his own golden statue. It was much deserved for Fraser’s memorable role in the depressing drama “The Whale” is not only the best performance of his career but one of the greatest ever captured in cinema.
Now available everywhere, “The Whale,” based upon a 2012 play of the same name, revolves around Charlie (Fraser), a morbidly obese English instructor who teaches online writing courses with the camera turned off. A complete recluse, his only friend and caregiver is a gruff nurse named Liz (Hong Chau, “The Menu”). She repeatedly tries to get Charlie to see a doctor for his congestive heart failure, but it’s clear early on that he wants to die. His reasoning, though, is a mystery until later in the story.
On one random day, he is visited by Thomas (Ty Simpkins, “Iron Man 3,” “Jurassic World”), a young Christian missionary who tries, unsuccessfully, to convince Charlie that his soul needs saving. What Charlie wants to save instead is his relationship with his estranged and moody teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, “Stranger Things”). She wants nothing to do with him because Charlie had abandoned her and her mother (Samantha Morton) to be with another man.
Knowing that death is coming, something he seems to welcome, Charlie bribes Ellie to start visiting him by promising to help her with schoolwork and the prospect of $120,000 going into her bank account. For her part, Ellie is asked not to tell her mother about her visits. As his health deteriorates more rapidly, Charlie’s desire to salvage his relationship with Ellie intensifies.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler,” “Pi”), “The Whale” often feels too much like a stage play and it comes off disjointed at times as a result. Aronofsky gets the most out of his cast, yet the story is a little too blah, which matches the overall feel of the film. All quibbles aside, what must be looked upon with awe is Fraser’s unforgettable performance. Forget about his wearing a 300-pound suit to reflect his character’s obesity. What’s important is how tragically sad and depressed his self-loathing character is. Fraser makes his character’s despair and desires tangible to the viewer, allowing us to easily become emotionally invested into Charlie. Without his towering performance, “The Whale” would have been something long forgotten about by now.
Overall, “The Whale” is watchable because of Fraser’s one-for-the-ages performance.
“The Whale” receives three stars out of five.

Film Review: “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant”

 

  • GUY RITCHIE’S THE COVENANT
  • Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim
  • Directed by Guy Ritchie
  • Rating: R
  • Running time: 2 hrs 3 mins
  • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Rare is the actor or actress who delivers a solid performance time after time without nary a failure. Morgan Freeman. Meryl Streep. Robert Redford. Angela Bassett. All are prime examples of this, but there is one who is not necessarily on the tips of everyone’s tongue – Jake Gyllenhaal. Once again, this time in a Guy Ritchie-helmed film, Gyllenhaal provides steady acting to a role that requires a lot physically and emotionally. It also doesn’t hurt he is supported by the sheer brilliance of Dar Salim (“Game of Thrones” first season) in a work that is one of the first must-sees of the year.
Co-written and directed by Ritchie (“Wrath of Man,” “The Gentleman”), “Covenant” is set during the later years of America’s involvement in the Afghanistan War. U.S. Army Sgt. John Kinley (Gyllenhaal, “Spider-Man: Far from Home”) leads a squad of American and Afghan troops who go out on seek and destroy missions against the Taliban. However, they are often frustrated by bad intelligence and sometimes untrustworthy Afghans secretly loyal to the Taliban.
Needing a new interpreter, Sgt. Kinley brings onboard Ahmed (Dar Salim, “Game of Thrones” first season), an Afghan needing money to support his family. After an episode during which Ahmed disregards orders, Sgt. Kinley also learns that his knowledgeable interpreter is motivated by revenge. After an ambush in a remote mountainous area, Sgt. Kinley is left seriously wounded and it is up to Ahmed to drag him to safety.
Flash forward to when America withdraws its troops from Afghanistan and Ahmed is left behind with no way out. Now a civilian, it is up to Sgt. Kinley to return the favor and thus fulfill his covenant.
Gyllenhaal delivers an entertaining, multi-faceted performance. It requires grit, physicality, and an ability to convincingly bring to life a wide variety of emotions. Gyllenhaal accomplishes this on all levels. However, he is in some ways outshined by Salim who is a force of nature. His sheer presence dominates the screen with a tangible gravitas as his character becomes a sort of folk hero.
Ritchie’s films all have a similar vibe to them, as in the two films previously mentioned that he has directed. This one, though, requires him to dig a little deeper and depict this gripping war story as realistic as possible. Ritchie is successful on every level with yet another film to add to a repertoire that will no doubt be showcased during some career achievement ceremony.
Overall, “Covenant” is a fantastic war film and should not be missed.
“Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” receives three-and-a-half stars out of five.

Film Review: “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

 

  • EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE
  • Starring: Michelle Yoeh,
  • Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
  • Rating: R
  • Running time: 2 hrs 19 mins
  • A24
Nominated in 11 categories at the 95th Academy Awards, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” won an impressive seven statues including ones for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. It also received a multitude of other nominations from the growing plethora of award shows that have watered down what the Oscars used to be. Probably to the chagrin of fans and critics everywhere, I am compelled to say that after everything is said and done this film is the most overrated motion picture since “La La Land.” Yes, I know it’s blasphemy to have such a negative opinion of a widely beloved work. Because of that, I am waiting for the villagers to burn me at the stake. However, it would not change my mind if it happened. “Everything,” while certainly creative, is a disjointed mess of ridiculousness with performances lacking emotional potency and charm with all the depth of a shallow pond.
We meet our soon-to-be heroine Evelyn Quan Wang (Michelle Yoeh, “Crazy Rich Asians”) as she is struggling to keep her family laundromat business from closing under the weight of an audit by IRS agent, Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis, “Halloween”). Her overall unhappiness has infected her marriage to Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, “The Goonie,” “Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom”) who is seeking to divorce his increasingly stern and sour wife. Those latter qualities have been passed down to her from her demanding, traditionalist father, Gong Gong (James Hong, “Kung Fu Panda”). Evelyn’s obsession with her business has made her blind to the depression her only daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) is going through as she views herself as ostracized for being a lesbian.
Just prior to meeting the IRS agent, Evelyn is contacted by Alpha-Waymond, a braver version of her sweet-natured husband who tells her that the fate of the multiverse is at stake, and it rests upon Evelyn’s shoulders to stop an evil version of Joy. Calling herself Jobu, this omnipotent Alpha-Joy could end up destroying the entire multi-verse. To stop her, Evelyn must tap into her potential without going insane after simultaneously seeing all the possible outcomes of her life across the multiverse.
“Everything” is like watching a multi-car pile up and a trainwreck all at the same time. Pacing does not exist. Cohesive storytelling is scant at best. Of course, a common reaction to this could be “duh” because of the story’s chaotic, whiplash nature. However, the emotional connection with the story is as barren as a dry lakebed except for a few minutes at the end. Nor is the action thrilling and it is often just plain silly. Yoeh may have won a Best Actress Oscar, but her work in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was far superior. Curtis is entertaining, but her supporting performance does not reach a level which noticeably elevates the film, as compared to Angela Bassett’s in “Wakanda Forever.” Besides a few moments at the end, an outcome that is predictable from the get-go, the lone shining light of the film is a surprisingly wonderful performance by Quan.
Overall, if you want to be entertained by a story involving a multiverse then go watch a Marvel movie instead.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” receives two stars out of five.

Film Review: “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves”

 

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES
Starring: Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez
Directed by: John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hrs 14 mins
Paramount Pictures
Based upon the popular role-playing game, “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” delivers what the game’s players have desired for years – a good, entertaining movie that comes at least close to capturing its essence. While there is not a lot of depth to its story and its fight sequences come off as a little too staged, “Dungeons & Dragons” remains entertaining popcorn flick that parents can at least take their older children to.
After losing his wife to an evil Red Wizard, Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine), a bard and former member of secretive group called the Harpers, turned to the life of a thief to provide a better life for his infant daughter. Accompanying him was exiled barbarian Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez), amateur sorcerer Simon Aumar (Justice Smith), and rogue/con artist Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant).
Edgin became obsessed with retrieving an artifact that would bring his dead wife back to life, but the group is betrayed. For two years, Edgin and Holga languish in a prison before making their escape. Much to their chagrin, they discover Forge has become rich and powerful while assuming the title of Lord of Neverwinter. Worse still is that Edgin’s daughter has been turned against him.
Desperate to get his daughter and dead wife back, Edgin forms a new team of thieves that includes a reunion with the hapless Simon and the additions of Doric (Sophia Lillis), a shapeshifting druid, and
Xenk Yendar (Rege-Jean Page), a paladin who ages more slowly than normal humans. Together, they set out on a perilous journey filled with traps, artifacts, undead, and one obese dragon.
“Dungeons & Dragons” is nothing less than pure evening of fun at the movie theater even for non-roleplaying game enthusiasts. Pine is well-established as a talented actor, and he does not disappoint with the film’s most well-rounded performance. He also shares good chemistry with Rodriguez who plays the tough girl with a heart of gold. Finally, Grant is quite entertaining as the sleezy turncoat.
The Red Wizards are given a rudimentary backstory, but their villainy is paltry at best. This is emblematic of character development which is a little threadbare. Additionally, the action sequences are stilted at times and come off as unnatural and wooden.
Overall, “Dungeons & Dragons” remains a fun film anyone can enjoy.
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” receives three stars out of five.

Kansas City Theater Review: HAMILTON

  • HAMILTON
  • Music Hall
  • Kansas City, Missouri
With an ensemble cast that is second to none in terms of talent, the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” has taken the Music Hall by storm. Impressive set and lighting designs, terrific costumes, and well-executed choreography on the stage makes this popular production a definite crowd pleaser.
Based upon the 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton” by American biographer Ronald Chernow, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2010 work “Washington: A Life,” “Hamilton” the musical premiered off-Broadway on January 20, 2015, at The Public Theater in New York City. Adapted for the stage by Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, who originally starred as the title character, “Hamilton” exploded from its humble beginning and went on to received 16 nominations at the 70th Annual Tony Awards in 2016 and won 11 categories including Best Musical.
Following the life of one of our nation’s founding fathers from the Revolutionary War until his untimely death in 1804, “Hamilton” explores the complexities of Alexander’s life, most notably his increasingly strained relationship with his eventual killer, Vice-President Aaron Burr. In two lengthy acts, his story is told through fast-paced song and rap lyrics. The latter of which can be difficult to understand at times, especially for those that are new to the show, and consequently makes the story a little challenging to follow.
The performance quality was a team effort as no one cast member necessarily outshined the rest. However, some of the biggest crowd responses occurred when King George III (Peter Matthew Smith) came onto the stage during the first act with the songs “You’ll Be Back” and “What Comes Next.” Also of note was the powerhouse vocals by Alysha Deslorieux as Eliza Hamilton, wife of Alexander. Her vocal range and control were nothing short of extraordinary.
Overall, the musical stays mostly true to the biography that inspired it with only a few inaccuracies or liberties taken – as when Burr is among those who confront Hamilton about money he used to hush up an affair. Burr was not present during the confrontation nor were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as the production portrays. Be that as it may, “Hamilton” is worthwhile theatrical experience that you must have.
“Hamilton” will run through April 2 at the Music Hall in Kansas City and is currently touring through June 2024.  For ticket information, please click HERE.

Film Review: “John Wick: Chapter 4”

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen
Directed by: Chad Stahleski
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hrs 49 mins
Lionsgate
When a film series is first launched, whether by design or by wild accidental success, the quality dims with each successive title. How many times have you heard someone say, “Yeah, I like number three but the original was so much better.” This is what makes the “John Wick” series so remarkable because each one somehow exceeds expectations and is better than the previous one. This is true of “John Wick: Chapter 4,” which is an edge-of-your-seat, action-packed film from start to finish.
We last saw John Wick (Keanu Reeves) bruised and battered after being shot multiple times, which was before falling several stories off a building. Since then, the has been hiding in the New York City underground thanks to the assistance of the charismatic Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne). His mission is simple – get revenge against the High Table. However, while killing the Elder, the only person above the High Table, grants him some initial satisfaction, it ends up causing a rippling effect across the assassin community.
One immediate effect is the arrival of Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgard, “It”), a High Table senior member, at the Continental Hotel in New York City. Because of their failure to kill John, the Continental’s manager Winston (Ian McShane) and his concierge Charon (the late Lance Reddick) are stripped of their duties. This is just the beginning of a thirst for vengeance by the Marquis who forces Caine (Donnie Yen, “Rogue One”), a retired and also blind High Table assassin, to kill John. The twist is that the two assassins are old friends.
John seeks refuge in the Osaka Continental where another friend, Shimazu (Hiroyuki Sanada, “The Wolverine”), is the manager. But there is no hiding from the High Table and the Marquis’s assassins are soon swarming around John who is forced to kill more bad guys than in the previous three films combined in order to survive. Whether or not John gets his revenge is up to you to find out.
A continued strong attribute within the “John Wick” series is its choreography. A flaw for most action flicks with multiple fight scenes is that they come across as stilted. In the case of “John Wick,” its fight scenes have a chaotic fluidity that boils over into an operatic frenzy. It’s nothing short of masterful and credit to Reeves to being devoted to making his own scenes as realistic as possible.
Continuity is important as well. This comes in the form of director Chad Stahelski who has helmed every John Wick film since the series began nine years ago. The pacing and style remain as consistently entertaining now as it did in the beginning. More importantly, the continually evolving story is engrossing as it sucks you in from start to finish.
Some actors are seemingly born to play certain roles – Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, Sean Connery as James Bond, Sally Field as Norma Rae. Reeves was born to play two – Neo and John Wick. He still brings a fierce passion to the latter even though this is now his fourth time as this popular character.
Overall, “John Wick: Chapter 4” is easily the best film so far of 2023 and if you haven’t seen the previous three films then only one question remains – why haven’t you?
“John Wick: Chapter 4” receives four stars out of five.

Film Review: “TAR”

  • TAR
  • Starring: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant
  • Directed by: Todd Field
  • Rating: R
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 38 mins
  • Focus Features
With the 95th Academy Awards ceremony just days away, time is running short to get prepared for your Oscar party. To help you get caught up, here is my take on the drama “Tár,” which contains arguably the greatest performance of Cate Blanchett’s career. Nominated for six Oscars, including Best Motion Picture of the Year and Best Director, “Tár” is a tale submersed in the classical music world featuring a renowned yet complicated conductor who in part falls prey to the cancel culture phenomenon.
A protégé of the great Leonard Bernstein, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) has risen from humble beginnings in Staten Island to become the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. We meet her as she is promoting her upcoming live recording of composer/conductor Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at the New Yorker Festival. We also quickly discern that Lydia is heavily reliant on her personal assistant Francesca Lentini (Noemi Merlant) and her wife and concertmaster, Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss).
As the moment of her greatest achievement looms, storm clouds begin to brew on the horizon when a former student of Lydia’s named Krista commits suicide. Rumors lurk of a possible inappropriate relationship between the two and Lydia encourages Francesca to delete all emails involving Krista as the deceased girl’s parents threaten to sue.
We never get to know Krista nor the exact details of her relationship with Lydia, only rumors and innuendo. The one point of validation the story provides is that Lydia becomes drawn towards a young Russian cellist, which causes fractures to form in Lydia’s marriage with Sharon. Lydia is also shown to be a bit of an egotistical bully who begins to lose her grip on reality. The final straw is a newspaper article that accuses her in the court of public opinion as being a predator, which in turn threatens her career.
Classical musicophiles will undoubtedly love the film’s musicality and the nuanced intricacies portrayed between a conductor and orchestra. Those who are not could be lost by it all. The true strength of writer/director Todd Field’s work is his dialogue as it rivals the genius of Aaron Sorkin. Its richness is second to none even though the story itself can at times be as dry as burned up toast and a little vague.
The true star of the show, of course, is Blanchett who delivers Field’s words with epic perfection. The demands of her are high with some fairly long scenes yet she succeeds time after time. Blanchett makes us simultaneously dislike Lydia while also being intrigued by her. Ultimately, she is a pitiable character as she loses everything because of assumptions and rumors not based on any hard evidence.
“Tar” receives 3.5 stars out of 5.