Film Review: “Three Christs”

THREE CHRISTS
Starring: Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage
Directed by: John Avnet
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 57 mins
IFC Films 

When you think of great films with mental hospitals as the setting, indelible titles such as 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or 1990’s “Awakenings” probably come to mind. With a similar backdrop, the drama “Three Christs,” starring Richard Gere, boldly attempts to delve into the realm of paranoid schizophrenia by exploring a time when pre-fontal lobotomies, insulin-induced comas, and electroshock therapies were standard treatments. Directed by John Avnet (“Fried Green Tomatoes”), “Three Christs” alas fails to achieve any level of greatness as it is saturated with terrible melodrama and an overall lack of emotional connectivity.

 An adaptation of the 1964 psychiatric case study “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti” by psychologist Milton Rokeach, “Three Christs” takes us back to December 1960 when a bruised Dr. Alan Stone (Gere) is recording a defense of himself against accusations leveled at him by a disciplinary board. It’s a nice hook as it gives off a sense of mystery. We are soon taken back to the beginning during the summer of 1959 when he arrives at the Ypsilanti State Hospital.

 Having left a prolific teaching and writing career to pursue a study of delusional patients, Dr. Stone, with the help of his new assistant Becky (Charlotte Hope, “The Theory of Everything”), finds three men who all claim to be Jesus Christ. Joseph (Peter Dinklage), Leon (Walton Goggins) and Clyde (Bradley Whitford) are tragic figures with sad pasts. Each has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics and left to essentially rot in near-barbaric conditions. 

With the encouragement of his wife (Julianna Marguiles), Dr. Stone challenges his peers and a reluctant hospital head by using more modern methods that don’t involve inflicting pain. The irony is that he is treating three men collectively who believe they are Christ while he himself does not believe in organized religion. Gradually he makes progress, but countless roadblocks make it a treacherous path. 

Despite having a solid cast, “Three Christs” falls flat on nearly every level imaginable. The story is without any unique qualities as it feels like any other run-of-the-mill medical drama. Its characters are nothing special and Gere seems to just rely upon every facial gesture he has ever used in his past films instead of pushing for something more. The pacing is sluggish, and the plot is predictable. Gere is also not believable as the father to two young, pre-teen daughters considering he was roughly 67 years old at the time of filming. Furthermore, we are supposed to believe Dr. Stone fought in WWII and Korea. Assuming his character matches his age, then Dr. Stone would have been 59 or 60 while fighting on the front lines against North Korea. Uh, no. Of course, to be fair I should mention the rest of the cast, which can be covered in one statement – every actor is so over-the-top with their performances you have to wonder how on earth the film ever got released, much less contemplate if Avnet should ever direct again. 

In the end, “Three Christs” is a strikeout.

Film Review: “Bad Boys for Life”

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE
Starring:  Will Smith, Martin Lawrence and Joe Pantoliano
Directed by: Adil and Billal
Rated:  R
Running time:  2 hrs 3 mins
Sony Pictures

Riggs and Murtaugh.  Carter and Lee.  Tango and Cash. 

The law enforcement teams above are some of the most beloved in film history.  Another powerhouse was the team of Miami-based cops named Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett.  Starting with 1995’s “Bad Boys” and continuing with the 2003 sequel “Bad Boys 2,” the two blazed their way across the screen with flashy cars and blazing guns.  It’s been awhile, but Lowrexy (Smith) and Burnett (Lawrence) are back…and it’s a welcome return.

It’s an ordinary day at the women’s prison.  In the laundry, the inmates do their best to fold and stack.  However, one inmate (Kate del Castillo) is motionless, staring off as if she was in a trance.  When she’s approached she suddenly springs to life.  The carnage that follows is horrific.

Meanwhile, in Miami, Detectives Lowery and Burnett are speeding through the streets in Lowery’s Porsche.  Their destination:  the local hospital, where Burnett’s daughter is about to give birth.  The new grandchild causes Burnett to rethink his future and soon he informs Lowery and their captain (the always great Joe Pantoliano) that he is going to retire.  But when you’re a “bad boy” do you ever really retire?

Moving at an almost breakneck speed, “Bad Boys for Life” plays on screen like a live action version of “Grand Theft Auto.”  The pace is fast, yet the plot never feels rushed.  Smith and Lawrence have great chemistry together and their playful banter feels natural.  They are assisted by strong supporting turns from Paola Nunez and rapper DJ Khaled, who does well in a small role.  And for fans of the original, keep your eyes open for a cameo from “Bad Boys” director Michael Bay.   

The production values are outstanding, with all of the light and color of Miami on display.  And I don’t know what cops in Miami make but Lowery seems quite comfortable in his penthouse pad and speedy Porsche.  All in all, a fine return to the screen for Lowrey and Burnett.  Now whatcha’ gonna do ‘til they come back for you?

It’s No Joke – “Joker” nabs 11 Academy Award nominations!

“Joker,” director Todd Phillips’ “origin” tale about Batman’s greatest foe scored a total of 11 Academy Award nominations today, leading all films this year.  The film earned nods in several major categories, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Phillips) and Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix.  “1917” and “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” tied for second place with 10 nominations each.

This year saw an amazing batch of first time nominees, many who have done award-worthy work in the past and have never been recognized.  They include Antonio Bandares (“Pain and Glory”) and Jonathan Pryce (“The Two Popes”) for Best Actor and Florence Pugh (“Little Women”) for Best Supporting Actress.  Scarlett Johansson earned her first two nominations this year, scoring nods for Best Actress (“Marriage Story”) and Best Supporting Actress (“Jo Jo Rabbit”).  But no less than eight of the acting nominees have Oscars already on their mantle while others, like Brad Pitt and Phoenix, have been nominated several times in the past.   The South Korean film “Parasite” also did well, earning six nominations, including Best Picture and Best International Feature Film (formerly Best Foreign Film).

Composer John Williams received his 52nd nomination for his score the “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”  Here are the nominees in the major categories:

BEST PICTURE

FORD v FERRARI

THE IRISHMAN

JOJO RABBIT

JOKER

LITTLE WOMEN

MARRIAGE STORY

1917

ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD

PARASITE

BEST DIRECTOR

Martin Scorsese – THE IRISHMAN

Todd Phillips – JOKER

Sam Mendes – 1917

Quentin Tarantino – ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD

Bong Joo Ho – PARASITE

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

Antonio Banderas – PAIN AND GLORY

Leonardo DiCaprio – ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD

Adam Driver – MARRIAGE STORY

Joaquin Phoenix – JOKER

Jonathan Pryce – THE TWO POPES

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

Cynthia Erivo – HARRIET

Scarlett Johansson – MARRIAGE STORY

Saoirse Ronan – LITTLE WOMEN

Charlize Theron – BOMBSHELL

Renee’ Zellwegger – JUDY

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Tom Hanks – A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Anthony Hopkins – THE TWO POPES

Al Pacino – THE IRISHMAN

Joe Pesci – THE IRISHMAN

Brad Pitt – ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Kathy Bates – RICHARD JEWELL

Laura Dern – MARRIAGE STORY

Scarlett Johansson – JOJO RABBIT

Florence Pugh – LITTLE WOMEN

Margot Robbie – BOMBSHELL

This year ushers in a few things that you may be able to use when you play Trivia in a few years.  Should Phoenix win, he would become the second actor, following the late Heath Ledger, to win an Oscar by portraying the Joker.  This achievement has only been done once before, when both Marlon Brando (“The Godfather”) and Robert DeNiro (“The Godfather Part II”) each won Academy Awards for portraying Vito Corleone.  Also, this year marks the first time that a husband and wife were both nominated separately in writing categories.  Noah Baumbach is nominated for his original screenplay for “Marriage Story” while his wife, Greta Gerwig, is nominated for her adaptation of “Little Women.”

For a complete list of nominees, click HERE.

The Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday, February 9th.

Film Review: “Reality Queen!”

  • REALITY QUEEN!
  • Starring:  Julia Faye West, Denise Richards and Mike Tyson
  • Directed by: Steven Jay Bernheim
  • Rated:  Not Rated
  • Running time:  1 hr 24 mins
  • High Octane Pictures

You can’t get away from “them.”  The Kardashians.  The various Housewives of various counties.  “The Bachelorette.”  For good or bad, reality television has grabbed a major part of the world’s attention and, like it or not, it’s here to stay.

London Logo (Ms.West) is a CELEBRITY.  I use all caps to emphasize her status.  Known for her frequent magazine appearances, annual “nip slip” awards and exiting cars sans underwear, London is a mix of Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson rolled up into one.  When things begin to go bad for London, who finds her fame declining with the appearance of the large-assed Kim sisters, she agrees to participate in a documentary about herself which will open the eyes of everyone involved.

As a critic, “Reality Queen!” is the kind of film you love to discover.  Cleverly written by a gaggle of writers, including director Bernheim, the film is an amazingly precedent look at the state of “fame” today.  Nothing is sacred as zinger after zinger is thrown out and the jokes hit much more often then they miss, a testament not only to the script but to the cast.

As London, Ms. West proves herself to be a fine comedienne.  Movies like this often rest on the shoulders of the actors who, if they don’t deliver the lines properly, bring the production down to the level of any recent National Lampoon film that didn’t begin with the words Van and Wilder.  She is also breathtakingly beautiful.  Denise Richards co-stars as London’s best friend, an actress named Angelina Streisand.  She also shows fine comic timing.  Other standouts include Loren Lister as London’s put-upon publicist, Cliff De Young and Jill Jacobson as London’s parents, the amazing Charles Fleischer as a Larry King-ish television host, Kate Orsini as the documentary reporter and the late John Witherspoon in one of his final film appearances.

Mr. Bernheim keeps the pace moving smoothly and I must give credit to he and production designer Ryan Henneman, whose production values are amazing for a film you normally wouldn’t consider “big budget.”  If you’re not in the mood for football this weekend, I highly recommend checking out “Reality Queen!”

4K Ultra HD Review “Gemini Man”

Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen
Paramount Pictures
Running Time: 117 minutes

Film: 2.5 out of 5 stars
4K UHD: 5 out of 5 stars
Extras: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“Gemini Man” isn’t a film I wanted to see at all. The trailers looks boring to me despite action sequences. After watching the movie, I was proved right in my assumptions. The movie was bland, predictable and packed a real terrible ending. Will Smith tries his best but there is just too much Will Smith here and I didn’t think that was possible. The film does have some solid visual effects though.

Despite my feelings on the film, I was mega impressed with the fact that this 4K Ultra HD release includes a first for Paramount. The 4K Ultra HD disc is encoded in 60FPS (frames-per-second) for exceptional sharpness and clarity. The standard Blu-ray release comes with the film presented in 24FPS, if you are a film buff this is a pretty cool deal. There is also an exclusive visual effects scene breakdown presented by WETA in 60FPS, Ultra HD and High Dynamic Range in the special features.

The 4K Ultra HD disc presents the film in Dolby Vision®, which brings entertainment to life through ultra-vivid picture quality with spectacular colors, highlights that are up to 40 times brighter, and blacks that are 10 times darker.  This film is the first ever Dolby Vision high frame rate disc to be released.  Also included this disc boasts a Dolby Atmos® soundtrack. The film comes including a 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital copy of the film.

Official Premise: Will Smith stars as retired hitman Henry Brogan, forced on the run by a young, highly skilled operative who will stop at nothing to eliminate his target.  Now on a race around the globe, Henry must outsmart the mysterious assassin at every step – but how far will he go once they finally come face to face?  Packed with epic fight scenes and groundbreaking visual effects,  “Gemini Man” is the future of action movies.

The bonus features include an Alternate Opening (even though this film needed an alternate ending more so), some Deleted Scenes and a few featurettes including: The Genesis of Gemini Man, Facing Your Younger Self, The Future Is Now, Setting the Action, Next Level Detail and The Vision of Ang Lee. The Visual Effects Progression presented by WETA in 60FPS is only available on the 4K UHD disc. Even though I didn’t like the film this extra was work checking out for sure.

Time to Help Choose the Winners of the 2019 Media Mikes Awards

Award season is in full bloom and once again it’s time for the readers of Media Mikes to vote for their film favorites for the 2019 Media Mikes Awards.

Last year over 3,000 readers submitted their choices in the following categories:

  • BEST PICTURE
  • BEST DIRECTOR
  • BEST ACTOR
  • BEST ACTRESS
  • BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
  • BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
  • BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Members of the Media Mikes staff will vote on the following categories:

  • BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
  • BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
  • BEST MUSICAL SCORE
  • BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Votes can be submitted either through our Facebook page or by email. Emails can be sent to MikeS@Mediamikes.com Votes can be submitted through February 5, 2020, with the winners announced on Friday, February 7th.

Random voters will be chosen to receive some great 2019 movie swag!

Our Critics Share Their Choices for Best Films of 2019 (and their WORST!)

Between us I’d have to estimate that Mike G, Lauren, Jeremy, Michael D. Smith, Becki and myself see no less than 150 films a year here at Media Mikes. So when the year comes to an end, many of us like to share with you what films we felt were the Best. And, because they can’t all be winners, we like to tell you which ones we wished we had stayed away from. Ideally, if you haven’t seen any of these particular films you will either be intrigued enough to seek it out…or make the mental note to avoid at all costs! Enjoy!

MIKE SMITH

THE BEST

#1. 1917
Sam Mendes has created an epic film that thrives on its small cast and “continuous shot” presentation. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shot many of the Coen Brothers’ films, will surely earn Academy Award nomination number fifteen for his work here. (He won previously for “Bladerunner 2049”)

#2. JUST MERCY
This film doesn’t open wide for another week but it has been playing in select cities since Christmas. An emotional look at the injustice heaped upon one man and the attorney who works tirelessly to find the truth. Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx give award-worthy performances.
#3. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
Edward Norton laid it all on the line as he not only starred in this film but wrote and directed it. His eye as a director is keen and changing the time setting of the story from the present to the 1950s was a masterstroke.
#4. JOKER
Todd Phillips’s look at an almost dystopian society and the people who inhabit it. In my mind, it’s between Joaquin Phoenix and “Marriage Story” star Adam Driver for the Best Actor Oscar.
#5. KNIVES OUT
When I was a teenager I loved the Neil Simon-penned comedy “Murder by Death” and, when I saw the trailer for this film I thought it would be similar. Wrong! Funny? Yes. But amazingly crafted. Extra credit for Daniel Craig pulling off a southern accent.
#6. YESTERDAY
What if you woke up tomorrow and found that the Beatles never existed? A true masterpiece that pays tribute to the universal joy brought to us by the four lads from Liverpool. Also contains the year’s most emotional moment. I won’t spoil it but, if you didn’t tear up, it’s quite possible that YOU’VE never heard of the Beatles.
#7. (tie) LINDA RONDSTADT – THE SOUND OF MY VOICE / DAVID CROSBY-REMEMBER MY NAME
Two amazing documentaries that give viewers an inside look at two of the most influential singers and musicians of their time.

#8. THE IRISHMAN
When people look back at the history of film making they will probably be flabbergasted to see that Martin Scorsese won his first directing Oscar for “The Departed.” The creator of arguably the greatest film of the 1980s (“Raging Bull”) as well as “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy,” “Goodfellas” and “Gangs of New York” just may take home his second one for this 3 1/2 hour masterpiece.
#9. ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD
I will admit that, while I enjoyed the film, I didn’t LOVE it when I reviewed it. But a second viewing put it on my list. Great performances and a beautifully recreated Los Angeles, circa 1969. And boy…that ending!
#10. AVENGERS: ENDGAME
The final film in a 23-film series, the likes of that Hollywood will never see again (unless Marvel does it). When Robert Downey, Jr declares, “I AM Iron Man” the emotional explosion in the theater is jaw-dropping.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: US, MARRIAGE STORY, BLINDED BY THE LIGHT, STAN and OLLIE

THE WORST

When a web site includes your name you have the opportunity to stay away from most of the stink-burgers that come out. Luckily (and sadly) these two lured me in.
ANGEL HAS FALLEN:
There is a great “Mean Tweet” in which Gerard Butler reads, “Does Gerard Butler have a lot of student loans to pay off? He’s always doing shitty films?” To which Butler replies, “No, I don’t have any student loans. I just like doing shitty films.” Add this one to the list.
DUMBO:
Damn you, Tim Burton. My wife and I skipped the critic’s screening of this so we could take our granddaughter. She hasn’t talked to us since!

JEREMY WERNER

THE BEST

#1. PARASITE
Wild, entertaining, shocking, gripping and a movie you’ll be thinking about for days, if not weeks. This is Bong Joon-ho’s magnum opus. This isn’t just the best movie of 2019, this is easily one of the best movies of the 2010s.
#2. 1917
We’re treated to way more WWII movies than we are WWI. “1917” is not only a visual masterpiece, but the kind of movie that reminds us why WWI shouldn’t be forgotten and just how devastating it truly was for the brave soldiers in it.
#3. THE LIGHTHOUSE
If it wasn’t for “1917,” this would have been the most visually impressive film of the year. Marketed as a horror, I’d say it’s more a suspenseful comedy, with a pair of tour de force performances.


#4. TOY STORY 4
Not to be a narcissist, but to quote my own review earlier this, “I would have never guessed back in 1995…that these plastic toys come to life would make me cry twice later in my life.”
#5. JOJO RABBIT
Channeling Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks, Taika Waititi has given audiences one of the most heartwarming, tragic and uplifting films of 2019, and it’s about a boy and his Hitler.
#6. THE IRISHMAN
I wouldn’t say this is Scorsese’s best, but he certainly has book-ended a beloved genre and given several actors a much-deserved swan song.
#7. MIDSOMMAR
An unsettling nightmare in broad daylight. Besides the unforeseen horrors happening in the sun, there are plenty of laughs to go along with this outstanding horror film.
#8.US
Jordan Peele raved about “Midsommar.” So I’m sure he wouldn’t be upset to see his stellar sophomore outing below “Midsommar.” I can’t wait to see what he does next.
#9. BOOKSMART
I absolutely adored this film and its messages. But just as impressive as the script, were the performances by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, as well as the direction by Olivia Wilde.
#10. CLIMAX
If you’ve ever been on the fence about trying LSD or any other kind of hallucinogens, I wouldn’t recommend “Climax.” It’s a delirious technicolor nightmare that entrances viewers.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: HONEY BOY, LORDS OF CHAOS, ONE CUT OF THE DEAD, EL CAMINO, UNCUT GEMS, ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD, SHAZAM, THE REPORT, MARRIAGE STORY

THE WORST

#1. AFTER
Everyone involved in this should be ashamed of themselves. What’s that you say? They’re making a sequel? This is further proof we’re living in the darkest timeline.
#2. SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2
Illumination knows exactly what it’s doing and they feel no shame. I wish people would stop giving them reasons to make awful sequels.
#3.A DOG’S JOURNEY
Sappy sentimentality tries to mask the flawed and unethical morality. I love dogs, but this is a crap story and film.
#4. MIDWAY
When Michael Bay said, “No one can top my crappy WWII movie,” Roland Emmerich said, “Hold my beer.”
#5. DETECTIVE PIKACHU
Knowing that some people loved this movie makes me hate this cliche, predictable, trite flick even more.

LAUREN DAMON

THE BEST

Here’s my Top 9, leaving open that 10 slot as the end of the year has so many films on offer that I’m sure one I’ve missed would be bound to swoop in!

#1. MIDSOMMAR
Oh “Midsommar,” how much did I love this film? Enough to come back for the 171 minute director’s cut at Lincoln Center this August for even more. Ari Aster’s follow up to “Hereditary” showcases yet another powerhouse female performance in Florence Pugh. The film is hard to call a “horror”, unless you’re in the middle of a fight with your romantic partner, but it definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. Aster packs this film with so much visual detail that return trips continue to prove satisfying. This film also has a pitch dark streak of savage humor that gave me one or two of the most morbid laughs of the year.
#2. JOJO RABBIT
I elaborated in my five star review of Taika Waititi’s WW2 satire, but this is for me the funniest film of the year while still tugging on a ton of heartstrings. For me, it is Scarlett Johansson’s best performance (and yes, I’ve seen “Marriage Story”)

#3. KNIVES OUT
Chris Evans and Daniel Craig played wildly against type in Rian Johnson’s murder mystery whose twisty turny finale was a delight, or maybe it was a donut…
#4. AVENGERS ENDGAME
I may not be fully on board with all of the character choices for Marvel’s epic Infinity Saga conclusion, but man, if this didn’t do justice to the 21(!) films whose job it was to wrap up. The “Portals” sequence playing to a sold out crowd on opening night was chills, cheers and tears inducing in a way I have never experienced at a movie theater.
#5. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLEM
In a year without a “Mission: Impossible,” John Wick came to the rescue in terms of just absolutely satisfying stunt sequences. That knife fight IN a knife store alone earned the whole movie’s placement on this list.
#6. FORD v FERRARI
I fortunately saw this one in IMAX where the roar of the impeccably edited racing sequences could be felt in my bones. James Mangold delivered a solid spectacle lead by the always-reliable Matt Damon and Christian Bale.
#7. ROCKETMAN
“Rocketman” was everything I wished last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” would have been. From star Taron Edgerton actually recording a slew of Elton John classics himself to the integration of said songs into lively and visually fun musical numbers. Bonus points for a lovely turn from Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin.
#8. LITTLE WOMEN
Greta Gerwig’s sterling adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic assembled one of the strongest acting ensembles of the year and showed the March sisters in a whole new light.
#9. THE LIGHTHOUSE
Robert Eggers’s follow up to 2015’s “The Witch” was just as steeped in atmosphere–this time of an isolated New England lighthouse in the 1890s where Robert Pattinson’s Thomas is taken under the lunatic wing of Willem Defoe who may or may not have a supernatural connection to the beacon they tend to. In stunning black and white, Eggers produced some of the most memorable imagery of the year.

THE WORST

In lieu of a Worst list–since I don’t see enough to pull a whole list confidently–I’m sorry to say MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL was the biggest disappointment. Taking Hemsworth and Thompson, who have a proven comedic chemistry and just throwing them into this lazy script was a huge wasted opportunity.

MICHAEL D. SMITH

THE BEST

#1. 1917
Selected by the Kansas City Film Critics Circle as the year’s Best Film, “1917” is simply a stroke of genius. Nominated for three Golden Globes, “1917” is not only a masterful example of the war film genre, but it is also a masterpiece of cinema in general. Directed by Oscar-winning British filmmaker Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “The Road to Perdition”), who co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“Penny Dreadful”), “1917” is an accurate depiction of the Great War with an edge-of-your-seat plot that is essentially Great Britain’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

#2. KNIVES OUT
An impressive piece of creative writing, “Knives Out” deserves to be in the pantheon of great murder mystery flicks. With a terrific cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Christopher Plummer and Michael Shannon, “Knives Out” is led by Daniel Craig in a wonderfully entertaining performance that makes you forget all about his more famous alter egoJames Bond. Whether you guess who done it within 15 minutes or not until the very end, “Knives Out” provides a great way to spend the night out at the movie theater.
#3. JOKER
Featuring by far the best male lead performance of the year, “Joker” is the most in-depth character study captured in cinema in 2019. Joaquin Phoenix goes to Herculean lengths to tap into the essence of a man so ostracized by society that when his last thread to sanity is cut, he becomes something that lies somewhere in the middle of being a villain and a hero. Dark, gritty and violent, “Joker” is not your typical comic book or even graphic novel movie. It eclipses both. Phoenix is supported by a memorable supporting performance from Robert De Niro.
#4. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
Edward Norton’s effort is a triumph of cinematic art and deserves to be an Oscar contender in multiple categories. Adapted from the 1999, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel of the same name by American novelist Jonathan Lethem, “Motherless Brooklyn,” written and directed by Norton, is a brilliant, throwback detective story with an all-star cast that delivers the goods. It mirrors early 1950s Brooklyn in such a palpable way that it makes you feel like you are there. Despite its arguably long, two-hour plus running time, the puzzle-like central story is so engrossing with its twists and turns that you can end up losing yourself in it.
#5. US
Academy Award-winning writer Jordan Peele followed up his magnificent horror thriller “Get Out” with another stroke of genius thatwhich should not be watched immediately before bedtime. An inventive work that will give you goosebumps throughout as the Wilson family, led by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, tries to stay alive in the face of eerie doppelgangers who want them all dead. Nyong’o was recently selected by the Kansas City Film Critics Circle as 2019’s Best Actress for her memorable performance.
#6. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
Love or hate him, there is no denying the talent of Quentin Tarantino. In this, his ninth and allegedly next-to-last film, Tarantino pays tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age by putting his own unique spin on the August 1969 Sharon Tate murders. With enthralling performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, Tarantino dug deep into his imagination with an entertaining “what if?” story with a climax that will drop your jaw to the floor and imagery that will be stuck in your head for days afterwards.

#7. THE IRISHMAN
At three hours and 29 minutes, “The Irishman” is a Martin Scorsese film not to be tackled lightly. However, if you are a fan of not just mafia-related stories but also a trio of iconic actors – Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino – then you will be greatly rewarded. It is the supposed story of mob hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran who worked closely with the mob for decades and claimed that he was the one who made labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa famously disappear. Of the three, it is Pesci who outshines everyone as a mob boss. It is nothing less than the greatest performance of Pesci’s long career.
#8. QUEEN & SLIM
Ideally, a great work of art, especially one that is controversial, will have a deeply emotional and/or intellectual impact on the viewer. It is no different with the genre of cinema. Erroneously labeled by some as a Bonnie and Clyde-type story, “Queen & Slim” explores the fear and outrage felt by many in America over numerous fatal shootings in recent years of black men, often young ones, by white law enforcement officers. While its climax is heavy-handed and the overall portrayal of the police is too generalized, “Queen & Slim” remains a terrific specimen of cinematic art.
#9. A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Last year, I had the fantastic documentary “Won’t You be My Neighbor?” in the eighth spot of my 2018 top ten list. This year, another Mister Rogers film makes my year-end highlights. Inspired by true events, Tom Hanks puts in a mesmerizing supporting performance as the late, beloved PBS show host as he tries to help a jaded newspaper reporter remember what is most important in life. It is a sweet, lovely story amidst harsh times.
#10. AVENGERS: ENDGAME
Ten years’ worth of Avenger-related movies, some better than others, culminated with “Endgame” and it was all worth it with a tremendously rewarding finale. What made it so spectacular was not that it had great special effects or a cast with enough stars to fill up the nighttime sky. Rather, it contained an emotional story that did not have a neat and tidy ending. It was a true struggle of good vs. evil with many of those on the side of good having to pay a terrible price for their collective success. It does leave one to wonder how the gang at Marvel Studios will do with the next phase of Avenger flicks.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: AD ASTRA, I AM MOTHER, PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

Film Review: “Just Mercy”

JUST MERCY
Starring:  Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Rated:  PG 13
Running time:  2 hrs 16 mins
Warner Bros

Recently here in Kansas City a gentleman was released from prison after serving 17-years for a crime he didn’t commit.  Naturally, your heart goes out to him and his family but, even in your worst dreams, there is really no way to understand what he went through.  I mention this because injustice is the theme from the new film “Just Mercy.”

Monroeville, Alabama.  Fans of the book “To Kill a Mockingbird” will recognize the town as the birthplace of author Harpee Lee.  It was also the birthplace of Walter McMillan.  We meet Walter (Foxx, in a top notch performance) in the woods, cutting down a tree and enjoying the freedom of nature.  However, Walter’s life takes a dark detour when he is arrested for, and convicted of, the murder of a young white woman.  I mention the victim’s race because that is an important part of the story.  You see, Walter is black.  Found guilty (in an amazing precedent the jury sentenced Walter to life in prison and the trial judge overrode the decision and sentenced Walter to death) he’s sat on death row for the past six years, waiting for the horrible dream his life has become to end.  Enter Bryan Stevenson (Jordan, equally strong) a young, Harvard-educated lawyer who has received a grant to start an advocacy program for inmates on death row.  To say Bryan is welcomed with open arms would be a lie.  More like welcomed with clenched fist – and closed minds.

A powerful film that pulls at your emotions, “Just Mercy” is based on a true story, one of racial bias and unscrupulous people.  It’s almost fate that the story takes place in the birthplace of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” That bit of information is played up by the locals, who urge Bryan to visit the Mockingbird Museum and stand in the same courthouse as Atticus Finch.  But “Mockingbird” also deals with the trial of an innocent black man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused and, even though there is mounds of evidence to prove his innocence, is found guilty.  Bryan, like Atticus Finch before him, believes in the system and can’t understand how that system has failed Walter.

As noted above, the performances from Mr. Jordan and Mr. Foxx are powerful.  Jordan continues to add great work to his resume’ and this is easily Mr. Foxx’s best performance in years.  As Bryan’s assistant Eva Ansley, Brie Larson delivers in a true supporting role and Tim Blake Nelson is well cast as a fellow convict whose testimony sent Walter to prison.  The film is well paced and Mr. Cretton’s direction is spot on, his camera capturing the little things that help make the story a powerful one.  He has definitely created one of the best films of 2019.

Film Review: “1917”

1917
Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Universal Pictures 

With three Golden Globe nominations, “1917” is not only a masterful example of the war film genre, but it is also a masterpiece of cinema in general. Directed by Oscar-winning British filmmaker Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “The Road to Perdition”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“Penny Dreadful”), “1917” is a highly accurate depiction of the Great War with a plot that is essentially Great Britain’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

 The story takes place during Operation Alberich, a strategic German military withdrawal lasting from February 9 to March 20, 1917 in France. Its purpose was to shorten German lines along a section of the Western Front in order to consolidate forces along the Hindenburg Line. “1917” plays upon this event by thrusting two young men into what appears to be an impossible mission.

 British Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, “The King,” “Game of Thrones”) and Schofield (George MacKay, “Where Hands Touch,” “Captain Fantastic”) are suddenly pulled away from their unit on orders from their overall commander, General Erinmore (Colin Firth). The general needs a message dispatched deep into German territory to stop the advance of a Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), who believes he is pursuing a defeated enemy when in fact it is a trap that will cost the lives of 1,600 men including Lance Corporal Blake’s brother. 

Lance Corporal Schofield is the more seasoned veteran of the two and is wary of crossing No Man’s Land as he believes they are the ones who are walking into a trap. However, Lance Corporal Blake is doggedly determined go through with the mission, which must be completed by the next morning when the fateful offensive by Colonel MacKenzie is planned. In their way lies a myriad of obstacles including endless amounts of mud, deep craters, barbed wire, booby traps and German snipers. It is a heart-pounding, near-continuous sequence of events that will leave you riveted to the silver screen. 

Historically, “1917” delivers the goods with its accurate depiction of trench warfare ranging from the uniforms worn to the hellish conditions to the psychological effects on the soldiers. Painstaking care was clearly made to get every battlefield detail right as well as an accurate depiction of the Germans’ scorched earth policy as they pulled back to the Hindenburg Line. “1917” also delves into the toll the German occupation had on the French civilian population, best embodied by a young woman barely surviving in a burned-out city. 

Chapman and MacKay deliver solid performances throughout the film as they humanize their characters, thereby making it easy for us to become emotionally invested in their epic journey. The biggest praise, though, is reserved for Mendes direction. For example, the first half of the nearly two-hour film, which does not feel that long, is shot so seamlessly that it has all the appearance of being one, long continuous take. His orchestration of mass chaos with a multitude of extras and cameras, not to mention how his hand-held work puts us right in the trenches, is worthy of an Oscar for best cinematography. “1917” is nothing less than one of the ten best movies of 2019.

Film Review: “Uncut Gems”

Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett and Idina Menzel
Directed by: Josh and Benny Safdie
Rated: R
Running Time: 135 minutes
A24

Just like “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Punch-Drunk Love” before it, “Uncut Gems” will certainly fire up the debate about whether or not Adam Sandler is a good actor. I believe he’s good, if given a precise role that caters to his natural man-child characters we’ve seen in his comedies, as well as a film that allows him to let his unchecked rage loose. However, “Uncut Gems” does more than reignite that debate, it gives us what is undoubtedly Sandler’s best performance.

Sandler isn’t a traditional man-child in “Uncut Gems.” He plays somewhat successful New York City jewelry store owner, Howard Ratner. He not only sells jewelry worth tens of thousands of dollars, but has NBA superstars like Kevin Garnett coming into his store. He appears to make enough money to sustain a double life. He spends half his life at a suburban mansion with his wife and kids, and the other half at a downtown apartment with his young, attractive girlfriend who also works at his jewelry store. Undercutting his entire life though, is a crippling and dangerous addiction.

It doesn’t take audiences long to recognize that Howard’s metaphorical “chasing the dragon” is sports betting. Throughout his day he pawns items, gets chased down by criminals and thugs he owes money to, and places ridiculous parlay bets so that his payout is astronomical. Howard never backs down from a threat. He puffs his chest, talks a big game, and demands respect. But we’re shown throughout the movie that he’s not a strong man. He can barely raise a fist in a fight, cowers at a strong enough threat, is far from being physically fit, and doesn’t even own a single firearm. Howard’s a proverbial powder keg.

Just like in “Good Time,” the writers and directors of “Uncut Gems,” the Safdie Brothers, have crafted an anxiety-inducing criminal journey. The path they create for their characters is a master class in suspense and dread, but we’re never concerned about the leads. Howard is a scumbag, through and through. He’s not someone to root for, and if anything, we’re hoping that he has an ill-fitting end. It’s everyone around him we’re concerned about. He has a brother, who’s with the mobsters that are demanding money from him, who only shows concern when the criminals stuff Howard in a trunk naked. Howard has a family at home that’s oblivious to the vultures circling above. He has a girlfriend, who while naive, doesn’t deserve the danger that Howard attracts. It all makes for some riveting scenes, where guns are never shown, but the threats and words exchanged foreshadow an exciting third act.

Just like Martin Scorsese, who serves as an executive producer on this film, the Safdie Brothers love chaotic scumbags. It’s not that they’re smart or cunning. They use what little power and money they have to push everyone around them to their limits. For fans of crime thrillers, “Uncut Gems” is a must-see. For Sandler fans, you’ve never seen him like this.

Film Review: “Little Women”

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen
Directed By: Greta Gerwig
Rated: PG
Running Time: 135mins
Sony Pictures

Little Women has been adapted to the screen a dozen times, so approaching it hot off of her acclaimed Lady Bird, it appears writer-director Greta Gerwig decided to adhere to its own Amy March’s strict standards: “to be great or nothing” Which is to say, Gerwig’s telling is pretty great. Emphasis on the pretty. Her ensemble cast, lead by Lady Bird alum Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh (“Midsommar”), brings a fresh take to Louisa May Alcott’s iconic characters amidst an absolutely gorgeously mounted production. This adaptation of Alcott’s tale of a quartet of sisters finding their way in Civil War era New England feels both classic and vividly relevant to today.

Full disclosure time–I haven’t read Alcott’s novel. Like many kids of the 90s my introduction to the March family was with 1994’s release starring Winona Ryder and Christian  Bale. It so fit into 90s cozy family fare that it came to vhs in one of those big puffy plastic boxes like Disney cartoons. This isn’t a slight against it, I love that version. But it did make me wary that I would be plodding through some well worn territory. Happily, Ms Gerwig flips the script by shirking a linear adaptation. Instead we follow our heroine Jo March (Ronan) from the point at which she’s already pitching her life story at a New York publisher, and then we go winding back and forth through her adolescence in New England. This approach gives the tales of the March’s idyllic family history a warm veneer of nostalgia, which actually feels a more honest way to see it.

Additionally, with Jo as our primary entry point into Marches, Gerwig’s update places a greater emphasis on the sisterly bonds than their romantic entanglements. Timothee Chalamet does well as Laurie–taking over from Bale as the mischievous neighbor boy who pursues both Jo and eventually Amy (Pugh)–but for this 2019 version, he rightly takes a back seat in screen time to, for example, Jo’s bond with her ailing sister Beth (Scanlen).            

This treatment especially benefits the oft-maligned Amy March. In 1994 the duties of the youngest March were shared between a very childish Kirsten Dunst and a very cold Samantha Mathis but here Florence Pugh effortlessly takes her from tween to adulthood. Pugh is having an amazing year, from her breakthrough leading role in Fighting with My Family to a wrenching performance in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, she is exhibiting an incredible range that she flexes even more as Amy. In this non-linear telling, Amy has the advantage of being introduced not as a clingy youngest sibling, but as the aspiring artist studying in Paris. Her childhood crimes (which are numerous and feature Pugh for the second time this year participating in arson) are more readily forgiven through an adult lens whereas when they were previously presented in “real time”, she was a little monster. Meanwhile, though Pugh is given aging assistance via wardrobe decisions and some well-deployed bangs, it is her performance, her entire bearing and pitch of her voice that fully sells Amy’s growth. It’s a special performance that I am hoping will be recognized this awards season since, if Hereditary’s snubbing last year is any indication, Academy voters might not have the stomach for Midsommar. But I digress. 

Supporting all these sparkling performances, Gerwig’s production radiates warmth and beauty. She gives us a screenplay that lets the March clan talk all over each other like a living, breathing family, costumes and settings that frequently look like they could be paintings and underscores it all with yet another winning score from Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water”). It is a lovely holiday gift of a film.  

Film Review: “CATS”

CATS
Starring:  Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson and Judi Dench
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Rated:  PG
Running time:  1 hr 50 mins
Universal

I lived on the east coast for many years – from 1982 through 1995.  I was a frequent visitor to New York City and, every time I would walk by the Winter Garden Theater I would see the words “Now and Forever.”  These words were very true when it came to the show playing at the Winter Garden: the musical “CATS,” as it ran on Broadway for a then-record 18 years!  This week, 37-years after it opened on Broadway, “CATS” has finally come to the big screen.

We open on a London street where we see a car pull into an alley.  A woman takes a bag out of the car and casually throws it towards the garbage bins.  The bag lands with a thud and begins to move.  As the woman drives off the bag is surrounded by a motley group of cats.  They open the bag to discover a young cat who is obviously frightened.  One by one the cats introduce themselves.  So begins the film adaptation of the Tony-award winning Best Musical, “CATS.”

How do I describe this film?  When the trailer first premiered many people, myself included, were confused by what the film was being portrayed as.  It seemed almost like a joke, the way the cat characters were jumping around on over-sized furniture.  But it wasn’t a joke.  Unlike the Broadway show, which takes place in a junkyard, director Tom Hooper has opened up the sets, allowing the feline characters to jump on beds, sing on library steps and even tap dance across a railroad tie.  Fun stuff, to be sure, but creepy as heck.  And while the cast gives its all, the show seems to almost come to a stop in between musical numbers.

The cast is phenomenal, featuring everyone from revered actors like Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen to pop singer Taylor Swift.  Others spinning a yarn include Rebel Wilson, Jennifer Hudson and Ray Winstone.  Heck, even Idris Elba gets in on the action.  The actors are fine…they just don’t have shoulders enough to carry the film.

The high points here are the make-up, special effects and choreography.  Rather than follow in the footsteps of Broadway, where the cast wore unitards, here the very expressive faces of the cast are modified with whiskers and CGI.  Most of the makeup is fine, but Judi Dench comes off looking like Bert Lahr’s older sister from “The Wizard of Oz.”  The musical numbers, of course, are superb, which is a no brainer when you’re dealing with Andrew Lloyd Weber.  Sadly a few people in my screening fell asleep but those of us who stayed awake were treated to a very different way to tell a story.

If you’re a fan of the musical, or a member of the cast, then by all means go see “CATS.”  If you’re not a fan of musical theatre, go stand in line and see “Star Wars” again.

Film Review: “The Two Popes”

Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujin
Directed By: Fernando Meirelles
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 126mins
Netflix

In 2013, the Catholic church faced a prospect it had not dealt with in 600 years when Pope Benedict XVI decided to step down as head of the Catholic Church. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named as his successor, taking the title of Pope Francis. The official reason Benedict gave was declining health but he also did so in the face of mounting progressive movements among the global congregation as well as the rampant allegations of sexual abuse from clergy. In Netflix’s new film, The Two Popes, writer Anthony McCarten (“Darkest Hour”) stages an imagined meeting of the minds between Benedict and Bergoglio before this changing of the guard. Each of the men having crises of faith and trying to convince the other to keep or take on the title, respectively. Fortunately for director Fernando Meirelles, acting legends Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce stepped in to play these two. Unfortunately for viewers, their discussions do not dominate the entire film as you might hope nor do those talks address the church scandals in a meaningful way. That Meirelles’s film manages to tread through such tonally rocky terrain without more of an issue is down to great performances from Pryce and Hopkins.

Meirelles’s film opens amidst the death of Pope John Paul II and the ensuing 2005 papal conclave. The highly secretive process requires a super majority of the cardinals convening in Rome to elect a new pope. Publicly it was a spectacle in which crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square in eager anticipation of seeing white smoke to signal that choice had been made. The interior specifics of this conclave were under official oaths of secrecy. The film brings this all to vivid life within a recreation of the Vatican and introduces Bergoglio (Pryce) and Ratzinger (Hopkins) as opposing roads for the church to take at this crucial moment in time. Ratzinger is the more conservative of the two and glad-hands the other attendees like a politician while Bergoglio downplays talk from his peers who insist he is also a favorite. Ratzinger, redubbed Benedict, wins the votes. 

Anthony McCarten’s script is based on his own stage play of this story and the best parts of this film felt like a stage production. The film easily moves from the spectacle of the conclave to the intimate summit between Hopkins and Pryce with Bergoglio seeking to tender his resignation from a Benedict who refuses to grant the request. Hopkins plays Benedict here with an air of mischief that lifts all their interactions. Bergoglio is pressing Benedict with his sincere desire to leave while Benedict brushes him off and inconveniences him at every turn. Their dialogue is also peppered with charming little old man moments. Bergoglio being the more “in touch” of the two brings both ABBA and the Beatles into the discussion for example. But once the gravity of Benedict wanting to leave takes priority–he speaks of losing touch with the voice of god–and Bergoglio’s reluctance has to be supported by how he got to where he is, the film drags. As interesting as it is and as capable an actor Juan Minujín is at playing the younger version of Pryce in war torn Argentina, it shifts the focus of the film down in taking it entirely through his past.

It’s also jarring to have the two old men watching the World Cup as though they’re in a set up from Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip while literally dropping out the audio of Benedict confessing regarding the abuse scandal later in the film. Such a jarring decision when we’ve already seen a lot of Bergoglio’s rough past, made me wonder if they knew acknowledging this darkness was a bridge too far in tone, your mileage may vary. Either way, I was grateful to see these two acting legends share the screen as much as they did.  

The Two Popes is now streaming on Netflix

Film Review: “Bombshell”

Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and John Lithgow
Directed by: Jay Roach
Rated: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Lionsgate

I’m sure regular Fox News viewers still believe that former CEO Roger Ailes was a “victim” of the #MeToo movement. But those people probably never troubled themselves to read the avalanche of allegations leveled against Ailes, which spanned decades. The truth, which still hasn’t necessarily seen the light of day, attempts to be told in “Bombshell.”

When we’re first introduced to Ailes (Lithgow), it’s through Megyn Kelly’s (Theron) narration. She’s breaks down the structure of Fox News and how each part of the multi-floor business in downtown New York City functions. During her walkthrough, we see Ailes, micromanaging every detail, from the chyrons on the TV to the length of a news anchor’s skirt. It not only shows how disgustingly creepy he is, but how obsessed he is with the content that Fox News puts out on a daily basis. While it’s certainly interesting to see the monster and his tentacles at work, “Bombshell” isn’t necessarily about him, it’s about the damage he did. It’s when we meet Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) that the wheels are set in motion. We learn that she’s waiting for the hammer to fall because she’s slowly been building up a case against Ailes.

As much as I enjoyed “Bombshell,” I can’t help but feel it could have been better. Writer Charles Randolph, who previously worked on the magnificent film “The Big Short,” doesn’t dig in deep enough to reported mudslinging that was happening behind-the-scenes. It doesn’t help that he’s working with director Jay Roach, who was criticized for the inaccuracies riddled throughout “Trumbo.” With their combined forces, they’ve put together a film that never swings as hard as it should. That may be because there isn’t enough evidence to support some of the more inflammatory and horrendous incidents portrayed on the screen.

Like I said though, this is an enjoyable movie. There are moments that feel like they’re trying to emulate Adam McKay’s style from “The Big Short” and “Vice.” They don’t quite match that style, but they do a tremendous job making us sympathize with some incredibly flawed individuals. Kelly, as pointed out in the film several times, has made some comments and remarks that are not only divisive, but intentionally offensive. One scene in particular shows her arguing that Santa is white and should always be white. It’s an unnecessarily despicable belief that’s intent is to infuriate, offend and divide, but it’s far from being a belief that warrants the kind of treatment she received by her colleagues or the sexual harassment she was subject to.

As for the main cast, they do a magnificent job with everyone they’re portraying, whether they’re the spitting image of their characters or replicating their mannerism to a ‘T’. Theron does a tightrope act with Kelly that’s unmatched, and Lithgow channels the monster that was Ailes. Some of the “cameos” are more distracting than they are funny, like when Richard Kind portrays Rudy Giuliani. “Bombshell” is equally energetic and unnerving, making it a rollercoaster of a time, but despite its title it doesn’t have any Earth-shattering revelations, and it certainly won’t change any of the minds who tune into Fox News every day and night.

Film Review: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

STAR WARS:  THE RISE OF SKYWALKER
Starring:  Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Rated:  PG 13
Running time:  2 hr 21 mins
Walt Disney

In 1977, theatre owners everywhere were excited about an upcoming film from 20th Century Fox that they were sure was going to fill their theatres for weeks.

That film was “The Other Side of Midnight.”  Based on a very popular best-selling book, the demand for the film was so great that the studio was able to do a little quid-pro-quo with the owners.  If you promise to play this little space movie we have coming out in May we will make sure you get “The Other Side of Midnight.”  That “little space movie” was, of course, “Star Wars.”  The punchline to this story is that “Star Wars” proved to be so popular that, when “The Other Side of Midnight” opened two weeks later, many theatres NEVER played it as they were still filling the house.  I’m pretty sure I can guarantee that the final installment in the original series will do the same.

Let me begin by saying this will be a spoiler-free review.  Not only because the studio asked critics not to give anything away but also because if, like me, you’ve got 40-plus years of your life invested in the saga you don’t want some pencil neck with a computer spoiling your fun.  The story begins with our heroes Rey (Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron  (Oscar Isaac) still trying to defeat the First Order, led by Kylo Ren (Driver).  While Rey continues her Jedi training, Kylo Ren is raging his way through the galaxy, hoping to confront the all-powerful Emperor, the leader of the evil Sith.  Things are getting bleak for the resistance and General Leia Organa (Fisher) is out of ideas.  Will the final pieces of the rebellion be destroyed?  Sorry, the studio won’t let me tell you!

Here’s what I can tell you.  Director J.J. Abrams, who co-wrote the screenplay with Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio (“Argo) has crafted a story that should satisfy every “Star Wars” fan in the galaxy.  Old friends return while new friends extend the story.  You would have to have a heart colder than a Wampa not to enjoy this movie.

The cast is top-notch, with the three principal actors having grown into their roles.  It is obvious they are much more comfortable here than they were in Episode VII (“The Force Awakens”).  Rey is certainly my grandchildren’s version of “Alien” crewmember Ellen Ripley, a strong, young woman that others can look up to and admire.  Fisher’s Princess Leia in the original trilogy was the same kind of character and Ms. Ridley gives her both an outer and inner toughness, though the goodness she possesses is also visible.  Both Boyega and Isaac have larger roles here.  Finn is much more decisive in his actions while it’s nice to see Poe NOT in a spaceship for the majority of the film.  The filmmakers were able to include Carrie Fisher in the story by reshaping scenes she filmed for “The Force Awakens” and it is a joy to see her on the big screen one last time.

Driver has also grown into the role.  To me he came off as a little wimpy when he was introduced in “The Force Awakens” but here he is downright terrifying.  The man has some serious anger (and family) issues and you don’t want to be near him when he snaps.  To counter the intensity of some scenes Abrams has also included some good, old fashioned humor and the jokes play well.

Visually, of course, the film is a masterpiece.  Battles between literally hundreds of ships take your breath away and the musical score, by the great John Williams, is a perfect accompaniment to the action on screen.

The original 1977 STAR WARS campaign book.

In the spring of 1977 some friends of mine and I wrote away to 20th Century Fox for some information on “Star Wars.”  We each received a beautiful full-color campaign book, which I still have.  I was 16 when “Star Wars” came out.  Like many people my friends and I went to the theatre not knowing what to expect and walked out hooked.  I enjoyed the films so much that half of my basement is crowded with “Star Wars” memorabilia.  I was even asked to moderate the 40th Anniversary Q&A event that was held in Kansas City.  “Star Wars” is, and has been, a very important and memorable part of my life and I must say that “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is the perfect ending to my childhood!

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