Film Review: “tick, tick BOOM!

 

  • tick, tick…BOOM!
  • Starring:  Andrew Garfield and Vanessa Hudgens
  • Directed by:  Lin-Manuel Miranda
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time: 1 hr 55 mins
  • NETFLIX

 

It’s sad when you don’t see your hard work come to fruition…to not see the impact it had on the world around you.  One example is Steve Gordon, the writer and director of the film “Arthur.”  He passed away shortly after the film came out and, though he had a chance to see how his work was embraced, he never lived to see “Arthur” become a true classic film.  Then there’s Jonathan Larson. 

 

Larson created one of the most beloved musicals of all time, RENT, which won pretty much every award possible.  Sadly, Larson never got to see how his work was embraced, passing away the night before RENT had its first public performance.  But there was more to Larson’s life, and “tick, tick…BOOM!” gives us a musical look at the man behind the music. 

 

Jonathan Larson (an AMAZING Andrew Garfield), is about to workshop the new musical he’s written.  He’s gotten good feedback from everyone whose heard it, from his friends to the great Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford), But Larson feels he needs one more song to, in the words of the late, great Mr. Sondheim, “Put it all together.” 

 

What do you do after you’ve written two Tony-award winning musicals, including the brilliant “Hamilton?”  If you’re Lin-Manuel Miranda you make your feature film directing debut with a musical about one of your peers.  Miranda is a true genius and I can’t think of another modern  director who could bring all of their knowledge of musical theater and translate it to the silver screen.  I say modern because this film would have been right up Bob Fosse’s alley.  The musical numbers are brilliantly staged while the more quiet moments are framed to convey the most powerful of emotions.

Miranda is aided by a top-notch cast, including the aforementioned Mr. Garfield who, besides being one of the best young actors working today, displays a strong singing voice.  The cast is peppered with a who’s who of theater talents, including Joel Grey, Judith Light,  Judy Kuhn and Roger Bart.  I think I even caught Lin-Manuel Miranda as a singing kitchen worker. 

 

As the film progresses, we follow Larson though his daily routine, and as he deals with his daily struggles and those of his friends, we begin to see the first sparks of what will one day become RENT. 

 

“West Side Story” has garnered most of the attention this year as THE movie musical to see.  And that attention is well deserved.  However, as the Jets and the Sharks learn, there is always room for one more.  BOOM!

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

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

Film Review – “Respect”

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

Film Review: “A Shot Through the Wall”

Starring: Kenny Leu, Ciara Renee and Clifton Davis
Directed by: Aimee Long
Rated: NR
Running Time: 89 minutes
Vertical Entertainment

There are plenty of days where I feel like nuance is missing. I say that because we have so much content at our fingertips now, it’s hard to really dive into the meat of something. We need to get to the next piece of content to devour, so we look at the headline or photo and move on. Without diving too deep into the realm of politics “A Shot Through the Wall” still manages to do a very impressive job of reminding us that not everything is black and white.

Mike Tan (Leu), the son of two Chinese immigrants, is a fresh-faced street cop in New York City. Unfortunately for him, his white and also fresh-faced partner looks for trouble where it isn’t, spotting a few young African-American teens who “should be in school.” One of those teens flees, for reasons we don’t know and soon won’t care about. Tan, just a dozen steps behind the teen, ends up in an apartment complex, unholsters his gun, but accidentally fires off a shot under pressure. That one accidental gunshot enters an apartment, killing an African-American man and setting off a chain of events.

“A Shot Through the Wall” plays with a lot of unfortunate things that happen during officer-involved shootings. We see the immediate outrage from the public, even when all the facts aren’t in yet. We also see the cellphone footage that’s released of Officer Tan attempting to revive the man he accidentally shot. What the cellphone doesn’t capture, is everything that led up to that shooting, as well as everything after. Nonetheless, the cellphone footage captures only one part of the incident which still paints Officer Tan in a negative light. We also see accusations of racism and conspiratorial thinking along the lines of police cover-ups, as well as the threat of vigilantes looking for their own brand of justice. On the flip side, we do see how police attempt to smooth things over, through potential plea deals and PR campaigns. While all of this is interesting, that’s not what makes “A Shot Through the Wall” unique, because we’ve seen this before in other movies.

“A Shot Through the Wall” takes us through the emotional toll this takes on Tan, his family, his African-American fiancée and others. The movie does make a critical mistake in not showing us the emotional pain the actual victims family and friends are going through, but that may also be a creative choice on the end of Aimee Long in her first written and directed film. She’s not shy about showing some unmentionable truths, like the fact that Tan isn’t racist at all, but his parents are. Or the fact that Tan goes back and forth on whether or not to put his relationship on the line by publicly proclaiming, “I have a black girlfriend, so I can’t be a racist who shot an unarmed black man.”

In the end though, and throughout the movie, the audience has to wonder: Is Officer Tan innocent? It’s a tough call and the movie, to it’s credits, opts to let Officer Tan say if he is or isn’t himself before the credits roll. “A Shot Through the Wall” isn’t about red vs. blue, Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter, or any of the usual nonsense that’s associated with officer-involved shootings nowadays. It’s about the pain of it all. For that, I’m grateful I watched “A Shot Through the Wall” because we sometimes need a reminder that we’re all humans on this random spinning globe and the only way to confront pain is head-on.

Film Review: “The Harder They Fall”

 

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

Film Review: “Being the Ricardos

 

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

Film Review “The Matrix Resurrections”

Directed by: Lana Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jessica Henwick, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, Priyanka Chopra Jonas
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 148 minutes

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

In terms of films that revolutionized not only the genre that they belong in but the industry as a whole, The Matrix is a shining example of one that changed our culture and our perception of how “good” action films can really be. The sequels, while having their fans (myself included), didn’t quite receive the same amount of praise – but the influence the franchise and the Wachowski’s have had over cinema is undeniable. And with the world getting more and more tech-heavy and blatantly leaning into A.I., what better time to get a Matrix reboot/sequel than right now?

I don’t want to spoil the plot of this one, because the trailers have been pretty vague with the mystery of how certain characters return and how the Matrix universe has evolved since 2003’s The Matrix Revolutions. I can honestly say, warts and all, this film did something that not a lot of blockbusters do nowadays – it genuinely surprise me. While hardcore fans of The Matrix might have a certain idea of where the story could go, I was still shocked to find that this is the most “meta” of the entire franchise thus far.

Sometimes when franchises get to the point of repetition and they try to incorporate more meta elements to acknowledge fans’ frustrations or anxieties of the franchise, it can be truly forced and poorly done. But The Matrix Resurrections feels like an extremely personal movie for Lana Wachowski, almost like she’s expressing to us how she feels about the state of the industry and her role in revolutionizing the action genre/industry as an artist herself; and that’s what makes this stand-out amongst all the yearly reboots we get. It’s not only genuinely clever and funny, but feels like it has narrative and thematic purpose as it comes directly from the creator of the original films.

Undeniably, The Matrix Resurrections is a bit of a mess and falls into a lot of the same issues the other two sequels do with exposition and storytelling. But it’s also a truly audacious and fascinating piece of work that I think pays off greatly by the end, with wonderful action, truly gorgeous cinematography, and a surprising amount of heart to tie it all in. It doesn’t work on every level, but the film is unlike any other blockbuster playing right now and is all the better for it.

Film Review “Spider-Man: No Way Home”

Directed by: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Jacob Batalon
Distributed by Sony Pictures
Running time: 148 minutes

Our Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The ending of 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, where our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man’s identity was revealed to the world by Mysterio, busted the doors open for an abundance of possibilities for what could happen to Peter Parker in his next outing. Spider-Man: No Way Home picks up quite literally right where Far From Home left off, with Peter scrambling through New York while its citizens are shouting either in support of him or straight-up attacking him. This leads Peter to the Sanctum Sanctorum, where he asks Doctor Strange for help to get the world to forget he’s Spider-Man. Things don’t go quite as planned, and from there, multiversal shenanigans ensue.

Like most people, I was incredibly excited for this film. It feels like the first true event film we’ve gotten as a collective since Avengers: Endgame. As more was revealed about who would be returning and how much the film would lean into the multiverse, it both got me more excited but a tiny bit more cautious – I hoped that the film wouldn’t lose sight on our central, MCU Peter Parker in the midst of all of these returning villains or sacrifice character and story for nostalgia. And while the film will certainly be nostalgic for anyone who grew up with Spider-Man like I did, it isn’t a film that is reliant on it for anything but telling a personal and truly ambitious Spider-Man story.

I won’t name specific names in case you’ve gone this far without knowing which villains are returning exactly – but the film does a great balancing act of making them exciting foils for Peter as well as narratively important to the themes. In fact, this might just have the most personal and interesting story for Peter Parker in the MCU so far. The crux of the film is him having the crushing realization of not being able to have everything he wants and still be Spider-Man despite how hard he tries to balance both of his lives. This is a common theme throughout the entire history of the character throughout various forms of mediums – but No Way Home does a fantastic job at making both an epic yet simultaneously personal story for Peter that truly advances and grows the character in dark, powerful, and important ways.

Tom Holland delivers his absolute best outing as Peter Parker/Spider-Man yet here, working with a seriously impressive script full of nuance and moments of real weight and consequences for Peter to grapple with. His chemistry with Zendaya has truly never been better, and the way he interacts with all the villains is as equally charming as it is poetic at times. This is sure to be a massive success, and I’m happy to say that I think it’ll deliver for all the people who have already bought tickets. The action is absolutely incredible from start to finish (see it in IMAX if you can!), the humor is on point, the characters and cast that play them are the best they’ve ever been, and it is far and away the best MCU Spider-Man movie, as well as the most ambitious live-action Spider-Man film thus far. A true love-letter to the character full of heart, ambition, darkness and a whole lot of fun.

Film Review – “Spider-man: No Way Home”

  • SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME
  • Starring: Tom Holland, Zendaya and Bennedict Cumberbatch.
  • Directed by:  Jon Watts
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  2 hrs 28 mins
  • Columbia Pictures

 

Let me say right here at the outset of this review that I am not going to give any spoilers away.  Thank you for your attention.

 When we last saw our friendly, neighborhood web-slinger in “Spider-man: Far From Home,”  he, and the rest of the world, were shocked when Mysterio announced to the world that young Peter Parker was Spider-man.  Those of us in the audience knew it but now EVERYONE knows it.

So now, along with the pressures of starting his senior year of high school, worrying about what college will accept him – he has his heart set on M.I.T. – he has to deal with hundreds of people taking photos of him or hovering in a helicopter above his apartment building.  As things progress Peter discovers that his two best friends, M.J. (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Babalon) are having their lives disrupted simply because they are close to Peter.  Hoping to make things better for his friends, Peter pays a visit to Doctor Strange (Cumberbatch) and asks him for a spell to make everyone forget he’s Spidey.  Well, not everyone.  The spell goes horribly wrong and the adventure begins.

 What you’ve read so far can easily be gleaned from the film’s coming attraction, so I haven’t given away any secrets.  And I won’t.  But DAMN, what a great film!

 

Though I enjoyed the earlier depictions of Spider-man by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, they always seemed a little too mature for the Peter Parker I grew up reading in Marvel Comics.  Tom Holland hit the nail on the head.  He gives both Peter and Spidey a certain innocent bravado, showing their best faces even when the doubt inside is eating away at them.

 As the film progresses, Peter/Spider-man not only have to deal with the police, the press and the public, but also with some villains quite familiar to fans but unknown to him.  Welcome to the Multiverse. 

As in the case of most films in the MCU, the cast is outstanding.  As I’ve already mentioned, I love Holland in the roles of Peter/Spider-man and he is equally matched by Zendaya and  Babalon.  I will admit here that Ned is one of my favorite characters in the series, his love and loyalty for Peter know no boundaries.  The rest of the cast is strong as well, from Cumberbatch to Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May to a variety of familiar faces from the Spider-verse. 

 The script is the perfect combination of humor and action, with a few emotional moments thrown in to remind us why we care for these characters.  The film is well paced by director Watts, and the 2 ½ hours of action seem to fly by.

 The MCU has had more gems than rocks over the years, with pretty much each hero (“Iron Man, Thor) hitting an occasional bump in the road.  Not Spider-man.  To me his series of films is head and shoulders the best of the stand-alone films.

 

Film Review – “West Side Story”

  • WEST SIDE STORY
  • Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler and Rita Moreno
  • Directed by:  Steven Spielberg
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  2 hrs 36 mins
  • Warner Bros

 

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I worship Steven Spielberg.  He made, in my opinion, the greatest film ever  – JAWS – and has produced so many favorites of mine that if I tried to make a list it would stretch longer than this review.  That beings said, when I learned he was putting his spin on “West Side Story,” a film that won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, SIXTY YEARS AGO.  A film that was based on a show that was nominated for 6 Tony Awards, winning two (surprisingly, “The Music Man” was named Best Musical that year), I was a little confused.  Why, I wondered?  If he wanted to do a musical, why not give “Hamilton” a try?  When the first trailers for the new film were released, I saw nothing in them that made me think “this is going to be amazing.”  Mr. Spielberg, my sincere apologies sir.  This film IS amazing!

 

Inspired in part by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the film tells the story of New York City in the late 1950s.  Immigrants are flocking to America in one particular neighborhood the local residents are not fond of their new Puerto Rican neighbors.  Two gangs – the Jets (white) and the Sharks (non-white) constantly battle for control of their “turf.”  Their’s is not a pretty neighborhood, with the ancient brownstone apartment buildings scheduled to be demolished to make way for new high-rises. 

 

When tensions get too high, Riff (Mike Faist) tells the gang that he will challenge Bernardo (David Alvarez) to a rumble at the school dance being held that evening.  Also attending the dance that night are Tony (Elgort), co-founder of the Jets and Riff’s best friend and Maria (Zegler), Bernardo’s sister attending her first dance.  Sounds pretty innocent to me…what could possibly go wrong?

 

Faithful to the original film while also bringing the story to a new generation, ‘West Side Story” is a masterpiece of film making.  From an outstanding cast to the memorable music to the production design, this is a film to be seen on the biggest screen possible and taken in frame by frame.

 

Fans of the 1961 film will find the story a little darker than they remember.  Here Tony is on parole, having served a year in prison for almost beating a boy to death in a rumble.  The city is grimy and dusty and, with the exception of at the dance, the gang members wear threadbare and dirty clothes, a far cry from the pressed and pleated pants there wore previously.  Also, as expected, the Sharks and their associates speak a lot of Spanish, sans subtitles, though I found it easy to follow along with the conversations. 

The cast, led by Elgort and Zegler, is out of this world.  Both are fine in the dramatic scenes and have a true chemistry when they get close.  And they both have excellent singing voices.  This can be said about the rest of the cast, with special mention of Mr. Faist, Ariana DuBose, who plays Anita, Bernardo’s girl and the immortal Rita Moreno.  Ms. Moreno won the Supporting Actress Oscar for “West Side Story” sixty-years ago and very well may do it again with her performance here.  The rest of the supporting cast is equally good and I want to put a spotlight on Iris Menas, who plays Anybody’s.  She doesn’t have a lot of screen time but she is the emotional heart of the film when she is on-screen.    

 

The music is timeless, and even if you’ve never seen the original film you are certainly aware of the many songs the show and film made famous.  Sadly, lyricist Stephen Sondheim passed away a couple of weeks ago but his words will live on forever.  The choreography is well crafted, with the original ideas of Jerome Robbins being folded into a new, more frenetic style.

 

With a few weeks left in 2021, “West Side Story” is looking to be the best film of the year.

Film Review “House of Gucci”

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek, Al Pacino
Distributed by: United Artists Releasing
Running time: 157 minutes

Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

At the ripe age of 83, Ridley Scott has delivered us with *two* star-studded dramas this fall alone. For every The Counselor the man has made, he is undeniably the gift that keeps on giving with big budget, adult dramas. And House of Gucci is no exception to that pitch – from Lady Gaga to Jeremy Irons to Adam Driver to Al Pacino and even Jared Leto, the film has an absolutely stacked cast. The film follows Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) as she marries Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and into the Gucci family name. From the get-go, the marriage is full of drama, resentment, and disapproval from all corners of the Gucci family and business. This ultimately leads to a lot of betrayal and revenge as the family and dynasty collapses upon itself.

I went into House of Gucci with pretty high expectations. Despite Scott cranking out some duds over the last few years, The Martian and The Last Duel both gave me some hope for his work moving forward as they were immensely solid dramas. However, despite the film featuring an absolutely incredible cast and a lot of potential for meaty, hard-hitting drama – it mostly results to lightly entertaining, campy story-telling. It’s not to say that House of Gucci is necessarily a bad film, because it isn’t. It just feels like it has so many opportunities to be better than it is at nearly every turn, and it succumbs to being “decent and entertaining enough” for a majority of its running time.

One thing that I can’t fault the film for are the performances. Despite the story and script not coming together as much as I feel like it should have, the entire cast really comes to play here. Just like she did in 2018’s A Star is Born, Lady Gaga absolutely steals the show here with a harrowing and viciously entertaining performance that rides the line of just being sympathetic enough before it excuses what her character does. Adam Driver, Al Pacino, and Jeremy Irons also all do really solid work here as well, and work even better when they’re acting alongside one another. The only performance I’m a bit mixed on is Jared Leto, who is under some HEAVY makeup and prosthetics. There were points where I laughed at his performance and found it to be effectively amusing in a way that feels intentional. However, I feel like the film too often tries to make you feel for the character while at the same time it makes him out to be an absolute imbecile to say the least. I’m curious if a rewatch changes this for me.

Another complaint I have is that the film runs on a hefty 158 minute running time. Running times usually aren’t an issue for me if the film justifies the length with proper storytelling, but House of Gucci feels ridiculously overlong even by the halfway point. Even with that being said, the film gets by on having a superb cast that elevate the material and Ridley Scott does a decent job at making it entertaining. The story just feels a bit unfocused and there is really no urgency to the plot progression. It’s fine in the moment, but I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed in how it feels like it could’ve been better. 

Film Review “Licorice Pizza”

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie
Distributed by
United Artists Releasing
Running time: 133 minutes

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Set in the San Fernando Valley in the early 1970s, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film Licorice Pizza is so evidently a love letter to the Hollywood time period that Anderson grew up in. The film follows Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who is a charismatic child actor… except he’s now 15, and is slowly losing his childlike edge and looks that got him cast in the first place. Then during picture day at his high school he meets Alana (Alana Haim), an older girl who seems to be a bit aimless in life, by bouncing from job to job and desperately trying to get out of the town she grew up in. Gary quickly falls head over heels in love with Alana, before she quickly humbles him into realizing the age difference between the two. The rest of the film delicately explores a “will they, won’t they, should they?” dynamic that is coded in angst, heartache, and wildly entertaining misadventures.

Just to put my cards on the table right off the bat, Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite working director today and maybe even of all-time. The man has simply never made anything that hasn’t been an absolute masterpiece in my eyes. So with all of that being said, I was immediately fascinated to hear that his newest film was going to be a coming of age movie.. especially considering his last film was about an egocentric fashion designer in London. And now that I’ve seen it, I can honestly say it’s the type of movie that reminds you why you love movies. Every single second of this film is so infectiously charming and entertaining, all the while being matched with the absolutely insane talent and craft that Paul Thomas Anderson always brings to the table as a director. From amazing tracking shots to lush cinematography and an expertly used soundtrack, this is a film that’s as equally entertaining as it is technically perfected. 

Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim both give extraordinary performances here, especially considering it’s both of their feature-film debuts. But it’s when they share the screen together and the chemistry simply oozes off the screen. Every moment they spend together, whether it’s getting into trouble together or sharing an intimate conversation with each other, is absolute cinematic magic and reminds you how infectious it is to watch two amazing performers simply work off of one another. There is a whole star-studded supporting cast featured here as well, from Tom Waitts to Sean Penn to Benny Safdie – but Bradley Cooper also nearly steals the whole show with his brief appearance that had me laughing so hard that I cried. 

The film pulls off an incredibly impressive balancing act that works as both a love letter to this certain point in time for Hollywood as well as an extremely tender and emotional coming of age story. I usually think being “accessible” to modern audiences is a bit of an overrated idea, but I think Paul Thomas Anderson truly found a sweet spot with Licorice Pizza, a film that plays so well with an audience but will be an absolute critical and awards darling this time next year. Far and away one of, if not my absolute favorite film of the year so far. 

Film Review: “Ghostbusters: Afterlife”

 

GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE

Starring: Carrie Coon, McKenna Grace and Paul Rudd

Directed by: Jason Reitman

Rated: PG 13

Running time: 2 hrs 5 mins

SONY Pictures

 

 In the summer of 1984 I began my career as a movie theatre manager in Baltimore. One of the first films shown in my theatre – “Ghostbusters.” The film has a special place in my heart for this reason and I went into “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” hoping it would not disappoint. It sure didn’t!

 

A man runs horridly through a corn field, careening this way and that, trying to outrun a seemingly invisible enemy. He makes it to his front porch, throws a large switch and relaxes. He’s safe. Right?

 

A great throwback to the 1980s, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” picks up decades after the events in “Ghostbusters II.” Like “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” “Jaws 3-D” and 2016’s all-female film – which I enjoyed – the series seems to be ignoring the third films in their respective series. You’ll get no argument from me.

 

Callie (Carrie Coon) and her two childrent, Trevor (the always fun to watch Finn Wolfhard) and his younger sister Phoebe (Grace) have come to a small town in Oklahoma to settle the estate of Callie’s estranged father. While Trevor is mischievous and looking for excitement – in a town that is pretty much befeft of it – Phoebe is very serious and scientific. While Trevor tries to hang with the cool kids, Phoebe investiages the house and finds some odd looking scientific equipment. When she takes it to school her teacher, Mr. Gooberson (Rudd) comments on what a great “replica” she has brought in. Confused by the comment, she asks Mr. G to explain and he fills her in on the massive ghost activity that took place in New York City in the early 1980s. Intrigued by the story, and what she has found, Phoebe begins a search to learn who her grandfather was and why he had all of these amazing toys.

Co-written and directed by Jason Reitman, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is just fine as a stand alone story but if you are a fan of the earlier films, you will be overwhelmed by the various “Easter Eggs” Reitman has hidden for you to find. Reitman’s father, Ivan, directed the first two films in the series and services as a producer on this one and it’s obvious he has shared his love for the project with his son.

 

But this is not your father’s “Ghostbusters.” It is a lot darker than the earlier films, and people hoping to introduce their kids to the series should be aware of that. Reitman keeps the pace moving and the visual effects – which I thought were the weak part of the film in  1984 – are spectacular. Or, if you will permit me, “Spooktacular!”

Win a Blu-ray Copy of the New Film “Caveat”

 

Media Mikes is giving two random readers a chance to win a Blu-ray copy of the new film “Caveat.”

All you have to do is comment below what film you are most looking forward to seeing this holiday season.  Two random comments will be chosen and they will each receive a Blu-ray copy of the film.  Pretty simple!  This giveaway ends at 10:00 pm EST on Thursday, November 18th.  Good luck!

Written and directed by Damian Mc Carthy in his feature directorial debut, CAVEAT stars Ben Caplan (“Band of Brothers”), Jonathan French (The Anniversary), Leila Sykes (“Missing Something), Inma Pavon (Felicidad) and Conor Dwane (Christmas at Draculas).

SYNOPSIS: In desperate need of money, Isaac accepts a job looking after his landlord’s niece, Olga, for a few days. But there is a catch. He must wear a leather harness and chain that restricts his movements to certain rooms in order to protect Olga’s extremely frail mental state. Once left alone with Isaac, Olga exhibits erratic behavior, while Isaac makes horrific discoveries in the house that trigger a deeply buried, traumatic memory.

Film Review “Eternals”

Directed by: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie
Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios
Running time: 156 minutes

Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

There is nothing saying “Eternals” that it is nothing short of epic. The film spans from 5,000 B.C. to Present Day and everything in between…it just doesn’t deliver throughout its already over long 157-minute running time. Chloé Zhao tries to shoot the film as an indie drama but ends up over playing the action scenes, which end up far and few between. I also wanted a bit more of a connection to the MCU. I get it they mention Thanos in the commercials but they really don’t bring everything together fast enough.

There is a lot going on in the “Eternals”. There are no less than 10 main characters, a handful of villains and even Marvel’s first love scenes between two superheroes, hence the PG-13 rating, so parents beware for sure. Even though there is so much packed into this film, there still feels like something is missing. We get to learn a little bit about each of our team of Superheroes but it just doesn’t seem like enough. I wanted more.

Official Premise: Marvel Studios’ Eternals features an exciting new team of Super Heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ancient aliens who have been living on Earth in secret for thousands of years. Following the events of Avengers: Endgame, an unexpected tragedy forces them out of the shadows to reunite against mankind’s most ancient enemy, the Deviants.

The ensemble cast includes Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) as Sersi, Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) as Ikaris, Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) as Kingo, Lia McHugh (The Lodge) as Sprite, Brian Tyree Henry (Godzilla vs. Kong) as Phastos, Lauren Ridloff (The Walking Dead) as Makkari, Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) as Druig, Don Lee (Train to Busan) as Gilgamesh, with Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) as Dane Whitman, with Salma Hayek (The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard) as Ajak, and Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) as Thena. 

Personally, I have not been aware of actress, Gemma Chan. She was definitely a highlight for the film. I didn’t enjoy her chemistry with Richard Madden though. Kumail Nanjiani is one of my favorite human beings ever and steals every scene he’s in. Brian Tyree Henry gets to break some Marvel ground with the first gay on-screen kiss for a superhero. Love this dude for sure. He is funny as hell. Don Lee kicks some major ass. Where are my Train to Busan fans at?! Salma Hayek is in the movie for a few minutes, which is a shame cause she rules also. Lastly Angelina Jolie tries to fit in as much as she can but she feels like a mom hanging out with her kids friends instead. She doesn’t fit in this movie at all.

The visual effects are impressive, I feel like Marvel out does themselves everything they release a new movie. I had the privilege of watching this film in IMAX and yes it was impressive seeing 26% more of the film on the big screen. If you can see the film on IMAX, I would definitely recommend that for sure. I can’t see this film really wowing anyone on a small phone screen or something like that. I feel like the bigger the better for sure. Be sure to stay through the credits because there are two scenes mid credits and then post credits. I won’t spoil anything but they are fun for Marvel fans but I still was left wanting more from the movie itself.