CAPTAIN MARVEL – GOOD IN SPITE OF ITSELF

SHORT TAKE: Latest and fun addition to the Marvel Universe of super heroes and the bridge between Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, Captain Marvel is a super hero who just happens to be a female, re-discovering her real identity while meeting Young Nick Fury and Young Phil Coulson.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Family friendly: Young teens and up should be fine, perhaps even middle schoolers with parental discretion. A handful of mild profanities but otherwise pretty clean. The violence, albeit mostly cartoonish, one alien autopsy, and threats to a family with small children might upset the littler members of the family depending on disposition.

LONG TAKE:

Mark Twain is incorrectly thought to have said: “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” But much like Rick’s famous misquote from Casablanca: “Play It Again, Sam” or Jimmy Cagney’s “Top of the world, Ma!” or Oliver Hardy’s “Another fine mess you’ve gotten me into,” while close, are famously – not… quite… accurate. It just goes to show how persistent mistakes can be carried on into posterity if quoted often enough.

And just so, I had read in a number of early pre-opening screening reviews that Captain Marvel was rife with promotions of feminist propaganda and an anti-male manifesto. After watching the movie I discovered all this hype to be wrong. On the contrary I found Captain Marvel quite charming, a fitting addition to the Marvel superhero universe, and most importantly – FUN. Not at all the feminist manifesto it was touted to be.

However, I understand how the misunderstanding arose.  For example, what some people, women in particular, perceived as examples of women being treated with negative bias in the military, I saw as the quite natural hazing common to ALL military newbies.

If you remember back to Captain America, Steve Rogers pre-superhero serum, was the butt of a lot of disrespect in both civilian life as well as boot camp. No one at the time complained that it was an example of discrimination against slightly built men, but appropriately just defined his backstory and provided a dramatic comparison for Steve Rogers’ transformation, as well as defining his character traits of courage, persistence and dignity in the face of adversity.

Similarly, Carol Danvers, aka Vers aka Captain Marvel, like any other human, faces obstacles specific to her background and physique before she can become the hero that is needed. Everyone has limitations as well as challenges they must overcome to achieve their goals and dreams. For reviewers to see logical challenges in the very competitive field of Air Force pilot training as discrimination is to have a ridiculous prejudice against men and a foolish bias in favor of women, which assumes that no woman should fail just because she’s a woman. That is inherently stupid. And it’s all just throwaway McGuffin background anyway.

Where did the feminist rumor come from? Like most rumors – from half truths. It is true that Brie Larson made some rather blunt and rude comments about white male reviewers. Personally I wouldn’t take offense were the playing field equal and white men were allowed to make similar comments about women. Her dismissive comment that she is not interested in hearing what a white male has to say about a movie with a female lead does not bother me half so much as the thought that if a white male said something in reverse he would be eviscerated. Can you imagine someone getting away with saying they are not interested in hearing what a minority woman has to say about Justice League since there were no minority women in the lead roles? The liberals would have lost they’re narrow little minds. Yet Brie Larson is lauded for her equally offensive remark. The inequity truly rankles the reasonable mind. How about: I’m not interested in what a woman has to say about 12 Strong because there were no women in the lead roles? Or I’m not interested in what an Eskimo has to say about West Side Story? Or ANYONE other than a white middle class male has to say about Castaway because Tom Hanks was just about the only one IN the movie? You see how ridiculous this liberal, politically correct, so-called “mentality” quickly becomes?

Larson simply expressed herself boorishly in voicing a reasonable desire to include a more interesting combination of reporters, like: the disabled, women, and minorities. I only wish she’d included homeschoolers, and faith-based reporters. But, of course, good luck with that one.

Regardless of all that CAPTAIN MARVEL IS A GOOD MOVIE.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS – BE WARNED

Captain Marvel is about a military pilot, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson who knocked it out of the ball park in The Glass Castle – see my post here) who mysteriously ends up believing she is a member of an alien race’s warrior class, fighting the Skrulls, a race of extremely dangerous shape shifters who threaten the Universe in general and Earth in particular. On an investigative mission she winds up on Earth, meets a young, two-eyed Nick Fury and starts unraveling the mystery of her past.

Captain Marvel was co-directed by the established team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who, up to now, have done Sundance award winning shorts and indies. They were chosen because of their insightful enthusiasm for the character of Carol Danvers. The duo have created a very solid and entertaining bridge between the two Avengers movies.

The CGI was interesting but, possibly deliberately, of checkerboard quality. Danvers in full bore Captain Marvel mode looked a bit like a highly rendered cartoon – a nice homage, I thought, to her comic book origins.

As to the youthened Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, either Jackson has a picture of Dorian Gray tucked somewhere in his attic or they did a masterful job with the special effects. Jackson looks legitimately 20 years younger in the movie. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Clark Gregg, whose younger Phil Coulson looked like a creepy, unnaturally smooth-faced caricature. Even were this choice purposeful due to the nature of the Skrulls and the part they play, other Skrull “imitations” looked far more natural and, assuredly, Fury would have picked up on it far before he did.

Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, a Skrull adversary. Mendelsohn usually plays flat, two-dimensional bad guys, like the evil mad scientist Orson Krenic, in Star Wars: Rogue One or the diabolical businessman Sorento in Ready Player One. Mendelsohn’s Talos has a bit more to him, even a sense of humor, and it is nice to see Mendelsohn tackle a character with a bit more complexity.

Jude Law, the third man up to bat as Dumbledore, plays Yon Rogg, Captain Marvel’s mentor.

Annette Benning plays both Dr. Wendy Lawson, as well as a manifestation of the Kree Supreme Artificial Intelligence, which serves as teacher to the Kree.

As a side note, I thought the choice of Annette Benning in an important supporting role in a superhero movie was odd, familiar as we are with her in emotion-driven interpersonal dramas, like her shrewish unfaithful wife in American Beauty. Casting Benning in a major sci-fi is a peculiar fit which I am not completely sure works. She is a decent actress. She did manage a very serviceable Queen Elizabeth in a modern rendition of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third some years ago, after all. Science fiction is just not the genre I normally associate her with. However, her screen time is fairly small, so this casting choice is not a big drawback.

And then – MOST importantly – there’s Goose the cat played, depending upon the demands of the scene, by: Reggie, Gonzo, Archie and Rizzo – all of whom got along famously with both Samuel L. and Ms. Larson despite the fact Jackson is self described as not a cat person and Larson is actually allergic to them. Obviously all six of them are consummate professionals. LOL

Pinar Toprak (who, with Danny Elfman, also did the soundtrack for Justice League, and has composed for other films, TV shows and video games) wrote the soundtrack, which stays in the vein of the triumphant and inspirational themes in other Avengers movies. Toprak also intersperses songs like Crazy on You by Heart, Man on the Moon by R.E.M. and Only When it Rains by Garbage, which, similar to the casting of Annette Benning, is another unusual creative choice by this film team, requiring some getting used to, but is not off putting.

In conclusion:

Is Captain Marvel a good movie and a worthy inclusion to the Marvel Universe in general and the Avengers franchise in particular? Yes.

Do I wish they had left the gender politics drivel out of the equation? Most certainly.

But when it comes to marketing, as my Dad used to say: “Say something good about me, say something bad about me, but don’t say nothing about me.” Still, someone should inform Ms. Larson that perhaps it would be sensible, if not just courteous, to avoid deliberately alienating the fundamental demographic which has, frankly, built the financial empire of the comic book industry: THE WHITE MALE – especially since Captain Marvel was created AS a male, so the incarnation as a female is really borrowing off the male pioneered territory. She should be saying an appreciative: “Thank you,” instead of starting a snide spitting contest.

Most comic book hero authors were men: Stan Lee, Bob Kane, William Marston, Jerry Siegel, Bill Parker to name only a meager few.

And without the WHITE TEENAGED MALES there would be no comic book industry such as it is. Up until recently the vast majority of the comic book reading/buying demographic WAS male.

Am I the only one who can see that if the odds were so terribly stacked against woman, as the gender-victim baiters and pseudo politician-community agitators would have you believe, that this movie would never have been made?

Larson should consider that she has made it to the top of what is currently considered the Hollywood Mountain. Her movie is going to make a bazillion dollars. She should learn a little etiquette and be gracious in her win.

That being said, I DO think, thematically,  it WAS a wise decision to make Captain Marvel a female, if for no other reason than there is already a VERY well established MALE super hero with a “Captain” nomenclature against which she would NOT want to compete in a popularity contest. (To paraphrase a wise Black Widow – “That’s a question she just  does not need to get answered.”)

Meanwhile – I think we would all have a much better time if everyone, Miss Larson included, and perhaps especially, should just chill out.

Thankfully and ultimately, Captain Marvel is about the creation of a super hero who just happens to be a woman, NOT about the creation of an expressly female super hero.

I must admit that a surprising homage to Stan Lee in the opening credits had me a bit choked up. Without him none of these creations: Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Ant Man, Yondu, Peggy Carter, Dr. Strange, Magneto, Loki, Ronan, Professor X, T’Chala, Groot and the plethora of others that populate most of the Marvel Universe (See the list of Stan Lee’s creations on Wikipedia here)  would exists and for that we all owe Mr. Lee a tremendous debt of gratitude. I pray he finds the joy and inspiration he brought to millions while he was alive awaiting him in eternity. The film makers gave him a lovely appropriate epitaph send-off just before the opening credits to Captain Marvel, as well as a delightful posthumous cameo, almost breaking the fourth wall, in the middle of the movie. Thank you Stan, you will indeed be missed.

ALITA – BATTLE ANGEL – A WELL TOLD, BUT ADULT, TALE OF A CYBORG HERO IN A DYSTOPIAN FUTURE SOCIETY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Fascinating animation/real action mix story based on a long-running Japanese manga series,  about a cyborg girl reconstructed and “adopted” by a human and the dystopian society they both must navigate to survive.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens/young adults minimum for language, and extreme violence.

LONG TAKE:

BEYOND HERE BE OCCASIONAL SPOILERS

This first heads up is more of a warning than a spoiler. Alita: Battle Angel is nowhere near a completed story. James Cameron takes a page from Peter Jackson’s playbook – giving us great character introductions, wonderful interpersonal relationships, interesting and fearsome enemies, exciting battle scenes …. and an abrupt unfinished ending. OK – technically the titular director is Robert Rodriguez but with James Cameron as the scriptwriter you know many of the decisions in the filming of this movie were done as a collaborative effort.

A musical analogy would liken it to ending a symphony on a dominant chord instead of the tonic chord, meaning a note that does not feel complete. Another way to look at it would be to begin the phrase ” shave and a haircut…”

Anyone who has seen the brilliant three-part Lord of the Rings series or the bloated Hobbit trilogy knows that Mr. Jackson likes to end his first story not exactly with a cliffhanger but with a temporary break in the action, taking Donald O’Conner’s advice to: “Always leave your audience wanting more,” to heart. Jackson ends his movies at about the place where one might choose to hit the pause button in the middle of the movie after one has had too many sodas.

And Mr. Cameron and Robert Rodriguez have done exactly the same thing with Alita – starting with an involving, well told story which then drops off a cliff. To be fair, this is on purpose.

HOWEVER, this is not surprising as Alita: Battle Angel is based, in whole and in part, on the first four of a NINE VOLUME manga series written between 1990-1995 by Yukito Kishiro called Gunnm (translated literally as “Gun Dream”). Alita: Battle Angel, the movie, like the manga series before it, is about a cyborg girl rescued from a dumpster and reconstructed by a cybernetics physician in a dystopian society set about 500 years from now.

The CGI was astonishing. James Cameron, who has been enamored of this manga series for about 10 years, said that he was waiting for the technology to become advanced enough to meet the demands of how he saw the film should be made. And he does not disappoint.

Rosa Salazar who plays the eponymous character is quoted to have said: “I’m a walking piece of technology, so that made it actually quite easy to fall into the physicality of a cyborg.” Photos of her show her dressed literally from head to foot in motion capture, including the unusual addition of two cameras on her face. Watching the behind-the-scenes was amusing as the actress would have to subtly duck and weave around the other actor’s head when coming close to avoid clobbering them with the extra headgear (which technology was, of course, CGIed out in post production). But the slight dance goes smoothly in the final product due to Ms. Salazar’s skillful body language and the technical prowess of the computer geniuses who brought Alita to life.

It’s interesting to see Christoph Waltz as a good guy. Usually he plays very rough, sometimes cold blooded or downright evil characters – such as being the most recent incarnation of James Bond’s antagonist Blofeld in Spectre, or the chilling psycho-Nazi Landa in Inglourious Basterds (sic), or the abusive plagiarizing husband in Big Eyes – the list goes on. But in Alita, Waltz is a nurturing protective creator/father-figure, his normally scary edge giving believability to his “side job”.

Jennifer Connelly, whose pedigree dates all the way back to David Bowie’s 1986 fantasy, Labyrinth, is Ido’s estranged wife and, therefore, Alita’s “mother”.

Mahershala Ali (Green Book – see my post on that brilliant movie) is the lead baddie’s main henchman.

Keean Johnson does a delightful job of charming Alita as the shady boyfriend, Hugo, in a mixed motivational character with shifting alliances that Clark Gable might have played way back when. And I MUST note that Mr. Johnson is a HOMESCHOOLED KID!!! Check out his bio here on us.imdb.com.

There are also some VERY fun cameos, which are designed for Mr. Cameron’s hoped for sequel. Jai Courtney (Terminator Genisys – and don’t laugh at me, I REALLY LIKED that movie – see my post on it here) plays Jashugan, a champion in Motorball, the gladiatorial game played in Alita. Edward Norton (he is to Hulk as Tobey Maguire was to Spiderman – close but no cigar, also in Collateral Beauty – see post here, Fight Club, and American History X), appears in a couple of  – don’t blink or you’ll miss it – moments as Nova the ULTIMATE controller of the sky city of Zalem, who becomes Alita’s nemesis and the target of her future goals to storm said city. Both have uncredited parts. Mr. Cameron explained that even if they never make the sequel, that those characters were must-haves in the story and essential to show. And, he said, if they did make a sequel that they wanted heavy hitters for those roles. Both men, Courtney and Norton, are friends and work colleagues of Cameron’s, so were more than willing to participate even in these tiny roles to help further the prospect of a sequel.

The soundtrack, written by Antonius B. Holkenborg, who goes by Junkie XL, is gorgeous and positively symphonic, creating a delightful variety of emotions from Alita’s sweetly, almost fairy-like awakening in Dr. Ido’s home to Terminator-feel violent reflections of her experiences in the Motorball battles against homicidal cyborgs during the Rollerball-level lethal game.

For anyone who is not old enough or geeky enough to remember the 1975 movie Rollerball, starring James Caan (whose credits date from the iconic tear-jerker sports game Brian’s Song, to the ill-fated Corleone son in The Godfather, to the voice of the tech-befuddled Dad in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), it is worth taking note.  Motorball, as presented in Alita is a DUPLICATE of the murderous gladiatorial eponymous game played in the movieRollerball,   set in another dystopian ultra-violent society. It is obvious Mr. Kishiro is familiar with this story.

There has been some controversy over the use of oversized eyes in Alita. Some say they are disturbing and off-putting. I strongly disagree with the naysayers. Alita’s unusually large orbs perform a multiplicity of plot functions. For one, it highlights Alita AS a cyborg. There is no mistaking her for a natural born full human. For another, if windows are the eyes to the soul, then Alita wears hers not just on her sleeve right next to her heart but right there on her face for all the world to see. Between the fine acting and the quality CGI every subtlety of Alita’s growing and changing emotions and character are there for the audience to relate. Large,  disproportionate eyes are also a feature of small young creatures, including humans. It is one of the designations which mark an inchoate being, not just inspiring protective feelings of those around them but signaling their fundamental innocence. While Alita does do some horrific things it is from her training in her previous life and only done for the protection of others – Ido, her human friend Hugo, even a stray dog.

Alita has a couple of obstacles to hurdle to gain the attention and affection of a Western audience. The first and most obvious is, of course, the manga origin, which is a subset of an already limited demographic of comic book sales. The second is her identity as a warrior cyborg, which could have been an automatic bias against her given the Terminator series. I think her preternaturally large eyes help create an almost instant connection to this character, helping break down those barriers. I thought the device clever, without being (IF you will excuse the VERY deliberate pun) “in your face” and quite effective.

While animated AND based on a comic book character, Alita is NOT for children. There is EXTREME violence, which includes dismemberment, crushed heads, and death. It is likely the movie might have been saddled with an R rating had Cameron and Rodriguez not had the simple foresight to make cyborg “blood” obviously manufactured blue instead of gory red. There is at least one gratuitous “F” bomb uttered by Alita, herself. And they even violate one of MY personal taboos – they KILL A DOG! Though this happens, admittedly, out of sight, Alita smears the dog’s red blood under her eyes like war paint before beginning her quest to defeat the tyrannical forces which have been unleashed against her and her ersatz family.

As a result this is not a movie either for the young nor the faint of heart.  For a more mature audience, however, it is a spectacular and creatively told outing. It is interesting to almost “feel” the Japanese manga origins in the way the characters react in more restrained, almost “Vulcan” ways than an America audience might be used to.

In addition, the plot moves along quickly and efficiently. It does not dawdle on relatively trivial points on which many similar genre American movies might languish. For example, there is a bit of tension created from Ido not telling Alita initially that the name he chose for her was that of his murdered daughter. (In the original manga series it was Ido’s cat, but Cameron’s script, wisely, I thought, decided on a more emotionally compelling attachment). Honestly, in an America movie this omission might have been held on to for a prolonged period then left as a mid-first act or even mid-second act “reveal”. Instead, Alita establishes this “secret” only long enough for the audience to find out, then has Ido explain it to Alita fairly expeditiously.  To avoid spoilers I won’t give any more examples, but suffice to say this style is adapted throughout the movie. Such choices clear the way for a more intelligent plot.

I do recommend Alita but only for an older audience of late teens/young adults and up. It is refreshingly different and well written. It features excellent acting, especially considering the massive amounts of green screen in the landscape and motion capture equipment on the people with which the actors must contend. The music is worth listening to all by itself. But DO keep in mind the ending is VERY unsatisfying – albeit contrived purposefully so – as a build up for the next installment.

GREEN BOOK – MUST SEE COMEDY-DRAMA LESSON ON HISTORY AND HUMANITY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF GREEN BOOK REVIEW

 

SHORT TAKE:

Excellent buddy dramedy based closely on the real life friendship between a black gifted but haughty pianist and the thuggish but fundamentally noble white bouncer he hires to chauffeur him during a concert tour through the Deep South in the 1960’s.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Any mature mid-teen and up but with parental discretion due to language, the examination of extreme racism during this time period and some conversation topics.

LONG TAKE:

Green Book is one of the most delightfully charming movies I’ve seen in a long time. The story is about a New York Copacabana bouncer, Tony Vallelonga, conventionally bigoted for the 1960s, hired as the driver for a brilliant black pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, for a concert tour through the Deep South.

Based on a true story, Tony Vallelonga was already a part of Hollywood. The real Vallelonga appeared in movies like Goodfellas. His son, Nick, wrote and helped produce this movie based upon interviews with him and Dr. Shirley about this road trip taken when Nick was a little boy.

The title refers to the name of the catalogue the men use as a guide for the places that black people were allowed to go – the hotels, vacation spots, tourist areas, bars, and gas stations where black people could stay without fear of harassment from regional authorities and punitive local ordinances. The title comes from its author, Victor Hugo Green, a New York postman and a black man. The book was published yearly from 1936 until 1966, when Civil Rights Law made it, thankfully, obsolete.

The unlikely pair are wonderful to watch. An entire play could have been made just out of their time in the car together as they exchange observations of the world from their own unique perspectives. Tony is white, tough, with a mediocre education, naive in his own way, and world-wise in others, who lives in a simple small house with his devoted wife and two boys,  living somewhat hand to mouth, between jobs, even willing to engage in a hot dog eating contest for an extra $50 towards the soon-to-be due rent. Shirley also grew up poor, but after being recognized for his gifted playing has become an effete, sheltered, black man residing in an artfully appointed apartment literally above Carnegie Hall. He distances himself from his black heritage in particular and most people in general. Both have much to teach the other.

We get a tour of 1960’s Americana, from the gift stands at the local gas stations to the tough bars, and the “coloreds only” seedy hotels to which Dr. Shirley is relegated because of the color of his skin.

The acting is Oscar-worthy. Mortensen, stepping, chameleon-like into the skin of this gruff and uneducated but likeable and protective bodyguard, is almost unrecognizable in physique, mannerisms or even speech patterns from such previous characters as the seduced professor Halder from Good or the incorruptible hero Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. Along with the accent, the body movements and facial expressions of Vallelonga, which surviving son Nick claimed were so accurate they brought him to tears, Mortensen gained 45 pounds to get into character. Mortensen’s Vallelonga is a three-dimensional character from moment one on the screen throughout. Brutal and thoughtful, principled and amoral, loving father, devoted faithful husband, and violent bouncer, Mortensen creates a completely recognizable person from characteristics which could have lent themselves to a cliched caricature.

Mahershala Ali (small parts in Hidden Figures and Hunger Games) does an excellent job of portraying the stiff and defensive Shirley while incorporating the subtle chinks in his armor through which the unassuming Vallelonga connects. His Shirley is sensitive and subtle with a tough core of dignity, principle, and determined courage.

Linda Cardellini (Daddy’s Home) is lovely as Tony’s devoted wife, Dolores. In real life the Vallelongas were happily married for 41 years until her death in 1999.

In addition there is the fantastic music, and delightful songs played in classical mode by Dr. Shirley. The background soundtrack was written by Karol Bowers whose hands, through the miracle of CGI, physically sub for the gifted Dr. Shirley piano performances. Much effort went into blending Ali’s physical performance with Bowers piano playing prowess and it works very convincingly.

Peter Farrelly, whose credits up until now mostly amounted to questionable  movies such as Three Stooges, Movie 43 and Shallow Hal, has really found his inspiration in this script. Green Book is masterfully crafted – balancing the natural humor that comes from people simply interacting with each other against the tragic drama of abuse, condescension and indignities which black people endured all over the country during the 1960’s. Every detail is complete and period – from the gas station gift stands full of trinkets to the chandeliered restaurants and the florid night clubs.

By all accounts the script details both their trip and their characters very accurately, coalescing experiences described in interviews with both Vallelonga and Shirley. The only liberty taken was that the road trip lasted, not two months, but a year and a half! While taken directly and in detail from real life, the story still serves as an allegory. Vallelonga is an  example of the transformation America was making from the caricature perceptions of minorities to the informed friendships and respect which would soon be crafted, blossom and become commonplace all over the country.

Historically educational, were it not for the rough language, admittedly appropriate to the characters, their occupations, times and places, and one scene depicting a massive character flaw of Shirley, this movie would be family-appropriate. As it is, while I very highly recommend this movie, it is only for midteens and up and even then only upon the discretion of a pre-informed parent. The language is not confined to profanity, but is littered with historically accurate racial epithets often casually included in conversation.

This is a movie both men should be very proud of having made. It touches on very sensitive racial issues from the ’60’s but does so with politically incorrect good natured humor, an acknowledgement of the past with both its virtues and its mistakes, and attention to detail in authenticity which would have made any history professor proud.

With its slice of the past, the inspirational character learning curves, the marvelous music, and the splendid performances, time going to see Green Book is time well spent.

THE MULE – HARD EARNED ADVICE FROM CLINT EASTWOOD

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE MULE REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Rough but insightful view of the true story of an 88 year old man’s experiences as a mule for a drug cartel, with some autobiographical overtones for Eastwood in the foolish sacrifice the main character makes of his family in preference for his business life.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only for language, topics, and environments which include wild parties, drugs and scantily clad prostitutes.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS

I admire those who make movies that are completely politically incorrect. It takes great big brass bowling, base, golf, and basket ones to do so in this day and age. And that’s what I love about Clint Eastwood – and he must have a large collection of sports equipment. At the age of 88, with a repertoire of films including cultish Spaghetti Westerns like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, action icons like Dirty Harry, directorial accomplishments like American Sniper, even comedies like Paint Your Wagon (did you know before The Mule he could sing…well carry a tune) and masterpieces which he has directed and starred in like  Gran Torino and Unforgiven, I do not think Clint Eastwood has anyone to prove himself to or fear but God.

There is a wise saying: If you can’t be a good example, be a horrible warning, and Eastwood’s main character, Earl, is that person who, by his own warning, is not someone whose behavior you would want to adhere.

The Mule is about an elderly man, Earl Stone who, at the end of his rope financially and anxious to make amends with his estranged family, becomes a transport for a cartel of drug dealers. Earl has spent his love and devotion on an ultimately unsuccessful day lily nursery instead of his family. With this in mind, the movie becomes a horrible warning against living a misdirected life with the day lily as a wonderful symbol of the brevity of our time on Earth which, like our lives, blooms for a day then fades.

While Earl’s motives in the movie may be noble and the money he earns is spent on worthwhile events: his daughter’s wedding and the renovation of the local Veterans Lodge, it does not excuse his participation as one of the links in the drug trade which destroyed so many other people’s lives, even as he was reinvigorating his own. The story is based upon the real life Leo Sharp, featured in a New York Times article by Sam Dolnick.

I heard it speculated that there was an element of autobiography for Eastwood in this story. Not that Mr. Eastwood has ever conveyed illegal pharmaceuticals for Mexican drug lords, but that Eastwood, much like the character he portrays, in his pursuit for fame, financial security and business success may have felt he traded his family life for an ambitious career. It is a fine line to walk, between working hard to care for your family and to trade your family for your work.

Eastwood is a fine character actor, who has made a career of portraying the same interesting, likeable character in a wide variety of movies. There’s little difference among the likes of the cheroot chewing Blondie in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, looking down the barrel of the very big gun of Inspector Calahan in the Dirty Harry franchise, the singing Pardner in Paint Your Wagon, the scheming eponymous character in Kelly’s Heroes, the stubborn but surprisingly kind Walt Kowalsski in Grand Torino or Earl in The Mule. All of them face the world with the same gritty, teeth grinding, begrudgingly amused side long view. All of them are tough guys who mean well at their core even when doing something they know is wrong. All are portrayed with the gravel-voiced determination of a man with whom you do not want to cross swords.

But in The Mule, Eastwood is willing to openly show the fragility of his old age which, even so, does not stop either Earl, the Mule or Eastwood, the director, from soldiering on in this slice of life movie.

The acting is wonderful. Dianne Wiest portrays his wife, Mary, with all the intimacy of betrayal in a failed marriage between two people who have loved each other for decades. Bradley Cooper plays the determined DEA agent who pursues Earl to the exclusion of family events, and in this way discovering, perhaps in time, he has much to learn from the misaligned Earl. And Andy Garcia portrays the deceptively likeable drug lord Laton.

If this happens to be the last movie the aging Eastwood is in, it would be a fitting denouement and ties in some of his most recent accomplishments. For example, Cooper, who plays the DEA agent in pursuit of Earl, and Eastwood, worked together before on American Sniper. Eastwood had once offered to direct Cooper again in Cooper’s then planned remake of A Star is Born, but Cooper wasn’t ready for the role. Eastwood later encouraged Cooper to direct A Star is Born himself and history was made with that interesting film, which I reviewed here.

In another tie-in with old friends, the credit’s song, Don’t Let the Old Man In, was written expressly for this movie by Eastwood’s friend and golf buddy Toby Keith, inspired by a comment Eastwood made to Keith about how to keep going despite age. Keith wrote and sang the tune as a demo and sent Eastwood a copy. So anxious was Keith to have Eastwood hear it that Keith sang it while struggling with a bad cold. Eastwood loved the rough, dark, weary feel of it and used it exactly as Keith had recorded it for the movie.

And most touching, Eastwood’s own real life daughter Alison came out of acting retirement at the behest of her Dad to play Iris, Earl’s estranged daughter.  Alison commented in one interview that the most difficult part of playing Iris was pretending to be estranged from the man who played her character’s father, her own Dad.

Filmed with a certain fatalistic feel, knowing this can not end well, we ride along and are seduced into empathizing with the amoral Earl as he bounces from attending his granddaughter’s wedding to a multi-hooker party at his cartel boss’ mansion.

Other reviewers have noted that Eastwood, with Mule, is signaling his bestowal upon Bradley Cooper of his outre mantle, a blessing of sorts to Cooper, the accomplished and busy actor and director who still finds the time, energy and whimsical playfulness to bring Rocket’s voice from Guardians of the Galaxy to life.

In medical school there is a name given to the prize for the student who made the top grade in Anatomy – “The Ball and Chain”. The implication being that you have set yourself up for a high bar to continue to have to leap over. In The Mule there is a telling and touching scene where Earl, the mule which Cooper’s character, Colin Bates, has been doggedly pursuing, sits down next to Colin in a diner. Colin has no idea who Earl is, so underestimated is Earl for the better part of 10 years of drug running because of his age and otherwise clean record. Earl knows who Colin is and proceeds to give what appears to be off hand advice about not committing himself to his career to the exclusion of his family. In retrospect was this Earl to Colin or Clint to Bradley…or both?

I find it courageous that Eastwood not only exposes his own human aged physical frailty to an audience which has grown up and grown old watching him move from an action hero to an increasingly fragile man, but makes himself vulnerable to inquiries about his own interpersonal failures. Much like most in Hollywood he has had his share of failed relationships and left a trail of at least 7 children.  And it takes a measure of brave self-perception to admit, even if only tangentially, that you may have failed to do your best to put your familial ties ahead of your own ambitions.

While not for a younger crowd due to topics, language, and sexuality, for the adult crowd it is a fascinating examination of how easy it is, one daily mistake at a time, to lead your life down a long wrong path in a way that can do permanent and irreparable damage to those you might find too late you love most.

Kudos to Mr. Eastwood. And while I hope this is not his last film, if it is, it is not a bad bookend to his cinematic legacy, and a fitting epitaph to a man whose devotion to and accomplishments for the cinematic world, have been remarkable, even if it may have come at great personal sacrifice.

THE UPSIDE – ACCURATELY NAMED, UNEXPECTED AND INSPIRATIONAL BUDDY COMEDY-DRAMA

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE UPSIDE REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Wonderful and beautifully acted movie, based on a true story, about a quadriplegic and the unlikely friendship he forms with an untrained and world-wise ex-con who is hired to be his caretaker.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up only – for language, topics of conversation, a bit of  bawdy behavior with a couple of paid female companions, and some realistic though mostly unseen necessaries involving the care of a paralyzed man.

LONG TAKE:

The Upside is a remake of the French film The Intouchables. The story is based on the real relationship between the wealthy quadriplegic Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his caretaker Abdel Sellou. In the movie, respectively, the characters names are Phillip Lacasse, (Bryan Cranston most famously of Breaking Badand Dell Scott (Kevin Hart most recently of the Jumanji remake), the latter a down-on-his-luck ex-con who is behind in his child support and broke. Though Dell has no skills in taking care of anyone, let alone a disabled man, Dell’s blunt, un-indulgent and pragmatic personality appeals to Phillip who is weary of having everyone walk eggshells around him and treat him like a fragile hothouse flower. Each man has been broken in their own way by their own mistakes.

One would not, on first glance, think that a movie about a man so severely disabled and a caretaker with a ill-functioning moral compass, would be funny. But it IS very funny — and very human, as well as delightfully inspirational. Everyone faces obstacles in life and Dell and Phillip exemplify the near extremes of challenges, respectively, of upbringing and the physical.

Courage is not the lack of feeling fear but of experiencing every painful moment of it and pressing forward anyway. And this is what Dell and Phillip learn to do with the aid of each others’ examples as well as their friends and family, even when those supports are initially pushed away. Everyone will be able to related to at least some feature of these brave men’s disadvantages.

Cranston is brilliant in the kind of performance I haven’t seen since Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot or Joaquin Phoenix’ Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Cranston performs the entire movie using only facial gestures and the occasional head gesture, but you quickly forget his movement limitations in Cranston’s compelling and versatile performance. The normally frenetic Kevin Hart modulates his talents into the breath of fresh air that Phillip desperately needs. The two friends together make up one really good man. And they teach each other to face their fears and face the world with courage, determination and a renewed sense of purpose.

Nicole Kidman, in a turn that is way better than her teeth grittingly breathy and campy Atlana in Aquaman, here in Upside is absolutely adorable as Phillip’s fussy and protective executive assistant, Yvonne.

Much of the movie takes place in Phillip’s apartment, and I couldn’t help thinking that this could easily be converted into a lovely theatrical play.

The songs incorporated into the structure of the script are delightful and as eclectic as the combination of Dell’s and Phillip’s personalities. Tunes range from Nat King Cole and Aretha Franklin to Rigoletto and Carmen. The background soundtrack is intense and reflects the longing of the characters to be better men regardless of their ultimately superficial limitations. The movie, especially considering it is based on a true story, is inspirational.

I highly recommended this movie but for mid-teens and up only because of language, topics of conversation, mostly unseen illicit sexuality, and some quite humorous and genuine situations brought about by the circumstances of Phillip’s infirmity.

So, major kudos to Hart and Cranston for tackling this project with such tact, respect and skill, and hopefully some award wins for Cranston, at least, in this captivating, charming, and truly compelling story of a beautiful platonic friendship and the strength those unlikely friends give each other.

GOSNELL: THE TRIAL OF AMERICA’S BIGGEST SERIAL KILLER

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF GOSNELL REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Documentary-style bio pic about Kermit Gosnell, an abortionist who violated even Pennsylvania’s liberally permissive abortion laws, extending his convictions to include manslaughter of a mother and murder of three full term infants, and the people who brought him to justice.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only – for the topics and many of the visuals of the abortion mill. But of those adults who seek truth or justice, a MUST SEE.

LONG TAKE:

In the movie Jacob’s Ladder, Tim Robbins plays a military veteran suffering from such extreme PTSD that he has visions of hell. One of those manifestations is of a hospital of filth and gore staffed by demons indifferent to his suffering. While watching that 1990 surreal film, I never dreamed I would one day see real-life footage of the actual place. But footage of a real place, just like Jacob’s visions, were included in Gosnell, the movie about the exposure and trial of Kermit Gosnell, (portrayed by Earl Billings, a familiar face from many TV shows all the way back to the 1970’s), the perpetrator of the cold blooded killings-for-hire of full-term infants and the casual death of one of his “patients,” who was, to quote Bernard Hughes’ character in the dark satire The Hospital, “neglected to death”.

The film, Gosnell, tracks the investigative and legal activities that stopped Gosnell’s Eichmann-like casual killing business. If you see Operation Finale, (to read my blog on Operation Finale click here), you will note the similarities between Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Eichmann and Earl Billings’ Gosnell. Both men had an affluent, family-oriented life.

While Eichmann’s personal obsessions wandered into the fastidious, Gosnell wandered onto the other end of the bell curve with profound levels of filth. While Eichmann behaves like Lady Macbeth, figuratively (and sometimes literally) trying to wash the guilty stains from his hands, Gosnell wallowed gleefully in the depravity, denying its existence. Both men swam in the blood of others to achieve their goals of career security in an environment and culture which protected their activities for years regardless of the heinousness of the crimes they committed.

The acting in both cases was amazing. Kingsley will likely, and deservedly, be up for awards for his portrayal as the cold, tunnel vision author of the deaths of millions, who wore blinders and chose to see himself as merely a clerk or cog in a machine convenient to his advancement. Billings, despite his equally subtle rendition, because of the politically protected nature of Gosnell’s occupation as abortionist, will likely be ignored for his cine-magic contribution. Billings plays a man who, in other surroundings, could be mistaken for a genial, grandfatherly, old-fashioned doctor. It is only the subtle body language, quirks, facial tics and tiny contradictory gestures which visualize Gosnell’s fundamentally broken, corrupted and rotted moral view.

Were the director creating this monster out of whole cloth, he might have been lauded for the extremely effective, visually poetic symmetry of the man’s life. Gosnell lived in a beautiful suburban home, in a Biblical sense the outside of the vase. But the house’s rooms reflected Gosnell’s inner corruption in the piles of trash, the chaotic disorder, Gosnell’s personal hygiene, and the dead animal rotting in a cellar of aggressively flea infested debris. Gosnell’s clinic, while purportedly there to serve the poor, gave preference to white customers, regularly employed underage untrained teenagers to administer dangerous levels of anesthesia, and  housed garbage bags full of decomposing infant parts, casually discarded in hallways, up stairwells, and in so-called operating rooms.

Likely the only reason this abattoir was not over run with four legged rats was because there was a plethora of irregularly cared for cats who roamed at will using the entire clinic as their kitty box.

Like the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs, Gosnell kept trophies in small jars of body parts. So insulated was Gosnell from the rest of the world, humanity, or his own culpability, that he did not understand he was actually displaying evidence against himself.

None of this was manufactured by the filmmakers. The stomach-churning images were re-created, and in some cases simply copied directly onto the film, from actual footage made by the investigating police officers, there initially to pursue probable cause of the death of one of Gosnell’s victims/patients. The police entered planning a drug bust. They left with evidence of a serial killer whose murders had been covered up for over two decades by a corrupt Pennsylvania Department of Heath, the steaming environment of political correctness, and the permissive Pennsylvania abortion laws.

Despite the heinousness of Gosnell’s activities, the repeated complaints, and the obvious incompetence and flagrant disregard for even the most basic sanitation much less safety of his patients Gosnell was left alone to continue his habits for decades.

It came up in trial that the health department of the state was for at least 17 consecutive years forbidden from pursuing even the most serious of complaints against him because of his status as a black abortionist in a poor neighborhood. But there was no protection for the unwary, vulnerable, scared and defenseless inhabitants that served as Gosnell’s prey.

Gosnell had no respect for the mostly poor minority women who came to see him, nor the tenants of basic common sense medical sanitation, nor even the law which had closed its eyes to his behavior for so long. Given his protected status it is perversely understandable why he legitimately believed he could get away with murder with impunity. He admitted as much to his attorney when he laughed at his solicitor’s concerns about his legal vulnerability, saying that he was certain no one would question his personal determination of what constituted a human life regardless of the law which forbade abortion passed 24 weeks.

The director, Nick Searcy, who also plays the defense counsel, Mike Cohan, creates a calm, even somewhat sterile atmosphere for the investigations and courtroom. This makes for a relieving counterpoint to the simple video walk-throughs of the “clinic” which view like the abandoned labyrinth of a series of dystopian torture chambers. The supporting characters, from the initially reluctant Asst. D.A. Lexy McGuire (Sarah Jane Morris) to the immediately invested and likeable lead detective James Wood (Dean Cain) to the computer geek/blogger Molly Mullaney (Cyrian Fiallo) do wonderful jobs in solid performances. And the screenwriters, Andrew Klavan, Ann McElhinney, and Phelim McAleer, used composites of real people to flesh and round out the cast. But Billings, as I said, is a standout in the lead with his restrained but utterly creepy portrayal of a man who would fit in a horror movie about a grandfather who hands out razor filled apples and cyanide laced candy on Halloween night.

Evidence showed Gosnell murdered seven born alive infants. He was convicted of three with an unknown tally of death on his belt over the previous two decades. Gosnell was convicted of one count of manslaughter in the death of a “patient” but who knows how many others died directly from his hands or indirectly from his gross negligence and malpractice. There was evidence of 21 late term abortions, even illegal in Pennsylvania. But who knows how many he committed? And he was convicted of hundreds, out of the likely thousands, of violations of the rules concerning 24 hour informed consent, which are, themselves, but pathetically thin attempts at some common sense to this horrific practice. And all this doesn’t even touch the thousands of babies in the womb he murdered under the auspices of “legal abortion”.

While Gosnell was held to account for his crimes, he was, in truth, merely a symptom of the greater evil of the governmentally, not just allowed, but protected, murder of millions of unborn children.

While this is a difficult movie to watch, we must all stand, like the Jews who survived the Holocaust and their descendants, as witnesses to atrocities which should not be happening now and, once defeated, must never happen again. It is our duty to testify against the laws and institutions which allow monsters like Gosnell to exist and thrive, for those already lost and those at risk and yet to be born.

INSTANT FAMILY – A TALE OF THE TRUE SUPER HEROES

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF INSTANT FAMILY REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Instant Family is the charming, inspirational and humorous story of a DINK (double income no kids) couple who decide to foster three children. The film manages to be smart, brutally honest, funny and even whimsical all at the same time.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Must see! BUT only for older teens and up for language and story content.

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LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS!!

Instant Family COULD have been called Foster Parenting for Dummies. This is no one’s idealized version of a blended family. This is not The Brady Bunch, Three Men and a Baby, Despiccable Me or even……… The Blind Side (and you’ll see why that’s funny when you see the movie). But the movie is honest and very funny, miraculously achieving that delicate balance between comedy and drama which many movies attempt but at which few succeed. The innate parity between laughter and tears, which exists in the human condition but is rarely found in movie scripts, comes naturally to this script because the story was inspired by writer/director Sean Anders and his wife’s real life experiences of adopting. All of the characters, from the kids to the support group members to the social workers, are based on the real people Anders met through the process – normally flawed humans with the usual awkward family dynamics trying to do their best under difficult circumstances..

Instant Family soft pedals nothing as it follows Pete (Mark Wahlberg – Mile 22, Deep Water Horizon and Lone Survivor), and Ellie (Rose Byrne – Moira from the X-Men reboot and Bea from Peter Rabbit, and who, though from Australia, does a spotless American accent) from their naive, romantic visions of fostering a child, through the often hilarious mandatory support group meetings, the spotty support of their doubtful relatives, through the decision making and then to the realities of trying to support, protect, guide and raise three at-risk and traumatised children of different ages.

Sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but it is also laugh-out-loud funny.

The movie occasionally wanders gently into slapstick and slight caricature but only in a way one might, with the humor and affection gleaned from the wisdom of retrospection, remember an experience that did not seem funny at the time but ends up being one of your favorite memories. Instant Family reminds me a lot of last year’s equally brilliant Wonder, about a family coping with a severely handicapped child. There are no bad guys, only the challenge, tackled by adults and children alike, to interact with the people who love you as best you can.

And if you ever wondered, as the PSA querries, that you had to be perfect to foster a child, the characters in Instant Family will disabuse you of that notion pretty quickly.

The support group scenes are especially funny, populated, as they are, by every possible combination of would be foster parents, from: single wanna-be super mom, to idealistic fundamentalist Christians, to an infertile interracial couple, to a gay couple, and to our protagonists – an upwardly mobile self employed couple, who initially think of these children the way they do the houses they renovate for a living. All come with a unique set of priorities and preconceived, often conflicting, sometimes counter-intuitive notions. Some are even portrayed as ridiculous or annoying. But, fundamentally, ALL of them have one thing in common: A core desire to provide a loving stable home for children who have none, and who are often at risk of abuse, addiction and even death at the hands of their biological parents and the environment to which they are subjected.

These foster parents, for all of their differences, flaws, quirks, and even errors in judgment, are the living life rafts on the treacherous and stormy seas of our broken culture, desperately trying to rescue survivors who sometimes don’t even want to be saved. I love movies about: The Avengers, Thor, Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman, Wonder Woman, Ant Man, Batman, Justice League and Agents of SHIELD. But these disparate, sometimes awkward, occasionally clueless foster parents are the true super heroes.

The acting is terrific, never succumbing to the easy temptation to sink into saccharine or false empathy, but neither does it avoid showing the warts of the torturous foster process.

Wahlberg and Byrne are excellent and never shy away from any of the very strong emotions of the moment, but don’t dwell on them either. And there is a constant balance of the solemn with the naturally evolving moments of humor that always arise from even the grimmest of circumstances. For example, the social workers, Sharon and Karen, played by Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures and Zootopia) are very funny as odd couple co-workers. Notaro is the prim, proper, white, reserved, rule follower while Spencer is the outspoken, blunt, pragmatic, black counterpart. But they both have a realistic view of their jobs. When Pete asks Sharon and Karen about the foster children’s father the only answer he gets is uncontrolled laughter. This humorously speaks serious volumes without belaboring the tragic point. In another scene, after learning of a significant hitch in their plans, Pete and Ellie come home to discover Ellie’s mother, Jan, being decorated with permanent ink sharpies. There was no malice involved. Children and Jan alike had mistaken them for washables. Jan, performed by Julie Hagerty, whose unforgettable stint in Airplane made her synonymnous with ditzy characters, solemnly offers good and sage advice but, of necessity, while indelibly and distractingly face painted.

The music is a cheerful and delightful sprinkling of songs like Wings’ “Let ’em In,” George Harrison’s “What is Life,” and Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop us Now”. The perky upbeats also help soften the more somber moments. You can get the individual songs streaming on Amazon here.

The children are very natural. Isabela Moner, singer and actress, is Lizzy, the teenager who is simultaneously grateful for the safe haven Pete and Ellie provide for herself and her siblings and understandably resentful of these same people as interlopers to her “real,” incarcerated, drug-addicted mother. Moner has a truly beautiful voice and sings the credit song, “I’ll Stay,” at the end of the movie. Gustavo Quiroz is adorable as Lizzy’s clutzy, well meaning and inept younger brother, Juan. And Julianna Gamiz is the youngest and precocious sister, Lita.

The two younger kids act with the normal and very believable open ingenuousness, quick impulsive affection, manipulative behavior, and selfish temper tantrum demands of normal kids. But the writing skillfully runs a thread of abnormality underneath these kids’ otherwise normal veneer. For example, Lita happily plays with Ellie when they first meet until Lita begins play-acting with her doll, calling her doll racial epithets and interacting with the doll  in ways she is obviously imitating from her previous foster parents. It’s nothing sinister but casually cruel. And it gives the audience a taste of what every precarious day can be like for these kids whose parents have abysmally let them down  and are in a system which can sometimes fail them. But again the serious tone is undercut by the humorous way the failed foster couple insist she must have heard it on TV.

A lovely cameo is of Joan Cusack as an elderly, awkward, but concerned neighbor who helps to deflate another scene which could have degenerated into mawkishness but for her delightfully eccentric presence.

The filming style itself is very straightforward, almost like professionally made home movies, as we see quite intimate moments of Ellie and Pete with each other, with their families, and with the foster kids, and the support group sessions.

While there is no sexuality shown on screen, there are sexual topics which come up necessarily and inevitably with the raising of a 15 year old girl from a bleakly broken background who has severe daddy issues. In addition, under stress, there is some humorously interjected but understandable profanity that crops up sprinkled throughout the movie. This, with the serious topic of abandoned and at-risk children, make this movie suitable only for older teens and up. However for that demographic for which is appropriate it is a must-see movie.

FANTASTIC BEASTS 2: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD – WEAK, FLAWED PLOT RUINS A PROMISING STORY AND UNDERCUTS ITS INTERESTING CHARACTERS

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF FANTASTIC BEASTS 2 REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Adults-appropriate only sequel to Fantastic Beasts which follows the Hitler-like rise of Grindelwald.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults who were fans of the series growing up.

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LONG TAKE:

I’m going to say it because no one in the last eleven years has: JK Rowling is a genius, and therein lies the crime worse than Grindelwald’s.

SPOILERS

The premise of the Crimes of Grindelwald is the continuation of the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne – Les Mis, The Theory of Everything) and his sidekick Jacob (Dan Fogler from Balls of Fury), as they look for Credence (Ezra Miller, Flash from Justice League and Suicide Squad), thought to have been killed in the previous movie. Side plots involve a misunderstanding between Newt and Tina (Katherine Waterston) and the ultimately fatal frustration of Queenie (Alsion Sudol) over the law which forbids her and Jacob to marry. Against all this is the rising of the tide of Grindelwald (Johnny Depp – Murder on the Orient Express, Benny and Joon, Pirates of the Carribbean, Public Enemy and almost every Tim Burton movie ever made), Grindelwald’s threatening anti-muggle philosophy, which plays out akin to the anti-semitism of the Nazis, and … Dumbledore’s initially inexplicable reluctance to fight him.

JK Rowling pronounced, three months after the publication of the last book in the Harry Potter series, that Dumbledore was gay. This was an extraordinarily dramatic twist in the backstory of a major character which had no clues or preparation for it in the books to support it.

Revelations about sexual preferences amongst main characters are not usually the fodder of children’s storybook mythology. Granted the people who started out with Rowling when they were 11 are now in their thirties, big people who are more readily able to handle this kind of dark, complex relationship. But this is still a children’s story, andDumbledore’s same sex attractions are really just not something appropriate to the child-target audience. But, even aside from that, there is no literary justification for it, no relevant hints to it and no established lore for it.

JK doubles down on this issue by making Dumbledore’s sexual proclivities a major plot point in Fantastic Beasts 2. Dumbdledore will not confront the most dangerous and diaboliocal wizard ever born because … he is infatuated with him. This is a weak excuse at best and not up to Rowling’s best efforts.While there is absolutely nothing explicit whatsoever in the movie between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, there are uncomfortable and unnecessary innuendos and long hairy looks aplenty between Law’s Dumbledore and Depps’ Grindelwald, which I would NOT want to have to explain to my underage child. It’s just not subject matter that should even be averred to in a story primarily aimed at school aged children, even IF the charter fans are well past the age of consent now.

In addition, there are a number of other ill advised, non-sequitor, anachronistic, plot convolutions it will be very difficult for JK to explain away without time turners. Keep in mind Rowling wrote this script so can not blame a poor scriptwriting translation.

Short list:

The presence of Professor McGonagall at the castle during the movie (Fiona Glascott in FB2 and during the first eight movies by Dame Maggie Smith) is one of the most obvious. The film takes place in 1927 and McGonagall did not start teaching at Hogwarts until 1956. Of course, this could have been her relative, but then the appearance of this character would be just a sloppy name drop.

Dumbledore is teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts. According to the original lore, Dumbledore never taught Defense Against the Dark Arts, but Transfigurations.

Credence is alive but there is no explanation as to how. Granted there was a remaining wisp of his obscurus (a manifestation of a wizard’s repressed magical powers which forms if they are not allowed to express those powers openly), left at the end of the previous movie. Does even a single bit of the obscurus have the ENTIRE person in it with memories intact? This power is never alluded to in the first story’s description of the obscurus.

If the chupacabra (a mini-dragon-like craeture which accompanies Grindelwald at the beginning of the movie) is a guard, why does it attack the ministry member and seem so affectionate to Grindelwald? If it belongs to Grindelwald, why does Grindelwald so casually kill it?

While everyone was happy to see Jacob, the muggle baker, return, it was with a shoddy trick – that the obliviate didn’t work on him because it only erased BAD memories and he only had good ones. But at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts it was OBVIOUS Jacob did not recognize Newt, did not clearly understand where his bakery ideas were coming from, and at first did not recognize Queenie. It would have been more believable to say, for example, that Queenie had placed a protective charm on him in their final parting kiss, which would make the obliviate in the rain cause only a temporary loss of memory. But the way Rowling handled it in this second FB script was just clumsy and careless.

Why did Queenie abandon Jacob? If Queenie’s primary reason for wanting to follow Grindelwald was to fight the rule prohibiting her relationship with Jacob, then how does leaving Jacob in a collapsing arena, surrounded by lethally enchanted flames, to follow someone who hates muggles, going to further this goal? Was she a victim of the Imperius curse?  She seemed to succumb to Grindelwald’s “charms” pretty voluntarily when she first meets him without his using a spell.

On the plus side – The Fantastic Beasts themselves are delightful, especially as they do not heavily rehash the old ones, but introduce us to new ones: the Zouwu, which looks like a Chinese parade float come to toothy life, the underwater horse, the Kelpie (because it looks like it is made from kelp), and the creepy black Matagot cats from French folklore. (Thankfully no more Erumpant-Newt mating dances – that was just embarrassing.)

The special effects – from the underground circus performers to Newt’s Kelpie ride – are interesting. The music is familiar Potter themes. And the acting is solid as all the characters we’ve seen before reprise their roles solidly.

Redmayne is especially outstanding as the socially challenged Newt tries very hard to reconnect with Tina and reconcile with his brother, Theseus. Redmayne’s performance is worth seeing the movie for. His depiction of Newt with autistic characteristics – lack of eye contact, difficulty understanding the social cues others take for granted, his hesitant verbal skills, trouble expressing physical affection with his own brother – is not an accident. While Rowling never expressly named the spectrum when discussing the character with Redmayne, Redmayne was openly aware of what these personality quirks denoted and actively created this character within the spectrum of autistic behavior.

No overt mention of autism ever comes up – this movie takes place in 1927 and autism was not even recognized until the ’30’s, so, appropriately, everyone just accepts Newt’s behavior as just a part of his unusual personality. In addition to his spot on Newt, Redmayne presents us with a Newt that grows and develops, improving his interpersonal expressions with those to whom he feels most close: Theseus, Tina and Jacob.

Fogler is again adorable, funny and relatable as the muggle, Jacob. Sudol is disturbing and heartbreaking as she morphs from the gentle Queenie to Grindelwald’s complicit functionary. Jude Law, aside from the demands of his unique relationship preferences, is a wonderful young Dumbledore, with just the right whimsy, humor and mystery which could believably mature into Richard Harris’ Dumbledore in The Sorcerer’s (/Philosopher’s) Stone.

The Nazi theme is also very dark, and for mature audiences. There are at least a couple of events, relating appropriately but grimly enough to Grindelwald’s rise as a charismatic tyrannical leader, which by themselves would recommend against taking children. One example is the cold-blooded murder of an adorable two year old toddler, even as Grindelwald smiles at the babe’s inherent charms, similar to the Nazi thugs who bundled families into gas chambers after giving the children sweets. This parallel hits hard when one notes that Queenie and Tina’s last name is Goldstein, an obvious Jewish connection, making Queenie’s betrayal all the more ironic and heartbreaking.

But while the characters – creature, wizard and muggle – all fare well, the overall plot suffers from plain old bad writing. If Rowling has something up her sleeve that would clear much of the threadbare points up she has left no breadcrumbs to give us some confidence in a strategy, though the movie ends on a number of cliffhangers and set ups for the next movie.

CONCLUSION

Between the inappropriate sexual references and well thought out but grimly burgeoning magical Third Reich, I would NOT take children to see this movie. If you were the age to receive a letter from Hogwarts when the first books came out, you’d be more than old enough for the themes now. BUT be aware of the peculiar plot holes and unexplained inconsistencies from the long held, previously well established Harry Potter canon, which makes this a disappointing and unsatisfying outing despite the good performances and interesting creatures. Rowling is capable of so much better.

THE FOUNDER – DULL BIOPIC OF THE BUSINESS VULTURE RAY KROC IN A WASTE OF KEATON’S TALENTS

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE FOUNDER REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Dry and uninvolving biopic, despite Michael Keaton’s efforts, about Ray Kroc, the avaricious business predator, who co-opted then outsted the McDonald brothers from their own creation.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Limited to adults and older teens only because some language and Kroc’s lack of interpersonal and business ethics. The mechaniations of enterprise – good and bad – might be interesting to business and history students.

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LONG TAKE:

If you can not be a good example be a horrible warning. I’m not sure which one the makers of The Founder intended it to be.

The Founder is a 2016 biopic about Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonald’s a multi-bazillion dollar enterprise and its distinct Golden Arches logo one of the most recognizable symbols on (literally) the entire planet.

McDonald’s was a singular hamburger restaurant – one of, if not the first, walk-up, designed by the McDonald brothers, Maurice and Richard (John Carroll Lynch of Jackie – see my review of Jackie here – and Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation). Their’s was a unique concept, carefully designed and laid out, innovative and revoluitionary in the Drive-In-car hop-predominated culture of America in the 1950’s. Richard and Maurice, had created this style as a money saver – no car hops, broken glassware, or dallying hoodlums. People stood in line to get great tasting burgers, in throw away packaging, in a clean family friendly environment. What the McDonald brothers saw as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, Ray Kroc saw as a golden goose just waiting to be plucked.

SPOILERS

The film starts with Ray as an unsuccessful multi-spindle milkshake salesman who happens upon this singular successful enterprise and recognizes the brilliant business model for what it is. The McDonald brothers think “small” but Ray believes in BIG. And the McDonald brothers don’t know to whom they are linking their futures when they sign a contract with Ray to establish franchises. Ray’s personal motto is “Persistence” and he uses his formidable variation on it to: slowly negotiate, maneuver and leverage their business right out from under them, steal the wife of one of his franchise partners, leave his own wife, and cheat the McDonald brothers out of the royalty fees to which they were promised when they inevitably are forced to sell out to Ray.

This is NOT a nice man, but then neither was Vito Corleone in The Godfather Trilogy or Loki from The Avengers movies. And people generally love both the Corleone patriarch and Thor’s sly brother as guilty pleasures.  But what the latter two had in abundance, Ray Kroc, as portrayed in The Founder, had none of – and that was a relatable personality.

The Founder plays out like the dramatically filmed version of a documentary. It is not filmed in documentary style but is written as a series of facts filmed in vignettes. The movie is seen through Ray Kroc’s eyes in a terrific performance by Michael Keaton but only in the visual sense. By that I mean, we see what happens as Kroc himself might remember them but we, the audience, get no real feel for seeing AS Kroc might have seen life. We are never given opportunity to see the world as Ray Kroc sees it. We only hear him voice the sentiments of his own avarice without understanding what it was that drove him to HAVE those views. No back story, no moments of reflection, no knowing how he reconciles with or justifies to himself what he has done to others. Certainly, no King Claudius self-tormenting moments from Hamlet, wherein the character knows the wrong he has done and would like to repent but is unable because of his own weaknesses for the things he has acquired through those same outrageous acts.

Keaton has been Batman, Bird Man, Vulture in Spiderman Homecoming, and Mr. Mom – all variations on super heroes with a dark but redemptively inclined streak in one form or another (even his character in the comedy Mr Mom gets within a hair’s breadth of the dark action of cheating on his wife but comes to his senses in the nick of time). So playing an appealing villain would not be his first rodeo. Unfortunately, the script gives him little to do but posture and go through the motions. Once he establishes his unsuccessful frustrated character then woos the McDonald brothers, the rest of the movie is merely a checklist of events. Expand the business – check. Buy land – check. Meet his business associate’s wife and show interest – check. Use innovations, like dried instant milkshake without the McDonald brothers permission – check. Tell the brothers he has more money and so he can do what he wants and they are  out – check. Movie over – check.

Don’t get me wrong. Keaton does his best with this dry script. He even manages a few moments which gives a glimmer of what the movie should have been. For example, there’s one scene where he joins his future second wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini from Daddy’s Home and Avengers: Age of Ultron) at a piano where she works and, right in front of her husband, manages to woo her by singing with her. And the first scenes which show his woeful attempts to sell his multi-mixers demonstrate his gift of gab which is falling on deaf ears. I mean, his pitch was so good I was almost ready to buy one! But, alas, his potential buyers were noT so convinced. So you come to understand why, when he sees this extremely profitable “hamburger joint” his mouth starts watering and not just for the French fries. But for every one of the few interesting scenes there are several astonishingly bland ones, such as when he announces, as they eat a silent dinner at their kitchen table, to his all but ignored wife, Ethel, (Laura “Jurassic Park”  Dern), that he wants a divorce. She just puts down her fork, the camera pans back and away from her, the end. (Huh?) The audience pretty much knew this was coming, but instead of Beatrice Straight’s Oscar winning 5 minutes in Network where she reads her husband the riot act for walking out on her, we get something more akin to the emotional vacuum of Dave as he eats alone in the empty house in 2001.

This is a humorless look at the man. Kroc states as his personal philosophy to the McDonald brothers at one point – “If my competitor was drowning I’d stick a hose in his mouth.” So “business is business” is obviously a manifesto with Kroc. But that does not mean this arid POV has to be reflected in the way the movie is written. I can’t help but wonder how much better this movie would have been with a Cohen Brothers-style hero in the lead.

In short, this is a flat film whose basic moral could be stated as: “If you are persistent enough you can have everything you want and never have to suffer the consequences of your evil actions.” Kroc stole his partners’ business, his friend’s wife, and cheated the McDonald brothers out of hundreds of millions of dollars of royalties —- because he could. But we ultimately don’t care. We don’t know the abused well enough to empathize and we are givennothing with which to relate to the main character.  It’s an unpalatable story which wastes the considerable talents of Keaton.

So……….next time, Keaton wants to play a vulture, I’d much rather it be one in a Spiderman sequel.

THE (“CUMBER”) GRINCH – WELL DONE UPDATE TO BELOVED CLASSIC STORY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE GRINCH REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

The new The Grinch is entertaining for adults and children alike and respectful to its source material, but still manages a fresh take on this most beloved of children’s Christmas tales.

WHO SHOULD GO:

ANYBODY! EVERYBODY!

LONG TAKE:

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss was published in 1957, two years before I was born, and the first and most famous filmed animated version, narrated by Boris Karloff, was released in 1966 when I was 7. So the story of The Grinch has been on my radar my entire life, not to mention the fact that I have read probably every other Dr. Seuss story to my kids about a hundred times.

There have been several adaptations, including a musical and a Jim Carrey movie in 2000, the latter of which I did not much care for, as Carrey’s Grinch was a little too reminiscent of   Pennywise the clown from Stephen King’s It for my taste.

BUT – those of us who grew up with the original 1966 version need fear nothing about this latest version of The Grinch. The epynomous character is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Smaug from Lord of The Rings, Khan from the Star Trek reboot). Danny Elfman, Tim Burton’s go-to composer, deftly incorporates not only traditional Christmas music but songs from the 1966 animated film, including the Whoville Christmas song. The set ups for the story are the same, only a bit more flushed out and funnier.

The voice acting was smart and cute, even featuring a cameo from the grande dame of theater Angela Lansbury as the Mistress of Ceremonies at the Whoville tree lighting. Cindy Lou Who was performed by the charming Cameron Seely (The Greatest Showman).   Prolific composer Pharell Williams did the narration. Rashida Jones, daughter of Quincy Jones performs Donna, Cindy Lou’s mom. And Keenan Thompson voices the eternally optimistic and joyful (even for a Who) Mr. Brickelbaum.

One thing I actually like better in this version than I did in the original 1966 one, was the inclusion of several Christmas songs which reference the Nativity. Unlike other modern “Christmas” movies, this one highlights lyrics which refer to the birth of Christ, such as in “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen”: “…remember Christ Our Savior was born on Christmas Day….” Granted, it was sung by an overly enthusiastic Whoville, flashmob, Pentatonic-style choir who (pun intended) unintentionally chased the flinching Grinch through Whoville in a rather comedic scene, but the song was beautifully done.

There are a number of other similarly respectful moments in the film, which makes this 2018 version even more endearing than it otherwise would have been.

And do not be concerned about the occasional “Happy Holidays” that you will hear, because there are plenty of “Merry Christmas!” salutations to be heard, especially after the Grinch’s conversion. This might not have been a casual decision, but a deliberate script writing device. Either way it works nicely.

Benedict Cumberbatch does one of the best American accents by a Brit that I know. The only one who does it as well, I think, is Kenneth Branagh (Dead Again). Of course, I could just be biased because I am admittedly a fan of Mr. Cumberbatch. Like Mr. Branagh, Cumberbatch is not a movie star, he is an actor. (Don’t believe me – watch his Hamlet.)

The original film short was only 26 minutes. This 2018 runtime of 90 minutes uses the extra time well, investing the story with more about the Grinch’s backstory, as well as providing more credibility to his conversion, without eliminating any of the original elements from either the book or the 1966 movie.

. This movie is absolutely and completely suitable for everyone.There is no innuendo or profanity of any sort. It’s funny for adults, charming for children, enhances the original theme, and maintains the intent of the original story.

So – bravo to directors Yarrow Cheney (Despicable Me) and Scott Mosier (who, up to now has NOT been a maker of child-friendly films), scriptwriters Michael LeSieur (You, Me and Dupree), Tommy Swerdlow (Cool Runnings, Snow Dogs) and, of course Dr. Seuss/Theodor Geisel. Congrats also to music composer, Danny Elfman, and especially Mr. Cumberbatch for lending their talents to create this newest and very successful rendering of this most charming of Christmas stories for children of every age.

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