Sunday, December 22, 2019


Rated:  R

STARS: Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow
GENRE: Drama

I've been a tad critical of some of the #MeToo movies that have come out--notably The Favourite, The Wife, and Late Night--all reviewed here previously. I felt they either came off as preachy, or exhibited pre-conceived notions about men, a la the tongue-in-cheek meme at the top of this review! 

Didn't get that feeling with Bombshell. It was straightforward and fast paced--and ironically, because it's subject was Fox News--it wasn't trying to put a spin on the events as they were unfolding! The film is "based upon actual events"--that nebulous phrase that's come to mean that they made some of the stuff up. And to their credit, the filmmakers placed that advisory right up front at the beginning (whereas Clint Eastwood stuck--or snuck--a similar notice in with the closing credits in Richard Jewell).

Most of us know the basic story of how Roger Ailes--CEO of Fox News and the guy who built it into the empire it is today, was taken down by courageous news anchor Gretchen Carlson when she sued him for sexual harassment. Others, including Megyn Kelly, eventually backed her up with their own corroborating evidence of his pervy transgressions. The film title refers to the impact the story made when it broke, as well as the three blonde-tressed barbies who are central to the tale.

Here there is no gray area. No insinuating that all men are kinda like that. This is a story about power more than perversion, and how absolute power in any position of life corrupts. And how those subjected to it feel powerless to do anything about it. 

There are three parallel narratives--with Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly and Margot Robbie as a composite character: a naive new hire named Kayla. Theron completely inhabits her character, and is a dead ringer appearance wise for the real Megyn Kelly. Nicole Kidman is always a treat to watch. But it is Robbie who brings it in spades this time, in one of the most powerful scenes I've seen in a long time, as the tearful Kayla recounts what she felt pressured into doing with Ailes. Heart breaking to watch. Kate McKinnon, as an in-the-closet lesbian Fox producer, provides some occasional relief from all the blonde-ness. John Lithgow, in all his puffy Roger Ailes-ness, has perv down pat when he utters something to the effect of "boys will be boys" in his own defense.

Impressive cast. Impressive work. I don't think you'll see the likes of them all together like that again. Unless it's at The Oscars.

Grade:  B +


With all the advanced publicity about Bombshell, I was expecting a bonanza of a film. Unfortunately, I had watched the same tale being told on Showtime. Russell Crowe played Ayles in this made-for-cable-TV version titled "The Loudest Voice." It had some definite advantages: mainly time. Whereas Bombshell had to cram the entire sequence of events on screen in an hour and 48 minutes. Too little time for such a public undoing.

Tim has pretty much covered the outstanding performances by these veteran actors. But as far as my take on 'the most powerful scene,' it would have to be the initial meeting between Roger Ailes, smarmily played by John Lithgow, and Kayla, his latest victim-in-training. To say it made me squirm would be a gross understatement. I asked the guy I saw the movie with how he had reacted to that scene? He said he felt both sorry for the girl and a bit titillated. (Therein lies the difference between the sexes!)

I've been a long time fan of John Lithgow since... forever. Whether he plays a classic psycho (e.g. his recurring role in the TV series "Dexter") or an alien dad ("Third Rock From The Sun"), his work always rings true. And that distinctive voice is unforgettable. But in the case of portraying Roger Ailes, I'd have to give Russell Crowe top honors.

For me, there were just too damn many characters. No doubt the screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Big Short) felt it was necessary to include all the players in this modern day drama. Keeping track of them, however, was a detractor. And the whole lesbian sub-story was totally unnecessary.

My advice? Get Showtime's "The Loudest Voice" from your local library.

Grade: B-



Wednesday, December 18, 2019


Rated:  R

STARS: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm
DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood
GENRE: Docudrama

There is no denying that Clint Eastwood is a master filmmaker, and in Richard Jewell he has crafted a riveting drama with clearly defined good guys and bad guys that will push all of your buttons. Clearly defined, that is, if you want to buy into Eastwood's right-eous vision of the world.

Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser)--as you may or may not recall--was the security guard who discovered a bomb in an abandoned backpack in Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He alerted police on the premises and saved lives by helping to get people cleared away from the scene before the blast went off--resulting in two deaths and injuring over a hundred unsuspecting souls attending an outdoor concert. 

Initially hailed as a hero, Jewell then came under suspicion as a suspect in the bombing. He is portrayed as a dimwitted loose cannon, who had a habit of getting fired from his law enforcement and security guard jobs. Jon Hamm, as FBI agent Tom Shaw, leads a team of overzealous and unscrupulous investigators bent upon fingering Jewell as the culprit. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution breaks the story--and as we see so often today, another individual is convicted in the court of public opinion long before due process has run its course. Jewell was eventually cleared of any involvement in the bombing that was engineered by Eric Rudolph 

Outstanding turns from Hauser, who seems born for this role, and the reliably excellent Sam Rockwell as Jewell's feisty lawyer, make this as compelling a drama as you'll find. But the integrity of Clint Eastwood's art is compromised by his insistence on making a political statement in essentially everything he does. In this case it's an obvious and heavy-handed one--demonizing two of today's popular targets of the right (and that originates straight from the top of the McDonald's eating political food chain), the free press and the FBI. 

Eastwood saw his chance to hop on the bandwagon. He plays fast and loose with the truth, as in the portrayal of newspaper reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who broke the story about Jewell coming under suspicion, as being an amoral opportunist who would do whatever--including trading sexual favors to get a news scoop. Scruggs' former colleagues, family and friends reportedly were not contacted by the filmmakers to get the scoop on who she really was and what she was about. 

Eastwood apparently felt it was okay to besmirch a deceased person's reputation to serve his own agenda as tit-for-tat because of what happened to poor hapless Richard Jewell. But the film going public may be better equipped to smell a rat than Eastwood gives them credit for.

Richard Jewell is bombing at the box office.

Grade:  C -


As one of my unbendable rules, I never read reviews before seeing a film. I don't want any preprogrammed opinions sneaking into my thought processes. Alas, with Richard Jewel, Yahoo couldn't wait to plaster "worst box office opening in four generations of film-making" across my unsuspecting monitor. So I went in, ready to dump all kinds of vitriol on old Clint's latest offering.... How relieved I was not to have to do that to one of the all time great film-makers.

Richard Jewell was terrific. Engrossing. Brilliantly acted (I'll get to that later). And wrongly crucified by some, not all, film critics.

I get so (friggin') tired of people judging artistic endeavors by disagreeing politically. Just like I get pissed off with celebrities who use their public clout to endorse a political candidate. (Better they put their money where their mouth shouldn't be.) But I digress....

If Katy Bates doesn't get nominated for Best Supporting Actor for her role as Richard Jewell's mom—a hapless victim of the FBI's over zealous behavior—I will run naked down Del Mar's main thoroughfare. When Bates goes in front of the cameras, pleading for privacy and defending her son's innocence, it's cinematic magic. Pure and simple.

So what did I find fault with in this film? Very little. I wasn't bored. I didn't feel preached to. I know it was very unflattering to the press and the FBI but the story called for that. If I had to criticize anything it would be Jon Hamm's wooden performance. (And I loved him in "Mad Men.") Perhaps I should blame the screenwriter Billy Ray instead. No character deserves to be so one-dimensional.

As the movie ended, one man insisted on clapping. I wanted to join him but lost my nerve.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, November 20, 2019


Rated:  PG-13

STARS:  Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Tracy Letts, Caitriona Balfe
DIRECTOR: James Mangold
GENRE: Action-Adventure/ Drama

It's The Little Old Lady From Pasadena! Go granny...go granny...go granny go! I thought I saw her in the audience on the edge of her seat, enjoying this one immensely. She's part of the target audience, along with teenage boys who love anything that is loud and fast (which explains some of the poor choices we make in choosing mates later on in life). For the rest of us good citizens who fall somewhere in the middle, driving defensively and observing the rules of the road, the testosterone fueled Ford v Ferrari is just a wild fantasy about what it would be like to be a high profile race car driver--where you're not even obligated to flash the middle finger while driving like a maniac, an everyday scenario out on the roadways of every city. A (mostly) true story of big rich boys and their toys. 

We all like an underdog, and this is your classic underdog tale, focusing on the 1966 Twenty-Four Hours Of Le Mans where Ford had employed all of its ingenuity and technical know how to develop a car that would challenge the long standing dominance of Ferrari. 

The principal players are Carrol Shelby (Matt Damon), the only American to that point to win at LeMans, now retired from active racing. And hotheaded Brit Ken Miles (Christian Bale), the best race driver around, but he comes with lots of baggage in the trunk. The familiar talented rebel versus the corporate suits scenario. Shelby becomes the intermediary between Miles and the corporate stiffs--headed by Henry Ford II, played with icy disdain by Tracy Letts-- in his efforts to get Miles accepted as Ford's lead driver at LeMans.

This is Christian Bale's movie. He nails his tough-as- nails character. On the other hand, Matt Damon is always going to have that baby-faced boy next door look even when he's ninety. It's a problem, because his mug doesn't show the depth of character required for playing some of these tough (physically or mentally) guy roles. 

Irish born former model Caitriona Balfe (with a name like that she's got to be good), who plays Ken Miles' wife, gets to shine in a scene where she is driving her husband in the family wagon and decides to show him a thing or two about taking chances at the wheel. (She's really pissed off!) Ironically, it's the most harrowing scene in the movie.

Ford v Ferrari is LOUD! The screech of the tires...the roar of the engines...the smell of the crowd (I saw the IMAX version). I sat there with my thumbs in my ears for 90 percent of the film, and it's two and a half hours long. But the adrenaline rush you'll get may be worth it. The racing scenes are among the most breathtaking that I've seen on film.  

Back in the day, there was always some semi-knowledgeable gear head who would stand there with a cig dangling from his lips who would tell you that Fords were crap. Ford v Ferrari seems to disprove that notion. At least for one magical moment in time.

Grade:  B +


This movie proves one thing to me: I can be wrong. Before seeing Ford v Ferrari, I had serious misgivings. How was I going to stand watching fast cars whir around hairpin turns for 2½ hours? Since I've always been partial to Christian Bale – except as Dick Cheney in Vice and Michael Burry in The Big Short – figured I could suffer through the racing bits.

That was my first wrong assumption: those 'racing bits' were mesmerizing! Even for an anti Nascar person like me (who assumes anyone who's into that sort of nonsense is brain dead), I was hooked. Every time that speedometer needle went into the red zone, my heart stopped. I don't know how director James Mangold filmed those racing sequences but they made me—and everybody else in the audience—feel like I was behind the wheel. Truly great cinematography!

My second wrong assumption was about Matt Damon who has never turned my crank. (I figure a motor metaphor is apt here.) His asymmetrical nose bothers me for some reason. But in this movie, I bought his character's love of racing, his commitment to the sport, and his total respect for Ken Miles. He seemed totally authentic. I would've preferred fewer yes men around Henry Ford II. And fewer shots of mechanics changing tires. But on the whole this is one helluva movie. (I was glad they showed the real people it was based on at the end.)

The fellow I went with is a fan of car racing. He felt there was too much personal stuff in the movie (i.e. the fight between the two main characters, the family subplot, etc.). For him, it took away from the action. For me, it added to it. But to paraphrase an old saying, "That's what makes car races!"

I don't think Bale or Damon will be nominated for Oscars but I do think Tracy Letts (who also wrote August: Osage County) could be.

Grade: B+


Thursday, November 14, 2019


Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson
GENRE: Romantic Comedy

When I saw the previews for Last Christmas I thought great, here's a perfectly timed romantic comedy for the holidays inspired by the songs of George Michael! I like the holidays and I like George Michael--especially the now classic song from whence the movie takes its name. So I was looking forward to seeing it. I even thought it might have a Love Actually vibe to it (one of my all-time favorite films). But any similarity between Last Christmas and Love Actually was strictly the product of my overly optimistic and misguided imagination.

Last Christmas is a Lifetime channel movie all the way--except instead of being on your TV it's up on the big screen and you get to pay for the pleasure of luxuriating in its vacuous millennial-ness.

Emilia Clarke is Kate, who works as a Christmas elf in a year-round holiday themed shop in London. She's estranged from her family, and is homeless by choice, crashing wherever she can wangle a place for the night--male accompaniment (but not batteries) sometimes included. It gets her (and her wicket) in some sticky situations. She's spinning her wheels, much like the go-nowhere plot during most of this movie.

Then along comes Tom (Henry Golding) who takes a persistent interest in her. Before long he has broken down her wary resistance, imploring her to always LOOK UP! When she does, a bird craps on her face, much to the delight of the sniggering adolescent who lives on inside of me.

There is something off about Tom. He shows up, then repeatedly disappears, much to the chagrin and frustration of Kate. That's tied in with the BIG TWIST near the end, which I didn't see coming because I nodded off a couple of times and missed a few things. 

Clarke is just eye candy here, she's not going to win any acting awards. Emma Thompson, however, who co-wrote the screenplay, is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards. So you wonder why she'd want this stinker on her resume. She plays Kate's mother, with a sincere but not terribly convincing Balkan accent (the family are immigrants from the former Yugoslavia).

In the numerous ways that Last Christmas is disappointing, the biggest is that we only hear a snippet of the title song by George Michael over the opening credits. It returns near the end, performed in heartwarming fashion by Clarke and a cadre of "lovable" bums and eccentrics who frequent the homeless shelter where she volunteers. It's all warm and fuzzy, and it's the high point of the film, inspiring me to raise my rating one notch above what I could have given the movie. Because's Christmas!

Grade:  D


In all six years that I've been contributing to this blog, I don't believe I've ever graded a movie with an "F." Until now. Emma Thompson – a fine actress who has won 2 Oscars: Best Actress, Howards End, 1993; Best Writing, Screenplay based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Sense and Sensibility, 1996) –should be dipped in a vat of Christmas pudding for her involvement in this 'badbuster' bomb. Not only did she act (overact, really), she co-created the story (such as it was), co-wrote the script (such as that was) and produced the bloody film.

Inspired by George Michael's lyrics from Last Christmas, the words are worth quoting: Last Christmas...I gave you my heart...But the very next day you gave it away...This year...To save me from tears...I'll give it to someone special

Clearly Ms. Thompson and her English cronies thought taking those words literally would make an instant hit. (In cardiac circles, maybe.) But give me a break. Just for the hell of it, I looked up "Movies Based On Song Titles." Would you like to take a guess how many have hit the big screen? 138! That's right. Here are a few that built their film foundation on Christmas ditties: White Christmas (1954), Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer (1964), All I Want For Christmas (1991), I'll Be Home for Christmas (1998), Deck the Halls (2006), to name a few.

My advice? If you're looking for a mistletoe high, rent White Christmas. You sure as snowballs won't get it from Last Christmas!

Grade: F

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

JOKER (2019)

Rated:  R

STARS: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Brett Cullen, Zazie Beets
DIRECTOR: Todd Phillips
GENRE: Action/Adventure, Drama, Suspense  

When does black comedy cross the line into just nobody's-laughing-now dark and disturbing? That's what I asked myself as I watched Joker--purportedly showing how Batman's nemesis got that way--which has its moments, and lots of them, but in the end is too gratuitously violent for anyone but teenage gamers, serial killers, and mass shooters to embrace without reservation. It's as if director Todd Philips is playing a grisly game of one-upmanship with Quentin Tarantino.

That said, I don't know anyone who can play a deranged psychopath with the kind of panache that Joaquin Phoenix brings to the role. Prancing around in his bizarre clown make-up like a marionette boogieing to the Bee Gees. 

Phoenix is Arthur Fleck, an aspiring comedian who lives with his mother and does clown gigs at birthday parties for little kids. But he does stupid things like bringing a gun along with him, which slips out and clatters across the floor, prompting him to claim it was just a prop. Arthur--who wants to be called Joker--is a tragic figure who doesn't know whether to laugh or cry, but mostly he laughs--dementedly--at inappropriate times. People don't know how to take it, so they beat the shit out of him. One can only take so much of that, and Joker's breaking point comes when he guns down three tormentors on the subway. More carnage will follow as he sinks deeper into his psychosis and the film gets progressively nastier until you're asking yourself...what's the point of all this?

I had to think about what the intended message might be. Perhaps it's that we are one major crisis away from total chaos. (There's a garbage strike in the film's fictional setting of Gotham City, and folks are getting increasingly edgy.) Or that the vicious animal lurking inside us is always there just beneath the surface, ready to bare its fangs when the psychic  signal for batshit crazy mayhem flashes before our eyes.

Joker is purely a character study star vehicle for Joaquin Phoenix to strut his stuff brilliantly upon life's stage and become his signature performance. 

Robert DeNiro as a TV talk show host serves to remind us that the movie's plot dovetails with that of The King Of Comedy.  

The film has blockbuster written all over it, but I often have trouble with blockbusters because I find them to be too comic book slick for my tastes. We have gritty and grisly realism portrayed in unreal ways--as when Joker is running from the authorities and is smashed into by a car, flipping him onto the hood in a way that would either be curtains or a lengthy in-traction hospital stay for a regular person, but this wound-up cuckoo clock just shakes it off and keeps on running.

Joker, for those who can stomach it, presents a darkly disturbing view of a dystopian world that in many ways is already here.

Grade:  C+

Joker is without a doubt the most disturbing film I've seen since...I dunno. The Shining? Taxi? The Black Swan? Disturbing in a good way. (If there is such a thing!) It definitely makes you think. About mental illness, man's inhumanity to man, even our own breaking points. If you're longing to feel truly uncomfortable, Joker will do it for you.

I read online that Joaquin Phoenix shed 52 pounds before playing this part. Boy did he look emaciated. Which only added to his character's innate insanity. And watching his dance moves reminded me of Michael Jackson's Thriller. I'll bet a clown's outfit he studied those moves while preparing to play this part. So now, aside from Rene Zellweger's performance as Judy Garland, we have a second Oscar contender. Since he's already been nominated three times (The Master, Walk The Line and Gladiator), I'd say Joaquin Phoenix' chances of winning are spot on.

Not since John Williams' score for Jaws, have the suspenseful tones created by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir made me squirm in my seat. And the unrelenting darkness Lawrence Sher's cinematography only added to my discomfort.

As I experienced this film, I wasn't quite sure when reality stopped and delusional thinking took over. And I believe I was meant to feel that way. After all, madness is never simple. The character's outbursts of laughter were particularly unsettling. Later I learned that there's a specific malady with those characteristics called psuedobulbar affect disorder (PAD). In my view, Phoenix should win a Special Oscar just for being able to laugh nonstop for as long as he did.

Up until the last twenty minutes, I was ready to give this tour de violence an A. But Joker suddenly took a wrong turn in my view--from being a character study to being a message movie. I won't go into too much detail as I wouldn't want to ruin the movie. Suffice it to say that it could have easily ended a lot earlier.

Grade  B 

Thursday, October 3, 2019

JUDY (2019)

Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Renee Zellweger, Darei Shaw, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell
DIRECTOR: Rupert Goold
GENRE: Biopic/Drama/Musical

I've always been fond of Renee. She won me over in Bridget Jones' Diary. In Jerry Maguire, she had me at hello. A high point was her 2004 Oscar win for Cold Mountain. Then she took a six year hiatus from the acting biz. Since returning, she did a couple more Bridget Jones flicks. I didn't see them. I thought it was a regression. She was really getting typecast. She needed a good meaty role that was worthy of her true acting chops. So finally we have Judy--based on the play End Of The Rainbow by Peter Quilter.

The film focuses on a drug addled Judy Garland in decline, trying to make a comeback with a sold out five week stint at The Talk of the Town in London in 1969. It was make or break time. She had to leave her young kids behind. All the more reason to keep hitting the booze and popping those pills. 

Judy flashes back and forth from that scenario to the teenage Judy Garland prepping for her role in The Wizard of Oz--manipulated and molested and put on a forced diet by studio head Louis B. Mayer. Initiated into the world of drug use at a tender age.

Renee Zellweger inhabits her character in a way that is downright scary. It is a bravura performance. On the other hand, there's a disconnect with the actress chosen to play the young Judy, newcomer (this is her second ever role) Darei Shaw. She doesn't look much like the young Judy Garland. She has the vulnerability of the young Judy, and maybe that's all director Rupert Goold was going for. But she lacks the fresh-faced girl next door quality that served the teenage Judy Garland so well in The Wizard of Oz.

There's a lot to like and appreciate about Judy. Zellweger does all of her own singing. It doesn't matter so much whether she sounds a lot like the real McCoy--what's impressive is that she's a pretty darn good singer in her own right. Add some flashy chorus girl production numbers and a captivating soundtrack from Gabriel Yared, and it had me grinning throughout. Yes, I smile, even when the story is sad. I'm smiling because of the brilliance of the artistry I'm witnessing.

Zellweger is almost assuredly a lock for an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She's got my vote!



Darn, it's so much more fun to write our separate reviews when Tim and I disagree. 'Fraid not, this time. I knew I was in for a treat when the 11:30 am show was packed to the gills with Garland fans. I was lucky to get a seat!

So I guess the new trend for Oscar winners is to pick a part that brings back to life a tragically gifted singer who died too young. Rami Malek did it last year with Freddy Mercury. Renee Zellweger is doing it again this year with Judy Garland. Both actors literally became their legends. From looking like them, to imitating their exact movements on stage, both Malek and Zellweger were breathtakingly accurate. I predict that history will repeat itself at the 2020 Academy Awards show.

I read somewhere that the real Lorna Luft has opted not to see the movie of her mom. I don't blame her. It's painfully realistic. But unlike most films about addicted artists, Garland comes off loveable. In a desperately needy way. And the flashbacks make us even more sympathetic to her predestined drug use. Watching the evil way Louis B Mayer manipulates young Judy makes Harvey Weinstein's actions pale by comparison. (not really.)

If I had to criticize something about this movie (and I'm grasping at straws here), I might pare down some of the musical numbers. But that last one? Better bring a box of Kleenex!

Grade: A

Saturday, September 28, 2019


Rated:  PG

STARS: Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Jim Carson, Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern
DIRECTOR: Michael Engler
GENRE" Comedy/Drama

I was never a fan of the PBS miniseries, Downton Abbey (in fact I'd never seen one episode), but all the gals in the theatre for the movie version obviously were, as they were tittering all the way through this two hour tour-de-farce. 

British humor is so...well...pretentious (as are most things British). It relies on a kind of haughtiness and condescending attitude when putting someone else down through the use of biting sarcasm. And here's a trivia question: What 2019 film plays out with nary a person of color anywhere to be found? Yes, it's Downton Abbey! Were it an American film set in modern times you'd never hear the end of it. But it's  somewhere in the early twentieth century as we revisit the aristocratic Crawley family and their teeming anthill staff preparing for a visit from the king and queen. This sets in motion much scrambling to get everything just right and show the royal couple the proper amount of...pretense (the British stock in trade). All the obsequious curtsying and butt kissing is humorous in an appalling sort of way (as it is in real life to this day).

The dowager countess (Maggie Smith) is at the heart of the action throughout, and she sets the proper tone of haughtiness for the rest of the cast of seemingly thousands. To delve further into the intricate plot would be beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say it's complicated, the characters are numerous and difficult to keep track of, and the film goes pretty well past its sell-by date. (Could have done with a lot less ballroom dancing.) 

But there's a grand scene of horses and pageantry that is truly impressive. In fact, it's a wonderfully poignant comedy-drama, with John Lunn's elegant and uplifting music score primarily responsible. I'm an old romantic from way back and I eat that stuff up! And the acting is first-rate. Splendid. Bully.Top-flight.  

Though I still think that British period pieces like Downton Abbey exist primarily for the purpose of keeping costume designers rolling in the chips.

Grade:  A


I am speechless. (And for a blabbermouth like me, that's pretty impressive.) Before I comment on Downtown Abbey, I want to share the process Tim and I go through on deciding which films to review. He has a wide range of rules about what'll he see and what he won't see. My no-nos are confined to sci-fi and animation. Still, that leaves us plenty of choices. As a diehard fan of the PBS series, I pestered, cajoled and begged Tim—against his will—to see this one. He agreed with one caveat: "I get to choose the next one!" I share this with you because, as I watched this hodgepodge of a movie, I kept muttering under my breath: "Tim's gonna kill me."

I'm convinced he liked Downton Abbey because he'd never seen the original. I'm equally convinced I hated it because I had. These wonderful characters were, for me, like family. I'd lived through many a crisis with them. And to see the cardboard cutouts they became on screen? What a disappointment! (Some of the actors weren't even in the TV series – which only added to my confusion.) It felt like the screenwriter had never even seen the series. (To my horror, the screenwriter Julian Fellows created the original!)

Maggie Smith delivered the best lines, of course. But there were so many plots and subplots that keeping track of them was as challenging as preparing beef Wellington for visiting royalty.

I suppose if one views Downton Abbey as a spoof about British snobbery, it might be enjoyable. And it spares no expense on being authentic to the period. But I loved those characters and the film version robbed them of their authenticity!

Grade: D -

Wednesday, September 18, 2019


Rated:  R

STARS: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson
DIRECTOR: John Crowley
GENRE: Drama

I was pretty stoked to see the film adaptation of Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. I read the book--all 800 or so pages of it--and heartily concurred that it was deserving of every accolade it received. A literary masterpiece.

Bringing any novel to the screen is always a dicey proposition, and in this case director John Crowley (Brooklyn) and company certainly had their work cut out for them. The Goldfinch is about a young boy who loses his mother in a terrorist bombing. It's about his tenuous relationship with a young girl who has also suffered loss. It's about his relationship with his drug-addled Russian buddy, Boris. It's about his relationship with an avuncular furniture restorer and antique dealer who becomes his mentor. But primarily it's about his relationship with a fabled piece of art--the haunting image of a goldfinch tethered to a chain by the 17th century painter Carel Fabritius (which actually exists, though the story around it is fictionalized). It's a relationship that follows the classic rom-com formula of boy gets girl/boy loses girl/boy fights to get girl back. 

The scope of the novel goes far beyond the bare bones plot points I've provided. What makes it a classic is the fiery brilliance of Donna Tartt's prose, which unfortunately doesn't get translated to the silver screen--especially since she had no hand in the writing of the screenplay.

But I believe every film should stand as its own independent work of art, regardless of the source material. That's giving it a big break from the get-go. I'll just assume I haven't read the book. Now show me what you've got. The Goldfinch does a pretty good job of staying faithful to the main plot points of the novel, presented through flash backs and flash forwards a-plenty. But it's slow as the molasses in January for the first two-thirds of its two and a half hour running time. Slow and inexplicably devoid of any compelling emotional thrust to drive it forward. It seems as aimless as our young protagonist, Theo (Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley), as he grows into young adulthood trying to find himself. It picks up in the latter stages, as things hang in the balance and Theo must take decisive action to turn his unprincipled life around.

The incomparable Nicole Kidman, as the kindly woman who takes the young Theo in after the death of his mother, is a work of art in her own right, looking younger with each film she makes. The rest of the cast has a few names you may be familiar with (Sarah Paulson, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson) and a lot that you won't. If you've read the novel and you're a ne'er-do-well with too much time on your hands, go ahead and see the film, and let me know if you concur with my assessment. If you haven't read the book, make it a clean sweep and skip this not-so-clever
forgery as well.

Grade:  C


Like Tim, I read the book and remembered liking it a lot. However, I didn't remember most of the plot details until the movie reminded me of them. Unfortunately, I have to concur with Tim's molasses metaphor. My lids were getting heavier and heavier until our main character went to Texas to live with his classic bullshitter of a dad and met Young Boris. For me, that's when The Goldfinch came alive.

Finn Wolfhard, a still-in-high-school actor from Vancouver, Canada, is totally brilliant as the street savvy Russian kid whose violent childhood has made him a crafty but charming survivor. That actor deserves an Oscar nod, for sure.

I liked the fact that the cast was full of unknowns. It made the movie seem less Hollywoodish. The Young Theo was ably played by Oakes Fegley, who has only one screen credit. He played Pete in the remake of Disney's Pete's Dragon. (By the way, I used to be married to one of the composers of the musical version of that same film, Joel Hirschhorn.)

And another unknown-to-me actor, Ansel Elgort, played the Adult Theo with equal believability. Problem here is, the movie made his character seem emotionally frozen. It works in the book. In the film, it gets a bit monotonous.

I loved the visual contrasts. From a cluttered antique store, to a deserted Texas housing development, to Broadway in all its nighttime glory. The director took his time—probably too much—shooting scenes that looked themselves like art pieces. I wish I hadn't read the book. I would've enjoyed the movie more.

Not to parrot my last review, but if you decide to see The Goldfinch, please stay for the credits. You will, for very different reasons than Young Theo, fall in love with Carel Fabritius' masterpiece.

Grade: B -

Saturday, August 24, 2019


Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Kristen Wiig
DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater
GENRE: Comedy/Drama

It will require some patience and some faith to get through the early part of Where'd You Go, Bernadette. Patience and faith that director Richard Linklater is saving his best for last, because the first half of the film is talky and slow. Ironically, patience and faith are what are often required to deal with highly creative people, who can often come off as borderline mad.

Enter Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett),  a "highly decorated" architect who came to national prominence and praise for her innovative style. But marriage and becoming a mother have caused Bernadette to disconnect from the fire and passion she once poured into her work. She's dismissive and rude to her admirers and is embroiled in a nasty feud with her neighbor, Audrey (Kristen Wiig).

Because she basically doesn't like people (in these times, I think more and more of us can identify). And she appears to be hooked on prescription drugs. So how and why does she end up in Antarctica after an FBI agent comes calling, revealing that the Russians may be plotting against her? (They've got their fingers in everything these days!) That's where your patience and faith in sticking with Where'd You Go, Bernadette pays off, in learning whether she's a true whack job or maybe someone who just needs to get her mojo back!   

Billy Crudup plays Elgie, Bernadette's increasingly concerned and bewildered hubby, who is driven to lure his wife into an intervention, after coming to his wit's end with her increasingly erratic behavior. 

Newcomer Emma Nelson shows promise as Bernadette's loyal and fiercely protective teen daughter, Bee. That's refreshing, because normally it's mom and daughter who are at odds with one another. Here, mom is just at odds with the rest of the world.

The pristine beauty of Antarctica goes on full display in the second half of the film. But I felt that there should have been more penguins, and that they should have been dancing around--or something. (Watching too many animated features will spoil you that way.)

The ending feels a bit tidy and formulaic, but it's worth the price of admission to watch a true master at her craft play another master at her craft, and give it all the frenetic nuance that portraying an eccentric creative genius requires. 

Grade:  B 


Before I say one word—pro or con—about Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, I want to heap icicles of praise on the visually fascinating end credits. Do NOT exit the theater before they're done!

It's never easy portraying ultra neurotic artists on screen, showing their idiosyncrasies in manic bloom and yet having them come off as sympathetic. (I rest my case with a film like Pollack.) In this instance, however, screenwriters Holly Gent, Vince Palmo and director Richard Linklater manage to pull it off. With a ton of help from Cate Blanchett. This woman can play any part. From a crazy sister in Blue Jasmine(for which she won a 2013 Oscar), to a wealthy but repressed lesbian in Carol (for which she was nominated for a 2015 Oscar), to Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (for which she won a 2004 Best Supporting Actress award). A truly amazing talent!

Unlike Tim, I felt the story moved along at a comfortable pace from the get-go. There were enough tense moments—at school, at the dinner table, with the next door neighbor—to keep my attention from wandering. Okay, so maybe the meeting between Blanchett's character and fellow architect Lawrence Fishburne went on a bit too long... But I felt it was needed. (Nothing like rampant denial to make us believe this woman  belonged in a looney bin.)

I found Where'd You Go, Bernadette? Really original. Even though the book by Maria Semple is billed as a novel, I kind of wished it was based on a real person. Go see this one, as I'm quite sure Ms. Blanchett will be up for yet another Academy Award in 2020.

Grade: B+