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My movie blog (which I'm sure holds the record of smallest number of hits):
Little Women (2019)
Greta Gerwig's brilliant rendition of the all-time classic
If "Little woman" is not the most adapted (stage, movie, TV) classic of all times, it would be very close to being the one. What director Greta Gerwig has done is to make from it a movie of the second decade of the twenty-first century, and retain the original charm faithfully.
Parallel timeline is an often-used technique these days but few are as skilful as Gerwig. The toggle is not arbitrary as many others, but thoughtfully used to forward the story, enhance the mood, or accentuate key plot elements.
From the viewpoint of the original book, the first series of scenes in the movie are "seven years later" with Jo in New York trying to get some of her work published. We see her getting valuable advice from the editor: if the story is about a woman, it better end with her getting married or die, or else it just won't sell. Then comes the next series of scenes "seven year ago" (starting point of the book), the Christmas scene in which their kind-hearted mother succeeds in persuading the four sisters to show what I would call Good King Wenceslas spirit. The movie carries on cutting back and forth between these two time lines.
I am not going to details of the plot as it would be just as unnecessary as for, say, "Pride and prejudice'.
Going directly to the performances, Saoirse Ronan's portray of Jo is perfection personified, the strength, the weakness, the spirit, the vulnerability, the brilliance of this young woman. She is the most deserving of the Oscar nominees for best actress.
Emma Watson's Meg, not bestowed with her sisters' talents of writing, music or painting, is the most practical of the four. Although Jo does remind her of her acting talents, Meg decides to lead a simple life, marrying the financially unattractive tutor, the man she loves. This is not a difficult role to play but requires good discipline in measured balance between reason and passion. Watson is pitch-perfect.
Eliza Scanlen brings to the screen the endearing Beth, tragically lost to illness before the end. Very watchable is her father-daughter affection with neighbour lonely widower Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), starting with being invite to go over any time to play the piano that is left unused, "if only to keep it tuned", says the considerate old man.
Florence Pugh has received a deserved Best Supporting Oscar nomination for playing the free-spirited Amy, who laments "I am second to Jo all my life". Although she has not been favoured to win, she already has another breakthrough coming up, going toe-to-toe with Scarlett Johansson in "Black Widow".
There is a field of support with strength and depth. Playing the kind-hearted mother with passion and strength is Laura Dern, who is nominated for Oscar best support in another movie, "Marriage Story" (and already won in Golden Globe). Meryl Streep plays the rich aunt, with winks and grimaces that she can do even when she is dead (sorry Ms Streep, "in her sleep" is just not enough here). Her one-liners such as "I am not always right but I am never wrong" will not fail to remind the audience of Maggie Smith in "Downton Abbey" if they have seen that movie. Of the handful of men, not much needs to be said about Timothee Chalamer, doing what he does best playing Teddy, the heartthrob who captures emotions ranging from infatuation to devotion from young ladies across his path. The best though is Chris Cooper who must have plays any kind of character imaginable. As the lonely widower with a heart of gold, he melts hearts.
"Little women" does not have a Oscar nomination for cinematography, most unjustly. One scene that is particularly mesmerizing is a distant shot of Jo and Beth at the beach, with the sky and clouds bathing in ethereal light behind.
Talking about mesmerizing scenes, one depicts a sudden surge of inspiration showing Jo, in the wake of Beth's death, burns midnight oil (quite literally) turning out page after page of the sisters' life stories, spreading them on the floor. This brings back images of Doctor Zhivago's outpour of poetry on a desolate snowy night.
The recent "Fox scandal"
The posters of both "Once upon a time in Hollywood" and "Bombshell" feature the respective three leads. Both include Margot Robbie. In the former she is the only real-live character of the trio. In the latter, she is the only fictional character.
"Bombshell" tells a very recent story of the Fox TV Station scandal, in which an ultra-high-power executive Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) was brought down by accusations of sexual harassment. The ending text conclusion points out that this was the first time something like this ever happened. Then it went on to deliver the knock-out punch: It wouldn't be the last time.
Unlike in "Hollywood", all three leads in "Bombshell" are women. Each has a different story to tell. Meygn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is Fox's top anchor who becomes a household name in her blunt, challenging interview of Trump, before his election to presidency. She is an exception to the rule, a woman who gets everything from Ailes without any concessions other than tolerating his three advances which she successfully stopped. She should be loyal to Ailes and she does remain loyal until 30 odd witnesses have come out, before she turns against him. This is the final blow that destroys his belief that "Nobody leaves Fox. It's in your DNA".
Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is not as successful. Letting Ailes have his way initially rewarded her. But in the end, she is pushed aside, and then fired. That however becomes the start of Ailes's downfall as she mounts an attack that nobody believes can happen. Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a fictional character, represents the group of new-comers (not fictional) who are put to the test of whether they are willing accept sexual harassment as a fair price for furthering their advancement in the organization. A good question is whether this is a war declared on Fox or just on Ailes? In the end, even Fox abandons Ailes. Boss Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell) even refuses to let him come along to make an appearance in the announcement of his departure from Fox.
According to one of the Oscar betting sites, Theron ranks fourth with a 17.00 odd for Best Actress while Robbie ranks second with an 8.00 odd for Best Supporting Actress. Kidman has not received nomination in any major awards.
The supporting cast is very impressive, particularly to fans of TV series.
Lithgow, with so many films to his credit, would be best known to TV series fans as his role of Winston Churchill in "The Crown". McDowell, again a stunningly prolific screen performer, has impressed me most in "Mozart in the jungle" with his portrayal of an over-the-hill maestro still with burning passion. Playing Ailes's devoted wife Beth is Connie Britton, yet another veteran whose recent work that I really like is "9-1-1". Last but not least is Alison Jenney playing Ailes's legal counsel Susan Estrich. My TV series association of her is not the immensely popular "Mom", but just one guest performance in "The Kominsky file" where she appears as herself.
Motherhood is a mental illness
I'm sure there are other user reviews that would use this line of dialogue as the "headline". Haven't bothered to check.
The establishing scenes depict the friendship, purely sisterly platonic, between two co-workers at a strip club, Destiny (Constance Wu) the newcomer and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) the veteran. With her erotic moves at the dance pole Ramona instantly attracts a shower of banknotes thrown around her. Going back to the dressing room with an armful of said cash and passing Destiny, she winks and quips "does making money make you horny?" Wide-eyed with admiration, Destiny later asks "How come you are so good?" "I guess I am a people person", Ramona replies.
At this point, the movie moves forward to an interview Destiny has with investigative journalist Elizabeth (Julia Styles). The rest of the move anchors on that interview shown as intervals of short scenes.
The strip dance business (including, of course, what goes on behind closed doors), with clientele from Wall Stress executives and the like, flourishes. Ditto the friendship between the two protagonists who share their stories. Destiny's only objective at this point of her life is to take good care of her grandma who has raised her single-handedly. Ramona's life is her daughter. That is where we hear for the first time the line "Motherhood is a mental illness" which is echoed at the end, under very different circumstances.
Then comes the 2008 crash which destroys Wall Street and consequently the strip club. Destiny, out on her own, has a baby girl with a man who then abandons her. Struggling in financial hardship, she finally goes back to the club where she is reunited with Ramona. As the business is not what it used to be, the duo starts something they call "side hustle". Joined by two other co-workers, they con target customer, using drugs, to access their credit cards. Whatever scruples that bothers Destiny is cleared by Ramona's assertion that "the Wall Street guys stole from everybody". Soon, they are go from rags to rich again. "We are not disposable dancers any more. I'm now the CEO of a corporation", Destiny tells Elizabeth.
While this is supposed to be based on a true story, I'll leave out the spoiler finale. The last words are from Ramona "The city, the whole country, is a strip club. You got people throwing money, people dancing".
Wu ("Crazy Rich Asians") holds her own in this breakout role. Lopez got a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress and is favoured by some predictions to win. This won't take long to fins out. It's good to see Stiles, as the only non-erotic beautiful face in this movie. Ever since "Mona Liza Smiles" she has been a solid performer in movies and TV ("Riviera"). It's a pity that she never gets the big break she deserves.
The Lighthouse (2019)
Psychological thriller resting on two solid pillars: Dafoe and Pattinson
Some publicity material on this movie alluding to horror and the supernatural are completely misleading. There are no ghosts or spirits. The surrealism depicts only the mental state of the protagonists. As to horror, the violence and gore comes only at the very end, not sufficient to put this movie in the "horror" genre.
Before getting to the plot, just a few general comments. This is a very atmospheric movie, carried first and foremost by the almost incessant background noises (when there is no dialogue) - fog horns, cracking and whirling of machinery, threatening screams of seagulls. The entire movie is shot in black and white, with scenes alternating between light and dark, not sure if it's for allegoric purposes. The stage is a desolate lighthouse that seems to be at the edge of the world. The winding stairs inside the tower reminds me of "Vertigo", but then, they all look alike, I suppose.
The movie starts with the arrival of the two men posted there for 4 weeks. The opening dialogue is at their first meal, when the older guy Thomas (Willem Dafoe) pours out lines of poetry as it it's his second nature when he is not conversing in his natural salty dog language. "I ain't much for talking" is the confession of his young fellow-lighthouse-keeper Ephraim (Robert Pattison). What little information disseminated in the first half of the movie tells us that Thomas, with seafaring background, is a demanding, critical and a tad sadistic task-master. Ephraim, an ex-lumberjack, is taciturn, enduring and puts up a fight only very occasionally. In any event, the two manage a tolerably peaceful coexistence.
Two other things are worth mentioning. One is Ephraim's continuing sparring with seagulls, a species which for some reason appears to be his natural enemy. Thomas is not exactly happy about this. "It's bad luck to kill a seabird" he bellows to his young assistant. As well, as the senior in-charge, he refuses to let Ephraim into the locked chamber at the top of the tower. Tending to the light is his responsibility and his alone, he announces that this is what he also told Ephraim's predecessor, who died of madness, he adds.
After two weeks, at the midpoint of their watch, things actually improve. The protagonists open up slightly. "Are you a praying man?" Thomas asks. "Just a little. God-fearing, you may say" is Ephraim's reply. One significant thing then happens. Ephraim kills a seagull, savagely, apparently without Thomas knowing. Then towards the end of the 4 weeks, the men become virtually jubilant, drinking, singing, even dancing. Then, all hell break loose.
A storm delays the relief boat, for a day only, assumes Ephraim. The more experienced Thomas intimates that during some similar situations before, the lighthouse keepers were stranded for 7 months! Making things worse, a large portion of the provisions got spoilt in the storm and they have to face rationing for an uncertain period of time.
I have said enough. A regular moviegoer can imagine what the moviemakers can make with such material. What they've come up with in "The lighthouse" is an excellent psychological thriller, thanks also to the two absolutely first-class performances.
Having painted such a bleak picture, maybe I should add that this movie is not entirely devoid of funny moments. In one scene, when Ephraim refuses to acknowledge Thomas's culinary excellence, the latter in utmost fury brings down on the young man salvo after salvo of insults and curses, invoking the power of Neptune along the way, until the young man, cowered at the corner, finally meekly yields "Have it your way. I like your cooking".
The Report (2019)
Almost like a documentary, but a good one
The title refers to a 6,700-page report resulting from 5 years of dedicated work by Daniel ("Dan") Jones (Adam Driver) who headed the investigation of post-911 CIA activities, specifically with regards to their "enhanced investigation" method, and most specifically the "waterboard" torture which have appeared in so many movies, and even more TV series. Always centred around Dan, the movie runs like an investigation procedural.
The movie starts with a pitch at humour (which, alas, is the last such attempt): at a job interview, hearing that Dan has had experience teaching a grade school, the interviewer comments "knowledge of dealing with children is useful for working at the Hill (Capitol Hill, he means).
With frequent montages of what happens in a CIA "black site", the movie dives right into Dan's almost impossible task, because while CIA allows him look at all their records, he is not allowed to do anything beyond looking at the computer screen. Still, forward he goes "one deterrent at a time". He gets some unexpected help, Deep Throat fashion, from a doctor's assistant (doctors are not allowed in the "black sites") who informs him that despite CIA's claim, waterboard did kill, through suffocation. When he discusses this finding with his small team, one sceptical reply is "Dan, are you accusing CIA of murder?" As he digs deeper, Dan comes to the belief that waterboarding never accomplished the objective of getting useful information from the prisoner. One case quoted was that after 183 uses, the only truth obtained was "the truth that he is lying".
Dan faces hurdle after hurdle. When the best member of the team cannot stand the grinding task any more and announces that she will leave the team after Thanksgiving, Dan is understanding and say "well, that will give us a couple of months". Another colleague, a bit helplessly, points out "Dan, the is November. Thanksgiving is next week!" At one time, even supportive Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) who champions his cause has her doubtful moments "Dan, do you work for me or for the report?" The hard fact is that with 5-years' work pouring into the 6,700-page report, "it's still our word against theirs". As a compromise is being negotiates (so many interwoven political concerns) to publish just a 500-page summary, a reporter asks Dan for the entire report which he promises to publish. He tells Dan honestly "It's like the Snowden case, you will be considered a hero by some, and a traitor by others". It is not difficult to Dan to make his decision "If the report comes out, it has to be by the right way".
As history shows us, the summary was published, which did not tell the full story, nor did it lead to any charges made against anyone in the CIA. But at least it led to the US Government banning torturing as part of the questioning of suspects.
Adam Driver, I have come to believe, can play any role and is good to watch whatever he plays. This one is no exception. Annette Bening got a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress, deservedly.
The Two Popes (2019)
This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship
With apologies to the late Humphrey Bogart, I think his legendary closing line of "Casablanca" can be borrowed as a fitting "headline" for a review of "The two Popes". While I won't go so far as calling the title misleading, this excellent film is a lovingly crafted tribute to Pope Francis. Like a stage play, there is a complete structure of four acts bookended by a prologue and an epilogue. The entire film, arguably, is a continuous dialogue between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce).
The prologue covers the election of Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins), the first Pope in over 700 years to resign (not serving to the day of his death) on his own initiative, and an extremely brief encounter of the two protagonists in the men's room).
Act One sees the real commencement of the abovementioned dialogue in the Papal summer home, before Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis. The Cardinal has flown across the Atlantics from Argentina to seek the Pope's approval for his resignation (or early retirement, it can be considered). Without much ado, the superb writing plunges into a clash of the two markedly different personalities: one conservation, German; the other radical (insofar as the Catholic Church is concerned), Argentinian. The Pope loses no time in pointing out that the Cardinal has been expressing opinions openly against Vatican. The Cardinal emphatically states that he has been "taken out of context" by the media. He then goes on to argue "Did Jesus build walls? Mercy is the dynamite that blows down walls." He explains his reason for resigning "I don't want to be a salesman" and does not shy away from pointing out the narcissism of the Church. He argues that "change" and "compromise" are two different things. Finally, suggesting that the Pope has perhaps too much ego, he quips "An Argentinian kills himself by climbing to the top of his ego and jumping off". He concludes with "Even God is changing".
All the above are just a sample of the titillating dialogue in this first exchange. The amazing thing that only these two top-notch actors can pull off is depicting the sharp confrontation as grounded by honesty and integrity, and sometimes even with a pinch of humour.
The first round of bantering is halted by an intermission: dinner time, in which the Pope always eats alone (a point that is later in the movie taken up by the Cardinal who points out that Jesus rarely ate alone but was always breaking bread with company).
Act Two, under a more relaxed atmosphere of drinks after dinner, takes on a different tone. The softer side of Benedict is revealed, in his playing the piano, progressing gradually from sacred music (for which he had a CD made) to lighter, lounge music. He also displays he sense of humour, lamenting that he needs "spiritual hearing aids". A good part of this Act Two is devoted to flashbacks, in black and white, showing the Cardinal's young days, how he made the key decision of giving up worldly romance to become a priest. Again, the dialogue is interrupted, this time by something "urgent" that draws the two popes from the Papal summer home to Rome - a mini crisis caused by the publication of a book that is damaging to Vatican.
Act Three has two scenes. Scene 1 does not have much dialogue between the protagonists, but focuses instead on more flashbacks in Argentina, on the Cardinal's controversial days when he was involved in local politics. This, he explains, is what eventually drives him to his decision to tender his resignation. The Pope, however, continuously ignores the Cardinal's request and intimates, in absolute confidence, that he is going to tender his own resignation.
To balance this heavy segment, Scene 2 starts with the lighter side. The two holy men are not exempt from simple human needs, such as food. While in Italy, why not pizza? The Pope, obviously, is in the position to say grace. Several times, when it looks as if he is about to finish thanking God for the pizza, and the Cardinal is stretching out his hand to pick up his slice, the Pope continues! Eventually, His Holiness, finishing what he has to say, courteously asks is companion, "do you wish to add anything?" Without missing a beat but also without hurrying, the Cardinal smiles with a twinkle in his eyes and murmurs "Amen", in a way only Jonathan Pryce can deliver, with an invisible but palpable question mark.
Act Three Scene 2, before concluding, moves back into heavy territory, the Pope's confession (a serious, proper confession even though the Cardinal refused to have him kneeling) of his harbouring the sex offenders in his Church all these years. The conclusion reverts to a light touch, in the scene of Benedict seeing Francis off. You have heard "it takes two to tango". But to visually see it, literally, between a current pope and his successor, is something else. What Francis wants to do is to show Benedict a little bit of what this Argentina passion is all about. It is at this point that I am reminded of the aforementioned immortal closing line in "Casablanca".
Act four comprises a simple narrative of the election that made Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio Pope Francis, and montages of his world-wide tours and speeches denouncing the complacency of the Church as well as the human population in general - the "this has nothing to do with me" mentality.
Epilogue shows "The two Popes" watching the 2014 Germany-Argentina World Cup final, sitting in the privacy of comfortable sofas, enjoying a drink. The animated reaction over the exciting moments in the game is pure joy to watch.
The Art of Self-Defense (2019)
Genre defying, somewhat
"The art of self-defence" offers seriousness and absurdity, in equal measures. The story starts out quite simply: a meek, introvert accountant gets mugged and, as a result, joins a karate dojo. What appears to develop into a familiar arc gradually wanders into unpredictability realms.
Cast against type, Jesse Eisenberg is such a delight to watch. Alessandro Nivola as the hard-as-nail karate instructor is quite impressive. Imogen Poots is the highest-ranking student and instructors of the children's class does equally well,
If I must slot this movie into a genre, I would say dark comedy. The IMDb description also includes "crime" and "drama". This is not main stream entertainment but will enjoyed particularly by those with a taste that match.
The Aeronauts (2019)
Adventure, science and beauty
I am imagining watching "The aeronauts" on stage. It would be a good fit for a real-time play, two hours of adventure on a balloon that eventually soars to over 30,000 feet above depicted in a two-hour play. With state-of-the-art staging craft, this can be done, even including the trickier flashbacks to provide solid grounding for the story. But then, a movie screen would be better, and a lot easier.
The story is based on a real event, the record-breaking 1862 balloon flight of scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) with pilot Henry Coxwell who in the movie is replaced by fictional Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones). I wonder if the name is intended as a tribute to the movie "Amelia" (2009) as well as the legendary American pilot Amelia Earhart portrayed by Hilary Swank therein.
The background story, not-so-interestingly covered in the flashbacks, shows how James is a laughing stock in the eyes of people to whom he is trying to pitch his project. Even his own father at is initially unsympathetic. When James cites Newton in his grumbling, his father quips, "Newton changed the way we look at the world. You want to predict weather". Amelia's story is heart-breaking. Her husband sacrificed his own life during a balloon disaster in order that she could survive. It was with great a deal of reluctance, as well as a measure of resentment, that Amelia finally agrees to pilot James's project to take a balloon flight to a height never reached before, literally.
Redmayne and Jones have amply demonstrated their on-screen chemistry in "The theory of everything" (2014), not to mention their superb talent. In "The aeronauts" they gracefully depict the development of the relationship between this odd couple through the two hours in a journey they emotional roller-coaster of which only they can understand. Not a romantic arc though, mind you. The flirting at the beginning is superficial, maybe even just for tension management. In the end, what these two survivors have gained is great respect for each other and a lasting friendship.
As an adventure thriller, the movie starts slowly but does succeed in culminating in a series of scenes that have you at the edge of your seat, gasping. The best thing about this movie, however, is reflected in a dialogue towards the end of the balloon journey when James, as a scientist who is all logic, steadfastly holds on to the believe that "science brings order". But at the end, he has to concede that it "cannot explain beauty". Such beauty is lovingly captured in the absolutely breath-taking cinematography of "The aeronauts".
A satisfying closure of 42 years of the saga; the final two words are gold
Forty-two years! The first trilogy changed the world, making it a more interesting place. The second trilogy (chronically the first in the context of the story) was a bit of a let-down, a verdict hardly anybody disputed. The there was a time when all hope seem lost for the promised third trilogy to be made. Finally, dangling the mystery of the origins of the new heroine Rey (one fantastic Daisy Ridley), it was launched four years ago. Here comes judgment day (nothing to do with Terminators) - how will the fans receive the ultimate closure? Will they be happy with the revelation of who Rey really is?
From this point on, there is nothing but SPOILERS here, for the eyes only of those who have seen this movie. This is not even a user movie review. Call this a sharing of random thoughts after watching "The Rise of Skywalker".
Going back to the very beginning, Episode IV (1977) introduced a trio that expectedly turned into a romantic triangle. It was satisfactorily resolved in Episode VI as one guy turns out to be a brother. The new trio teases with romantic possibilities but is in truth platonic for all three. While each of the three has separate romance plot line, romance never plays an important part. In the new trio, Rey is the true star, while Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) are just strong supports.
The true love story is the Rey and Ren show (first name and family name respectively). They tele-psychi-communicate, Rey and Kylo Ren (son of Han and Leia, inheriting also his grandfather's dark side, alas, played by Adam Driver who has convinced me that he can do just about anything on screen). The feelings they develop for each other is, unfortunately, overshadowed by something ominously bigger.
But even the Rey and Ren show just goes so far. Eventually it is Rey Skywalker. Even the critical critics praise these two final words that say so much. Palpatine by blood, Rey is in every fibre of her being a Skywalker. Earned it convincingly. And the closure of these two words, with Ridley's winning smile, is pure gold.
To lighter things. The best sight gag has to be this. After they have fallen into a dark tunnel, Rey switches on her light sabre. Standing beside her, Poe switches on his flash light! Talking about light sabre, after all these years, it is still amazing how the moviemakers can still come up with ways of new angles for them, both figuratively and literally.
On the new character Zorii, Poe's old flame (of sorts, we never learn the full story), I must have had a temporary mental block, as I have read about it, but forgotten. The lovely voice and the slim agility are most tantalising as I was dying to see the face behind the mask (is she the first Mandalorian?) In the scene of intimate conversation with Poe, she goes as far as lowering her eye shields. Such a pair of bewitching, beautiful eyes. But even in the playful, teasing final shot, she keeps the mask on. It wasn't until checking IMDb afterwards that it was brought back to me: Keri Russell!
Interesting how the original three appear in this final episode. Late (and forever missed) Carrie Fisher's Leia appears in "archive footage", continuing Luke's job of training Rey to be a Jedi. The characters of both Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford are both already dead in this Episode IX and they appear in flashbacks. One more: fans will enjoy Billy Dee Williams reprising his character Lando, older, wiser and looking even stronger!
But if there is one name that I put before everybody else's (including George Lucas), it's John Williams. After 4 decades, it still brings goose pimples to hear his two Star Wars themes: one in uplifting major, bursting gloriously out in full blasts of heroism; one melancholic minor, emotionally charged, tugging at every heartstring. You will have your heart's content with these two themes in "The rise of Skywalker".
Last Christmas (2019)
Not your run-of-the mill rom-com, this one has a Dickensian twist
The opening sequence, while amusing, is not particularly impressive. Kate (Emilia Clarke) with mother and sister issues (sounds familiar), tries to drown her troubles in a bar and get picked up. Waking up next morning on the nice guy's bed, she is offered a cup of piping hot cappuccino. Going out to get fresh fruits for making mixed juice for breakfast he suggests she take a shower in the meantime. Pampering herself in the shower, she hears the door open and a women's voice "honey, I'm back early". When later a naked (except for wrapping towel) woman bumps into the shower, screams and yells "who the hell are you"? Kate can only offer "I'm the plumber". You know the drill. A run-of-the-mill rom-com, you think. But "Last Christmas" is not quite what you would expect.
Eyeing the cast, you might say to yourself "Not again, Michelle Yeoh and Henry Golding playing the possessive rich mother and the successful self-made son again!" Far from it! The two of them does not even have a single scene together. And then, one would expect to see Emma Thompson as the snobbish high-class British woman and Emilia Clarke the rebellious spoilt kid. Wrong again!
I am not going to spoil it, but just to give a little bit of flavour. When not drinking or picking up one-night stands, Kate works in a year-round Christmas store as the resident elf. Owner "Santa" (Yeoh), not her real name, is a demanding but not unreasonable boss. The relationship started well but as Kate's work attitude deteriorates, Santa gets less and less tolerant. As Kate sinks deeper into self-destruction, she beings to lose good, supportive friends. It's only when she has no choice but to go home (or be a "homeless" person wandering the streets of London all night) that we the audience see that "home" is not a luxurious mansion but a modest town house. Then, we are treated to Emma Thompson's amazing Yugoslavian accent, playing Kate's mother. The parents are refugees who, after over a decade, cannot see themselves accepted in their new country. It's this sense of insecurity that make mothers intolerable and father distant. Sister is a successful, self-made woman but she has her own situation, a homosexual relationship.
Then an undauntable, cheerful young man walks into her life. Tom is not exactly prince charming but a delivery man on a bike, living in a neat but Spartan apartment. Yet, he has uncanny way of understanding Kate's problem. What follows is a series of almost surreal scenes that immediately invoke memories of a wonderful song, if you know that one "Streets of London"
"So how can you tell me you're lonely And say for you that the sun don't shine Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London I'll show you something to make you change your mind".
With the reference to the Dickensian twist I mentioned in the headline, you see a Scrooge of sorts (albeit a very pretty one) whose mean spirit is magically transformed to charitable and love by the end of the movie. And this means that there are lot of support characters and side plots and reconciliations aplenty. First, there's Kate's own family members. Next comes Santa (and a cuter Yeoh I have never seen) whose romance blossoms all thanks to Kate. There are the friends that Kate makes up with. On top of that there is the whole gang and the charity hall for the homeless, where Kate eventually works as volunteer, thanks for Tom.
Needless to say, I won't be so mean spirited as to close with a spoiler. I won't even mention the name of the movie but there is one, if you have seen it, that "Last Christmas" will surely remind you of. It stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.
Marriage Story (2019)
Two riveting lead performances
It would seem natural to start talking about "Marriage Story" with something like "there is life beyond Kylo Ren and Natasha Romanoff", in tribute to the two leads progressing from blockbuster pop icons to Oscar calibre performers. But I am going to start with director-writer Noah Baumback first.
In 2005, I watched "The squid and the whale", also written and directed by Baumback, earning him Sundance awards for both these categories, although none of the more glamorous awards for which it was also nominated. I beg indulgence is excerpts from my IMDb user review of that movie.
"This is a very realistic, honest depiction of the drama of life. The fact that it is so good is due very much to its very close to being writer-director Noah Baumbach's auto-biography" I thus described "The squid and the whale". These comments applies equally to "Marriage story".
"The squid and the whale" is also about a failed marriage, as we the audience we see "the characters' struggles throughout the movie, against themselves and against each other, to find a balance in a life that will go on. At various times, you learn to like or dislike these characters, but never without a sense of sympathy for their helplessness. In the end, you have a deeper understanding that life sometimes does take such turns, and you recognize it in people around you, some of whom you know quite well." So much for "The squid and the whale", which for most part is from the POV of the young children. "Marriage story" goes directly and unflinchingly into the couples' inner world.
While many also compare "Marriage story" to "Kramer vs Kramer", there are significant difference. While the key plotline for both is custodianship battle, "Kramer" is also very much a father-and-son bonding story, maybe even more so. In "marriage story", on the other hand, the son is neutral and seems equally agreeable to living with the father or mother. In Kramer, the Oscar wins were Best Lead Actor for Dustin Hoffman and Best Supporting Actress for Merly Streep. For "Marriage story" is will be most surprising if Adam Driver (playing Charles) and Scarlette Johansson (playing Nicole) are not both nominated for their respective lead roles.
I won't go into the details of how what started as a perfect marriage ends up failing. The general verdict of critics seems that neither is entirely at fault. It's just one of those things. So, let's leave it at that.
What I final most moving in this movie is the light touches (and Baumback is superb with those) that make your heart bleed in hoping that they would get back together after all: such as in the lunch break in the meeting at the legal office Charles stares at the menu, completely at a loss and Nicole takes it off his hand and orders for him; such as at a brief evening visit Nicole observes Charles's "shaggy" appearance and ends upon cutting his hair for him (something she has always done for the family); such as at the closing scene (after the custodian dispute has been resolved reasonably amicably), Nicole notices that Charles's shoelace is loose, calls him to stop and ties it up for him (he is holding their son, going away to spend a day with him). There are many such touches, as I call them, but the most heart-breaking thing is to see the two of them, in a throng of people, exchanging glances and gazes as if they are the only two persons in the world.
To-date, "Marriage story" has collected 35 awards and earned close to 100 nominations. As I said, it is almost a certainty that both Driver and Johansson will be nominated for best lead role in Oscar. If they both win it will be well-deserved, not only for their heart-felt, nuanced performances throughout but also for an emotionally explosive scene in the middle that leaves the audiences breathless and sobbing at the same time. There is a solid support cast, of which the three lawyers are most noteworthy. Honoured with a Golden Globe support nomination is Laura Dern playing Nicole's super-aggressive lawyer Nora. Hall-of-fame class veteran Alan Alda plays Charles's first lawyer Bert, semi-retired and eventually fired for being too soft. Picking thing up from him is Jay, a lawyer worth Nora's steel, played by veteran screen tough guy Ray Liotta.
Over the rainbow
For the general audience, familiarity with Judy Garland may not go past Dorothy Gale singing "Over the rainbow". I do have some vague memories of mentions somewhere about alcohol and substance abuse, as well as suicide attempts. But, unfortunately and sadly, such harsh realities apply to so many iconic performers that individual images blur and dilute. Memories tend to dwell on the happy areas, the Land of Oz in this case.
"Judy", however, is a sad story, focusing on the final year of Judy's life, before she died in accidental overdose, at the age of 47, The movie starts with a brief prologue of ruthless Hollywood movie mogul Louis B. Mayer telling young Judy (Darci Shaw) that while her looks are unremarkable, she is going to be a superstar because she had a "voice that will make you a million dollars". This is followed by the sharp irony of a scene a few decades later, her getting a cheque of $150 from an apologetic manager acknowledging that this is not she was used to. For this modest reward, Judy is to perform a show with her youngest daughter and son on a stage that was not exactly world-class stage.
The premises of the story are all too familiar: a superstar falling faster than a comet, a one-time diva driven by loss in confidence to substance abuse, a desperate mother fighting for custody for her young children with a steely conviction that their place is with their mother. In financial wreck, she finds a lifeline in a 5-week engagement in London, which she has no choice but to accept although it means leaving the children with the ex-husband. The opening night, starting shakily, seems to end up seeing her reborn. Then, a brief ray of hope comes from a deal, arranged by her sweet-talking boyfriend (soon to become second husband), that may eventually give her complete financial freedom. But even with that hope, she is sinking back into her old form of emotional and physical wreckage. When the deal finally falls through, it becomes the nail to the coffin. In a heart-breaking scene, from a telephone booth in London, she calls her beloved daughter, trying to subtly suggest that the kids' place is perhaps better to be with their father. Even more heart-breaking, her daughter accepts this in a matter-of-course manner.
All this is more or less expected, depicting Judy as a woman who is by nature a pain in the neck to everybody around her. What is perhaps less expected are flashbacks to her "Wizard of Oz" days which where, maybe a little surprisingly, anything but happy. Mayer is painted here as an arch-villain, ruthlessly manipulating Judy, leaving her with a traumatic childhood from which she never recovers. Perhaps he was. However, only very slightly touching on (a brief mention by Judy herself) is that her own mother is equally monstrous, if not even more so.
This is all Renee Zellweger's show and she has already received several awards nominations including Golden Globe. Whether she is good enough to bring home an Oscar remains to be seen but a nomination is almost a certainty.
There is a solid supporting cast. I am going to mention only two, not because of the importance of their role in the movie, but because I am a fan of TV series. Playing her husband is Rufus Sewell, who is a prolific veteran that you would probably remember seeing in one movie or another. But currently he most acclaimed for his lead role in "The man in the high castle". Playing Judy's young daughter Lorna is Bella Ramsey. The name may not ring a bell and you might not recognize her right away. But if you are a fan of "Game of Thrones", you will not forget 11-year-old Lady Lyanna Mormont who leads the rally of "Jon Snow, the King in the North"!
The Irishman (2019)
5 Golden Globe nominations
Golden Globe nominations have just been announced. "The Irishman" has been honoured with 5, in the "Drama" category: best picture, director (Martin Scorsese), supporting actor (Al Pacino, Joe Pesci) and screenplay (Steven Zaillian).
Throughout the history of Hollywood (an indeed probably worldwide), there is no lacking of gangster movies. To many, "Godfather" has set a bar that is yet to be surpassed. Director Scorsese's only Oscar win so far also came from this genre, a deviously clever screenplay from Hong Kong adapted to become "The Departed" (2007).
"The Irishman" opens with a long one-take shot (similar to Brian De Palma's "Snake eyes" (1988) but not as long or as flashy) that meanders along the corridors of a seniors' home, finally resting on the title protagonist Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) sitting on a wheel chair. A VO starts as the camera closed up to De Niro and continues seamlessly as his lips start to move and speak. In the next three-and-a-half hours, we hear Sheeran telling his life story.
Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran was a WWII veteran who had been following General Patton all over Italy, Anzio and all. He then became an important figure in the teamster labour union, as well as organized crime. Through easy-to-follow narrative, some mild temporal scrambling notwithstanding, the movie recounts Sheeran's association with various underworld figures, with plenty of killing using efficient, clean neat shots to the head.
The main body of the movie pertains to two such associations with characters played by the Golden Globe best support nominees Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). While these two are without question Sheeran's best friends, there is a sharp contrast between these two relationships. Bufalino is Sheeran's mentor, an almost fatherly figure. When they talk, it is always in a low, subdued tone which, however, at times have such a hideous undercurrent that makes you shudder. Hoffa on the other hand is like a time bomb, but a time bomb that explodes just about every hour. The fiery speeches Pacino delivery at the union meetings is something to behold. I won't go into any further details, not because of spoiler avoidance as the true story is amply documented and readily available in the public domain. The spoiler here would be taking away the pleasure of experiencing the mesmerising story-telling.
Three-and-a-half hours in today's nano-second-verse seems a long time to sit through a movie. What makes it a worthwhile, special experience is the direction of Scorsese and the acting of De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, particularly when with the excellence is also three entirely different styles and persona, giving such a rich variety.
It would of course be interesting to see what Oscar nominations "The Irishman" will gather.
Downton Abbey (2019)
Joyful reunion, and tying up a few loose ends
"Downton Abbey" is for those who have invested 50 plus hours of their lives (and some who doubled that, from first-hand experience) in the 6 seasons of the TV series with the same title. It is a post-season gift to fans who, while leaving the series finale in a glow of warmth, could not be spared a trace of sadness in saying goodbye to the massive cast of characters whose lives they have shared over the six years.
With the proliferation of characters throughout the series, even with quite a number of them dying or dropping out of the picture, it would still be an impossible task to tie up each and every loose end.
"Downton Abbey" therefore serves two purposes. The primary objective is to give a lavash party for the audience, a reunion with people that have become so dear to them over the 6 years. An auxiliary objective is to tie up some loose ends, the most important of which in the future of Tom Branson (with no apologies, this review is targeted only at those who are familiar with Downton Abbey, just as the movie is).
Leaving the familiar company at the Christmas party in of 1925, we now find that find that 18 months later (in our real-life time 4 years later), Downton Abbey is chosen to be the home for one night of King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) during their tour. The "plot", if any, of the movie revolves around this royal visit which affects both upstairs and downstairs, in different ways. Downstairs, it is more straightforward. The entourage brought by the royal couple is expectedly obnoxious and snobbish (that is, snobbish TO the Downton Abbey people, think about that!!). Butler, chef, housekeeper etc etc intend to entirely replace their counterparts in the Crawley estates for a day. Lady Mary, observing that Thomas Barrow is "in a sort of a trance", brings back the heavy artillery Carson to "pick up the flaming sword", hoping to save the day. In the end, it is Bates and Anna (now Mrs Bates), the couple who has seen troubles of every kind (including being jailed on separate occasions, if you remember) that lead the operation to "defend Downton Abbey's honour". Carson, hearing their wild scheme, exclaims "this is treason", but eventually goes along and winds up beaming at the departure of the defeated obnoxious company. "What did you put in the chef's drinking water", he asks Anna, smiling. It is, however, shy Molesley who is in the spotlight. Serving at the table, he let it be known that it is the Downton Abbey staff, rather than the royal trope, that is responsible for the lovely dinner. When Her Royal Majesty asks him to pass along their royal appreciation, the dear man almost pass out, eventually making an awkward exit after an even more awkward curtsy. When Cora the gracious host apologises for Molesley's fluttered condition, Her Majesty, with a courteous smile, replies "We are used to people behaving strangely while we are near."
Upstairs, there are so many different situations and sub plots that it will take forever to cover them all. I'll just mention two.
With the political undercurrent, an assassination plot is not entirely out-of-place. Branson, as we all know, despite his sympathy for the Northern Irish cause, is impeccably loyal to his family (originally his deceased beloved wife's family). Playing along with an assassin who approaches him, he foils the attempt in the last minute, wrestling the man to the ground and shout to Lady Mary, who has come with him, to get his gun. Complying wholeheartedly, Mary gives the hand holding the gun a heavy stamp, then the gun a quick kick. We now realize, therefore, that Lady Mary's footwork does not suffer in comparison with the Black Widow's.
The other subplot has to do with Violet. Needless to say, Maggie Smith dominates every scene she is in, even if she had not been giving cryptic one-liners such as "I am an expert in every matter" or "I never argue, I explain" in Violet's continuous verbal sparring with Isobel. Helped getting up by the King after her struggle at a curtsy, she quips to His Majesty "I may never get up again". Seeing her long-time enemy Maud (Imelda Staunton) after so many years, she jabs "are we going to kiss?" Delivered by Smith, they are all marvellous. But the gold has to go to this one below.
Maud is Violet's cousin and they have had long quarrels over some family estates owned by Maud. When the royal tour brings these two together, Maud brings a young, endearing housemaid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) who has served this lonely woman loyally, almost like a daughter. Violet is scandalised upon hearing Maud's intention to make Lucy the sole beneficiary of her will. The truth of the matter is that Lucy is really Maud's daughter, out of wedlock. Violet and Maud are finally reconciled. In the meantime, Tom and Lucy have developed romantic feelings to each other. Upon hearing from Isobel that Tom and Lucy intend to correspond and asked if she would object, Violet exclaims "Object? I'll lick the stamps myself". Julian Fellowes has written so many fantastic lines, but this one has to be the gold.
The above covers only a small fraction of the entertaining scenes in the movie and a very small fraction of the characters in the TV series. While just about everybody is in the movie, true fans will notice, and be disappointed by, a conspicuous absence, of Lady Rose, the heaven-sent daughter-in-law who saved her father-in-law from a risk of having his mistress exposed in public (not to mention in front of his wife). I agree that Lily James has since become the most demanded face on the Hollywood screen. But then Matthew Goode made a very brief cameo at the very end. Why couldn't she. Perhaps, the fact that Lady Rose now lives in New York offers an excuse from the perspective of the storyline. But she is missed.
Manbiki kazoku (2018)
Lost in translation
The original title of the movie is "Shoplifters family". Dropping of the word "family" is a serious omission. One of the themes of the movie that comes across quite clearly is that blood is not necessarily thicker than water. The audience starts with assuming that the various protagonists are members of a family by blood. As the narration progresses, it is gradually revealed that none of them are. And yet, their affection and devotion are something that you may not even see in a real, blood-related family.
Director Hirokaze Koreeda's work shares certain fundamental qualities with the work of his world-famous countryman Akira Kurosawa: brilliant depiction of the "little people", with an endearing warmth. While their styles are totally different, the emotions they channel are equally genuine. Kurosawa has a mischievous sense of humour that will have you laughing and crying all at once. Koreeda approaches his characters with a low-key tenderness that often moves you to silently weeping. After distinguished works like "Nobody knows", "Air doll" and "Like father, like son", it's "Shoplifters" that won for him Best Director in Cannes.
"Shoplifters" does have a simple plot that runs through the entire movie. To the "family" of four - father, mother, grandma and preteen son - is added a girl of 5 that the father finds shivering at a dark street corner. Unwilling to return her to abusive parents, the family keeps her, running the risk of felony of child-kidnaping. This background is all but forgotten as we see the little girl quickly mergers into the family, to the extent of even receiving lessons on shoplifting from her loving "older brother". A subplot involves the mother's young sister who is in the sex service profession in a cheerful matter-of-course way.
While the parents have menial job and the grandma has a modest pension, the family is continuously struggle below the poverty line. The mother tries to nonchalantly explain away their slightly shady moral compass by saying that shoplifting does not really hurt anybody so long as the shops can afford it. As we share the family's daily life in a most intimate way we have, towards the end, come to entirely rooting for them as the "kidnap" is finally exposed, with dire consequences.
While the acting of entire cast is absolutely mop-notch, it is the mother (Sasuda Ando) who will win your heart, with her deep compassion, with her cheerful disposition, and with her undaunted spirit towards life even when facing adversity.
Knives Out (2019)
Best old-fashion whodunit we've had in years
Everything I am outlining below on this excellent, old-fashion 2-hour whodunit pertains only to the first hour. Nothing therein should be considered a spoiler if you look at them in the context of what is to come in the second hour. Still, for purists, please do not read on.
Enormously successful murder mystery writer Harlan (Christopher Plummer) is found dead lying on the couch in his study, a couple of hours after his 80-something birthday party at his luxurious mansion. Of his three siblings, one son had died years ago leaving behind widow Joni (Toni Collette) with a daughter Meg (Kathrine Langford), a college student. Daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), a very successful businesswoman, is married to Richard (Don Johnson) who has given her a son Ransom (Chris Evans), a cad so irresponsible that he has not even bothered to come to the subsequent funeral. Youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), married and with a teenage son, is allowed to run the family publishing company but kept on a short leash.
Not a family member but treated by all as one is Marta (Ana de Armas) a young nurse hired to look after Harlan. She is a South American immigrant living with a family who, unlike her, is in the country illegally. Alienated by his family members, Harlan considered Marta to be his only friend. While Marta does not live in the mansion, there is a housemaid who does. Completing the ensemble is Harlan's mother at whose age dementia is entirely expected.
The case is officially under Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield), who sees nothing more than a suicide of an old man tired of living. Celebrated private investigator Beniot Blanc (Daniel Graig), however, has been hired by a mysterious client to assist the police to see if there is foul play. Four suspects very quick emerge, all with motives clearly revealed at the party, either heard or observed by other people. Walt is fired by his father for incompetence. Toni is found out to have been cheating on the money she claims to be necessary for Meg's college education, which Harlan has been generously funding. He now threatens to cut off the support completely, thereby jeopardising Meg's college education. Against son-in-law Richard, Harlan holds convincing evidence of his cheating on his wife. Finally, Ransom is heard to have had a heated exchange with his grandfather, when he is told that he has been cut out completely in the old man's will. The prime murder suspects, therefore, comprise a son, a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law and a grandson.
So far so good. Then comes the first big twist that changes everything. Between the finishing of the party and the time of the murder, various people have heard third big thuds from the study where Marta often plays GO games with Harlan before seeing him to bed. Toni actually knocks on the door which is answered by Harlan who explains that he accidentally knocked down the playboard and there is nothing to worry about. Going into any more details will spoil the fun of viewers, although not necessarily the convoluted plotline.
I'll just mention three key things, which the viewers would expect anyway. 1. The will, which obviously is crucial to the death, is read to the family at about the midpoint of the story. 2. The identity of Blanc's mysterious client is not revealed until the very end and has a vital significance. 3. Whether this is indeed a suicide (as the Lieutenant believes it to be), a murder (as Blanc is investigating) or even something else is not disclosed until the very end.
The star if the show is de Armas, almost unrecognizable from the computer-created character she plays in "Blade runner 2049". Equally unrecognizable, from his Agent 007 persona, is Craig. Both are superb. Plummer has a couple of impressive scenes in flash-backs. Of the other supports, Collette has the strongest role while Curtis is a bit underused. I almost forget Evan, another unrecognizable, not so much in appearance as in person, from his Captain America. All the rest of the cast deliver solid support.
Rian Johnson may not be an A-list director but certainly has a core of devoted followers. Critics and viewers unanimously agree that this movie represents his total return to form. After watching this movie, you will understand why.
Gemini Man (2019)
Ang Lee's continuing journey of exploration
One thing that Ang Lee and Luc Besson may be said to have in common is their continuing exploration of difference genres. They are unlike, say, Alfred Hitchcock who specialises.
"Gemini Man" is Lee's venture into the sci-fi cum spy action thriller. He has not pretended to make something new out of this genre (or hybrid of two genres, if you wish). While this is nothing near to his best, nor is it a piece of genre ground-breaking work, it does not fall short of an attentively made work of entertainment.
The movie opens with an attention-focusing sequence culminating in a sniper shot by a top-notch assassin Henry Brogan (Will Smith). Despite what looks like a routine completion of a mission, Brogan shows subtle signs of beginning to be over-the-hill.
The remainder of the story is a familiar trajectory of a hero on-the-run. Determined to terminate this asset-turned-liability is former boss, Clay (Clive Owen). Fugitive partners are Baron (Benedict Wong), long-time loyal friend and Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an agent initially dispatched by his enemies but ends up siding with him.
The well-publicised 120 frames per second technology does not appear to register. The excellent, much talked-about set piece owes most to Lee's direction. This is the scene revealing Brogan's clone, "Junior" (guess who plays that), sent to kill him. Inventors of the motor cycle should be proud of its ingenious employment here, including as a deadly weapon. The second battle of Smith vs Smith has already lost its novelty appeal, and also suffers in a venue being a dark catacomb.
On cutting-edge CGI technology, the younger Smith looks better than the younger Michael Douglas in the Ant-Man/Avengers series but is not perfect. Lee has made an effort in injecting some emotional content into this action thriller but wisely has not gone overboard. While this is not exactly representative of Lee's best work, it should be an enjoyable cinematic experience provided that one manages one's expectation.
21 Bridges (2019)
One hell of a tight script
Many may have come just to see Chadwick Boseman and they shouldn't be disappointed. But there are other good things about this movie. It has one hell of a tight script. Throughout the 100 minutes runtime, there is not a single wasted, idle shot (no pun intended). There is also a good supporting cast, which I'll come to later.
The movie is almost real-time, starting from a midnight robbery gone wrong, resulting in the killing of eight offices of the NYPD. Manhattan is sealed off (hence "21 bridges" plus all other access routes) and the NYPD is given just a few hours to dawn to apprehend the perpetrators, before the FBI takes it off their hands. Running almost like real-time, the movie immediately kicks into high gear.
Paring up on this mission-almost-impossible are detective Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman), "the guy who kills cop-killers" and narcotics officer Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller), tough as a bone, with a will of her own (thanks, W.S. Gilbert, of "Gilbert and Sullivan"). This co-lead billing notwithstanding, his is clearly a lead role and hers a strong support. Police Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons), shaken by the loss of eight of his family-like officers, hints to Davis to live up to his reputation and take no prisoners. Despite such reputation, however, Davis has never shot a criminal without just cause. Burns, impeccably professional, has a little daughter waiting for her at home, under the care of a babysitter. The two criminals who blundered into this unexpected disaster are Ray (Taylor Kitsch) and Michael (Stephan James), both war veterans. Ray is the typical villain while Michael, although loyal to him, has more sense and compassion.
I am not going into the detail plot which, needless to say, has twists and turns. With good character development (albeit within the real time of a few hours), running parallel are a police procedural and a crime story from the POV of the criminals. Excellent script, direction and acting together make sure that your attention is focused during the entire duration of the movie.
Boseman is pitch perfect, indisputably demonstrating that he has a lot to offer beyond Black Panther. Miller, unlike the glamour support in "Stardust" (2007), is all character-acting here. Kitsch, in his first (I think) crack at a key villain role, delivers. Matching him scene for scene, and then more, is James. Ever reliable, Simmons handles his not-so-simple role effortlessly.
This is an exceptionally good crime and action drama.
Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
Worthy, good closure
After five instalments, what more can the creators of the "Terminators" dream up? You have to give them credit. In this sixth and last instalment, there is machine turned partly human emotionally, human turned partly machine physically, plus an ultra-version of terminator that can split into two: a skeletal black metal structure and a dark, semi-liquid body-snatcher, both equally lethal killers. Let me just back up a little.
Let's take a look at the ensemble of key characters and their initially perceived roles. Picking up directly from Terminator 2 (and wisely ignoring 3, 4 and 5), there is Sarah Connor, first in a prologue (a seamlessly digitally rejuvenated Linda Hamilton). Relieved that she has saved the world, Sarah is ambushed by one of the remaining Terminators (and you know how HE looks like) who shoots young John Connor dead. Then, fast forward a couple of decades, she appears (still Hamilton, but with no CGI), fierce as ever but now fuelled by hate after John was killed. Armed with an amazing assortment of weaponry (the source of supply of which is later explained), she proclaims that her life now comprises only two things, hunting terminators and drinking, but I'm not sure if it is in that order. And then, she even says "I'll be back", in a way that is even cooler than her old nemesis T-800's, if you can believe it.
In Mexico City, dropping out of the sky naked (no surprise here) are two separate characters, both sent back from the future. Undeniably attractive in her short hair and tomboyish persona is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an entirely human but effectively "augmented" soldier from the future. Following shortly after her arrival is REV-9 (Gabriel Luna), the cutting-edge version of self-splitting terminators as described above. Grace's mission is to protect Dani (not the one with 3 dragons) (Natalia Reyes), and REV-9's to terminate her. The machine is just a machine and that's that. The story of Grace, however, unfolds gradually throughout the movie.
Dani is, quite obviously, the alter-ego-Sarah in this movie, a Madonna figure that must be protected at all costs to allow the saviour to come into this world. Apparently, preventing Skynet in instalment 2 did not change the human fate of creating a technology that will eventually cause our annihilation. This time, the tyrannical living machine in the future is called "Legion".
Last but not least, although appearing only half-way through the movie, is good old T-800 (good old Arnold Schwarzenegger, plus an absolutely adorable stubble), not one of the models we saw in the first two instalments, but the one in the prologue of this movie, the one who killed John Connor. But killing Connor leaves the machine with no purpose, and "he" miraculously find a new purpose, mellows, and becomes more and more human (although never entirely so). He is now a family man, going by the name Carl
I am not going into the story line other than that it essentially pitches the team of four against REV-9. The various personality conflicts between team members are quite watchable. Sarah understandably wants to kill Carl as soon as REV-9 is destroyed and Dani safe. Grace and Sarah start out with a fair amount of mutual distrust. Dani totally refuses the role of damsel-in-distress thrust upon her by the two women. While physically she cannot match her three protectors, her fierce spirit even surpasses theirs.
In one aspect, this movie goes back to basics. There are several well-executed set pieces of chase and fight sequences: Mexico City's roads, a hydroelectric dam, interior of an airborne cargo plane, a Mexican border detention camp, and more. As well, they consist of an abundance of martial-art style melees, with ferociously swung hammers, chains and other deadly objects.
While die-hard fans and critics may not totally agree, I hold the view that this is a worthy conclusion of the Linda Hamilton-Sarah Connor trilogy.
Official Secrets (2019)
Laments of a whistle blower
Some in the audience of "Official secrets" would be reminded of "All the president's men". But the former is strictly about whistle blowing, the latter, investigative journalism. While it is hard to imagine anyone not having heard of Watergate, the events in "Official secrets" are far less known, although details are all in the public domain for anyone to look up. "All the president's men" is triumphantly uplifting as you see justice done. "Official secrets" is in a way depressing, making you groan at the injustice.
While our protagonist Katharine Gun's personal story may not be generally known, the subject matter is: the Iraq War in 2003. Although the dictatorship in the country was not exactly an innocent victim, it is generally recognized that this was not a war fought for just, but manufactured to satisfy the political agendas of the Western powers. The devastating collateral damage was the innocent Iraq civilian.
Yet, there was a flicker of a chance that the war might have been stopped. There was a conspiracy of sorts to secure the votes in the UN to authorize the war. A critical document involving both the U.S. and the U.K., however, was leaked by our protagonist Gun, a translator at a spy agency of the U.K. The Observer published it which, for a brief shiny moment, was applauded by the world, embarrassing the two nations. Unfortunately, according to the movie, it is almost immediately discredited as a result of an absurd clerical mistake. A spell-check was used by a clueless clerk, changing the spelling of a couple of words of this U.S. document from American style to British style, thereby making it look like a fake. Gun was arrested under the "Official Secrets Act". Eventually she was not charged, but only being kept in a year of torturous suspense, a psychological if not a legal penalty. If you wish to know what happened after the time frame of the movie, Google is your friend.
This movie is not commercially entertaining as "All the president's men" but it is not quite as dry as a dramatized documentary. The top-notch British cast is well worth watching. Kiera Knightley will have you rooting for Gun in no time at all. Playing the reporters are Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans and Matt Smith (whom many of us know better as Prince Philip in "The crown"). Heavyweight Ralph Fiennes plays Gun's defending lawyer. And I shall be remiss if I fail to mention to Game of Thrones fans that a relatively small part, the editor, casts Conleth Hill, otherwise known as Lord Varys.
Roland Emmerich's excellent rendition of the iconic naval battle
Although one probably cannot talk about the Battle of Midway and the Invasion of Normandy (D-day) in the same breath, they are, respectively, the most significant turning point in the European theatre and the Pacific theatre of World War II. In terms of seas battle "Midway" may not match the Battle of Leyte Gulf in size and intensity, but it turns the tide after Pearl Harbour.
The movie "Midway" (2019) is a delightful surprise in resisting the temptation to succumb, like most other Hollywood war movies, to blatantly stereotype characters or shallow melodramatic romances.
After a brief prelude of an earlier sojourning of naval intelligent officer Edward Layton (Patrick Wilson) in Tokyo, the movie plunges right into the infernal of Pearl Harbour. In addition to very good CGI scenes, there are also some detailed, gritty depictions. One scene shows a half-stunned man trying to stand up by grapping half-collapsed railings, only to have his palms seared by the red-hot metal.
I am not going into any detail of the events. The crux of the story is on how, after the devastating Japanese unannounced attack of Pearl Harbour, Chester W. Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) was selected by President Roosevelt be the commander-in-chief of the Pacific fleet, with the most difficult job of turning the tide of the U.S. naval campaign against the Japanese. It was essentially achieved by sinking four major Japanese aircraft carriers by air strike, after luring them into a trap.
The captivating "subplot", if you will, is the intelligence support from a group headed by Layton. With the technology available at the time, this involved a substantial combination of experience, intuition, as well as brilliant logical analysis of often scanty information. In the movie there is an interesting analogy of a wedding when the invitations are sent (the bait to lure the Japanese fleet), the banquet is ready (air striking power standing by) and waiting to see when and from where the guest would arrive. At the eleventh hour, with so much at stake, Nimitz says to Layton that he needs more specific information. After a brief pause, Layton recites the precise time, longitude and latitude. When things unfold and scouting report finally come, Nimitz beams at Layton, saying that everything is within a few percentage points of the prediction. Without missing a beat, Layton replies "I'll Endeavour to do better next time, sir."
It is with something almost skin to joy watching a Harrelson as I have never seen before, so contain and measured to the extent of under-acting. This feeling is particularly accentuated by seeing him just a week ago in "Zombieland: double tap". To the general audience, Nimitz is probably the only name familiar, and perhaps even more as a mega aircraft carrier than as a person. But then, in the end credits, it is quite uplifting to see that all the characters are real, with the image of each actor fading out, replaced by the real person and a brief bio in text. And this is such a remarkable cast. Wilson is always solid, if not spectacular. We also have Dennis Quaid, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Ed Skrein and, on the Japanese side, Tadanobu Asano, prolific on the Hollywood screen and best recognized probably by Marvel fans as one of Thor's four warriors.
"Midway" (2019) is not to be missed by war movie buffs as well as the general audience.
The Have and the Have-not
While set in Korea, the main theme of this movie is as universal as the most basic of human nature, as in "Se7en" (1995). We saw the same sentiments played out in the French Revolution - the Have-not getting even with the Have. In the French Revolution, it played out as revolution and guillotines. Here in "Parasite" it plays out as a multiple con job turned ugly - no decapitation, mind you, but with blood and gore to match.
There are two remarkable things about this movie. The first is the change, abruptly at the mid-point, in tone from farce-like comedy to horror-like thriller. The other thing is the matter-of-course approach at both. Neither the comedy nor the horror is laboured or deliberately crafted. While the plot may sound outlandish, the delivery is so natural as to make it believable. A great deal of credit goes to the splendid cast.
The movie opens with a crispy introduction of a "cheap" family, in every sense of the word. Out of a cramped basement, riding on a lucky break, the four members successively and successfully con their way into the household of a slick, ultra-modern, luxurious mega estate. First, the son becomes the English tutor of a naïve girl at puberty. He quickly gets his sister a job as the arts tutor of the girl's little brother. The father and mother, with the sibling's cunning plotting, soon replace the existing housekeeper and chauffer. The couple that employ them are unsuspicious, if not entirely gullible. At this point, nobody can fault you for thinking that the title refers, obviously, to these four.
Then comes the twist at midpoint. When the masters take their kids on a camping trip, the "parasite" family live like royalties, albeit transiently. But it turns out that they are not the only "parasite" because there is one that fits the description even better - living in the bowels. A sudden visit from the discharged housekeeper reveals a secret - she has been hiding her husband in a secret basement unknown to the masters. Then, when the camping trip is cut short by foul weather, all hell breaks loose.
While people may call this movie different things, the crux of the matter is the revelation of the resentment the Have-not harboured towards the Have.
The Farewell (2019)
Beauty in simplicity
Some facts first. With this, her second feature, writer-director Lulu Wang shares her very personal experience with the audience, a story "based on a true lie", as she wittily puts it. This is a U.S. movie with its dialogue mainly in Mandarin, set in the city of Changchun in North-eastern China. "The farewell" enjoys an enviable collection of ratings: critics' Metascore of 89, IMDb users' 8.0 and Rotten Tomato's 99!
As the onscreen realization of Wang, protagonist Billi (Awkwafina) is a thirty-year-old New Yorker, immigrated with her parent when she was a small child, leaving behind a world she was familiar and comfortable with. Today, the "Americanized" family converse in English (parents still with distinct accents while Billi indistinguishable from a born New Yorker) although Billi can still carry a conversation in Mandarin if necessary, such as when going to visit her hometown in China.
The movie opens with Billi talking on her cell phone with Nai Nai (grandma) half way around the globe, with intimacy playful and affectionate, both. The old lady is waiting at the hospital for test result for her incessant coughing. The narrative moves briskly to the parents telling Billi that they are going to Changchun tomorrow to attend the wedding of her cousin Hao Hao who, like her, had immigrated when a small child, but to Japan. The joy of the occasion, however, is not reflected in the parent's gloomy silence. With persistence, Billi finally finds out that while the wedding is a happy occasion, it is also sort of a proxy funeral. Hao Hao has been with his Japanese girlfriend Aiko for only a few months but things cannot wait. Nai Nai, unknown to herself, has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and has been given three months to live, if that. Close members of the family would know that this is their last farewell to Nai Nai, who is the only person in the dark. The parents do not want Billi to go because her natural emotions would likely betray her. The day after the parent's arrival at Changchun, at a family dinner, Billi shows up. The rest of the story takes place in Changchun.
A very remarkable thing I gradually noticed was the natural and simple tone of the narrative. While the main plotline of a "proxy funeral" (I coined) is somewhat unusual, the subject matter is familiar: the ethics of whether to let a terminally ill patients know their condition. Even more familiar are the backdrops of cultural clashes, identity issues of immigrants, mother- and daughter-in-law relationship, just to name the three most universal ones. Low-key, natural and non-judgmental, Wang's style in relating these issues is a credit to her. All these, together with the universality, add up to a world you can easily relate to, and immerse in. As well, there is the highly welcomed absence of stereotyped cliché, which is tantamount to talking to you in a refreshingly calm voice instead of yelling and shouting to get your attention.
By the end of the movie, you feel like being a part of the family, embracing their endearing qualities as well as understandable shortcomings. Most wonderful is Nai Nai, irrepressible, young-at-heart but at the same time also observant and considerate. Hao Hao the bridegroom, with a head of loveable shaggy hair, is a kidult who, while taciturn outwardly, has been endowed with passionate emotions. His Japanese bride Aiko, speaking no Chinese, gives a very nice speech at the wedding (in Japanese, with a translator). The very fact that she has agreed to this rushed marriage shows her kind and accommodating nature. The father carries the burden of the first generation as well as he can. The mother has a steely disposition which her husband sometimes leans on. The uncle (Hao Hao's father) is all common sense and self-control, until he breaks down in uncontrollable tears speaking in his son's wedding, thanking "the most important person", his mother, who has made all the sacrifices living as a widow without her sons by her side all these years. There are quite a few other characters, minor but all given their moments in the movie.
Now, to the cast. Awkwafina (Nora Lam) is probably best known to the general audience as a first-rate scene-stealer after "Ocean's 8" and "Crazy Rich Asians". The interesting thing is that she was cast for this movie before the other two. Here, you see her with an entirely different persona. As Billi the struggling artist in the Big Apple, she is effortlessly natural: low-key, no-nonsense, grounded and a little bit defiant. This fits in perfectly with the tone of the movie which is never mawkish or sentimental. This approach of Wang's makes the affection between grandmother and granddaughter that much more touching. Two other women in the cast both gave solid performances: Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai and Diana Lin as the mother, particularly the former. Playing the father is Tzi Ma whose face will be familiar, if you have watched the series "The man in the high castle", as the Japanese general.
This is not exactly the sort of movie where you wonder if there is a post credit scene. But you will stay back for the end credit if you have a soft spot for "Without you", be it Mariah Carey's, Air Supply's, or any other version. Here, we hear a rendition by Fredo Viola's beautiful lyric tenor.
Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)
First off, a confession: it was not until looking up references after the movie that I realized that this is a sequel to a movie released a decade ago. It looked very much like a stand-alone when I watched it. And I am going to treat it as if it were a stand-alone.
The first few minutes assure you that you in in for a lot of fun. The standard Columbia Pictures Statue of Liberty suddenly comes alive, when rushed by two zombies appearing from out of nowhere, swinging her torch to smash them, before resuming her stoic pose.
VO from one of the protagonists, augmented by graphic visuals, introduces you to an assortment of zombies. "Homers" are so dumb that they don't even worth wasting a bullet on. Ascending the ladder of menace, we come to the "Hawkins", "as is Stephen", our considerate VO adds. Worst is, well, let's play a "name that zombie" game, the VO suggests, but without adding "as in Name That Tune". The answer is "Ninjas", that are so silent that "the first sound you will hear is your own scream". You get the idea.
This is a very familiar post-apocalyptic world, where our 4 protagonists are living in, of all places, the White House, one that looks worse, much worse, you better believe it, than in "White House Down". While at this point it is not certain if they are the only survivors, the fact that they are worthy survivors is clearly demonstrated in their accomplishment in killing zombies. They form a quasi-family, sort of. Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is the father figure, with Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) as the cliché daughter who doesn't want to be treated as a child any longer. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) and Wichita (Emma Stone) seem a perfectly matched young couple, until they seem otherwise. One too many marriage proposals becomes the straw that breaks the camel's back. "Married people do only one thing - get divorced", she asserts. The girls, deciding that they have had enough, leave a note one night and run away.
As the men are trying to adapt to their new existence without female companionship, they bump into unabashedly seductive Madison (Zoey Deutch), another survivor. Tallahassee's description of this adorable young creature says it all "You know why she survived? Zombies eat brains and she hasn't got any". She herself later unwittingly supports this assertion. When demanding a vote, she argues strongly that there is now women "suffering". Her physical appeal, however, is sufficient for Columbus.
But then Wichita comes back, just to replenish ammunition, after losing Little Rock to a hippie who claims to be a total pacifist Berkeley (Avan Jogia). After some soul searching, the three "family members" decide to look for and, if necessary, rescue her. Madison tacks along and her absolute cluelessness even charms Wichita, to an extent. One other important character is Nevada (Rosario Dawson), a female John Wayne with a Devil's lethal killing skills and an Angel's body, the manager of a lounge dedicated to the memory of Elvis. Two other characters, in a more minor role, played by Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch, may as well be doppelgangers of our male protagonists.
There are amusing twist and turns, plus lots of laughs, along the way, as well as pleasing references to movies you love (or at least know). The latest, deadly mutation of zombies are nicknamed "T800" from The Terminators. There is also a blink-and-you-miss reference to Thor. Elvis, or tribute to him rather, has a large presence in the second half of the movie. And if you stay back for just one minute after the end credit starts to roll, you are in for a special treat.
At Eternity's Gate (2018)
Visually mesmerizing and emotionally arresting art-house, Dafoe's Oscar nomination that should have won.
Even those entirely illiterate in the field of painting arts (such as myself) would have at least heard of the name Vincent Van Gough, if only from Don McLean's popular song paying tribute to his work "The Starry Night". Brief factual information will be found in the movie - his early professional disappointments, his madness that seems inseparable from his genius artistic temperament, his depressing days in an asylum and his death at 37, from knife attacks. But this is not a conventional bio pic.
With art-house approach, Julian Schnabel's ("The diving bell and the butterfly") direction is also like a painting, a portrait that will let us get a glimpse of the Van Gough's soul. The narrative is essentially linear, but also episodic. There are a few long scenes that give a lot to chew on. There are blackout interludes (completely black screens) between scenes with VO of the protagonist.
Chronologically (for the movie), the first thing we learn about Vincent Van Gough is his friendship with fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). The first time we see his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), who financially supports him throughout, is his hospitalization during the early stage of his mental problems. Under the ethereal daylight coming from the direction of their heads, Theo crawls onto the bed and the brothers lie side-by-side as they used to when they were little kids. Most of his story is told at two places. At Arles, a village in the south of France which is considered good for his health, he focuses on his life's passion of painting. But as he grows more eccentric, he is widely disliked. He is eventually held in an asylum for a period of time and released only after the assessment of a stern-looking priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who, however, sympathises with him after a length assessment session (one of the best scenes in the movie).
But this movie is nowhere near event-driven. As mentioned, it is a search for the protagonist's soul. Why did Van Gough paint? The first glimpse is in a casual conversation triggered by looking at some flowers. "My flowers at least have a chance to resist (the fate of "faint and fade")", he suggests. He loves painting landscape. "The essence of nature is beauty" he intimates to Paul, "nature is speaking in God's voice". Later, in the asylum, a fellow patient asks "what do you paint?" "Sunlight" is his almost spontaneous reply. Once, he says to Theo "If I couldn't paint, I would murder someone". The deepest revelation is perhaps during a conversation with the priest played by Mads Mikkelsen. He says he honestly believes that his talent in painting is a gift from God. But perhaps the timing is wrong. "God made me a painter for people who weren't yet born".
An earlier scene shows him at work, outdoors sketching. The movement of Dafoe's eyes from surveying the landscape to looking back down at the easel is something to behold. Later scenes show Vincent and Paul painting together, first outdoors and indoors. While Paul keeps telling him not to rush it (especially when it is indoors and there is no wind, no rain). Vincent is adamant that the only way is to paint with "one clear gesture", fast.