Tag Archives: movie review

Wild Rose‘s performances tell poignant story of hope and personal responsibility

A Scottish girl working on the economic margins of Glasgow, Scotland wants to be a country music star. So she sets her sights on Nashville and casts everything aside to get there, including her to young children. A Star is Born rip off? Not quite. Wild Rose,” has a lot of heart, as well as heartfelt performances, that allow this British produced movie to hold its own as a story and film. 

But before rolling your eyes (American movie fans), allow me to provide a little pop culture historical context that might give this film more substance than meets the eye. The Beatles started the so-called British invasion in the 1960s but it may never have happened without country music. The R&B roots of modern rock music is well known. The country music roots are not. (I am writing a book on the Beatles right now, so I am steeped in this pop culture history.) Yet what we now call rock music is started as a country and R&B fusion. This combination  produced progeny such as rockabilly, country rock, and, later, rock and roll. The Beatles drew heavily on early rockabilly artists including Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley, all with deep roots in country music. In fact, the Beatles, particular Ringo Star, never lost their affection for Country music. The rockabilly sound was foundational to the home-grown British “skiffle” sound which became an artistic bedrock for the Beatles and other British acts. 

None of this background is essential for enjoying Wild Rose, but the knowledge allowed me to go into the movie with an open mind. I’m glad I did because the movie is entertaining with a poignant message about hope, responsibility, and maturity. The story starts off with Rose Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), an aspiring Scottish country singer living on the wrong side of the tracks in Glasgow getting out a jail after a year-long stint for drug possession. When someone challenges her about why she sings country music, she responds with the familiar adage attributed to the “dean” of country music songwriters Harlan Howard that “Country music isn’t nothing but three chords and the truth.” The screenwriters clearly have an affection for country music, and it shows in the story and on the screen.

Rose is “wild” — a care-free single mother of two, who steadfastly refuses to take responsibility for her decisions as a teenager and young-adult. Now in her mid-twenties, she is estranged from her two young children and pushing her hard working, caretaker mother (Marion, played by Julie Walters) to the limit. We quickly see that the celebrity dream in Nashville is Rose’s attempt at self-validation and escape from the dreary subsistence living of a maid or bakery worker. When a wealthy woman (Susannah played by Sophie Okonedo) hears her singing and decides to help her career out, Rose’s wilding and irresponsibility begin to catch up to her with potentially catastrophic personal consequences. 

The movie is well cast, with excellent acting all the way around. For the most part, the story holds together, although the end seems a bit rushed as the director attempts to tie up a lot of loose ends too quickly to stay in the conventional film format. Notably, Wild Rose is set in Glasgow, Scotland, and the Glaswegian dialect and idiom — the “Glasgow patter” — is thick. At times, as an American, I felt like subtitles might have helped, but the action, tone, and context made the story easy enough to follow. 

The heart of Wild Rose, however, is Buckley. She has a great voice and an interpretive style well suited to the country music and lyrics she sings as well as the story the movie tells. She delivers on strong, heart felt scenes and songs that effectively carry Rose Lynn’s real world travails into the metaphoric songs she sings and listens to as part of the character. 

Overall, Wild Rose is a satisfying film with strong performances, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected. 

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Spider-Man: Far From Home puts the story back in Marvel superhero films

Spider-Man spun his web around movie theaters this weekend, and in all likelihood it’s going to be another blockbuster. Despite “superhero fatigue,” this installment of the franchise featuring Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) alter ego is likely to thrive. That’s primarily because it’s a good movie.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a refreshing follow up to the weak plots and superhero cameo-heavy Avengers movies Infinity War and End Game. Spider-Man’s focus on a teenage superhero gives the screenwriters room to breath, and they use it effectively to propel the plot and build tension. 

The best part of Spider-Man is the character arc of Peter Parker. Wanting to be a superhero would seem to be a no-brainer — everyone aspires to save the world. At least according to Avengers and their supporters like Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). But Peter knows all too well the sacrifices that come with his role. He’s still a teenager who wants to do teenager things, like muster up the courage to tell the girl of his dreams (MJ, played by Disney star and singer Zendaya) how much he likes her. A high-school trip to Europe is the perfect opportunity.

Set in the aftermath of “the Blip,” when half the world’s population disappeared and then reappeared (see Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: End Game), the world is trying to get back to a new normal. Peter is still reeling from the loss of Tony Stark and other Avengers. The movie, however, doesn’t dip too much into the trauma of Stark’s death, except to dwell a bit on the personal loss of a friend and mentor. Stark’s passing, however, does more to push Peter toward being a normal teenager than confronting the loss of someone very close to him. 

The Earth, however, is faced with a new threat from another dimension, and Nick Fury summons Peter back into the Avengers fold. This time, he is assisting Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) in trying to stop the existential threat of what they all the Elementals. These monsters feed off the energy of the Earth’s core, only to destroy it. 

Spider-Man: Far From Home is solid action, but misses a few beats. It’s unclear during most of the movie, for example, how Spider-Man’s heroics really assist Mysterio in wrestling these new threats to the ground. To some extent, this superhero impotence is a subtext for the larger question Peter needs to face about his future as a superhero. 

To the movie’s credit, the graphics never get in the way of the action, plot, or the character development. The CGI is all used for specific reasons and purposes, and this helps hold the movie together. This is actually pretty important for the narrative in this movie. 

Spider-Man fans are likely to enjoy the movie. But Spider-Man: Far From Home also holds a lot of entertainment value for general audiences, too.

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MIB International entertains despite simple plot

Men In Black: International, or MIB International, doesn’t have many surprises although the movie somehow manages to entertain. MIB International, however, is definitely geared toward younger audiences. It’s PG-13 rating might actually be a little more restrictive than necessary. 

The plot is pretty simple. We are surrounded by aliens of various sorts. It’s up to the secret society MIB to ferret out the bad ones and keep the good ones in line. This time, MIB is trying to save the Earth from something called the Hive. MIB plans, however, are put into a bind. Someone suspects a mole in MIB UK unit is working against our heroes. The specter of corruption within the agency is the primary source of tension in this story. 

MIB International is saved by strong casting. Chris Hemsworth (Thor in the Marvel universe franchise movies) plays Henry, or Agent H. He is best known as a care-free investigator and playboy. He’s riding the reputational wave of a major victory over the Hive when he defeated it several years earlier with just his wits. He is paired with Molly (Tessa Thompson, the Creed movies, Selma, Annihilation) who has tracked down MIB on her own in an effort to join the ultra secret agency. Thompson adds a nice spark and sassiness to the movie. Emma Thompson also shows up as their supervisor, Agent O, with Liam Neeson playing Hight T, the head of MIB in the UK.

While the plot is transparent and predictable (at least to adults), MIB International‘s special effects and Tessa Thompson’s acting do a nice job of keeping audiences engaged. 

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Dark Phoenix character-driven story swamped by superhero fatigue

Dark Phoenix limped into the box offices over its first weekend and seems destined to be a big-ticket flop. I have to wonder, however, if part of the movie’s under performance is due to superhero movie fatigue. Dark Phoenix brings a lot more onto the screen than previous movies, particularly in terms of story and well-defined characters.

This Marvel movie installment puts Jean Grey, aka Phoenix (Sophie Turner) at the center of the plot. Jean is brought to Charles Xavier’s (Charles McAvoy) school for mutants as an eight year old in the wake of a horrific car accident. She knows she is the cause of the accident that orphans her, and the resultant insecurity over her ability to control her mutant powers becomes central to Dark Phoenix. Intellectually, Jean knows, and wants, to use her powers to do good. But she is also torn by the confusion wrought by her natural-born tendencies to use her powers to destroy and dominate. When an alien race led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain) discovers a preternatural force occupies Jean and magnifies her mutant powers, Jean finds the dark side all too tempting.

Dark Phoenix is a character-driven movie with layers. While Jean Grey’s journey toward self-discovery provides the backbone to the movie, the screenwriters have paid attention to critical supporting characters as well. Xavier’s character in particular must grapple with the consequences of his decisions to shield Jean from the truth about her family and her past. Solid performances by Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven), and Nicholas Hoult (Beast) hold Xavier accountable for a superhero version of helicopter parenting that leaves Grey poorly prepared to deal with life as an adult.

Dark Phoenix slips into cgi excess with over the top urban destruction, but the plot nevertheless remains surprisingly focused. Overall, however, I found Dark Phoenix to have strong story lines that connect with real-world struggles of overcoming feelings of inadequacy, acceptance of natural abilities, and the challenges of conforming mainstream expectations. The movie’s strong thematic warning to parents who, despite their best intentions, allow their protective instincts to create a bubble that fails to equip their children with healthy coping skills also strengthens the story in substantive ways.

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Bharat is a Bollywood story of tragedy, sacrifice, social justice, and personal growth

Bharat had a strong opening in India and has emerged as one of Bollywood’s highest revenue earners in 2019. While reviews in India have been lukewarm, Western audiences (as opposed to Western critics) are likely to be more patient and engaged with this character-driven drama. They will also learn something about India’s recent history and the events that have shaped its recent political and cultural trajectory.

The story begins during the Great Partition, a violent separation of what is now Pakistan from current-day India in 1947. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed as Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs clashed in riots and nearly 15 million people were displaced as they sought safety. The movie opens as Bharat’s father (Jeffrie Shroff), a Hindu station master in what would become Pakistan, scrambles to put his family on the last train to India and presumably safety. As 8-year old Bharat climbs to the top of a train car with his mother and his siblings, his sister Guidya loses her grip and falls into the throng. Bharat’s father makes young Bharat promise to keep the family together until he finds them at a family owned store in Delhi.

The movie follows Bharat (Salman Khan) as he tries to live up to the promise, putting the needs of his family above his own even as he finds sporadic success and love. At the same time, the audience is given a street-level view of how India evolved through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s. Each snippet in Bharat’s life reflects a particular phase of India’s social and economic evolution, from his attempts to raise money through the black market to his job as a stunt performer in a traveling Russian circus. He works in the oil fields of the Middle East and then as a seaman on a merchant ship in pirate infested waters off Somalia. Bharat suffers through dogged unemployment as India slogs through an economic period of agonizingly slow economic growth. He discovers the meaning of romantic love (Katrina Kaif) as India grapples with cultural modernization and economic liberalization.

At its core, Bharat is a human drama, a story of tragedy, sacrifice, social change, and personal growth. Bharat’s choices reflect the times in which he makes them as well as the broader changes that reveal new, often dangerous, opportunities. Bharat’s story is not an existential one — he never forgets that he is the one responsible for making those decisions and accepting the consequences of his actions. He also must resolve for himself the value of staying true to a promise he gave as a young boy.

Bharat is in Hindi with English subtitles. While the story is tight and holds together very, very well, evaluating the quality of the acting is a bit difficult — we’re often too busy reading subtitles. However, the movie includes some of Bollywoods best-known actors, including Salman Khan (as Bharat), Katrina Kaif (as his lover Kumud), Tabu (as Bharat’s sister), Sunil Grover (as his best friend Vilayti, a muslim), Jacki Shroff (as Bharat’s father), and Siha Patani. Western audiences interested in getting a taste of modern Bollywood, learning something about India, and pulled in by dramatic, character-driven stories should find enough in Bharat to leave the theaters satisfied.

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Aladdin is pleasant, summer diversion

Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin is good solid fare for young ones, but alas does not rise to the level many adults will feel fully engaged or entertained. Fine performances by Will Smith as the Genie and Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine keep the story moving forward, but the movie has trouble keeping its momentum despite its magic carpet.

The story follows the outlines of the traditional story, or at least a popular version as told through the folktales in One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights. Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a street waif and, in this movie version, a thief, runs across the princess in the streets of Agrabah somewhere in the Middle East. Presumable, the story takes place during the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire (about the 16th century) where Sultans ruled over a vast expanse of territory and riches. Of course, the wise and judicious Sultan (a monarch), father of Jasmine, doesn’t recognize the villainous Grand Vizier — the head of the government — Jafar who is trying to undermine him.

Jafar, however, recognizes Aladdin’s preternatural abilities as a thief and survivor, if not his pure heart. He tricks Aladdin into a cave of riches, where he seizes the magic lamp and unleashes the genie. The rest of the story takes off from here as Aladdin attempts to woo Princess Jasmine by pretending to be a prince. Jafar sees through Aladdin’s facade and attempts to claim the lamp and the genie’s powers while everyone else is trying to figure out what’s going on. Comic relief through Aladdin’s pet monkey Abu helps lighten the story, but, unlike Princess Jasmine’s protective Bengal Tiger Rajah, his antics are also well integrated into the plot.

As narrative, the movie seems to go through the paces without much forward momentum. The critical scenes are spliced together in a logical, chronological order. The musical numbers are entertaining but not gripping or compelling elements of the plot, despite one production involving more than 1,000 dancers and extras.

Overall, the main themes are good ones for modern society: Princess Jasmine bucks the patriarchy despite her well meaning father. Aladdin loses himself in wealth, but finds his soul with the help of the genie. The diversity of the cast reflects the expectations of modern Hollywood. I found the performances of Massoud a bit flat and Marwan Kenzari as Jafar a bit one dimensional. Nevertheless, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, and Nasim Pedrad as Dalia, the princess’s handmaiden and confidante, more than enough to keep me interested.

Thus, overall, Aladdin is a pleasant if not inspired movie, a pleasant summer diversion that will be suitable for children even though it doesn’t quite live up to the artistic expectations of Disney feature films.

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Authentic India’s Most Wanted falters as action movie

The decision on whether to formally review India’s Most Wanted, a Bollywood produced “action” movie, was difficult. Reviewers struggle to determine what elements of foreign produced films are culturally specific, and which ones are generally applicable. Bollywood movies typically fall into this conundrum for a variety of reasons (e.g., the inclusion of musical numbers in dramatic film).

On the upside, Western audiences will be treated to cinematography that captures sweeping vistas of India and Nepal. Their sense of place and custom will be jarred as they are transported into the crowded streets of Delhi, Kathmandu, and mountain side towns. They will also be forced to adjust to urbanity where four-wheeled vehicles are scarce, reserved for the wealthiest and most well connected. Most people will be riding on hot, crowded buses, or various forms of two-wheelers. They will see an authentic setting for the story. No attempt is made to project high-powered technology with fancy driving or stunts. The conditions remain grounded in the real-world technology faced by the men on the ground, including cell phones with little more capability than texting and talking.

India’s Most Wanted is inspired by the real events surrounding a secret attempt by Indian special police to infiltrate Nepal and nab a notorious terrorist — without firing a shot. The themes of bureaucratic incompetence and the heroic actions of the lead characters will not present a problem for most Western viewers; these are familiar plot lines and a staple of this genre. Western audiences will also probably find the low-tech nature of the search and capture mission refreshing. The film is low-budget by Western standards, meaning no CGI and limited practical effects. In the right hands, this can be play well. Unfortunately, “India’s Most Wanted” fumbles.

While audiences can certainly believe that the team in under imminent threat of discovery, and this will likely trigger significant negative consequences — national shame, ruined careers, an international incident that could trigger military intervention — few in an American audience will really believe the team is facing dire physical threats or death (even though they were). As narrative, the stakes are substantially lower. No amount of slow-motion video capture, dream sequences, deeply pensive camera shots with stunning sunset backdrops, or roughing up prisoners, is likely to overcome these lower stakes.

Thus, the hurdle for Western audiences will be their expectations. Action movies produced out of China, Hong Kong, Japan, and the West are fast-paced and physical. The heroes in India’s Most Wanted appear by Western eyes to be out-of-shape, middle-aged misfits. None, except perhaps the team leader, looks like they have stepped into a gym or physically worked out since their days of police training. This would be fine if “India’s Most Wanted” were a comedy, or even a “dramedy.” But movie is billed as an action-thriller. We are expected to believe the team is a serious threat capable of taking down a violent and dogmatic terrorist — which they did in real life — but on camera it doesn’t look they could job 100 yards.

The result is slow paced movie that never really rises to its action billing. On-line reviews suggest the film is doing better in India than in the US. American viewers, however, would be best to approach India’s Most Wanted as a cultural immersion more than an engaging, fast-paced ride. The movie is in Hindi with English subtitles.

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Rocketman soars with fantasy and authenticity

“Rocketman,” the musical-fantasy-biopic of British pop music virtuoso Elton John, is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking. Despite the well-known nature of his trials and tribulations on and off-stage, the movie keeps audiences engaged through a smooth weave of iconic songs into critical points in Elton John’s personal and professional development. What seems like an entertaining musical in the beginning, quickly evolves into a meaningful and heartfelt story of the rise and near-collapse of a pop icon.

The movie begins with Elton John’s heartbreaking origins growing up in a working-class section of the town of Pinner in Southeast England. Isolation from his detached father and free-spirit mother eventually leads him to music. At first, the film feels like a more conventional musical, mixing well-known songs penned by Elton John and his long-time co-writer Bernie Taupin with critical events in his upbringing and personal development. As the movie unfolds, however, these events (and the meaning behind the lyrics) reveal themselves as part of a well-scripted story that is tightly written and intentional. The fantasy elements bring audiences into the emotional and personal world of a young man increasingly estranged from his parents and doubts about his own self worth, even has he shows a remarkable aptitude for songwriting, voice interpretation, and musicianship.

The movie is boosted in no small part by an Oscar-caliber performance by Taron Egerton (from the “Kingsman” action movies) who also sings most of the tracks. Indeed, “Rocketman” may well be a break-out role for Egerton, establishing him has a highly versatile actor willing to take on bold roles. The movie is so well scripted and directed, I didn’t find any scene gratuitous, including what is apparently the first gay-male sex scene in a major Hollywood movie (although this is scene is tame by contemporary standards). This polished result is a tribute to screenwriter Lee Hall as well as director Dexter Fletcher (Bohemian Rhapsody).

Notably, “Rocketman” was produced by Elton John and his husband David Furnish. While the movie clearly reflects Elton John’s perspective, the story is reflective and doesn’t shy away from his severe and prolonged battles with addiction, the dysfunctional effects resulting from the relentless pressure to perform on a world stage, his struggles with his own sexual identity, or how his behaviors and choices fractured critical relationships. The screenplay’s vulnerability is a tribute to Elton John, deepens the story, and elevates the messages he clearly hopes his current, more balanced approach to life can convey.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin fans will find a lot to enjoy in “Rocketman.” But they will also come away with new interpretations, or appreciations, of their talent, their songs, and the meanings behind the lyrics.

Strong performances, a tightly written screenplay, and topflight directing and editing will likely keep “Rocketman” in contention for major awards despite its relatively early release in the year.

Update 6/20/2019: Check out the Facebook review: 4,093 people reached, 588 engagements, 397 reactions, 21 comments, and 35 shares.

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John Wick 3 nonstop action with no story

John Wick 3: Parabellum is a direct chronological extension of the second movie (which I did not see or review), with Wick (Keanu Reeves) on the run after being excommunicated from a global secret society of assassins. If all you are interested in is nonstop, well choreographed, high production value action and a ridiculously high body count, then the third installment in the John Wick series is the right movie for you. The plot doesn’t have much else, although an excellent supporting cast provides important dimension and complexity to the story.

In fact, the entire plot can probably be summed up in its subtitle, which is more accurately represented in its Latin form “para bellum,” which means “prepare for war.” According to wikipedia, the phrase is most often used coupled with another phrase, so it would read: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” John Wick does a little more than prepare for war, mainly by dropping scores of professional assassins licensed to kill him. Although thin, a plot exists as Wick tries to atone for past sins and escape his past life as a hitman.

Parabellum takes its action scenes to extraordinarily high levels as a visual art form with a refreshing reliance on practical effects over cgi special effects. In fact, the effects and fights scenes are so good, I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie is nominated for major awards in special effects editing, cinematography, and sound. (As a martial artist, I found the fight scenes very well choreographed and appreciated the authenticity of the attacks and defenses.) Notably, the movie cast Mark Dacascos, a highly skilled martial artist, in a principal role as an assassin recruited to kill John Wick. The movie was also produced and directed by a martial artist and stuntman (Chad Stahelski). The shear number of action scenes might be a bit gratuitous, but they are exceedingly well done. Reeves is impressive in what are clearly long continuously filmed fight involving knives and guns of all types.

The movie benefits from a number of well drawn characters (presumably carryovers from previous movies) with several excellent and well-known actors, including Laurence Fishburne (the Bowery King), Angelica Huston (Ruska Roma), Halle Berry (Sofia), Lance Reddick (Charon), and Ian McShane (Winston).

I enjoyed the movie, although I found myself distracted by the body count. Just don’t expect much more than a straight up, fast-paced action movie with a lot of graphic violence.

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The Kid carried by story and earnest performances

For those looking for a good old-fashioned western movie, The Kid is probably their cup of tea. The movie, directed by veteran actor Vincent D’Onofrio, follows a young boy as he tries to navigate the moral ambiguities of life in America’s Old West.

Set in New Mexico territories in 1879, fifteen-year old Rio (Jake Schur) and his older sister, Sara (Leila George), are on the run after they kill their drunk and abusive father. Even though the killing would seem to be justified, their uncle (Chris Pratt) vows to avenge his brother’s death. He organizes a posse of henchmen to track them down.

As Rio and Sara flee, they find themselves caught up in Pat Garrett’s (Ethan Hawke) legendary hunt for the outlaw Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan). Billy offers them safety–an outlaw with a heart, so we think–establishing a heartfelt bond with Rio. Despite warnings from Sara Rio’s affection toward Billy grows. Ultimately, in order to save what is left of his family, Rio has to make a decision between the no-nonsense justice of law, represented by Pat Garrett, and the outlaw (with a heart), represented Billy the Kid.

The American Old West has been a fertile ground for authors and filmmakers since the beginning of the industry (probably The Great Train Robbery in 1903). The American frontier was uncompromising, a toxic cauldron of clashing values, competing cultures, big personalities, and laws only as good as those that could be enforced. Frontiersmen (and women), but their nature, are adventurous pragmatists. D’Onofrio honors the tradition and the genre. The Kid does an good job of putting Rio in the cross hairs of these conflicts as he tries to find his own compass at a point where he must decide whether to remain a boy or become a man.

The decision to frame Rio’s choices and challenges in the context of the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid rivalry was a good one. Both figures carry enough baggage, historically and within the fiction of the movie, to make Rio’s choices unclear and difficult even if he does have a clear moral compass.

While The Kid doesn’t break new ground for Western movies, the film is engaging, the performances earnest, and the plot well scripted. The movie’s pace feels more like a drama than a thriller, but those enjoying the Western genre will find it a satisfying two hours.

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