Tag Archives: movie review

Flaws Last Christmas entertains on strength of Emilia Clarke’s performance

Emilia Clarke gives a top-shelf performance in Last Christmas, a holiday movie about a young woman’s struggles with her dysfunctional immigrant family and the lasting psychological effects of a life-changing surgery a year earlier. Unfortunately, too many plot holes create an uneven story that will strain credibility even for very forgiving Christmas movie fans.

Clarke plays Kate, the daughter of a family who migrated to London to escape the bloodshed triggered by the break-up of Communist Yugoslavia (in the 1990s). Unable to find work as an attorney, her father now drives a cab in London to support his family while the matriarch (played by Emma Thompson who co-wrote the screenplay) presses her daughters to be successful in their adopted homeland. Kate (and her sister) struggles with her Yugoslav family ethnicity and the demands of her hard-driving mother. 

Kate is not handling the pressure well. She continually slips into destructive personal behavior, including drinking, casual sex, and carelessness that (humorously) results in the killing of a Lionfish, a friend’s model of a wooden sailing ship, and other assorted minor personal catastrophes. Eventually, she is cast out by her friends and forced to move home.

Along the way, Kate meets Tom (Henry Golding), a mysterious but apparently happy-go-lucky type of guy. He is smitten by Kate, and he encourages her to appreciate the unappreciated, like well-kept hidden alleys and urban gardens tucked away behind houses. He admonishes her to “look up” and take note of the little things of wonder all around her, such as birds nesting in the awnings of shops. Predictably, Tom begins to wear down Kate’s cynicism. 

As Kate struggles to find her way, she works as an elf in a London Christmas store owned and operated by a Chinese woman (Michelle Yeoh) nicknamed “Santa.” The banter between Santa and Kate is entertaining, while the setting adds an element of magical realism that helps excuse obvious plot points and a few implausible plot twists. This is a Christmas movie, after all.

Gradually, Kate begins to cope with her own demons and begins to make amends with those she has wronged. She begins to grapple with the real trauma underlying her surgery. Her work at a homeless shelter becomes an important vehicle for this transformation as she begins to understand the joy of helping others. As we might expect, Kate eventually finds her way, but not without real heartache that shakes her to the core. 

Last Christmas has many moments of humor and poignance. The scenes where Kate confronts the real trauma created by her surgery are particularly heart wrenching. Clarke’s performance in this scene is particularly gripping. Clarke, Golding, and Yeoh also have real chemistry on screen, and this helps save the film. Unfortunately, it’s not quite enough to take it to the level their performances warrant. Nevertheless, the core message, that we fulfill ourselves by doing good for others, is the truth that becomes the glue that holds this story together. 

Overall, I found Last Christmas to be a pleasant diversion anchored by an outstanding performance by Clarke. The movie highlights Clarke’s versatility as an actor, exploiting natural comedic timing and expressiveness that many of her fans from Game of Thrones might not recognize. Last Christmas may be the perfect vehicle for pulling her out of any type-casting that might have come from playing The Dragon Queen, Daenerys Targaryen.

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Martin Scorsese ushers up another epic in The Irishman

Martin Scorsese ushers in another epic gangster movie in the The Irishman, now streaming live on Netflix. The movie stars Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, a small-time truck driver who becomes a confidante and hitman to a crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Hoffa is the legendary and ruthless head of the Teamsters trucking labor union. The movie covers the long arc of their relationship, from the first serendipitous encounter between Frank and Russell through the tense relationship between Hoffa, the Italian crime families, and the federal prosecutors who try to lock them up. The Irishman also includes a slew of top-quality supporting performances, and they all weave in and out of the complex relationship between the three major players.

Throughout the movie, Scorsese uses the decisions forced on Frank by his crime boss and union boss to explore the morally and ethically ambiguous world of organized crime. One highlight is a face off between Hoffa and a rising star in the Teamsters. They find themselves in prison together and begin arguing over whose criminal conviction carries more moral weight. Bufalino argues that fraud, which involves simply stealing funds from the union pension, is more defensible than extortion, which includes a physical threat against a person. Yet both sides use violence and threats as part of their standard trade practices. These exchanges set up critical dilemmas for Frank, and become important plot points. 

Fans of Scorsese and organized crime movies will find a lot to love in The Irishman. Produced by De Niro, Scorsese has paid his characteristic attention to the details of the period. Each scene reflects the craftsmanship that has earned him a well-deserved reputation as a film master. The casting is also superb, as each supporting player plays an intentional role in furthering the plot and adding dimension to the main characters. The “aging” (or, more appropriately, de-aging) of the lead characters over what amounts to a forty-plus year period will likely earn The Irishman major award nominations as well. De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino seem to evolve from youth to old age seamlessly and naturally.

Clocking in at three and a half hours, The Irishman would have likely had a tough slog in wide release in commercial theaters. Despite its execution and craftsmanship, the movie’s pacing is slow, even plodding at times. Audiences will need some patience to make it through to the end. For this Scorsese epic, the value is in the journey, not the destination. 

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Terminator: Dark Fate adds humanity to a long-running franchise

Terminator: Dark Fate is surprisingly good for a movie that lines up as the sixth in the Terminator franchise. (Full disclosure: I saw T1 and T2, but missed all the others.)  Produced by James Cameron and directed by Tim Miller, Dark Fate brings back Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger as an older model terminator with the human name Carl. The movie also introduces Latina actress Natalia Reyes as Dani Ramos, a Mexican teenager who has been targeted by the future as the newest threat to the machines of the future by dispatching the newest model terminator (a Rev 9 played by Gabriel Luna). Mackenzie Davis plays Grace, an uber warrior of the future — an augmented human — sent back in time to protect Dani.

For those that have seen T1 and T2, Dark Fate is supposed to be a chronological sequel. The plot picks 28 years after the events of T1, and Sarah Conner is a one-woman terminator hunter and destroyer. Connor mysteriously receives text messages that give her to coordinates of terminators as they arrive from the future, and she destroys them. This becomes an important plot point but telling more would reveal a bit too much for a movie that just opened in theaters and is destined for a long run. 

On the one hand, “Dark Fate” is a pretty standard terminator movie in terms of plot and action. The plot twists are important, but it’s the action that keeps forward momentum in the story. What distinguishes “Dark Fate” from T1 and T2, is the layers screenwriters David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray bring to the characters in this sequel. In contrast to the terminators, which show no emotion — they are robot killers, after all — the trauma experienced by Sarah Connor and Dani Ramos is palpable in their characters. Their arcs are well crafted, logical, and break through the expected (and exceptional) CGI and other special effects. Both characters experience dramatic breaks although Dani’s trajectory is more linear.  Linda Hamilton’s experience as an actor shines as she effectively casts important levels of reflective humanity into the deeply scarred character of Sarah Conner. That’s no small feat for a hard-core action film. Even Schwarzenegger is given more latitude as an actor, despite being a machine from the future, adding yet another subtle but important dimension to the story and film franchise.

Linda Hamilton has talked in interviews how female characters have evolved to the point where they can be tough and feminine at the same time. I have written about this as well, specifically as it relates to how Sarah Conner was scripted in T1 (see the link to my article in the comments section). Hamilton is right on Dark Fate. Sarah Hamilton is tough, but layered, and it’s great to see this character become more three dimensional and fleshed out. 

Overall, terminator movie fans should be entertained Dark Fate. Those looking for good acting, good stories, and character arcs should also find plenty to satisfy them as well.

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The Lighthouse mixes horror and psychology in time for the holidays

The Lighthouse is billed as a psychological horror film, and that pretty much captures the tone and pace of this movie. Strong performances by Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson are the glue that holds this film together. Unfortunately, a plodding plot risks disengaging audiences.

Tom (Defoe) and Winston (Pattinson) are lighthouse keepers, or wickies, in 1890. Tom is a crusty experienced keeper who knows what’s in store for their scheduled four-week gig on a rock island far away from shore. He’s also on a bit of a power trip as the senior keeper and one in charge. Winston is a former logger who is a bit of a wanderer, but taking his first job as a wickie. It’s a classic test of wills, and it’s the lighthouse (and the environment) that sets this movie apart.

Working a lighthouse was arduous, physical work, and The Lighthouse does a good job of conveying the backbreaking labor needed to literally keep the light on. Oil needs to be hauled up hundreds of steps in a spiral staircase to keep the light going, and a coal-fired steam engine keeps the light rotating. In between, someone has to keep the cistern clean and water potable to survive. Tom tasks Winston with these jobs, and this unbalanced assignment of tasks creates the tension that drives the plot. 

The lighthouse’s isolation combined with the hard labor, leads to hallucinations, or so we think. The movie keeps the audience guessing about whether Tom and Winston’s behavior is just impatience, or truly erratic. We are never sure if their other worldly perceptions are induced by exhaustion, mental illness, or perhaps something paranormal.  

The Lighthouse is the type of movie that puts the characters and actors in the spotlight. The movie is clearly a vehicle for Defoe, whose performance is strong enough he might get a major award nomination. The script also gives Pattinson enough to show the growing range of his own acting abilities.

If you enjoy deep character studies, horror (albeit on the mild side), and psychological suspense, The Lighthouse is probably a good movie to put on your list.

For all my movie reviews, check out my website here, and subscribe to my FB page (@themovieswithsam) here.

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Dora the Explorer Makes an Entertaining Entrance onto the Big Screen

Boosted by an excellent performance by Isabella Moner as the title character, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is an entertaining mix of “Spy Kids” and Indiana Jones adventure and light comedy movies. The live-action film is based on Nickelodeon’s long-running animated series “Dora the Explorer” and incorporates an intriguing fusion of Latin American and contemporary American culture. The movie keeps the campy optimism of the series, the precocious positive outlook of the lead character, and focused on its target audience of younger children.

The film opens with a six-year old Dora growing up and learning how to play in the Amazon jungles with her “explorer” parents, Cole (Michael Pena) and Elana (Eva Longoria). Her parents have been searching for the lost Inca city of Parapata in Peru, which according to legend has a massive cache of gold and riches. Ten years later, Cole and Elana believe they have found the city’s site. They dispatch Dora to Los Angeles to live with her aunt and attend high school with her cousin, ostensibly to meet and socialize with kids her own age.

Now sixteen, Dora is a cultural outsider who also has to contend with the awkwardness of high school and not knowing anything about city life. Dora, ever the optimistic, tries to make due even as her cousin (and erstwhile best friend) Diego (Jeff Wahlburg) shuns her to be with the cool kids. When her parents go missing, Dora, Diego, and two of their high-school acquaintances (including her nemesis) are kidnapped by treasurer hunters. Dora must find her parents, keep her friends alive, and outwit the treasurer hunters to survive.

The screenwriters and Nickelodeon have done an admirable job of linking the story in the movie to the animated series without losing its spirit. A seven-year old Dora can get away with her fanciful explorations in the fantastical world of animation. In live action, audiences, including kids, would struggle with the story and characters’ plausibility. Advancing her age to an innocent and naive sixteen year old allows the film to tap into the capabilities of experienced actors and provide more depth to the storylines and subplots. Younger children can still connect and relate to a teenage Dora. CGI and animation technology also allows the story to retain some of its animated elements, including an important role for her companion, Boots the monkey.

Since this is a children’s movie, the plot is predictable. But the story has enough twists older audiences will stay engaged. The combination of animation with live action provides a magical realism that most audiences will enjoy as well, providing a visual and storytelling link between the cartoon and the movie. At times, however, the movie seems like it’s teeing itself up as a theme park ride in Adventureland. More creatively, the story fuses Latain American and American culture seamlessly in a way that may foreshadow future filmmaking in a multicultural context.

The movie is buoyed by excellent performances — even if a little over the top for comedic relief — by Longoria (Elana), Pena (Cole), Eugenio Derbez (another explorer who befriends Dora), Wahlberg (Diego), Nicholas Coombe (as a nerdy high school friend who befriends Dora), and Madeleine Madden (as Dora’s high school nemesis).

Overall, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is decidedly family-friendly excursion that never strays from understanding and connecting with its core audience. Watching this movie is an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon if you have younger children and you recognize the limits of the genre.

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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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