“Locke & Key” Review!

Netflix’s Locke & Key opens a doorway into an expansive world of dark, cosmic magic that can only be described as deep: there are keys that lead to other keys, which open doors within doors, which then lead to puzzles, which connect back to clues, which are all supposed to interlock(e) – the problem comes toward the middle of the ten-part series, when it becomes clear that there’s no good way for everything to come together, because of a single plot point that splits the series’ focal point in two rapidly diverging directions, which never reunite (and never seem likely to, assuming there is a second season – there’s certainly set-up for one).

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Without getting into spoilers, I’ll explain it like this: after a couple of really strong episodes, Locke & Key introduces an idea that immediately forces the adult characters – including the series’ most compelling character, recovering alcoholic and traumatized widow Nina Locke (Darby Stanchfield) – and the teen or young adult characters – specifically her children, Tyler (Connor Jessup), Kinsey (Emilia Jones), and Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) – to pursue two very different paths. The adults are left with many of the hard-hitting emotional and dramatic moments, but the kids have to awkwardly carry the horror/fantasy plotline to its conclusion. This divide is…uncomfortable, to say the least, and it also makes both parties look bad: the adults seem naive and negligent for barely ever interfering in their kids’ lives; the kids come off as idiotic and downright mean for never going to the adults for help or advice. And again, this is all because of one plot-point that is never even properly explained: this particular plot-point also seems oddly kiddish in a series that tries to be more edgy, dark and mature than it probably needs to be.

That darker vibe, while inconsistent, does allow for a somewhat memorable antagonist: the beautiful, haunting demon lurking in the well, whose actual name – “Dodge” – is far less threatening than either of her nicknames, “Well-Lady” or “Echo”. Portrayed by Laysla De Oliveira, the ancient demonic entity is able to do a fair bit of damage and wrack up an impressive kill-count, all with style and grace, even while being restricted by another very specific plot-point that forbids her from murdering absolutely everybody in her path towards…whatever it is she’s fighting for (it’s never actually explained what that is, making her sudden shift from “haunted house ghost” to “immortal Lovecraftian shadow goddess” inexplicable, yet still entertaining).

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Like Dodge, the entire series gets an upgrade about halfway through – which is both a blessing and a curse, as it simultaneously raises the stakes for all the protagonists while also closing the door on the fun, spooky treasure-hunt adventure that made the first few episodes so unique. The central trio of Locke children splits up, with the two older kids pursuing the main plot with their rapidly expanding group of high-school friends and enemies, while Bode (the most interesting of the three by far) is left at home, shoved to the sidelines, and kept in the dark…despite being the one who initially found the keys and unleashed Dodge. This series has a hard time remembering who its main characters are, at times. The high school story is intermittently dull, with subplots related to clam chowder, charity fundraisers, poorly-developed love triangles and generic bullies. It’s no coincidence that this coincides with the sudden, strange decision to make the story all about Tyler Locke, the most boring, familiar, and downright annoying of the main trio (he seems to have a smoking addiction in the first episode, yet turns on his mother for drinking later in the series: hypocritical much, Tyler?) and the one who seems to have the least interest in the plot.

I might sound like I’m coming down hard on this show. But the series does have moments – sometimes even scenes – of true greatness: especially when it comes to the many inventive or witty ways in which the characters use their magic keys, either for good, evil, or stupid pranks. Kinsey using the Head Key to step inside her brain and battle it out with the personification of her own fears and insecurities? Excellent stuff. Dodge using the Anywhere Key to order breakfast at a small-town diner, go shopping at a high-end fashion mall, pull off a diamond-heist and attend a nightclub party all within a few moments? Fantastic. Anything involving the Ghost Key? Brilliant.

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Unfortunately, the scenes involving magic often require…magic, a.k.a. a CGI budget that this show clearly does not have at its disposal. The fight scenes with monsters, ghouls and demons are often all too brief, and darkly-lit (probably for the best, as the notable exception to this rule, involving a zombie-type creature attacking someone in broad daylight, looks painfully fake), while keys like the Matchstick and Ghost Key are used sparingly. This wouldn’t even be a problem if the series didn’t try to make itself larger than it had to be – when you’re just running around a spooky mansion, you don’t really need a whole bunch of special effects: when you’re on the brink of unleashing primordial powers from beyond the edge of the world into your small coastal town, that’s something else entirely.

Another issue with the magic system is that it never gets explained: why does it exist? Who made the keys, and why? What is Dodge? What is she doing? Who are the Lockes, and where did they come from? These are questions that are not only never answered, but never get raised in the first place. It’s not like there’s no reason to bring up any of these very important points: the Locke family are fighting to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, yet they never even seem to question how freaky and terrifying their lives have become. By the end of the series, they seem to have all nonchalantly settled down into a daily routine of nightmares, monstrous encounters in the woods, murderous escapees, demons breaking-and-entering, and a weirdly high number of people attacking each other with hammers (I mean, I get it, Nina is a carpenter and all, but are there no other available weapons in Keyhouse? They’ve got not one, but two wicked-looking swords mounted on the mantelpiece, and yet they choose hammers and plastic lightsabers to vend off intruders? Seriously?)

The series is fairly progressive, though fans of the original Locke & Key graphic novels will be disappointed to hear that Duncan Locke (Aaron Ashmore), an openly gay, happily married character in the comic, has a very small recurring role, and is nowhere shown to be gay, as he’s conveniently separated from his husband (whose name is, to be fair, mentioned once or twice) throughout the series.

All in all, Locke & Key has an amazing premise, and a couple of really good episodes: but it doesn’t take long before the plot, the characters and the entire series get lost in the dark. Will you find what you’re looking for amid the Gothic splendor of Keyhouse? I certainly hope so, because I feel like there’s potential somewhere in this story: potential that could be unlocked in a second season.

Series Rating: 5.9/10

“The Irishman” Review!

Martin Scorsese insists that you should not watch The Irishman on your phone – if you absolutely cannot find a way to see it in a theater, then, in his opinion, you’re doing something wrong (though he does make an exception if you have a very large iPad). Why? Well, I assume it has something to do with the fact that Martin Scorsese is probably keen on being nominated for an Oscar or two at the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony, and he doesn’t want any voters to be deterred by the idea that his grand masterpiece of mobster cinema is, in any way, shape, or form, a TV movie. After all, this is a historical epic – not something you can watch while you’re just lounging around on the couch. Netflix has had to deal with this image-problem many times before – just this year, in fact, the dramatic Roma was snubbed in a few crucial categories at the Oscars partly because of the fact that, well, it’s not a “real” movie. And for that reason, Scorsese will do everything in his power to make sure Oscar voters and critics get the message: The Irishman is credible, and most importantly, cinematic. It’s the same reason why he’s going around saying that the film would never work as a TV series (the mere suggestion probably made his blood boil), and that a traditional studio would never have greenlit a movie in which the protagonist ends up in a wheelchair at the end (I strongly encourage Scorsese to go watch Rogue One, a Disney movie in which every member of the main cast dies by the end of the film).

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But he doesn’t have to – because The Irishman speaks for itself. It is a cinematic masterpiece (and it would be whether or not it played in theaters, because, no matter how vehemently Scorsese may disagree, cinema is defined simply as “the art or technique of making motion pictures”). It is, perhaps, less timely than other landmark films of 2019, but that’s because its message is timeless. Some films don’t need to be ripped-from-the-headlines commentaries on society in order to be relevant. And so, without intending to, Scorsese has crafted the darker, more atmospheric cousin to the modern superhero movie – an original movie that simply exists to entertain. The Irishman has plenty of messages (don’t distance yourself from the people you love, karma always catches up with you, killing people for a living is probably a bad idea), but none of them are groundbreaking; none of them are even that deep, or thought-provoking. I don’t think The Irishman is going to linger in peoples’ minds because of its themes, or its weighty analysis of the concepts of regret and remorse – it’s going to be memorable because it’s a fun movie to watch. A really fun movie.

And that’s actually the film’s most impressive achievement, because at three and a half hours long, The Irishman really shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is. But in all that epic runtime, I was only bored twice – during the first and last thirty minutes of the movie. The film starts out very slow, and there’s a few jumps in between different parts of the timeline that are difficult to follow at first (you’re supposed to be able to tell when is when with the help of the various stages of de-aging technology on the lead actors’ faces, but, well…we’ll get to that). But after what feels like an eternity of watching Robert De Niro driving a meat delivery-van, the movie abruptly takes off like a bullet – and then it gets good, when Al Pacino arrives onscreen like the divine, ice-cream devouring presence he is (no, literally, he eats a lot of ice-cream in this movie: so much so that he did an interview about it).

Al Pacino is what makes this movie great, and I have no qualms about saying it. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are obviously incredible actors, legends of the screen, if you will – but Pacino instills the role of notorious labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa with a fiery charisma.  Just as Robert Pattinson recently infused an otherwise drab medieval drama, The King, with his signature brand of insanity, much to that film’s benefit, Pacino here makes Hoffa larger-than-life, ridiculously charming, and more than slightly terrifying. Hoffa’s quirks, from the ice-cream addiction to his long list of pet peeves (he actually tries to kill someone for wearing shorts to a business meeting), are all exaggerated just enough to make them humorous. Yes, The Irishman is actually an incredibly funny movie – something the film’s marketing campaign ignored, perhaps deliberately. But ignoring it is a disservice to Pacino, who uses those laugh-out-loud moments to make Jimmy Hoffa a truly sympathetic character – one whom we don’t want to see get hurt. It’s not historically accurate, but neither is most of this movie.

The lead character, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), whose real-life testimonials about the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa are the primary basis for the movie’s plot, has had his reliability questioned many times over the years, and his account of the events of July 30th, 1975 is regarded by many as untrustworthy, to say the least. However, in an effort to preserve the film’s secrets for those who don’t know a thing about the Hoffa case (such as me, before I researched the film’s dubious claims), we’re not going to talk about all the minute details of the disappearance and ensuing investigation – or Sheeran’s even more controversial claim about the JFK assassination. The latter is only briefly touched upon in the film, but is bound to become a major talking point for those who have seen it. As for De Niro’s performance – it’s good. Very good, even. But despite (or perhaps because of) all the stony solemnity and brow-furrowing, he simply didn’t affect me on an emotional level the same way Pacino did. Same with Joe Pesci, who has a sizable role as mob boss Russell Bufalino (though I do admire Pesci’s performance for the way he was able to convey, without a single line of dialogue, when his character wanted somebody killed: just a mere side-eye, and you could immediately tell someone was going to get shot dead).

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All three men – Pacino to a lesser extent than De Niro and Pesci – do have to act around the iffy de-aging technology that attempts to smooth out their faces into weirdly plastic masks for the first half of the movie, and that’s a huge problem that the film’s lighting crew clearly struggled with: thankfully, so much of The Irishman takes place in shadowy Italian restaurants that it’s often too dark to see the de-aged faces – but even in a scene lit by bright daylight, the World War II flashback in which Sheeran is supposed to be in his early twenties, somehow the shadows of De Niro’s helmet manage to hide almost his entire face from the camera.

I could probably ramble on and on about the film’s beautiful cinematography and production design, and the way that each decade of American history was lovingly brought to life (well, except for the early 21st Century, which looks like a lifeless gray wasteland compared to the vivid vitality of the 50’s and 60’s). But I probably can’t explain it better than cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. I would be shocked if The Irishman doesn’t win in some technical categories at next year’s Oscars – it deserves a lot of wins, except for special effects.

And then, of course, there’s the music. The main theme of the movie actually wore on me after a while, and I was tempted to ignore the score entirely if it weren’t for the absolutely brilliant instrumental piece, entitled Remembrance, that composer Robbie Robertson stuck in the movie’s end-credits (but not even the first half of the credits, where some people might be sticking around to listen: it’s shoved right in the middle, somewhere around the point where they’re thanking the medics and food catering service). I might be so eager to forgive the movie’s faults, just because the payoff, that one end-credits musical composition, is so fantastic.

The Irishman does have faults – I mentioned earlier that it’s not great until Al Pacino shows up. It’s also not great once he leaves the film, with half an hour still to go of everybody basically just sitting around and reminiscing about how great it was when Al Pacino was around. Then we get a little bit of trademark Scorsese bitterness about modernity (there’s a scene late in the run-time where Sheeran is shocked to discover that young people these days don’t even know who Hoffa was). But the vast majority of the movie in between Pacino’s arrival and disappearance is an absolutely enjoyable whirlwind of emotions that I think you won’t want to miss out on.

And, just so you know, it’s perfectly okay to watch The Irishman on your phone. I did, and far from missing out on the film’s cinematic subtleties, I actually loved it. Yes, I might disagree with Martin Scorsese on…virtually everything about the definition of cinema, but that has nothing to do with the fact that he’s a masterful director with a keen eye for carving out a powerful and entertaining story from one of the most convoluted and controversial stories in the history of the American mob.

Movie Rating: 9.5/10

“Bombshell” Trailer Review!

Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie are on fire in the new trailer for Bombshell, which recounts the explosive birth of the MeToo movement out of the wreckage of FOX News founder Roger Ailes’s downfall. And for Kidman and Theron at least, Bombshell could land them some well-deserved Oscar nominations.

The film tackles a difficult subject, with Kidman taking on the role of Gretchen Carlson, the controversial FOX News host who first spoke out about Ailes’ history of sexual harassment – Carlson herself recently revealed that, due to the terms of her settlement with Ailes, she is unable to say much about the upcoming film; but that she thinks it’s “amazing” that projects such as this and the Showtime series The Loudest Voice are continuing the conversation that started in July of 2016 (it’s worth noting that women have been speaking up about these issues long before Carlson, but for whatever reason it was her revelation that sparked a sudden furor in society): but let’s not forget that Carlson has herself made sexist, transphobic, and blatantly racist remarks in the past – and even though she says she doesn’t watch FOX anymore, it’s hard to say whether those were her own opinions or Ailes’. Meanwhile, Charlize Theron is Megyn Kelly, an even more controversial character; Kelly, who came forward with allegations against Ailes not long after Carlson and got into a very public fight with then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump, is not a swell person either – during her time on FOX, she was a divisive and negative influence, and was forced to step down from her brief stint at NBC News after multiple incidents, such as defending racist Halloween costumes and encouraging body-shaming. So any attempt to portray either woman as heroines is inevitably going to court controversy – which may be why Bombshell has invented a third character, a third victim of Ailes’ unwanted advances, this one an entirely fictional young producer named Kayla Pospisil, played by Margot Robbie. While she’s not as prominent in the trailer, I feel certain the movie will make her out to be the emotional core of the complex story.

Regardless, the trailer is stirring and powerful, accompanied by a great song choice (Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy”) and intentionally walking the line between biting satire and intense drama: there are unsubtle parodies of all of FOX’s most notorious hosts and contributors walking the hallways of this newsroom, including Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro and, for whatever reason, Rudy Giuliani. And, of course, there’s Kate McKinnon to provide some of her classic wise-cracks – plus, there’s a brief appearance from D’arcy Carden of The Good Place, who is also a fantastic comedian.

So what do you think of the trailer? Is Bombshell going to be a hard sell with audiences and critics alike, or is it going to earn one of its three leads a Best Actress nomination – or a win? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Trailer Rating: 9/10

Netflix’s “Umbrella Academy” Adds To Season 2 Cast!

While the second season of Netflix’s gritty superhero drama Umbrella Academy is still at least a year away (at best), the show has begun filming in Toronto, Canada, with the main cast returning to their instantly-iconic roles. But alongside the Hargreeves siblings, there are three new faces to add to the mix.

Netflix has just cast Ritu Arya, Yusuf Gatewood, and Marin Ireland for what appear to be large roles on the show. So let’s break down who they’re playing, and what their inclusion could mean for the series, and the future of the Umbrella Academy.

First of all, are they playing new members of the Academy – a.k.a. any of the thirty-six other supernaturally-gifted children all mysteriously born on October 1st, 1989? Well, it’s most likely that Arya and Gatewood, who are both around the same age range as the other Hargreeves, could be some of those long lost kids.

Additional confirmation of this could come from the character descriptions released by Netflix: Arya’s character, Lila, is an unpredictable “chameleon who can be as brilliant or as clinically insane as the situation requires”. To my mind, that suggests she has the ability to either shape-shift or, more interestingly, drastically change her personality in such a way that she becomes an entirely different person to any but the most discerning eye. Lila also has a macabre sense of humor: this suggests a villain at first, but pretty much everybody in Umbrella Academy has a macabre sense of humor, so it’s not very telling.

As for Gatewood, his character Raymond sounds more than a bit like Emmy Raver-Lampman’s Alison Hargreeves – a “born leader” with the “innate ability to disarm you with a look”. He’s married, and devoted to his spouse, and seems to have a wide social circle who love and adore him. But what does it mean? Is he, like Alison, creating a perfect life for himself by mind-controlling his friends and family? Or is he just a really great guy? That seems way too good to be true on a show like this, where everyone is hiding a secret.

Marin Ireland’s “no-nonsense Texas mom” Sissy doesn’t seem as much like a possible Umbrella Academy child to me, but she sounds interesting: at forty, Ireland will be portraying a “fearless”, free spirited woman who seems to be getting past a stale marriage and moving on to the next chapter of her life with fervor. She probably lives in Texas, and she obviously has kids: other than that, we don’t know too much about her, but she sounds like she could be the moral compass of the next season, like Agnes (and, to some extent, Hazel) were in the first.

All in all, this sounds like a great deal of fun, and the characters each seem to have a lot of depth and layers already: we’ll just have to wait and see whether they turn out to be long lost siblings, time-traveling assassins, or maybe even more donut-shopkeepers.

“Little Women” Trailer Review!

Visionary director Greta Gerwig is bringing the story of Little Women back to the big screen this Christmas, and it’s like nothing you’ve seen before. This is an adaptation of the story that turns the spotlight on 19th Century gender politics, and the four March sisters who learn how to navigate an oppressive society without sacrificing any of their freedom and passion for life. This is, according to Gerwig, a story drawn not only from Louisa May Alcott’s original novel, but from the author’s personal worldviews and other writings: it is a message about what defines true love, perseverance and resistance.

It leads to an unusual but exciting first trailer for the film, which seems both old-fashioned in its setting and peculiarly modern in its attitude; even radical at times. Saoirse Ronan, the film’s lead actress, portrays Jo March, the eldest of the four sisters and the writer of the group, who tries to publish a novel in which the lead character, a woman, doesn’t marry – something to which her publisher strongly objects; Emma Watson is Meg March, who, of course, does end up happily married, despite Jo’s insistence that she should follow her dream to become an actress – she’s seen as one of the weaker characters in the story by some modern critics, but Watson is clearly making her much more sympathetic; Florence Pugh is Amy, the self-absorbed “last hope” of the March family; and Eliza Scanlen is Beth, the family’s quietest, most soft-spoken member, who also receives the least screentime in the trailer. All four are forced to look at their lives in new ways, as they experience the turbulence of first love, marriage, motherhood, grief and the pain of growing up and out of their naive innocence.

Meryl Streep also makes an appearance as the short-tempered and domineering Aunt March, easily stealing her scenes in the trailer. We’re in for a definite treat here, with Streep bringing wit and charming elegance to the role of the elderly matron, whose callous exterior hides a gentle heart.

The main takeaway from this trailer is that this Little Women is awards-season gold: a close, intimate study of the era’s views on gender, and the slowly blossoming feminist movement, witnessed through the eyes of four independent and strong-willed heroines. I won’t spoil the story for anyone new to this, but I can assure you it’s perfect material for Christmas: it has heart, personality, and plenty of tearjerking moments, and there’s a strong emphasis on family.

And if you’re not into historical fiction, don’t fear: the first trailer for Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding’s holiday rom-com, Last Christmas, apparently drops tonight, so I’ll probably review that too.

Trailer Rating: 10/10

“1917” First Trailer!

It’s shaping up to be a good year for World War I dramas – between this grim, harrowing account of two men racing against time to prevent a massacre on the battlefield, to The King’s Man, which seems to present a more romanticized view of British spies and assassins weaving through early 20th Century politics, pretty much all your bases are covered. So let’s talk about the first trailer for Sam Mendes’ 1917, which has just dropped today.

First up, the fact that it’s a joint Universal Studios/DreamWorks Pictures release stunned me right off the bat – I’m just not used to seeing the DreamWorks logo before a trailer filled with mustard gas, military chaos and the horrors of war: but here we are, and that’s what we’ve got. The trailer is masterfully edited to reflect the claustrophobia of the trenches on the front lines: it opens with a man running across an open field, being peppered with bullets and bombs, but the camera frame shrinks tighter and tighter around him, quickly becoming the second 1 in 1917, while the man himself is lost in a cloud of smoke. That’s quickly followed by darkly-lit shots of soldiers creeping through an abandoned building, guns at the ready – the shadows encroach around them oppressively before being abruptly shredded by a bomb exploding in their midst. As the air rings around the survivors, their voices are muffled and distant, their figures merely dark silhouettes in a fog. There are haunting shots of men wading through rivers clogged with dead bodies, or staring into the ever more rapidly shrinking title cards as if they’re caught in the enemy’s crosshairs, while the music beats in time to their gunfire.

And then, of course, there’s Benedict Cumberbatch: no decent British historical fiction would feel right without him. The cast also includes Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Richard Madden – as of right now, the film looks very (as in, entirely) male-driven: there’s only a single female character credited on IMDb, and since she doesn’t have a name except for “Mother”, I’ll bet she’s very unimportant to the story. That’s not necessarily a mark against the film, but plenty of war dramas can and do find enough time for at least one named female character to appear: though they’re typically little more than plot devices who inspire the soldiers to invoke their name as they charge into battle, or who can cry over said soldiers when their dead bodies are returned home for burial.

All in all, though, the film looks very good: with the market currently wanting more war dramas, I hope 1917 has enough appeal to win out over bigger, more mainstream releases like Roland Emmerich’s Midway, or The King’s Man.

Trailer Rating: 5/10

“Harriet” Trailer!

This trailer makes me so happy and so sad at the same time: happy, because it’s about time someone adapted the incredible story of Harriet Tubman to the big screen; sad, because it’s a Focus Features film, and mainstream audiences rarely, if ever, go to see those in theaters (last I checked, the official trailer had less than a hundred likes on YouTube)  – for this one, though, I have to hope they’ll make an exception: it can’t just be critics who get to experience this!

The film will explore the true story of the life and times of Harriet Tubman, the legendary black abolitionist who fought to free African Americans from the horrors of slavery, as one of the leading conductors on the Underground Railway. The trailer showcases drama, and a lot of action: unusual for Focus Features, which tends to be more small-scale and intimate – but Harriet looks to have a whole bunch of battles and the like, led by one really awesome and inspiring black heroine. Plus, it’s got a really catchy song. Harriet herself will be played by Cynthia Erivo (inspired casting), while Janelle Monáe also has a substantial role in the film – yes, like, the real Janelle Monáe: as in, how many good reasons do I need to give you to go see this film when it comes out in November? Honestly, it looks better than the Fred Rogers biopic also premiering that month, and I didn’t expect that at all.

Maybe the film won’t be as good as it looks to be, but this trailer is a work of art: until I actually see substantial proof that I’m wrong, I’m declaring this to be one of those films that you must see at some point, even if you catch it on streaming afterwards or whatnot.

Trailer Rating: 10/10

“A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” Trailer!

Fred Rogers is one of those incredible, iconic figures that lingers in the background of the public conscious – at times, he almost seems less like a person than an embodiment of some higher concept, some divine enigma. There’s no way anyone could ever be Fred Rogers, because Fred Rogers literally isn’t possible in the world we live in. Even during the time he lived in, he was viewed as an eccentric, an anomaly. These days, he’s positively alien.

But Tom Hanks is going to try to recall the man’s presence into his own performance as Fred Rogers in the upcoming biopic A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, regardless of how difficult that task will be. The first trailer, released today, is a tantalizing glimpse into a world in which Rogers still lived and breathed, a world so blessed by his presence that people would spontaneously start singing the Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood theme song on subway trains when they spotted him (something that actually happened in real life). It’s a world where cynical journalists could learn the values of empathy and compassion from the man himself. It’s a world that seems so unreal it might be set in an alternate reality.

And as for Hanks, he’s so very…Hanks…it’s hard to imagine that he is Fred Rogers, no matter how many sweaters and sneakers he goes through: his voice, for one thing, sounds very little like Rogers’, and his face is much younger-looking (casual observation: how is it that Tom Hanks ages but doesn’t get old?). It’s hard to tell from a trailer, too much of which is focused on our cynical journalist and his family dynamics, but Hanks hasn’t yet captured the essence of Fred Rogers, at least for me.

For comparison, here is Fred, the man himself:

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And here is Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, looking oddly plastic:

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I mean, appearances are beside the point. Tom Hanks is a great actor, one of the best, and that’s what’s going to make or break this movie. But I’m keeping my expectations to a minimum for the moment.

Trailer Rating: 5/10

The “Broken Women” Of “Black Widow”.

Last night, I began my coverage of Marvel’s San Diego Comic-Con panel with a brief post about what had been revealed at the Black Widow presentation; there seemed to be very little at first – it was a prequel, Florence Pugh would play Yelena Belova, and the film’s villain would be Taskmaster. And that seemed to be it. Boy, was I wrong.

Since then, there’s been a bunch of interviews with the cast of Black Widow (who are about to head back to London for more filming): a lot has been revealed, and we’re going to have to go over it all. Forget basically everything in my initial post. There’s a lot to talk about now.

The big thing about the film, apparently, is that it’s a drama: what with Black Widow herself being something of a small-scale superhero, it makes sense to focus on finding creative ways to make this film stand out, since, honestly, in a universe where Captain Marvel can punch spaceships out of the sky with her bare hands and Thor can harness the power of a dead star, Black Widow’s skills with a baton just aren’t gonna cut it. Scarlett Johansson has revealed that this film is much more intellectual than other Marvel movies: she gets to “talk more” than ever before, and says that there’s a lot of dialogue. It’s an introspective movie that will explore Black Widow’s mental and emotional state during a very interesting period of her life, when she was a fugitive in between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. It looks like, during this time, Black Widow is on her own and trying to figure out her purpose in life when her past suddenly catches up with her and takes her on a wild ride back to places she remembers from her youth – the Red Room and Budapest, for example. The Black Widow we see here is someone who’s a little out of her element, and more than a little scared of what’s happening all around her: but we know from Avengers: Endgame that Widow will eventually pull herself back together and find her moral compass once again, only to have to sacrifice everything she’s won to save the world. Prediction: this film will prove, once and for all, that Black Widow is the most tragic character in the entire MCU.

What she finds on her journey will surprise her: first up, we have Florence Pugh’s character, Yelena Belova. We have a few new details on this elusive Russian assassin – she’s got a complicated history with Black Widow. The footage shown to the crowds at Comic-Con depicted Belova first attempting to murder Widow by strangling her with a curtain before sitting down with her to share a drink. Pugh says that Belova is very strong, but is dealing with her own issues – I think we’ll see Belova struggling between sticking with the Red Room that she’s known for her entire life, or leaving to follow Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, into the great unknown. It’s becoming more and more likely that Belova chooses to take on the mantle of “Black Widow”, when she learns of Romanoff’s self-sacrifice. Can you imagine how shocked the remaining Avengers will be when Belova arrives and introduces herself as Black Widow?

Now, we have a tidbit of information that has me flabbergasted: there’s no Taskmaster in this movie, apparently. Turns out, the footage shown at Comic-Con did not show the hooded villain as was previously reported – no, the character seen in that footage (footage which has not been released online) was a woman, Melina, who becomes the Iron Maiden character from the comics – the footage apparently showed Melina and Black Widow fighting in the wreckage of a fiery car crash. This character will be portrayed by Rachel Weisz, who says of Melina that she is an embittered woman who has been cycled and recycled through the Red Room program five times already, but had never been able to match the skill and prowess of her antagonist, Black Widow. She also mentioned that Melina is part of some scientific project which she couldn’t describe in any detail.

It looks like these three women will be at the center of the film: just as Captain Marvel explored the power of female friendships, Black Widow will probe deep into even more complex relationships of hatred, fear and resentment, as all three are trying to survive in a dangerous world.

But the two confirmed male characters both have interesting storylines as well – David Harbour confirmed that he is playing Alexei, the Red Guardian, a superhuman character born from Cold War conflicts; basically, the Soviet Union’s answer to Captain America. Considering that the Soviet Union disbanded quite some time ago, it would be interesting if Red Guardian was a relic of bygone days, someone who isn’t quite sure what he’s meant to do in a post-Cold War world: rather like Black Widow herself. Harbour promised that his character is very complex, which sounds awesome.

O.T. Fagbenle, meanwhile, is apparently not playing the villain, as previously speculated: instead, he’s a self-described “fixer” named Mason, who helps Natasha because of his romantic feelings for her. He’s a shady guy, who operates an extensive underworld of secret contacts and is always ready to help out his highest-paying customers by giving them emergency backup. He sounds like an interesting fellow, but we don’t know very much else about him yet.

So, now that we’ve gotten all this additional information; what do you think? Are you excited for Black Widow? Do you like the thought of it being a drama? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

“The Hundred-Foot Journey” Review!

Happy Bastille Day to all my French readers and viewers! I myself am not French nor of French descent (as far as I know, anyway), nor have I ever been to France, and I can’t even speak French.

Why, then, am I dedicating an entire blog post to the French holiday?

Simply because I have recently discovered a gem of a movie, a precious treasure that I have savored, and that must be shared with all of you. This film is The Hundred-Foot Journey, a beautiful film set in the wonderland of picturesque villages, open-air markets and sprawling vineyards and orchards that is rural France. And, parts of it also take place on Bastille Day, so that was all the connection I needed: I had to talk about this film eventually, so this seemed like the most natural place to do so. Allow me to explain why this film is necessary viewing – or, at least, why I feel that it is.

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The Hundred-Foot Journey is not a new film: it was released in 2014, had a small but comfortable box-office run, and received mixed reviews. We’ll discuss its problems, but first let’s talk about what makes the film so good, so juicy, so delectable. Let’s discuss why I’m using all these references to taste: the film is a love-letter to the culinary cultures of France and India; two very different cuisines wrapped up together in this bite-sized treat. It follows an Indian family emigrating to France, led by their stubborn patriarch, Papa Kadam (Om Puri), who is trying to set up a restaurant where his extraordinarily talented son Hassan (Manish Dayal) can start a career for himself. But when the family ends up, accidentally, in the small village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, they discover that their presence is unwelcome in the closely-knit community: a rival restaurateur by the name of Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) quickly makes it her business to make the village as hostile to the family as possible, in an attempt to save her own high-end dining establishment from competition. From there, the plot unfolds. There’s romance, drama, and a dash of light-hearted comedy, but it’s all just seasoning on the beautiful three-course meal that is this movie, or should I say – cinematic cookbook.

Technically, the third course is a little more sour than the first two, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s expand on the metaphor for a moment, and revel in the delights of French and Indian cuisine. I recommend that, if you take my suggestion and watch this film ASAP, you should have a delicious meal of your own prepared. It will make you very hungry, I can assure you of that: a film that can make a sea-urchin look like a mouthwatering morsel has done its job well. So well, in fact, that Hassan Kadam is apparently the third-greatest chef in movie history. From his family’s box of heirloom spices to the beautiful cookbooks lent to Hassan by his on-and-off love interest Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), the film is filled with constant reminders of more great meals to come, even when we’re not actually watching those meals being made – which is often. And each meal is different, depending on who’s making it and who’s eating it: we watch Papa and Hassan’s eyes fill with wonder as they are greeted by their first French dinner at Marguerite’s apartment, where the table is laden with some of the most beautiful cheeses you’ve ever seen; we witness the tension in Madame Mallory’s kitchen as she prepares a special meal for the President of France himself; we rejoice in Hassan’s naive first attempt to master the five basic sauces (which, if my sources are correct, are Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Hollandaise and Sauce Tomat). The entire movie is centered around these quiet, intimate moments when the characters eat, with gusto and an almost holy reverence for what they are tasting. It’s the food that makes this movie so enjoyable – the idea that food is so important, so necessary, to people of all walks of life; to culture and community as well. It can bring people to tears as they recall the ghosts of flavors long forgotten, or it can spark passionate romance and thoughtful meditation. Wine, another staple of French cuisine, has a small part in igniting that romance, though it is largely absent from the hundred-foot journey that the Kadams travel.

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The journey is both physical and spiritual: a journey from one country to another, from one restaurant to another, from one lifestyle to another. Papa Kadam and Madame Mallory’s rival restaurants stand across the road from each other – a road exactly one-hundred feet in width (a fact that is sometimes hard to believe, considering how small the road looks at times). But the two bitter opponents have journeys of self-discovery to travel as well: obviously, I won’t spoil anything that happens in the movie, but there’s a good deal of change and inner turmoil. The rural village is not very accepting of the Indian newcomers, for one thing, and neither party savors the idea of uniting their distinctly separate culinary styles of art.

From a technical standpoint, the film has its fair share of good and bad, like any film. I mentioned that the first two acts of the film (or courses of the meal, if we’d like to extend the metaphor) are the best: the third act isn’t necessarily bad, but it feels very different from the first two – more mainstream, more distanced, more remote. Things are happening on the screen, but we, the audience, no longer feel quite as intimate with the cast (who are all outstanding). I personally think the last thirty minutes shouldn’t have tried to take the film on a completely different course than the one it had been following, up to that point, almost perfectly. Thankfully, the final scene rescues the ending and gives us one scrumptious aftertaste to hold onto, but there is definitely some difficulty getting to that point.

But the first two acts – lovely, sentimental, and enchanting, the very best appetizer and main course that you could ask for. The film also has an ever-so-slightly old-fashioned quality to it: until the final half-hour, it is softly lit and the dialogue is soft-spoken. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that this little indie dramedy was produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, two giants of the mainstream entertainment industry. Unfortunately, big-name producers don’t always inspire interest from general audiences – James Cameron learned that with Alita: Battle Angel, and Spielberg/Winfrey presumably learned that with The Hundred-Foot Journey, which is sadly neglected, almost completely forgotten, in fact. I don’t even know what inspired me to choose it, almost at random, from a wide selection of films on Netflix – but I am so glad that I did.

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Hopefully, this post will inspire you to check it out for yourself, whether today, on this French national holiday, or any day of the year. I urge you to at least try it. I truly believe your life will be a little better for it.

Movie Rating: 9.4/10

“Charlie’s Angels” Trailer Review!

My first thought while watching this trailer was that Sir Patrick Stewart clearly didn’t want to be left out of all the wickedly charming fun that his good friend, Sir Ian McKellen, is having in The Good Liar. Yes, the first trailer for the upcoming spy-thriller Charlie’s Angels has dropped, giving us our first look at a fun, diverse cast of all-female heroines – and a cameo from Stewart, who strolls into the scene grinning from ear to ear. Interestingly, the two films will probably have to go up against each other in the busy November scene. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d predict that Charlie’s Angels will have the slight advantage at the box-office, due to its more light-hearted, comedic tone. But both films will likely be swallowed up in Frozen 2 fever, which leaves The Good Liar with the last laugh, as it can at least stick around long enough for an awards-season bonus round, whereas Charlie’s Angels…probably can’t.

But this film has something that too few films can boast: the aforementioned all-female lead cast. Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska – and Naomi Scott, still fresh off her own magic carpet-ride: here, though, Disney’s newest princess is a government whistle-blower, trying to prevent the creation of a dangerous new weapon that could lead to global catastrophe. These three talented women come together under the direction of Elizabeth Banks from The Hunger Games, who also stars in the movie as the leader of the team.

The action and adventure elements showcased in the trailer do tend to verge on the over-the-top and ridiculous – not so much because the stunts and situations themselves are humorous, but because the actresses are: even Scott, who was actually rather dramatic in Aladdin, but plays wide-eyed naivete very well here. If you’re looking for a Mission: Impossible movie, you’ve definitely come to the wrong place. But if you’re looking for Project Runway meets Mission: Impossible, well…that’s a little more like it. The actresses are perfect paragons of modern fashion.

And, the other notable thing to mention: the song. I feel like I’d be guilty of a crime if I didn’t mention it, considering the way this film is pushing it as if it’s one of the main marketing attractions. A collaboration of three talented musicians like Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey is never a bad idea, and it sounds pretty good from what we hear of it in the trailer, but seriously, the film shouldn’t have to rely on its soundtrack to sell tickets. The cast pretty much sells itself.

One last thing: the trailer ends with the women answering, almost as if brainwashed, to the commands of some robotic voice called “Charlie”, which presumably explains the film’s title, but I (casual viewer that I am) have no idea what I’m supposed to make of that: a hint of suspense in an otherwise upbeat trailer? Just a fun nod to the 1970s TV series this film is based on?

Trailer Rating: 7.5/10

“Toy Story 4” SPOILER Review!

Okay. Let me just preface this by reminding you that yesterday, when I discussed my overall feelings toward Toy Story 4, I had basically no clue what to say – my mind was still reeling from what I had just seen, and the emotions were still too near, too raw.

Now, I’ve had a chance to think over everything that happened in the movie, and I think I can put into words what I was attempting to explain yesterday – at the very least, I’ll try, and we’ll see how it goes. This is a SPOILER REVIEW, which will make it much easier for me to discuss certain things (obviously), but if you don’t want to know anything about Toy Story 4 I urge you to leave now.

And for those of you who have seen the film already (or simply don’t care about spoilers), then let’s hop on this merry-go-round – sorry, carousel – of emotions.

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First, let’s just discuss one of the overwhelmingly positive things about the movie: the story itself. Never has a Toy Story movie felt so deep and complex, with so much richness of detail – except maybe Toy Story 2, still my favorite of the franchise and the only one  that, in my opinion, perfectly balanced the arcs of our main characters, who were Woody, Buzz and Jessie at the time. Introducing Bo Peep to the story in Toy Story 4 adds a large complexity to this film, as the story has to work overtime to establish her as a character, since – well, she really wasn’t one in Toy Story or Toy Story 2, and she wasn’t even present in Toy Story 3. So this film does have an issue sometimes while juggling the stories of four main leads – but we’ll get to that. Leaving them aside, the plot itself is an intricate web, with a good balance of comedic and dramatic moments: it even turns into an elegant film-noir suspense thriller when our antagonist, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), enters the picture. One thing I didn’t understand while watching the movie and still don’t understand now is Pixar president Jim Morris’ claim that Toy Story 4 is a “romantic comedy” – I mean, sure, the love story of Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts) plays a large part, and tries hard to look like the defining factor in Woody’s eventual decision to leave behind his life as a toy – but it really isn’t. It was inevitable from the movie’s first few scenes that Woody had no reason to stay with his new child owner, Bonnie – he was constantly reminiscing about his better days with Andy, and some of the other toys, specifically Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), were treating him like worthless garbage. The romance only gives Woody additional motivation to leave. So, if anything, the movie feels most like a feel-good motivational film about learning self-value.

A really hilarious one, though: I have no qualms about admitting that Toy Story 4 is easily the funniest entry in the franchise, with a large assortment of brilliant one-liners and running gags – many of them packed into the last twenty minutes of the movie, as Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Trixie (Kristen Schaal), and Forky (Tony Hale) team up to try and stop Bonnie’s family from leaving in their RV: what starts out with Jessie merely puncturing the vehicle’s tires and Buzz causing a humorous distraction turns into hysterical comedy when Trixie sabotages the GPS and starts trying to lead the family back to the fairground where they left Woody – “Right! Another right! RIGHT!”, while Buttercup (Jeff Garlin) frantically tries to help by grabbing hold of the accelerator. Eventually cops start trailing the erratic RV, and Forky even locks Bonnie’s dad out of the car – and somehow Bonnie sleeps through all of this. I gotta say, I really felt for Bonnie’s parents in this movie: not only did they have to handle one very hyper and very forgetful child (literally, I lost count of how many times she misplaces her backpack in this movie), but their weekend vacation turned really stressful, really fast. No fault of their own, of course.

But I have to admit, I cracked up when the RV finally ground to a halt at its (a.k.a the toys’) destination, and Buttercup exclaimed “Dad’s totally going to jail now!”.

Just as funny, if not funnier, is the addition of Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele) to the Toy Story universe: two lovable plush toys with big egos and laser eyes (no, really!), their back-and-forth repertoire is one of the movie’s highlights – their best running joke is one that we glimpsed a part of in the final trailer, where they attack an elderly lady: as I suspected, this scenario is merely a hypothetical, but it’s actually just one in a long list of different ideas that the duo come up with in order to take an important key from the woman. The other battle-plans that they propose get funnier and funnier, until we culminate in the ultimate horror parody – where we watch the woman lock up shop for the night, drive home down lonely country lanes, eat dinner, take a bath, and settle into bed, all set to some quaint, foreboding music, only to have Ducky and Bunny rise above her pillow as she sleeps – which cuts away as we hear the woman scream in terror. “Yeah, we’re not doing that,” Buzz declares. In the end, they manage to get the key by pure luck, as the woman happens to set it down on the shelf right next to them, but the “ol’ plush rush”, as the fluffy toys call one of their more tame strategic maneuvers, is used twice more in the film: once to help a young child find her parents, and once during a mid-credits cut-scene where Ducky and Bunny imagine themselves terrorizing their human overlords and becoming gargantuan, unstoppable forces of apocalyptic power, equipped with laser eyes. All this is even funnier when you remember that Jordan Peele is a horror-film director himself, and these scenes act as gentle satire of his own preferred genre.

However, I did not expect the rest of the film to also adopt certain horror tropes – most notably with its host of absolutely terrifying ventriloquist dolls, and the scene where Woody wakes up after having his voice-box removed only to find one of these dolls staring down at him with a frightening smile. In fact, those dolls were everywhere – they were used for multiple jump-scare moments, including one in which an unsuspecting woman runs to grab an out-of-control baby-carriage, screaming when she discovers one of the puppets inside it. In fact, the humans of Toy Story were subjected to more unimaginable humiliations and nightmarish events than ever before in the franchise – even leaving aside the many times Ducky and Bunny wanted to burn them all, humans were manipulated, scared out of their minds and left heartbroken by toys in this movie. I felt devastated for one child, Harmony, when she took Woody with her to the park only to have him run away as soon as her back was turned – and then, of course, I hated Harmony when she threw away Gabby Gabby later in the film.

Honestly, Gabby Gabby is probably the franchise’s best villain ever – except for maybe, just maybe, Emperor Zurg from Toy Story 2, because he terrified me as a kid. In general, the new characters are all fantastic: Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom does a lot even with limited screentime; Forky is wonderful and must be protected at all costs – and his new girlfriend Knifey, who gets revealed during a mid-credits scene, looks fun too; there are even cameos from Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett and Carl Reiner, though far too brief to make much of an impression; and even Bo Peep’s sheep get personalities.

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Unfortunately, the cast of characters has become so large that it would be impossible to give everyone the appreciation they deserve: Hamm, Rex, the Potato Heads, Slinky Dog and the iconic three-eyed aliens are all completely sidelined throughout the movie, given little or no dialogue (were the aliens even in the movie at all?), and any semblance of character arcs for them are nonexistent. I mean, I don’t know about you, but it makes me really angry that the aliens weren’t part of the film’s finale, as they were in Toy Story 3 – they’re iconic characters, unofficial mascots of the franchise.

I could even have forgiven that, though, if this hadn’t also happened to literally everyone not named Woody or Bo Peep. Buzz Lightyear and Jessie should have been crucial characters in this story’s plot – but the film only tries half-heartedly with Buzz, and it doesn’t even try at all with Jessie. Was I inordinately happy when Woody gave his Sheriff’s badge to Jessie at the end of the movie? Yes! But it felt like a poor attempt to make her seem important: in Toy Story 2, she was the heart and soul of the movie – but here, she was merely one face in an over-crowded ensemble that couldn’t even be bothered to give Buzz Lightyear a decent conclusion. Saying the oft-repeated catchphrase “To infinity and beyond” does not count, in my opinion. But Woody and Bo Peep, well, they got plenty of time to frolic around the fairground, chatting, laughing, and going to nightclubs – where Bo proceeded to treat Woody as her “accessory”.

If I may make a Marvel comparison here, I feel like Woody was both the Iron Man and the Captain America of Toy Story 4: Iron Man because he was constantly being treated poorly by everyone around him – and Captain America because, in the end, he chooses to go off and live the life he always wanted with Bo Peep, abandoning his own “no toy left behind” mantra,  after passing on his responsibilities to Jessie. In which case Buzz is his Bucky, and in both cases neither friendship got to end with any sort of satisfying conclusion to years of emotional, important storytelling.

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As you can probably guess, I’m a little conflicted about the ending: on the one hand, I knew it was coming and I appreciated its bravery. On the other hand, I expected Pixar to handle it a little less roughly and awkwardly than they did – maybe it’s because we did just see this sort of thing in Avengers: Endgame (stop cannibalizing your own movies, Disney!), or maybe it’s because I was dumbfounded while watching it, but it didn’t have the impact I expected it to; not because it didn’t make me cry (it did), but because it didn’t feel final to me. I don’t want this to be the ending – Jessie and Buzz didn’t even get proper character arcs! There were no aliens! There’s still so much story left to tell!

Even if it doesn’t involve Woody or Bo Peep, can’t we get a Toy Story 5 focused on the toys still living in Bonnie’s room? – but no, instead there’s a Bo Peep short film called “Lamp Life” on its way to Disney Plus, where we’ll probably learn more about her escape from the antique store and her acclimation to life as a lost toy. There is also apparently a series of short features about Forky (and presumably Knifey) arriving on the streaming platform as well, which, according to Tony Hale, should have room for tons of cameos from the original cast.

Forky and the Aliens, please?