CHEVALIER (2023) – Bio Pic of Black French Composer Shows How Racism Ruined a Life and a Career

0

CHEVALIER (2023) is a handsome production that takes place in France just before the French Revolution and is based on the true story of little-known French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a black man who because of his musical talent was accepted into French high society, but eventually racism derailed any hopes he had of remaining a celebrated composer.

It is not a pleasant story, but it is one that everyone needs to learn about.

CHEVALIER (2023) opens in rousing style with a lively concert scene where we witness young Chevalier (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) take the stage alongside Mozart and pretty much show him up in a violin competition for the ages. The sequence ends with a very frustrated Mozart exclaiming, “Who the f*ck was that?” a laugh-out-loud moment and well-placed F-bomb (the only one) in this PG-13 rated bio pic.

We then briefly learn Chevalier’s backstory, where we see his white father deposit him at a prestigious music school in France, which accepts him because even at a young age he is a brilliant violinist. The action returns to Chevalier’s adulthood, where we witness his friendship with the Queen, Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton). As a champion fencer, violinist, and composer, Chevalier finds himself in the Queen’s favor and their friendship flourishes. Chevalier sets his sights on becoming the next director of the Paris Opera, and he challenges his main competition to a contest: they both will write an opera, and the one whose work is judged the best will become the next director.

For his opera, Chevalier attempts to hire Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) for his lead actress and singer, but her husband, the cruel Marquis De Montalembert (Marton Csokas) refuses to allow his wife to appear on stage. However, Marie-Josephine tells Chevalier that she will do it anyway, that her husband will be out of the country for a year, and so he won’t know. Chevalier is overjoyed, and as the two work closely together, they also become attracted to each other and have an affair.

When news reaches Chevalier that his father has died, he learns that as a bastard son, his father has left him nothing, but also his mother Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo) a slave, has been granted her freedom because of his father’s death, and she comes to live with him. She warns Chevalier not to become too comfortable with his current lifestyle, because as she says these people will never completely accept him. He quickly dismisses his mother’s concerns, but it’s at this time that his entire life unravels.

In spite of winning the competition with the better judged opera, Chevalier is told that he cannot become the next director of the Paris Opera because he is a person with dark skin, and when the Marquis De Montalembert returns, he has it out with Chevalier and warns him never to see his wife again. Things grow even darker just at the French Revolution begins, and life as Chevalier knew it changes forever.

CHEVALIER is beautifully shot by director Stephen Williams, who is mostly known for his TV work, including the TV series WATCHMEN (2019) and WESTWORLD (2016-2018). Here he nicely captures the period of eighteenth century Paris with appropriate sets and costumes. He also provides some nifty camerawork. There’s one neat shot in particular where the camera begins with an exterior shot of the streets below and then retreats through a window inside an upper story apartment.

The screenplay by Stefani Robinson is a good one, as it tells yet another disturbing story about racism, as Chevalier was prevented from becoming the Paris Opera director solely because of the color of his skin. The way he is treated throughout this story is a somber reminder of why stories like Chevalier’s need to continue to be told. We sadly live in a time where it’s become acceptable to push back against stories like these, calling them propaganda or asking they not be taught in schools, actions that only justify their telling all the more. To silence stories about racism is simply more racism.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. is solid in the lead role as Chevalier. He displays charm, youthful optimism and confidence, and eventually rage and disillusionment. This is probably my favorite Harrison performance to date. I first saw Harrison in the well-made horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) where he played Joel Edgerton’s son. Harrison also played the lead role in LUCE (2019) and was part of the ensemble cast in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020). Here in CHEVALIER Harrison delivers his most captivating performance, and he trained long and hard on the violin as well, and so the scenes where he plays the violin look realistic.

I’m a fan of Samara Weaving. I love her over-the-top performances in THE BABYSITTER horror movies. She also wowed in the action horror movie READY OR NOT (2019). She had a small role in BABYLON (2022) and is also currently appearing in SCREAM VI (2023). Here in CHEVALIER, she is so very good as Marie-Josephine. Weaving plays a strong female character who refuses to be ruled by her dominating husband, and so she doesn’t hold back in her relationship with Chevalier. Their doomed relationship is one of the more tragic elements of this ultimately very sad story.

Speaking of her husband, Marton Csokas gives a subtle yet disturbing performance as Marquis De Montalembert. One of his best scenes has him quietly telling Chevalier that he is so lucky to be living in France, as in any other country in the world he’d be beaten down because of the color of his skin, the implication being that Chevalier is inferior and that he’s only allowed to do the things he’s doing because of the good graces of the French government. You just want to smack De Montalembert across the face.

Lucy Boynton makes for a spirited Marie Antoinette, going from Chevalier’s biggest fan early on to his biggest detractor when he bristles as her lack of support for his Paris Opera director bid. We just saw Boynton in the superior Netflix thriller THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022), which starred Christian Bale and Harry Melling.

Ronke Adekoluejo is very good as Chevalier’s mother, and when his life spirals out of control, she is there for him and serves to keep him inspired to push on with his life.

I also enjoyed Sian Clifford quite a bit as Madame De Genlis, who was friends with both Chevalier and Marie-Josephine and who helped Chevalier with his opera bid. Likewise, Minnie Driver excels as La Guimard, the opera singer whose advances Chevalier rejected, and so she worked hard to derail his attempts at becoming the next opera director, as she starred in the rival opera.

Overall, I enjoyed CHEVALIER quite a bit. Its story is a good one, in spite of it being depressing. It also ends on a down note, as before the end credits roll, we read that most of Chevalier’s music was destroyed years later by Napoleon Bonaparte, and so most of his work has been lost.

The film is not perfect. It’s all rather conventional and safe in its storytelling and lacks the necessary edge which this story needs. There were also more things I wanted to learn about the man, which aren’t covered in this movie—-how did he become such an accomplished violinist? What happened to him during the French Revolution? —, and there was more I wanted to know about some of the other characters as well.

But it makes its points, that racism ruined Chevalier’s life and career, that he was denied the position of Paris Opera director based solely on the color of his skin, and that the world has been largely denied his musical brilliance for no other reason except that his skin was dark.

CHEVALIER also features a confident performance by Kelvin Harrison, Jr. in the lead role, a performance that is well worth the price of admission.

I give CHEVALIER three stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line

Three and a half stars- Excellent

Three stars – Very Good

Two and a half stars – Good

Two Stars – Fair

One and a half stars – Pretty Weak

One star- Poor

Zero stars – Awful

AIR (2023) – Director Ben Affleck Knows How to Tell a Story, Even a Lackluster One like Nike’s Signing Michael Jordan

0

If you’re a fan of the 1980s, the opening montage in AIR (2023), with its 80s songs and pop culture clips including movies, celebrities, politicians, athletes, and even TV commercials— Where’s the beef? –— is worth the price of admission alone.

It’s a fun way to get things started in this story of how Nike went from chasing Adidas and Converse in the sneaker market to achieving number one status by developing a basketball shoe line exclusively for Michael Jordan, before he had even played one game in the NBA. It was a gutsy move that no one had done before, but it paid off, as Jordan did indeed become arguably the best basketball player of all time, and because of this deal, his career lifted Nike to new levels.

Everything about AIR is fun and amiable. There is no question that this is one very entertaining movie. But the bigger question is, why should anyone care?

For example, upon leaving the theater, I overheard a conversation between two moviegoers, where one was complaining to the other that he didn’t like the movie because this was a movie about Michael Jordan, and Michael Jordan really isn’t in this movie at all. That’s a legitimate concern. Of course, the answer is that AIR really isn’t about Michael Jordan. It’s about Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike talent scout who came up with the plan to build a shoe line around just the one athlete, Jordan, and who convinced Nike to agree to his controversial plan. So, at the end of the day, AIR is not a story about the greatest basketball player of all time, but a story about a shoe deal that made some folks in the sneaker business an awful lot of money. Not exactly a rags to riches story.

AIR opens with Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) lamenting that the basketball department doesn’t have a big enough budget to compete with Adidas and Converse, but Nike CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) tells him he’s lucky he has any budget at all because the basketball division continues to underperform. He tells Sonny the board wants to dismantle the basketball division entirely. Frustrated that they’re about to sign the usual three lackluster NBA players to contracts, Sonny struggles to come up with a different plan. While watching a video of Michael Jordan’s NCAA championship game winning shot, he sees something he hadn’t seen before, and with a new way of looking at the game’s final seconds, decides that Jordan has what it takes to be a championship caliber player.

Sonny comes up with the idea of using their entire budget on Jordan alone. That will enable them to be competitive with Adidas and Converse. Plus, unlike Adidas and Converse, Nike will be able to say to Jordan that they will be the only company to design an entire shoe line for him and him alone, in effect already telling Jordan that they see him as the future of the NBA, that they’re not placing him alongside Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They’re placing him above Johnson and Bird. It’s a controversial idea, especially since Jordan was already on record as saying he did not like Nike and was going to sign with Adidas.

But Sonny decided to gamble, and once he convinced Knight to go along with the plan, it became a bet that could make or break the company, and as history showed, it was a bet that paid off.

So, really, what this story is about is a bunch of middle-aged white guys trying to save their jobs by signing a basketball player to an exclusive shoe contract even before he has even played one game in the NBA. Which, honestly, isn’t the most inspirational story going. Sorry.

Now, this is not me knocking AIR or finding fault with it, because truthfully, I enjoyed AIR quite a bit. And why shouldn’t I? It has a lot of things going for it.

It’s directed by Ben Affleck, for starters, whose body of work I really like. I like the way Affleck directs movies. He knows how to tell a story. I’ve enjoyed nearly all his previous directorial efforts, films like ARGO (2012), THE TOWN (2010), GONE BABY GONE (2007), and even LIVE BY NIGHT (2016) which wasn’t as critically acclaimed, I thought was a very good movie. And Affleck is back doing his thing here with AIR. While I don’t find this to be the most inspirational story, it’s nonetheless masterfully told by Affleck.

And the screenplay by Alex Convery is a crowd-pleaser. The dialogue is sharp, snappy, and funny. The movie is filled with many laugh-out loud moments. I saw this in a crowded theater, several weeks after its initial release, which is saying something for its popularity, and there was plenty of laughter in all the right places, and people seemed to genuinely like this one. I certainly did.

Matt Damon is likable as Sonny Vaccaro. He plays Vaccaro as a guy who thinks outside the box and goes the extra mile to get the job done, attributes that make him a likable character. The last time I saw Damon in a major role was in FORD V. FERRARI (2019), in which he played a somewhat similar role to this one, as in FORD V. FERRARI Damon was a race car designer trying to design a car to defeat the much-heralded Ferrari cars which were dominating the racing industry at the time. With its thrilling race car scenes, I enjoyed FORD V. FERRARI slightly more than AIR, but thematically, their stories and Damon’s roles in them are similar.

Jason Bateman plays department head Rob Strasser, Sonny’s immediate boss, and Bateman and Damon enjoy some notable scenes together, one in particular where Rob tells Sonny just what he stands to lose if Sonny’s gambit fails, and pretty much tells Sonny he wishes he hadn’t put the company in this position.

Chris Tucker has a field day as Howard White, the one person of color on the team whose smooth-talking skills usually helps them with their basketball clients. It was fun to see Tucker on the big screen again. It had been a while.

Viola Davis delivers a very understated and rather subdued performance as Deloris Jordan, Michael Jordan’s mother who pretty much made all the business decisions for him. The fact that Sonny impressed her with his honesty about what Nike would do specifically for her son and why, because he believed Michael was going to become bigger than the NBA itself, was a major reason why Michael Jordan even agreed to meet with Nike in the first place.

Chris Messina also impresses as Michael Jordan’s agent David Falk, a cutthroat shark of a man who is all about making lots of money. The fiery conversation between him and Sonny where he lambastes Sonny for visiting the Jordan home, in effect circumventing him in the negotiation process, is a highlight of the movie.

Matthew Maher is terrific in a small role as Peter Moore, the sneaker designer who came up with the design for Jordan’s shoe, and who also came up with the name “Air Jordan.”

And Ben Affleck effortlessly plays Nike CEO Phil Knight, who divides his time between berating Sonny for his poor performance and giving him and all his employees philosophical and self-help advice. Knight also isn’t deaf to Sonny’s entreaties that the company needed to return to its roots, words that remained with Knight and ultimately led to his buying into Sonny’s decision. Affleck is a terrific actor who is starting to become underrated because of his success.

The best scene in the movie is the sequence where the Jordan family arrives at Nike for the big boardroom pitch by Sonny and his team. You can feel the tension in the room when it seems as if they are losing their pitch, as their efforts continually appear to fall flat, which leads to Sonny making an eleventh-hour inspirational speech.

It’s a terrific moment in the movie, but one that reiterates that the story told in AIR is limited. After all, what is at stake here if the deal goes south? A bunch of men don’t make a lot of money, and some might lose their jobs. Michael Jordan signs with Adidas and most likely still goes on to become the best player in NBA history. Not exactly a pivotal moment in history.

So, is this a strike against the movie? Yes! This story didn’t interest me at all. However, the way Ben Affleck told this story, and the way the actors performed in it, made it a damned fine entertaining flick! I liked AIR. I just didn’t think its story was all that important.

The best part of AIR is the work behind the camera by Ben Affleck. He knows how to tell a story. Clint Eastwood once said he made movies that his dad would like. And I got that. Eastwoods’ films were often “guy” films, but more importantly, they were films which told stories that worked. Eastwood as a director has always known how to tell stories. Ben Affleck shares this gift, and like Eastwood, has a real flare for telling stories from behind the camera.

The story AIR has to tell isn’t all that remarkable, but it’s a very good movie, because its director knows how tell it.

I give it three stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line

Three and a half stars- Excellent

Three stars – Very Good

Two and a half stars – Good

Two Stars – Fair

One and a half stars – Pretty Weak

One star- Poor

Zero stars – Awful

THE LOST KING (2022) – Tale of Woman’s Quest to Find Richard III’s Grave Quietly Satisfies

0

THE LOST KING (2022) is a quiet yet satisfying movie that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Filmed in 2022, it just got its U.S. release this weekend. Directed by Stephen Frears, who directed THE QUEEN (2006) and way back when, DANGEROUS LIASONS (1988), THE LOST KING is based on the true story of one woman’s obsession with finding the grave of Richard III.

It’s 2012 and Philippa Langley (Sally Hawkins) is not in a happy place in her life. She is separated from her husband John (Steve Coogan) who has moved out, which makes taking care of their two boys all the more difficult. Work is not going well, as she watches much younger coworkers with very little experience get promotions instead of her. And she suffers from a chronic condition which keeps her exhausted all the time.

One day, while watching the play Richard III with her son, she is struck by one of the lines in the play where Richard says because his deformity, a hunched back, is so hated, he will push back with even more hate. This line doesn’t ring true to her, as she doesn’t believe someone would spew hate because of their disability, and she questions the accuracy of Shakespeare’s interpretation of the usurper king. She joins the local Richard III society and begins reading up on the king, and when she learns that his grave was never found, she becomes inspired to find it. The rest of the movie follows her quest to find Richard’s grave and chronicles all the adversity she has to get through to accomplish this task, being both an amateur and a woman.

Along the way, she starts seeing Richard III (Harry Lloyd) appear to her, and while she knows this is just an apparition from her own mind, she can’t help but feel that it’s something more, that the spirit of Richard himself is driving her forward to find his grave. And so, she persists, not only for Richard, but for herself, as she discovers that this process has energized her, and she feels more alive than she has in quite a long time.

THE LOST KING never really takes off or puts everything it has all together, but it’s a movie that is full of lots of little moments and points, and when summed up, it ends up being a decently satisfying movie with important things to say about the empowerment of women and also how history is not always accurately recorded.

Sally Hawkins is perfect as Philippa Langley. Hawkins, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her work in THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), captures Langley’s drive and determination as she powers through her own disability, her chronic fatigue disease. My favorite part of her performance is she never allows Langley to deviate from her soft-spoken roots, and so while she perseveres to the point where she is the person who gets ahead of the professionals and leads the way to the improbable discovery of Richard III’s grave, she doesn’t let things get to her head. She remains a good person throughout.

That’s not to say that Langley didn’t have a big chip on her shoulder. She did. As she says in the movie, she doesn’t like the way some people seem to enjoy going out of their way to make people feel inferior. Langley faced push back from start to finish, from men taking issue with her use of the word “feelings,” when she would offer that as reasoning behind her thoughts for how she planned to proceed, to later when the University refused to give her credit for the discovery. In fact, this push back continues today, as the University of Leicester took issue with the interpretation of events as depicted in the movie, claiming that the film gives too much credit to Langley. Well, the movie is about her after all, and as stated at the beginning of the film, it’s her story.

The scenes where Langley pushes back against men who claim to know more than her are fun to watch. The screenplay by Steve Coogan, who also plays Langley’s husband John in the movie, Philippa Langley, and Jeff Pope, does a wonderful job carving out Langley’s character, and since Langley herself is one of the screenwriters here, I guess that’s to be expected! And it also does a nice job with the story of Richard III, how Langley believes he was wrongly recorded in history as a villain and usurper, because the new king wanted history recorded this way after Richard’s death, and since Richard wasn’t alive to refute things, history stood. It was important for Langley for Richard’s burial to acknowledge that he was the rightful king and not just a usurper, and this was important to her, at least as depicted in the movie, because that’s what irked her, the way people struck down those they thought were inferior or wouldn’t fight back. Or in Richard’s case couldn’t fight back because he was dead.

The screenplay also does a nice job with Langley’s family dynamic. I rarely like the plot point where the events in a movie bring an estranged couple back together again, but here it works. A lot of it has to do with Steve Coogan’s performance, but more of it is the writing itself. Coogan plays John Langley as a man who has grown tired of his wife because of her troubles, and while he has moved out and is seeing another woman, he still returns to Philippa’s home and helps her cook meals for the boys. At first, he dismisses her newfound passion, as it sounds crazy to him, but as he reads about Richard III and sees Philippa becoming empowered and happy, he changes his tune and supports her.

There’s a scene where their youngest son witnesses Philippa talking to Richard III, but of course he only sees her talking to herself. So, he tells his dad that mommy is talking to herself, and John replies, “We all do.” It’s one of the best lines in the movie and a key moment that tells the audience that John is now there for his ex-wife. And later the scene where he makes his boys stop playing video games so he can tell them the good news of what their mom just discovered, and Philippa hears her boys cheering her over the phone is priceless.

Coogan is an enjoyable actor who has been around for a long time. I enjoyed him a few years back when he played Stan Laurel in STAN & OLLIE (2018), which incidentally was written by fellow THE LOST KING screenwriter Jeff Pope.

Mark Addy is also memorable as archeologist Richard Buckley, who at first quickly dismisses Philippa’s request to dig in the city, but when the university cuts his funding, he changes his tune and accepts her offer. The two butt heads throughout, but when the university refuses to give her credit, it’s Buckley who takes offense and speaks up on her behalf.

James Fleet enjoys some fine moments as John Ashdown-Hill, a researcher and professor who offers Philippa support. And while Harry Lloyd isn’t asked to do much beyond smile, look handsome, and say a few words as Richard III, he does it all with royal style.

Director Stephen Frears effectively navigates through a subdued yet interesting story that never holds its high notes for very long. So, while THE LOST KING won’t blow you away, it will hold your interest for its quiet one hour and forty-eight-minute running time.

And that’s because it has two intriguing stories to tell, the one about Richard III, and the other about Philippa Langley and her efforts to both help a historical figure get the recognition she believed he deserved, and to help herself find some meaning and purpose in her life.

On top of this, the movie has two wonderful performances by Sally Hawkins in the lead role as Philippa, and Steve Coogan in a supporting role as her husband John. The two actors lead a solid ensemble cast as they bring this notable story of one woman’s passionate quest to correct history to life.

As I said at the outset, THE LOST KING never quite fires on all cylinders. But it makes enough of its points and captures enough small moments to make it a worthwhile trip to the theater, especially if you enjoy stories about perseverance and determination and history.

I give it two and a half stars.

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line

Three and a half stars- Excellent

Three stars – Very Good

Two and a half stars – Good

Two Stars – Fair

One and a half stars – Pretty Weak

One star- Poor

Zero stars – Awful

JESUS REVOLUTION (2023) – Very Vanilla Take on Historical Religious Movement

0

JESUS REVOLUTION (2023) is based on the true movement in the early 1970s when hippies discovered Jesus Christ, which would make perfect sense, since hippies were all about peace and love, concepts which mirror Christ’s message.

The film obviously contains a heavy Christian slant, no doubt intended to be more inspirational than historical, but the truth is it has little to offer in the way of inspiration because the story simply preaches to the choir, and if you aren’t Christian, there’s nothing in this movie that is remarkable or telling. As such, it fails to portray this revolution as something that was real. The story and characters just go through the motions.

JESUS REVOLUTION gets off to a solid start, focusing on frustrated minister Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer) who laments that his church is mostly empty and struggling, and that he doesn’t understand the youths of today, who he sees as lost and disrespectful. He tells his teenage daughter Janette (Ally Ioannides) that he wishes God would send a hippie to his house so that he could understand them. And so, when Jannette meets a hippie named Lonnie (Jonathan Roumie) who speaks of Jesus, she brings him home to meet her father, who isn’t thrilled by having this stranger in his house.

But after a rough start, Chuck finds himself impressed with Lonnie, and he invites him and his friends to his church. Suddenly, more and more of Lonnie’s friends arrive, and after Lonnie preaches at the church, the building becomes packed with hippies, which causes a stir among some of Chuck’s more prominent parishioners. In a sermon, Chuck speaks of the open door at his church, which is both an invitation for everyone to come in, and also an exit, for those who no longer feel comfortable by the younger folks who have now become part of the community.

The story follows Lonnie’s rise in the church where he also becomes a healer, and this storyline early on works. However, the film also follows another young man searching for answers, Greg (Joel Courney), who along with his girlfriend Cathe (Anna Grace Barlow) join Chuck’s church. Greg and Cathe are two of the least interesting characters in the movie, and their stories, Greg’s dealings with his ailing mother and with Cathe’s overprotective father, are the weakest in the movie, yet as the film progresses, these storylines become the focus of the film. Which is no surprise, because the screenplay by director Jon Erwin and Jon Gunn is based on the book by the real-life Greg Laurie.

Lonnie, after an argument with Chuck, disappears for the latter half of the movie, which is too bad because he’s the one character who brings the most conflict with him. In one of the better conversations in the film, Chuck tells Lonnie that he mistakenly thinks that the movement can’t proceed without him, and he tells Lonnie that the movement is bigger than just one man.

But unfortunately, most of the rest of the movie is without conflict. The screenplay by Jon Erwin and Jon Gunn is largely superficial. For example, in the big baptism in the ocean sequence, we see characters baptized and immediately afterwards experience a religious epiphany, but no one in the movie says why or how. No character explains what just happened to them. We just see it, and we take their word for it that they are now saved.

The pacing to this one is also dreadfully slow. The movie runs for 120 minutes and feels longer. Director Jon Erwin seems to be content with telling this story without a sense of urgency or history. The characters remain superficial, the conflicts nonexistent.

Strangely, the Netflix horror TV mini-series MIDNIGHT MASS (2021) — a horror tale, mind you! — did a better job of capturing the religious beliefs of the characters in its story than anything shown here in JESUS REVOLUTION.

I enjoy watching Kelsey Grammer, as I’ve always been a fan of his hit show FRASIER (1993-2004) back in the day, and he was the main reason I went to see this movie, and as expected, he turns in a solid performance here as minister Chuck Smith. He gets some of the better scenes in the movie. There’s a notable conversation between Smith and his wife, when he’s worried about offending the big vocal donors in his church, where she tells him that truth is always quiet, and that it’s lies that are spoken out loudly, a sentiment which rings true. He says it’s complicated, and she reminds him that truth is simple. Truth usually is simple, but unfortunately, this movie doesn’t do a good job of speaking to truth.

Jonathan Roumie is quite good as Lonnie Frisbee, and Ally Ioannides has some nice moments as Chuck’s daughter Janette, but the rest of the cast is as bland as the overall story told in this one.

At the end of the day, JESUS REVOLUTION is a very vanilla take on a historical religious movement. There’s no dark side, no ugliness, no pain, and that certainly gets in the way of successfully trying to tell a story of light. Now, the plot has these moments, as we see the negative effects of drugs on some people, and we see Greg upset about his mom, but these interpretations are all so weak and bland, like a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Also, whether intentional or not, JESUS REVOLUTION works against its own main message of religious inclusion in that there isn’t one person of color who is a major character in this movie. Not one.

Not the best decision for a movie that is supposedly about inclusion and the welcoming of all.

I give this one a bland two stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line

Three and a half stars- Excellent

Three stars – Very Good

Two and a half stars – Good

Two Stars – Fair

One and a half stars – Pretty Weak

One star- Poor

Zero stars – Awful

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (2022) – Netflix German Original Relentless in Its Depiction of Brutalities of War

0

I finally caught up with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (2022), a Netflix original which hails from Germany and is currently nominated for Best Picture.

It’s a worthy nomination. ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is an excellent movie.

Released in October 2022, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is based on the book by Erich Maria Remarque, a novelist who based the book on his experiences as a German soldier in World War I. This is the third time Remarque’s novel has been filmed, the previous two were in 1930 and in 1979. This 2022 version is an all-German production, and you can watch it on Netflix in its original German language with English subtitles.

Directed by Edward Berger, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT tells a story of the horrors of war that transcends generations. While the horrors shown here are specific to World War I, the case can be made that the horrors of war remain consistent regardless of time or place.

Here the plot follows young German soldier Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) who is so excited to enlist and join the war effort that his wide-eyed expressions resemble a child opening gifts on Christmas morning. It doesn’t take long for Paul and his friends to realize that fighting in the trenches is anything but enjoyable and is an experience that has his friends shrieking that they want to go home once the battles start.

Director Edward Berger holds nothing back in the battle sequences. The ever-present mud is thick and relentless. When they’re not fighting, the soldiers are using their hands and helmets to dish out the cold water from the trenches. And when they are fighting, they are shot at, stabbed, hacked, and more. We see soldiers burned alive with flame throwers, trampled upon by tanks, and blown up by grenades. The action here is bloody, brutal, and relentless, and these sequences come in waves, at the film’s beginning, in the middle, and at the end.

Between battles, Paul bonds with some of his fellow soldiers, including Stan Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch). We’re privy to conversations where they discuss their lives back home, and their fears that they will never return, which pretty much turns out to be true. The film also depicts the negotiations between German diplomats and the French for a ceasefire, as the Germans realize they are losing the war. They quickly learn that the French want total and unconditional surrender, and when the Germans protest to the conditions, claiming that they are too harsh, and the people will not like this peace, the French pretty much respond with a big fat “too bad.” And of course, it’s this approach that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler, as he was able to take advantage of the despondent German population to build his nationalistic Nazi regime.

The German military also bristled at this peace, believing the diplomats were giving everything away, and they ordered soldiers to fight right up until the 11:00 armistice.

Director Edward Berger also co-wrote the screenplay with Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell. The story told here describes in vivid detail the absolute horrors of trench warfare in World War I, and what war does to soldiers. Its message is also timeless, as here in 2023 the world continues to be at war in some place or other.

Not all of the movie works. It’s rather long, clocking in at two hours and twenty-eight minutes, and when the film isn’t showing in-your-face scenes of warfare, it’s less compelling.

The film will no doubt draw comparisons to another recent superior movie about World War I, 1917 (2019), by writer/director Sam Mendes. The two films are comparable, and in terms of quality and impact, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT certainly holds its own against 1917.

Overall, ALL QUIET ON WESTERN FRONT is a superb movie, one that delivers its message that war is hell, and that soldiers pay a high price for decisions made by generals and leaders not on the battlefield.

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

—Ratings System—

Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line

Three and a half stars- Excellent

Three stars – Very Good

Two and a half stars – Good

Two Stars – Fair

One and a half stars – Pretty Weak

One star- Poor

Zero stars – Awful

If you enjoy my reviews and would like to read my latest horror novel, then feel free to check out DEMON AT THE DOOR at the link below:

https://www.amazon.com/Demon-at-Door-Michael-Arruda/dp/1637898932

My Top 10 Movie List for 2022

0

Another year of movies has come and gone, and all things considered, it was a darn good year for celluloid.

I returned to the movie theaters this past year, after keeping away since spring 2020 due to the pandemic. I still wear a mask in the theater, except when eating popcorn, of course, and I’m usually the only one in the theater wearing a mask, but that’s okay. I have no problem wearing a mask in public places. If it was good enough for the Phantom of the Opera, it’s good enough for me!

Anyway, I returned to seeing theatrical releases in July, and so I pretty much saw films in the theater for half the year, and streaming releases the other half. An interesting thing happened during the pandemic. By watching movies at home, I discovered that streaming platforms like Netflix and Prime Video offer a lot of quality original movies, so much so, that I’ve now fully incorporated their offerings into my movie selection process. Sure, they offer duds as well, but so do the movie theaters.

I saw approximately 75 new movies this year, and the list below comprises my ten favorites of 2022. I am always amazed by the number of new movies that are released each year, which is a good thing, but there are so many that I know that you and me don’t see all the same movies, and so there are bound to be movies that you loved this year that I simply didn’t see. But of the ones I did see, here are my Top 10:

10. BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER – it’s been a rough stretch for Marvel. Even as a big Marvel fan, I’ve been disappointed with most of their recent movies of late. Not so with this superior BLACK PANTHER sequel. It pays respectful homage to late actor Chadwick Boseman and to the Black Panther character, while telling a compelling story, featuring a formidable villain, and nicely setting up the future of the Black Panther superhero. Three and a half stars.

9. BABYLON – I loved this tale of early Hollywood by writer/director Damien Chazelle, starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt. The movie has a lot to say, but my favorite part was its take on fans’ relationships to movies, how important movies are to people, and how film really is high art, and it says all this in the raucous, bawdy, unpredictable and unforgiving world of 1920s Hollywood. Three and a half stars.

8. THE WONDER – It was a great year for period pieces, and several of them made it into my top 10 list. THE WONDER is one of them. This Netflix original period piece thriller stars Florence Pugh as an English nurse sent to the Irish Midlands in 1862 to observe and either validate or disprove the claim that a healthy young girl has gone months without food, an event the locals are calling a religious miracle. Florence Pugh is one of the best actresses working today, and so her presence alone lifts this movie, but THE WONDER has more to offer. Where this story ultimately goes speaks to both the hypocrisy of religion, and faith in humanity. Three and a half stars.

7. THE MENU – a delightfully dark comedic thriller starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes about a select group of rich guests traveling to a private island to partake in an extravagant meal prepared by a team of chefs led by one of the world’s finest chefs, played by Fiennes, who just happens to have an agenda which he enacts on these folks, who mostly deserve the comeuppance he has planned for them. Like Florence Pugh, Anya Taylor-Joy is also one of the best actresses working today, and while there is a lot to like about this delicious thriller, her performance is the best part. Three and half stars.

6. THE PALE BLUE EYE – Another Netflix original, and another period piece. Written and directed by Scott Cooper, THE PALE BLUE EYE tells the story of a serial killer loose at West Point Academy in 1830 who likes to cut out the hearts of the young cadets there. Disenchanted detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is called in to solve the case, and he receives help from a young cadet there named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). Beautifully shot, exquisitely written, and well-acted by a veteran cast, led by Melling in a phenomenal performance as Edgar Allan Poe, and by Christian Bale as the weary, somber detective with secrets of his own. Three and a half stars.

5. THE BANSHEES OF INERSHERIN – certainly one of the more unusual movies I saw this year, and another period piece, as it takes place in 1923 on an island off the coast of Ireland. Receiving lots of hype, deservedly so, but erroneously marketed as a comedy, this tale of a man named Padraic, played by Colin Farrell, who out of the blue is told one day by his best friend that he no longer likes him as a person and that he doesn’t want to spend any more time with him, ever, starts off light and humorous but grows increasingly dark as it goes along, building to a very somber conclusion. This one is offbeat to be sure, but you can’t beat the dialogue or the acting. Colin Farrell is superb as Padraic, the man who begins to question his very existence and being, when he is faced with an absolute and unforgiving rejection by a man who he thought was his best friend. Three and a half stars.

4. EMILY THE CRIMINAL – I loved this small market thriller starring Aubrey Plaza as a young woman struggling to pay off her college debt and pay her bills with one thankless low paying job after another, and when she says yes to taking part in an illegal credit card scheme, because it will pay her a quick $200, she finds that the criminals treat her better than her employers. The scams certainly pay her better, and as she discovers she has a talent for this sort of thing, she agrees to take on bigger scams, which earn her more money but also become much more dangerous. This is a tight, hard-hitting thriller with no fat on its bones. Much more satisfying than many of the big budget Hollywood releases and features an exceptional performance by Plaza. Three and a half stars.

3. ELVIS- I love writer/director Baz Luhrmann’s visual style, and he’s at the top of his game here with ELVIS, a glitzy rocking extravaganza of a bio pic of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. Featuring an energetic and uncanny performance by Austin Butler as Elvis, and Tom Hanks as Presley’s slimy self-serving manager, Colonel Tom Parker, ELVIS is a visual and musical tour de force. Don’t expect a deep insightful look into the inner mind and soul of Elvis Presley. This movie doesn’t go there. Instead, it plays out like an Elvis performance in Las Vegas, which artistically speaking, is a perfect way to tell Elvis’ story. Three and a haf stars.

2. LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER – Another Netflix original, and yes, another period piece. This latest film version of the D.H. Lawrence novel, scores so highly for me because of the way it honestly and unabashedly features sex in its story, something that Hollywood movies these days strangely shy away from. LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is the story of Lady Connie Chatterley (Emma Corrin) who’s stuck in a loveless marriage with rich Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett), and when she meets and falls in love with the gamekeeper on their estate, Oliver (Jack O’Connell), she realizes that he’s the love of her life, and she decides that in spite of the odds against her– she’s married, and Oliver is of a different social status than her— she will not conform to social norms and instead will do whatever it takes to ensure her happiness and a future life with Oliver. Wonderfully filmed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, and perfectly capturing the World War I English countryside, LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER features fine performances by all involved, but the most captivating part of this one is the way de Clermont-Tonnerre films the story’s love scenes, as they are boldly realistic and passionate, showing physical love in a way that most other films these days don’t have the guts to do. Four stars.

1. EMERGENCY – My favorite movie of 2022 was this Amazon Prime original film which received very little attention this year. I liked it because it speaks to race relations here in 2022 in a way that is far more natural and effective than most, and it does it largely on a comedic platform. EMERGENCY tells the story of two black college friends, Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (R J Cyler) who before a night of partying discover an unconscious white girl on the floor of their apartment. When Kunle attempts to call 911, Sean stops him, telling him that the police will never believe that they— two black men– had nothing to do with how an unconscious white girl ended up on their apartment floor. So, instead, they decide to take her to the hospital, and so they embark on an odyssey of an adventure trying to transport this girl across town to the hospital, while the girl’s sister and her friends try to find her, and what can go wrong, does go wrong in this comedic drama that will have you both laughing and trembling. The scene late in the movie where the police confront Kunle, and pull guns on him, is nail-bitingly tense. EMERGENCY offers a fresh and funny premise— yes, officers, this girl really did just appear on our apartment floor unconscious, and we really have no idea how she got here or who she is— thrusts it into the racially charged environment of our current culture and delivers it all in a tremendously thought-provoking and satisfying package. Directed by Carey Williams and written by K.D. Davila. EMERGENCY is my pick for the best movie of 2022.

And there you have it, my picks for the Top 10 movies of 2022. It was a great year for movies. Now it’s on to 2023!

As always, thanks for reading.

—Michael

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

And coming soon, my Top 10 List for the Worst movies of 2022. Look for it soon right here in these pages!

—END—

THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) – Haunting Period Piece Thriller Mesmerizes from Start to Finish

0

THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022) is a beautifully shot period piece thriller by writer/director Scott Cooper that tells the haunting story of a killer on the loose at West Point Academy, a killer who likes to slice out the heart of their victims.

But it’s more than just a serial killer story. It’s also a detective story, as the unconventional Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is hired to solve the case, and he drafts as his assistant a young cadet by the name of Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). It has as its prevalent theme the attachments we keep with our deceased loved ones, as most of the characters are influenced and oftentimes haunted by memories, spirits, what have you, of those loved ones who have gone before them. And it all takes place on the snowy West Point campus in 1830. It’s both a feast for the eyes and for the senses, as this atmospheric thriller now streaming on Netflix is definitely worth a look.

Christian Bale plays Augustus Landor, a man whose wife died after a long illness, and whose daughter ran away and never returned. He is a somber man who lives alone, yet each night when he’s on the case he has conversations with his deceased wife, who helps him with his deductions. He is hired by Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) and Superintendent Thayer (Timothy Spall) to find out who is killing their cadets and cutting their hearts out. Landor doesn’t like the Academy, as he believes it robs men of their humanity, but he agrees to take the case.

He is soon approached by a young cadet named Edgar Allan Poe who offers his opinions as to who he thinks the murderer is and tells Landor he should be looking for a poet. Landor likes Poe and asks him to keep his eyes and ears open around the campus. The two detectives are both drawn to Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) and his family, which includes his wife, his son, who is also a cadet there, and their daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton). There is something about them that troubles Landor, and he can’t put his finger on it. Further complicating matters is when Poe befriends Lea, he finds himself falling in love with her, eventually writing his poem “Lenore” for her.

Tensions rise as the murders continue, and Landor and Poe are no closer to finding the killer, but eventually their painstaking detective work pays off, and they begin to formulate answers.

I absolutely loved THE PALE BLUE EYE, but admittedly, I’m a sucker for period piece thrillers, and even though THE PALE BLUE EYE isn’t really a horror movie, although the argument can be made that it is, it did remind me enough of the classic Hammer Films horror movies of yesteryear that I enjoyed this one from start to finish.

Does it have one plot twist too many? Perhaps. Just when you think the film is over, it adds another element, another twist, that I don’t think the story needed, but when all was said and done, it still worked for me. I bought it. And I bought the characters’ reactions to it.

I really enjoy the work of Scott Cooper. His previous films include OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), an unheralded crime drama that was my favorite movie that year, and HOSTILES (2017), a hard hitting western. Both movies also starred Christian Bale.

Cooper is a terrific writer. Here, he adapted his screenplay from the book by Louis Bayard, and he includes riveting, realistic dialogue throughout. The characters here are all fleshed out, and the plot hooks you in immediately and never lets go. Regarding the characters, it helps that Cooper also has a fantastic cast here, but his writing is still superior.

He scores just as highly as a director. The opening shot of the movie, a hanged body of man dangling strangely, as if he is sitting, starts the film with a haunting image and honestly never lets up. If you like visual thrillers, with creative direction and eerie photography, you’ll love Cooper’s work here with THE PALE BLUE EYE.

Christian Bale is always a pleasure to watch. He fully becomes the characters he plays, which enables him to portray so many different kinds of characters, a trait that makes him such an exceptional actor. We just saw him in AMSTERDAM (2022) as a World War I veteran and doctor in David O. Russell’s quirky comedy drama. He was the best part of the inferior Marvel movie THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) as its main villain, Gorr. He was just as memorable in his previous four movies, FORD V FERRARI (2019), VICE (2018) where he played Dick Cheney and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work, HOSTILES (2017), and THE BIG SHORT (2015), where he was also nominated for an Oscar. He won an Oscar for his supporting role in THE FIGHTER (2010), he played Batman in the Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT trilogy, and on and on we could go. Bale is one of the best movie actors working today.

Here, he plays Augustus Landor as a man haunted by his past, by his deceased wife, and missing daughter. He’s also an effective detective, but he is going about solving the case with an obvious heavy weight on his chest from things we don’t know fully about, other than the loss he feels and the hurt that goes along with it. As you would expect, Bale nails this role, and is captivating to watch throughout this movie.

And if that’s not enough, Harry Melling is just as captivating as Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, as much as I like Bale, I enjoyed Melling more here, because I enjoyed watching his take on Poe as a character and bringing the poet/author to life. He’s wonderful. Melling is also a terrific actor. He’s known to Harry Potter fans as the irritating Dudley Dursley, but years later as an adult, he has really stood out in a host of supporting roles. Melling has been memorable in the Netflix TV series THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (2022) and in the Netflix movie THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020). He’s also appeared in THE OLD GUARD (2020), THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT (2017) and THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016). Here, Melling is phenomenal as Edgar Allan Poe.

Interestingly, Melling is the grandson of actor Patrick Troughton, who is famous for playing Doctor Who in the 1960s. Troughton also appeared in Hammer Films, such as SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) with Christopher Lee, and in the Ray Harryhausen classic JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

And in another Hammer Films connection, Toby Jones, who plays Dr. Daniel Marquis, and who’s one of my favorite character actors working today, is the son of actor Freddie Jones, who made his debut as the tormented creation of Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969). No wonder this one has such a strong Hammer Films vibe! As he always is, Toby Jones is excellent here as Dr. Marquis, playing a man, like Landor, haunted by a family secret.

Simon McBurney as Captain Hitchcock and Timothy Spall as Superintendent Thayer both stand out as cranky and crotchety officers. Lucy Boynton makes for a lovely yet troubled love interest for Poe as Lea, and as the story progresses, she becomes a much more integral character.

There are also a couple of major acting veterans in the cast. Gillian Anderson, known to X-FILES fans as Dana Scully, is fantastic here as Mrs. Julia Marquis. She gets some of the best scenes in the movie, especially the ones she shares with Christian Bale. The acting here, especially with Anderson and Bale, is so precise the characters almost leap off the screen. They are created with such precision.

And Robert Duvall also has a small role as Jean Pepe, a man who helps provide some historical information for Landor when he needs it.

I found THE PALE BLUE EYE to be an absolutely mesmerizing movie. I loved its story, its characters, and its overall mystery. I also enjoyed its theme of communication with the dead. As Poe explains in one scene, where he’s talking about his communications with his deceased mother, as he feels a connection with her and hears her voice often, in general he says, people forget their loved ones who have passed on before them, and these deceased spirits miss being remembered and reach out to the living in angst. But for those like himself who listen to the voices, much wisdom and caring is shared.

I love the work of Scott Cooper. His writing here, with the plot, the characters, and the dialogue, is superior, and his direction nearly flawless as he creates an eerie visual gem. And the cast, led by Christian Bale and Harry Melling, is a joy to watch.

THE PALE BLUE EYE is a masterful period piece thriller that will keep you glued to the screen, especially during a cold, winter evening.

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

BABYLON (2022) – Exceptional Movie Has Much to Say About Film Industry and Movies’ Relationship with Fans

0

BABYLON (2022), the latest movie by writer/director Damien Chazelle, the man who gave us LA LA LAND (2016), my favorite movie that year, and starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, is not getting great reviews or performing well at the box office.

But I loved it.

It speaks to the magic of movies, and what it has to say about how important movies are to people is spot on, and it does this with a story about just how cruel and unforgiving the business is to those who work in it, creating a perfect storm of opposites: how can a medium so magical and which brings such joy to people the world over be built on such depravity and callousness? And the answer the movie offers by film’s end is that in the end, it’s all worth it— all of it, the pain and suffering and loss—none of it matters in the long run, because movie makers create high art that is seen in theaters around the world and that connects to fans forever.

BABYLON takes place during the 1920s, during the era of silent movies, and opens with an extravagant, decadent Hollywood party/orgy filled with drugs, sex, music, and even an elephant! This opening pre-credit sequence goes on for over 30 minutes and might have viewers wondering if this is the point of the movie? One long party sequence to show how Hollywood partied in the 1920s? The good news is that this is not the point of the movie. Instead, this sequence serves as an introduction to the three main characters in the story.

We meet Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a young Mexican American who is employed by the famous party host, and we first see him trying to transport the elephant to the party mansion, but it’s at the party where he meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) a vibrant young actress who crashes the party in the hopes of getting discovered. Manny comments to her that she wants to become a star, and she replies that she is already a star, that you’re either born a star or not, and she is. We also meet Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) who at the time is the silent screen’s biggest leading man.

When the party finally ends, Manny is told to drive a drunk Jack Conrad back to his home, and he does. Jack enjoys conversing with Manny, and the next day tells Manny that he wants him to join him on the set of his movie as his personal helper, and since Manny is dying to break into the movie industry, he agrees. Meanwhile, when an actress at the party overdoses on drugs and nearly dies, the producer picks Nellie on the spot to replace her. It’s a bit part, one scene, but Nellie is more than up to the task.

On Jack’s movie, after a brutal on location battle sequence, the director finds himself out of cameras, and Manny is sent to find replacement cameras and get back on location before sunset, a job is he is determined to complete.

The movie then follows Nellie’s rise to stardom, Manny’s triumphant climb to the director’s chair, and Jack’s slow decline from box office star to Hollywood has been as he struggles to make the transition from silent movies to sound pictures. But don’t expect A STAR IS BORN. As Jack learns in a conversation with tabloid reporter Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), the industry is bigger than all of them, it doesn’t need any of them, and it will continue when they are dead and gone. And so, Nellie’s and Manny’s success is also fleeting.

Getting back to the aforementioned scene, it’s one of the best written in the movie, in a film that has a lot of well-written scenes. Reporter Elinor goes on to tell Jack that while he may be broken now by his lack of success, because of the magic of movies, he will be immortalized. That fifty years after he has died, young fans born after his death will discover him on film, like him, and even believe they know him, all because he has been captured on film. It’s a wonderful conversation, mostly because it is true. This is exactly what happens to actors in movies of old and describes perfectly the relationship fans and moviegoers have with these actors decades after they walked the Earth.

I absolutely loved the screenplay by Damien Chazelle, as it has so much to say, and in a visually stunning well-acted movie, the screenplay was my favorite part.

On the surface, the screenplay speaks to the hilarious mania involved in making movies, especially during the silent era. In the battle sequence of Jack’s costume movie, for example, a man dies when stabbed in the heart with a spear, and the crew stands around his body and comments that he struggled with alcohol, and he probably stabbed himself. Riiight. Manny is tasked with finding an additional camera before they lose daylight, and he eventually commandeers an ambulance to race the camera back to the set before the sun goes down. And then there’s Jack, drunk and barely able to walk, after drinking all day waiting for the camera to arrive, painstakingly making his way up the steep hill in order for the director to get the shot.

There’s also a hilarious sequence chronicling Nellie’s first attempt at a sound movie, and how nearly impossible it was to get the sound right. This sequence calls to mind a similar sequence in Gene Kelly’s classic musical SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). More on this connection later.

Beneath the surface, the script has a lot to say about the discrepancies about the lives of the people who make the movies juxtaposed with the magic they make on screen, as the players often live in poverty, and then once they break into money, their lives spiral out of control due to alcohol and drugs. It’s not a pretty picture. And in Nellie’s case, her gambling problem leads her to cross paths with some very deadly people.

The screenplay also touches upon racism, social status inequities, and gender inequality in the making of movies.

There’s also an ongoing argument that Jack has with his wife about movies and art. Jack argues, and eventually becomes convinced, that movies are high art, and that they matter more than any other art form in the country. He argues that rich people go to Broadway, but everyday people go to the movies, and these films are so important to people’s lives; and, Jack argues, Broadway plays reach thousands of viewers. But movies reach millions upon millions of viewers. It’s a point well taken. It’s also true.

Behind the camera, Damien Chazelle scores almost as highly. While there are so many sequences with expert editing that really bring these moments to life, the film has a three hour and nine-minute running time, and so sure, it could have used some overall editing to cut it down some. Some of these moments could certainly have been shorter. But they’re all so good, it’s difficult to complain.

For example, the long sequence near the end where Manny attempts to pay off Nellie’s gambling debts to the mysterious and deadly James McKay (Tobey Maguire, in a scene-stealing performance), and McKay invites Manny to an underground area of Los Angeles, is horrifying and disturbing. You can make the argument that at this point in the film, the movie goes full-blown horror movie. It’s terrifying.

While Brad Pitt gets top billing, the story is mostly about Nellie and Manny, and as such Margot Robbie and Diego Calva get most of the screen time, and they are both terrific. I’m a huge fan of Margot Robbie, and she delivers here yet again. We just saw her in AMSTERDAM (2022), another top-quality movie which also featured a superior Margot Robbie performance. Here, as Nellie, Robbie is wild, unpredictable, and a force to be reckoned with.

Diego Calva is equally as good as Manny, the young man who will do whatever it takes to work in the movies, and as such, he develops a reputation for being a go-to guy on set, a reputation that continually earns him more and more responsibility. He is also in love with Nellie, and he is always there to help her, even when the situation she finds herself in turns deadly.

Brad Pitt, in what turns out to be a quiet understated performance, anchors the film with his portrayal of silent film star Jack Conrad. At first, Jack is the confident lead man, never meeting a problem he can’t solve or a movie he can’t lead, but when he fails to make a successful transition to sound movies, he realizes that while his visage on screen may live on, he is forever stuck making mediocre sound movies because he’s just not as good in them as he was in the silent films.

There are other notable performances as well. Jovan Adepo as trumpet player Sidney Palmer, Jean Smart as columnist Elinor St. John, Olivia Wilde as Jack’s wife Ina, Lukas Haas as Jack’s manager George, Li Jun Li as the erotic Lady Fay, and Tobey Maguire as James McKay are all terrific, as are many others.

As I said earlier, there’s a strong connection between BABYLON and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. The plot of SINGIN’ IN THE RAY is all about Gene Kelly’s character trying to make the transition from silent movies to talkies, and since it’s a 1950s Hollywood musical, it’s all in good fun and has a happy ending.

Events in BABYLON mirror events from SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. Heck, Brad Pitt’s Jack even sings “Singin in the Rain” as part of a musical number in one of his talking movies. The difference here is that BABYLON also shows the dark underbelly of the industry, complete with sex, drugs, blood, and death. And Manny, who lived it, buys a ticket to see SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN upon its release, some thirty years after the events of his movie making experiences, and the last shot of the movie reveals Manny’s thoughts as to whether it was all worth it or not.

BABYLON is an ambitious and near brilliant movie. I’m tempted to say I loved every minute of it, but at 3 hours and 9 minutes long, that wouldn’t be true. Yes, it could have used some editing to cut it down some. But other than this, BABYLON is a phenomenal movie that has so much to say about the movie industry, its place in the world as an art form, and its relationship with it adoring fans, the world over.

I give it three and a half stars.

—END—

Ratings System

Four stars – Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars – Fair

One star- Poor

Zero stars – Awful

LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER (2022) – Latest Film Version of D.H. Lawrence Novel is Steamy and Uninhibited

0

Netflix has been on a roll of late.

They’ve been churning out original high-quality movies in the past few weeks, films like THE WONDER (2022), TROLL (2022), and GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022), and now you can add LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER (2022) to that list.

LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is a steamy, beautifully shot adaptation of the controversial novel by D. H. Lawrence. The story takes place in the English countryside during World War I, and the scenery, sets, and costumes make for a delightful period piece, but the real story of this version of LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is its sex scenes, of which there are plenty, and they are full of passion, lust, and love.

Recently, I commented on the near complete absence of sex scenes in U.S. theatrical releases these days, and how I don’t think this is a good thing, to sanitize a part of life and remove it from cinematic storytelling. Sadly, sex on film in the United States is mostly reserved for porn, which is the most unrealistic rendering of sex you can find, and one that continues to objectify women,

But LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER does not suffer from this problem. It is a love story, and as such, sex plays a large role, as it does in most love stories, since having sex is what usually happens between people who love each other. And so, the two characters in this story are hot and heavy for each other, and the sex scenes reflect that and really help tell this story in a way that could only be done with them. Without these scenes, the story wouldn’t have been as successful.

Connie Reid (Emma Corrin) is in love with Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett), and she tells her sister Hilda (Faye Marsay) that he is not like other men, that he is progressive, and so she feels comfortable marrying him. But shortly after they are married, Clifford has to go off to war, and when he returns, he has lost the use of his legs and can no longer walk. Connie and Clifford move into the luxurious Chatterley country estate, and Connie has no problem being there for her husband and being his primary caretaker.

But it soon becomes apparent that Clifford only wants Connie for that job and resists the efforts of anyone else to help him, which begins to take its toll on Connie. And when she expresses interest in time away with her sister, so she can have a break to recharge her energy, Clifford ignores the request and makes it clear that Connie isn’t going anywhere, that she needs to stay there to take care of him. It also becomes increasingly clear that Clifford is only interested in himself and his leadership duties at the local mine, and he sees Connie as the dutiful wife whose job it is to attend to his needs.

When Connie tries to become intimate, Clifford tells her that because of his situation, he has lost interest in sex. Connie soon understands that he has no concept or interest in giving her any pleasure. Clifford then laments not being able to have a son, and he floats the idea that they could start a rumor that he is able to function sexually, and then Connie could discreetly have a baby with another man, and they could pretend the baby is theirs. When Connie realizes he is serious, she is horrified, feeling like nothing more than someone who is there to breed for her husband.

It’s about this time that she meets the gamekeeper on the estate, Oliver (Jack O’Connell), and as she gets to know him, she becomes intrigued by his personality. They soon fall in love, and Oliver becomes the titular Lady Chatterley’s lover. And what makes Connie Chatterley such a compelling character, is that she pushes back against society when she realizes that she truly loves Oliver, and that in spite of their class differences, and in spite of the fact that she is married to a wealthy and influential man, she will do whatever it takes to have a life with the man she loves.

LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is a beautifully shot period piece by director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre that satisfies on every level. The story works from beginning to end, the actors all do admirable jobs, the sets and costumes are superb, and Clermont-Tonnerre’s handling of the sex scenes is probably the best part of all. They are explicit yet tastefully done, and their effect on the story is to really show how much Connie and Oliver love each other. It’s clear that Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has a vision with these scenes and a purpose, and she exacts that purpose wonderfully by shooting some of the more effective sex scenes I’ve seen in a long time. Of course, part of this is she doesn’t have much competition from other directors on this topic, due to the lack of sex scenes in American movies today, but when they are done right, they can have a huge impact, as they do in this movie.

Emma Corrin is superb as Connie Chatterley. She brings both a strength to the character and a sultry sexy side that communicates that Connie, like most everybody else, likes to have sex, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The audience never doubts Connie’s motives. We really empathize with her plight and root for her to somehow find a way to have that life with Oliver. It’s also rewarding to see Connie lose her inhibitions with Oliver. Emma Corrin played Princess Diana on the TV series THE CROWN (2020).

Jack O’Connell is also excellent as Oliver, the gamekeeper who at first is caught off guard by Connie’s affections, but he is always honest with her, and as they fall in love, it’s a progression that makes sense. And Matthew Duckett makes for a pompous self-centered often clueless Clifford Chatterley. He’s never over the top, and his subtle irritating nature becomes more grating the more Connie gets to know and understand him.

The rest of the cast all do exceptional jobs.

The screenplay by David Magee, based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence succeeds in telling this story in a way that portrays Connie as a woman who won’t take a back seat to a loveless husband who sees his wife as nothing more than someone to take care of him and bear him a son, even if she has that son with another man. She wants love, and once she finds it, she’s determined to keep it. Magee also adapted the screenplay for LIFE OF PI (2012).

I really enjoyed this new version of LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER. Everything about it works.

And perhaps my favorite part is that it really captures what it’s like for two people to be in love and the lengths they go through to be together.

I give it a steamy four stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

AMSTERDAM (2022) – Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington Lead All-Star Cast in David O. Russell’s Lighthearted Murder Mystery Period Piece

0

AMSTERDAM (2022), director/writer David O. Russell’s first film since JOY (2015), is loosely based on a true story, a political conspiracy in 1933 known as the Business Plot, where wealthy businessmen and bankers plotted a behind-the-scenes coup d’├ętat to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt and replace him with a military general.

With its all-star cast, led by the triumvirate of Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington, combined with its artful cinematography capturing 1933 New York and its impactful and hopping screenplay by David O. Russell, AMSTERDAM largely entertains for all of its two hour and fourteen-minute running time.

The movie gets off to a lively start as we meet Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) in 1933 New York. Berendsen is a doctor and World War I veteran who treats his fellow veterans who returned from the Great War with unspeakable scars, injuries, and pain. So much pain. Berendsen is always looking for more powerful drugs to help his patients deal with the pain, and he himself lost an eye during the war, and his back is terribly scarred and twisted, so much so he has to constantly wear a back brace. Bale with his character’s glass eye and odd manner of speaking channels a lot of Peter Falk throughout his performance. When they are later trying to solve the mystery, it was easy to imagine Columbo on the case.

Burt and his fellow veteran and best friend from the war Harold Woodman (John David Washington), an attorney, are hired by Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift), the daughter of their former commanding officer, to look into her father’s death, which she believes is the result of foul play. And when Liz is pushed in front of an oncoming vehicle and murdered right in front of their eyes, they realize something big is going on.

Burt, who narrates the movie, then says it’s time for some background information, and the film jumps back in time to 1918 where he and Harold are cared for in army hospital by a nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). The three become inseparable, and their friendship blossoms as they spend a magical period shut off from the rest of the world in Amsterdam. But they pledged to always be there for each other. And so eventually when the action returns to 1933 New York, Valerie re-enters their lives as they, in the process of investigating their former commanding officer’s death, uncover a vast conspiracy against the United States government.

All of this sounds serious, and some of it is, but the screenplay is anything but a straight drama. It’s quirky and humorous, generating enough clever laughs to keep this one lighthearted throughout.

The biggest story with AMSTERDAM is its cast, both its three main players and the supporting cast of actors. Anytime you have Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington sharing ample screen time in your movie, chances are things are going to be purdy darn good. And they are.

Christian Bale is a phenomenal actor, and his performance as broken Burt Berendsen drives the entire movie forward. With his quirky Peter Falk-style delivery, Bale is watchable throughout. The same goes for Margot Robbie and John David Washington. The three of them deliver throughout this movie.

The supporting players also make their mark. Probably the two best supporting performances belong to Rami Malek as Valerie’s manipulative brother Tom, and Anya Taylor-Joy, who other than Bale, delivers hands down the best performance in the movie, as Tom’s eccentric wife Libby.

It was fun to see Mike Myers back on screen again, playing a British intelligence officer named Paul Canterbury, in a role which would have been perfectly suitable for Michael York a few years back. Myers and Michael Shannon, who plays Canterbury’s American intelligence counterpart, share lots of scenes together and seem to be having a great time as the two men who steer Burt and his friends towards uncovering the conspiracy plot.

Chris Rock in limited screen time gets some genuine laugh out loud moments as Milton King, one of the other soldiers in Burt’s and Harold’s platoon. Timothy Olyphant is also memorable under heavy face-altering prosthetics as Taron Milfax, a villainous henchman and murderer. And Zoe Saldana is enjoyable as a beautiful coroner who has eyes for Burt.

By the time Rober De Niro shows up as the level-headed general who refutes the coup, the film has lost a lot of its energy and pizzaz. While it remains entertaining throughout, the first two thirds of AMSTERDAM are much more energetic than its third act, which slows down as all the answers are revealed.

And David O. Russell’s screenplay keeps things simple. When De Niro’s General Dillenbeck delivers his much-anticipated speech, the words he uses to explain the evil that these men plan to do sounds like he’s speaking to a room of first graders. I suppose this is better than an explanation that is unclear and cryptic, but things are explained in straightforward simplistic black and white terms, in language that definitely calls to mind current events and what was attempted in the United States on January 6, 2021.

Overall, I enjoyed AMSTERDAM quite a bit, and I liked it better than Russell’s previous two movies, JOY and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013). My two favorite Russell movies remain THE FIGHTER (2010) and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), but AMSTERDAM is right up there with them.

The 1933 New York sets, costumes, and cinematography were so authentic, I half expected to see King Kong rampaging through the streets on his way to the Empire State Building.

AMSTERDAM covers more than just its murder/coup plot, as it touches upon love, relationships, race, and art. At the end of the movie when Valerie and Harold have to leave the country, because they know their mixed-race relationship will not be allowed in the United States, it’s a powerful point that not many movies have felt comfortable making, and when Burt vows to work towards changing things, so his friends can return and live in this country freely, it’s a bittersweet moment because while we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

But the overall feel of this drama/comedy period piece is definitely on the lighter side, and the film provides plenty of humorous moments and laughter, most of it of the quirky variety, and it all works, even if the final third of the film slows down somewhat.

AMSTERDAM is well worth the visit.

I give it three stars.

—END–

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful