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Servant: Balloon (2020)
Season 1, Episode 10
8/10
Season 1: An Odd, Creepy Mood Mystery
22 January 2020
Warning: Spoilers
If there's one thing that M. Night Shyamalan does consistently well in all his projects, it is creating uniquely creepy (some would probably define them as "odd") moods, filled with quirky characters and circumstances. That approach is seen again here in "Servant", and generally creates a very intriguing mystery.

For a very basic overview, "Servant" tells the story of Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose) and her husband Sean (Toby Kebbell). After losing an infant child-Jericho-in some yet-to-be-detailed incident, Dorothy apparently became so catatonic that only a life-like infant doll broke her out of it. So, as it stands, she treats this doll as if it were "her Jericho" and everyone in on the ruse-most notably family friend Julian Pearce (Rupert Grint) simply plays along to protect Dorothy's sanity. Eventually, however, when it comes time for Dorothy to head back to her journalism career, a nanny for "Jericho" must be hired. Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free) is selected, and she comes bearing very little and speaking even less. Upon her arrival, however, a real child mysteriously takes the place of the "Jericho doll", further deepening the perplexing nature of what exactly is going on in the Turner residence.

For the first eight or so episodes of "Servant", I considered it a 9 or perhaps even 10-star production. From the moment that Sean bangs the "baby's" head on the crib in the first episode and flings it across the room later on, this show clearly establishes its ability to surprise viewers. As the episodes unspool, the sense of mystery continues to deepen: What is real versus what is not? What exactly happened to Dorothy? What is going on with Leanne's presence? In the vein of Shyamalan's best work, the mysteries are compelling and deep.

Besides the plot, though, the overall mood of the show will likely hook viewers too. Like in his other projects, Shyamalan has a skill (like perhaps no other) for creating an atmosphere where seemingly anything can/might happen. This is certainly on display in "Servant"! Sean's food-preparation montages are sights to behold, a visit from Leanne's family is hilarious and terrifying in equal measure, and Grint's eyebrow-waggling concern about the whole situation is palpable. The roughly 30-minute runtime for each episode only helps all this, as it makes sure the proceedings never drag or lose their focus even for an instant.

About the only quibble I had with this season came in the last couple of episodes. While certainly not "bad" as endings go, I began to feel a bit as if Shyamalan was sort of stringing me along for the ride. Perhaps this is simply a case of the mystery/atmosphere being so good that any sort of resolution feels like a letdown. Or, I had also not realized whatsoever that this show was getting a second season, so I went into the finale here expecting more resolution, of which some is given but much is punted into (hopefully) subsequent episodes/seasons. Basically, for me the last two episodes weren't quite able to sustain the incredible tension, atmosphere, and tone as the ones that preceded them.

Overall, though, I very much enjoyed watching "Servant", and I'll always be able to say that it was the first (hopefully of many!) Apple+ shows to truly capture my attention. I found myself eagerly awaiting the Friday episode drop to see what Shyamalan would conjure up next. I'm hoping that momentum can be re-established in a second season.
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Underwater (2020)
3/10
Great Idea But No Execution Of It
19 January 2020
Warning: Spoilers
Deep sea explorations are something that have always fascinated me. We've gone to the moon and beyond, yet there are places deep below the ocean floor that have yet to be discovered, harboring any number of creatures not seen by human eyes. "Underwater" tries to play off that premise, but fails to execute it successfully in any really meaningful way.

For a very basic overview, this movie focuses on a deep-water drilling station within the Marianas Trench. Ostensibly shadowing one worker, Norah (Kristin Stewart), it tells the story of how their drills tap into something that nearly wrecks the whole operation. With everything on the fritz and workers forced to ocean-walk from place to place, it quickly becomes clear they are being stalked by some sort of presence dredged up from the depths.

First and foremost, "Underwater" could most easily be described as an "Alien" clone, swapping space for the ocean floor and Sigourney Weaver for Stewart (right down to the haircut and skimpy clothing, in all honesty). Unfortunately, while that concept was new and fresh in the 1970s, it doesn't work that way in 2020.

So, what would have been needed to make this film solid was a great script, and there isn't even a speck of that here. Very clearly, this was the studio saying "let's make an Alien clone, and we'll paste in the details as we go along". It's both sad and disappointing, as there are indeed elements of interest present. Deep-water exploration is fascinating, drilling for resources at those depths could have been examined from a colonizing sort of perspective, and/or the psychological effects of spending so much time under the pressures of the sea. Sadly, none of those potential topics are provided anything more than lip service.

As such, "Underwater" plays out more like a horror creature-feature. It is simply a group of people being chased around from point to point by a menacing figure that is finally revealed in the end. The design or technical specs of the monster is intriguing, to be sure, but when there is literally nothing else to care about it doesn't amount to much in the end.

Overall, this is a very poorly conceived film and I can see why it is floundering at the box office. Not original enough to be scary, and not plot/character rich enough (by far) to be interesting in any other ways. A brutal combination. Only the concept will keep you watching whatsoever.
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Top Gun (1986)
7/10
Yes, It's Corny, But That Is The Whole Point
17 January 2020
Warning: Spoilers
Generally, I tend to watch films filled with deep themes and complex characters. As such, watching "Top Gun" never really appealed to me all that much, despite its 80s-classic status. While it is true that the movie is almost devoid of plot, what I found is that it ends up not mattering as much as I would have thought. Director Tony Scott simply leans into the pomp, circumstance, and machismo instead of justifying it, and the result is just too much fun not to enjoy.

For a basic overview, "Top Gun" focuses on the best fighter pilots in the United States all training together at the prestigious Top Gun Naval Academy. Maverick (Tom Cruise) is trying to outrun the demons of his late father, while at the same time romancing program instructor Charlie (Kelly McGillis). His partner, Goose (Anthony Edwards), is a loyal friend with a wife (played by Meg Ryan) and a son he's flying for. Their main competition for bragging rights in the Top Gun program? The mustache-twirling Ice Man (Val Kilmer), who is as snobbish as they come.

As previously mentioned, "Top Gun" is a little strange as a film in the sense that it contains almost no compelling plot whatsoever. The competition for the top prize is contrived (and really quite meaningless in the end), while any conflict between the U.S. Navy and enemy combatants is strictly boilerplate stuff. For this reason, and just considering the way I usually watch movies, I'll never put "Top Gun" on any all-time, best-of lists.

That being said, almost everything else in the film is just so much fun that it entertained me far more than I thought it would. The key decision here, I think, is that the filmmakers know this and expressly set out to create a sensory extravaganza as opposed to anything incredibly deep. The appeal here is the almost visceral sound/feeling of the fighter jets dogfighting to Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone", the hilarious camaraderie/machismo of the male pilots, and even the sheer ridiculousness of those shirtless guys playing a game of beach volleyball. Everything in "Top Gun" is made to stimulate the senses, and it basically all works to that effect.

Because all of those antics put viewers in such an emotionally-charged state, the character moments really work too. For example, Maverick and Goose trying to woo Charlie with "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" or pounding out "Great Balls of Fire" on the piano make it all the more devastating when tragedy befalls Goose and his family and the effect it has on Maverick. Viewers are drawn into these characters not from a perspective of carefully-created depth, but from a simpler place of "these people are fun and now I'm invested in them".

A special shout-out must also be given to Cruise, who practically steals the show here. Sure, he was already known to cinema-goers from "Risky Business" a few years before, but there's absolutely no way you can watch his performance here and not think "this guy is going to be a huge Hollywood star", which is course exactly what transpired. His mischievous smirks and intense emotional reactions are the stuff most actors can only dream of conjuring up.

So, overall I enjoyed "Top Gun" much more than I thought I would. As long as you view it as pure 80s-era fun, there is a lot to like here. Not high-brow cinema by a long shot, but a great thrill ride from start to finish.
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Tolkien (2019)
5/10
An Odd Way To Approach A Biopic
9 January 2020
Generally, I'm a huge fan of biopics and tend to give them much leeway and high rankings. I don't quite know if I've ever seen one take the approach that "Tolkien" does, however, in that it mostly ignores the reason the audience is watching.

For a very basic overview, this film tells the story of young J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult), who of course would later pen "The Hobbit" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Here, however, he is seen as essentially an orphaned child (or at least one with very little parental involvement), and then as a student at King Edward's School, where his friendship (fellowship, if you will) with like-minded creatives and meeting Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) shape the path of his academic and personal life. Flash-forwards to Tolkien's time in WWI also intercut within the narrative.

The thing with biopics is that most of the time, an audience is watching because the subject did something special to be deemed worthy of such treatment. Recent biopics I've seen regarding Judy Garland ("Judy") and Elton John ("Rocketman") prove that point. Obviously, most watchers will come to this one via Tolkien's landmark LOTR or Hobbit books. As such, it would be expected that the overall narrative of this film would be to "get us to that point", or at very least have that factor heavily into the narrative.

But that is where "Tolkien" does not deliver. In an odd sort of way, there is very little connective tissue between the young Tolkien portrayed here and his ultimate authorial fate. This really could be the biopic of any anonymous creative personality.

The strange thing is, the story isn't all that bad! The visuals and emotions are compelling, the acting is very solid, and it is at least decently inspiring to see young Tolkien learn what it means to be a creative in a world often titled against that way of life.

Ultimately, though, "Tolkien" lacks that connection between what is transpiring on-screen and why we (as an audience) should care about it. Most viewers will likely want to see how his early life shaped his later iconic writings, but the filmmakers here just didn't want to take that approach. Instead, besides a few hints or Easter eggs here and there, they largely constrict this movie to strictly telling J.R.R. Tolkien's "origin story" and letting the rest speak for itself. For me, it didn't quite "speak" enough to warrant the two-hour investment, even with some solid acting/themes.
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The Mandalorian: Chapter 8: Redemption (2019)
Season 1, Episode 8
8/10
Season One: A Refreshing, Unburdened Idea
3 January 2020
Warning: Spoilers
Generally-speaking (Last Jedi excluded), I enjoyed the most recent Star Wars trilogy (VII-IX). That being said, all those three films felt tremendously burdened, as if they were labors of responsibility and not necessarily love. "The Mandalorian" is not like that in the slightest. It is a fresh, new take on a particular aspect of the Star Wars universe, and that is primarily why it succeeds.

For a very basic overview, this first season follows a Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal), he of the same ilk as Boba Fett from the original trilogy. He's a bounty hunter, given his targets by Greef Karga (Carl Weathers). In the opening episode, he is tasked with obtaining his most lucrative prize yet--which turns out to be a baby-version of the Yoda species. This arc ultimately takes "Mando" across the universe in pursuit of safety and a sense of purpose as he tries to connect further with the Mandalorian way of life.

Like I said, the best part of this show is that it feels so fresh. Sure, there are numerous callbacks to previous Star Wars material, but the whole thing never feels overburdened by those little nods. No, this is John Favreau getting to mostly do his own thing, and it largely plays out like a spaghetti western, of sorts. Each episodes, the Mandalorian goes on a mission/adventure that, while always thrilling, also reveals something deeper about his character or the universe at large.

Despite not being as obsessed with Boba Fett as many Star Wars fans are (I've never really understood the hoopla around that single, infrequently-seen character), I managed to identify with him via his chosen path in life (Mandalorian is a decision, not a race) and stock-in-trade as a bounty hunter. The conflict between those two lives is often palpable.

Of course, one can't NOT mention "Baby Yoda" in any review of S1. That little guy (an actual animatronic puppet as opposed to a CGI effect) basically steals every scene, and provides a sense of gravitas to the overall proceedings. This character is played for equal parts humor, emotion, plot, and legend status, and somehow manages to check all those boxes effortlessly. Truly one of the most affecting Star Wars characters ever put to screen (big or small).

Now, this first season isn't perfect (hence the room for star-ranking growth). In future seasons (which are already in production), I would like to see more through-lines from beginning to end. Here, the individual episodes seem so disconnected from each other (if still individually interesting) as to almost be one-offs. I did binge the show, so perhaps that was part of the problem (I think this is the type of series that is better on a week-to-week basis).

Other than that, though, I mostly enjoyed the entirety of these eight episodes and really appreciated what they represent in the SW universe right now. Truly fresh ideas seem a bit hard to come by these days, but S1 of The Mandalorian has little trouble in that department, which bodes well for future installments.
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Time Trap (2017)
5/10
Some Interesting Ideas, But Lacking The Chutzpah To Pull Them Off
1 January 2020
As a sucker for any piece of entertaining with a time-travel bend, I stumbled upon this indie film and gave it a chance. What I found was a movie that had some very interesting concepts, but lacked the experience both in front of and behind the camera to pull them all off.

For a very basic overview, this film sees Hopper (Andrew Wilson), an archeology professor, go missing in a series of underground caves. Three of his students (played by Cassidy Gifford, Brianne Howey, and Reiley McClendon) and two tag-along youngsters (Olivia Draguicevich & Max Wright) go on a rescue mission and stumble across a time phenomenon hidden deep within the earth that puts all of their lives deeply at risk.

I'll start with the positives here: The setup in this film is solid, as it takes its time to introduce the characters and give them their own personalities. For a picture that barely runs 90 minutes, that is a pretty remarkable feat. "Time Trap" also incorporates some interesting science fiction and time-travel concepts into its mix. If ever for a second things start to slow down, there's usually always another twist right around the corner.

Sadly (because there is a real kernel of a solid film here), "Time Trap" falls into two traps that prevent it from being all that great:

First, it renders it's characters far too cautious or unbelieving of the events transpiring around them at all times. When you title a film "Time Trap" and tease time-related paranormal events in the trailer, you are priming the audience for a certain experience, and thus the characters within the film have to somewhat oblige. Having them doubt the events all the way up to the very end of the picture makes for a frustrating viewing experience, as we (the audience) know the type of movie we are watching.

Secondly, the filmmakers simply bite off far more than they can chew. Each idea or plot point they give time to is interesting in its own right, but instead of settling down to focus on one or two of them, "Time Trap" goes for the "quantity over quality" approach. What results is a bit of a mess of ideas in which none of them really land emotionally in the end (despite all being interesting at the start).

Overall, I rate "Time Trap" as pretty straight down the middle. It held my interest, but made far too many mistakes to ever really be considered "good" or "recommendable", either. I have a lot of respect for indie filmmaking, so perhaps that is why I'm a bit harsh on this one: it came close to really being a solid film, but simply failed in too many key areas to ultimately make that happen.
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The Movies That Made Us: Die Hard (2019)
Season 1, Episode 4
10/10
The Story Of The Greatest Action Blockbuster
1 January 2020
When Die Hard hit theaters in 1988, the "80s action blockbuster" had already been well-established. Yet, starring an unlikely hero in Bruce Willis, this film ultimately came to define the genre and the decade. In the show's unique fashion, this episode of "The Movies That Made Us" might be the best of the bunch.

There's a lot to cover regarding Die Hard, and this episode pretty much gets to it all. I had no idea the film was based on a book, or that the leading role had to be contractually offered to Frank Sinatra! Not only that, but the story of its filming is just as fascinating, from using the 20th Century Fox building as Nakatomi Plaza to shooting the helicopters scene in under two hours. As usual, this series gets the stories straight from the horse's mouth, if you will, talking with the writers, directors, and producers of the now-iconic film.

Even some of the stars get in on the fun, including figures like Bonnie Bedelia, De'voreaux White, and Reginald VelJohnson. It's fun to see their thoughts 30+ years after the film's release.

Overall, an incredibly fun and informative 45 minutes for anyone wanting some nostalgia or information about the movie that re-defined the action genre and everyman hero.
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Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan: Strongman (2019)
Season 2, Episode 8
6/10
Season Two: More "24" Than "Homeland" (And That's Not A Good Thing)
30 December 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The first season of "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan" managed to do something pretty incredible: it combined great action/adventure scenes with solid acting, PLUS crafted a B-story (Suliemon and his family) that often overshadowed everything in terms of overall quality. Essentially, the show was able to take the best aspects of the action/adventure political thriller (like "24") and combine them with "Homeland"-style nuance. It resulted in a tour-de-force opening salvo for this show.

Unfortunately, Season Two doesn't come all that close to matching that first campaign. Instead of nuance and character-driven story, it takes the "political potboiler" approach and as such ends up being little more than action set-pieces for eight episodes. Gone are the emotional storylines and top-notch acting, replaced by prolonged action sequences and a plot that barely holds together (if one could even say that).

For a very basic overview, this season sees Ryan (John Krasinski) pulled into a conflict in Venezuela when his Senate mentor is murdered. The corrupt President Reyes (Jordi Molla) is seemingly pulling the strings behind this, and Ryan vows to get to the bottom of it and expose him. At the same time, new political candidate Gloria Bonalde (Cristina Umana) is challenging Reyes at the polls, provoking even higher levels of tension within the country. Oh yeah, and a U.S. military covert ops fighter (played by Jovan Adepo) is lost behind enemy lines, necessitating a rescue mission.

There are three major missteps this season seems to be suffering from:

1. Not letting Krasinski really act. S1 saw him get to be analyst, boyfriend, and action-hero. Here, he is reduced to a series of pained expressions. The thought process seems to be that the death of his Senate mentor will carry his arc, but it simply isn't enough for an audience to hang their hats on and robs this show of perhaps its best feature (Krasinski's talents).

2. The Reyes/Bonalde angle simply can't hold a candle to Suliemon in S1. To be honest, the entirety of S2 needed to be built around the President/challenger dynamic, as that is the main thing that kept me watching. As it stands, the plot branches off into so many different directions here that trying to do any character arc(s) with any depth ends up being downright impossible.

3. The arc involving the rescue mission is clearly an excuse to do a bunch of on-location action scenes, and it shows. It is filler to the highest degree, not resulting in any truly emotional payoff in the end. I understand that this show prides itself on being very cultural/international and filming in multiple locations, but I think the technical aspects of that goal got in the way of how it may or may not serve the story in S2.

Overall, then, I have to say I was let down by S2 of "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan". The experience has me wondering which season (of these initial campaigns) will prove to be the outlier? Will it continue to be a visual (if somewhat vapid) visual spectacle, or will it try and recapture the gravitas that made S1 seem more important/deep? It is indeed getting a third slate of episodes, at least, so only time will tell.

Despite all the negative commentary, the one thing I can say about the show (hence the 6-star rating) is that it is expertly produced. Even though the events of the season never really seemed to add up to anything, I can't really say I was ever bored with it either. It was just strictly a political potboiler through and through, while I prefer the deeper-dive that S1 conjured up.
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Little Women (2019)
10/10
Powerful Messages & Performances Add Up To One Of 2019's Best Films
30 December 2019
As I sat down in my theater seat for "Little Women", I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I had somehow (despite being a pretty prolific reader) never absorbed the original text, so I came into this Greta Gerwig adaption with a clean slate. When the credits rolled, I found myself absolutely blown away by the depth and complexity of both the overall messages and the performances within this story.

For a very basic overview, "Little Women" tells the story of the March sisters--Jo (Saorise Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Director Gerwig uses intercutting flash-backs/forwards to examine their lives growing up together and then striking out into the world as individuals. Ostensibly, the character of Jo is focused on the most, as she struggles with how to balance her independence with her potential loneliness in an era that was not kind to women unless marriage was part of the equation.

The original Louisa May Alcott story proves to be a compelling baseline to this film in and of itself. Like I said, as someone who had never read/seen that story before, its themes of sibling friendship/squabbles, growing up poor (yet still helping others along the way), and trying to find one's way in the world as an adult really hit a chord with me. The fact that most of the cast don't share my gender did not in the slightest deter me from relating to all of the film's themes. Tears were brought to my eyes on many different occasions.

Simply via the way the overall movie is structured, Ronan's performance stands out as award-worthy (and is being rewarded as such). Her writing/direction from Gerwig shines just as bright. One concern I had coming into this movie is that the trailers seemed to really be pushing the female-centric, almost feminist angle. Nothing wrong with that approach, but I just tend to prefer some more nuance, and that is exactly what Gerwig provides (I should never have doubted in the first place, I guess, after being impressed by her in "20th Century Women" from a few years ago). In fact, the incredibly emotional conflict within Jo provides the best moments of the entire experience. Nothing preachy or one-sided here.

I also have to add that Timothee Chalamet (as "Laurie") gives what could/should be an award-winning performance of his own. His interaction with every cast member is perfect, whether via humor or gut-wrenching emotion. I hope he is rewarded on par with Ronan.

Overall, "Little Women" proved to be a film that completely caught me off guard in terms of how deep and thoughtful it turned out to be. Not only is the screenplay a gem (potentially more awards for best adaptation?) in its time-hopping, but all the performances and themes match that writing. Without spoiling anything, it also features an ending that will have you mouth agape and pondering its significance long after you leave the theater.
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The Movies That Made Us: Home Alone (2019)
Season 1, Episode 2
8/10
A Fun Look At A Holiday Classic
30 December 2019
The hallmarks of the "That Made Us" series (whether toys or movies) are its unique graphics, frenetic pacing, and interviews with the actual people involved. This installment, focusing on the 1990 holiday season classic "Home Alone", provides all of those things in spades, as usual.

When watching any episodes of this unique series, don't expect an in-depth expose of the serious sort. Despite the wacky announcer voice and attempts at humor, though, there actually ends up being a lot of great information conveyed. Cast members and filmmakers provide their input, locations are visited, and stories are told that you may or may not have heard before (depending on your knowledge level of the product at hand).

It's tough to give something like this much higher than 8 stars, but it's impossible to give it anything lower, either, because of how strictly "popcorn entertainment" it is. As someone who considers "Home Alone" to be one of the classic holiday films of all-time and a must-watch nearly every year, this episode made me smile far too much to go any lower for a ranking.
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8/10
Supremely Entertaining, If A Bit Rushed/Overburdened
29 December 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Walking out of the theater after seeing "The Rise of Skywalker", I was almost giddy with happiness. J.J. Abrams had brought Star Wars back after the failure of "The Last Jedi"! After a week of letting the film percolate in my mind a bit and reading some other thoughts/reviews, the film has settled downward a bit. It is so supremely entertaining that I would never give it a lower rating than 8/10 stars, but at the same time it is so jam-packed with things to accomplish that there just isn't time to let all the material play out as it should. That, more than any specific writing/character decision, is why I have to drop it down a few stars from the "solid 10" I gave it as the credits rolled.

For a very basic overview, "The Rise of Skywalker" sees the return of an old, thought to be long-dead antagonist in the form of the Sith Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). After first being visited by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), eventually the heroes of the new trilogy--Rey (Daisey Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac)--pick up the scent and must try to snuff out this new threat that could represent the end of the Resistance.

Plot-wise, there is very little I disagreed with in this film. It's a rousing adventure, to be sure, and a fitting end to the nine-movie saga. I especially enjoyed the cultivation of the notion that one's bloodline does not represent who they are in the Star Wars universe anymore, and that's a concept I really like (especially how it mirrors the end of the overall saga). When Rey disavows her Palpatine heritage and declares herself a Skywalker of her own accord, that seems to be the moment the entire third trilogy was building toward.

That being said, once the initial excitement of the theater experience wore off, I found there to be some issues with the way certain points were handled. A few examples:

-The Palpatine character was rushed...plain and simple. What could have been an epic tease falls a little flat in the execution, especially when he is introduced in the opening crawl rather than at some point later on where his presence could truly be appreciated. -Besides the beginning and the end of the picture, Driver's Ren is only a bit player in the proceedings. One could argue him being the most unique character to come from this entire trilogy, so it was a bit odd to see him cast aside for much of its conclusion. -Rey's final confrontation with the Emperor even feels a bit underdone in execution. How epic would it have been to have seen some Force-ghosts of, say, Annakin, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gonn, or Yoda instead of just hearing their voices? The same could even be said for Palpatine's Sith background. Nothing wrong with the overall concept, but that moment could have been so much more.

Of course, it certainly doesn't help that this film spends a good deal of its time course-correcting after the embarrassment that was "The Last Jedi". That second film of this trilogy may have had some interesting ideas, to be sure, but director Rian Johnson had absolutely no idea how to execute them. Because of this, much of the pleasure here is seeing how they subtly (or sometimes not-so-subtly) get the franchise back to more traditional Star Wars fare (the approach I tend to enjoy in these films). When ghost-Luke tells Rey "that is no way to treat a Jedi weapon", I almost stood and applauded. Unfortunately, it just isn't good practice in any trilogy to have such wild swings in tone. I truly feel like having one director (JJ or otherwise) all the way through would have been a much better choice.

So, I guess my final word (at least at the moment) on "Rise of Skywalker" is this: it absolutely thrilled me as I sat in my theater seat, so that counts for something. The action/adventure was thrilling, the character/plot decisions were fine, and I very much enjoyed the overall message trying to be conveyed. At the same time, it was burdened by the weight of it's predecessor, the weight of trying to put an amen to the most culturally-known film franchise perhaps of all-time, and the weight of a fast-tracked production schedule. Oh yeah, and the legacy character (Princess Leia) they originally wanted to build the whole thing around? Sadly, Carrie Fisher passed before that could become a reality. In hindsight, I wonder if delaying this film by, say, a year would have produced a slightly better result?

Through all this, I settled on 8 stars because I gave 9 to "The Force Awakens" and still consider that one the best of the contemporary trilogy. "Rise" (thanks to Abrams) captures much of that film's energy, but it isn't as free to pursue it in the most open, creative way possible. In terms of trilogy-enders, "Rise" is a bit behind "Return of the Jedi" and "Revenge of the Sith".
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7/10
Individual Performances Carry The Day
22 December 2019
When I first saw the trailer for "Marriage Story", I was intrigued by the concept and cast. When it started gaining buzz and racking up award nominations in droves, I knew it was something I was going to see. While there were certain parts of the film I enjoyed very much, overall I found it slightly lacking in one key area: drawing real, visceral emotion out of the viewer.

For a very basic overview, "Marriage Story" is a tale about Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a married couple in the beginning stages of separation/divorce. Not wanting to make things too messy for son Henry (Azhy Robertson), Charlie & Nicole want to keep things civil--until the lawyers get involved, drawing some passion out of the all sides.

Easily the best part of this film for me was the acting from Driver and Johansson. They both give performances that are very much award-worthy and complement each other perfectly. At one point, Driver absolutely brings down the house with his rendition of "Being Alive", while Johansson is a wonder to watch slowly unfurl her emotions as the movie progresses. I'd have no problem with either of them taking home some hardware during awards season.

The problem I had with this film, however, is that it seemed like every time it looked to be kicking into a high emotional gear, something would happen to stop that momentum in its tracks. The lawyers (played by Laura Dern, Alan Alda, & Ray Liotta) are the most egregious examples of this, as those scenes constituted easily my least favorite ones of the whole experience. They sort of turn the proceedings into "Divorce Story" rather than "Marriage Story", which throws things off track.

To me, the best scenes in the movie are when Driver and Johansson simple co-exist on screen together. They might end up talking very calmly with each other at first, but then the escalation continues and by the end they are screaming in frustration/rage. These are the types of scenes that win awards. Like I said, it's too bad that momentum kept getting interrupted.

For whatever reason, it just felt like this film was about a half-step "off" for me the whole way. Like all the ingredients were there for it to be really emotional, but rarely did they coalesce properly and actually do so. Like I said, the acting in the piece should be rewarded handsomely, but in terms of the film/plot as a whole, I can't quite put this one into my upper echelon.
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Watchmen: See How They Fly (2019)
Season 1, Episode 9
9/10
Season One: Strong, Timely Messages Mixed With Delightful Weirdness
19 December 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Before beginning the first episode of this show, I knew absolutely nothing about Watchmen as a franchise. I was aware of its existence as a landmark graphic novel, and that was about it. I mainly came to this series through the involvement of showrunner Damon Lindelof (he of LOST & The Leftovers fame), who is one of my favorite screenwriters in the business at the moment. While I obviously can't speak to the perspective of the hard-core fans of the source material, I think the fact that upon conclusion I can give this show 9/10 stars says a lot in terms of its overall quality.

There's a lot going on throughout Watchmen, so giving even a basic overview is a bit tough, but I'll give it a try:

In present-day (if not exactly present-universe) Tulsa, Oklahoma, everyone seems to be wearing masks. Judd Crawford's (Don Johnson) police force hides behind yellow facemasks due to fears of retribution over the "Redford-ations" given out by President Robert Redford. On the side, this same police force aligns itself with a group of masked vigilantes, including Angela Abar (Regina King) as Sister Night and Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson) as Looking Glass, among others. The reason the authorities and the freelancers are in bed together? To prevent the spread of a white supremacist group, who-you guessed it-all wear Rorschach masks.

In a different narrative, a mysterious man (played by Jeremy Irons) living in an elegant castle is conducting experiments both with and on his servants Mr. Philips (Tom Mison) and Ms. Crookshanks (Sara Vickers).

Of course, the specter of Doctor Manhattan lies over all the proceedings, with the enigmatic Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.), Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), and Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) all seeming to play a pivotal role in that endgame.

As usual for a Lindelof creation, Watchmen is an even mix of on-the-nose messages and delightful, quirky ridiculousness. It is equal parts biting social commentary (especially on the ideas of white supremacy and reparations), superhero deconstruction, and hilarious farce. Lindelof's talent, however, is mixing all those elements together and having it shake out perfectly balanced.

One of the hallmarks of this show, overall, is its ability (for the most part) to equally balance its serial nature with the quality of individual episodes. While I can certainly see the through-line of the season from beginning to end, there are also individual episodes that stand out as tours-de-force all their own. For example, "Little Fear of Lightning" tells the utterly moving story of Looking Glass (featuring a psychic squid attack!), while "A God Walks Into Abar" might be one of the most expertly-crafted episodes of dramatic television I've ever seen. This type of filmmaking certainly isn't a "race to the finish line" by any stretch. It stops to smell the roses and tell the individual stories along the way.

Lindelof's style may not be for everyone, as he is unflinching in his societal beliefs and quirky enough that more conservative/unseasoned viewers may scratch their heads a bit. But for those who love to thoroughly immerse themselves in prestige TV, this season of Watchmen is in Leftovers and Westworld territory. About the only reason I can't/won't give it the full 10 stars here is that it is so chock-full of characters/arcs that I feel like a re-watch is needed to catch all the threads. If/when that happens, this could easily be 10/10 material.
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The Toys That Made Us: Wrestling (2019)
Season 3, Episode 3
10/10
A Staple Of My Childhood
19 December 2019
Growing up, I had an entire mess of wrestling action figures that I'd slam around in a toy ring designed for that very purpose, creating elaborate tournaments of molded plastic heroes. As such, this installment of "The Toys That Made Us" was destined to hit a nostalgic sweet spot for me.

What I really like about this show in general, however, is how it combines that obvious nostalgia with actual relevant/interesting information. I mean, it is clear that this little episodic mini-series exists to capitalize on pop culture nostalgia for toys of our youth. Nothing wrong with that whatsoever, but the potential would exist for a lot of hollow content. Instead, the producers here really dive into the background of each toy, speaking to its original creators (if applicable) and probing for funny/unique stories. In the case of this episodes, the execs of the pro wrestling figure-making companies have great input, as well as some wrestlers themselves!

Basically, in addition to its light-hearted and sometimes comical nature (befitting the subject matter at hand), the episodes of this series I've watched (the toys I most vividly used/remembered) have all left me with some interesting tidbits to add to the nostalgic glow. This pro-wrestling centric episode is no different, and thus gets the highest marks from this 80s/90s wrestling fanatic!
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Castle Rock: Clean (2019)
Season 2, Episode 10
5/10
Season Two: Peaks Higher Than Season One, But Often Craters Much Lower
17 December 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The first season of "Castle Rock" was a bit of a jumbled mess, stringing together threads of Stephen King book ideas and seeing what would stick. Season Two narrows the ideas down a bit, but still ends up a muddled mess in the end. Its highs are much higher than S1, but the lows are also considerably lower.

For a very basic overview, this season focuses on three main plotlines:

-Annie Wilkes (Lizzy Caplan) battling her mental illness while simultaneously trying to start a new life with daughter Joy (Elsie Fisher).

-"Ace" Merrill (Paul Sparks) putting together a sort of un-dead army (reminiscent of 'Salem's Lot fare).

-Family drama stemming from "Pop" Merrill (Tim Robbins) and trickling down to his adopted children Nadia (Yusra Warsama) and Abdi (Barkhad Abdi).

Eventually all of these plots converge, though very much with a confusing "whimper" rather than any sort of definitive "bang". There is also mention/sightings of "The Kid" (Bill Skarsgard) from S1, but sadly nothing every really comes of it.

To be honest, the only reason I can give this second season even a middle-of-the-road ranking is because of the mid-season arc involving flashbacks to young Annie. Sarah Gadon gets a kind of guest-starring role in these episodes, and somewhat inexplicably they turn into legitimately compelling hours of television (every bit as good as something you'd see on more premier networks/platforms). I found myself completely invested in the proceedings until, in typical fashion, all that goodwill is suddenly grounded by the plotting of certain characters/events.

What this makes me conclude, ultimately, is that S2 of "Castle Rock" should have narrowed its focus even further, perhaps ostensibly onto the Wilkes family almost alone. All the material with the resurrected worshippers and the Merrill family drama is B-roll stuff at very best, yet far too much time is spent in those quarters. Had there been a clear focus on the Wilkes storyline all the way through, I think this could have been a much stronger campaign.

As it stands, however, I'm about out of patience with this show and what it seems to represent. The writers/producers have this treasure-trove of absolutely golden King material at their disposal, but time and time again they can't shape it into any meaningful configuration. There are glimpses here and there of potential (like the mesmerizing "The Laughing Place" and "The Mother" episodes), but ultimately there isn't any narrative thoroughfare to pull it all together and create meaning.

I'm guessing a third season will indeed happen based on the property value of the show alone, but at this point I'm not sure I'd be tuning in whatsoever.
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Doctor Sleep (2019)
10/10
A Masterclass In Adapting Tough Material
17 December 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Adapting anything in relation to "The Shining" was always going to be an arduous task. You have the original novel by Stephen King, the landmark (if confusing) film from Stanley Kubrick--which King utterly hates--, and then King's 2011 novel "Doctor Sleep", which is a sequel to the book but NOT the movie. Phew. Remarkably, writer/Director Mike Flanagan creates an expertly-crafted sequel here that somehow manages to satisfy both sides of the coin.

For a very basic overview, "Doctor Sleep" focuses on Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who was of course the young child roaming the halls of the Overlook Hotel. Now an alcoholic, Dan uses his "shining" power to help hospice patients pass on serenely, thus engendering the titular nickname. Out of the blue, however, Dan comes into mental contact with young Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a fellow shiner who becomes away of the True Knot, a group of vagabonds led by the enigmatic Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) who feed on such psychic powers. Together, Dan & Abra must decide whether to retreat and hide or stand and fight the True Knot.

As I said in the opening, the film and novel versions of "The Shining" are almost their own unique properties. While King's "Doctor Sleep" ignores the former to focus on the latter (as is his "right" as original author), Flanagan doesn't make either choice and instead interweaves the two together. That is the true genius of this film, and it's greatest achievement.

On one hand, Flanagan carefully handles King's 2011 material and gives it every opportunity to succeed. This certainly isn't simply an excuse to dig up nostalgia for "The Shining". Instead, it is first and foremost loyal to King's storytelling.

On the other hand, though, it ret-cons things in one major one, that being that while the Overlook was destroyed at the end of King's Shining, it was not in Kubrick's vision. As such, the stretch run of "Doctor Sleep" takes place in the familiar hotel confines. While still holding true to King's overall vision, it allows a "best of both worlds" scenario to play out, as we are treated to some incredibly potent visuals that call back to Kubrick's cinematography.

Only helping matters is solid acting all around. McGregor is a very capable lead, Curran is a fine Abra (if perhaps even a bit underutilized), and Ferguson practically steals every scene she is in. When everything comes to head in the closing moments, the acting truly had me mesmerized.

To be honest, this is truly one of the best King novel adaptions I've ever seen, right up there with "The Green Mile". It faithfully captures the spirit of King's 2011 sequel, while also melding both "Shining" versions into the perfect mix of nostalgia and utilitarianism. It's disappointing and perplexing, to be honest, that "Doctor Sleep" did so poorly at the box office, but perhaps this is a film that can grow in stature as Flanagan continues to make a Hollywood name for himself.

So, if you missed this one in theaters (as it seems most did, sadly), I can't recommend circling back to it highly enough. If you have any interest whatsoever in any aspect of the Shining, you'll find something enjoyable from all two and a half hours here.
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The Toys That Made Us: Power Rangers (2019)
Season 3, Episode 1
10/10
My Childhood In 46 Minutes
15 December 2019
As a child of the 90s, I was absolutely entranced by the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Watched all the original episodes and owned basically all the toys. As such, this episode was basically a nostalgic trip back to my childhood in the best possible way.

Despite the often comical or tongue-in-cheek tone, this series always does a great job of really telling the story of every toy(s) and it's no different here. Not only is it a great recap of the history of the Power Ranger toys, but the fact that they speak to the original people involved in the process gives it just that much more authenticity.

For those who hit the MMPR "sweet spot" in their youths like I did, this will be like absolute candy. Great information and nostalgia for days!
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3/10
Suffers From An Utter Lack Of Nuance And Tact
14 December 2019
Almost a year ago to the day that I sit down to write this review, I saw "The Mule" in theaters and was embarrassed/saddened by how out-of-touch Clint Eastwood seemed to have become in telling a viable story on-screen. I was hoping that keeping him behind the camera for "Richard Jewell" would help matters, and the trailers really pulled me in. Sadly, this film is only a slight step above "The Mule" in terms of overall effectiveness at conveying a story.

For a very basic overview, this film tells the story of Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a security worker affiliated with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta who diagnosed a bomb scare and helped clear the scene to avoid larger destruction. While initially hailed as a hero, Jewell is eventually investigated by the FBI as a prime suspect in the bombing, as well as excoriated/harassed by the media.

I'll say this right off the bat: there is no doubt that Jewell was mistreated by many parties throughout this entire ordeal. Those relevant parties have even admitted as such. He did a heroic thing and had his life turned into a living hell because of it. There is certainly an interesting story to be told within that set of circumstances.

Unfortunately, Clint Eastwood is no longer the person to tell that story, and (once again) it really shows here. Instead of a nuanced look at how the media, authorities, and individuals can/should interact with each other, we instead get a piece that embarrassingly vilifies journalists/media to almost cartoonish proportions, and gives the same basic treatment to the federal authorities. This is in contrast to Jewell's lawyer, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), who is largely portrayed as the benevolent hero of the piece.

Clearly, the main theme of "Richard Jewell" is that the media (or those possessing power in general) can spin the narrative any way they want. While this is true, to a certain extent, it needs a more nuanced, tactful touch. Another wholly probably explanation is that the authorities did indeed suspect Jewell and want to investigate him, and the media felt compelled to cover the store. Does that justifying Jewell's hounding? Of course not, but that's where the nuance comes in (or doesn't, in this case).

The most embarrassing character of the whole thing is Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), an Atlanta newspaper reporter who might as well be Cruella de Vil through Eastwood's lens. Much criticism has come from the Atlanta-Journal Constitution (Scrugg's employer at the time) over the portrayal, and I can see why. Unless she was a true monster, this performance borders on libel. Sadly, I don't trust Eastwood to make that distinction anymore, either.

The only character that truly seemed "real" in the entire movie was Jewell's mother Bobi (Kathy Bates), as that was the only character given any true humanity. All the other participants are pastiches, lacking any real-world substance or the conflicts that all individuals face. In Eastwood's world, you are either a "good guy" or a "bad guy", and there's absolutely no middle ground.

The bottom line here is that until Eastwood gets away from making films about true-life "hero" stories, this is exactly the type of fare we'll get again and again. No depth, no humanity, just over-the-top characterizations that fit into his own strict worldview. I came into the theater expecting very little of "Richard Jewell" based on my "Mule" experience, and it still managed to disappoint.
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The Pretender (2019)
6/10
One Man Living His Dream
13 December 2019
In life, there are many ways to define success. Money, relationships, physical items, etc. But simply being able to do what you love day-in and day-out is potentially the most unique and rare definition of that term. That notion is essentially what "The Pretender" captures by examining the story of Mike Kunda, the world's foremost "Rocky enthusiast", if you will.

In the 55-minute runtime, "The Pretender" examines Kunda's life as it relates to the Rocky franchise. As a child, Kunda was inspired (in the most extreme way) by the Rocky Balboa character, watching the 1976 original film hundreds (if not thousands) of times and then even adopting the mannerisms of the pugilist himself. Being Rocky was Kunda's passion in life, and he turned that into a career impersonating Sylvester Stallone and now leading a world-renowned tour of Rocky filming sites in Philadelphia.

I'll get the "bad stuff" out of the way right away (the reason I gave this six stars when I so desperately wanted to give it more): I wish this documentary had taken a bit of a different tact in portraying Kunda. If you know nothing about him (and few will) coming into this experience, you might come away thinking he's a bit of a "nut" or simply a "celebrity-worshiper". This is because the doc hits so hard on the notion of Kunda actually meeting Stallone someday. But there is so much more to his story than just that.

In reality, that portrayal does an injustice to what I would consider a pretty strong and savvy legacy from Kunda. Not only did he build himself into an uncanny impersonation of Rocky, but his skills as film historian, author, and podcaster are also quite strong. His book "Cue The Rocky Music" is truly inspiring, I always enjoy his Stallone-analysis on the SlyCast podcast, and the "Yo Rocky! Film Tour" is truly one of the best explorations of filming sites of any movie ever made. I wish more of those sorts of experiences would have made it into this doc.

Another interesting thing about Kunda is that he seems very reticent to give much perspective on himself. Essentially, he is humble almost to a fault. As such, any philosophical musings on his unique life path in this film come from his father, his brother, or his wife. This approach comes off a bit as "justification" because of his reluctance to hype himself up, when really it is simply support.

At the end of the day, though, it is tough (if not impossible) to criticize much related to Kunda. I'm always inspired by a man who turned his unique passion into a way of life. He never sold out, never gave up on his dreams, and now he gets to do what he loves on a regular basis. It took (and continues to take) a lot of hard work, of course, but to him it is completely worth it. I'd highly encourage anyone who watches this doc to go find "Cue The Rocky Music" for a more in-depth explanation of Kunda and his inspiring story.
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The Report (I) (2019)
9/10
An Important Mistake To Be Remembered
12 December 2019
Warning: Spoilers
There's an old saying that goes "those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it". Films like "The Report" are made to make sure that message is taken to heart. Fortunately, this is about as good as it gets in that department.

For a very basic overview, this film focuses on Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), a Senate staffer working for Dianne Feinstein (Annette Benning). Jones is tasked with piecing together an accounting of the United States' Detention & Enhanced Interrogation program implemented by the CIA immediately following the events of 9/11. What Jones finds is a trail of lies, cover-ups, justifications, and an ineffectiveness that borders on criminal.

What makes "The Report" so sad (and thus so emotionally compelling) is the slow realization it builds to, which is that not one piece of actionable material was gained from the use of torture and detention. The entire program was a charade that conflicted previous CIA findings in the realm of interrogation, relied on pseudo-science of the most dubious order, and was sanctioned by the highest levels of the White House for years. This from a Bush Administration which had the temerity to directly say "we do not torture".

When sitting down to watch this movie, please make sure to give it some time to unspool. At first, it looks like it might be a B-level flick, filled with enough names, dates, and places to make your head spin a bit. But as it narrows its focus, it turns into an absolute treatise on its sensitive subject matter. The same can be said for Driver's performance. It starts out a bit underwhelming, but by the end is quite powerful and moving.

A final major positive to take from "The Report"? It truly is not much of a partisan film. While it refers to the Bush Administration by necessity, this isn't a picture for the express consent to bash any specific person or party. It has an agenda (to show the horrors of inflicting severe bodily harm/discomfort on others in the name of national security and ultimately have absolutely nothing to show for it), but it isn't preachy about it.

Upon finishing "The Report", you'll likely be pretty steamed, and that's about the greatest compliment I can give it. Easily the kind of thing you could show a class of students (or event adults who lived through the events) to give a sort of counter-perspective removed from the rah-rah patriotism which was occurring at the time.
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Big Little Lies: I Want to Know (2019)
Season 2, Episode 7
6/10
Season Two: Built On The Wrong Premise
9 December 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The first season of Big Little Lies ended with no definitive statement regarding whether or not it would return. All the material from the novel on which it was based had been used up, so anything further would have to be 100% fresh material. Being such a big hit, however, the show did return for this second season. Unfortunately, I would argue the sophomore effort was built on the wrong premise.

The main through-line of S2 is that the lie the "Monterey Five" concoct to protect themselves from S1's explosive final death is tearing them each apart:

-Celeste (Nicole Kidman) can't shake the loss of her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) even despite his previous abuses. -Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) can't be honest with husband Ed (Adam Scott), which derails their relationship. -Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) sees mother Elizabeth (Crystal Fox) arrive back into her life, and again a lack of honesty is a barrier that seemingly cannot be breached. -Renata (Laura Dern) sees her life slip into financial ruin, only adding to the tension. -Jane (Shailene Woodley) must now live with the notion that her child's rapist father was killed essentially by her own hand. Good luck getting intimate with new fling Corey (Douglas Smith) under those circumstances.

While the concept of the lie affecting each life individually is an interesting one, it ultimately fails because very few characters in this show are truly likable. The air-tight writing and mysterious edge to the first season don't make it much of an issue, but here that lack of protagonists is on full display.

For example...

In the scene in the finale when Renata takes out her anger on husband Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling), it is supposed to be a very empowering display of a female taking charge in a relationship. But yet, coming from a woman who has essentially either been an out-and-out bully herself and nasty to almost everyone who even dares look askance at her, how does that engender much sympathy? To be quite honest, I saw Gordon's point of view as much as Renata's, and that's certainly not what this show is intending.

Now, I get that Big Little Lies very much crafts a message of female empowerment, but it's tough for me to really buy into that when the females on the show seem so nasty. The men are no better, either. To be honest, I found myself identifying with Ed (just wanting to be done with it all) for most of the season.

That all brings us to the neon-flashing missed opportunity of the season. In the S2 premiere, I was fascinated by the inclusion of Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), Perry's mother, into the fix. I thought that would bring a very interesting dimension into the mix, especially when portrayed by a living legend of an actor. But then, all that potential energy is lost when Streep's character does little else besides lurk in the background and make vague threats (until the finale, when she is finally given some actual juicy material). THIS is what the entire season should have been based around, or at very least focused much more on.

As it stands, however, S2 of BLL just sort of meanders along and then pulls off a pretty impressive finale. Unfortunately, by that point it is too little, too late, and the exposition is heavy and the character development rushed. Certain creative control issues plagued the post-production too, and I wonder if that didn't effective plot points or motifs that never really seemed to go anywhere.

This show was always going to have a hard time replicating such a stellar first effort, and ultimately that is what happened here. Once again, the ending of S2 sets up the potential for another go-round, but if that happens I'm hoping all the pieces will be in place from the beginning, including clear control of the series by a single individual and a compelling idea. If that happens, I'd certainly be willing to continue watching.
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8/10
A Beautiful Ode To A Television Legend
7 December 2019
Fred Rogers has to be one of the most fascinating figures in the history of television. His children's program was revered for its simplicity, kindness, and thoughtfulness...and reviled or dismissed for much the same reasons. No matter what side of the fence you may have once found yourself, I believe that Rogers' overall message of hopefulness and positivity (with healthy doses of realism sprinkled in) plays well in the current political/social age. "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" does a great job of capturing all those currents on the big screen.

For a very basic summary, "Neighborhood" follows the tract of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist tasked with a very simple blurb assignment of American heroes and thus sent to meet Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks). What Lloyd finds, however, is that the tables are often turned. Instead of him interviewing Rogers, Fred deconstructs (in his genteel way) Lloyd's anger/sadness, largely stemming from a poor relationship with his own father Jerry (Chris Cooper).

One of the highlights of the entire experience is how the film is structured very much like a classic episode of "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood", right down to the iconic sweater-and-shoes opening and intercutting the cinema widescreen with 4:3 letterbox shots of the trolley clanging along amongst the miniatures. Even down to the content itself, which starts off perhaps a little uncertain but then progresses to a place of harmony, this is very much like those episodes you grew up watching, and that just feels good.

While the main plot ("guy with daddy issues") is almost overly simplistic, it actually provides a perfect opportunity to showcase the unique style of Rogers to work through conflict. Instead of high drama or voice-raising, Fred uses calming strategies to work through anger, whether in his own life or helping the lives of others. Again, a sort of soothing balm for the heated rhetoric often seen on the nightly news or cable news talk shows.

Hanks, as usual, is a revelation. His next bad performance will be his first one. Down to the vocal inflections and bodily mannerisms, he truly channels the spirit of the iconic Rogers. Not an easy task considering how well-known and almost ubiquitous the man was. Davis and Cooper also provide the dramatically-charged interactions that are a needed counterpart to Hanks' understated nature.

To be honest, "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" night even be a slightly better than 8-star film. The personal reason I settle on that ranking? I had previously seen the document "Won't You Be My Neighbor", which covers roughly the same material (but just happened to "hit me" first). This one doesn't stray too much from the content in that doc (for good reason...that's the good stuff). For those getting these messages and visuals for the first time, it may be even more powerful.

Overall, this is a wonderful film that can be enjoyed by the entire family (it truly is PG through-and-through). The internal, plot-related content is moving, and the extrinsic messaging of Rogers' goals as an educator and entertainer are an important lesson to counter that of the popular media of today.
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3/10
Doesn't Get The Adults Right (Or The Ending In General)
3 November 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The first part of this "It" mini-franchise had something. It may not have been a perfect film by any means, but it did utilize a great cast of child actors and achieve a sort of cultural-zeitgeist "Stranger Things"-esque appeal. When it comes time to bring in the adults and execute the ending of Stephen King's iconic story, however, "Chapter Two" fails miserably in a number of key areas.

For a basic overview, "It Chapter Two" sees the Loser's Club reunited in Derry 27 years after It was presumed dead. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), now the town librarian, has called them all back because the evil Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) has sprung upon Derry once again. So, Bill (James McAvoy), Richie (Bill Hader), Eddie (James Ransone), Ben (Jay Ryan), and Beverly (Jessica Chastain) return to their childhood abode to try and finish It off this time around.

There are three major problems with this second part that make it a pretty abject failure...

First and foremost, director Andy Muschietti (and presumably writer Gary Dauberman) do not grasp why, as audience members, we should care about the adult Losers. It's easy to root for a group of young kids chumming around together and then trying to stop a ferocious evil. The reason we care about the adults, however, is because 27 years later they are each dealing with relatable "adult problems" (abuse, addiction, job failure, etc.). King expertly captures this in the novel, whereas this film pays it lip service (and even paltry lip service at that). Here, the only reason we are given to care about the Losers is that "they were once kids". It is very telling that the best parts of "Chapter 2" is when it flashes back to the "kid scenes".

Secondly, the scenes involving the adult Losers having their own "voyage of discovery" just don't make any sense. It was almost more of an excuse to create hideous CGI monsters than it served the plot whatsoever. For example, Bev's meeting with an old woman living in her apartment was legitimately creepy...until it turns into a giant hulking monster straight out of a fantasy piece. In these moments, the filmmakers seemed to forget that "It's" horror is as much psychological as visceral.

Finally, the ending is severely disappointing for fans (like myself) of the King novel. Not focusing on spouses robs the movie of the books' incredible coda, while the final battle with Pennywise/It is almost laughable. To even call it an adaptation of the book's ending is a stretch. While I realize that some of the narrative "punch" would always be taken away by splitting the story into the "kid half" and "adult half", even then this ending doesn't elicit even the slightest emotion or any sense of gravitas.

It seems like what may have happened over the course of these two movies is that the filmmakers were so focused on the mechanics of adapting King's brilliant (yet rather unwieldy) story that they sort of lost track of the ideas behind what made it all work in the first place. This wasn't on display nearly as much in the first part, as that installment was just so much fun, but in this one that failure is as plain as day. Putting the kids in the 80s was a great narrative choice, but other than that almost all the other changes are for the worst.

Perhaps the worst thing I can say about this big-budget production? If forced, I'd still have to call the 1990 TV miniseries "It" adaptation my favorite. While that production certainly had warts of its own, it much more accurately captured both the physical and psychological horror of King's original intent. Besides some great child acting performances, this two-film duo doesn't accomplish either of those things.
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Big Little Lies: You Get What You Need (2017)
Season 1, Episode 7
9/10
Season One
2 November 2019
Warning: Spoilers
When I sat down to watch the first episode of "Big Little Lies", I honestly did not know whether or not it would appeal to me. As a 33-year old male, I wasn't sure if the story of middle-aged California coast Moms/housewives would spark my interest. It took all of about 15 minutes for that to be proven a complete fallacy, as BLL captured my interest in a visceral way like almost no other shows ever have.

For a basic overview, this show begins by showing the audience that a murder has taken place (though the exact circumstances or even the victim remain unknown). It then flashes back in time to tell the story of five women living in Monterey and how their lives intertwined to lead to that murderous night:

-Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is an extraordinary gossip--if a sincere one--who is having intimacy problems with husband Ed (Adam Scott) and trouble relating to teenaged daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) after a recent divorce. -Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is a former lawyer and current mother of two twin boys but married to a controlling, abusive husband in Perry (Alexander Skarsgard). -Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is the insecure, Type-A business woman whose daughter is being bullied at grade school. -Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) is new to town--still emotionally struggling with the after-effects of a rape--with son Ziggy (Iain Armitage), and he is accused of being the bully. -Bonnie Carlson (Zoe Kravitz) is a holistic free-spirit, married to Madeline's ex Nathan (James Tupper).

I don't know if I've ever seen a show in which the elements of plot, acting, and direction combine so perfectly. Whether watching Madeline's spunk, Celeste's heartbreak and struggle, or Jane's personal demons, to name a few moments, there is not a plot or theme here that is disinteresting or handled poorly. Every single character is a treatise unto him/hers self and could practically have a show built around them alone. Combine that with top-tier acting talent, and it's a dynamic recipe. Even the child actors are utterly spot-on and often steal the show from vets like Witherspoon and Kidman! Director Jean-Marc Vallee expertly merges all these things together in a unique visual style filled with quick cuts and powerful imagery.

About the only reason I can't give this season a full 10 stars is because it felt, towards the end, that a few plots were resolved in a manner not befitting the depth of the other material:

-For much of the show, Renata is an out-and-out villain with seemingly little hope of changing. One conversation with Jane, however, and suddenly she is in everyone's good graces. This happened far too easily/quickly for me to truly believe it. -Having Jane recognize Perry as her beach attacker (if that was the implication, which it certainly seemed like it was) seemed like "piling on" a bit. I don't think that extra impetus to hate Perry was needed, but perhaps it was simply done to provide some closure to Jane's previous experiences. I just wasn't a huge fan of how that played out.

Other than those threads, however, the first season of "Big Little Lies" is basically masterpiece quality. Even if--from the outside looking in--you might struggle to see what this show will offer you, I would highly suggest giving it a try anyway. It's overall quality and depth of material blows past any age/sex/genre boundaries.
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7/10
Perfectly Acceptable But Nothing Spectacular
21 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Seeing as how Breaking Bad is considered of the masterpiece TV dramas of all-time, returning to that exact source is always going to be a bit tricky. Will the material land the same way it did when the show originally aired? Will the characters still be as relevant? Sure, Better Call Saul has nipped at the fringes of the Breaking Bad-verse, but "El Camino" picks up right where the main show's finale leaves off. Overall, while a nice little coda to the story of Jesse Pinkman, there was also nothing spectacular or particularly memorable about it.

For a basic overview, "El Camino" is told in a sort of dual-narrative fashion. In the "present", or directly after the events of Felina (the BB finale), Jesse (Aaron Paul) initially shows up on the doorstep of Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), having just escaped the neo-Nazi cage he had been trapped in. All Jesse wants to do is start a new life for himself, but for that plan to work he needs to come up with the requisite amount of cash to pay "Ed the Vacuum Cleaner Guy" (Robert Forster) to make him disappear. The rest of the story is told in flashbacks, especially relating to Jesse's interactions with Todd (Jesse Plemons) while imprisoned.

I think the hallmark of "El Camino" is that it is the first piece of the Breaking Bad universe that gives a happy (or at least peaceful) ending to one of its characters. Walter White obviously went too far down the rabbit hole for redemption in BB, while even as likable as Slippin' Jimmy can be in BCS, viewers know what he ultimately ends up as in BB (a corrupt lawyer). Here, though, the character of Jesse Pinkman is given a redemptive arc, and that positivity is much-needed for a show known for its cruelly realistic character endings.

"El Camino" does enough things right to be enjoyable. Clearly Vince Gilligan still has the knack for creating that "BB feel", mixing dumb humor with incredible tension. Paul is an incredible actor (and it shows here), and it gives some nice call-back cameos to Mr. White (Bryan Cranston), Mike Ehrmantrout (Jonathan Banks), and even Jane (Krysten Ritter).

That being said, the whole exercise also felt a bit predictable. It opens with a flashback of Mike and Jesse talking about absconding to Alaska and, well, wouldn't you know, that's kind of how things end up. There's also little doubt that Jesse will not overcome the situations he is put into throughout the film. A particular fly in the ointment might be the amount of time spent on/with the Todd character. Those scenes really slowed the narrative to a halt and, with a couple of exceptions, didn't offer nearly as much good, meaty dialogue or plot as basically everything else present.

Overall, I have to say that the last 30-or-so minutes of "El Camino" really redeemed the experience for me. It seemed to take a long time to shift into gear (pardon the pun), but when it did I was transfixed. Personally, I still prefer the BCS "nip at the fringes" approach to the BB universe rather than this legitimate sequel, but there isn't anything here to completely turn me off to it, either.
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