Greetings! Have you ever wondered if a movie's worth blowing the money on to see at the theater or what to add next to your NetFlix queue? Then you've come to the right place! Enjoy!

"1917" Review

The sales pitch and gimmick for Sam Mendes' WWI epic 1917 is very simple: Two British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are dispatched to warn a battalion preparing to launch an assault upon retreating German forces, but aerial photos have determined it's a trap sure to result in annihilation for them. The pair must cross No Man's Land and reach the force, which includes one of their brothers, by dawn tomorrow or all will be lost.

The gimmick? The entire movie is filmed to appear to be a single shot like was done with 2014's Best Picture Birdman. While there are tricks used to hide the cuts and a time jump, it's meant to feel like a real-time march across the hellscape of France during The Great War.

While co-writer/director Sam Mendes hypes the gimmick as being critical to the storytelling, it's not. No one watched Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan and wished they got to spend all the time sailing/walking to the next action set piece listening to the characters have banal discussions to fill the time.

An unfair knock on the hurried plot of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was to compare it to videogame fetch quests (i.e. go to a place, get a thing, use it to go the the next place and thing, rinse, repeat), but in reality 1917's structure is more like a videogame due to its one-shot conceit. I'm currently playing Gears 5 (of the Gears of War Xbox series) and since the player never leaves their avatar and sidekick as they guide them from battle to battle, fetch quest location and back, the intervening time is filled with the characters discussing what they're doing and how it relates to the overarching narrative.

The difference is that in the game, the dialog is painting a canvas detailing the plot and world beyond what you're doing; in the movie, it's just uninteresting chatter to keep it from being a silent film. Writing this now, I can't remember a single thing the soldiers said to each other or anything about them as people.

To contrast, in Pulp Fiction, our introduction to Jules and Vincent as they drove to the apartment was entirely superfluous. It's two gangsters on their way to do gangster stuff and could've begun with their knocking at the door, but instead we got to meet them and gain a feel for their personalities as they chatted about what a Quarter Pounder is called in France and foot massages. And we remember the so-quotable dialog a quarter-century later.

While the characters are ciphers and the gimmick is only necessary as a means to pump up the hype, 1917 is still a tremendous technical feat. The verisimilitude of the trenches and battlefields is impressive and Roger Deakins should win a second consecutive Oscar for his cinematography, if only for one sequence set at night, lit the glow of blazing buildings and glaring flares flying overhead. Mendes stages everything well and the tension is palpable when it needs to be.

But these are details that spark the filmmaking nerd in me, not elevate the tale told. It's like watching a band of wildly talented musicians playing the hell out of banal pop song. You can appreciate the chops on display, but when it's over, you can't hum the tune. There are far better movies about war - that reminds me, with the passing of Kirk Douglas, I really should open my Criterion Blu-ray of Paths of Glory and watch Kubrick's take on the Great War - which are told cinematically without the shackles of a neat, but unneeded, gimmick.

Score: 7/10. Rent the Blu-ray.

There's something really ironic about a trailer for a one-shot movie using EDITING to create excitement.

"Marriage Story" Review

A recurring issue I'm having with many of the most lauded films recently is how people are so enraptured by the spectacle of impressive acting or aesthetics that they don't seem to realize how deeply flawed the screenplays have been. A prime example was Joker where Joaquin Phoenix's all-in performance and the production's meticulous Scorsese's-New York-in-the-late-Seventies-early-Eighties production design and cinematography beguiled people into not noticing the extremely unreliable narrator storytelling left one questioning whether much of what we saw was even real and there's no way this guy could've been Batman's arch-nemesis.

This came to mind while considering my thoughts about Marriage Story, writer-director Noah Baumbach's semi-autobiographical film about a director and actress ending their marriage (he was married to Jennifer Jason Leigh before taking up with muse and current lauded actress-filmmaker Greta Gerwig) which is currently in contention for six Oscars including Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay and Score. While lavishly written and movingly performed, in the end it doesn't amount to anything meaningful and really should be honestly titled Divorce Story.

Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson are Charlie and Nicole Barber, a couple living in New York City with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson). He's a rising theater director and she's a former teen actress who has enjoyed career rehabilitation appearing in her productions, leading to a role in a TV pilot back in Los Angeles. The film opens with montages of each one listing what they love about the other, showing what appears to be a happy family only to ultimately reveal they're in a marriage mediator's office working through their separation.

She takes their son back to LA and stays with her mother (Julie Hagerty) while he works on preparing his show which is moving to Broadway. While they had discussed amicably splitting without involving lawyers, on a visit to LA she ambushes him with divorce papers prepared by a ruthless shark of an attorney, Nora (Laura Dern). Pushed into a corner, Charlie is forced to hire his own counsel, first meeting with a pricey shark (Ray Liotta), before settling on kindly, but elderly, Bert (Alan Alda).

As the process grinds on, Charlie slowly realizes how terribly the deck is stacked against him. Nicole was from LA, grew up and worked there, they had been married there, and being back with their son, working on a TV series, she's got all the home field advantages and his concept that they were a New York family and they'd be coming back takes a beating. However, as the legal beagles take over the case and start getting nasty on behalf of their clients, we can tell that the couple aren't happy that it's come to this. But while there are flare-ups, outbursts and a shouting match, they don't really seem to hate each other.

While Baumbach's script gives everyone plenty of meaty dialog and scenes to play and he elicits top-notch performances from everyone - Alda should've been nominated as well - I kept having the recurring thought, "What is the point of this?" I waited for some massive shoe to drop that Charlie was the villain, but other than being too focused on his theater company and having a fling with the stage manager after his wife had shut him out, there's nothing to deserve the treatment Nicole subjects him to.

She's selfish, self-centered, and conniving (as revealed when Charlie discovers, as he's frantically trying to secure a lawyer, that she's burned the top candidates by meeting with them first) and that makes her hard to root for as her only acceptable solution would've been for Charlie to sacrifice his career to relocate for her.

But unsympathetic characters aren't what undercuts Marriage Story for me, it's that none of them have much in the way of arcs; no one ends up much different in the end from where they start. We wait for some tangible rationale for their split, but it never comes. It seems they could've communicated better in their relationship and tried to get on the same page, but the overall impression is that while they may not have loved each other enough to stay married, they didn't dislike each other enough to spend the small fortune the divorce cost them to execute.

Frankly, if not for Henry, none of this movie would happen - she would've gone to LA, he would've stayed in NYC, they would've grown their careers, and the lawyers would've had to split up other couples for fun and profit. (Now I think the movie should've been entitled Half-Hearted Custody Battle.) The final beat of the movie, involving an untied shoelace, really shows how meaningless the previous two-plus hours of drama were.

The movie Marriage Story has been frequently compared to is 1979's five Oscar-winner Kramer vs. Kramer where selfish mother Meryl Streep abandons Dustin Hoffman and young son only to return over a year later to demand custody. That film was about a man trying to become Mr. Mom in a time where they didn't do the housework, but Charlie is portrayed as a great cook and attentive father. Steep is also the unmitigated heavy, while Nicole is just conceited like an actress would be.

While Half-Hearted Custody Battle Marriage Story doesn't add up to a sum greater than its parts, it's still worth a watch for the ace performances and, ironically, for Baumbach's script which almost gets away with camouflaging its general irrelevance by being so well-observed about the surface details overlaying its empty core.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"6 Underground" Review

When the trailer dropped for 6 Underground the first question many people had was, "Michael Bay made a movie for NETFLIX?" How could all that shiny Bayhem fit on anything less than the megaplex's big screen? After watching it, my question is how could Bay, the writers of the Zombieland and Deadpool series, and Ryan Reynolds make such a muddled, tonally dissonant, unfun movie and burn a reported $150 million of Netflix's dollars in the process.

After an odd opening scene where Reynold's character is faking his death in a crash of the Red Bull racing plane (so much product placement in this movie), the opening sequence is a chaotic car chase set in Florence, Italy introducing Reynold's crew of numbered (no names) associates as they flee....something (it's not clear like most of this movie), some sort of mission gone wrong with one woman on the team shot and Reynolds holding an eyeball. Running nearly 20 minutes long, it feels like Bay watched Baby Driver and said, "Hold my beer, Edgar Wright."

It ends with their wheelman (Dave Franco) dead, so Reynold's One needs to find a Seven and that turns out to be a depressed former Delta Force sniper (Corey Hawkins) who wasn't allowed to take out a truck bomb in Afghanistan and his comrades were killed. One promises that he'll never make him hold his fire, so Seven fakes his death, witnesses his funeral at Arlington, and joins One's squad of colorful one-dimensional stereotypes.

One's backstory is that he was a prodigy who became a tech billionaire with powerful magnet tech, but maintained a low profile that a billionaire who looks like Ryan Reynolds can easily pull off. (Note: sarcasm.) In a flashback we see his impetus for the team's Big Mission: While doing a publicity visit at a refugee camp in (fictional Central Asian country) Turgistan where he planned to pose for photos appearing to care before cutting a fat check and splitting the scene, he narrowly survived a nerve gas attack by the local dictator. Outraged that the "civilized world" wasn't doing anything, he's faked his death and assembled the team to pull of a wildly complicated coup d'├ętat scheme involving killing Turgistan's top generals then breaking the dictator's brother out of a luxury penthouse in Hong Kong he's detained in.

6 Underground's fatal structural problems emerge rapidly after the whiz-bang opening as we delve into One and Seven's backstories. They're simply too grimly realistic in contrast to the cartoony bloody mayhem before. Since anonymity is supposed to be the team's protective shield - "Invisibility is a Ghost's superpower," One lectures - hitman Three isn't supposed to be visiting his Alzheimer's stricken mother in the nursing home, but this humanizing transgression is followed by One threatening to kill him if he does it again.

Is he serious? It's hard to tell from Reynolds' performance, but that's the fault of the screenplay by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese. The difference in quality between the first and second films of their Deadpool and Zombieland series was pretty stark, but that doesn't explain this mess. It's as if they had index cards with notes like "Tony Stark + Deadpool = One" and "bad dictator is bad" and "Hong Kong = China $$$" and they just put them in a pile with no concern about minor things like character, plot, logic, emotions, or anything much. The Bayhem™ will carry them. So we get typical Reynolds' snark which is starting to wear thin with repetition and a few hints at depth quickly glossed over by the filmmakers choice to be all frosting, little cake.

Because the tone whipsaws too much, the perfectly polished set pieces and locations just pass before the viewers glazed eyes. Bay movies are notorious for their rapid editing pace, but he always manages to make every fleeting frame shine like a million dollars. There will be soap bubbles floating in a background or the camera pushes past a couple sipping tea overlooking the car chase; details that took someone a lot of time to put in place and are completely superfluous. (I'm surprised it doesn't take years to shoot a Bay film, but this reportedly took just over four months.) If we could have cared just a little about what was going on

While pondering whether it would've been even possible to balance splashy comic action mayhem and a heavier subtext, I remembered Bay had done something similar with his second movie, the 1996 Nicolas Cage-Sean Connery vehicle The Rock which had as its inciting incident a rogue band of Marines stealing nerve gas weapons to blackmail the government into paying compensation to families of black ops warriors who died in action.

That's some heavy stuff and the actions the Marines take got pretty extreme, but the balance between that and Cage's post-Oscar peak-Nineties popcorn movie phase antics (he'd follow this with Con Air and Face/Off) and Connery's grumpy old spy held together. (The Rock was in the Criterion Collection!) 6 Underground doesn't even seem to know what it's trying to do, so it just turns everything up to 12 and calls it a day. (Speaking of which, if you want to use your home theater's subwoofers to help find loose and rattling paneling in your basement, this is the movie to provide the boom in your room.)

Netflix is in a transition period with its feature movie productions. The hit-to-miss ratio has been rather sketchy, but the past few years have seen notable quality improvements with multiple Oscar nominations and wins, culminating in a studio-leading 24 in this year's race led by The Irishman and Marriage Story. More and more big names are making films for them and a balanced diet of lofty artistic movies and popcorn munchers is to be expected. Unfortunately, 6 Underground is the unpopped kernel in the bottom of the bucket.

If you want a better military caper flick, try the flawed-but-OK Triple Country, also a Netflix Original.

Score: 2/10.Skip it and watch to this Sneaker Pimps' video instead. (Kelli Ali is pretty hot.)

"Ghosts of Sugar Land" Review

While scrolling around for something to watch, the missus and I decided to finally watch the Netflix documentary short Ghosts of Sugar Land due to its intriguing trailer and premise and because it was only 21 minutes long.

Sugar Land is a suburb of Houston where a black guy referred to as "Mark" hung out with a group of Muslim friends in high school. Since the area was predominantly white, Asian, and Hispanic, he was one of the few black kids in his high school. He would ask them about Islam and they'd teach him some prayers and advise him as best as they could. Eventually he would convert to Islam and rapidly became radical, culminating with him traveling to Turkey and going over the border into Syria to join ISIS.

Basically an oral history from his former cohort, the hook of this documentary, as stated by one participant, is that they don't have to wear masks for what THEY did, but because of what HE did, and to that end everyone wears superhero and videogame character masks and when photos of "Mark" and the speakers are shown, matching mask photos disguise them. It's a cute variation on the usual "interviewed in shadowy silhouette with voice pitch-shifted like Laurie Anderson" method of anonymizing interviewees.

Despite being shorter than a half-hour commercial television show, Ghosts of Sugar Land still feels too long and not particularly insightful. While the friends speculate as to whether "Mark" was an FBI mole, there's nothing to support this conjecture; it just feels better than acknowledging in a post-9/11 world that there are radical Muslims and it's not just "Islamophobia" raising concerns about radicalism. A postscript reveals news learned about "Mark" (including revealing his real name) after filming had been done, but his final fate isn't detailed.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"Parasite" Review

Judging from the title alone, Parasite sounds like a horror movie and not a biting social commentary about economic classes. But in the hands of South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-Ho (Okja, Snowpiercer, The Host), it's a metaphor for the divide between rich and poor, but not in the way you'd think and in the end, it does turn somewhat into a horror film.

Since the cast is all foreign with unfamiliar actors and characters almost having the same surnames, I'm going to describe things thusly: The Kim family - a mother, father, son, and daughter - are poor and unemployed, living in a cramped semi-basement (meaning top of walls are windows at sidewalk level) flat, relying on neighbors Wi-Fi for Internet connectivity. The only work we see them do at first is folding pizza boxes for a local shop.

A friend of the son's visits one day with the gift of a large scholar's rock which is supposed to bring them wealth. While hanging out with the son, he suggests that the son take over the English tutor gig with a wealthy family's - the Parks - daughter because he's about to go abroad for school. The sister forges up some documents implying son has more credentials than he does and the wife of the family doesn't care because he seems good at teaching.

Noticing a child's drawing, son discovers there's a young boy in the family and he suggests hiring an art tutor, the cousin of a friend, but actually his sister. In rapid order, the entire family is working for the wealthy family after manipulating the employers into believing the driver is having sex in the boss's Mercedes and the housekeeper is hiding active tuberculosis. However, they are pretending to be unrelated; it's just coincidental that everyone seemed to know just the right replacement for the workers being booted.

One night, while the employer family is away on a camping trip, the Kim family are hanging in their employer's home, eating and drinking, living the high life when the former housekeeper arrives, begging to be let in because she forgot something in the basement in her rush when she was dismissed. The reluctantly let her in at which point the story takes a hard turn into bonkers terrain. To say more would spoil the surprises.

While Parasite has been lauded for its commentary on economic differences by critics anxious to foment class warfare to usher in the mythical Socialist Utopia they never stop pining for, I think they have blinkered themselves to the fact they don't wish to see: THE POOR PEOPLE ARE THE VILLAINS, NOT THE HEROES! 

The hints are right there in the beginning when the pizzeria notes their folded boxes are 25% defective, indicating they don't care to do quality work. (We have no explanation as to why they're poor in the first place.) Then in order to get the parents in on the scam, the kids frame two innocent employees and have them kicked to the curb. Should the rich couple have been suspicious? Sure, but that's not the point. Without spoiling the ending, it goes completely off the rails and jumps all the sharks because we're supposed to be sympathetic to a character's actions because someone else made a sour expression about a smelly person? Really? All the layered subtly of the movie to that point goes out the window and the ending where the son dreams of reuniting his family by working hard and earning success legitimately is the final irony Parasite's class war fans overlook.

While the story may not be as deep as some may perceive, it's presented in a visually stunning manner with detailed production design - the Kim's apartment (and entire street!) and the Park's house interiors were built on soundstages; the Park's exterior on a empty lot - and sumptuous cinematography. Bong's camera movements and editing are deliberate orchestrated and dynamic, providing a lustrous sheen and tactile griminess as needed. The cast is uniformly excellent with Park So-dam, the Kim daughter, standing out with her sly manipulative demeanor. (She's also cute.)

Already winner of the 2019 Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the first foreign ensemble winner from the Screen Actors Guild, it's currently nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture, Director, International Film (which it's a slam dunk to take home). While I may not seem as overly impressed by Parasite as the critical herds - I've found all of Bong's movies I've seen to be good, but not that good - it's still a good movie worth watching. Let's just not lose our heads over it.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.  

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