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!

"Knox Goes Away" Review

There seems to be a run of movies lately riffing off the theme of the 2003 Belgian movie The Alzheimer Case (aka The Memory of a Killer) which was remade as a 2022 Liam Neeson vehicle called Memory and told the story of a hitman who was losing his faculties to Alzheimer's disease. Now there's a Russell Crowe movie hitting streaming called Sleeping Dogs about an retired police detective with Alzheimer's just in time to be compared to Knox Goes Away which stars Michael Keaton, who's also making his directorial debut, as a hitman who has.... Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, which is a fast-progressing form of dementia which is basically turbocharged Alzheimer's.

Keaton's John Knox is informed of his dire condition by his doctor and told to get his affairs in order sooner than later. He makes arrangements to liquidate his holding in stolen items and cash to distribute to a short list of recipients. While we've seen him blanking in the opening scenes, things really go south when he accidentally kills his partner (Ray McKinnon) after he whacks the target and a woman who was in the shower with him.

Confused as to what happened, he hurriedly stages the scene to make it look like the target returned fire, but he knows the setup won't withstand scrutiny for long since all the bullets will match to one gun. He's right as the lead detective investigating the case, Ikari (Suzy Nakamura), immediately wonders who turned the shower off when everyone was dead and the ballistics prove it was a single gun.

Complicating matters is the knock at the door that night from his estranged son, Miles (James Marsden), who he doesn't immediate recognize due to his condition and it's been many years since they'd spoken. Miles has a cut hand which he'd picked up when he murdered the older man who had groomed, seduced and impregnated his teen-aged daughter. Desperate, he comes to Knox since he figures someone like him who does what he does may have an idea of how to manage the situation.

 Knox then proceeds to come up with a plan to handle Myles' mess with his friend, crime boss Xavier (Al Pacino working just above phoning it in), helping to keep him on track lest he lose his mind before completing the scheme. As the plan plays out, we don't really understand what he's doing and when all the evidence instead directly implicates Miles to the point he is arrested for the murder, we're left to wonder if Knox messed up.

What makes Knox Goes Away a decent little film is the low-key manner Keaton directs the proceedings including his performance. Rather than make a splashy look-at-me-I'm-acting-and-directing-suck-it-Bradley-Cooper self-indulgent ego trip, he underplays the moments which a less confident actor may've wanted to swing for the fences. The staging and framing is unobtrusive and he gives his co-stars plenty of nice moments particularly Marcia Gay Harden as his ex-wife whom he visits one last time, telling her he's "going away", and Marsden who definitely breaks from his usual pretty boy roles (he was Cyclops in the original X-Men movies) with a raw nerve performance which actually makes him looked middle aged. (I see he's now 50, so it's about time he started looking like he's 40.)

 The script by Gregory Poirier is competent, including so quiet humorous moments to lighten the mood without turning it into a dramedy. Knox is definitely going to end up having gone away, but the trip isn't too much of a bummer. There's also a side plot about a Polish call girl, Annie (Jonanna Kulig), whose weekly visits serve as an indicator of Knox's decline and resolves in a somewhat surprising fashion.

There doesn't seem to be much market for mature stories about mature people that aren't directly targeted for Awards Season, so it's an oddity that a movie like Knox Goes Away that merely tells a quiet character story quietly exists. It's not a necessary story, but it's told well enough and won't waste your time.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Prisoners of the Ghostland" Review

 While trying to find something to watch some time ago the missus and I bookmarked a weird-looking (based on the trailer) trailer for a Shudder Original Nicolas Cage movie called Prisoners of the Ghostland. Tonight we actually got around to watching it. And afterwards we wished we hadn't.

Cage stars as Hero (movies aren't even trying anymore, are they?), a bank robber who while robbing a bank (hey, it's in the job title) with his co-robber, Psycho (Nick Cassavetes; what was I saying about names?), ended up with a lot of dead people is being held in a bizarre Japanese town which seems to be part brothel, part Western frontier town where the armed men either present as cowboys or samurais in service of the Governor (Bill Moseley, many Rob Zombie films), a white man who wears an all white suit and cowboy hat like Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard

Governor wants Hero to find his "granddaughter" (read: escaped sex slave), Bernice (Sofia Boutella), and to keep him focused on his task he puts him in a swank leather suit with explosive charges on his arms and crotch (in case he gets any bad thoughts) and his neck (to kill him) and a five-day lifespan, the last two only if he finds the Bernice by the third day. Tick-tock, Hero!

As he sets off into the bizarre wasteland, he is captured and taken to an odd community built around trying to literally stop time by holding a rope attached to the minute hand of a clock tower. Again, while the people are mostly Japanese, the leader is a white guy. Hero learns of the nuclear accident that occurred there involving a prison bus and tanker of nuclear waste. By the time you factor in the choreographed background cultists dancing, it's all pretty wacky.

And it's also quite dull. Apparently director Sion Sono is a name in the Very Weird Movies genre (I only recognize a couple of his titles), but this, his first English-language movie, while being packed with weird, doesn't make much sense no matter how hard Cage tries to keep us focused. I was wondering if this was all some sort of journey to Hell parable, but it ultimately comes off as being just weird for weird's sake. By the time the final scenes with some action occur, they're welcome because they indicate the movie's almost over.

 I can see why Cage signed on to this freak show (other than for the paycheck) and he doesn't phone in his performance, but there's not much of a character for him to play and he spends too much time unconscious and carted around from one weird spot to another. Boutella has even less to do other than be exotic looking and a flashback revealing how she got a scar and how it connects to Hero's crime confuses as to what sort of timeframe things take place in. Moseley's Governor is a cartoon, again due to the script.

 While the setting and details clearly required thought and planning to execute, the underlying story is simply too thin, confusing, and ultimately irrelevant to merit the time to watch it. If you subscribe to Shudder, randomly flip through it and stop at random spots to see some weird.

Score: 2/10. Skip it (or just skip around the timeline to see some weirdness).

Oscars 2024 Review Roundup & My Awards Picks

Tonight is the who careseth Academy Awards where Hollyweird gets together to conclude Awards Season with the biggest show of self congratulations. As I've done in recent years I attempted to watch as many of the nominees in the Best Picture, Best Director, and the two screenplay and four acting categories in what I've termed the Oscars Death March as there are frequently movies I had no interest in that, in the name of wanting to make informed judgements and know where Oscar blew it or got it right, I had to see.

This year with the fixed number of Best Picture contenders at 10 that meant there were 45 nominees to slog through and in my best ever performance, I saw 43 of them including ALL the Best Picture nominees AND managed to get reviews posted for all but one (Barbie) which I viewed too long ago to properly review and want to revisit to properly evaluate.

What follows is who I would've voted for if I had an Academy ballot. (In tribute to Siskel & Ebert's traditional "If We Picked The Winners" show.) I will count down from #10 to my ultimate vote getter (I think Oscar uses ranked voting, so this is the inverse of how they'd tally) and then run through the individual awards with comments.

But enough of my yakking. Let's boogie!

#10 - Killers of the Flower Moon (Score: 3/10) - Martin Scorsese's interminable story of white oppression and murder of the Osage Indians in the 1920s was a team up with his two biggest muses, De Niro and DiCaprio, and it was 2 hours of movie dragged out for 3-1/2 hours. The only Skip It review of all nominees.

#9 - The Zone of Interest (5/10) - The banality of evil gets an extended remix in this odd dry film about living next door to Auschwitz with the sounds and ashes of genocide wafting into a Nazi family's idyllic life. Great sound design, but drones on too long.

#8 - Past Lives (6/10) - One of three foreign language films and the smallest in scale that I have no idea why it's in the running with it's frustrating story of unrequited pining. Greta Lee deserved to be nominated Best Actress, though.

#7 - Oppenheimer (6/10) - The odds-on favorite to win big is Christopher Nolan's first movie that I haven't actively hated since Inception. Not that it's a particularly good movie as it manages to sound and fury the impression of something substantive for three hours while being maddeningly sparse. Congrats for not sucking, Chris. Enjoy your career makeup Oscars - this is your The Departed.

#6 - Maestro (7/10) - Bradley Cooper's Oscar bait tour de force has the look and performances, but is undercut by a screenplay that chooses to look at the periphery of the Leonard Bernstein's life thus requiring viewers to come in with too much knowledge of his music on their own. He should've been nominated for direction over screenwriting.

#5 - Anatomy of a Fall (7/10) - An interesting psychological legal drama that lands with a splat due to an ambiguous, choose-your-own-ending-and-meaning conclusion that leaves the viewer high and dry and unsatisfied.

#4 - The Holdovers (7/10) - An odd retro-styled throwback to the way movies were in the early-1970s with a somewhat shaggy story propelled by nuanced performances by Paul Giamatti and Da'Vine Joy Randolph. The script is somewhat unsatisfying in the end, but has a lot of rich moments throughout which liven up the stock plot.

#3 - Barbie (7.5/10 pending review) - Considering the political firestorm around the blockbuster #1 movie of 2023 with one side calling it the greatest feminist triumph ever and the other calling it a misandrist hate crime and some contrary opinions in between, I was surprised that I mostly enjoyed Greta Gerwig's plastic fantastic toy commercial. While the score may change, the ranking is unlikely to move other than perhaps switching with The Holdovers.

#2 - Poor Things (8.5/10) - Yorgos Lanthimos' absolutely bonkers take on Frankenstein is the year's most original movie, weird, wacky, wild and what movies are supposed to do: Show you people and places you've never seen. Emma Stone gives a career best performance and should win her second Oscar for it.

Which leaves us my vote for Best Picture....

#1 - American Fiction (9/10) - Lost behind the generic title (seriously, how many "America [Second Word]" movies are there? American Psycho, American Sniper, American Gangster/Pie/Graffiti/Made/Beauty/Etc.) is one of the sharpest satires in memory running along with a surprisingly layered and warm family drama that mocks white liberal racism while telling a story about people who are black, but not Hollyweird's stereotypical Magical Negro or Helpless Victim framing. Writer-Director Cord Jefferson has created something special and I hope he doesn't fall off like Jordan Peele did after Get Out. Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown are excellent.

This is the first Best Picture vote that I'd be enthused to cast in a long time as even the "best movies in past years were flawed like Parasite or Nomadland. It doesn't stand a chance this year - or any year - but at least it was nominated. Go watch it. (It's currently on Fubo and MGM+; hopefully it will migrate to a more common service.)

And now onto the rest of the categories with my votes in bold and comments:

Justine Triet - ANATOMY OF A FALL
Christopher Nolan - OPPENHEIMER
Yorgos Lanthimos - POOR THINGS
Jonathan Glazer - THE ZONE OF INTEREST

Nolan is going to win, but Lanthimos is the best director in a weak field where three of the nominees could've been replaced by others like Bradley Cooper or Greta Gerwig. He made the most original and stylistic film of the year. It's on Hulu now. Go watch it.

Bradley Cooper in MAESTRO
Colman Domingo in RUSTIN
Paul Giamatti in THE HOLDOVERS
Cillian Murphy in OPPENHEIMER
Jeffrey Wright in AMERICAN FICTION

Giamatti gives his most Giamatti performance here, but it's not just more of the same. I just wish the script had resolved more satisfactorily. It's a toss-up between him and Murphy to win, but my 2nd choice would be Wright as he's been so good for so long and this is his first real leading showcase and he kills it.

I didn't see Domingo in Rustin because the movie didn't interest me, the reviews were bad, and he wasn't going to win.

Annette Bening in NYAD
Sandra Hüller in ANATOMY OF A FALL
Carey Mulligan in MAESTRO
Emma Stone in POOR THINGS

Stone delivers the boldest and bravest performance of the year (and not just because she sailed into Mr. Skin's "Great Nudity" ranking with her overload of sex scenes here which weren't that sexy which was the point). She's always been a very subtle actor thanks to her giant Na'vi-sized eyes - just watch the audition scene in La La Land as she realizes they're not paying attention - but here she has to arc Bella from a toddler's mentality to a bright woman's with matching physicality and an English accent to boot.

If Gladstone beats her because the Academy wants to Make History, it'd be a traveshamockery. Greta Lee (Past Lives) should've been nominated over her and perhaps Hüller.

Sterling K. Brown in AMERICAN FICTION
Robert Downey Jr. in OPPENHEIMER
Ryan Gosling in BARBIE
Mark Ruffalo in POOR THINGS

A stacked year with all deserving contenders that edged out some other good performances. Downey is going to win and should win both as a lifetime achievement award and being the only really recognizably human character in the clinical Oppenheimer. 2nd choice would be Brown or Gosling.

Emily Blunt in OPPENHEIMER
Danielle Brooks in THE COLOR PURPLE
America Ferrera in BARBIE
Jodie Foster in NYAD
Da'Vine Joy Randolph in THE HOLDOVERS

 The surest bet of the night and deservedly so as she had the most to do and nailed it. 2nd choice would probably be Foster who's making a comeback lately and this was far better than her turn in True Detective: Night Country. Ferrera is here solely because of her thesis statement rant about how persecuted women are which was pure agitprop and the worst moment in the movie.

Brooks was the only other performance I missed because I haven't seen the original The Color Purple since it was in theaters and I recently bought it in 4K and wanted to revisit that before watching the musical remake. As the sole nomination from the movie, she has no chance and was thus deprioritized, but I'll catch it eventually.

BARBIE - Greta Gerwig & Noah Baumbach
OPPENHEIMER - Christopher Nolan
POOR THINGS - Tony McNamara
THE ZONE OF INTEREST - Jonathan Glazer

Best pictures start with best screenplays, so this is the gimme. My 2nd pick would be Barbie because while it's stuck in the Adapted category due to it being based on the dolls, it's not as if there was a source book like every other nominee had to draw from and what Gerwig and Baumbach did was quite unique.

ANATOMY OF A FALL - Justine Triet and Arthur Harari
THE HOLDOVERS - David Hemingson
MAESTRO - Bradley Cooper & Josh Singer
MAY DECEMBER - Screenplay by Samy Burch; Story by Samy Burch & Alex Mechanik
PAST LIVES - Celine Song
As noted, Barbie should be here, and frankly I'm not super enthused about any of the nominees, so I'm going with The Holdovers for being the least flawed of the lot. Based on my issues with the rest, no 2nd pick. Weakest category of the Death March.

So that's it for this year's Oscars Death March other than catching The Color Purple (2023) and rewatching Barbie. With the exception of Killers of the Flower Moon, there weren't many movies that were too much of a chore to get through and for the most part the nominations and likely winners aren't worth burning a city down over. There could be a few upsets if the Academy decides to spread the wealth around as they've tended to do, but as long as Gladstone doesn't beat Stone (that would merit a small riot) I'll allow it.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

"Lisa Frankenstein" Review

 What happened to Diablo Cody? After her Oscar-winning debut screenplay for 2007's Juno, she followed up with the cult classic Jennifer's Body in 2009, then pretty much never wrote another movie that did business since. I see she won a Tony for her book of the Jagged Little Pill musical, but movie-wise she's been a non-entity for over a decade. And that losing streak hit a new low with Lisa Frankenstein, which also marked the feature directing debut (and likely finale) of Robin Williams' daughter Zelda.

We were watching this because a friend of the missus had claimed Poor Things - my #2 pick for this year's Best Picture - was a ripoff of the plot to Frankenhooker, which we hadn't seen. With the Oscars Death March over, it was time to check it out, but we decided to look at this first and hoo boy, was it bad.

 Kathryn Newton (Cassie Lang in Ant-Man: Quantumania) is Lisa Swallows, a teenage girl in 1989 whose mother was killed two years prior by a random axe murderer. Her father, Dale (Joe Chrest, Stranger Things), remarried a mean woman, Janet (Carla Gugino), and now she has bubbly cheerleader half-sister, Taffy (Liza Soberano, she's big in the Philippines), which doesn't match her misanthropic personality. She likes to hang out in an abandoned cemetery, making rubbings of tombstones and hanging out at the grave of a young man who died in the 19th Century.

 After accidentally getting a spiked drink at a house party and almost raped by a dorky high school boy, Lisa goes to the cemetery and wishes she could be with the dead young man forever. After she goes home, a freak storm causes lighting to hit and guess who's back from the dead?

When the Creature (Cole Sprouse, Jughead on Riverdale) shows up at her home, she's naturally terrified because it seems to be a replay of how her mother died, but then a few seconds later she realizes this is the guy from the cemetery and decides to stash the zombie in her closet. He's missing an ear, hand and penis, but with a combination of murder and an extremely defective tanning bed that Taffy won as Miss Hawaiian Tropic, she can rebuild him and he becomes more lively looking in the process.

While the premise seems to have potential as a mashup of several horror and teen movies, nothing works starting with Lisa who is simply unlikable and ill-defined as if the pages of the script where you'd set up the protagonist were lost or never written and Newton doesn't imbue her with any charm. Gugino's stepmother is a cartoon; her dad is a passive wimp who never seems to be emotionally engaged even when his wife goes missing; all the teen boys are blockheads. Only Taffy is a basically decent character which is meant to be a twist because she's introduced as a vapid bimbette. Sprouse does well with a nearly wordless performance, but it's clear his direction was "be Edward Scissorhands."

But beyond the thin script, the direction by Williams doesn't get the tone anywhere near right. Horror-comedy done properly results in the likes of Evil Dead II, An American Werewolf in London, Freaky, and the recent Amazon Prime Original Totally Killer. Black comedies like American Psycho or Heathers could go wildly wrong if mishandled. Lisa Frankenstein is a prime example of bad script meeting incompetent direction resulting in a mishmash mess of little merit.

However, in response to this disaster the missus suggested we watch a movie I've owned forever, but had never gotten around to watching though she'd seen it, Life After Beth.

Score: 2/10. Skip it!

"Damsel" 4K Review

If it's Friday it must be time for another Netflix Original Movie and this week's forgettable disposable reason why they're the most expensive service is Damsel, a fantasy movie starring Stranger Things girlboss Millie Bobby Brown as, well, a damsel in distress.

 Brown is Elodie, a poor girl from a frigid region scraping for food and firewood. One day, a proposal comes from the Queen of Aurea (Robin Wright, cuz she was The Princess Bride) for her to marry her son, Henry (Nick Robinson). The union would greatly help her people, so she heads to Aurea with her father, Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone, Beowulf), her stepmother (Angela Bassett), and younger sister Floria (Brooke Carter). Once there, they are ensconced in luxury and Elodie spends time with Henry and finds common interests.

Of course, anyone who's seen the trailer knows that this is all a ruse because after the wedding, they head to the mountains for a blood ritual surrounded by the partygoers from Eyes Wide Shut after which our damsel (roll credits!) is unceremoniously tossed into a pit where after crashing through various branches and vines to break her fall, ends up in a cave network within the mountain which is home to a dragon (voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo and her "smoked three packs a day beginning in kindergarten" voice) seeking to burninate her. Rude!

 Turns out the Royals (BTW, what ever happened to Lorde?) made a deal long ago that in exchange for not burninating their lands, each generation they would sacrifice three royal daughters and thus the blood ritual to make these peasant girls smell like royal blood. Fortunately, Eleven Elodie is a clever resourceful girl and with some convenient help from magic healing creatures and notes left by previous losing contestants on The Royal Bachelor, she is able to turn the tables on everyone. (No, this isn't a spoiler. What did you think was going to happen?)

 While predictable and disposable, I had an OK time with Damsel. Brown is acceptably capable without being too girlbossy and other than too much time spent getting on with the twist (which is in the trailer), it passes quickly. I've seen some nerd rager YouTubers lose their minds over this being a girlboss who don't need no man/men are ineffectual and weak feminist Mary Sue hatefest a la the M-She-U, but that seems more a need to keep the outrage clicks coming than genuine anger. The villain is the Queen, so what's the problem?

As far as AV goes, the Dolby Vision presentation is bright, especially the golden carriage, and the cave scenes aren't too dim. The Atmos audio has some good bass notes like the dragon's voice and flames. Speaking of which, the way they portray the dragon breath as more of a napalm-like liquid fire than a gas flame was different and even more effective because if it sticks to you, you're burned.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"Spaceman" 4K Review

Since I'm relaxing my boycott of Adam Sandler - which after some reflection seems overkill (but that's another discussion) - I was willing to watch the weird cerebral science fiction Netflix Original Spaceman, in which Sandler plays an astronaut who has a close encounter with a giant talking spider while on a deep space mission.

Sandler is Jakub, a Czech cosmonaut on a solo mission to a bizarre astronomical phenomena called Chopra which has appeared beyond Jupiter. He is battling loneliness and depression after six months heading out and this is without knowing that his very pregnant wife, Lenka (Carey Mulligan), wants to leave him, but her Dear Jakub message was blocked by his commander on Earth, Tuma (Isabella Rossellini). One night he has a nightmare that something is crawling under his face before a spider's legs erupt from his mouth.

Then one day he discovers a visitor has boarded his ship, a HUGE (man-sized) tarantula looking alien he eventually names Hanus (voiced by Paul Dano), who tells Jakub he was in the neighborhood to see Chopra, but was drawn to Jakub's loneliness and wants to help. Able to telepathically access Jakub's memories, he begins to counsel him by exploring why his marriage is falling apart. Meanwhile on Earth, after a visit to her mother (Lena Olin), Lenka spends time at a ritzy spa for pregnant women.

Spaceman reminded me of Steven Soderbergh's 2002 version of Solaris in its quiet tone and increasing sense that what we're watching isn't really happening. Is there really a friendly alien spider who develops a hankering for Nutella acting as a marriage counselor or is Jakub's guilt for being a lousy, unavailable husband manifesting as Hanus. While Lenka comes off initially as a beyatch, as we get his side of the story we realize it took two to tear a relationship.

But what it really resembles is the mopey 2019 Brad Pitt sci-fi film Ad Astra (which I saw, but somehow didn't log and have no review score for) with Pitt as an astronaut with daddy issues who travels to the fringes of the solar system to have a showdown with his father. Along the way he encounters rabid lab monkeys and Moon pirates and it's all ridiculously stupid and convoluted for a story that could've been told on Earth as a road trip movie.

Forgetting the whole "When did Czechoslovakia get a space program? or "Is the spider real?" angles, what is the reason for sending only one man on this supposedly critical mission other than to have him be depressed, lonely and susceptible to space spider marriage counseling? That sentence alone is why you'd have a co-pilot on the trip. And it's a weird choice considering the production design of the spaceship is the most realistic depiction of what real spaceships look like I can recall. Not slick and futuristic, but functional, tactile, and what an Eastern European country would put together.

But the centerpiece of Spaceman is Sandler's performance and this may be the best acting I've seen him do. While I last suspended my boycott for Uncut Gems (score: 7/10) and appreciated his raw nerve performance, what he does here is so subtle, refined and underplayed that I suspect most people won't appreciate it. Instead of just playing Jakub as mopey, glum, and po'-faced, Sandler's stillness conveys the hollowed-out depression of a man set adrift, literally and figuratively, by his circumstances and his choices. It's really something to behold and that he was doing this while suspended by uncomfortable wires, harnesses and poles is even more impressive.

Mulligan, Rossellini, and Olin don't have much to do but provide diversions to cut away to. Mulligan's Lenka is more an idea than a character which is ironic considering her role is to be the center of Jakub's guilt. If they had cut all the Earth scenes, it would've have made much difference story-wise. 

While I was left lukewarm about Spaceman, the missus really liked it and she hated Solaris, so go figure. If you're in the mood for a sad tale of a man metaphysically lost in space, you may want to give this a look if only to see what the star(s) of Jack and Jill could've been doing instead.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"Poor Things" 4K Review

The final film of this year's Oscars Death March (and the first time I've managed to see ALL the Best Picture nominees) is Yorgos Lanthimos's bonkers science fictiony fantasyish dark social comedy Poor Things which is the most original and outlandish movie of the year and makes Barbie look like a documentary about poverty and slums. It's nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Production and Costume Design and it'd better win several of them.

Emma Stone stars as Bella Baxter, a young woman in Victorian London who seems to have the mentality of a toddler probably due to her "father", Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), whom she calls "God" for short, finding her freshly-dead body in the Thames after she committed suicide and removing her still-alive near-term baby and then transplanting the baby's brain into its mother's skull thus allowing him to observe the development of a new mind in a mature body. You could say he's a bit of a mad scientist.

He hires a student, Max (Ramy Youssef), from his medical school to be Bella's observer, documenting her development and when he detects affection between him and Bella, he suggests they marry to which Max agrees, basically selling his life into indentured servitude. The lawyer hired to draft the contract, Duncan (Mark Ruffalo), wonders who is the woman that a man would want to sign his life away for and prowls the house looking for her and once he finds her, decides he wants her for himself, luring her away. While Max is horrified that his fiancee is being let go, Godwin decides it will help her development.

So Bella and Duncan set off for Lisbon then a cruise ship to Greece with plenty of "furious jumping", Bella's term for sex as she had discovered her happy spot and wants it stimulated. A lot. A task Duncan is happy to oblige. But less suitable to him is her intellectual evolution as she encounters new ideas and begins reading philosophy. But because she still is still literally an infant in some ways, she makes poor decisions leading to destitution for the pair and after he abandons her, she ends up working in a Parisian brothel for a looooong time with plenty of scenes of her at work with her clients. 

While the underlying premise and commentary on how women weren't exactly allowed the most agency back in the bad old days is pretty standard stuff (oh no, the PATRIARCHY, Barbie Bella!), what makes that tangential is the world Lanthimos and company have constructed to tell the tale.

Clearly artificial and surreal, it feels like a cross between a Terry Gilliam and Luc Besson movie (The Fifth Element and Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets movies from the latter) with a dash of Wes Anderson and David Lynch on the side with fantastical cityscapes and impossible creatures like a dog with a goose's neck and head or a chicken body with a pig head. Filmed at times with extreme wide-angle and fisheye lenses, it looks out of this reality but without the digital fakeness many movies have despite using similar technology.

But the style wouldn't matter without rooting the bizarre proceedings in across the board excellent performances beginning with Emma Stone's completely committed and unabashed performance. From the way Bella's walk develops from a wobbling toddler's to a confident woman's without falling into pratfall and the way her mental and personality development arcs, it's a triumph of a performance and the only thing that will prevent her willing her 2nd Oscar is if the Academy decides to make an affirmative action choice for Lily Gladstone. And the way she puts her body forth, well then. Let's say that this isn't your typical "stripper who doesn't get naked" deal. Nope. (If you wanted more than the one nipple she exposed in The Favourite, you get it in all the suits of the deck here.)

At first I didn't dig Ruffalo's performance as the caddish Duncan, but as time went on and his bragadocious front was stripped away (no thanks to Bella's actions), he becomes a pitiable figure. If I was handing out the nominations, I would've given his to Dafoe's Godwin. Buried under a four-hours-in-the-makeup-chair mask of scars and latex, it would've been easy to play it as an amoral mad scientist. But as details of his horrifying upbringing as his father's experimental test bed are revealed, the pathos of a man bent to a path which leads to questionable wonders comes through.

While Poor Things could've benefited from being 20 minutes shorter and trimmed back some of the brothel stuff, it still excels at doing what few movies these days seem to have had much interest in delivering, taking the viewer to see people and places they've never seen before and that makes it one of the best films of the year and my second place vote for Best Picture.

Exit Note: While discussing the film with the missus, she said that there was no way the Oscars would go for such a bizarre and sexual freak show of a movie. Then I reminded her, "They gave Best Picture to a movie about a woman who f*cks the Creature from the Black Lagoon, so..." (That's The Shape of Water - aka Grinding Nemo - in case you don't get the reference.)

Score: 8.5/10. Catch it on cable. (It comes to Hulu on March 7)

"Nyad" 4K Review

Truth be told, I probably wouldn't have watched Netflix Original feature Nyad if not to check off a pair of items on my 2024 Oscars Death March watchlist, Annette Benning's Best Actress-nominated performance as marathon swimmer Diana Nyad and Jodie Foster's Best Supporting Actress-nominated turn as Bonnie Stoll, Nyad's best friend and trainer.

I'm not a fan of sports films and the trailer made it look like it was more interested in the LGBTQ+ angle Netflix tagged it as and even though Film Threat's review debunked the latter, their praise seemed more about the sports aspect. When the Oscar nominations were announced, I figured Benning's was mostly due to the most braving and stun thing an actress can do in Hollyweird: Appear old on screen. (Why else did Patricia Arquette win an Oscar for her shrill performance in Boyhood - of as I call it, Twelve Years A Movie - other than she aged 12 years on screen?)

So I wasn't going into watching Nyad with much optimism, but fortunately the performances make the formulaic and thin story worth watching. If you like sports movies, you'll probably enjoy it more.

The movie opens with a montage of actually footage of the real Nyad summarizing her life and swimming achievements culminating in her failed attempt to swim the 103 miles between Havana, Cuba and Key West, Florida at age 28. Then we meet Benning's Nyad at age 60, who despite having a career as a commentator on ABC's Wide World of Sports, is plagued by her failure to achieve her dream of the Cuba swim. She decides she's going to try and do it and taps Bonnie as her trainer.

What follows is a condensed telling of her five attempts to make the crossing between 2011 and 2013. As much an obstacle of her age and the distance is the wildlife including sharks and jellyfish (the effects of a attempt-ending run-in with a box jellyfish are pretty gnarly and nearly fatal) and the rapid and changeable currents of the Gulf Stream which requires an expert navigator which she find in John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans). He tells her the reason she failed before was from incorrect navigation, but the way she butts head against him almost leads to disaster when storms strike while they're in mid-swim.

And it's Nyad's obstinacy which overshadows her quest. Nyad is...let's go with "difficult" to get along with as she's intensely self-centered and focused on her dream, which makes her dismissive with those there to support her. At the birthday party, Bonnie tries to set her up with a woman, but when we finally see how she handles it by yammering on endlessly about herself while oblivious to the woman's increasing discomfort before finally asking the woman about herself sets up just what it's like to deal with Nyad. Naturally, this leads to everyone getting fed up with her crap and walking away after the fourth failure.

 Though it happened just a decade ago, I didn't remember whether Nyad actually succeeded in making the crossing (though they don't make many movies about people who fail, do they? SPOILER ALERT!) - I remembered her Carter-era try - so I was actually interested to see how it turned out.

First-time narrative film directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (who won a Best Documentary Oscar for Free Solo) do well with the training and swimming scenes as well as the dramatic beats between Nyad, Bonnie and John, but the flashbacks to her childhood with a broken home and sexual abuse from the swim coach she idolized are muddled and don't really seem relevant to the task at hand, but that's on the screenplay by rookie feature scribe Julia Cox, adapting one of Nyad's books, which is serviceable. The big finale is the most nail-biting moment of the film as you fear that all of Nyad's work could be for naught if an overexuberant onlooker touches her.

 But where it swims like a dolphin is in its trio of performances from Benning, Foster and Ifans. It's a fact that actresses like to get ugly for awards credibility whether imitating real people or not, but it's less a gimmick here than just what the role calls for. Nyad is a prickly personality and Benning isn't afraid to make her unlikeable while keeping us rooting for her to overcome the odds.

Foster is having a career resurgence suddenly between this and the just-concluded True Detective: Night Country after nearly two decades barely working in anything anyone has seen. (The last two movies of hers I'd seen were her odd role in the 2018 John Wick knockoff Hotel Artemis and 2013's Elysium where she delivered the worst performance of her career.) She's excellent in her supporting role and it's good to see the Academy understand that many great lead performances have equally critical supporting turns which deserve nomination. (How Christina Ricci was snubbed for her role in Monster which won Charlize Theron her Oscar is a perfect example of the Academy getting it wrong.) Here's to hoping she's looking to work more.

As with all "based on a true story" movies there are some serious corners cut like reducing the size of the support team from multiple vessels and about 40 crew to a single ship and a handful of crew which begs the question how are they staying awake? The controversy about the swim and how it was conducted isn't addressed lest it detract from the desired narrative.

While Nyad doesn't really elevate the sports biopic form to new heights, it's a pleasant, well-acted couple of hours which show that dedication and determination can overcome conventional wisdom and common sense at times. Provided a box jellyfish doesn't sting you to death.

On the technical front, the Dolby Vision and Atmos presentation didn't really seem to add much to the experience, so if you're not shelling out for the $23 tier of Netflix (those greedy jerks) then you're not missing much.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"Mean Girls" (2024) Review

Because entertainment is a flat circle and creativity is too risky for Hollyweird, 2004's Mean Girls which became a 2018 Broadway musical is now back as a film of the musicial based on the film, also named Mean Girls. Confused? Good. Updated by original screenwriter Tina Fey to reflect cultural changes - Tik Tok videos and a whole lot less white people - it's the same old story, but now with singing! (Though you wouldn't know it from its trailer which has about two seconds of footage from musical numbers, so if you hate musicals you're in for a bad time.)

Angourie Rice (she played Betty Brandt in the MCU Spider-Man trilogy) stars as Cady Heron (originally played by Lindsay Lohan), a home-schooled girl raised by her anthropologist mother (Jenna Fischer, originally Ana Gasteyer) in Africa minus any mentioned father. Missing out on social contact, her mother takes a job back in America and Cady enrolls in North Shore High and gets a crash course in cliques. 

She's initially befriended by race-swapped Janis (Auli'i Cravalho, originally Lizzy Caplan) and "too gay to function" Damian (Jaquel Spivey, orig. Daniel Franzese), snarky outcasts, but the focus changes when Janis encourages Cady to infiltrate the notorious "Plastics", the apex predators headed by Regina George (Reneé Rapp, orig. Rachel McAdams) with her sidekicks Gretchen (Bebe Wood, orig. Lacey Chabert) and airhead Karen (Avantica, orig. Amanda Seyfried). Regina takes Cady under her wing and elevates her style and status unaware of how Cady & Co. are conspiring against her. Of course, Cady loses the plot and loses her moral compass, same as last time.

Mean Girls (2024) lives in a weird limbo as a hybrid of a musical and a rehashing of a movie that's never really left the collective cultural memory - there was a Mean Girls-themed Walmart Black Friday 2023 commercial campaign reuniting Lohan, Chabert, Seyfried and others - to the point where any new take couldn't help but be constantly held against the original. As a result, most of the time you're waiting to see how closely the new movie tracks with songs tossed in of varying effectiveness. While the songs are new, the closeness with which the plot beats are the same.

This familiarity is confounded by the new cast being led by Rice whose voice is thin and passable, but she lacks the charisma and charm of Lohan. (Sidebar: It's hard to remember now, but in 2004 Lindsay Lohan was hot stuff coming off the tag team of the Freaky Friday remake and Mean Girls. She was poised for an interesting career, but went down in tabloid flames and the fact she's still alive at 37, recently married with a child in Dubai, and making rom-coms for Netflix a minor miracle.) Rice's Cady is a passive pawn of Janis and Regina's games to the point she's barely the protagonist. According to Wikipedia, 14 songs were cut from the show for the movie and a comparison of the track listings between Broadway cast and movie soundtracks show half of Cady's songs were cut. (Due to Rice's weak voice?)

That makes the stars of this show Rapp and Cravalho. Rapp is a bold brassy bodacious blonde who played Regina on Broadway and also contributed to co-writing new songs for the movie. (She also looks a lot like Busy Phillips so when Philips shows up as her mother, originally played by Amy Poehler, it wins the Most Obvious Casting Duh award.) Unlike McAdams, her presence is more dominating and menacing then hectoring.

Cravalho, who made her acting debut voicing Moana, is the real breakout star here with an effortless nuanced charm embracing her outsiderness and fronting the showstopper number "I'd Rather Be Me" which is shot in a single unbroken take as the camera (operated by Ari Robbins, listed as "Trinity Ninja" in the credits; Trinity being a brand of advanced camera stabilizing kit which is a Steadicam on steroids) races with her through the school in its own complex dance. However, when she suddenly shows up at the finale dance with a girl whom we've never seen before, it's another odd editorial moment.

Rookie directors Arturo Perez Jr. and Samantha Jayne do a fine job staging the modern musical numbers, but they're hamstrung by the choices in the script adaptation by Fey, who returns as Ms. Norbury along with Tim Meadows' Principal Duvall. While the cast as been diversified, it's not woke racism as the underlying characters are the same (e.g. Indian Avantica manages to make Karen both have bigger boobs and be dumber than Seyfried).

While slightly fresh, Mean Girls (which needs ": The Musical" appended) is a mostly redundant and superfluous revising of a teen movie classic. If you like musicals or wished the original wasn't so full of people of pallor, or just want to change up your revisiting North Shore High, this will suffice.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (It will be coming soon to Paramount+)

"The Zone of Interest" Review

As we near the end of this year's Oscars Death March along with Past Lives, the other film nominated for Best Picture this year I had no freaking idea about was The Zone of Interest, which Google told me it was about the family of the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz living an idyllic life literally on the other side of the wall from the camp. Holocaust movies used to be a staple of Oscar, but they've fallen from favor post-Schindler's List as they've chosen to focus on more sexy topics like racism and LGBTQ+LMNOPWTFBBQ subjects. It's nominated for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Sound, and International Picture (representing Great Britain, though it's in German meaning subtitles).

And that sentence describing the plot pretty much describes the entirety of the plot, such as it is, of the movie. Adapted from the Martin Amis novel, The Zone of Interest is about Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, also nominated for Best Actress in Anatomy of a Fall) and their five children (let's call them Greta, Helga, Groucho, Harpo, and Baby Jake) as they live a posh life in a nice house with gardens and a small pool and greenhouse. Hedwig models a nice fur coat courtesy of the Jewish woman who won't be needing it anymore. A worker in striped pajamas is glimpsed tending Rudolph's horse.

Sure, there are the sounds of genocide wafting in - gunshots, screams, cries, dogs barking, the paranoia-inducing rumble of the machinery of death - and it's inconvenient when the winds shift and blow the odor and ashes of the exterminated onto the laundry on the lines or when a human jaw bumps into you while your fishing requiring yanking the children from the river and scrubbing them in the bath, but the bosses are impressed with Rudolph's efficiency and there's talk of promotion. Life is good.

If this sounds glib and dismissive of the horrors of the Holocaust, it's intentional because writer-director Jonathan Glazer (whose 2004 film Birth, about Nicole Kidman believing a 10-year-old boy is her reincarnated dead husband, was just awful) has taken the concept of the banality of evil and stretched it out over 105 airless minutes where it begins to take on the aura of an Andy Kaufman bit where the utter lack of humor is what makes it funny.

From the four-minute "overture" which sounds like someone fell asleep on a keyboard triggering an ambient techno patch over a black screen to extended shots of the pale Aryan family enjoying a trip to the river then driving home for a loooong time then lots of watching the help hang the laundry, Glazer relies on locked down camera angles (he wired the house with a bunch of fixed digital cameras recording constantly so the actors didn't have crew disturbing them in what Glazer called, "Big Brother [the TV show] with Nazis") or very rigid tracking shots a la Stanley Kubrick which I suppose is meant to give the viewer a voyeuristic perspective, but it's comes off as self-consciously pretentious. This doesn't even include the bizarre interludes filmed with an infrared camera of a girl hiding fruits where prisoners would be laboring which look like black and white film negative. ( I had to look up a synopsis to find out who the girl was.)

 The way people blasely discuss things like when Hedwig's visiting mother muses whether the Jewish woman she worked for was over the wall in the camp getting what Jews had coming before grousing how she got outbid on some curtains of hers or the designers of a more efficient crematory design which will allow for maximum throughput of people needing incinerating, the Holocaust is portrayed as being thought of as dispassionately as a logistics puzzle or how much ash should be spread in the garden to nourish the crops with the ash coming from one the million-plus people next door.

The film ends with a bizarre flash-forward of workers dusting and sweeping Auschwitz as it is today, a tourist destination with exhibits of the piles of luggage and shoes arriving guests had confiscated as a reminder of one of humanity's darkest chapters.

But does anyone really need to be told that the Holocaust was bad, mmmkay? Any irony that such monstrous deeds were perpetrated by people NOT acting like Hitler, barking in angry German as shown on newsreels, is ironically tempered now by the flood wealthy celebrities demanding that Israel, the Jewish state established in the wake of the Holocaust, stop protecting itself after the 10/7 Hamas attacks which killed over 1200 people solely for being Jewish in the worst day of mass murder since the Holocaust.

Are celebrities and the Academy aware of the disconnect between honoring this movie with awards while the members such as Best Supporting Actress nominee America Ferrera and two-time Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett demanding a ceasefire to save the attackers and preserve their ability to continue raining rockets down on civilian areas of Israel? Is the ruthless murder of Jews bad or not, Hollyweird?

While smartly crafted and deliberately told, The Zone of Interest never really engages the viewer because nothing ever changes. No characters change; the way they are in the beginning is the way they are in the end. It's 1-3/4 hours of not much happening, though plus points for doing little in half the time Killers of the Flower Moon wasted. It's purely cerebral about something usual meant to be felt viscerally. Frankly, you'll learn more about Höss in this Smithsonian magazine feature released in conjunction with interest in the film.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Lover, Stalker, Killer" Review

 If there's one thing Netflix seems able to consistently churn out it's entertaining true crime documentaries. Slickly produced and well told, they're usually short - running 90-120 minutes either as features or mini-series - for quick consumption. Recent winners have been Bitconned and the infuriating American Nightmare which exposed the police AND FBI has judgemental incompetents who seemed to base their "investigation" on watching Lifetime movies. New to Netflix is Lover, Stalker, Killer, another wildly bonkers true crime tale which still manages to surprise even when I was able to predict the twist really early on.

 It's the story of Dave Kroupa, a mechanic who relocated to Omaha, Nebraska to be close to his children after his marriage ended and his ex moved back home in 2012. Looking for love (or at least Miss Right Now), he signed up on a dating site and was matched with a woman named Liz Golyar, a divorcee with a couple of kids. Dave made it clear he was just looking for something casual and she was down for that and they had a great time together.

One day a woman named Cari Farver brought her car to his garage and he checked it out, but also took a liking to her and asked her out. A single mother, she also agreed to his no strings attached/friends with benefits arrangement and dated for a couple of weeks.

One night, while Cari was at Dave's place, Lisa showed up, ostensibly to retrieve something she'd left there. As Cari left, she and Lisa made eye contact for a few seconds, but nothing seemed amiss. But a couple of days later Cari texted Dave suggesting they'd move in together. Dave replied that he'd made clear that he wasn't looking for anything serious and it was way too soon to be playing house and she replied like a mature adult woman would: By swearing to destroy his life in every way possible.

Which she does with a constant barrage of texts and emails which then advance to vandalism against Lisa - keying her car, breaking into his apartment and slashing Lisa's clothes, eventually escalating to setting Lisa's house on fire, killing her pets, which prompted her to break off her relationship with Dave. When the threats extended to his ex-wife and children, they all had to move and change jobs to try and escape Cari's menace.

If you're wondering why the cops didn't step in to deal with Cari, it's because she had disappeared at the same time she began waging jihad against Dave, Lisa and their families. Cari's mother was looking after her young teenage son and her only contact with her daughter were cryptic text messages that she had moved to Kansas to sort things out in her life. Cari was bipolar and a search of her home found she hadn't taken her medicines with her, but also that she didn't appear to have taken anything with her as all her clothes and effects were still there.

 You can probably guess what was going on - I did - but the looooooong twisting road to get to the end is still fascinating stuff, especially the surprise connections between some parties are exposed or the lengths Cari goes to keep inflicting distress on Dave.

 If you like Netflix true crime docs, you'll like this, too.

Score: 8/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"Oppenheimer" Review

 Well, this was unexpected. Somehow after 13 years and four increasingly appallingly bad movies which had me repeatedly calling for the revocation of his filmmaking privileges, Christopher Nolan has finally made a movie that isn't absolute garbage.

His six films from 2000-2010 starting with Memento and ending with Inception were all very good to excellent (scores: 7-10), but starting with 2012's The Dark Knight Reloaded (as I will never stop calling it) thru 2020's Tenet (which got to hide its failure behind the Hot Fad Plague) have been one misbegotten self-absorbed steaming piles of manure after another (score: 2-4). He believed his hype from legions of fawning fans who have placed him in the same area as Martin Scorsese where they believe that because he made great movies in the past, that means everything he makes now is also great.

So it was with zero enthusiasm where I sat down for three hours of Nolan called Oppenheimer. I had skipped the whole "Barbenheimer" silliness last year and couldn't believe a long biopic about the Father of the Atomic Bomb would gross nearly one billion dollars with the general public who probably would've skipped it if not for the magic Nolan name. (But people think Train rocks, so...)

But at the conclusion I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't want to beat anyone up for liking this, but quickly realized that what Nolan had done was somehow fill three hours with almost no content, obscuring it with flashy filmmaking and a manic score by Ludwig Göransson which keeps the viewer hyped and awake and feeling they're watching something meaningful. So, yay?

 Cillian Murphy stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer and in a return to Nolan's self-indulgent gimmick from Dunkirk the story is told via two interlaced timelines: one in color titled Fission, covering Oppie's life beginning as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge through the development of the A-bomb at Los Alamos in the context of a star chamber proceeding considering whether he should retain his security clearance in 1954; the other in black & white titled Fusion, which covers the Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) in 1959 and how he waged a vendetta against Oppenheimer over slights, petty and imagined. (Of course the later chronological scenes are in B&W because Nolan.)

 Along the way we're treated to a whirlwind of familiar names (if you're a nuclear science nerd like I was as a yoot) and faces as a legion of famous actors flow by so swiftly you don't really catch names, just roles. There's Florence Pugh as Jean, a Communist mistress of Oppie's (and features in the first sex scenes of Nolan's entire career) who he still sees after marrying Emily Blunt's Kitty and starting a family. Matt Damon as the general in charge of Manhattan Project; Josh Hartnett as Op's best friend who invented the cyclotron; Rami Malek, Benny Safdie, Kenneth Branagh, David Krumholtz as scientists; Tom Conto as Albert Einstein. Casey Affleck, Dane DeHaan are military men; Jason Clarke, Tony Goldwyn, Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian, Alden Ehrenreich and more are lawyers and politicos. Hey, it's Gary Oldman under a ton of makeup playing Harry S. Truman! A cast of many!

With so many people and places and events all jumbled together, the viewer is always scrambling to keep things straight and figure out what the connections are. While not utilizing the stock linear biopic template may've been an attempt to freshen the formula, the way Nolan jumps back and forth in order to hide the thin excuse motivating what Oppenheimer is subjected to until deep into its third hour results in an immediate feeling that you've witnessed something sprawling and epic, but the next day realizing nothing stuck with you because there was little substance there.

Here's what I recall about Oppenheimer: Hat, haunted stare, ummm, smart...that's about it. We don't get any feeling for his relationship with Kitty (a nominated Blunt, mostly for a couple of simmering scenes, but not much else) and why Janet was so important. We get a better sense of the rivalries and disputes between the founders of the Atomic Age and some of the moral qualms about the practical applications of their theoretical research. While there may be an intellectual kick to developing a bomb that could set off a chain reaction that would set the Earth's atmosphere on fire, killing everything on the planet, there is that whole ENDING THE WORLD side effect if someone used this invention.

Because quantum theory is so complicated to understand for non-Big Brain folks, Nolan attempts to present an impressionistic picture of the unimaginable (like the ridiculous 4D Magic Bookcase inside the black hole at the end of Interstellar), so he throws random whirring glowing things and macro photography left over from a Pink Floyd planetarium show and shots of Op tossing glasses into the corner of the room watching them shatter as if divining the Secrets of the Universe in the shards. I hated A Beautiful Mind and sold the DVD immediately after watching it (which is the ultimate rejection considering how much bad stuff I keep), but the way Ron Howard visualized game theory and how John Nash viewed the world explained the arcane concept where Nolan doesn't even try, preferring to flash some lights and crank the score volume.

And speaking of flashing lights, much was made of Nolan's proclamation that he wouldn't use any CGI VFX to recreate the Trinity bomb test. The obvious joke was that he was going to set off an actual atomic bomb, but the absolutely underwhelming depiction of this explosion makes one wish he had done so as this explosion which they weren't 100% certain wouldn't set the atmosphere on fire is nothing more than a big gasoline explosion which looks nothing like an atomic bomb mushroom cloud. THE moment of the whole story is a damp squib.

But that test occurs about 2/3rds of the way through the three hour runtime leaving a whole hour of vamping to babystep to the only real conflict of the film, that the reason for the 1954 inquisition stemmed from Stauss' butthurt over being mocked at a hearing by Oppenheimer after the war and his imagining to be the subject of disrespect by him and Einstein when they meet in 1947 when Strauss was trying to get O.P.P. to set up at Princeton. When we finally realize why Opie was subjected to such suspicion it elicits the first real emotional reaction to the story, but it's too little, too late.

With such a stacked cast, there are no real weak performances, just performances set adrift by the sparsity of Nolan's everything everywhere all for three hours screenplay. Pugh gets naked and kills herself, but so what? Blunt is the stoic partner to a man whose attention was always elsewhere, but who cares? Damon is good, everyone's good, but they mostly come and go without a lasting impression. The big surprise was Hartnett, who looks different enough and his acting through his eyebrows for once.

Cillian Murphy is a 50-50 favorite, along with Paul Giamatti, for Best Actor, but he is playing such an internally conflicted character whose actions are inscrutable - why exactly did he almost murder a professor? Seems a bit over-reactive - due to the Cliff's Notes script and Nolan's ADHD narrative that all that remains is the hat and the stare.

On the other hand, Downey Jr. is going to win for his portrayal of Strauss, a petty, vindictive man who put his pride before his fall. Strauss is the villain of the piece, leveraging Op's dalliances with Communism in the 1930s when everyone joined the Commies cuz it was the cool fad before it became a career liability in the 1950s (and ironically a career requirement for liberal politicians and entertainment folks now) into concerns over his loyalty to America. (That we repurposed a bunch of Nazi rocketeers for our space program goes unmentioned due to not being relevant.) Downey deserves to win as much for his performance as the lifetime achievement catch-all it will represent.

Which brings us back to Nolan himself and the personality cult that surrounds him and how he skates on so many flaws because he made The Dark Knight. His fetish for shooting on IMAX - Kodak had to invent a B&W IMAX film stock for this production - and making viewing Oppenheimer in 70mm a quest for his fans despite frequent technical problems in projecting a massive 11-mile-long, 600 lb. film print caused in the handful of theaters even capable of showing it, contributed to a Reality Distortion Field around the content of the film itself. He has gotten away with cranking up the sound so loud you can't hear the dialog and relying on the overwhelming impact of Cillian Murphy staring hauntedly at you six stories tall that the viewer gets bludgeoned into believing they're witnessing Something Really Important. (It made almost a billion bucks, so it clearly worked.)

But if the test of a song is how it stands up to being performed on a guitar or piano with all the other 100 tracks of pop music production stripped away, then the quality of a film should hold up when viewed on a 55-65" HDTV. (No one should be watching movies on a phone or tablet. Let's not be stupid.) And without the kilotons of picture size and sound you get in the theater, the sparsity of the film is exposed. It's a two hour movie stuffed into a three hour sack with too much time spent on the superfluous at the expense of the interesting.

It's not to say there aren't some meaty thoughts rattling around, especially the ethics of these mega weapons and the risk of making something that really shouldn't be used, but if you don't have on hand to deter those with ill intents then may land on your head. But since the science itself is so arcane, that leaves vast voids of time where we see Oppenheimer rush around to meet names nerds only will recognize, but if they cut out half the cast would anyone have noticed. Pugh's character almost seems to exist solely to provide some skin, especially in a weird moment where Blunt imagines her nude and straddling a naked JRO during the trial. Huh?

If you're trying to figure out how this is the first movie of Nolan's I haven't hated yet I've got so little to praise it for, that's the conundrum of Oppenheimer. It's a Big Story about Important People doing Momentous Things that changed the world momentarily for the better, but will probably end us all in the long run told in a fast and furious manner and my praise is mostly due to making three hours sail by without feeling it drag much. (We only took one bathroom and beverage break.)

But the nagging feeling that all the timeline jumping, flashing forward and backward to obscure the payoff that petty small men do cruel things for selfish personal reasons makes the overpraise and likely Oscars gold feel hollow. It's like how the Academy finally noticed Martin Scorsese with The Departed, but then kept nominating his progressively more bloated and unengaging movies afterwards including this year's wretched Killers of the Flower Moon.

 Where does Oppenheimer land in the ranking of the 11 movies I've seen of Nolan's? At number 7 as more the best of his bad movies than the worst of his good ones. At least he's not going to get stroked by the Academy for something awful, but still.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (It's on Peacock now.)

"Part Lives" Review

 Tonight the Oscars Death March teed up what can be described as the Obligatory Asian Movie - up for Best Picture and Original Screenplay - Past Lives, a melancholic thwarted romance story for people who want to end up feeling worse than the characters themselves.

 It opens with an unseen couple observing a trio at a bar late one night consisting of an Asian man (Teo Yoo), an Asian woman (Greta Lee), and a white man (John Magaro). Are the woman and the white man a couple and who is the Asian man? Are the Asians together and who is the white guy? It ends with the woman looking into the camera from the distance.

Then a title card pops up - "24 Years Earlier" - and we're introduced to Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) and Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) the 12-year-old versions of the couple we saw in their native South Korea. They are classmates and Hae Sung is teasing her for doing better in their class grades as she's usually the top student. They like each other and their parents take them on a play date to the park, but there's little future for them because Na Young's family is emigrating to Canada for unspecified reasons.

 Then we're told "12 Years Pass" and Na Young has changed her name to Nora Moon and lives in New York City pursuing her dreams of being a writer. One day while on the phone with her mother she's looking up random people from her past and decides to look up Hae Sung and discovers he had posted on her father's Facebook page (her father is a filmmaker) that he was looking for her, made difficult due to her name change.

She sends him a Facebook friend request and they begin to have a series of Skype calls talking about nothing in particular, mostly what they're doing in their work lives. They talk about getting together sometime, but various commitments and the whole being on the opposite side of the world thing would make any such reunion something that would take 12-18 months to arrange. Abruptly, she announces that she wants to stop the calls because she's finding herself spending more time looking up flights to Korea than focusing on her goals. She says it won't be a long break, but we kinda know better.

She then goes to a writer's retreat on Montauk and meets Arthur, the third man from the opening scene, and they get very cozy. Meanwhile, Sung has gone to Shanghai for a Mandarin language program and meets someone. Then we're told another dozen years have passed and Sung is coming to NYC to visit Nora, who is now married to Arthur. (Ruh-roh.) He's a published author and she is having a production of one of her plays mounted, so things are going pretty well. Or are they?

 When they reunite, Nora can tell that Sung came more to see her than the sights of NYC. He has recently broken up with his girlfriend and feels his life is too ordinary to get someone to marry him despite being a handsome fellow. Nora goes on about the concept of in-yun, a Buddhist concept that every encounter between people no matter how incidental, like brushing past someone in a crowded room, is a connection which carries from our past lives to future incarnations and it takes 8000 layers of in-yun for two people to be together. Uh-huh.

Naturally, Arthur begins to feel a little threatened by this guy from his wife's past. Did they get together too quickly, shacking up to save on NYC rents, getting married because she needed a green card? She reassures him that she loves him, but will that be enough to hold off destiny?

OK, to be fair I'm wildly overselling the stakes here because Past Lives is (according to my missus whose seen more of these types of movies) like the romantic dramas by Wong Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love, 2046) or The Age of Innocence (which I saw when it came out) - feel bad romances where lovers never get together because it would be The Wrong Thing To Do because reasons and stuff. You intellectually understand why they're kept apart while cursing how you don't get a happy ending.

But my problem with Past Lives is that its entire premise is founding on a case of puppy love between a pair of pre-pubescent kids that reconstitutes itself into a crippling obsession on his part and I'm not quite sure what her angle is based on what we're given. Perhaps I'm undercounting the importance of the in-yun factor to Korean culture, but it seems more like a coping mechanism for dissatisfaction with one's life. "If only me and so-and-so had brushed past each other 8000 times in past lives so we could be together now" is just an exotic take on wishing you had handled your high school sweetheart relationship more maturely.

Are we supposed to root for Nora and Sung to finally achieve their romantic destiny after 24 years and some Skype sessions a decade earlier? Sorry, Arthur, but you were just Mr. Right Now - what they have is REAL LOVE because 8000 layers of Korean mythic stuff. Due to the sketchy nature of the narrative and massive time jumps which the viewer doesn't feel because for us those 12 year breaks occur in 10 seconds so we're still feeling what we felt 10 seconds ago, not what the ill-fated non-lovers have felt (or not) for the ensuing 12 years.

There's a subtle detail in how Nora's ambitions taper down as she grows older. When preparing to leave her homeland, she says that she has to move because you can't win a Nobel Prize for Literature in Korea. When they video call in their early-20s, her goal is now to win a Pulitzer Prize. But when they finally meet her prize is a Tony Award as a playwright. It's as if the more she accomplishes, the smaller her dreams get. Is this meant to be another admission that life's refusal to just serve up your dreams means you just lower your sight or is it a commentary that Hae Sung has never moved past his unattainable childish goal?

Writer-director Celine Song has made a semi-autobiographical debut film - she is originally South Korean, but emigrated to Canada, then went to Columbia University in NYC for a MFA in playwriting in 2014 - and while it's too slight & unsatisfying for my tastes, what nags more is how Past Lives, which was one of those "Sundance hits" feels like a beneficiary of the Academy Awards need to fetishize "diversity" and their need to fill a quota of non-American, non-male, non-white filmmakers.

First it was Parasite (which I liked) winning Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay AND International Feature (formerly Foreign Language); then it was Chloe Zhao winning Best Director for the Best Picture-winning Nomadland (it was OK, but should've been a documentary); then Drive My Car winning Best International Feature and nominated for Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay, the Academy just loves slow, bordering on tedious Asian films - Drive My Car was three hours long and if I hadn't been able to speed watch it in just two hours, I would've given up - and Past Lives fits the bill, though thankfully it only spends 1h 45m going nowhere.

As far as the performances, I would've nominated Lee over Sandra Huller or Lily Gladstone as her performance is enigmatic. That there's any doubt as to how this story will go it's because she imbues Nora with an inner life that I don't think Song really put on the page for her. Yoo is less successful because his character is a one-note mopey puppy dog pining for this girl from so long ago. Song gives us scenes of him drinking with his buddies, but we never see his relationship(s?) and thus he seems to only exist to want Nora. Magaro draws the shortest straw as Arthur only exists to be a third wheel wondering if his wife is going to dash on their marriage for some childhood friend like he's Bill Pullman, who was that guy in so many 1990's romance films; the guy whose only flaw was not being exciting enough compared to the guy Sandra Bullock really has the hots for.

While discussing the movie, the missus suggested that perhaps the kids should've been older in the beginning, but my counterpoint was that if they had been hot and horny teens who'd lost their virginity to each other, for instance, then that would establish a more understandable basis for longing whereas by having it founded on what was really nothing but puppy love made the spiritual angle more relevant while also making it seem all the sillier that this is supposed to really matter. (I heckled as one of Sung's pals, "Bro, you held hands when you were KIDS and you're still hung up on the bitch? You're 36 and have a career now. Move on!" I am not a romantic man.) 

If you're a fan of deliberately unsatisfying stories of doomed non-romance, you may enjoy Past Lives despite all my kicking at its shins. But even on its modest merits, it's yet another "not a Best Picture" film which sadly seems to account for so much of what gets nominated these days.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

The trailer makes it look much more love triangle contentious than the actual film & downplays just how much subtitle-reading you'll be doing, which is about 80% of the film.

"American Fiction" Review

Let's not bury the lede here: Of the six 2024 Best Picture nominees I've seen so far (see update below), American Fiction is the one I would vote for if I could. After so much absolute garbage that has been lauded by the Academy for too long - though to be fair the last five Best Picture winners would've been my votes, but that doesn't mean I thought they were all classic movies - it's the first one I would've had nearly no reservations about. Of course it won't win a damn thing, most likely. Shame.

Nominated for Best Picture, Actor (Jeffrey Wright), Supporting Actor (Sterling K. Brown), Adapted Screenplay (Cord Jefferson), and Score (Laura Karpman), American Fiction (bland title aside) is a movie that I frankly can't believe exists because it punches hard to the Left at the condescension of liberal elites towards black people, a feat that's doubly surprising considering writer-director Jefferson is a former journalist for liberal trash sites like the Huffington Post and Gawker. But unlike overpopular agitprop like Barbie, it grinds its axes with precision and purpose.

Wright stars as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, an author and college professor in Los Angeles who we meet coping with a triggered snowflake white student with green hair offended that he had written a book title on the board with the N-word in it. Her po' widdle feewings were hurtied at having to see the word while in class and Monk has zero tolerance for her childish tantrum saying if he can deal with it as a black man, so can she. She can't even.

She stomps out of class and the school tells him to take some time off and go to a scheduled book fair appearance in Boston, where he's originally from and in not much of a mood to see his family. His panel was poorly attended because it was scheduled across from an reading by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) where she talks about her career after graduating from snooty liberal arts college Oberlin and quickly landing a job at a New York publishing house then reads from her best-selling book We's Lives in Da Ghetto, which is nothing but the lowest stereotypical rendition of Ebonics-speaking ghetto folk.

Monk is disgusted by how well received such tripe is especially since his latest book has been rejected for not being "black" enough. This ghettoization of his work is illustrated by a scene where he goes to a chain bookstore looking for his books and finds them not in the Mythology section, but in the African-American Studies section even though they have nothing to do with that field.

 As for his personal life, he is first hit by the sudden death of his physician sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), then the realization that his mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), is beginning to have Alzheimer's. His plastic surgeon brother, Cliff (Brown), is ill-equipped to help with her care because he lives in Tuscon and financially strapped after a messy divorce in the wake of his wife catching him in bed with a man.

Frustrated by the dumbed-down nature of literature and financially squeezed by Agnes' care bills, he decides to write a super black novel called My Pafology (sic) filled with drugs, fatherless men, gang violence, Ebonics - all the things publishers want. His agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), is terrified by Monk's joke, but agrees to send it out under his pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh (after the folk song "Stagger Lee"). Since this is the kind of movie this is, it immediately sells for $750,000 and millions more in film rights are in the offing.

Since Monk is already a published author and this is a gag that's gotten out of hand, he and Arthur construct the excuse that Stagg is a fugitive and thus most remain in hiding. Naturally, this only ups his mystique with the promo people on phone calls as as the erudite Monk struggles to sound street enough to maintain the ruse, not that these upper class twits could tell the difference, eagerly agreeing to his demand that the book be retitled Fuck.

And as a cherry on the top, Monk is asked to be a judge for New England Book Association's Literary Award only to find that his publisher has submitted Fuck to the competition and Sintara Golden is also a judge as part of the diversity emphasis along with the three white members of the panel. So Monk is judging a book he wrote as a reaction to what his fellow judge was cashing in on. Hijinks ensue!

What makes American Fiction ironically depressing is that it portrays something so alien to movies: Educated upper-middle class black professionals with messy family lives almost completely divorced from racial issues. (Television had The Cosby Show and Black-ish, which I guess was about trying to retain "black identity" - whatever that is - living amongst white people which isn't exactly like being a 1st Century Christian under Roman rule.) The family patriarch was a doctor, Monk's siblings are doctors making him the outcast for being an author/professor, the family home is a massive three-story house with a swimming pool and a housekeeper, Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), and they have a beach house where Monk makes the acquaintance of the divorced lawyer, Coraline (Erika Alexander) across the street. The only hood for these folks are on their hoodies and isn't it sad that a movie about people who are black as opposed to Black People is so novel?

If there's one word which sums up American Fiction it would be authenticity, specifically the characters struggles to be true to themselves in a world which may have other ideas about how people should be based on their color or sexual preference. This clicked when Monk and Cliff discuss whether their father knew if the latter was gay. Cliff says he wished he could've told his father before he died. But what if he rejected you, asks Monk, to which Cliff replies that at least he would've hated me for what I really was.

 Monk is trapped in a situation of his own making where he tried to show up those who were demanding he deny his true self thus forcing a reckoning of how important is being true to one's self when there's a big pile of money waiting for those who play the game? This leads to a somewhat predictable conclusion as the meta joke somewhat stumbles on the landing, but it's not fatal and has it's own ironic charm.

Rooting the proceedings is Wright's tightly wound simmering performance as Monk. He's a serious man in an unserious world and while he's not a misanthrope, you get that he could be hard to love or live with. The friction with his family isn't overblown, but realistic for relatable reasons. He can be prickly, but he's not as off-putting as someone like Paul Giammati's teacher in The Holdovers, but while he bristles at being judged superficially, he's not above looking down his nose at other's tastes to his detriment.

 I've been a fan of Jeffrey Wright since his first starring role in Basquiat in 1996, several years before he caught more mainstream critics eyes as Peoples in 2000's Samuel L. Jackson topped Shaft (which also co-starred Christian Bale the same year he blew up with American Psycho). But despite having prominent supporting roles in the Daniel Craig James Bond films as Felix Leiter; Beetee in the three The Hunger Games sequels; HBO's Westworld series, and recently as Jim Gordon in The Batman, he's never really broken out and led a film and now that he's done so and snagged an Oscar nomination, hopefully he will get more opportunities.

 The rest of the cast is also top shelf, especially Brown who first popped on my radar in 2016's American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson playing Chris Darden right before everyone discovered him in This Is Us (which I never watched because I'm not an over-emotional suburban wine mom). He makes the most of his screen time delivering one of the biggest laughs in the movie (about drinking at 8 am) while portraying a man who is trying to live his truth (ugh, what a trite saying) as someone coming out in middle age and not always seeming happy being gay.

But none of the performances would've mattered if not for Jefferson's sharp screenplay adapted from Percival Everett's 2001 novel Erasure. By anchoring the satirical aspect of Monk's joke of a novel on the bedrock of a family drama it steers clear of being simplistic agitprop and racial grievance mongering. I normally don't approve of white people being lazily negatively portrayed (like how everyone Harold and Kumar meet on their odyssey to White Castle was a racist redneck), but here I'll allow it because it's the same sorts of folks as portrayed in Get Out who would've voted for Obama a third time getting shown up for their patronizing woke white liberal racism. I just hope that if he wins an Oscar for his script he doesn't immediately fall off like Jordan Peele has with everything since his smashing debut.

It's not often a movie comes along that really excites me intellectually, so (bland title aside; did you catch how many movies and shows use American in their titles?) American Fiction is a gift we should cherish and Cord Jefferson is a talent we must pray stays this sharp. Warm, funny, yet bitingly satirical, American Fiction is the triple truth, Ruth.

(Note: I'm finishing this review 20 days after viewing it and since the lede I've seen 9 of the 10 Best Pictures and my vote still stands. While the overrated Oppenheimer is going to win, breaking my streak of at least liking the winners, this is the best picture IMNSHO.)

Score: 9/10. Catch it on cable.

"The Beekeeper" 4K Review

 I had no intention of watching Jason Statham's latest take butts and kick names action flick, The Beekeeper, until I watched Dan Murrell's absolutely hilarious review where he grappled with just how bonkers and simultaneously terrible AND awesome it was. He's usually pretty sober in his reviews, but when he said that "It's the kind of movie that makes you feel insane while you're watching it....It's the kind of movie that should never come out and also be released five times a year. It is one of the worst movies that I will definitely watch 30 more times in my life." I just had to see what made him give it a split score of Don't Bother AND Go See It! He seemed desperate to find others to discuss this thing with, so I volunteered as tribute along with the missus who has seen even more Statham movies than I have (she likes 'em gruff) and, well, it's certainly a movie alright.

Statham is Adam Clay, a beekeeper who rents barn space from a widow, Eloise (Phylicia Rashad), to process his hives' honey. After clearing a hornets nest from the barn, she invites him to dinner. Before dinner time, she gets on her laptop and it hit with ransomware warning her hard drive is infected and directing her to call a phone number which she does. (Uh-oh.) It connects her to an office which looks like a hybrid dance club and videogame LAN party where she is manipulated into installing a Trojan which immediately allows the hackers to zero out all her bank accounts including a charity fund with over $2 million in it.

Once she realizes she's been robbed, she immediately calls the bank to report it. Just kidding! No, she commits suicide. (Not kidding.) When Statham arrives for dinner, hearing the smoke alarm, he lets himself in and just as he's about to discover Eloise's body is caught by her FBI Agent daughter, Verona (Emmy Raver-Lampman, The Umbrella Academy). (If you're wondering why she didn't call her law enforcer daughter instead of killing herself, this will not be the last basic details question you'll be asking along with why was the daughter there in the first place.)

After he is cleared of killing Eloise, he meets with Verona who says that these hackers have been known to the FBI for years, but they can't figure out who they are. Luckily for her, Adam is not just a beekeeper, but a retired Beekeeper, an elite agent of a spy program so secret that the CIA doesn't really know about them. He calls into his old work and immediately gets the number and location of the call center where Eloise called. He goes there with a pair of gas cans and torches the place on his way towards finding the kingpin of scammers, a weaselly tech bro, Derek (Josh Hutcherson, The Hunger Games), who is babysat as a favor to his mother by former CIA Director Wallace (Jeremy Irons) as director of corporate security.

As he closes in on his target, the levels of action and plot twists increase rapidly to the point where he's taking on FBI squads bare-handed and the revelation in the third act of who Derek's mother is cranks the bananas knob to 12.

 Statham has made so many of these action flicks that he can do them in his sleep and frankly for much of the movie, he is so low key in his performance as he mutters about "protecting the hive" - a metaphor for society itself - he may be sleepwalking through this performance. That's not to say he doesn't kick much butt, but that it's oddly subdued.

 Writer Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, Salt, Total Recall (2012)) and director David Ayer (Fury, Suicide Squad - the first one) have a lot of moderately crowd-pleasing pictures on their resume, so that The Beekeeper seems like a low budget knockoff of the movies they've made feels off.

 But what makes The Beekeeper watchable is just how bonkers it gets at points. It makes one wish they'd gone even MORE over the top in the action, though to be fair John Wick movies occupy so much mindshare for bar-raising action perhaps it's not worth trying to compete at that level. Even as you repeatedly wonder why no one seems to do a realistic thing in these situations - like why is an FBI Agent allowed to lead an investigation regarding a man whose rampage seems triggered by her mother's suicide or how come Minnie Driver is playing the current CIA Director, but for only two scenes? - there's some satisfyingly visceral kills and quips and to be honest, ransomware hackers who prey upon the technically naive deserve to get whupped down by a grouchy Jason Statham.

From a technical perspective, the 4K HDR presentation doesn't really do much to merit the upcharge, so watching in standard HD/Blu-ray is fine.

I don't want to file The Beekeeper under the So Bad It's Good category. It's more like Ayer's cursed Suicide Squad - which to be fair was recut by a frightened studio into a mishmash (#ReleaseTheAyerCut) - which by all objective measures wasn't a very good movie, yet was watchable and entertaining and I don't just mean Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn hot pants outfit. Cable TV used to be filled with rainy weekend day action fluff like The Beekeeper and if you approach it expecting more fun than verisimilitude, you'll be fine.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable/streaming.

"The Greatest Night In Pop" Review

Ah, the 1980s - Reagan, MTV, leg warmers and torn sweatshirts, Tom Cruise beginning his 40-years-and-counting run of movie stardom, Generation X coming of age unaware that in four decades they would have a holy mandate to destroy all surrounding generations. But it was also the advent of massive charity records and concerts like Live Aid and Farm Aid.

While there had been charity concerts like Concerts for the People of Kampuchea (to raise funds for Cambodians post-Vietnam War) and No Nukes (to frighten people away from safe, clean nuclear energy), late-1984 through summer 1985 was put into Feed The World overdrive by the tag-team of singles "Do They Know It's Christmas (Feed The World)" by Band Aid, put together by Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof and Ultravox's Midge Ure, and "We Are The World" by USA For Africa, the recording of which is the subject of the brisk Netflix documentary The Greatest Night In Pop.

 Beginning with "Day-O" singer and activist Harry Belafonte taking note of Band-Aid and wondering why if white English people were trying to save black lives in Ethiopia, why weren't black artists trying to do the same, uber manager Ken Kragen tapped clients Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers to participate in the formless project. Rapidly, Michael Jackson - then the King of Pop in the wake of Thriller selling eleventy bazillion copies - and Thriller producer Quincy Jones were on board. Stevie Wonder was asked to co-write, but never returned their calls.

The logistics of gathering talent for the project were daunting until they realized that most of the people on their wish list would be in Los Angeles on January 28, 1985 for the American Music Awards which were coincidentally being hosted by Richie. If they could get the stars to head to a studio for an all-night session after the show, this could work. However, by having a hard deadline to record the song, Richie & Jackson were under the gun to actually write the song and only finished the rough draft (lyrics would be tweaked right up to the final session) a week before the date. The demo with guide vocals by the pair was recorded the next night and cassettes were FedExed to the vocalists in Jan. 25.

Mixing footage from the epic recording session with new interviews with Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Sheila E., Cyndi Lauper, Kenny Loggins, Dionne Warwick, and Huey Lewis (who inherited the bridge line slated for Prince, who was a no show) along with various production personnel, a cameraman, the session engineer, The Greatest Night In Pop gives a look at how the musical sausage was made beyond what was shown in the music video.

The role of Quincy Jones as simultaneous producer, conductor, traffic cop, psychiatrist cannot be understated as issues arose like Wonder, feeling left out of the writing, almost derailed the show by wanting to insert lyrics in Swahili (which isn't even spoken by Ethiopians) which would've burned already limited time teaching the chorus new lines. (While the documentary makes a big deal about Waylon Jennings saying, "No good ol' boy ever sang Swahili," and walking out, he returned to the session, not that the filmmakers' desire to punch down at supposed redneck racism bothered to clarify.)

Richie's stamina also must be acknowledged because he'd arrived at the Shrine Auditorium to prepare hosting the AMAs at 8 am, hosted the telecast while performing twice during the show, then had to work over eight hours on "We Are The World." He doesn't say how long he slept after that day, but I'd be out for at least 12-16 hours if I'd run that hard. (The missus kept saying, "Cocaine is a helluva drug.")

Being a music production nerd who was alive when these records happened, I'd known about some details shown like Lauper's costume jewelry picking up on the sensitive microphones and Wonder having to teach Bob Dylan how to sing (he looks so lost the whole time) by imitating him to his face, but never seen the footage shown here. Totally new was how Al Jarreau was so drunk that he kept blowing his line which led the soloists at the end of the line to complain that all the starts and stops for earlier mistakes were depriving them of a chance to work into the material and a request that they run through the entire song for each take then go back and punch in the problematic phrases.

The Greatest Night In Pop is also an accidental time capsule of just how far we've come technologically because in 1985, cell phones were rare, there was no email, no Internet, no sending MP3s of demos - it was brute force analog life with cassette tapes sent by messenger or express mail, phone calls - they mention that Kragen would travel with a suitcase full of Rolodexes whose contents15 years later would fit in a Palm Pilot - and recording was done by extremely talented performers stepping up and delivering the goods when called upon without the safety nets of editing in ProTools (which first came out in 1991 and only recorded four tracks) or fixing with AutoTune (invented in 1997). The stress levels of the recording engineers and machine maintenance techs must've been sky high because any breakdown would be catastrophic.

 If there's a downside to The Greatest Night In Pop it will be that you will be earwormed by "We Are The World" for the foreseeable future after hearing it performed in bits for an hour over and over. Now where is the documentary about recording "Do They Know It's Christmas"?

Score: 8/10. Catch it on Netflix.

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