harry_tk_yung

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Terminator: Dark Fate
(2019)

Worthy, good closure
After five instalments, what more can the creators of the "Terminators" dream up? You have to give them credit. In this sixth and last instalment, there is machine turned partly human emotionally, human turned partly machine physically, plus an ultra-version of terminator that can split into two: a skeletal black metal structure and a dark, semi-liquid body-snatcher, both equally lethal killers. Let me just back up a little.

Let's take a look at the ensemble of key characters and their initially perceived roles. Picking up directly from Terminator 2 (and wisely ignoring 3, 4 and 5), there is Sarah Connor, first in a prologue (a seamlessly digitally rejuvenated Linda Hamilton). Relieved that she has saved the world, Sarah is ambushed by one of the remaining Terminators (and you know how HE looks like) who shoots young John Connor dead. Then, fast forward a couple of decades, she appears (still Hamilton, but with no CGI), fierce as ever but now fuelled by hate after John was killed. Armed with an amazing assortment of weaponry (the source of supply of which is later explained), she proclaims that her life now comprises only two things, hunting terminators and drinking, but I'm not sure if it is in that order. And then, she even says "I'll be back", in a way that is even cooler than her old nemesis T-800's, if you can believe it.

In Mexico City, dropping out of the sky naked (no surprise here) are two separate characters, both sent back from the future. Undeniably attractive in her short hair and tomboyish persona is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an entirely human but effectively "augmented" soldier from the future. Following shortly after her arrival is REV-9 (Gabriel Luna), the cutting-edge version of self-splitting terminators as described above. Grace's mission is to protect Dani (not the one with 3 dragons) (Natalia Reyes), and REV-9's to terminate her. The machine is just a machine and that's that. The story of Grace, however, unfolds gradually throughout the movie.

Dani is, quite obviously, the alter-ego-Sarah in this movie, a Madonna figure that must be protected at all costs to allow the saviour to come into this world. Apparently, preventing Skynet in instalment 2 did not change the human fate of creating a technology that will eventually cause our annihilation. This time, the tyrannical living machine in the future is called "Legion".

Last but not least, although appearing only half-way through the movie, is good old T-800 (good old Arnold Schwarzenegger, plus an absolutely adorable stubble), not one of the models we saw in the first two instalments, but the one in the prologue of this movie, the one who killed John Connor. But killing Connor leaves the machine with no purpose, and "he" miraculously find a new purpose, mellows, and becomes more and more human (although never entirely so). He is now a family man, going by the name Carl

I am not going into the story line other than that it essentially pitches the team of four against REV-9. The various personality conflicts between team members are quite watchable. Sarah understandably wants to kill Carl as soon as REV-9 is destroyed and Dani safe. Grace and Sarah start out with a fair amount of mutual distrust. Dani totally refuses the role of damsel-in-distress thrust upon her by the two women. While physically she cannot match her three protectors, her fierce spirit even surpasses theirs.

In one aspect, this movie goes back to basics. There are several well-executed set pieces of chase and fight sequences: Mexico City's roads, a hydroelectric dam, interior of an airborne cargo plane, a Mexican border detention camp, and more. As well, they consist of an abundance of martial-art style melees, with ferociously swung hammers, chains and other deadly objects.

While die-hard fans and critics may not totally agree, I hold the view that this is a worthy conclusion of the Linda Hamilton-Sarah Connor trilogy.

Official Secrets
(2019)

Laments of a whistle blower
Some in the audience of "Official secrets" would be reminded of "All the president's men". But the former is strictly about whistle blowing, the latter, investigative journalism. While it is hard to imagine anyone not having heard of Watergate, the events in "Official secrets" are far less known, although details are all in the public domain for anyone to look up. "All the president's men" is triumphantly uplifting as you see justice done. "Official secrets" is in a way depressing, making you groan at the injustice.

While our protagonist Katharine Gun's personal story may not be generally known, the subject matter is: the Iraq War in 2003. Although the dictatorship in the country was not exactly an innocent victim, it is generally recognized that this was not a war fought for just, but manufactured to satisfy the political agendas of the Western powers. The devastating collateral damage was the innocent Iraq civilian.

Yet, there was a flicker of a chance that the war might have been stopped. There was a conspiracy of sorts to secure the votes in the UN to authorize the war. A critical document involving both the U.S. and the U.K., however, was leaked by our protagonist Gun, a translator at a spy agency of the U.K. The Observer published it which, for a brief shiny moment, was applauded by the world, embarrassing the two nations. Unfortunately, according to the movie, it is almost immediately discredited as a result of an absurd clerical mistake. A spell-check was used by a clueless clerk, changing the spelling of a couple of words of this U.S. document from American style to British style, thereby making it look like a fake. Gun was arrested under the "Official Secrets Act". Eventually she was not charged, but only being kept in a year of torturous suspense, a psychological if not a legal penalty. If you wish to know what happened after the time frame of the movie, Google is your friend.

This movie is not commercially entertaining as "All the president's men" but it is not quite as dry as a dramatized documentary. The top-notch British cast is well worth watching. Kiera Knightley will have you rooting for Gun in no time at all. Playing the reporters are Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans and Matt Smith (whom many of us know better as Prince Philip in "The crown"). Heavyweight Ralph Fiennes plays Gun's defending lawyer. And I shall be remiss if I fail to mention to Game of Thrones fans that a relatively small part, the editor, casts Conleth Hill, otherwise known as Lord Varys.

Midway
(2019)

Roland Emmerich's excellent rendition of the iconic naval battle
Although one probably cannot talk about the Battle of Midway and the Invasion of Normandy (D-day) in the same breath, they are, respectively, the most significant turning point in the European theatre and the Pacific theatre of World War II. In terms of seas battle "Midway" may not match the Battle of Leyte Gulf in size and intensity, but it turns the tide after Pearl Harbour.

The movie "Midway" (2019) is a delightful surprise in resisting the temptation to succumb, like most other Hollywood war movies, to blatantly stereotype characters or shallow melodramatic romances.

After a brief prelude of an earlier sojourning of naval intelligent officer Edward Layton (Patrick Wilson) in Tokyo, the movie plunges right into the infernal of Pearl Harbour. In addition to very good CGI scenes, there are also some detailed, gritty depictions. One scene shows a half-stunned man trying to stand up by grapping half-collapsed railings, only to have his palms seared by the red-hot metal.

I am not going into any detail of the events. The crux of the story is on how, after the devastating Japanese unannounced attack of Pearl Harbour, Chester W. Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) was selected by President Roosevelt be the commander-in-chief of the Pacific fleet, with the most difficult job of turning the tide of the U.S. naval campaign against the Japanese. It was essentially achieved by sinking four major Japanese aircraft carriers by air strike, after luring them into a trap.

The captivating "subplot", if you will, is the intelligence support from a group headed by Layton. With the technology available at the time, this involved a substantial combination of experience, intuition, as well as brilliant logical analysis of often scanty information. In the movie there is an interesting analogy of a wedding when the invitations are sent (the bait to lure the Japanese fleet), the banquet is ready (air striking power standing by) and waiting to see when and from where the guest would arrive. At the eleventh hour, with so much at stake, Nimitz says to Layton that he needs more specific information. After a brief pause, Layton recites the precise time, longitude and latitude. When things unfold and scouting report finally come, Nimitz beams at Layton, saying that everything is within a few percentage points of the prediction. Without missing a beat, Layton replies "I'll Endeavour to do better next time, sir."

It is with something almost skin to joy watching a Harrelson as I have never seen before, so contain and measured to the extent of under-acting. This feeling is particularly accentuated by seeing him just a week ago in "Zombieland: double tap". To the general audience, Nimitz is probably the only name familiar, and perhaps even more as a mega aircraft carrier than as a person. But then, in the end credits, it is quite uplifting to see that all the characters are real, with the image of each actor fading out, replaced by the real person and a brief bio in text. And this is such a remarkable cast. Wilson is always solid, if not spectacular. We also have Dennis Quaid, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Ed Skrein and, on the Japanese side, Tadanobu Asano, prolific on the Hollywood screen and best recognized probably by Marvel fans as one of Thor's four warriors.

"Midway" (2019) is not to be missed by war movie buffs as well as the general audience.

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Gisaengchung
(2019)

The Have and the Have-not
While set in Korea, the main theme of this movie is as universal as the most basic of human nature, as in "Se7en" (1995). We saw the same sentiments played out in the French Revolution - the Have-not getting even with the Have. In the French Revolution, it played out as revolution and guillotines. Here in "Parasite" it plays out as a multiple con job turned ugly - no decapitation, mind you, but with blood and gore to match.

There are two remarkable things about this movie. The first is the change, abruptly at the mid-point, in tone from farce-like comedy to horror-like thriller. The other thing is the matter-of-course approach at both. Neither the comedy nor the horror is laboured or deliberately crafted. While the plot may sound outlandish, the delivery is so natural as to make it believable. A great deal of credit goes to the splendid cast.

The movie opens with a crispy introduction of a "cheap" family, in every sense of the word. Out of a cramped basement, riding on a lucky break, the four members successively and successfully con their way into the household of a slick, ultra-modern, luxurious mega estate. First, the son becomes the English tutor of a naïve girl at puberty. He quickly gets his sister a job as the arts tutor of the girl's little brother. The father and mother, with the sibling's cunning plotting, soon replace the existing housekeeper and chauffer. The couple that employ them are unsuspicious, if not entirely gullible. At this point, nobody can fault you for thinking that the title refers, obviously, to these four.

Then comes the twist at midpoint. When the masters take their kids on a camping trip, the "parasite" family live like royalties, albeit transiently. But it turns out that they are not the only "parasite" because there is one that fits the description even better - living in the bowels. A sudden visit from the discharged housekeeper reveals a secret - she has been hiding her husband in a secret basement unknown to the masters. Then, when the camping trip is cut short by foul weather, all hell breaks loose.

While people may call this movie different things, the crux of the matter is the revelation of the resentment the Have-not harboured towards the Have.

The Farewell
(2019)

Beauty in simplicity
Some facts first. With this, her second feature, writer-director Lulu Wang shares her very personal experience with the audience, a story "based on a true lie", as she wittily puts it. This is a U.S. movie with its dialogue mainly in Mandarin, set in the city of Changchun in North-eastern China. "The farewell" enjoys an enviable collection of ratings: critics' Metascore of 89, IMDb users' 8.0 and Rotten Tomato's 99!

As the onscreen realization of Wang, protagonist Billi (Awkwafina) is a thirty-year-old New Yorker, immigrated with her parent when she was a small child, leaving behind a world she was familiar and comfortable with. Today, the "Americanized" family converse in English (parents still with distinct accents while Billi indistinguishable from a born New Yorker) although Billi can still carry a conversation in Mandarin if necessary, such as when going to visit her hometown in China.

The movie opens with Billi talking on her cell phone with Nai Nai (grandma) half way around the globe, with intimacy playful and affectionate, both. The old lady is waiting at the hospital for test result for her incessant coughing. The narrative moves briskly to the parents telling Billi that they are going to Changchun tomorrow to attend the wedding of her cousin Hao Hao who, like her, had immigrated when a small child, but to Japan. The joy of the occasion, however, is not reflected in the parent's gloomy silence. With persistence, Billi finally finds out that while the wedding is a happy occasion, it is also sort of a proxy funeral. Hao Hao has been with his Japanese girlfriend Aiko for only a few months but things cannot wait. Nai Nai, unknown to herself, has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and has been given three months to live, if that. Close members of the family would know that this is their last farewell to Nai Nai, who is the only person in the dark. The parents do not want Billi to go because her natural emotions would likely betray her. The day after the parent's arrival at Changchun, at a family dinner, Billi shows up. The rest of the story takes place in Changchun.

A very remarkable thing I gradually noticed was the natural and simple tone of the narrative. While the main plotline of a "proxy funeral" (I coined) is somewhat unusual, the subject matter is familiar: the ethics of whether to let a terminally ill patients know their condition. Even more familiar are the backdrops of cultural clashes, identity issues of immigrants, mother- and daughter-in-law relationship, just to name the three most universal ones. Low-key, natural and non-judgmental, Wang's style in relating these issues is a credit to her. All these, together with the universality, add up to a world you can easily relate to, and immerse in. As well, there is the highly welcomed absence of stereotyped cliché, which is tantamount to talking to you in a refreshingly calm voice instead of yelling and shouting to get your attention.

By the end of the movie, you feel like being a part of the family, embracing their endearing qualities as well as understandable shortcomings. Most wonderful is Nai Nai, irrepressible, young-at-heart but at the same time also observant and considerate. Hao Hao the bridegroom, with a head of loveable shaggy hair, is a kidult who, while taciturn outwardly, has been endowed with passionate emotions. His Japanese bride Aiko, speaking no Chinese, gives a very nice speech at the wedding (in Japanese, with a translator). The very fact that she has agreed to this rushed marriage shows her kind and accommodating nature. The father carries the burden of the first generation as well as he can. The mother has a steely disposition which her husband sometimes leans on. The uncle (Hao Hao's father) is all common sense and self-control, until he breaks down in uncontrollable tears speaking in his son's wedding, thanking "the most important person", his mother, who has made all the sacrifices living as a widow without her sons by her side all these years. There are quite a few other characters, minor but all given their moments in the movie.

Now, to the cast. Awkwafina (Nora Lam) is probably best known to the general audience as a first-rate scene-stealer after "Ocean's 8" and "Crazy Rich Asians". The interesting thing is that she was cast for this movie before the other two. Here, you see her with an entirely different persona. As Billi the struggling artist in the Big Apple, she is effortlessly natural: low-key, no-nonsense, grounded and a little bit defiant. This fits in perfectly with the tone of the movie which is never mawkish or sentimental. This approach of Wang's makes the affection between grandmother and granddaughter that much more touching. Two other women in the cast both gave solid performances: Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai and Diana Lin as the mother, particularly the former. Playing the father is Tzi Ma whose face will be familiar, if you have watched the series "The man in the high castle", as the Japanese general.

This is not exactly the sort of movie where you wonder if there is a post credit scene. But you will stay back for the end credit if you have a soft spot for "Without you", be it Mariah Carey's, Air Supply's, or any other version. Here, we hear a rendition by Fredo Viola's beautiful lyric tenor.

Zombieland: Double Tap
(2019)

Fun ride
First off, a confession: it was not until looking up references after the movie that I realized that this is a sequel to a movie released a decade ago. It looked very much like a stand-alone when I watched it. And I am going to treat it as if it were a stand-alone.

The first few minutes assure you that you in in for a lot of fun. The standard Columbia Pictures Statue of Liberty suddenly comes alive, when rushed by two zombies appearing from out of nowhere, swinging her torch to smash them, before resuming her stoic pose.

VO from one of the protagonists, augmented by graphic visuals, introduces you to an assortment of zombies. "Homers" are so dumb that they don't even worth wasting a bullet on. Ascending the ladder of menace, we come to the "Hawkins", "as is Stephen", our considerate VO adds. Worst is, well, let's play a "name that zombie" game, the VO suggests, but without adding "as in Name That Tune". The answer is "Ninjas", that are so silent that "the first sound you will hear is your own scream". You get the idea.

This is a very familiar post-apocalyptic world, where our 4 protagonists are living in, of all places, the White House, one that looks worse, much worse, you better believe it, than in "White House Down". While at this point it is not certain if they are the only survivors, the fact that they are worthy survivors is clearly demonstrated in their accomplishment in killing zombies. They form a quasi-family, sort of. Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is the father figure, with Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) as the cliché daughter who doesn't want to be treated as a child any longer. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) and Wichita (Emma Stone) seem a perfectly matched young couple, until they seem otherwise. One too many marriage proposals becomes the straw that breaks the camel's back. "Married people do only one thing - get divorced", she asserts. The girls, deciding that they have had enough, leave a note one night and run away.

As the men are trying to adapt to their new existence without female companionship, they bump into unabashedly seductive Madison (Zoey Deutch), another survivor. Tallahassee's description of this adorable young creature says it all "You know why she survived? Zombies eat brains and she hasn't got any". She herself later unwittingly supports this assertion. When demanding a vote, she argues strongly that there is now women "suffering". Her physical appeal, however, is sufficient for Columbus.

But then Wichita comes back, just to replenish ammunition, after losing Little Rock to a hippie who claims to be a total pacifist Berkeley (Avan Jogia). After some soul searching, the three "family members" decide to look for and, if necessary, rescue her. Madison tacks along and her absolute cluelessness even charms Wichita, to an extent. One other important character is Nevada (Rosario Dawson), a female John Wayne with a Devil's lethal killing skills and an Angel's body, the manager of a lounge dedicated to the memory of Elvis. Two other characters, in a more minor role, played by Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch, may as well be doppelgangers of our male protagonists.

There are amusing twist and turns, plus lots of laughs, along the way, as well as pleasing references to movies you love (or at least know). The latest, deadly mutation of zombies are nicknamed "T800" from The Terminators. There is also a blink-and-you-miss reference to Thor. Elvis, or tribute to him rather, has a large presence in the second half of the movie. And if you stay back for just one minute after the end credit starts to roll, you are in for a special treat.

At Eternity's Gate
(2018)

Visually mesmerizing and emotionally arresting art-house, Dafoe's Oscar nomination that should have won.
Even those entirely illiterate in the field of painting arts (such as myself) would have at least heard of the name Vincent Van Gough, if only from Don McLean's popular song paying tribute to his work "The Starry Night". Brief factual information will be found in the movie - his early professional disappointments, his madness that seems inseparable from his genius artistic temperament, his depressing days in an asylum and his death at 37, from knife attacks. But this is not a conventional bio pic.

With art-house approach, Julian Schnabel's ("The diving bell and the butterfly") direction is also like a painting, a portrait that will let us get a glimpse of the Van Gough's soul. The narrative is essentially linear, but also episodic. There are a few long scenes that give a lot to chew on. There are blackout interludes (completely black screens) between scenes with VO of the protagonist.

Chronologically (for the movie), the first thing we learn about Vincent Van Gough is his friendship with fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac). The first time we see his brother Theo (Rupert Friend), who financially supports him throughout, is his hospitalization during the early stage of his mental problems. Under the ethereal daylight coming from the direction of their heads, Theo crawls onto the bed and the brothers lie side-by-side as they used to when they were little kids. Most of his story is told at two places. At Arles, a village in the south of France which is considered good for his health, he focuses on his life's passion of painting. But as he grows more eccentric, he is widely disliked. He is eventually held in an asylum for a period of time and released only after the assessment of a stern-looking priest (Mads Mikkelsen) who, however, sympathises with him after a length assessment session (one of the best scenes in the movie).

But this movie is nowhere near event-driven. As mentioned, it is a search for the protagonist's soul. Why did Van Gough paint? The first glimpse is in a casual conversation triggered by looking at some flowers. "My flowers at least have a chance to resist (the fate of "faint and fade")", he suggests. He loves painting landscape. "The essence of nature is beauty" he intimates to Paul, "nature is speaking in God's voice". Later, in the asylum, a fellow patient asks "what do you paint?" "Sunlight" is his almost spontaneous reply. Once, he says to Theo "If I couldn't paint, I would murder someone". The deepest revelation is perhaps during a conversation with the priest played by Mads Mikkelsen. He says he honestly believes that his talent in painting is a gift from God. But perhaps the timing is wrong. "God made me a painter for people who weren't yet born".

An earlier scene shows him at work, outdoors sketching. The movement of Dafoe's eyes from surveying the landscape to looking back down at the easel is something to behold. Later scenes show Vincent and Paul painting together, first outdoors and indoors. While Paul keeps telling him not to rush it (especially when it is indoors and there is no wind, no rain). Vincent is adamant that the only way is to paint with "one clear gesture", fast.

Anna
(2019)

Not exactly among Luc Besson's best but entertaining enough
Luc Besson's works, be it writing, directing, or both, usually means good entertainment. Occasionally, they also inspire artistically, such as "The big blue" or "Leon: the professional". "Anna" falls short of his ambitious (but not too successful) works such as "The fifth element", "The messenger: The story of Joan of Arc" or "The lady". Some critics draw attention to Anna's similarity to his most commercially successful work "La Femme Nikita", but it would go too far to call this a remake.

The storyline is one of from rags to, well, not riches but rather espionage. Not a flower girl but a girl selling Russian dolls (now THAT is interesting), our protagonist eventually goes down the well-trodden path of double, or maybe triple agent playing, or being played by, the KGB and the CIA. Thrown into the pot, not entirely unexpectedly, is relationships of sex and emptions (not sure in what order) with not one, but both of the contact guys. A couple of twists to wrap up the entertainment package is mandatory.

What should one look for in this movie? Not the storytelling. Writing and directing it, Luc Besson lets slip signs of running out of steam. The showy temporal juxtaposition comes across more irritating than pleasing. But all is not lost. One action scene in a restaurant is as good as any set piece the auteur has offered in his movies. As to the display of an assassin's ingenuity, if you have watched the award-winning TV series "Killing Eve", nothing else will impress you anymore. "Anna" is a far cry from it in that department.

On acting, new face from Russia Sasha Luss does a reasonable job. Of the abovementioned two gentlemen, veteran Luke Evans playing the KGB guy delivers. More impressive, however, is Callian Murphy, who is always cool as a cucumber, playing his CIA counterpart. The jewel of the crown has to be Helen Mirren, all but recognizable, trading her Queen's (literally) English in for harsh Russian accents. The character she plays, with gusto, is the KGB second-in-command who becomes Anna's mentor.

Ad Astra
(2019)

Slow boil journey in search of the human soul, packaged as a space sci-fi
The last few years saw several top-notch space-based sci-fi films not seen since "2001: Space Odyssey". "Gravity", against the backdrop of stunningly realistic visuals, is an ode to the undaunted human spirit for survival. "The Martian" shows the same spirit from a different angle, with accent on endurance and comradeship. "Arrivals" is a fresh look at extraterrestrial intelligence and how to communicate with them. Best of all is "Interstellar" that approaches the mystery of the universe at both the most grandiose and at the same time the most intimate scale. They are all masterpieces in their own right.

"Ad Astra" is different from any of the above. There is, if you think about it, really not much solid science, at least not at the level of Isaac Asimov. The genre of space exploration sci-fi is but a vehicle, a depository for an art-house film on Homo Sapiens searching for its soul, with a particular focus on the father-and-son relationship.

The narrative is simple and easy to follow, particularly with the first-person VO which disseminates emotions as well as events. The story is set in the near future where, in addition to space travel, recurring "psychological evaluation" appears to be common for people in the space profession, if not the entire working population. Big Brother is alive and well.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), a seasoned astronaut, is sent on a mission because of his "direct connection to the subject" i.e. his father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones). The continuing existence of Earth and the entire human population is in danger from a series of powerful energy surges which is suspected to relate to Clifford who disappeared three decades ago and believed to be dead. Now, the authorities suspect that he not only alive but may be the cause of this threat of imminent annihilation.

Roy's journal is in three stages. He goes to the Moon first, on a commercial flight not much different from those with which we are familiar. When he asks for a pillow at his seat, it costs him $125. However. as there is no clue on the value of currency at the time of the story, that may be similar to the cost of a drink. At the moon, en route to the terminal for his Mars flight, there is a tense moment when they have to evade an attempt of piracy in a "war zone". These things, which we are made to understand, are just as common in the Arctic on Earth.

It takes 19 days to journey to Mars, which is at that time the frontier of planet settlement. En route, upon checking out an abandoned space craft, they find a hideous monkey that has seriously injured the crew. This brings about a VO from Roy, about the "rage" in the monkey with which he fully empathizes. At Mars, as instructed by the authorities, he sends messages to his father supposedly in a derelict space vehicle near Neptune. Becoming rebellious ("they are using me"), he is detained to be sent back to Earth. With the help of a sympathetic Mars-born official Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), he breaks free and continues with his search.

The final phase of his search finds him meeting Cliff face-to-face, a father who had always mentored Roy to follow his footsteps ("work hard; play later"). Cliff is not causing the energy surge but rather trying to stop it. It turns out that there was a mutiny nearly 3 decades ago that ended with Cliff killing the entire crew. He has been living by himself there all this time because "a captain always goes down with the ship". "I found my destiny, abandoned my son", laments Cliff. "I still love you dad". Roy finally succeeds in convincing Cliff to come home with him, but tragically loses him in space in an accident.

After the ordeal, Roy makes it home, a sadder but wiser man, just like Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner". Pitt's portrayal of Roy is Oscar-worthy. Always contained and often leaning towards under-acting, his performance at the same time radiates emotions by sheer sincerity.

While this film is all Brad Pitt, there is as strong a supporting cast as you can find anywhere. Donald Sutherland plays Thomas Pruitt, an old friend of his father's, now assigned to be his travel companion, with the real agenda of keeping an eye on him. Sutherland's screen time however is limited as his character goes only as far as the moon before getting very sick. Aforementioned Ruth Negga (who will be no stranger to anyone who has been following the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." over the years) has a role to play in the story, but only in Mar, with limited screen time. Tommy Lee Jones playing the father, again with limited screen time, is good enough for an Oscar support nomination. And there is Liv Tyler who plays the estranged wife Eve. She has several appearances, at the beginning and the end, which add up to probably less than one minute, with no dialogue.

The mood of the film is pensive, sombre throughout, helped by Pitt's dreamy VO and supported by lingering bass strings. The photography is mesmerizing. "Ad Astra" is not a conventional space adventure sci-fi and will lose the interest of many in the audience before the middle of its 2-hour screening time. On the other hand, there will be people who find it exactly their cup of tea, and love it.

A Rainy Day in New York
(2019)

Elle Fanning shines
Woody Allen's die-hard fans would likely agree that one of the auteur's main draws is dialogue. "A rainy day in New York" is no exception. In the following brief recap of the plot, therefore, I'll quote liberally. These quotes, incidentally, were jotted down on my muted cell phone from the last, entirely unoccupied (except for myself, of course) row of seats in the cinema. I was absolutely certain that not a single person in the audience was able to see the glow from my cell phone. Not even out of the corner of the eye.



The plot is not unlike one of the several story lines in another of Allen's film, "To Rome with love" (2012), where a young Italian couple Antonio and Milly travelling from a small town to Rome and end up having separate adventures. But, even when some of the details are recycled, "A rainy day in New York" concludes with a different twist.



The couple, boyfriend and girlfriend from the same college, go to New York for a weekend. Ashleigh (Elle Fanning), Pulitzer-aspiring journalism major, has an opportunity to interview a famed director for her school paper. Gatsby (Timothee Chalamet), perhaps thus named intentionally, sees this as an opportunity for a romantic escapade in a city where he grew up in a rich family. Similar to abovementioned Antonio and Milly, Gatsby and Ashleigh follow separate paths after checking into their hotel room in New York, and do not see each other again until the day is over.



Gatsby runs into Shannon (Selena Gomez), the little sister of an ex-girlfriend, and fills in as an extra for a commercial she is making, requiring him to kiss her passionately. Upon finding out that Gatsby's current girlfriend is from Arizona, Shannon quips "What do you talk about with her? Cactus?" "And rattlesnakes" Gatsby countered. When Gatsby exclaims that he knew Shannon as a cheeky little girl and she is now a young woman, she says, "Now, are you going to start singing Gigi?". Yes, there are references aplenty to other movies. Later, Gatsby and Shannon run into each other again, but allow me to refrain from further disclosures here.



Ashleigh, in the meantime, goes through her personal Odyssey of three men, who respectively have spiritual, emotional and physical needs which they hope she would fill. The director interviewed, Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), not young any more, is popular still with women, prompting a remark from someone "what is so sexy about memory lost". He seems to be suffering from an identity crisis and looks towards Ashleigh as his new muse. When he finally breaks down in a work screening to which Ashleigh is invited, and disappears, she pairs up with writer Ted Davidoff (Jude Law), driving all over town to search for him. Things take a turn when Ted spots his wife Connie (Rebecca Hall) going into an apartment where is best friend lives, and becomes so emotionally frantic that Ashleigh wouldn't want to leave him all by himself. This leads to a hilarious scene of Ted's confrontation with Connie, who charges him of bringing a "15-year-old concubine". Ashleigh promptly produces her identity card to prove that she is 21!

Later, continuing the search by herself, Ashleigh comes face-to-face with the heartthrob star Francisco Vega (Diego Luna), when she tells him that her roommate considers him "the best thing to come along since the morning after pills". To others, however, Francisco is a "James Dean minus acting chops". Later, in the evening, all three men converge at a party, where Roland asks Ashleigh to go with him to the south of Francis to help him rediscover himself. "To where of what?" she echoes. The evening eventually finds her in Francisco's bedroom, and I am not going to disclose how it ends.



At the other end, Gatsby is frustrated by Ashleigh's phone call saying that she cannot join him, yet. Finally, seeing her on gossip TV news getting into the car with Francisco becomes the last straw. In a bar drinking alone, he comes across a gorgeous woman whose work is to "make dreams come true". "Use your imagination" is her reply to his prompting question. With a flash of inspiration, he hires her to accompany him as his girlfriend Ashleigh to his parent's party. His "helicopter mother" (Cherry Jones) soon send the girl away and tells his son point blank "I can smell a hooker when a see one". More twists to follow. I have already sinned with much spoiler. Suffices to say that it is not too difficult to see what is coming if you are paying attention.



Just by looking at the names, one can see the calibre of the brilliant supporting cast. But its Fanning that is captivating all the way. I won't pretend that I remember her in a 2-year-old role in "I am Sam". But I well remember many movies from the amazing proliferation of her work during her teenage years (she just turned 21). In "Super 8" she is a daring, adventurous teenager. "Maleficent" sees her as a mainstream, sweetheart of a heroine. "The Beguiled" is an eye-opener, casting her against type as an unsuspected fame fatale. "I think we're alone now" pitches her against the world's most famous dwarf in an acting contest. And then there is heart-wrenching "Galveston", where she shows her true steel playing a desperate young mother. Here, with Woody Allen, Fanning displays superb, pitch-perfect comedy sense. Timothee Chalamet is of course another rising star that shines just a bright. But in this movie, he is outshined by Fanning.

The Operative
(2019)

A character study and a spy thriller
Diane Kruger's versatility has been amply demonstrated in her works through the years, from classic beauty ("Troy), to tender-hearted soprano ("Joyeux Noel"), to rom-com adventure heroine ("National Treasure"), to underground resistance during Nazi occupation ("Inglourious Basterds"), to grassroot taxi driver ("Unknown"), just to mention a few. This time in "The operative", she plays a woman who initially drifts into the spying business, gets better and better at it, but at the same time wanting to get out. She is a bit of an inscrutable enigma, with just a hint of a troubled and nomadic history thought her formative years. The movie starts with Thomas (Martin Freeman), a Mossad section head, receiving an unexpected call from Rachel (Diane Kruger), a former operative he used to handle. Rachel apparently has disappeared for a few days after attending her father's funeral. Thomas and his co-worker are concerned with Rachel's potentially unstable mental state. Rachel's history with the Mossad operation is then traced back through flashbacks. I am not doing into the details of Rachel's espionage activities, which are meticulously depict in the movie. Very briefly, she is sent to Iran with a cover as an English teacher, to infiltrate a big electronic company. Through the process she falls in love with handsome owner Farhad (Cas Anvar). She wants out, which Thomas steadfastly refuse. As a spy thriller, this movie is well crafted although not particularly impressive. As a character study, it offers Kruger's very watchable performance of Rachel, layered, nuanced, oscillating vulnerability and cold-bloodedness. Her feelings for Farhad seem genuine but even for that, the audience is left with guessing and wondering. Even if not forwarded by a critic's review, I might have anticipated the abrupt ending. As a character study, does it really need an ending, going one way or the other? I doubt it.

Dolor y gloria
(2019)

Almodovar mellowing beautifully, fetching Banderas a Cannes award along the way
This latest work is quite unlike any of Pedro Almodovar's films I have seen before, such as the "bad taste" (at the time) wackiness of "Women on the verge if a nervous breakdown", the convoluted plot of "Volver", the passion of "All about my mother", not even the tenderness of "Talk to her", just to mention a few. "Pain and glory" comes with a mellowed flavor all of its own.

First off, it is episodic. Rather than narrating a full-fledged life story of the protagonist director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), it sketches various segments and associations that meant most to him at various stage of his life.

The opening scene shows him fully submerged in a pool of water, suggesting some sort of medical treatment. Next comes two brilliant scenes of flashback to his childhood, which you can interpret as the workings of his subconscious mind. These two scenes are pure joy to music lovers.

First, we see little boy Salvador (Asier Flores), alert and bright, at a stream where several women from the village are at their chore of washing. One of them is his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz whose name appears at the end of the opening credit as "in collaboration with", to the extent my non-existing Spanish can surmise). When the women are spreading out their laundry to dry, on branches of scrubs, they sing in beautiful harmony, with a couple of flamingo movements thrown in for good measure. Salvador is beaming.

Next, we see him at an audition for a boys' choir, when some of his fellow-applicants are so out-of-key that it makes you laugh out loud. When his turn comes, the link with the previous scene, of the women harmonizing so beautifully, becomes immediately apparent. He later becomes the soloist of the boys' choir. Unfortunately, there is no follow up on Salvador's time with the choir other than a beautiful montage of the choir's vocal warming up.

The first half of the movie cuts back and forth between the present and his childhood days. These flashbacks are then dropped, except for a brief return at the end. The second half focus mainly on the present, with just a few other flashbacks of scene with his mother during the twilight days of her life (played by Julieta Serrano).

"Pain and glory" is marvelously rich with sketches of various people important to him at various stages of his life, told in a more mellowed, but no less touching way, compared with Amordovar's earlier work. There is Salvador's relationship with the lead actor in his breakout film, a friend estranged for 30 years (not unusual for people with fiery artistic temperaments) but finally reconciled. There is the woman who unfailingly supports him in his current struggle with addiction and health problems. There is the man five years younger, his lover from youthful days who now lives half-way around the globe but reappears in his life for just one evening of reminiscence. While neither have had a man again, they never experienced the same depth of love with women as they had for each other in their youthful days. There is an illiterate young man back in the days at the primitive village whom Salvador as a child, encouraged by Jacinta, taught how to read and write. This kindness of mother and son is soon forgotten by themselves as this is simply part of their nature. Decades later, this forever-grateful young man re-surfaces, although not in person, in Salvador's life, bringing a heart-warming closure.

Pedro Almodovar, except for very occasional slips, has been bringing delight and surprises to the movie screen for decades. There is no reason why he would not continue to do so for another couple more.

Ophelia
(2018)

Somewhat art-house, but fast-paced
Critics seem to have difficulties agreeing on whether this is a spin-of of Hamlet to tell Ophelia's story, or simply Hamlet's story told from Ophelia's POV. I tend to side with the former. One thing definitely reimagined here is that Ophelia is no longer a helpless, passive victim eventually driven to madness. She is all courage, intelligence, wit, spirit, resourceful, and more. And why not, if she is played by Daisy Ridley whom we know best as Rey, the new heroine in the third and final trilogy of the Star Wars saga that spanned the silver screen for over 4 decades. Incidentally, in about 2 months, our patience will be rewarded with the answer to Rey's real heritage. But I digress. Among other things, this movie has a generous offer of witty word plays. Right at the start, when Ophelia as a child (Mia Quiney) is taken under the wings of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), the first exchange includes the Queen's mild exclamation of "Alas, indeed", which is turned by the witty Ophelia into "a lass", as she is often mistaken for a boy in her tomboyish childhood. In the first encounter (not counting stealing glances at each other at a distance) between Ophelia and Hamlet (George MacKay), she is fully submerged in serene lake water when surprised by him and Horatio on shore. Hamlet promptly commented that as she is a lady-in-waiting, perhaps she wouldn't mind waiting a bit longer. They would not inconvenience themselves on her account with looking for another spot for fishing. Totally unruffled, Ophelia teasingly emerges from water in tantalizingly slow motion, only to have the jaw-dropping Hamlet finally discover that she is fully clothed (Horatio has already walked away in embarrassment). That is a most definitive establishing scene of Ophelia. Other depiction of Ophelia includes "she dances like a goat" (as per the other ladies-in-waiting). B then, she is "a girl that can read", surprising Gertrude who immediately gets even as Ophelia finds that her bedside reading to the queen is not a book of religious devotion but passionate novels of romance. In this movie, the Shakespearean English has been modernized, exemplified in probably the best-known fatherly advice, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be". Here, what Polonius says to Laertes becomes "Do not borrow any money or lend it". Incidentally if you find the face of the actor who plays Ophelia's brother Laertes familiar, you should. This is none other than Tom Felton, otherwise better known as Draco Malfoy in Harry-Potter-verse. But I digress again. For the top-tier star presence, in addition to Ridley and Watts, there is also Clive Owen who plays the usurping uncle Claudius, most likely with more malice than you have seen anywhere else before. Note also that Watts plays not just one character, but two! Entirely new to the plot is Mechtild, a mysterious witch from whom Gertrude obtains potions for preservation of youthful looks. She also carries a secret that affects the big picture but let me not spoil it. Similarly, I will not spoil the plot which initially follows the Bard's but later throws in some twists. As mentioned in my "headline", this movie has aa art-house feel, but is not get overboard. The pace, for one thing, is brisk. The cinematography is first-rate, as well as costume design. There is much to enjoy, if this is your cup of tea.

It Chapter Two
(2019)

A decent follow-up and closure
I'll start with an extract from my IMDb review of the previous "It":

"The movie is a commendably successful effort in adapting the novel to a standalone movie. But I cannot help feeling disappointed, as one who has re-read the novel several times over the last three decades since its publication. Some of the best parts have been left out in the movie, for perfectly good reasons (to customize a standalone movie), I do agree. Unfortunately, that does not change the fact that they are left out."

I like the 1990 two-part TV version better. That one, incidentally, has John Ritter from the household-name series "Three's company" of the 1970's. There is also A-list actor Tim Curry portraying Pennywise the hideous Clown.

"Chapter 2" in fact starts with the very beginning of the book when the protagonists are adults (who may not have even been casted yet, when the first part of "It" was released). On the whole, the movie stays reasonably close to the book the six earth-shattering phone calls.

The running time approaching three hours is too long. Considering that it is a 1090-pages (my paperback copy) book, the length of the movie, even if only it is half a movie, seems justifiable. But then, when I said it stays reasonably close to the book, I am referring only to the key plotline. The movie cuts out a lot, I mean really a lot, of details. For whatever is retained in the movie, the running time is too long.

Roughly, the movie is in three parts. The first, starting with the six phone calls, moves briskly to the reunion of the seven (minus one) "losers" in a Chinese restaurant in Derry, then how Mike finally succeeds in convincing everyone to stay, as promised, to finish what they started 27 year ago. The mid-section depicts how each one of them heads off for a private half-day experience that will hopefully help to bring back the lost memories, from joy to terror, and everything in between. The final third is the climactic battle, needless to say.

To get the bad stuff out of the way first, the scares in this movie are mundane at best, noise and loud. Grossly overused is this technique of a moment of silence followed by an eruption of loud and "scary" noises. When the eruption becomes a constant bombardment, you would wish to fall asleep but obviously cannot.

Not all is lost. The two stars in the cast, Jessica Chastain (Bev) and James McAvoy (Bill) are a pleasure to watch. The rest of the cast do a respectable job, particularly Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, as he did in the previous movie (as the only "adult" main character there). What I really enjoy seeing are scenes (alas, too few) of flashbacks to the pre-adolescent days of the protagonists. It's such a joy to see this talented young cast again, particularly Sophie Lillis who plays, and inhibits, Bev Marsh with charm and defiance in equal measure.

Yesterday
(2019)

The Beatles, Harry Potter and Coca-Cola
Going directly to the plot: Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) has been "profoundly unsuccessful for 10 years", those 10 years spent in Suffolk doing insignificant jobs and moonlighting in gigs and songwriting. Childhood best friend Ellie Appleton (Lily James), a school teacher as well as his manager, gives him unfailing support with her sunshine smiles, which seems to be the only thing going right for him. She encourages him, saying that a miracle may happen. "Like what?" he enquired. "Well, eh, Benedict Cumberbatch becoming a sex symbol", she quipped. Right away, I knew this is going to be a fun movie.

One night, when power failure hits the entire world, Jack got knocked down by a car. Lucky for him, the only lasting damage was losing two front teeth. While in hospital, as Ellie is leaving after a visit, Jack asks "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?". "Why 64?" Ellie does not appear to get it. Just out of hospital, sharing a few moments with a group of good friends, he is asked to sing a song. Instead of "All I want for Christmas is my tooth front teeth" (did not get a chance to visit a dentist yet), he sings "Yesterday". They really love it, and one of them asks "Did you write this?"

That night Jack Googles "John, Paul, George and Ringo" and gets only "Pope Paul". However, when he Googles "Rolling Stone" he is happy to see that they are "still rolling". It become quite apparent that the freak global power failure has led to a parallel universe where The Beatles have not existed. Everything else seems quite normal. Well, maybe not everything. Disappearing together with The Beatles are Harry Potter and Coke, as I intimated in my "headline".

I will not belabor the plotline, which is easy to guess, of how Jack's memory of the Beatles songs becomes the golden key to fame and fortune. A warning, however, to those who expect a trip down memory lane. The familiar songs, appearing as a few bars here and a fragment there, are only devices to forward the plotline. For the purpose of going down memory lane, "Across the universe" (2007) is much more satisfying. Similar to "Mamma Mia", it's a musical fitted with an abundance of familiar songs from the group featured.

Also familiar is the love story's two key elements. First, best friends who consider each other more as siblings or buddies finally find romantic love ("When Harry meets Sally", "Always be my maybe"). Second, while one of the two soars towards stardom, the other remains the same as the social gap between them widens ("A star is born"). Here is where the actors carry the day. Patel and James are simply marvelous and more than carry the day.

The Dead Don't Die
(2019)

Another Jarmusch delight
Fans of auteur Jim Jarmusch are often fanatic, loving everything and anything he offers, from artsy "Broken Flowers" (2005) to brilliantly "dull" "Paterson" (2016). His venture into zombie-verse will delight most, particularly with the ensemble of exquisite cast.

Recently, whenever I talk about a gory movie, be it brutal action thriller or bone-chilling horror, I would always start with this statement: those who have watched "Game of Thrones" are immune to gory visuals. I'll spare you the details. Granted, the first two victims may already be too much for the uninitiated. But if you, like me, watch "Code Black" weekly, you don't even need "Game of Thrones" for immunization from this first gory scene.

The stage is set at a town called Centerville with a population of 738 and a police force of 3. We first see chief Cliff (Bill Murray) and second-in-command Ronnie (Adam Driver) patrolling in the police car. Coming through the radio is the song "The dead don't die". When Cliff asked Ronnie why he likes the song, back comes the reply "It's the theme song", director Jarmusch's subtle touch of breaking the 4th wall. Towards the end, there is a less subtle 4th wall breaking, in a similar patrolling scene. When asked by Cliff why he is so sure that things will end badly, Ronnie says "I've seen the script. Jim showed me the entire script".

Shifting to the macro scene, coming over TV news is a phenomenon of "polar fracking" which gives off a sci-fi vibe reminding you of "The day the earth stood still". Talking about nods to other movies, you don't need to look hard to find many. The above-mentioned lament from Ronnie, "this is going to end badly", is distinctly Han Solo-ish. Another scene, which I will not spoil, pays tribute to "E.T.". And then there is a direct reference in a dialogue to Bates's motel in "Psycho".

I am going to give just one example of the deadpan humor. In the aforementioned scene of the first two zombie victims, in succession, Cliff, Ronnie and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny) the most junior in the police force, in succession and in that order, go into the crime scene (a diner) and come out with exactly the same comment, with deadpan earnestness. Mindy, the most fragile of the trio, understandably takes the sight most badly. Cliff, also understandably, sends the junior staff away from the crime scene, on assignment of "crowd control", a task she readily embraces, of dispersing the three noisy individuals gathered.

As mentioned, one of the main draws of this movie is its spectacular cast. In addition to the three mentioned, there is Tarantino's favorite actor Steve Buscemi playing standard redneck and Danny Glover playing his token black friend. And then, Tilda Swinton alone is probably worth the admission ticket. She plays a "Scottish" makeup artist in a funeral home, always speaking with an otherworldly formality. This mysterious character also wields a samurai sword which sends zombie heads flying all over the place. There a more (a lot more) interesting characters, too many to mention.

"The dead don't die" is not exactly an Oscar contender, but I won't be surprised if it is voted the favorite people's choice at the TIFF.

Always Be My Maybe
(2019)

A decent if not outstanding rom-com, with a jaw-dropping surprise to those who know nothing about the movie (pretty unlikely)
"Always be my maybe" brings to mind (and indeed what many critics refer to) quite a few other rom-coms from as recent as "Long Shot" to as far back as "When Harry met Sally". There are, as most such comparisons, more dissimilarities than similarities. I won't elaborate. You'll undoubtedly notice them as I briefly describe the plot.

Two next-door neighbours in San Francisco, one Vietnamese and one Korean, each has a single child who grew up as best friends. We see them first in their preteen days. Sasha Tran's parents grossly neglect her, not so much because they are really bad parents but because they are workaholics in their family business. The defining opening scene pre-teen Sasha preparing her own lunch, turning a few slices of canned luncheon meat into something quite exquisite, even decorating them with a tiny parasol.

Marcus next doors is blessed with model parents, appreciative father Harry and near-angelic mother Judy, who takes Sasha under her wings. The two protagonists, from pre-teen through teenage, were like brother and sister, or best friends, with little, if any, puppy love context. Their middle-class life was blissful, if modest, until their universe was shattered by Judy's fatal traffic accident. This was obviously a devastating loss to both father and son. Sasha felt terrible and tried to comfort Marcus saying that Judy was like a mother to her too. This hit a raw nerve in Marcus who resented anybody claiming to understand how he felt about losing his mother. Snapping, he said something unkind which in return hurt Sasha. They did not see each other again in the next 15 years.

Sasha (minus the teeth braces) is now a celebrity chef with a classy restaurant in Los Angeles and two more to open soon, in San Francisco and New York, in that order. Her upcoming marriage with a successful restaurant entrepreneur Brandon is delayed at his request, as he cannot pass up investigating a promising business opportunity in India. Sasha goes back to her hometown and rents a house for two months to focus on the grand opening of the new restaurant. That brings her back face to face with Marcus and his father who operate a modest air-conditioning business. While Harry is still hoping to see the pair restore close relationship, Sasha and Marcus feel somewhat awkward with each other, not the least because they happened to have lost their virginity to each other as teenagers, in the backseat of Marcus car, one of those things. As well, Marcus is now "married spiritually and sexually, although not literally" to a flamboyant young woman Jenny (those are her words, in quote) The rest of the script you can almost write yourself, remembering all these various rom-coms you have seen before. There are however a few things here that you might not have seen elsewhere.

One is the parental touch. In Marcus's case, the loss of his mother makes him feel responsible for his father who has some ailments that requires regular shots but is otherwise quite capable of looking after himself. Sasha has always tried to encourage Marcus, an underachiever, to fully explore his potentials. For example, he writes very good raps and has modest success with his modest band. But he is stubbornly reluctant to venture out of his comfort zone, the neighbourhood he grew up in. Harry, however, understands that he himself is Marcus's phycological chains and fetters but is at a loss how to help his son.





"I never really have any parents", laments Sasha. In the end she is reconciled to them. After retirement, the couple finally realises how they have neglected their daughter. They seek her out, times and again, to make amends. In the movie, this pair is depicted as comical relief and there is nothing wrong with that. Sasha finally accepts them back into her life. But her real mother, emotionally speaking, is Judy. This could be the most touching thing in the movie. Her somewhat deprived childhood might have egged her on to high-class cuisine "that always leaves you hungry" (Marcus's words). At the end of the movie, we see her offering Marcus (and surprising him with) one-pot comfort food that Judy used to offer her every day.

Ali Wong and Randall Park have very good chemistry, but probably more as friends. Be that as it may, the movie has different degrees of success (depending on the audience) in testifying that they have had a crash for each other all these years. Like in any other similar movies, there is a critical turning point. That is what brings me the "jaw-dropping surprise" in my Headline: Keanu Reeves. It would be totally naïve to assume that the audience does not know he is in the movie but I'll make that assumption anyway. As a result, to describe anything in detail would spoil the enjoyment, even for those who do expect to see him. I would, however, venture to say this: Reeves had so much fun in this movie that he would probably do it for free.

The Fate of the Furious
(2017)

Coming from, and heading to
After watching the "Hobbs & Shaw" spinoff, I just want to jot the following down to make the connections for the upcoming F&F 9 and 10, the last two in the franchise. H&S of course is another story.

As "Fate of the Furious" (F&F 8) was two years ago, most of F&F fans would have seen it. Still, I've put up the spoiler warning anyway. Dom turns rogue, for a reason. When Elena graciously left Dom at the end of F&F 7 (as Letty "came back from death") she did not tell him that she was pregnant. The new villain Cipher (Charlize Theron) kidnaps mother and child, forcing Dom to work for her. Later, she kills Elena but the baby (whom Elena has not yet named) is still her trump card. That is, until he is rescued by Deckard Shaw. At the conclusion in the customary family reunion, Dom introduces the little one to everybody as "Brian" (which any F&F fan would have guessed). While on that, Brian and Mia are mentioned only once in the movie, in the contexts of they should not disturbed (purportedly in Brian's retirement). After the heartbreaking (to fans) death of Paul Walker who played Brian, it would be assumed that for the story, the couple would fade into retirement.

Why Deckard? Let's back up a little. Both Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw are brought back into the action in "Fate". Deckard is apparently an old enemy of Cipher's and the best shot to track her down. But as this is not yet the spinoff, the bickering between the two is just a teaser. As the plot goes, while under Cipher's continuous keen watch, Dom manages to snatch 5 minutes to connect (face-to-face) with Deckard's mother Magdalene (uncredited Helen Mirren), resulting in pulling off a clever trick of Deckard rescuing his son. No mention yet that Deckard Shaw has a sister Hattie (one of the lead trio in the spinoff, featuring the inimitable Vanessa Kirby).

As to "Fate" the newcomer in F&F 7, Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel or, if you like, Missandei in Game of Thrones) stays on as a regular member of the team.

Moving forward to F&F 9 in May 2020, Cipher has survived, presumably to strike back (like, The Empire). Mia is billed which leads to the question of how to handle the character Brian. Hobbs and Shaw apparently will not appear, having their successful spinoff with the introduction of Hattie and a certainty of a sequel. As to F&F 10 announced for 2021, it's anybody's guess, other than that it will be the grand finale of the franchise.

Domino
(2019)

A decent police procedural from de Palma, with signature style
Let me get this out of the way first, for Game of Thrones fans. Think through the entire 8 seasons and see if you can remember a scene with the Kingslayer and the Red Woman together. I know, they are both in the epic episode "The long night" in the final season, but they don't have a scene together. Perhaps incidentally appearing in the same frame, at the most. It will be an interesting experience to see them as the two leads here, detectives teaming up in an investigation in Europe.

The story starts in Copenhagen and concludes in southern Spain. Christian (Kikolaj Coster-Waldau) and partner cum close family friend Lars (Soren Malling) stumble across a murder, corner the murderer, but let him get away after fatally stabling Lars, who dies in hospital a few days later. Christian is teamed up with Alex (Carice van Houten) and the investigation leads to ISIS terrorism. The climactic finale takes place in Spain, in a bullfighting arena (except that you don't see Carmen stabbing Don Jose).

The relationship between the two lead characters is essentially professional, with comradeship and friendship but nothing romantic. The romance story, of sorts, is in Alex. Entirely unsuspected by Christian, she turns out to be Lars's secret lover, and is now pregnancy though not yet physically showing. Upon being told by Alex, Christian is not too critical of her, even when she intimates that Lars was about to divorce his invalid wife. In any event, the "personal" story is there only as seasoning to the main course, as well as provide some acting opportunity for van Houten.

There is also veteran character actor Guy Pierce, as the ICA agent Joe who competes for the control the killer as a useful tool for doing dirty work. In the climactic finale, Alex shoots the killer dead, prompting the best line in the entire movie. Shaking his head, Joe says to Alex "Does it mean so much to you to revenge your boyfriend?" "You know?", incredulous Christian asks. Back comes the snappy answer "We are Americans. We read your emails". Too bad I did not watch this in a cinema or else I could be part of that thunderous outburst of laughter.

I mentioned the main course. And that would be the legendary de Palma style. You get the Hitchcockian suspenseful mood, right from the opening scene that reminds you of "Vertigo". The colour palette reminds you of Almodovar, but is something quite different, entirely de Palma's own. The deftly used split screen you get. Slow-motion, nail-biting tension heightens the climactic finale in the bullfighting arena, bringing you to the edge of your seat as you are about to find out if a devastating terrorist attack will come off as planned.

In the acting department, which is not always the top draw of this auteur's work, you have very respectable albeit too-brief appearances of Pierce, a master in his own right. Of course, to Game of Thrones fans, bringing together Coster-Waldau and van Houten is something of a special treaty, even when their parts are not particularly well written. These two familiar actors bring to the movie whatever they can under the circumstances. After all, aren't they both this year's Emmy nominees?

Little Woods
(2018)

Awesome acting power from two rising stars
You have seen both of them on their way to super-stardom, on both TV and cinema screens. Tessa Thompson, in addition to the cool corporate CEO in "Westworld", has also served notice in the commercial cinema in "Thor: Ragnarok" and "Men in Black: International". Lily James, following her unforgettable role of quick-witted and endearing Lady Rose MacClare in "Downton Abbey", has shined in "Baby Driver" and "Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again". But you have not really seen these two brilliant young women's performances until you watch them in their neither glamorous, heroic nor hilarious roles "Little Woods".

Critics have compared this movie to "Winter bones" which gave Jennifer Lawrence a breakthrough platform to demonstrate her acting ability. Likewise, "Little Woods" is a realistic story about people who, caught in the trap of poverty and missteps, refuse to give up. With resilience and whatever means they have, not always ethical or legal, they strive to make amends and make things better. They are survivors. What's more, most importantly, there is love, as punctuated in the closing dialogue.

I'll outline briefly the plot, as you do need a plot to carry the story. Ollie (Thompson) is in mourning, grieving by sleeping on the floor of her recently deceased mother's room. She finally breaks out of her self-imposed cell of sorrow and goes about her daily business of driving a primitive van to provide coffee and lunch to laborers at an oil site. She used to provide more, drug from borderline to illegal. But she has come clean, as we learn from a desperate midnight caller looking for a fix. She is sympathetic and compassionate as this old customer is suffering from a wound and needs drugs to suppress the pain simply because he cannot afford to stop working. But Ollie is on probation and the timeline runs like a ticking clock throughout the movie. She tells the unfortunate caller that she has 10 more day and must stick to it. At a later scene in the kindly parole officer's office, he reminds her that there are only 8 more days to go. However, the next time we hear reference to this timeline, with 4 days to go, she is back in the drug business, for a reason.

Ollie's sister (through adoption) Deb (Deb), working as a waitress, has a son from her fling with an irresponsible cad Ian six or seven years ago. If she has failed in many things, she is at least a good mother, bringing up Johnny as a pleasant kid who is unbelievably well-mannered. Johnny also loves Auntie Ollie although the sisters haven't seen much of each other lately. Ollie is unhappy with being left alone as the sole caretaker of their dying mother. But then, on a difference level, she recognizes that her sister's predicament as a single mother. When Deb gets pregnant, again with Ian, she comes to Ollie for help.

I am not going into the details of plot development. Suffices to say that the sister come across obstacles arising from various circumstances. Nor would I elaborate the highly emotional macro issues of drug dealing and abortion. The superb performances of the two lead successfully focus on what this movie wants to depict: a difficult journey of survival this pair of sisters-by-adoption goes through that deepens and reaffirms their love for each other. The ending is open but with a palpable note of optimism, despite everything.

Critics unanimously agree that the two leads are superb. There is also a good support cast. Interesting to note that, while there are a few menacing and suspenseful scenes, there aren't any real villains to speak of. Lance Riddick I saw recently in "John Wicks Chapter 3" as the second-in-command of The Continental who, alongside Wicks, sprayed bullets of all shapes and sizes till hell freezes over. Here in "Little Woods", his role at the entirely opposite pole of the spectrum, the aforementioned fatherly parole officer. A familiar and never fully recognized face, James Badge Dales plays the aforementioned irresponsible man Ian, whom you will have no difficulty in despising and not quite bring yourself to truly hate. Nearest to a villain is Bill (accurately menacingly played by Luke Kirby) who persistently tries to bring Ollie back into the business, particularly smuggling drugs (mostly legal, meaning the drugs, not the smuggling) across the Canadian border. His motivation is largely business rather than a personal viciousness.

This movie is a rare gem. The plot, tension and suspense are just sufficient to infuse a measure of "entertainment" value, but wisely avoid distracting from the main event: the performances of the two leads.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw
(2019)

"Fast & Furious" family value carried into spinoff
I never knew, until now, that the word "presents" can be interpreted as "spinoff". But that is exactly what this awkward title is trying to convey "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw".

For a bit of nostalgia into the F&F franchise, the saddest lost was Paul Walker, the real-life actor, who played Brian O'Connor co-starring with Vin Diesel and Dominic Toretto. As to the other characters, a dashingly handsome pair Gisels and Han died and it does not appear that they will come back. Dead and brought back to life is Letty. Anyway, Dom's iconic quote "they are not friends; they are family" is immortal. Life goes on; so does "Fast and Furious".

For the spinoff "Hobbs & Shaw", "family" is very literal. On Shaw's side, there is the female lead Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) his younger sister, now a member of MI-6. As well, their mother Queenie (Helen Mirren) who is "enjoying" herself in jail fervently wishes to see her estranged siblings (to each other) together again during their next visit. On Hobbs's side, family is something else, an entire clan in Samoa that he deserted from, including brother Jonah and mother Sefina. Today, his only "family" is 11-year-old angelic daughter Sam who was severed from her roots since birth. In both cases, Shaw and Hobbs were estranged from their once very close sibling, Hattie and Jonah respectively, because their action to protect the family was misunderstood.

Just a brief recap of the first couple of scenes and I'm done. The movie starts with Hattie, together with a group of MI-6 operatives, breaking into a vault and securing an apocalyptic-scale virus. However, with super-villain Brixton (Idris Elba) hot on her trail, she injects the virus into her own body and escapes. Brixton kills everybody else and frames her as an agent turned rogue. Can't leave this scene without mentioning the divinely simple dialogue. Facing Brixton, she asks "Who are you"? Back comes the cryptic answer "Bad guy". Cool!

After thus establishing the plotline, the movie turns to the two leads, using split screens: their breakfast, their vehicles, their "offices", their respective showing-off fighting scenes, always contrasting Shaw's sleek high-brow London environ with Hobbs's down-to-early neighborhood L.A.

Then comes the abovementioned family business (no longer in split-screen), Shaw visiting mother in jail and Hobbs hanging out with daughter. Next are the predictable calls from their respective agents, recruiting them to a mission to save the world. Separately, they each make it known in no uncertain terms that they want to work alone. In the next frame, the first one with them seen together not on a split screen, but facing each other in person, we hear their exclamation in unison: "No way!" Let the game begin. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are never in better form, exchanging barbs of insult while at the same time fighting alongside (albeit reluctantly), a perfect model of an entertaining odd couple. But I have really come to see Vanessa Kirby. After "The Crown", I would watch anything with her in it. She was good as the "White Widow" in the most recent instalment of "Mission Impossible", but with far too little screen time. Here, she is perfect, showing excellent chemistry with both the male leads, brother as well as "flirting-interest" (a stage before love interest) respectively.

Fantastic summer fun.

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
(2019)

Even Superman has Kryptonite
John Wick is all but indestructible. But you probably know that already, even if you haven't seen any of the three instalments of Keanu Reeves's inimitable portrayal of this iconic pop culture figure. And "John Wick 4" is coming. You can bet on that.

People talk about the movie's gory violence, but if you are a fan of "Game of Thrones", you are probably immune to violence on screen. As to chopping off a finger to show repentance, it is as old as at least 1989, insofar as the Hollywood screen is concerned. You know what I mean if you have seen Michael Douglas's "Black Rain" (1989) which, among other things, features the Japanese underworld.

Therefore, I submit that JW3's violence is remarkable not because of its goriness, but because of its ingenuity. Let me give three examples just from the first three action sequences, which are merely preludes to a parade of an endless procession of superbly choregraphed action sequences.

Case 1: jamming a 2-inch book into a guy's mouth and pounding it in like what one does with a chisel. Case 2: crashing pane after pane of glass to use shards as if they were flying daggers. Case 3: punching a horse's belly with a hard fist to trigger hind kicks as lethal weapon. And, as I said, these are just prelude.

Briefly, on plotline, the story continues from the two prior instalments, with Wick now a fugitive from the High Table (an organization not unlike The League of Assassins, if you are a follower of the TV series "Arrow") that designates him "excommunicado", with a 14 million dollar contract out on him. Starting from the Continental Hotel in Manhattan, his journey via Casablanca and the Sahara comes full circle, back to the hotel where the grand finale set piece unfolds. Along the way he receives help from people who are powerful enough to take a risk, but not enough to avoid punishment dealt out by the High Table as appropriate. Some of these scenes are bloody funny, in both the idiomatic and literal senses.

In addition to the action which should satisfy the franchise fans, there are some interesting characters, both returning and new ones. Ian McShane and Lance Reddick reprise their roles of manager and right-hand man of The Continental. Laurence Fishburne is again the Bowery King. These three will definitely team up with Wick in "chapter 4" in a showdown with the High Table. I am particularly happy to see Anjelica Huston in an almost cameo role here. Among her countless films, the one I remember most is "The Dead" (1987), an excellent rendition of a singularly moving short story in James Joyce's "Dubliners".

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
(2019)

Tarantino's tribute to Hollywood in a real-life/fiction hybrid
Tarantino's 9th (last-but-one, he proclaims) feature film is the lightest in the violence department. It is a fond tribute, one could say, of the auteur to his beloved Hollywood. The 160 minutes run time many consider to be too long but that arguably is just a matter of personal preference. It structures along three parallel story lines which, as mentioned, constitutes a hybrid of real-life and fictional.

The fiction can legitimately be called a buddy story. While many comparisons have been offered by critics, from Don Quixote/ Sancho to Butch Cassidy/Sundance Kid, the most obvious one nobody mentioned, perhaps because it was too recent. I am talking about "Green Book". Obviously, there are more differences than similarities but let me just focus on the latter. Here we have Rick the past-prime but not yet over-the-hill movie star (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his long-time stunt double Cliff (Brad Pitt). The most obvious similarity to "Green Book" is that Cliff is temporary chauffer to Rick, although for a different reason (Rick got his license suspended for drunk driving). There is the similar class gap, essentially money and social status. In terms of temperament, Rick is emotionally fragile while Cliff is all cool common sense.

Before I elaborate further on this fictional plotline, let me also mention the real-life story: Rick's Hollywood neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). This right away casts a dark shadow on what would have been a purely fun-filled movie. Her brutal murder by the diabolic Manson gang has left such a horrific scar in Hollywood that even 50 years has not quite completely healed. I won't go into how this devastating atrocity is addressed in the movie. I may, later, but not without an additional spoiler warning.

The bulk of the story happens in a weekend, or the first two hours of screen time. The last half-hour, "six-months later", approaches the fateful date of the Manson murder.

Cliff's place in Rick's life is, as described in a voice over, "more than a brother but less than a wife". In the movie, while we see them often together in the car, they have two separate trajectories.

Rick struggles with self-doubt during filming of a western in which he is cast as the villain. This project turns out to be a blessing, restoring his confidence in a large measure, particularly when a super-cool-matured 8-year-old girl, after their scene together, praises him: "this is the best acting I have ever seen". This movie-in-a-movie, by the way, can be seen as an entertaining subplot, with a classic gun fight, as well as a cliff-hanging moment when Rick's character threatens to kill the 8-year-old girl he kidnapped for ransom. Anyway, this movie opens the door for Rick to make four spaghetti westerns in Italy. Six months later he is at a crossroad of his career, coming home with modest success, as well as an Italian wife. One good thing that comes to an end though is his long partnership with Cliff. The two buddies plan to give this treasured relationship a memorable ending by going to a pub and getting drunk together.

Cliff's trajectory takes on a different route. Except for chauffeuring Rick, hanging out occasionally with him during his busy filming schedule and doing odd jobs for him (such as fixing the antenna in his house) Cliff has plenty of time to kill. Although he wouldn't mind spending all this time talking to his dog, which listens patiently, it's not entirely satisfying, as the dog cannot talk back. Cliff therefore drives around and ends up hooking up with pretty Pussycat, who expectedly tries to seduce him in the car, while he is driving. Rick is ultra-cautious and refuses unless she can provide solid proof that she is over 18, which she cannot. Through this, Rick intimates that he once had a close brush with the law and does not intend to push his luck. From another source, we understand that he might have murdered his wife. But his shady past is always shrouded in mystery.

It is logical therefore that the most high-tensioned, suspenseful sequence comes with Cliff's arc, an encounter with the Manson gang. Pussycat is a member of the Manson "family' at Spahn Ranch, a hippie community, mainly of young women plus a couple of young men. One exception is an old man George Spahn (Bruce Dern), the owner whom Rick knew 8 years back before the filming location was abandoned and acquired by Manson. The tension keeps building when Cliff, brought to the Ranch as a friend and guest by Pussycat, keeps pressing for the whereabouts of George. While the outcome is anticlimactic, the journey of Tarantino's deft suspense is well worth the trip, particularly with Pitt's superb minimalistic performance.

With Sharon Tate's real-life story, the irony is that Tarantino had Robbie portray her as a dreamy fairytale figure that just might live happily ever after. Her husband Roman Polanski appears only briefly in the first segment and is overseas in the final half-hour segment. Sharon goes about her life almost like floating with an airy lightness, partying, shopping and watching by herself a comedy in which she has a minor role. In the "six months later" segment, she is very pregnant and, with Polanski away, entertaining four friends at home. While most in the audience were probably not yet born on that fateful day, they would know, even if vaguely, that August 9, 1969 was when the five people were brutally murdered by the Manson gang (Manson himself was not there) in Sharon's home.

So, there you have it: 3 protagonists (2 fictional, 1 real-life), 3.5 story lines (including the movie-in-movie), 2 segments comprising February 1969 (first 2 hours) and August 1969 (last half-hour).

Big spoiler warning.

By the time the second segment starts, most in the audience would be holding their breath, even subconsciously, with ominous foreboding. The way Tarantino handles the devastating true event is a master stroke, especially the final shot.

After the aforementioned farewell drinking spree, Cliff (together with his dog) comes to stay over at Rick's house. Rick's Italian wife is living there already. The Manson gang, fitted out with gun and knives, has been sent to the neighborhood to kill some rich people. The noise of their car engine really annoys Rick who comes out to his front driveway, yells at them and chases them away. In the meantime, Sharon next doors is having a great time with her 4 friends. On-screen texts keep updating the time, masterfully creating creepy foreshadowing. Tarantino keeps the audience believing that the Manson gang, coming back after a brief retreat, will be going into the Polanski house, in a movie recreation of the murder. But instead, they go into Rick's house where Cliff, probably at one time a killer deadlier than any of them, gives them a hell of a gory time, assisted by his dog. Rick and his Italian wife have their share of the fun too. This scene is vintage Tarantino. Fans who have been disappointed so far will likely find what they have been missing.

And here comes the master stroke. When the dust settles and police arrives, the gang members are all dead. Rick is taken into an ambulance, injured but not fatally. One of Sharon's guests comes out to see what caused the commotion. Rick explains everything to him. At Sharon's invitation for a drink (over the intercom), Rick comes through the Polanski house's main gate while Sharon comes out with the other guests to greet him. The last shot is a crane shot (playing God?) showing the cordial greetings of these new friends before they go into the house. We are left wondering if, for the movie, the murder as in real-life is going to happen in the next day or two. Or, as an alternative to the open-end, the bloodbath has been substituted with what just happened in Rick's house. In this alternate time line, the world never lost this endearing, child-like Hollywood rising star.

End of spoiler

The three leads are all wonderful, each in their own way. The support cast is also something to behold. In addition to abovementioned Bruce Dern, there are Al Pacino, Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant portraying, respectively, movie tycoon, director and lead actor that interact with Rick. Dakota Fanning plays a leading member in the Manson "family" at Spahn Ranch. On that sequence, abovementioned Pussycat is played by Margaret Qualley. While not exactly a household name, she is familiar to those who have enjoyed the excellent TV series of "The leftovers", as one of the key members of that exquisite ensemble cast. Compared with that powerful TV series, the character Pussycat in this movie is easy work for her, but not entirely unchallenging. Incidentally, this being a Tarantino movie, his signature shot takes advantage of her shapely bare feet, resting comfortably on the dashboard while Rick is driving her around town. Early in the movie, two iconic Hollywood figures are portrayed with good resemblance, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee and Damian Lewis and Steve McQueen.

Long Shot
(2019)

From Cindarella to "Pretty Woman" to "Long Shot"
As "Pretty woman" (1990) modernizes the fairy tale of Cindarella, "Long shot" puts a further spin on it: gender switch.

Starting from the beginning (not the beginning of the movie), a flashback of 25 years, we see 13-year-old Fred (Braxton Herda) having a crush on his 16-year-old babysitter Charlotte (Aviva Mongillo). Back to the present, when they meet again, by chance, he is a good but razor-sharp journalist while she is the secretary of state aspiring to be president (played now by Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron).

The beginning of the movie shows Jewish Fred infiltrating a neo-Nazi club, exposed, and escaping miraculously with not even a broken bone, but just a limp. Then, when the outfit his works for is bought by Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), a Thanos of a tycoon in the media universe, he quits.

As to Charlotte, we see the buffoon of a president (Bob Odenkirk) confiding in her that at the peak of his popularity (for doing nothing), he is not seeking a second term, because he wants to star in a movie. This advances Charlotte's aspiration by 4 years. She makes her pitch, and he readily agrees to endorse her. "After all, you have been a great secretary" he comments, which she promptly amends by adding "of state".

The chance meeting of Charlotte and Fred is at a global environmental drive function, a true passion in Charlotte's agenda (as secretary of state, for she has not yet announced her candidacy). They recognize each other and exchange quick updates (one way, really, needless to say). When she later finds out that he is good in his profession, he is hired to work on her speeches for the round-the-world tour to promote her environmental quest.

The trajectory of the rom-com is predictable, rolling merrily along capital cities from continent to continent. The dramatic conflict is between her compromising pragmatism and his almost fanatic moral compass. It wouldn't be too much of a spoiler to say there is a happy ending, if only because the two leads will take no time at all in making the audience fall in love with them. One interesting thing is that a critical plot device is something borrowed from "There's something about Mary" (1998), with Rogen doing the Ben Stiller thing in that movie, earning Fred the popular nickname of "the come guy". The movie offers so much hilarious fun, sometimes to surrealistic proportions.

If it were only Theron and Rogen, the movie is still well worth watching. But then, you also have fantastic icing on the cake, a marvelous support cast. Serkis, whom I have mentioned, is an asset to any movie, motion capture or not. O'Shea Jackson Jr playing Fred's sidekick buddy Lance is a scene stealer. Toward the end at Charlotte's introduction of his "boyfriend" Fred to the gathered crowd, when Lance yells "Wakanda forever", he has you almost believing that this is Chadwick Boseman. Comprising the entourage of Charlotte's world tour are two elite aids Maggie (June Diane Raphael) and Tom (Ravi Patel) and bodyguard Agent M (Tristan D. Lalla), all very watchable. There is the Canadian prime minister that Charlotte "flirts with", portrayed amusingly by Alexander Skarsgard, flinging around one-liners like "I'll take a snow cheque, eh, Canadian for a rain cheque".

It has been awhile since the market had seen a rom-com. This latest addition of two fun-filled hours is worth a trip to the theatre.

Mary Poppins Returns
(2018)

A sequel that is really a remake, almost
There is no question that "Mary Poppins Returns" is a sequel. Even the title pronounces as much. And yet, it is in some ways also a remake, and a tribute. I'll elaborate later.

At the end of "Mary Poppins" (1964), Bert (Dick Van Dyke), Mary's song-and-dance sidekick, said to her (Julie Andrews) as she levitated into the sky "Goodbye, Mary Poppins, don't stay away too long". Well, "too long" is subject to personal interpretation. In actual life, it took more than half a century. In the movie timeline, it is a couple of decades.

In "returns", the two kids in the original have grown up, but unfortunately, into the "big slump" years (England's equivalent of the U.S.'s depression era). The Banks kids Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer) are still living in the same house. Michael lost his wife a year ago and is looking after three lovely kids with the help of sister Jane who is single, devoting her time and energy to labour organizing. Good old housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) is still with them. The key plot element is that they are about to lose the house to a bank foreclosure. There is still hope: father had left them shares of the bank. The siblings have 5 days to find the share certificates tucked away somewhere in the house, or all is lost.

So much for the plot. Let me get on to why I said that in some ways, this is a remake. Many characters as well as events are reprised, starting with the "Admiral" next door with a fetish for firing a thundering cannon daily. Bert the chimney sweeper has gone travelling. Replacing him as Mary Poppin's sidekick is Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) the lamplighter. In the show-stopping, song-and-dance set piece, the army of chimney sweepers is replaced by an army of "leeries" (lamplighters). There are now three children instead of two (who have adults) and they are updated with a touch of modern smartness. But at the end of the day, it's all about Mary Poppins bringing to them the world of magical imagination where everything is possible, "even the impossible".

A few words on the cast, a top-notch British cast. Blunt is arguably the best choice available in today's field for Mary Poppins. While Julie Andrew is a one-and-only in the singing department, Blunt holds her own and, in acting, is second to none. Miranda is a heavy-weight in Broadway, particularly after his recent success with "Hamilton". His "Jack" is not intended to be a replacement of Dick Van Dyke's "Bert" which is iconic and not replaceable.

Playing the two siblings now as grownups are two exquisite picks from the field of British screen talents, both of whom I have been following for over a decade. For Whishaw, it started with "The story of a murderer" (2006), followed by "Brideshead Revisited" (2008), "Bright star" (2009), all three cementing his position as a fine character actor. There was also mainstream epic "Cloud Atlas" (2012), as well as taking over as a new generation of "Q" in the 007 reboot with Daniel Graig. For Mortimer, it was "Young Adam" (2003) and "Dear Frankie" (2004), "Match point" (2005) and quite a few subsequent movies. The most impressive, however, is the immensely popular HBO series "The Newsroom", in which she shines in the lead female role MacKenzie McHale.

Most interesting is a sort-of mini-reunion of the "Mamma Mia" cast! Abovementioned Walters, giving an excellent portrayal of loyal housekeeper Ellen here, is none other than Rosie, the more sentimental of Donna's two sidekicks. Colin First, who plays Harry, one of Sophie's 3 suspect fathers, is brilliant here oozing nastiness as the bank president. And of course, Meryl Streep, having a short but absolutely scene-stealing appearance as Topsy, Mary Poppin's eccentric cousin with an unpronounceable full name.

It has been generally reported that Julie Andrews courteously declined an invitation to a cameo role. It is a delight, however, to see some others. It's lucky that Dick Van Dyke played two roles in the original. Although Bert did not appear in "returns" he brought back good old (I mean, really old) Mr. Dawes Jr., as the court of final appeal that saves the day. And he still dances! Angela Lansbury delights the audiences in the final scene, as the "balloon woman" who sells balloons that replicate the function of Mary Poppin's umbrella. While not a returning cameo, the name Jeremy Swift should be brought up, if you find his face familiar (he is one of the bank's lawyers). Downton Abbey fans will remember him as the multi-talented butler Spratt who moonlight as a female fashion writer for a magazine.

"Mary Poppins" cannot be replicated, but "Mary Poppins Returns" has its own charm. In particular, there is poignancy. There is one scene when Michael is sad and gloomy thinking about his deceased wife, as well as angry with the kids for their blunder at the bank causing him to lose his job. The three kids cheer him up with a song Mary Poppins taught them, about "gone but not forgotten". In this, I saw a faint shadow of "The sound of music" in which the seven children turn The Captain's mood around by singing "The sound of music", a song their nanny taught them. That nanny, interestingly, is the altered-ego of Mary Poppins, through Julie Andrews.

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