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Doctor Sleep

A worthy sequel to a classic Stephen King story
Little over three decades after penning the eerie "The Shining", Stephen King decided to write a sequel that follows Danny (now going by Dan) Torrance dealing with the trauma he once endured at the infamous Overlook. Now director Mike Flanagan set his directorial acumen on adapting this work two years after his success with "Gerald's Game" for Netflix. Thankfully the director didn't falter in bringing this King book to the big screen.

The basic plot follows the tormented Dan as he is once again forced to confront danger when a murderous cult seeks a strongly gifted teenager. It's a race against time and a battle of wills as Dan must accept his gift once more in order to protect young Abra Stone and confront his demons.

The casting in this King story is one of the greatest strengths as we get the talents of A-listers Ewan McGregor and Rebecca Ferguson and newcomer Kyliegh Curran. First to focus on our Dan Torrance is the great Ewan McGregor who successfully flits between a traumatized, but still incredibly 'Shining' strong man. When we first meet Dan (post flashbacks) is a disheveled and hungover man that we could mistake for his late father, Jack. Dan abuses the drink just as his father had done previously, but in Dan's case it is to suppress his Shine and the trauma he endured at the age of five. He even thinks of stealing money, but his conscience gets the better of him in the form of his old ally, Dick Halloran. This lost soul wanders round the continental U.S. in order to keep beginning his life anew, but when he settle in New Hampshire, we soon get to see Ewan McGregor transform into a more confident man as we watch him become the titular 'Doctor Sleep' by helping patients in a hospice center. However it is his chemistry with Kyliegh Curran's Abra that makes the heart of the film as McGregor must communicate through writing on a chalkboard and eventually acting as a mentor to young Curran's Abra. He becomes the new Halloran to her Danny, but she is far more confident in their ability compared to Dan's current state. However watching McGregor grow into a fearless hero as the climax approaches is a cathartic journey especially as we watch him confront the trauma he once suffered and is able to redeem himself and protect the world he once shunned. Newcomer Kyliegh Curran brings an earthliness to the potential victim of the evil True Knot. Abra Stone looks like an average teenager just like meeting little Danny in "The Shining", but she is even more powerful in the Shine compared to Dan at the start of the film. She is essentially reckless as a little girl with her power (at the age of five), but when Abra meets Dan and is warned about her powers though is told to stop using the Shine by Dan. However it is due to her ignoring his advice that actually helps her potential mentor open up to using his Shine again and how Dan and Abra are able to battle the True Knot. Abra does suffer terribly in one horrific scene, but throughout the narrative she remains strong and refuses to give in to the fear that the True Knot thrives on. She is afraid like a teenager can be, but Abra doe not let this fear rule her and stands besides Dan unafraid of their adversary. Finally as the villainess of the piece we have the beautiful Rebecca Ferguson as the wicked Rose the Hat. For a character whose past is virtually unknown to the viewer, Ferguson plays Rose like an ancient evil who has been around for at least half of a century (due to some hints dropped in her dialogue). Rose leads the evil cult, the True Knot, who seek to steal the Shine from young children in order to maintain their life-force. However even though all the members to get have their share of the 'steam', Rose is always the first asserting her alpha female status and keeps the leftover canisters in her trailer to heighten her own selfish nature. Ferguson deftly toes the line of presenting a friendly-ish demeanor (as demonstrated in the opening scene) but quickly turning into a violent and vicious killer without any remorse for killing innocents. The role of Rose being one of the most powerful Shiners demands quite the physical prowess of an actress as she is thrown about psychologically and psychically affected when her members are attacked. Given that Rebecca Ferguson has been part of the "Mission Impossible" franchise since 2015, the English actress has the action movie skills that can meet the demand but Ferguson goes even deeper here. She is thin and flexible as she must react to psychological attacks and pantomime being held in place by her powerful adversary, Abra. She and Abra are almost a Holmes-Moriarty in their battle of wits as they work furiously to wear down the other until one gives up, but neither woman is willing to back down.

With only one writer in the director, we get a helpful streamlined narrative. Flanagan devotes fair amounts of screen-time to his three leads in order to establish them, but the first act focuses on Dan and his journey to normalcy before the second act introduces him to Abra. We only see him and the True Knot for the first half, but we do get to meet Abra as a little girl when her Shine first surfaces, but she becomes a key player once she hits thirteen and the cult seeks her essence. This is actually for the benefit of the narrative so we can follow Dan first as he establishes his normal life and his friendship with the unseen Abra, keeping him the main focus before it becomes about him, Abra and their battle against the True Knot. Flanagan stays pretty faithful to the novel like he did with "Gerald's Game", but does change up moments during the story especially the ending which actually gives closure to Dan and has a cheeky implication if you've seen "The Shining".

The cinematography and music in the film are also well crafted. The music by the Newton Brothers is quite minimalist similar to Ennio Morricone's score for "The Thing" in particular, using a heartbeat prominently in the majority of scenes. There is even use of the classic low brass theme from "The Shining" as we reach the climax and the cinematography echoes how Stanley Kubrick filmed the opening to his film. The landscapes are beautifully crafted due to its mainly rural locations in New Hampshire, Iowa and the finale in Colorado and the color contrasts are all unique to their location. We get mostly blue-gray as we follow Dan, green and pink with Abra's room and dying yellow with the True Knot during the daytime and we get darkness at night since the group is evil; Rose's wardrobe even reflects their nighttime evil as Rebecca Ferguson wears mostly gray, tan and her black hat and even a red skirt mixed with some white in one scene. Even the visual effects are decent due to how practical they look particularly in the eerie blue-white glow in the eyes of the True Knot when they perform their wicked ritual. However one thing I wish the visual effects team had done was use digital imposition for the climax when we see Dan confront his childhood trauma; I won't spoil too much of what I'm referring to, but when you see it I think you'll know what I mean.

In summary, this is a worthy sequel to one of Stephen King's classic works. It is not perfect of course, but I found it more engaging than the cinematic adaptation of "The Shining".


Shocking, downbeat and shockingly profound
The cinematic event of the fall season finally arrived and boy were our collective minds blown! Who would have thought that a dark comic feature from the director of the "Hangover" trilogy could be as popular as it currently is? Well friends, Todd Philips delivered a solid origin story for Batman's greatest nemesis and separated it from the DCEU fare with its own little universe.

I won't delve too much into the plot as it would spoil this masterpiece of dark cinema. The basic concept follows a down-on-his-luck man who after a series of unfortunate circumstances finally snaps and the outcome is horrifying to watch unfold.

After such performances by Caesare Romero, Jack Nicholson, the deliciously insane vocals of Mark Hamill and the post-humous Oscar winning performance of Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight' we were all wondering what acclaimed actor Joaquin Phoenix would bring to the iconic Joker. There was some doubt over how he would top the late Heath Ledger, but if you ask me: we got the most human portrayal of this iconic villain yet. Arthur Fleck is a tormented sign-twirling salesman who is eking out a meager existence to provide for himself and his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), but when he finally has become fed up his mind cracks. His journey is a slow descent into madness that is actually heartbreaking to watch as he is a man who really has no support network to rely on and is relentlessly made the butt of the joke by his peers, Known for his intensity, Joaquin Phoenix deftly approached the character as a man who longs for a connection to the world around him and to be accepted as the person he is, but the cruel real world practically spits on him and laughs at his attempts. Phoenix broods and oozes an inner ticking time bomb that when it explodes he goes full throttle without becoming a cartoon caricature, but "that's it! I won't take this anymore and here's what you get for how you treated me!" I condone Arthur's actions as they are violent and should not ever be replicated in reality, but in a bizarre way we do sympathize with him since we are always in his troubled perspective.

The standout supporting cast include Frances Conroy as Penny Fleck, Arthur's ailing mother who holds some dark secrets that help lead to Arthur's downfall to insanity, and the great Robert De Niro as condescending TV show host Murray Franklin. First, Frances Conroy is so understated as Penny but she is a terrific foil to the more clearly unstable Joaquin Phoenix. She is caring towards him, but she has a Mrs. Bates quality to her as she relies on Arthur as her caregiver and little boy. Watching her and Phoenix's scenes is both strangely touching, but also unsettling as it is slowly unraveling as the catalyst for the film's climatic reveals about her true self. Now to Robert De Niro, where has this kind of talent been with him these past few years?! After sub-par junk like "Dirty Grandpa", we get a return of the De Niro from his earlier career especially the 1980s. The character of Murray Franklin and his interaction with Arthur Fleck near the close of the film echoes the largely forgotten 'The King of Comedy' which had a direct influence on this film's story. While in the Scorsese film, De Niro was the struggling comedian and the late Jerry Lewis was the snide TV host, here the roles are switched as De Niro gets to be Jerry Lewis while Joaquin Phoenix plays the struggling artist in question. The film plays with the wholesome image of De Niro throughout the majority of the film since we, like Arthur, only see Murray on TV until the third act of the film where our troubled anti-hero meets his idol. When we see the moment that helps Arthur's mind snap, we become angry at how the audience and Murray treat Arthur like a sideshow and only invite him on as a joke. The dialogue between the veteran actor and Phoenix is revealing as we watch Arthur take down Murray and the public's perception of him while De Niro attempts to hold his disturbed guest in check. However we still see his true colors as he tries vainly to humiliate Arthur on national television, but at this point in time it is futile as the persona Arthur has since adopted could care less than Arthur's more human side did. De Niro may have to let the spotlight be on Phoenix, but he never wastes a line as he verbally spars with the harsh-tongued lunatic opposite him.

Todd Philips and co-writer Joel Silver deftly tackled this origin story by not just adapting one of the numerous tales that the Clown Prince of Crime has told over the decades in comics and films. Here we get almost an amalgamation of different inspirations such as the infamous 'The Killing Joke' where one bad day can push certain men and women to insanity and the aforementioned Martin Scorsese drama-comedy "The King of Comedy' mixed with a few elements from 'Taxi Driver'. Given that Scorsese was once in talks for the project, it makes sense that his influence would be felt. This is one of the greatest strengths of the narrative as the ambiance feels like being in an early Scorsese film with the coloring to the haunting musical score and particularly Joaquin Phoenix's performance as Arthur Fleck. The character is similar to how Robert De Niro behaves in 'Taxi Driver' especially in the behavior towards his peers like Zazie Beets who is practically a stand-in for Cybil Shepard in the latter film. Though in Arthur's case, his interaction with Zazie Beets' character doesn't really copy what happens with De Niro and Shepard in 'Taxi Driver' since we find out the real truth near the climax of 'Joker'.

There is shocking moments of violence in the film, but I doubt we will have a repeat of what happened in Aurora, Colorado. However, I strongly encourage anyone who sees this film to remember this is a fictional film, but there are people who suffer from mental illness like Arthur Fleck and have done awful acts like him in the real world. Please DO NOT replicate this violence and cost innocent families and individuals their lives. If you are suffering from mental illness, remember there is help and it can provide some comfort.I want all to be well and be safe.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The best adaptation, beautifully shot and well acted
The concept of eternal youth has been a human preoccupation for centuries and it was only a matter of time before the literary world went after it. Oscar Wilde was the one who chomped at the bit with his sole novel and succeeds quite well at it. While initially a failure at its time, readers couldn't resist this intricate yet simple tale and having different adaptations keeps the story in pop culture.

This 1945 masterpiece is easily the most faithful interpretation as it directly translates the text though dialogue and the visuals. After Basil Hollward paints a striking painting of his friend, Dorian Gray, the title character selfishly wishes he could stay young forever after Lord Henry Wotton extolls the virtues of youth and beauty as opposed to letting it slip away. From there we follow Dorian's descent into immorality and witness the consequences of his actions.

The cast is impeccable despite few actual stars like today's casting process. In the role of Dorian Gray, future character actor Hurd Hatfield brings a regal yet arrogant air to the part. We find him fascinating as he inhabits the petulant aristocrat and want to follow his journey. There are times where we want Dorian better himself, but when Hatfield goes back to his selfish ways we are still invested despite the crimes he performs. As Lord Henry, we get the gravitas of George Sanders who is excellently haughty and self-obsessed. He spouts Lord Henry's philosophies with the scholarly air of a university professor and is indifferent to how the likes of Basil respond to his immoral views. Even when Dorian wants to do better, Lord Henry cooks up an excuse to keep Dorian on the path to devious behavior and is indirectly responsible for one of the character's deaths by his influence on our title character. In her first major role, the lovely Dame Angela Lansbury plays the beautiful and talented Sybil Vane. She is entrancing the moment she comes onscreen to sing 'Goodbye Little Yellow Bird" in her dulcet mezzo voice. We fall for her like Dorian (maybe not romantically like he does, but we care about her like she were our family or friend) and want to see them be happy together. Lansbury plays the right amount of naivety without being a dumb character; she is a girl in love with a man who initially does love her, but soon will take advantage of her. We feel her sadness when she is ultimately rejected and her inevitable fate breaks our hearts while Dorian's initial sadness and guilt melt away and turn to ice.

Outside of the stellar acting is the film's exquisite cinematography which primarily shot in black and white (per the time of filming as color films were still relatively new), but does include magnificent early Technicolor shots of Dorian's portrait in both its elegant stature at the beginning to its transformation into a hideous monstrosity by the midway section once Dorian's immorality increases. The paintings were done by two talented artists who in essence represented Dorian Gray through the art by their contrasting portraits. Henrique Medina created Basil Hollward's initial vision of Dorian as a beautiful young man with innocence, a child who has yet to be corrupted by the evils and vices of the world. The striking dark greens in the Technicolor shot of the completed portrait standout with the dark blue of Dorian's suit as well as the rosy complexion and beautiful dark brown of his fair hair. In contrast is the hideous and diseased looking portrait by Ivan Albright that displays the wickedness that Dorian engages in after Sybil's fate and on to the conclusion of the story. Taking a year to paint, Albright's horrifying visage is like a nightmare from a Stephen King story with an ugly aged man with a bloody hand, garish yellows and reds that could be seen in giallo films of the 1970s and distorted images we never quite see. If you want to see this masterpiece it is at the Art Institute of Chicago for all to see; something I must do. The film rightfully won an Oscar for its black and white cinematography (back when the category was split into two).


An interesting take on the stalker subgenre
After the disappointing adaptation of "The Girl on the Train", Tate Taylor delivers a much more solid original story. While not the most original movie in the "stalker film" genre, but it has a few tricks to differentiate itself from some of the others that preceded it. I shall try to keep spoilers mild as the trailers hint more of them.

The film follows new girl, Maggie, as she and her mother move to California after her parents' divorce. She and her new friends soon befriend a veterinary technician, Sue Ann, who eventually becomes obsessed with the kids. Obviously the film takes a dark turn midway through and you can kind of guess where the clichés pop up.

While Diana Silvers delivers a spunky and rebellious teenager in Maggie who strays from the generic dumb teen final girl (though there is no actual final girl here), the movie's obvious standout is Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann/Ma. Initially starting out as caring, sweet and snarky towards the teens we quickly see at her job that there is something off about Sue Ann. Her obsessive behavior towards the kids is decently paced, but was given away in the trailers so we aren't too shocked when the teens get freaked out. However her tragic past is actually a humane touch to her unstable nature even if some might call it cliché. I won't elaborate as it gives away key moments to the film, but I will say that it touches on one of the most problematic issues among youths in our culture now.

The tonal shifts are off-putting at times as we go from fun and rambunctious to creepy and unsettling in extreme sequences. One standout is when Sue Ann goes after one of her victims with a dark comedic touch, but it's supposed to be shocking except we see it coming. One of the darker moments before the finale between another victim and Ma is uncomfortable to watch and then gets gruesome without heading into "Sweeney Todd" territory.

While not a totally original and terrific film, give "Ma" a chance and enjoy the ride. There is hint of magic that isn't quite fully realized yet is worth watching Octavia Spencer bring her usual A-game.

It Chapter Two

A decent conclusion, but lacking the magic of the first half
After two years of waiting we finally got the concluding chapter of Andy Muschietti's remake of the Stephen King novel 'IT'. While mostly executed well like its first half, the magic wasn't quite captured for the ending of our beloved Loser's Club and their defeat of the titular entity. I shall try to avoid major spoilers for those who wish to read the novel or watch the movie.

Brief summary of the plot (easy to get from the trailers): 27 years after defeating the entity known as IT, the adult Losers must return to Derry when IT comes back seeking new victims and revenge on the adults Losers.

For our adult cast, Muschietti assembled a top-notch cast including James McAvoy as Bill Denborough, Jessica Chastain as Beverly Marsh, Bill Hader as Richie Tozer, Jay Ryan as Ben Hanscom, Isaiah Mustafa as Mike Hanlon, and James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak. Bill Hader is easily the standout as Richie, the foul-mouthed comedian of the batch which is perfect for the Saturday Night Live alumni. Hader is able to balance the dark humor with his dramatic chops that he acquired from "The Skeleton Twins" and his Emmy winning role on HBO's "Barry" and his facial gymnastics are silly, but purposeful. His comedic chemistry with James Ransone is touching and funny at the same time especially when the climax arrives and you feel for Richie.

Returning as our scary clown is the ever creepy Bill Skarsgard in a much more toned-down (for the most part) Pennywise. While more cartoonishly creepy like his predecessor, Tim Curry, in the first chapter (which annoyed me a bit), Skarsgard is able to be in his element in the second part. The actor goes much more manipulative in this movie to get his victims (particularly in one sequence under some bleachers) which is a welcome change to spouting some of Tim Curry's original dialogue. The only downside is the climax for the Swedish actor, but it's more the fault of the visual effects team and writing. However it doesn't quite diminish the step-up for the performance.

While the first chapter employed practical effects with some CGI, the team unfortunately went overboard with the CGI here. Thankfully Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise and the excellent Javier Botet get the majority of the practical work (considering Botet is the alternate Doug Jones for creepy monsters like Mama). I was laughing at the CGI particularly for one of Pennywise's young victims as the CGI jaw is so in your face and blatant which isn't the only ridiculous moment as you will see in the climactic showdown.

Screenwriter Gary Dauberman returns to pen the script after his first directorial debut earlier in the summer with the third "Annabelle" movie. However you can tell that his writing isn't as strong as the first film specifically with the so-so chemistry between the adult Losers. As pointed out earlier, the strongest bond of the group is Richie and Eddie while the triangle between Beverly, Bill and Ben is ignored a little more than the novel and rushed through. Having a longer runtime (almost 3 hours long) also packed in too much material that could've been trimmed out of the script (not really blaming Dauberman for that as that is more on Muschietti and the editor). Don't let this detract you though and try to enjoy the remaining time with our characters.

Do give this film a chance particularly if you enjoyed the first movie and the novel, but lower your expectations to a reasonable level. It's always a challenge to follow a successful first half, but it's not a terrible film just not great.

The Lion King

A decent remake, but won't surpass the 1994 original
Jon Favreau has once again worked a technical marvel with this updated rendition of Disney's Oscar winning feature from the mid-90s. Although it's updated in the visuals, the story is still the same one that a majority of the audience has grown up with from childhood.

The casting is fairly top-notch with the likes of award winning singer-actor Donald Glover as the older Simba (far more believable than Matthew Broderick in 1994), comedian John Oliver as eternal punching-bag Zazu (who is quite braver than his counterpart, but still hilarious with straighter humor than Rowan Atkinson's slapstick-like routine which makes the character Oliver's own), Florence Kasumba as a more sinister Shenzi who joys in terrorizing Nala, the beloved return of the magnificent James Earl Jones as Mufasa (and once again my childhood got to endure that trauma that makes me sob like a little kid) and JD McCrary and Shahidi Wright Joseph as young Simba and Nala respectively.

However not all the casting fits quite as well, but this is not to say the actors are awful or are utterly poor in their performances. They just don't deliver quite as much as many of their costars. As the big bad, Chiwetel Ejofor's vocals sound more like an impression of Idris Elba as Shere Khan in 2016's "The Jungle Book" which is a shame. The man is a great actor, but he mostly lacked the gravitas that was brought to the role by Jeremy Irons in 1994 (especially when he is opposite James Earl Jones). One major highlight is that Ejofor gets the menace of Scar correct and is quite vicious with his actions and is so self-serving he doesn't care what happens to others.

In the role of comedic relief with the always hilarious Timon and Phumba, I feel we got a downgrade from the hilarity that was Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella who had an Abbott-Costello chemistry as the duo. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner feel more like two loud-mouthed buddies who try to replicate some of the beats from the original film. To Eichner's credit, he does capture Timon's arrogant attitude on-point more than Lane's smarmier meerkat and his 'Be Our Guest' parody is a gut-buster (though I miss that 'Luau!' hula, but this worked on so many levels). Rogen was the ideal choice for Phumba in concept, but he is clearly the smarter one as opposed to his original counterpart who is dimmer but is what made the humor work between Lane and Sabella; having two characters act alike isn't really that interesting a dynamic.

As for the badass Nala, we really didn't need Beyoncé in the role. While yes she can sing (although plugging her own song in wasn't needed or asked for by most) her vocals lacked what Moira Kelly was able to balance with the same character. Moira Kelly was more stubborn and sharp-tongued (while singing was done by Sally Dworsky who was excellent for the Oscar winning "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?") compared to Beyoncé' who seems content to live the 'Hakuna Matata' life. Beyoncé's Nala gets huge credit for rallying the lionesses in the final battle and taking on Shenzi in a girl-on-girl fight that was a nice twist.

The visuals are obviously one of the greatest parts of the film. Styled in the same photo-realism that won 'The Jungle Book' an Oscar for Visual Effects, this seems like an homage to how the Disney animators got inspiration for the original film's designs (the '90s team went to Africa and sketched the savannah and wildlife). However this technique takes away much of the expressive features that the original animation was able to imbue (like Andreas Deja incorporating Jeremy Irons' facial expressions and features into Scar). It's wonderful to see realistic animals though I suppose.

One final note goes to the wonderful score by original composer Hans Zimmer who took home an Oscar for the original film and the songs by Sir Elton John and Tim Rice (who also took home an Oscar for Best Song). From that opening chant by Lebo M and the chorus to the glorious triumphant 'King of Pride Rock' at the climax, I felt the tears welling in my eyes and wept; bringing those happy childhood memories back and fresh. Even Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen singing 'Hakuna Matata' was a blast (their singing was on par) and having Donald Glover just own the end of the song elevated it to coolness. Sadly the song that fell the shortest was "Be Prepared" which is basically the greatest villain song ever written of the Mouse House canon. Chiwetel Ejofor doesn't sell it like Jeremy Irons' throaty and foppish sly slickness. It's more like a talk-sing monologue that takes less than a minute which is no way to treat the darkest song of the film. The child actors during "I Just Can't Wait to be King" really brought the bounciness and youthfulness required with John Oliver adding a straight-man spice.


An Underrated Character Study
Who thought a movie about a troubled young man and his army of rats would've been such a success? Well it happened back in 1971 with this bizarre horror-drama and to be honest the movie is far different than what you would expect. While billed as a horror film, the movie is more like a character study with a horror-style climax once the title character finally snaps.

The plot is pretty easy to follow as we follow young office clerk, Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison in his first lead role), as he befriends a group of rats. However his life goes south with his crooked boss and his overbearing mother leading to Willard descending into madness.

For a low-budget film, the acting is one of the greatest strengths of the movie. especially from star Bruce Davison. Now known as a character actor, at age 19 the young actor harnesses the depths required to go from a mild-mannered and put-upon blue collar man into an unhinged youth who brings about his own downfall by the finale. Davison starts the film as a bullied and molly-coddled boy who is too meek to stand up to his boss or tell his mother to stop interfering in his life. When he happens on the infestation of rats in their yard, it's fascinating to watch Davison starting to demonstrate his inner confidence as he bonds with his group of rats; especially his favorite, Socrates. The finale is where the actor truly shines as he dismantles his boss (the late great Ernest Borgnine) and watch his mental state finally collapse as he unleashes his rat army upon his aggressor and ultimately loses to battle to control his army during the final moments.

As Willard's scummy boss, Ernest Borgnine shines against his normally goofy amiable personality. He struts around like an arrogant peacock and berates any employee he wants, but especially our anti-hero, Willard. We know he is a catalyst for Willard's unraveling as he took away the title character's father's business from Willard and his mother and overworks the poor youth to his twisted content. It's a little hard to feel bad for his death at the climax due to his murder of Socrates and that he wanted to take Willard's home (which Willard overhears in a great tracking shot of Bruce Davison following from inside, but is never seen by his boss). Another nod goes to the late Elsa Lanchester as Willard's overbearing mother, Henrietta, who is essentially a cameo since she passes by the mid-point of the story.

The rats were famously wrangled by Moe Di Sesso and are the heart of the movie with its human lead. There were a few different rats who played the lead rats, Socrates (the pure white rat) and Ben (a larger black rat who was Bruce Davison's off-set lunch buddy) and rats are not easily trainable as production notes make clear. However it isn't too evident thanks to the filming style as Davison becomes the wrangler in the story (he openly acted around the rats when they did their own gigs). If you've got a fear of these rodents, best avoid the movie especially for the demises of two main characters.

My Bloody Valentine

Cheesy at times, but actually quite atmospheric and enjoyable
The 1980s venue of cinema is gonna be remembered for its slue of slasher films outside of plenty of Oscar winning material. With the success of "Friday the 13th", it didn't take long for 'copycat' movies to pop up and "My Bloody Valentine" is considered one of them. However this Canadian horror is interesting and has more character development than many slashers of the time in America.

Quick plot synopsis: it's been 20 years since the psychotic Harry Warden went on a murderous rampage through the town of Valentine Bluffs and was committed to a mental facility and the local kids want to throw a Valentine's party for the first time since then. However a mysterious figure wearing mining gear is stalking the town and killing its inhabitants in a similar fashion to Harry Warden. Is Harry back for blood or is it a copycat psychopath inspired by the infamous killer?

The Canadian cast are quite entertaining as they actually bring personality to their characters such as Paul Kelman as the unhappy and touchy T.J. Hanniger, the son of the town's mayor who is also owner of the miner, Neil Affleck as the cocky and controlling Axel Palmer and Lori Hallier as the conflicted, but savvy and strong-willed Sarah. There's also Don Francks as the town sheriff, Chief Newby, who is actually one of horror's smartest policemen and proactively works to protect his town's residents despite having to conceal Harry Warden's legendary spree. The young actors do occasionally turn to hokey line delivery, but it is funny enough to make you chuckle especially due to the native Canadian accents (thankfully not like "South Park"'s spoofing, but close at times). The leads are also pretty smart despite making some of the horror tropes like breaking the rules or going alone to dark places and being picked off, but the three leads are able to take on the killer or make good decisions that don't get them murdered.

Another of the film's best elements is its cinematography, lighting and music. Smoky streets highlight the night scenes as the killer stalks the town of Valentine Bluffs with some street lights to provide limited lighting though the killer's costume blends into the night sky. Using the popular first-person POV assists during the murder scenes before the camera switches back to seeing the gruesome carnage (at least in the restored cut) or using the killer's POV when he stalks the streets before we see him in full gear again. The music is also fitting for the unsettling bloodshed as it goes more for subtlety than "Psycho"-like inspiration and also goes to silliness when we watch our mining team leave work for the first time; sounding like its from "Beverly Hillbillies" rather than a slasher. There's even an interesting little song for Harry Warden during the credits which is like a more tolerable country ballad.

The detriment to the theatrical cut of the film (which I've seen and is on iTunes) is that most of the gore that slasher fans would enjoy is cut out. This was because the MPAA slashed (no pun intended) nine minutes of footage due to the violent content, but when the 2009 remake was ready for release Lionsgate (who had the rights to the remake and original) released a more uncut version with a couple minutes restored (and it's pretty nasty gore for some of the kills). If you are able to get ahold of the unrated version, do your best but it's okay to see the theatrical version as the story is the same regardless.

A Simple Favor

Enjoyable, but still a 'Gone Girl' wannabe
Okay are we done with making copycats of 'Gone Girl' yet? Not to hate on Paul Feig's mystery-thriller, but it's not hard to notice similarities between certain plot points. However the movie is still entertaining and a twist or two is not so bad and does have a career-best Blake Lively performance.

Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is mourning the loss of her best friend, Emily Nelson (Blake Lively) who has vanished for the past week and is presumed dead. However Stephanie eventually discovers she didn't know her best friend as well as she thought.

As our heroine, Stephanie, Anna Kendrick handles the naive and kinda ditsy girl well considering her role in the "Pitch Perfect" trilogy. She has a tacky wardrobe that helps accent her uncoolness among other parents outside of her vlog that she runs (the book has a blog by Stephanie, but the movie wisely chose a video format given the popularity of YouTube vloggers). When she meets Emily, Stephanie's wardrobe slowly transitions to a smarter looking style that heightens after Emily vanishes and even by the conclusion. However Kendrick struggles with being a stronger woman once she learns Emily's true nature. She shifts too much back to her put-upon act for the most of the opening when she should be standing up to Emily.

Blake Lively is stellar as the cold, calculated Emily as she bounces between sarcastic bestie to ice-cold bitch. Lively starts as being blunt and smarmy when she interacts with Anna Kendrick and then manages to come across as loving with Henry Golding's Sean (her husband) but still controlling. As Emily's true personality begins to emerge as the film unfolds, she starts tapping into Rosamund Pike's Amy Elliot-Dunne as she blackmails and kills someone close to her. However the script takes away some of Emily's extra crimes that would've been even more beneficial to Lively, but this doesn't deter from her performance.


A Passable Remake
Any giallo fan knows Dario Argento and his classically gory features especially "Suspiria". Like numerous other foreign language features, an English remake was inevitable and on the success of 2017's "Call Me by Your Name", its director Luca Guadagnino took up the difficult task to redo this Italian classic. Now there has been much division about whether the film is good or just bloated silliness is well earned as the remake has some features that work in its favor, but enough that is detrimental.

The plot is mostly the same as the original with American dancer wannabe Susie Bannon coming to Berlin to attend the Markos Dance Academy. Of course the Academy holds dark secrets and soon sets their sights on our heroine. However the climax turns the original's conclusion on its head and isn't really gratifying or that great despite the creative team's best effort to differ from Argento's version.

The cast is mostly passe here as opposed to the original film's international cast (with the likes of Jessica Harper as Susie and the late Joan Bennett as Madame Blanc). Dakota Johnson takes the reins from Jessica Harper as Susie, but is as usual quite lifeless in the part. Looking like she is sleepwalking, whispering her lines like her '50 Shades' tenure and hardly bringing anything new to the table (except for the climax's twist). Her dance skills are relatively decent, but not quite in the same league as Natalie Portman in "Black Swan". Mia Goth is equally not so impressive as Susie's classmate and friend, Sara though she does try. She does understand the bond that develops between the girls, but never quite gets there like the original film. The obvious standout of the film is Tilda Swinton taking on three roles as Madame Blanc (the head dance-mistress), Dr. Klemperer (a psychiatrist) and Mother Markos (the head of the Academy). Swinton flawlessly bounces between her characters giving each one their own personality that is haunting, tragic and enigmatic. If only the other lead characters could've had such depth.

In contrast to the original film's neon-like color palette, the remake takes on a more drab and muted palette with mostly gray and white mixed with red in certain sets. While it's nicer to have a more subtle coloring, the muteness doesn't give much personality to the environment or exciting. The direction is solid as Guadagnino brings his best game to the film, but it doesn't hold up too well to the director's previous success. As mentioned the film's climax has been the turning point as most haven't liked the new twist. I admire the writer's intention to differ from the original end, but changing Susie's place within the narrative wasn't satisfying or even fit how she's behaved through the film. She is meant to be a pawn, but is somehow not? It doesn't work for this type of story.


What if the mirror could look back?
Following his Academy Award win for the superb "Get Out", Jordan Peele returned to horror with his sophomore feature. However if you were hoping for the same psychological horror of his debut, well it gets gorier this time however there is still psychological terror to found. This does not take away from the excellent story that Peele has crafted this time.

Following a normal young African-American family: timid Adelaide (the wonderful Lupita N'yongo), goofy husband Gabe (Winston Duke being both hilarious and serious when the time comes), technology-loving Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and the troubled Jason (Evan Alex who is quite unsettling), who venture to their summer home for a vacation. However Adelaide struggles with a traumatic experience from her childhood where she might have found her double in a hall of mirrors. One evening the family spots ominous figures on their lawn at 11:11pm (a prominent plot point) which unfortunately turns out to be their doubles (played by all four actors; only N'yongo speaks, but with a chilling grating voice). Will they make it or not? No spoiler here.

The cast is brilliant as they each must inhabit both their average Joe characters and their silent (except for Nyongo's Red) counterparts who make their intentions clear to toy with the family and then kill them all. Lupita N'yongo is obviously the most standout as her counterpart is the only one who can speak English and that voice is haunting to the core as Red almost clicks as her voice cuts off momentarily before she finishes her sentences. The explanation comes at the film's climax once Adelaide goes to confront her double to save Jason after Red nabs him, but that's why you must see the film to know why.

While the film's narrative is quite compelling and straightforward, most critics have voiced their displeasure with the ending sequence of the film. I can agree that Red's monologue to Adelaide is long-winded and preachy; probably due to Peele taking advantage of being the sole writer. While others bemoan the final twists of the film I actually found myself surprised at who was actually who and the implication of the final shots were haunting for its real world implication.

Pet Sematary

Indeed dead is better, darker than before but not quite worth it
In 1983, Stephen King reluctantly published his most disturbing (outside of IT that followed 3 years later) novel about the title place that resurrects the dead but with dire consequences. King adapted the 1989 screenplay for Mary Lambert that resulted in a faithful but hardly terrifying (except for the reanimated Miko Hughes as Gage Creed) version of the novel. However as the Chicago Tribune review for this 2019 remake pointed out was the '89 film honed in the themes of grief and consequences for Louis' Creed's actions while the new film is more analytical with the concept of the afterlife and its possible existence. Terrific criticism and of the many stark differences between the films (and the book too).

For a quick recap that is now a story as old as time in the King literary world, the Creed family moves to little old Ludlow, Maine, find the title burial and horrible tragedies ensue with deadly consequences when the family patriarch makes a fateful decision to cope with his grief.

While the 1989 cast was virtually wooden or whiny, actors Fred Gwynne and little Miko Hughes stood out as Jud Crandall and Gage Creed respectively. Here a more emotive and capable cast turns in decent though so-so performances. Jason Clarke as Dr. Louis Creed definitely brings more emotion than predecessor Dale Midkiff, but the actor does struggle with his emotions of grief upon the death of one of his children. While he does shed a tear at the funeral, the sadness fades quickly as he shifts immediately to the decision that will ruin his life for good. However Clarke has a more believable chemistry with his on-screen wife compared to Midkiff and Denise Crosby as Louis and Rachel do come across as loving, but at odds with their views on death as Rachel struggles with her trauma regarding her late sister. Speaking of Rachel Creed, actress Amy Seimatz shines brightly with a more accurate Rachel compared to Denise Crosby. Seimatz brings out Rachel's fear of death and trauma more realistically as she suffers nightmares and visual hallucinations matching PTSD. Poor Rachel still suffers the same gruesome fate as the novel gives her at the hands of her beloved child. For the newcomer to the role of Ellie Creed, young Jete Laurence brings a unique spin to the eldest Creed child. Far from the annoying and whiny mess of the '89 film, Laurence is precocious, smart and ultimately ill-fated. Now if you haven't the spoiler-y second trailer or the film, Ellie becomes the undead Creed child as opposed to her brother in the original film and novel. However this doesn't detract from Laurence having to 'play dead' for the rest of the film. Initially Ellie seems oddly normal after her return, but quickly turns menacing and violent the next day as she terrorizes her father and then her two victims. The actress even reverts to her sweet girl façade briefly at the climactic showdowns with her parents, but we and her family know what a monster she is now. Finally there is the underused John Lithgow inheriting the role of Jud Crandall. The film veteran brings a grizzled and worldly look that varies on Fred Gwynne's farmer-like look from the '89 film. However Lithgow tries his best to be the catalyst for the events of the film, but his role is significantly reduced compared to his predecessor and is ultimately only a victim rather than the complex figure King created on the page or the humbly remorseful man Gwynne played using King's prose well. It is not Lithgow's fault we don't get to feel so much for Jud as he does what he can with so little material to craft the character any King knows.

Can we ban Jeff Buehler from writing horror films now? After making the bland and cliché 'Truth or Dare' last spring, this director became the screenwriter of this adaptation. However Buehler heavily misses the core themes of what makes this King book one of the most disturbing ever. The story is about grief, death and its effects on the human psyche and of course the Frankenstein morale of man playing God and its horrific consequences, but Buehler turns this movie into "Does the afterlife exist?" which is not what King even touches in the book. While Louis does engage in the act of burying Ellie in his grief, the consequences are not nearly as impactful as the original book or even the 1989 film. It turns into a quick beat slasher and hurries to the end which leaves much to be desired. However one element that Buehler gets right is including the Wendigo and its legend (though toned down to the violent aspects of the legend) which any reader of the book knows is the heart of the evil behind the cemetery.


Worthy to follow the original and good fan service
Oh my it's another ret-con after we endured Rob Zombie and before that the 1998 "H2O", but it was worth the whiplash. Despite the strange choice of stoner comedy director David Gordon Green, the director delivers a solid entry in this long-running franchise especially with the aid and blessing of John Carpenter (who produces and co-wrote the new score).

Picking up forty years after Michael Myers' original rampage for which he is re-incarcerated at Smiths-Grove, the psychopathic killer gets loose once more and seeks out the sole survivor of his spree in 1978: Laurie Strode. However, Laurie is prepared for this eventuality and is set on murdering the man who killed her friends. With the aid of her estranged daughter and granddaughter, the showdown is tense and bloody which is what we wanted in a new "Halloween".

Supporting players in the fray of this horror film includes the likes of TV actress Judy Greer and newcomer Andi Matichak. Greer plays Laurie's estranged daughter, Karen, a psychologist who resents her mother for her paranoia and obsession with Michael and his 1978 murder spree. This dysfunctional relationship results in strains within her own family despite how much she loves her daughter, Allyson and husband, Roy. Soon Karen learns how correct her mother was when Michael attacks Allyson and her friends and eventually makes it to Laurie's compound where they hide. Though she is afraid of the psychopathic killer, it comes down to Karen to take down Michael in an empowering moment for her.

As for newcomer Andi Matichak, she brings back the nostalgia of the good girl that actress Jaime lee Curtis brought to Laurie in 1978. Allyson is a typical millennial, but stuck with a dysfunctional family since her grandmother is treated like the town and family nutcase. She does love her parents, but shows disdain for her family's maltreatment of Laurie who she loves dearly. Though she doesn't believe (like her family) that Michael will escape, when confronted by the killer she is convinced and is afraid but does display a bravery from her grandmother in the climax.

Returning to the fold after lengthy hiatuses from the franchise, two familiar faces are more than welcome back. First up is stuntman/actor Nick Castle who originally portrayed The Shape in 1978. While Michael Myers has been portrayed by various other actors over 40 years, it was the silence of Castle that first terrified moviegoers. We get to see more glimpses of Castle than we did in 1978, but the filmmakers still cleverly shoot closeups from the side or blur full-faced shots of the actor without his mask. Credit also goes to James Jude Courtney who stands in for Castle in the more intense physical scenes.

And then there's our aging heroine, Laurie Strode, portrayed with quiet gusto by Jamie Lee Curtis. Deeply traumatized by Michael's spree, Laurie lives in a heavily armed house in the woods and touts her firearms with astute prowess. While we know Laurie will inevitably be correct about Michael's coming for her, it's easy to understand why her family isn't proud of her and her (well-founded) paranoia. When the final showdown comes it's a pleasure to see Jamie Lee Curtis toting a shotgun and taking down her tormentor; finally facing the man who nearly killed her 40 years earlier (forgetting the original 2nd film).

A special mention to the dearly missed presence of the late Donald Pleasance from the original films. You can't replace Dr. Loomis.

The original score returns once more with minor tweaks, but is still as iconic as the first time it was played in 1978.

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Necessary viewing for all
Remember growing up with "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" or watching re-runs with your own children? If your answer is 'yes' this will be a wonderful touch of nostalgia or if your answer is 'no', you can acquaint yourself with this beloved children's show. This documentary follows the creation of 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood' from its inception in the 1960s till it finally ended in the 1980s with interviews from those who participated in the program & worked on the show. The film also includes interviews with the children and widow of Fred Rogers as they discuss the TV show and moments from Fred's personal life till his 2003 death.

The legendary show was never afraid to touch on real world issues from the death of Robert Kennedy in 1968, the Challenger explosion of 1986 and the Twin Tower attack on 9/11 among other issues of the times. As stated in the interviews from crew and cast of the show, Mr. Rogers wanted to treat the youth like adults without patronizing them but still handling the touchy topics in a way that children would understand.

The documentary is not afraid to also highlight some imperfections from Rogers' life in particular is the subject of homosexuality (actor Francois Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood", is a gay man). Fred Rogers is not depicted as homophobic, but was apprehensive though he treated co-star Francois Clemmons like a surrogate son (as stated by Clemmons himself). There was also his concerns on the famous 'Saturday Night Live' parody: Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood with Eddie Murphy spoofing Fred as the title character of his sketch. Fred Rogers wasn't overly fond of the parody, but did understand it was all in comedic fun as he did visit the SNL set and met Murphy.

It is difficult to phrase how inspiring and touching this feature is. Unless another documentary can top this, here's looking at the Best Documentary Feature Length Oscar winner.

Bohemian Rhapsody

A biopic that would make its front-man proud
After the drama surrounding the departure of original lead Sacha Baron Cohen being replaced by Rami Malek to the 2017 holiday firing of original director Bryan Singer being replaced by Dexter Fletcher (however DGA rules allowed Singer credit), we all wondered if this film would ever make it to screens. However after all this on-set debacles, the remaining members of the production delivered a terrific final product.

Chronicling the formation of Queen in 1970 to their dynamic and legendary 1985 Live Aid performance, there is no shortage of ups and downs within the narrative. There are quarrels between the band-mates and personal dilemmas for iconic front-man, Freddie Mercury, as he struggles to find his personal identity and run his band. While the film isn't entirely accurate with details of Mercury's strifes, the writers still treat the late musician with respect and care that made Freddie so beloved by his fans, friends and loved ones.

Before getting to the performance of lead Rami Malek, credit must first go to the supporting players who are equally important to making the film's emotional core work. From Gwilym Lee as Queen guitarist Brian May (who produced the feature along with drummer Roger Taylor) who helped write the majority of Queen's biggest hits, Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor who resents when Freddie keeps showing up late or upset when his contributions get cut but ultimately cares about the men of the band, Joe Mazello as John Deacon who is the other reserved member of the group and then there's Lucy Boynton as Freddie's long-time friend and confidante Mary Austin. Boynton does harness the compassionate side of Mary as she copes with the initial hurt of Freddie's sexuality, but embraced him regardless which led to their long-lasting friendship. However Boynton's performance is still not quite up to accuracy par as she tends to be slightly over-dramatic and sometimes comes off as a jilted girlfriend rather than someone who figured out her friend's secret and chose not to be judgmental. Still a valuable role for the British actress and one to be proud of.

Now to the man of the feature: Rami Malek as the legendary Freddie Mercury. From relative obscurity to landing the coveted role of Elliot Alderson on TV's "Mr. Robot", Malek struck the jackpot with the role of Queen's legendary front-man after the departure of Sacha Baron Cohen. Immediately making an impression as we only see glimpses of the actor in costume until we go back to the night he met his future band-mates. Malek attaches to Mercury's shyness as he approaches Brian, Roger and John but his charisma ultimately shines through as he wins the attention of the three musicians. As the film goes on, the filmmakers begin to touch on the conflict of Freddie's sexual identity especially with the world's attitude towards homosexuality in the 1970s and 1980s. While not always accurate, the writers never pass judgment and allow Malek to subtly embrace the true nature of Freddie's private life. Thanks to the charisma of Malek, we still love Freddie even when he does cause tension with his band or his family. While the actor doesn't get to display his vocal chops often, Malek captures the stage presence and essence that made Queen's live concerts so beloved and legendary.

The music is of course the crux of the feature. Viewers can't help but want to join in the singing (yours truly sure did) as Mercury's powerful vocals radiate through the screen. Even though he died in 1991, using the front-man's vocals helps make it seem that Freddie never left us. This also lends to massive feels as the performance sequences do such justice to the band's famous concerts and would've made Freddie Mercury proud.


Relevant, timely and Spike Lee's best to date
With movements like #BlackLivesMatter and of course the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-1970s, this Spike Lee film couldn't have arrived at a better time in modern history. Taking the true story of Ron Stallworth, the sole African-American cop in the Colorado Springs PD in the early 1970s who through a clever ruse infiltrated the KKK, we are treated to an engaging character-driven film and the memorable dialogue we expect from Mr. Lee's body of work.

In the lead role, we get to see the talents of John David Washington (son of Oscar winner Denzel) who brings a wonderful grounded feel to Ron. He is a determined and committed cop who through non-violent means risks his life to undermine the world's most lethal racist group. Yes the move is foolish when we first learn of it with Ron's other colleagues, but Washington's charisma and drive make us cheer him along and hope he succeeds with his bizarre plan. The young actor also develops an excellent chemistry with his co-stars, Laura Harrier and Adam Driver (who both play crucial roles within the narrative), which drives the emotional weight of the operation and why it must not be derailed (although we have several close calls). Maybe we shall see an awards season nod for Washington's brave performance.

The key competent to making Stallworth's plan function is that he must have a Caucasian coworker on the force pose as him in person (as he is posing as a white man on the phone). That person turns out to be Adam Driver's Phillip 'Flip' Zimmerman, a Jewish officer on the Colorado Springs PD (another group despised by the KKK). Initially hesitant to encourage or even participate due to the danger involved, Driver's Zimmerman nevertheless remains loyal to his fellow officer and takes on the role of being the fake Ron. The charisma we have seen from the 'Star Wars' actor in past roles is kept low-key in this joint as we must uncomfortably hear him utter racist epithets and carry this ruse onward though near the film's climax we fear for Flip as he is nearly unmasked as a fraud.

Honorable mentions for Laura Harrier as the fiery Patrice, a fierce supporter of the Black Power movement and head of the African-American Student Union. The actress is spunky and sassy, but remains guarded and distrusting of the police (much like anti-police brutality groups of now) because of her race and treatment based on said factor. However Patrice is a strong role model for standing up for her beliefs and will protect her cause, but in non-violence like MLK Jr.'s teachings. And the other mention goes to a game-changing turn from Topher Grace as former Grand Dragon (the head of the KKK) David Duke. He is menacing in a subtle fashion without any overacting or having to utter much hate speech. His commanding of the KKK is calculating, using intimidation and fear and if needed violence (which he never see him order personally in the film).

If you're looking for the right political drama, this is the one for you. Be warned that it isn't for the easily offended.

The Lone Ranger

A bold and creative misfire
When it was announced that the Mouse House would adapt this classic radio drama, it was a strange but possibly compelling project. After all, Armie Hammer from "The Social Network" was tapped for the title role and Johnny Depp would costar alongside him with Gore Verbinski in the director's chair. However when production issues becoming making the headlines, this was a warning sign of potential failure but we continued to hold out hope till the release. Ultimately the skeptics weren't entirely wrong to be worried as the film became a massive bomb following the train wreck known as "John Carter".

The story is definitely an origin story about how John Reid became the title hero. I won't spoil the main plot as the radio drama delivers a vastly superior tale that is the actual origin and not what Disney's film shows. While the filmmakers do somewhat actually show how John and Tonto meet later in the film's first act, the overall execution is sloppy beyond measure to faithful devotees of the TV series or radio drama. In the lead role of the Lone Ranger, Armie Hammer's compelling talent from his earlier success in David Fincher's "The Social Network" is severely thrown to the wayside. I doubt this is the actor's fault completely because Hammer is one of the finest actors of the new millennium and is more the fault of the writers. The Ranger's legendary bravery is woefully left in the dirt and replaced with ridiculous scenarios that paint him as hapless or needing to rescued unlike his previous incarnates who held their own. While nailing the action sequences and attempting to have chemistry with Depp, the delivery of lines and charm are sorely wasted and is more laughable than engaging.

Creating controversy for the film was the decision to cast Johnny Depp as the Native American sidekick, Tonto. The Oscar nominee has claimed he might have Cherokee ancestry, but whether its true or not there is an issue with casting a Caucasian in non-white roles. From Scarlett Johannsson in "Ghost in the Shell" from 2017 to early examples like Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's (playing an Asian man)" to blackface, this is a casting notice that needs to be addressed in Hollywood. While Depp tries to be sensitive, the portrayal by the eccentric actor comes across as cringe-worthy and horribly embarrassing. The writers, like writing the title character, seems to forget the true origins of Tonto from the original programs. As already mentioned, the chemistry between Armie Hammer and Depp is virtually absent unlike Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheel in the original TV show. It's also clear that Disney decided to make it more of the "Johnny Depp movie with the Winklevi twins guy" which misses who the movie should actually be about.

The film's sole highlights would have to be its creepy villain played by character actor William Fichtner, the action sequences (obvious where most of the budget went aside from Johnny Depp's salary), stunt work (Armie Hammer learned to ride a horse while shooting a gun on a moving train which is pretty impressive) and the driving score by Oscar winning composer Han Zimmer which includes a great revamp of the original radio and TV show theme (the final movement from the "William Tell Overture"). If only the rest of the film could've been on the same level.


One Creepy Drama
While this film wasn't a box office smash, it isn't too difficult to see why critics were enamored with Cody Finley's directorial debut. The name of course derives from the breed of horse that is actually shown in the film's opening scene.

The plot is pretty straightforward as it follows the troubled Amanda who comes to stay with her wealthy friend, Lily. However Amanda's sociopathic nature begins to spill over to her friend once Amanda learns of Lily's hatred of her stepfather (who is responsible for the wealth Lily enjoys). From there the girls hatch a dark plot and enlist the help of hapless loser, Tim, to assist them.

As the two female leads, actresses Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy are an interesting pair to watch. Cooke as Amanda nails the deadpan delivery of her lines as her detached attitude oozes from every pore. Amanda is a vast contrast to the initially upbeat Lily; one of her darker stories relates to the opening scene of the film involving the Thoroughbred horse. Taylor-Joy is a more upbeat girl compared to her reserved attitude in 2017's "Split". Lily is meant to be a positive influence on the troubled Amanda, but even Lily can't break through the manipulative shell of Cooke and is eventually pulled to the dark side. Lily is the one who thinks of getting someone else to do her dirty work which ends up not working out how she had hoped.

A brief note on the character of Tim who is wonderfully played by the late Anton Yelchin in his final role. We never learn where Tim is from, but his air of mystery makes him a shady figure. While Tim is not a wanton malicious boy (unlike Amanda and eventually Lily), he is desperate to please the girls in order to get his financial reward. However when the time comes to commit an ugly crime, the scared teenager's conscience compels him to make the proper choice.

The film is a short little outing that might turn some viewers off as it rattles off its story pretty quick. This should not be a detriment though as the story is relatable in a sense to troubled teens, but don't go around doing terrible deeds like Amanda and Lily.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

Another Exciting Mission You Must See
Even after 22 years and now six films in, the creative minds behind this film franchise do not disappoint with this latest offering. Following the events of "Rogue Nation", Ethan Hunt and his team must track the elusive John Lark, an unknown man who has links to the Apostles (a subgroup within the Syndicate) and to find missing plutonium planned to be used for nuclear desolation. However as is known in this franchise, the mission becomes far more complex and dangerous for everyone involved.

A host of familiar faces return for this latest mission such as series lead Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, Ving Rhames as hacker member Luther, Simon Pegg as the nerdy yet helpful Benji and Rebecca Ferguson as the skilled sole female member of the team, Ilsa Faust (who is far less of a femme fatale after "Rogue Nation" and is more included as a member of Hunt's IMF team). Cruise is charismatic and engaging to watch as ever with his 6th portrayal of Ethan Hunt. Ethan is still dedicated to his team and continuously makes the choice to protect them despite this being a costly error in the film's opening sequence. However we know that Ethan can save the world against all the odds. Cruise continues to impress with insane stunts which are upped to the ante in this film as Cruise performs a HALO jump, rides a motorbike dangerously through the Parisian streets without a helmet, jumping off roofs (which resulted in a broken ankle) and piloting a helicopter during the climatic showdown and also hanging from a cliff-face. Yikes!

Joining the cast as the wild card is "Man of Steel" star, Henry Cavill as CIA assassin August Walker. While Cavill isn't exactly the most emotive actor, the Superman actor is able to hold his own alongside Tom Cruise. Walker is the more ethical foil (almost like Ilsa in her pursuit of Syndicate leader Solomon Lane throughout this film) to Hunt's renegade IMF agent; he is looking out for the CIA's interest in seeking the plutonium lost in the opening scene. Being a known physical actor (as seen in "Man of Steel") Cavill captures the combative scenes with an ease that compliments his costar's own prowess. Then there's Walker's own secrets that come to light as the climax hits with twists and turns, but this won't be spoiled here.

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie returns to the chair to helm his 2nd M:I film after the success of helming "Rogue Nation" three years prior. McQuarrie's writing is definitely sharp and snappy when needed, but the director does not forget to insert an instance of humor to lighten the mood. The editing is a little sloppy at points and the run-time could've been trimmed a good ten to fifteen minutes, but the story doesn't fail to engage the audience.

Yes while we know what to expect from this franchise, but we keep coming back because of its stories and Tom Cruise's star power. This a mission you should definitely accept.

The Social Network

A Modern for the Modern Age
In 2004, the world of social media skyrocketed when an enterprising Harvard student emerged with a little site called 'The Facebook.' Shortly after, the 'The' was dropped to create the one word social site that is now forever ingrained into popular culture.

David Fincher once again returns to the drama genre after the well received 'Curious Case of Benjamin Button' in 2008 with this true story drama that documented how Mark Zuckerberg and his company became the leading social media site in a time when YouTube was also coming to fruition. With a script by Aaron Sorkin (who would bag a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for this feature) and based off Ben Mezrich's book, the film tells primarily in flashbacks how Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) went from potentially developing a dating site for three fellow students to eventually creating his iconic company despite soon facing personal issues with former friends and then a lawsuit by the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) and former (and now again) co-founder Eduard Savrin (Andrew Garfield, pre-Peter Parker/Spidey).

The youthful cast that Fincher enlists is truly one of his finest ensembles in the director's career. In particular is of course Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, who goes from ambitious Harvard business student to the youngest billionaire in history (lest we allow Kylie Jenner to take that mantle). While the real-life subject was't entirely impressed with the film's depiction of him, it cannot be denied that Eisenberg nails the youthful arrogance of the boy wonder as he continuously back-stabs his friends and colleagues to achieve his own ends (though this irritated the real Zuckerberg). There is also a calm charm to Eisenberg as he silently calculates his next moves while also quipping with a sharp barb should he not care to hear or respond to another's remark; this is most evident in the present-day time narrative as Zuckerberg faces the accusations of the Winklevosses and his former friend, Eduard Savrin.

The film's supporting cast are the equal hearts of the narrative since they are the catalysts for the dramatic narrative: In the role that put his name on Hollywood's call-list and A-list is the dual performance of Armie Hammer as Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, wealthy students who attended Harvard with Mark Zuckerberg. The Winklevi (as they are dubbed by Zuckerberg in a snide comment to one of the lawyers) initially proposed creating a dating/social site with Mark, but when Zuckerberg eventually decided to create Facebook the twins become vindictive and attempt to sue the latter for stealing their idea. While actor Josh Pence provides the physical body for Tyler Winklevoss, it's Armie Hammer who provides the voice and also physically portrays Cameron. The then-unknown actor makes an impression from our first view of the twins as their lavish indulgence as members of the rowing team shows their superiority complex to when an incensed Cameron declares that the duo should go after Mark once Facebook begins to become popular. While his twin sees no point in trying to combat their rival, he eventually relents upon a poor rowing performance.

Andrew Garfield as Facebook's co-founder and primary investor in his friend's dream is arguably the young actor's finest hour. As Savrin, Garfield is the socially confident member of the founders and wants to build interest for the site while Zuckerberg seeks to mostly expand quickly to irritate the Winklevi and raise his own profile. While Savrin initially tries to be slightly hands-off and be the business mind and drum up investments for Facebook, his relationship with Mark immediately takes blows as Mark continues to make his own choices without consulting his friend and business partner. Upon learning what Mark does behind his back, Savrin gives him a choice: let Savrin make the decisions on finances and PR or he walks away. When Zuckerberg decides to have Savrin bought out, the latter's feelings become hurt and jaded so he makes the choice to go for his share of the now-popular company. During Savrin's testimony at the hearing, we can see he is trying not to harbor resentment towards Mark and only wants his fair share of credit for Facebook's success despite Mark's snobbish attitude and disinterest in the proceedings. In real-life the outcome has been happier as Savrin has again become part of the phenomena that is Facebook and has his share of credit.

While the run-time is a bit tedious and could've fit a ninety minute or slightly less shorter length, this move should've eliminated crucial time to fleshing out Sorkin's witty and engaging script and development for how we ended up with such an obsession with social media.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Truly a disappointing sequel
While "Jurassic World" was a good return to form after the poorly-received and made "Jurassic Park 3", "Fallen Kingdom" sadly harkens to the lackluster second and third films in its execution.

Director J.A. Bayona follows up the events of the prior by starting at the ruined title park where InGen drones are seeking the remains of the Indominus Rex for obliviously nefarious purposes. Let's say it doesn't go well and then we shift to where our heroes, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen (Chris Pratt), have ended up since the first film; Claire is running a rescue group and Owen is building a home in the middle of the woods. Claire is soon contracted by a wealthy former business partner of John Hammond, Benjamin Lockwood (a poorly used James Cromwell), and the charming Mills (Rafe Spall). Dragging Owen along to find the missing Blue and a paleo-vet (Daniella Pineada who is actually good) and a systems analyst (Justice Smith who is beyond useless), the film goes into action for the first half and then the second half goes back to what we have seen in the past where the baddie is revealed and again we have another hybrid dino that gets loose to kill many people.

The two leads actually try to be engaging, but it shows that Chris Pratt would rather be somewhere else (likely due to shooting "Infinity War" at the same time) though his chemistry with Howard is slightly better than the first film. Dallas Howard is stronger in this outing than her stuffy shirt appearance in the prior film, but Claire is still not as engaging like Laura Dern's Ellie Sattler; Daniella Pineada comes a bit closer but still not quite either. The supporting characters are complete throwaways especially an irritating Justice Smith who screams through the first half and never really demonstrates why he is a systems analyst. Then there's the unnecessary kid in Isabella Sermon as Lockwood's granddaughter who like Smith in the first half just screams when in danger and provides no help to the heroes like Lex assisting Grant and the others in the original "Jurassic Park". Let's not even get into the utter waste of Jeff Goldblum who only shows up in the beginning and end of the film.

The screenwriters (Derek Connelly and "Jurassic World" director Colin Trevorrow) can't seem to reconcile the shifts in tone which tries to be a action-horror that doesn't hit the combination. The action on the destructing Isla Nublar is at best passable, but then falls apart until the final showdown atop the Lockwood mansion. Even Ian Malcom's final monologue is generic (especially as it is used in the initial trailer for the film) as he explains why we shouldn't mess with nature and the final shots harken back to the last half of "The Lost World" to set up for the third outing (to be called "Evolution") which hopefully will come back to a better product.

The Master

A Masterclass in great acting and an engaging story
Director Paul Thomas Anderson has always been known for his character-driven narratives with hits like 'Magnolia', 'Inherent Vice' and the recent 'Phantom Thread'. However the director's best (at least in this writer's opinion) is this taut psychological drama that gave Anderson his first Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Written by the director, the story follows a troubled WWII veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who after a bender joins a mysterious group only known as the Cause. This group is led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman), the titular character, who begins to form a controlled bond with the troubled Freddie until Freddie's behavior becomes too much to handle.

In his second Best Actor nomination, Joaquin Phoenix delivers arguably his greatest performance as Freddie Quell. Coming across as a boorish, ape-like, trouble-making nuisance when we initially meet him, Phoenix begins to morph into a quiet fanatic of the Cause as he wins favor with Lancaster Dodd, but his prior behavior does not disappear no matter how much hypnosis is used to curb his fighting instinct. Able to convey his inner conflict mostly through quiet and menacing glares, it's the body language that speaks volumes to how incurable Freddie's PTSD and tendency for tussling is. When Phoenix does speak the well-crafted dialogue written by Paul Thomas Anderson, the actor conveys his dark sense of humor (particularly with Philip Seymour Hoffman) but also his inner torment when certain nerves are struck and agitate him; coming to the roots of his demons which will never leave him.

As usual, Philip Seymour Hoffman shines in the role he is given especially in a juicy leading/supporting role like Lancaster Dodd. While we never actually learn how he gained his position or where the Cause originated, this adds to the mystery of how Dodd is able to wield such power over his followers. While this is denied by the director, an observant viewer will draw comparisons between Lancaster Dodd and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard; especially in how the Cause operates and looks for donations from wealthy clientele. Hoffman brings his trademark reserved charisma that radiates an aura of commandment, but also a caring nature for those close to him. Many of the late actor's greatest scenes come from his interactions with Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie (such as their first session together where Anderson flexes his comedic writing muscles and prowess for hitting the mark of inner character conflict), whom he initially treats as a surrogate son and treasures Freddie's commitment to the cult. However when Freddie's behavior escalates to reckless, Dodd begins to shun the army veteran after "treatment" fails to reign Freddie in. Probably the greatest showcase of the beginning of their fallout is after the two are arrested (Dodd for fraud and Freddie for fighting with the arresting police officers) where the two male leads snap and argue like caged tigers.

A nod to the smaller role of Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd, the wife of PSH's Lancaster. While not really Oscar-worthy to this writer, Adams does a good job being the one who really holds the power between her character and Lancaster when the two are alone.

Stated by Paul Thomas Anderson himself that 'The Master' is his personal favorite of his own work, it isn't hard to see why. The story is quite grounded as there are cults like The Cause who have been (and are still) around; again the film's cult is based on Scientology despite the director's denials. There is a message about mental illness with Freddie's struggle with his PTSD and the mind control used by the cult to control him, but also cautionary for the consequences of one's reckless behavior.

Call Me by Your Name

"And I'll Call You by Mine"
Not since the Oscar winning "Brokeback Mountain" have I seen such a beautifully acted, written and directed LGBTQ+ drama. Perhaps this all lies within the wonderful source material from author Andre Acimen with its screenplay adapted by James Ivory (who scored an Oscar for his work) and the top quality direction of Luca Guadagnino (himself a member of the LGBTQ community, lending authenticity and understanding).

The film's true beauty really lies within the performances of its leading men: Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer. Chalamet, who was only 20 at the time of shooting, makes a remarkable semi-debut in his role as Elio, the youth trying to understand his sexual identity in 1987 Italy. The young actor brings such a beautiful naivety and youthful confusion that echoes the prose of Acimen's novel, in addition to Chalamet's actual age and visage. Occasionally voicing his thoughts aloud as in the novel, we get into Elio's head and can feel his confusion and attempts to come to terms with who he is. From the opening scene where Elio's displeasure for Oliver is shown to the heartbreaking closing shot of a shaking, teary-eyed Elio in front of the fire, Chalamet more than proved he is a star to watch out for and we want to see the proposed follow-up.

Coming in as an opposite personality to the repressed Elio is the smiling, socially flamboyant Oliver, wonderfully portrayed by Armie Hammer. Having portrayed plenty of characters comfortable in their own skin, Hammer brings out Oliver's charming personality that wins over Chalamet's Elio by being subtle and coy. From his dismissive-like "Later!" to that sensual and heart-melting "call me by your name and I'll call you by mine" and eventually that saddening phone call at the climax, we fall in love with Hammer's Oliver as much as Elio does.

Thanks to instructions from the director, the actors spent time together to develop their bond as on-screen friends/lovers. This direction paid off as the chemistry leaps off the screen and makes you long for Oliver and Elio to stay together for the entire film. The banter, often spouted by Hammer with genuine and cute reactions from Chalamet, will put a smile on your face and make you laugh and sometimes cry.

A notable shout-out to Michael Stuhlbarg in the role of Elio's professor father. The actor deftly handles the discussion scene between father and son with nuance and genuine care and concern.


Thought-Provoking, Tense and Provactive
From Alex Garland, director and writer of 2015's "Ex Machina", comes the on-screen treatment of Jeff Vandermeer's bestselling science-fiction novel. Natalie Portman stars as a biologist who decides to enter the mysterious 'Shimmer', a colorful invisible wall cloaking a dark and possibly dangerous secret, to find out what has caused the sudden illness of her militant husband (Oscar Isaac).

Director Alex Garland has crafted a strong female lead in Alicia Vikander's Ava in his debut feature and even with adapting a screenplay the director manages to keep his female characters strong and the film's casting helps. With Oscar winner Natalie Portman (alleged whitewashing rumors aside) as leading heroine, Lena, the actress provides both a naivety but also fierce courage to the intelligent biologist. Lena knows so little about her husband despite how much she says she loves him, but her drive for knowledge leads her to inspect the mystery of the Shimmer after her husband goes comatose. Portman does not allow her character to become a whimpering mess when faced with extreme peril within the Shimmer; she fires her weapon to help protect her comrades, uses logic to try and assuage their fears but is willing to admit there is much they don't understand and in the end her relentless nature helps keep her alive.

The talented supporting female players help round out the core players and clashing personalities to Portman's Lena. Character actress Jennifer Jason Leigh plays psychologist Dr. Ventress, a mysterious/secretive woman who is unwilling to tell her comrades the truth of why the group is actually going into the Shimmer. Her secretiveness ultimately leads to the demise of several characters and Ventress is unremorseful for what her actions and lies have done to others as long as she benefits and try to succeed in solving the mystery. Gina Rodriguez as Anya is one of the more damaged members of the group as she quickly succumbs to paranoia within the artificial environment despite the best efforts of Lena and fellow member Josie (Tessa Thompson) to calm her. Her bond with the soft-spoken Cass Shepherd (Tuva Notovny) seems to be the only happiness Anya knows in her life. Tuva Novotny has the smallest amount of screen-time of the female players, but shows her worldliness in such a small amount of time. Cass knows that she probably won't return home and makes vague remarks to Lena throughout the film, but provides the most human element of her companions till her time does run out. And then there's Tessa Thompson as the troubled Josie, a kind and soft-spoken soul like Cass but has endured more pain than the others. Josie like Cass also knows her time will run out before the mission is over, but she has made peace with the idea and when her moment comes she calmly accepts her fate.

The film's visuals are primarily subtle, but haunting and stunning. The Shimmer is simply a mesh of light colors like pink, green and white and glows or shimmers (like the name implies) but its influence is felt throughout the environment by the viewer and characters. Motion-capture is even used for the hybrid creatures such as a monstrous crocodile that tries to dispatch our heroines.

The narrative is overall straightforward, but comes with some twists and turns particularly by the final act. The mystery of why our heroines are in the Shimmer appears to be answered, but the answer isn't so simple as the teams' own mental states come into question as they trek further into the Shimmer. Even the reveal of what happened to Oscar Isaac's Kane is not what we thought actually happened and we share in Lena's anguish at the truth. However the film's greatest mystery comes with the final shot of the actor's eyes and makes you wonder if the Shimmer is still alive and influencing our survivors.

Happy Death Day

Surprisingly Fun and Entertaining
Okay the premise sounds silly and a cheap mash-up of movies that have been done, but this silly movie actually has a fun factor that makes you enjoy watching this romp.

Jessica Rothe plays college student Theresa 'Tree' Gelbman, a self-centered young woman who mistreats her roommate (Ruby Modine), sleeps around with her professor and any boy on campus and ignores her loving father when she is murdered on her birthday by a masked assailant. When she discovers that she is stuck in a time loop till her murderer is unmasked, Tree must enlist help from a fellow student, Carter, and find out who would do her ill.

The cast of characters are a unique bunch of players. Rothe's Tree starts as a bratty, slutty and obnoxious lead whose death you kind of cheer for at the start. As the film progresses, Tree's sins soon force her to confront her past and unburden her loathsome behavior towards others. With each new chance to solve her death, Tree's persona slowly starts to change into a nicer human being than the girl we met at the start. Rothe even has great chemistry with her costars particularly Israel Broussard as Carter and Ruby Modine as Tree's roommate Lori. Israel Broussard as Carter is not the typical horror/teen movie love interest as Tree and Carter aren't even an item or getting along at the film's start. The chemistry between Carter and Tree builds as the film progresses since Carter is the sole person that Tree can trust within the narrative as she tries to solve her murder. The pair do eventually get together at the end, but the relationship is constructed pretty well. Then there's Ruby Modine as Lori, the studious and quiet roommate who Tree mistreats and mocks when she gets the chance. Tree even tosses a cupcake Lori makes for her and secretly ridiculing her lack of a boyfriend with the other sorority sisters. While Lori has limited screen-time, Modine makes the most of what time she does have as Lori tries to help Tree relax despite her unbelievable predicament. But even Lori may not be able to be trusted in the endless time loops.

'Happy Death Day' has been predictably called "Scream Meets Groundhog Day" which is true, but there is a uniqueness to the concept. The movie has some traditional slasher elements with its masked killer and then the 'Groundhog Day' concept with the time loops. Yet the onscreen violence is not explicit like most slasher flicks as we never actually see Tree get killed (except for two sequences which are still fairly bloodless). The filmmakers even use good editing techniques to cut down some of the repetitive moments leading to Tree's eventual deaths.

The film gets quite predictable plenty of the time because of the endless time loops, but there is always a new little twist thrown into the mix. When Tree makes her suspect list, the story gets a chance to explore the minor characters who could be Tree's killer and also why she doesn't get along with them. Each loop also gives Tree a chance to get her act together and improve her behavior which actually does happen when Tree begins to see her feelings for Carter, apologizes to Lori and makes peace with her estranged father. Even the killer's true identity is a surprise as it is the person who would seem obvious when you think about it, but just watch to see how our heroine could've missed the clue.

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