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8/10
Dwayne and Jason are the Upside of "Hobbs and Shaw"
16 August 2019
Director David Leitch's "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw" stars Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) as Agent Luke Hobbs and Jason Statham as 'reformed' bad guy Deckard Shaw from the "Fast & Furious" franchise. Hence, the expansive convoluted title. "Hobbs and Shaw" is a lot of fun, and miraculously stupid.

In Writers Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce's nearly incomprehensible story: MI-6 Operative Hattie Shaw, played by Vanessa Kirby, retrieves the deadly CT-17 virus on her mission. Powerful cyborg Brixton, played by Idris Elba, thwarts the operation seeking to obtain the virus, too. To keep the virus from Brixton, Hattie injects the CT-17 capsule into herself. Yeah, really.

Brixton, who rides this high-tech motorcycle, is super strong, bullet proof, and skilled in martial arts. Eteon Corporation created Brixton, who shares a past with Shaw. Basically, he's invincible. Yet somehow, Hattie uses her smarts to leverage her escape.

Eteon's cloaked Leader wants to create a new world order, by first erasing the 'weaker' elements of the human race.

Now it's up to Hobbs and Shaw to work together to retrieve the virus, before it goes active, and again save the world. As Dwayne's Hobbs reminds Jason's Shaw, "... which for the record, will be my fourth time."

Turns out: Hattie (Vanessa) is Shaw's little sister. Consequently, Hobbs finds the smart, beautiful, strong, kick ass Hattie attractive. According to Shaw, Hobbs ain't getting with his little Sis. No way. Chris and Drew's obvious narrative tension is hilarious.

The sheer upside of "Hobbs and Shaw" is its amazing cast. I love The Rock: He's awesome. Dude is handsome, ripped, funny, and raises an eye brow better than Mr. Spock. Well, almost. Jason Statham is a Baaaaad Man. In one scene Jason fights 4 dudes in close quarters. He gets hit from different angles, yet he's just thrashing the hell out of those guys with punches, kicks and joint locks. Vanessa Kirby, who also starred in "Mission: Impossible - Fallout", is the total bad ass as Hattie. She displays solid martial arts skills. Ironically, that propels the narrative when her Hattie battles Hobbs. Hobs distinguishes that she fought to escape, not to kill. Vanessa also has an ironic sense of humor. Idris Elba commands absolute cool as villainous, mostly machine Brixton. As he says, "I'm Black Superman".

Director David Leitch also directed "John Wick" (uncredited co-director), "Atomic Blonde", and "Deadpool 2". His art is electrifying cinematic action. In "Hobbs and Shaw" he gets to work with Jason Statham, who I think is an elite martial artist, and the absolute best in the movie game today. Their collaboration is often breathtaking.

Dwayne and Jason have palpable natural screen chemistry. No small feat given their individual undeniable charisma. Their trash talk is hysterical. Hobbs says of Shaw's voice: It's like dragging his privates "over shattered glass..." Well, Hobbs actually used another word for privates, among other things. Just saying.

The miraculously stupid occurs near the end, with the fight with Samoan tribal weapons, and the tow truck and helicopter. WTF? It's in the movie trailer, too.

That being all said, "Hobbs and Shaw" is very cool. The poignant recurring theme of the "Fast & Furious" movies is family. We always love, protect, and forgive our own.

So basically, see "Hobbs and Shaw". The Rock and Jason Statham are movie star swag. It's set up for "Hobbs and Shaw 2". And I would see that one, too. Just saying.
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The Farewell (I) (2019)
10/10
The Good Lie in "The Farewell"
5 August 2019
In Writer and Director Lulu Wang's "The Farewell", 31 year-old financially strapped, aspiring writer Billi, played by Awkwafina discovers that her Nai Nai (Grandma in Chinese), played by Shuzhen Zhao, is dying of Stage 4 lung cancer. However, her Family doesn't tell Nai Nai that she's sick, that she's dying.

Her Dad Haiyan, played by compassionate Tzi Ma, and his older brother Haibin, played by gentle Yongbo Jiang, construct their narrative: The family would return to Changchun, China for the wedding of Haibin's son Hao Hao, played by Han Chen, and his Japanese bride Aiko, Aoi Mizuhara. They will all say their "Goodbye" to Nai Nai, then. 25 years ago, Haiyan's family immigrated to New York. While Haibin's family immigrated to Japan.

In Chinese tradition, a person is part of the whole, of family. Consequently, Chinese culture deems it far kinder not to tell family members that they are gravely ill, that they are going to die. So that they may live out the rest of their lives in peace. At least that's the noble intention.

Yet for Billi, controlling the narrative occurs far more than unkind: It's just wrong. During Nai Nai's emergency medical visit, Billi outs the narrative speaking in English to Dr. Song, played by charming Jim Liu, "It's a lie." He replies, "It's a good lie." Not understanding English, Nai Nai then inquires if young handsome Dr. Song is single. Because, her favorite granddaughter Billi is still unmarried. Yeah.

That's the ironic beauty and poignancy of Writer- Director Lulu's "The Farewell". It's based on the lie she lived in her own life. So watching "The Farewell" is like watching life unfold. Will the "good lie" set you free?

Awkwafina is the revelation. Her Billi loves her Nai Nai, so. She remembers fondly catching dragonflies with her as a child. Back in New York, she calls Nai Nai daily, just to talk. Billi is the former piano prodigy, now aspiring writer applying for the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. Billi acutely discerns people. Awkwafina possesses the wondrous gift of letting us know what's going on inside in her glance, in her silence. She's amazing.

Shuzhen as Nai Nai is total authenticity. She's a genuine character whether she's commenting about Hao Hao and Aiko's possible lack of sex life or teaching Billi morning Tai Chi, "Ha. Ha." She's so full of life and joy.

Awkwafina and Shuzhen's screen partnership in "The Farewell" is truly something special to behold. Billi's own family apparently has suffered in their trials and tribulations. Haiyan is a good man, a recovering alcoholic. Her Mom Jian, played by subtly strong Diana Lim, seemingly had to prove herself to Nai Nai. Jian warns her Billi that she must participate in the "lie" on their visit to Changchun. This is tough for Billi, who wears her emotion on her sleeve, especially when it comes to Nai Nai.

Paradoxically, Lulu freely invents her narrative about unconditional love, about family. As Awkwafina both laughs and cries, I got it: Nai Nai was really the only one who truly gets her Billi, who she is. Billi could be her authentic self with her. Nai Nai always loved Billi, always had her back. In the touching confession, Nai Nai tells Billi, "It's not what you do, it's how you do it..." She's so proud of her granddaughter. She always sees the greater than within her.

I was in tears in the final scenes of "The Farewell", but not for what you might surmise. Life is in the surprise, the unexpected. Yes, cultures may occur as different or foreign, yet humanity is essentially the same. Lulu Wang, Awkwafina, and Shuzhen tell their very personal story of family, of love that touched my heart. "The Farewell" is my favorite movie of the year.
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9/10
Save the World, Like the Girl
5 July 2019
In the midst of his high school trip, Peter Parker aka Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland, and Quentin Beck aka Superhero Mysterio, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, sit together on a bridge in Venice, Italy. Peter says, "I didn't want to save the world this summer..." He just want to tell pretty MJ, played by cool smart Zendaya, that he likes her. Hoping she might like him back, too.

Sure, Peter is the Superhero with 'Peter tingle', great strength and agility. Robert Downey Jr.'s late Tony Stark even made Peter an Avenger. At 17 years-old, Peter fearlessly risks his life as Spider-Man battling the gargantuan 'Elemental' Water Monster. Yet, he fears more telling the cool girl, "You know, I really like you..." Makes a lot of sense.

That's the distinct deft charm of Director Jon Watt's "Spider-Man: Far from Home". Jon also directed the previous "Spider-Man: Homecoming". He has a genuine feel for teen angst and bravado. Tom Holland returns as the screen's most authentic Spider-Man. As Peter, Tom uniquely balances innocence, doubt and courage on the tipping point of boy and manhood. Tom is the dork when Peter clumsily tells MJ, "You look pretty." His eyes well in tears, getting that he might have disappointed his 'surrogate' Father Tony Stark (Robert).

The story and screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers succeeds the events in "Avengers: Endgame", where Tony's Iron Man died defeating powerful galactic villain Thanos. Thanos had wiped out half of all life in the universe with his 'Infinity Gaunlet'. Those affected disintegrated from existence. When Tony defeated Thanos, those banished returned back "to life". However, 5 years had passed. So those returning were the same age as when they left. Those who had remained on Earth were now 5 years older. That event is called "The Blip".

Peter experienced "The Blip". Apparently, so did his Aunt May, strong beautiful Marisa Tomei, and MJ. Returning back to Planet Earth, Peter reunites with best bud nerdy Ned, played by spritely funny Jacob Batalon. Both prepare for their school European trip with MJ. Peter plans to tell MJ: He likes her. Peter faces romantic competition from handsome "ripped" Brad, too cool for school Remy Hii, who was 13 years-old before "The Blip".

Challenging his resilience, Peter discovers that Aunt May might be in love with Tony Stark's driver best friend Happy Hogan, comically irreverent Jon Favreau. WTF? S.H.I.EL.D.'s Nick Fury, no nonsense charismatic Samuel L. Jackson, wants Peter for his ops mission in Europe as an Avenger. In doing so, Peter meets Jake's Mysterio.

Nick bestows upon Peter a gift from his mentor Tony: EDITH - Stark's multi-billion dollar weapons, communication, database system encased in eye glasses. In hysterical experiment, Peter averts a nuclear targeted strike, when he doesn't use his powers for good, albeit hormonal. Jon and his Writers have a wicked sense of humor and eloquent coherence.

With EDITH, Tony leaves Peter a note from Shakespeare's "Henry IV": "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown." "It's not from 'Star Wars'." Possessing great power is the responsibility, perhaps even a curse. That resonates with Peter. That resonates with us, as well. Is Peter enough to be the next "Iron Man", to be the next Hero? Perhaps, Peter fears becoming greater than he knows himself to be. That's so very human.

Writers Chris and Erik invent the narrative where all is not what it seems. Thematically, it reflects Mysterio's 'power of illusion'. Jake is brilliant in his presence. As Mysterio, he's the heroic paradox. He displays compassion and a disarming singularity. Jake's innate chemistry with Tom is one of the movie's distinct strengths.

Jon Watts creates breathtaking visuals as Mysterio and Spider-Man fight to stop the Water Monster in the canals of Venice. He awes as Spider-Man entangles holographic drones with his web. That being said, I was most captivated by Peter and MJ. Theirs is a profound sweetness. As MJ, Zendaya confesses that she's purposefully unkind, fearing anyone getting too close. Yet, from her heart MJ touchingly tells Peter, "I've been watching you..." We get it. Maybe, liking the girl is as important as saving the world. Just saying.

"Spider-Man: Far from Home" is occasional predictable misdirects, dazzling action, and needlessly convoluted. Still, what makes us cheer is the big heart and profound kindness. Maybe for the Hero, falling in love is just as important as saving the world. That's something we can relate to. "Spider-Man: Far from Home" is definitely worth seeing.
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Toy Story 4 (2019)
9/10
"Toy Story 4" is Something Very Special
25 June 2019
In Pixar's beloved narrative mythology of the "Toy Story" movies, the toys come to life and speak, only when no one including children is present. Screen writers Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, and story writers John Lassiter, Andrew, and Director Josh Cooley bring Disney's animated "Toy Story 4" to life once more.

Tom Hanks voices stalwart Cowboy doll Woody, who 'raised' grown up Andy. Tim Allen voices bold spaceman toy Buzz Lightyear, the reluctant best friend to Woody. Woody now belongs to kindergartner Bonnie, voiced by innocent Madeline McGraw. Apparently, Woody has been replaced by self-constructed Forky, voiced by youthfully naïve Tony Hale. By the way, Forky is the spork (hybrid spoon and fork) rescued from the trash.

Wide-eyed Woody regretfully confesses to doll Little Bo Beep, played by spirited Annie Potts, about losing Andy and now Bonnie, "I don't have anything else..." Andy loved Woody, then eventually moved on to college. Bonnie loved Woody. Now she's moving on to school, with Forky.

Recall Taylor Hackford's "An Officer and a Gentlemen", where Louis Gossett's Sgt. Foley coerces Richard Gere's Zack Mayo to quit the officers' training program. Zack tearfully yells, "I got no where else to go... I got nothing else."

Director Josh's "Toy Story 4" is Woody's transformational reckoning, albeit for a toy. Yet, the narrative wonderfully underlies the unique duplicity of "Toy Story". Children love their favorite toys with all their hearts. In a sense, the toys care for them. In "Toy Story 4" Woody loves Andy and Bonnie back. Life moves on. Eventually, children shall move on to their next love, be it another toy or new friends.

In one sense, the toys - Woody and Buzz are much like parents on the journey as their children transform into adults. I'm not a parent, yet I see that as our affinity to "Toy Story 4". What happens when your love is replaced? Rather, what happens when the ones you love so dear move on? Maybe, we too continue to find our next love?

In "Toy Story 4" Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the Toy Band are back together, now with little girl Bonnie. The first 20 minutes occurred as nearly perfunctory storytelling with Bonnie and her Mom and Dad voiced by, solid Lori Alan and Jay Hernandez, taking a family road trip. No doubt, high jinx awaits. Yet, what unfolds is far from predictable, perhaps even poignant.

Woody reunites with Bo Peep (who goes by Bo). Woody has always been in love with Bo. They separated 9 years ago, when Woody chose to stay back to look after Andy. Subsequently, Bo became a "lost toy" - the childless toy.

In the disturbingly bizarre narrative reveal, the broken doll Gabby Gabby, voiced by brazenly vulnerable Christina Hendricks, generates surprising gravitas. Her 'voice box' unlike pull string Woody, no longer works. Gabby Gabby resides in an antique toy shop, accompanied by her eerie ventriloquist doll squad. These dolls are extremely creepy. Nearly distracting. Really.

Yet, on the upside we observe Gabby Gabby's incomplete toy life. Christina brilliantly nuances Gabby such that we get a sense of what she wants most: To be loved. That's the human eloquence of "Toy Story 4": We all deserve to be loved.

The Pixar crew's animation in "Toy Story 4" astounds from the emergence of Forky or the Toys tampering with the accelerator pedals on the speeding family rental van. Comic relief arises in the carnival stuffed animals, Ducky and Bunny voiced by hysterical Keegan-Micael Key and Jordan Peele. Renaissance movie icon Keanu practically highjacks every scene he's in as Evel Knievel-lite stunt biker toy Duke Caboom. No one commands "Whoa." - like Keanu.

In the end "Toy Story 4" touches our hearts, because of the history and partnership of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Everyone deserves to be loved, even a toy. When Buzz says to Woody, "She'll be okay..." We get it. We do, because we love. I loved "Toy Story 4". It's something very special.
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Rocketman (2019)
9/10
"Rocketman" - I'm Not the Man You Think I Am
8 June 2019
In wistful eloquence, Director Dexter Fletcher captures Taron Egerton's Elton John composing his signature "Your Song" donned in bathrobe, playing the piano in his Mother's living room. Elton's dear friend lyricist Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell, listens in enchanted wonder. Glancing at Bernie, Elton sings: "My gift is my song and this one's for you..." Elton is gay. Bernie is straight. "Your Song" is my very favorite Elton John song, since I was a teen. It never occurred to me: Was that Elton's love song for Bernie?

Throughout much of his life, Elton experienced the "slings and arrows" of Rock Star fortune: illicit drugs, overdoses, and wanton gratuitous sex. In Director Dexter's musical bio fantasy "Rocketman", music icon Elton's tragedy may have sourced from the frightened lonely boy, who just wanted to be loved.

Dexter Fletcher took over as director for "Bohemian Rhapsody", the rock group Queen bio pic about the late legendary Freddie Mercury, when Director Bryan Singer was fired by the studio. Both Freddie and Elton are gay men, who suffered in inauthentic self-expression. In familiar "Rocketman" affinity, Dexter creates touching compassion amidst the absurdity of prejudice. Dexter wisely infuses the offbeat sense of humor.

Taron is courageous vulnerability and resilience as tortured Elton, born Reginald Dwight. Taron awes in his vocal renditions of Elton John classics like "Rocketman" and "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word". As song lyricist partner Bernie, Jamie Bell embodies gentle wisdom and affection. He's Elton's only enduring friend. Bernie confesses to Elton, "I love you man. I really do. Just not like that."

Paradoxically, that 'incomplete' love evolves as fate. At the narrative arc, Elton tells his emotionally bankrupt Mother Sheila, played by haunting Bryce Dallan Howard, that he's homosexual. She says, "You will never be loved properly." That too, becomes Elton's sentence.

In the mural of fantastical sexual and musical narrative excess, Screenwriter Lee Hall poignantly constructs Elton's transformation as he begins to heal and love himself. Albeit clumsily, like the musical number emerging in Elton's dinner with his Mom and her boyfriend Fred, played by whimsical Tom Bennett. Yet, we still hold out hope that Elton discovers his measure of joy and peace.

In flashbacks, Elton grew up in a dysfunctional English family. His Dad Stanley, dispassionate and disinterested Steven Mackintosh, is rarely home because of his work. When he is home, he listens to jazz, but not to his son. Elton's Mom tolerates her loveless marriage. In the aftermath stands young Reggie, played by bright innocent Matthew Illesley. Also Dad had never hugged his own son.

Reggie is the gifted piano prodigy. He gets a musical scholarship to the Royal London Academy. His family spirals in demise. His parents divorce. Eventually, Reggie forms a band and tours with a Black Rhythm and Blues band, which reveals his soulful music roots. Furthering his music career, Reggie changes his name to Elton John. In apparent divine intervention Elton, the brilliant composer, who can't write a lyric, hooks up with lyricist Bernie Taupin. Elton and Bernie would emerge as one of the greatest songwriting duos of the 20th century.

Alas, the downside of fame and fortune. Duplicitous John Reid, played with mercenary charm by Richard Madden, seduces innocent Elton. John insinuates his way into his life as Elton's business manager. Elton and Bernie continue to create prolific songs, as Elton succumbs into the abyss of addiction and depression with his eyes wide open.

In an interview years ago, Elton said when he first started working with Bernie, he thought the words were superfluous. What mattered was the melody. That's what determined a great song. Years later, he got that words defined the song. Words resonated with the soul. Music and lyrics were like Yin and Yang for a song.

Perhaps, the narrative failing of "Rocketman" is its resolution. We know that Elton John in real life emerged from the darkness. He's in love, has a family. Recently, he announced his retirement from touring. Amen, good for Elton. The ending needed its own "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road".

That being said, I got "Rocketman" in the bigger picture. Much like Elton may have written "Your Song" for Bernie. Perhaps, Bernie wrote the song "Rocketman" for Elton. He wrote: "I'm not the man you think I am at home... Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone." Elton was all alone. He just wanted to be gotten, to be loved. In that way, we can see a little of "Rocketman" in all of us, too.
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Booksmart (2019)
10/10
Does "Booksmart" Define You?
27 May 2019
First-time Director Olivia Wilde's "Booksmart" is hysterical raunch, yet profoundly sweet. In the acutely aware screenplay by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpen, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman, Olivia wistfully helms the coming of age tale of high school seniors Amy and Molly, wonderfully personified by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein. BFFs Amy and Molly, are brilliant 18 year-olds embracing their inner and outer nerd. When Amy picks up Molly for school in her parents' old model Volvo, the two breakout into their campy bad hip-hop dance routine. Kaitlyn and Beanie have the unique loving chemistry that constructs "Booksmart".

In their focused studies, sacrificing any semblance of social life, Amy and Molly attain their cherished goals. Molly is going to Yale. Amy got accepted to Columbia University- she'll spend the summer helping making tampons for underprivileged women and girls in Batswana. Yep, that's Amy. The social conscious duo's Heroes include Michelle Obama and Malala.

In 10th grade Amy came out as gay. Straight Molly leverages this. Molly hilariously tortures Amy's parents Charmaine and Doug, funny clueless Will Forte and Lisa Kudrows. When Amy says she's "going to the library with Molly", she's really going to the library with Molly.

About her possible college sex-life, Amy reminds Molly, "Dude, scissoring is not a thing." Too funny. This too, defines the funny sweetness of their partnership. Amy is in love with iconoclast skateboard girl Ryan, played by charmingly flite Victoria Ruesga. Soon-to-be former Class President Molly is mad crushing on her Vice-President Nick, played by smooth handsome Mason Goodling. Yes, our girls value other things besides books.

One insightful narrative of "Booksmart" is stereotype. Amy is the unconsciously pretty savant, who follows Molly's every wish, refusing to make waves. Kaitlyn is authentic gentle quirk and vulnerability. She's the 'straight-man' to Molly's comic diva. Kaitlyn is going to be a Star. Beanie's Molly is the almost plus-sized Ivy League genius, who has forsaken popularity to proving that she's better than everyone else. Her wit is her weapon. Therein lies karma.

Molly confronts the cruel gossip about herself in the girls' restroom, "Everything, but her personality..." Yeah, Molly is going to Yale. So is Triple A, played by haute Molly Gordon, who scored 1560 on her SATs (1600 is perfect). Her tag refers to her reputation for rendering dudes "roadside assistance". At least that's what 'others' are saying. Compounding Molly's chagrin: Stoner Tanner, played by Nico Hiraga, is going to Stanford on soccer scholarship, and slacker Theo, played by Eduardo Franco, is starting at Google with salary in the mid-six figures. They all didn't take school nearly as seriously as Molly and Amy. Molly is totally: WTF?

So Molly enrolls Amy into one all-night party binge before Graduation. They'll crash Nick's Party. However, Amy and Molly don't roll with the "cool kids". They have no idea where the party is. Amy wants to make a move for Ryan. Molly wants a hook up with Nick. Here Director Olivia and Writers kind of go derivative "The Hangover", yet in a good way. Olivia wisely sails raunchy seas with surprising heart.

There's the signature loser party detour with Molly's rich wannabe popular dude Jared, played by funny geeky Skyer Gisondo, and his overtly platonic companion Gigi, played by amazing Billie Lourd. Not surprisingly, nerds and drugs don't mix- well. Using their hair as facial masks, Amy and Molly attempt to hijack the pizza delivery guy, who warns them not expose their phone password.

Watching the suffering heartbreak in Amy's face emerging from the pool, I got it. Amy like all of us, just wanted to be loved, to fall madly in love. Kaitlyn's Amy also wanted the same for her BFF Molly. At times Amy and Molly argue vehemently, that's because they want the other to be happy. When Molly confesses to Amy that she had to "shove down" her feeling for Nick, possibly because of how she may occur, Amy says, "You don't have to shove anything down!" That's love. That's seeing the other as greater than, when they don't see it. That's what makes "Booksmart" something special.

There are an awful lot of labels out there. Nerd. Jock. Princess. Smart. Beautiful. Not Pretty. Stereotypes and labels are just part of our deal. In Olivia Wilde's "Booksmart", really we're the ones who get to define who we are. Along with Olivia, Kaitlyn, and Beanie: We're just saying.
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10/10
In "John Wick Chapter 3" Way More is Greater
20 May 2019
Suffering, yet resilient Keanu Reeves returns in "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum" as retired assassin John Wick forced back into "the game" wreaking visually stunning havoc upon those, who seek the $14 million bounty on his body. Good luck. Rather, our condolences.

In the astounding fight scene early on, Keanu's John takes on several assassins in the most electrifying screen knife fights ever. Keanu trained for months for "Chapter 3". He's an accomplished martial artist. Director Chad Stahelski brilliantly orchestrates this mixed and classic martial arts mash up.

John and his deadly adversaries stab and hurl knives at each other, in close. John sweetly executes the classic Aikido wrist lock, "kotegaeshi", and hip throw, "koshinage", in flowing succession. The fight has spectacular elements of kali knife fighting, Brazilian Jujitsu, Muay Thai kickboxing, and other martial arts I don't know. At one point John hurls knives at his assailants like in carnival attraction booth. WTF, in an awesome sort of way.

I thought "John Wick: Chapter 2" was the best action movie of the last 10 years. Director Chad's "John Wick: Chapter 3" is greater. In the movie trailers: John takes on motorcycle Ninjas with guns and katanas. In "Chapter 3 - Parabellum" way more is greater. Parabellum literally means "prepare for war". "John Wick 3" is the breathtaking non-stop action thrill ride. Granted screenwriters Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams's story is lean on words, yet their muscular narrative amazingly compels.

In Casablanca (yes, really), John reunites with the formidable woman from his past Sofia, played by beautiful badass Halle Berry, who owes her "blood marker" to John. She reminds, "Consequences." He too acknowledges, "Consequences." Yeah, John's vengeance is not just about bad guys killing his dog, the gift from his late wife Ellen, the love of his life.

"Chapter 3" resumes where "Chapter 2" left off. John killed Santino, the man who called upon John's own "blood marker" and betrayed him to gain a seat at the criminal cartel High Table. John's dear friend Winston, played by weary wise Ian McShane, Manager of the Hotel Continental - the cultural sanctuary for assassins, had warned Santino that John would kill him. Because "He came back for love." He came back for Ellen. Killing Santino, Winston declares John excommunicado - banished from the Kingdom, along with the $14 million price tag on his head. Winston grants John an hour grace period before 'it's on'.

In the aftermath, Winston experiences the measured wrath of the Adjudicator, played with malevolent cool by Asia Kale Dillon, representing the High Table. She wants John dead and wants Winston out for breaking the rules, letting John escape. The Adjudicator also seeks to exact her 'pound of flesh' from New York gang leader, the Brewery King, played by hilariously ostentatious Laurence Fishburne. The Adjudicator hires elite ninja Zero, whimsically played by world-class martial artist Mark Dacascos.

Mark is the invaluable upgrade from "Chapter 2". With all due respect to Ruby Rose's mute assassin, Mark's Zero is the imposing physical threat to John, as he thrashes John with series of spinning back kicks. Yet, "John Wick 3" retains a wicked sense of humor. Zero is fanboy of the "Boogie Man" John Wick. He confesses to John, "You do not disappoint." I laughed out loud at a couple fanboy jokes near the end.

Amidst the wry whimsy and bloody cinematic mosaic, "Parabellum" reveals a sense of gravitas, at least for me. In the Moroccan desert John finds his mentor The Elder, played by enigmatic Said Taghmaoul. We clue into what John really wants. Oh, yeah it's not about the dead puppy. In the surprising poignant narrative arc, Winston asks, "Who do you want to die as, Jonathan?" Maybe, deep down it's about love: The love lost, but not forgotten.

Keanu Reeves is John Wick. I mean that in the best way. Keanu checks his emotions just beneath the surface. His John has suffered tremendously, yet fights with all his heart. Keanu's willingness to endure is endearing and honorable. He creates John as the tragic Hero we cheer for, to find peace, maybe even fall in love again.

Keanu's John is much like us, albeit sans the assassin acumen. We all know suffering. We all deserve our own measure of peace. This is not a spoiler: I look forward to seeing Keanu in "Chapter 4", because of that. In the meantime, "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum" is one my very favorite movies of the year. Just saying.
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Long Shot (2019)
8/10
"It must have been love..."
6 May 2019
Brilliantly hysterical Charlize Theron's Secretary of State Charlotte Field crouches in the basement under terrorist siege with her speech writer Fred Flarsky, who's been in love with her since he was 12 years-old. Charlotte instructs Fred in the Navy SEALS calming technique: taking deep breaths in 4 seconds intervals. Charlotte counts, "One. Two. Three. Four." Fred follows her lead. It works. So does Director Jonathan Levine's "Long Shot" as a whole.

At times, Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah's screenplay is politically clichéd and 'in your face' raunch. "Long Shot" is about the compromises we tolerate, where we sell out, and ultimately when we take a stand. That made me laugh out loud, and touched my heart.

Charlize plays Secretary of State Charlotte Fields, the strikingly beautiful and smart protégé of hilariously irrelevant President Chambers, played by Bob Odenkirk. The President, the former TV Actor, informs Charlotte that he will not seek a second Presidential term, so that he can pursue his movie acting career. WTF? According to Dan and Liz's narrative only two TV actors have ever made that transition: George Clooney and Woody Harrelson. "Not Jennifer Aniston." Too funny.

Clearly, the Secretary of State persona is a loose homage to Hilary Clinton. Very loose. Charlotte is about to embark on her global trip to enroll countries in her environmental treaty, what she dreamed of back when she was 16 years-old. The President will endorse Charlotte in her run for the White House. Yeah.

Image consultant Katherine played by goofy wit Lisa Kudrow tells Charlotte and her Campaign Manager Maggie, played by hilariously duplicitous June Diane Raphael, that Charlotte polls over 90% in all appeal metrics, except relatability. Even her lame hand wave needs a makeover. Charlotte actually reads synopses for "Game of Thrones" instead of actually watching episodes. OMG. So Charlotte needs a speech writer to humanize her persona, i.e. loosen her up.

Seth Rogen plays Fred, the slovenly tapered cargo pants wearing renegade journalist for the "Brooklyn Advocate". However, when the "Advocate" is bought out by billionaire Parker Wembly, played by unrecognizable Andy Serkis with Rupert Murdock caricature zeal, Fred quits.

Fred calls his best buddy Lance, played by funny charismatic O'Shea Jackson Jr., who owns his thriving business in DC. Lance gives his company the day off so he can party with Fred. Lance brings Fred along to a political fundraiser featuring his favorite group Boyz II Men, unfortunately sans Bobby Brown. Dancing to their favorite 90's band, Fred and Charlotte recognize each other.

When Charlotte was 16 years-old she was 13 year-old Fred's babysitter. He had a mad crush on pretty Charlotte. 13 year-old Fred suffered the nearly devastating hormonal mishap. Yet, young Charlotte was kind to him. That's something that Lance wisely reminds Fred of in his recall. In a ridiculous confrontation, Charlotte discovers that Fred is a journalist.

On the ride back home, introspective Charlotte tells Maggie that she was Fred's babysitter. Fred was this brilliant, kind, funny kid. "He had a chip on his shoulder."

In Director Jonathan's narrative, Charlotte hires Fred as her speech writer. Yeah, this is romantic comedy. Predictably Charlotte and Fred fall for each other, as unlikely as it seems. In a quiet moment Fred asks Charlotte about her love life. According to media tabloids she's dating Canadian Prime Minister James Steward, played by handsome aplomb Alexander Skarsgard delivering the most insane accent. That's all show. She smiles, "Guys don't want to date a woman more powerful than them. It's a real d**k shriveler." Amen.

Amidst the formulaic trials and chaotic tribulations, Charlize and Seth share genuine kindness for each other as Charlotte and Fred. There's the subdued prejudice for the beautiful woman falling for the 'not so hot' dude that Writers Dan and Hannah illustrate. Of course with all due respect to Seth. Still, this lands.

In "Long Shot" what's in your heart really matters. Watching the glorious aurora in the night Stockholm sky, Fred tears up. Charlotte looks at Fred, "Are you crying?" Even with all his bluster and tantrums, Fred has a good heart. Seth Rogen is so vulnerable and authentically funny. Charlize is the comedic surprise. She never tries to be funny. She just is. Charlize radiates Charlotte's sublime sadness and compassionate soul. Confessing to Fred, "I'm so afraid..." touches your heart.

Charlotte and Fred slow dance to her favorite teen song "It Must Have Been Love" by '90s band Roxette. They don't say a word. We get it. In "Long Shot": It must have been love. That's what keeps you watching. Just saying.
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10/10
The Legacy in "Endgame"
29 April 2019
Robert Downey Jr.'s gaunt Tony Stark records his message to his beloved Pepper Potts, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, aboard the disabled spaceship last seen in "Avengers: Infinity War", "Part of the journey is the end..." After 11 years of Marvel movies, Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame" signifies the end of the journey with laughter and surprising poignancy. At one point holdout Avengers leader Natasha (former assassin Black Widow), played by beautiful soulful Scarlett Johansson, refers to the Avengers as "family". That resonates for us, too. For the last 11 years these screen Heroes have become family. We care what becomes of them. Do they find peace? Do they discover love?

"Endgame" screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely patiently crescendo to the showdown with seemingly omnipotent galactic villain Thanos, motion captured by malevolently measured Josh Brolin, whom defeated the Avengers, by wiping out half of all life in the universe using the Infinity Gauntlet possessing all 6 Infinity Stones. The climactic battle is visually astounding, and oh so costly. Yet, what inspires most about "Endgame" is family and heart.

Most of "Endgame" takes place 5 years after Titan's Warrior Thanos decimated half the population of the universe, including about half of the Avengers. Here less is actually more. Where as in "Avengers: Infinity War", way too many Superheroes resulted in the kluged narrative, focusing on the surviving Heroes: Chris Evans's Captain America (Steve Rogers), Robert's Iron Man, and Chris Hemsworth's Thor, displaced God of Thunder, empowers the story. Brie Larson's all-powerful Captain Marvel charismatically emerges as the new Avenger. Too bad the Russo's couldn't leverage more for Brie. Then again, that might have been narrative saturation.

Where "Infinity War" was so dour and so self-absorbed, "Endgame" has a wicked sense of humor. Mark Ruffalo's glasses wearing civilized green giant Hulk taking selfies with adoring teen fans is hysterical. Critical to restoring their fallen Heroes in Thanos's aftermath, the surviving Avengers utilize time travel in hopes of preventing Thanos from possessing all Infinity Stones. In the hilarious expository exchange regarding the effects of changing past and future events: "This is not 'Back to the Future'." No, it's not. And I busted out laughing.

The human narrative touches in "Endgame". The distinct strength of the Marvel Universe Movies are its Actors. Travelling back to 1970, Robert's Tony Stark meets his estranged Father Howard, the genius engineer, played by earnest John Slattery. Howard has no idea that he's talking to his future son, because his wife is about to give birth. Robert's authentic compassion moves. Tony hugs Howard, who expressed doubt about being a good Father, saying, "It'll work out." Then you realize that was the only time the two had ever hugged. On that same trip back, Chris Evans's Steve wistfully gazes at Peggy Carter, played by captivating Hayley Atwell. Peggy is the forsaken love of Cap's life.

Chris Hemsworth's Thor travels back to the Norse legendary Asgard to retrieve an Infinity Stone. He encounters his mortal Mother Frigga, the powerful sorceress played by beautiful strong Rene Russo, on the day she's to die. In a subdued joke, rotund Thor has seen better days, since failing to dispatch Thanos in "Infinity War". His loving Mom tells her son that she knows that he's suffered. Looking into his eyes Frigga says, "The measure of the Hero is being true to yourself." Amen.

Really, "Endgame" is awesome, because of heart. In that Karen Gillan is understated power as the mostly machine Nebula, daughter of Thanos. Her Father had contested her against sister Gamora, played by brilliantly strong Zoe Saldana, for his love. Tortured and devalued Nebula, becomes ravaged with vengeance upon her Father. Yet, Karen makes us believe that Nebula's soul is worth salvation.

Yeah, at 3 hours and 1 minutes "Endgame" is the restroom challenge. I kid, well sort of. Despite all that, I loved "Avengers: Endgame". It's the poignant, whimsical end of the journey. At least for me, the Avengers are my fictional Hero family. Like the characters on the wide screen, we all experience suffering, profound loss, joy, and triumph. In life, like Chris's Cap says, "Take your baby steps... Move forward." I for one shall remember the Avengers in my heart.
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Hellboy (2019)
6/10
"Hellboy" is a Mess. Too Bad.
16 April 2019
In Director Neil Marshall's spirited action fantasy "Hellboy", adoptive Father Professor Broom, played with whimsical gravitas by Ian McShane tells his Son, "I wanted you to be the best you..." David Harbour's Hellboy, the hulking prosthetically horned, red skinned beast, acknowledges his Father's love in tears. No spoilers here. After all, Dad is human. Hellboy, well he's some other distinction.

The dramatic arc resonates genuine poignancy. Yet, seems so out of context, like much of "Hellboy". "Hellboy" often gets lost in the narrative abyss. Based on Mike Mignola's source material - Dark Horse Comic Book "Hellboy", Neil and Screenwriter Andrew Cosby reboot the beloved 2004 movie starring Ron Perlman as a narrative quandary. David Harbour embodies irreverent sense of humor and charisma in wonderful homage to Ron Perlman's Hero beast.

But like I told my buddy Ron, after we both watched the movie, "That was all over the place." Euphemistically, "Hellboy" is an unfocused mess. WTF? Too bad. Not just for us, but also for the cast. Beautiful commanding Milla Jovovich is beguiling evil as The Blood Queen, Nimue. Hers along with David's Hellboy inspire strong performances from feeble material.

In the prologue set in 1540 or so: Omniscient sorceress Nimue prepares to unleash her deadly plague on the world; thus, ending humankind forever. However, she's vanquished by stalwart King Arthur, played by Mark Stanley, and sorcerer Merlin, played by Brian Gleeson. To dissipate her immense power they literally chop Nimue into pieces, foreshadowing Neil's macabre resurrection visual, and bury her parts at the ends of the Earth.

Hellboy works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) fighting the "dark forces" like Giants. He's a superhero of sorts. He has great speed, strength, and fighting skills. He also possesses a huge mysterious metallic right hand.

Professor Broom and Hellboy work together at the BPRD. He virtually raised his son there. Returning from a mission, Broom gently grooms the horns on his son's brow. As corny as that looks, it's sublime. Regardless of blood, they're family. They love each other unconditionally. That is the singular saving grace of "Hellboy".

Eventually, conspiracy consumes. Predictably, the evil Nimue returns from wherever, and seeks revenge. Surprisingly, she seeks Hellboy as well. Although, handsome is not Hellboy's strong suit, Nimue is passionately drawn to the muscular red beast. Perhaps, it's his wry sense of humor? Maybe, it's Hellboy's lineage according to eerie villain Lady Huttom, who reprises Hellboy's origins and discovery by Professor Broom.

Meanwhile, to save the world from Nimue's apocalyptic intentions, Hellboy joins forces with Alice, played by young spirited Sasha Lane, and soldier Major Ben Daimio, played by calm strong Daniel Dae Kim. It's on!

The bond of Hellboy and Nimue make "Hellboy" watchable, which isn't saying all that much. David and Milla have engaging chemistry. They're both strong, resilient, and don't take themselves too seriously. On the other hand, "Hellboy" does. Rather at times Neil Marshall doesn't have a clue what kind of story he wants to tell.

The visual effects in "Hellboy" are spectacular. Gruesome images of shredded and exploding flesh populate the screen. Then there are whimsical visuals of the Nimue's limbs sown back together or some vicious Giant swatting Hellboy like an insect.

"Hellboy" occurs as a funny, bloody narrative mess. Not in a good way. Again, too bad for David Harbour and Milla Jovovich. Really, too bad for us.
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Us (2019)
8/10
"Us" - The Metaphorical Puzzle in a Good Way?
2 April 2019
In Writer and Director Jordan Peele's "Us", it's 1986: Little African American girl Adelaide, played by Madison Curry, encounters her doppelganger in the carnival tent on the Santa Cruz beach. Little Adelaide's eyes widen in terror.

Now 2019, on the family vacation car ride, Mom Adelaide Wilson, played by loving and beautiful Lupita Nyong'o, jokes with her children, daughter Zora, played by Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Halloween mask wearing son Jason, played by Evan Alex. Adelaide and her husband Gabe, played by solid Winston Duke, drive to meet up with friends Kitty, played by Elizabeth Moss, and Josh, played by Tim Heidecker, and their twin daughters for their Santa Cruz summer holiday. Yeah, that's Jordan's discreetly frightful foreshadowing.

Funny. Santa Cruz might be an homage to Joel Schumacher's 1987 "The Lost Boys". Although, "Us" is not about the indigenous vampire in Santa Cruz. Jordan's narrative is somewhat more sinister: Our "tethered" doppelgangers (personal doubles) possibly live in the millions of subterranean tunnels in the US. Or so we are made to believe according to Jordan's movie prefaced research.

Scary movies are really not my deal. Yet, my movie critic buddy Michael told me that "Us" is worth seeing. That was good enough for me.

The first 2 Acts of "Us" are amazing narrative and visually foreboding atmosphere from master storyteller Jordan Peele. Lupita brilliantly disguises Adelaide's unresolved childhood fear, safeguarding her children with all her being. Winston Gabe is comically at a loss in discerning his wife's seeming turmoil. Also Adelaide and Gabe's dynamic with Kitty and Josh occurs as the social status comparison game. Oh, well.

Then one night, the Wilson's receive uninvited guests at their rented beach home. They're also the family of four. Jason says, "It's us." They're the evil versions of Adelaide, Gabe, Zora and Jason. Or are they really 'the evil ones'? Terror and havoc ensue on screen.

Act 3 of "Us" is totally WTF? No worries. No spoilers here. At a certain point I didn't know what was going on. Jordan seduces with the bloody mayhem. Yet, there is something more subversive in his narrative, perhaps about our own human nature?

I didn't find "Us" as so much scary, rather it's entirely disturbing - in a good sort of way. Later, I confirmed with Michael about a storyline that might have been obvious, to others. For sure, other theories surrounding "Us" will emerge. Wait for it.

Amazingly, Jordan circles back his story to the movie's seemingly innocuous premise, and he fosters further discussion in his shocking conclusion. Lupita's compassionately humane performance as Adelaide anchors "Us"; keeping us watching; keeping us in Jordan's master guessing game.

I'd love to see "Us 2". I'm also guessing that's part of Jordan's master narrative. Just saying.
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10/10
"Captain Marvel": The Times You Get Back Up Define You
11 March 2019
In Disney and Marvel Studios' "Captain Marvel", vulnerable Brie Larson as warrior Vers sheds tears speaking with someone from her human past, resilient Lashana Lynch as best friend Maria, "I don't know who I am!" Maria acknowledges Vers, who was "Aunt' to her daughter Monica, played by radiant Akira Akbar, "You were the most powerful person I know." Vers' humanity is the distinct power of "Captain Marvel".

Brie evokes commanding presence as the emergent Hero. Curious note: No one really calls her Captain Marvel. She looks so cool in her sleek blue and red suit dispatching intergalactic villains with astounding martial arts skills.

Yet, what resonates from Writer and Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's narrative are 13 year-old Carol Danvers at bat after being struck down by an errant pitch. Or soiled Air Force cadet Carol rising from the ground after falling from the swinging obstacle course rope. Character defines destiny. Amen.

Unlike by the numbers, loud big budget Superhero movies, independent filmmakers Anna and Ryan poignantly tell the human story of a woman's transformation. It's never about the number of times you fail or fall down. It's about the times you get back up.

In "Captain Marvel": the Hero arises. Having great strength, super speed or in Vers' case - photon blasts from her fists, can be significant. What makes her Hero, what makes her powerful is her belief in herself.

"Captain Marvel" is Marvel's first standalone female Superhero movie. One might say, "Well, it's about time." Well, Anna, Ryan and Geneva Robertson-Dworet's screenplay is the timely tale of the woman revealing her untapped power within. Brie's Vers bravely distinguishes who she is. She also invents who she can be. "Captain Marvel" is the surprising comic book narrative journey of self-discovery.

Hero isn't about wearing the shiny suit or gaining tremendous physical prowess. Brie Larson is authentically bold as she discovers the Hero within herself, the Hero that has always been there. She exudes a refreshing sense of humor in the often dour Superhero construct. Brie brilliantly leverages endearing screen chemistry with aloof, charismatic Samuel L. Jackson as young Nick Fury, before the eye patch and SHIELD. Their whimsical banter is the welcome distraction from the galactic Kree - Skrull War. "Captain Marvel" creators also generate relevancy in the refugee prejudice of the Alien Skrull.

"Captain Marvel" opens on the Kree home planet - Hala. Apparent Kree Vers (Brie) is member of the elite Warrior group, Starforce. Her mentor is intrepid, war-weary Yon-Rogg, played by dashing strong Jude Law. Paradoxically, he tells Vers, "I want you to be the best version of yourself." Vers is constantly haunted by images of a 'previous life'.

Starforce embarks on the mission to retrieve a spy from their dreaded enemy, the Skrulls. Vers is captured. Escaping further torture, she crash lands in a Blockbuster Video store on Earth, 1995. While awaiting for Yon-Rogg's rescue, Vers meets FBI Agent Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson - CGI enhanced to look 30 years younger. Fury's partner is Agent Coulson, played by equally CGI-ed, spirited Clarke Gregg. High-tech nostalgia at best.

Vers and Fury reluctantly join forces to unconceal the Skull conspiracy and to locate the legendary Tesseract power source. Meanwhile, Vers resurfaces memories of the ubiquitous Supreme Intelligence, Leader of the Kree, played by beautiful sublime Annette Benning. Seems Vers knew her in her past human life as fighter pilot Captain Carol Danvers. Does Supreme Intelligence hold the secret of Vers' enigmatic past or her infinite future? Or both?

At times, "Captain Marvel" tries too hard to cover all its bases: as classic superhero movie, sci-fi mythology or stunning action adventure. Yet, its narrative resonance lives in its Hero - Vers and awesome Brie Larson. Brie is so strong, so compassionate in her character's reckoning. She soulfully defines: The Hero's power lies in her heart, in her humanity. "Captain Marvel" is one of the best Marvel movies. It's just that great.
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9/10
If You Love, Set Them Free
4 March 2019
One of my All-Time favorite singer-songwriters is Sting. He sings, "If you love somebody, set them free." In Dream Works and Director Dean DeBlois's spectacular state-of-the art animated "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World", vulnerable kind Jay Baruchel voices brave young Viking Chief Hiccup. Hiccup looks deeply into the golden gentle eyes of his dear Dragon Toothless. They bow touching their heads together and hug. It's time to set Toothless free. Because Hiccup loves him.

In Dean's movie narrative based on the series of books by Author Cressida Cowell, Hiccup's girlfriend Astrid, voiced by the beautiful wise America Ferrera, discerns that Hiccup believes that his greatness solely relies upon the Dragon. Hiccup is greater than he knows. Astrid tells him, "I am who I am today, because of you."

Amidst the clutter of colorful superfluous Viking characters and cherub-like Dragons, we experience wondrous scenes of Hiccup riding Toothless as they soar above the clouds of the night sky. That's love.

In Hiccup's dream from the past, Gerard Butler returns as his stalwart hulking late Father Stoick. Stoick confesses to his son about the great love of his life, Hiccup's Mother. She was the One, and he chose never to remarry. At the time both believed that she had passed away. Stoick says, "With love comes loss, son; it's part of the deal." In life there is both love and loss.

Dean's "How to Train Your Dragon 3" is about the sadness in loss. Yet, there's the kind of sadness that heals loss, and about love everlasting. Perhaps, there's no loss without love. Life is in the balance. That's the deal. Ultimately, that makes "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World" something special.

In "How to Train Your Dragon 3", Hiccup is now Viking Chief, and his people coexist with dragons in their sea village Berk. Maybe, Hiccup marries pretty independent spirit Astrid? Astrid is like: "Oh, no." Yet, we can tell they are in love. It's the movies after all.

Hiccup recalls the dragon mythology from Stoick: About the "Hidden World" where all Dragons came from, at the Edge or the World. After all the World was 'flat' according to the Vikings. Hiccup also confronts evil Dragon Hunter Grimmel, voiced by sublime F. Murray Abraham, in his quest to free the dragons of the world. Grayed and gaunt Grimmel sets his sights on capturing Night Fury dragon - Toothless.

Back in Berk, beautiful white dragon - Light Fury enchants Toothless's heart. Here the amazing CGI visual effects and animation endear their story. Although Toothless and Light Fury do not speak a word, in their playful glances and miraculous aerial displays, we get that they are falling madly in love. Much like Hiccup and Astrid, but without the comic verbal barbs.

My buddy Marc told me that I should check out "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World", because it's really about family. Marc is absolutely right. "How to Train Your Dragon 3" is about the families we inherent, and the families we create: Whether Human or Dragon.

In family there is both loss and love. At times Director Dean's story over indulges in the astounding visual excess without context. Yet, what keeps you watching is the love stories of Hiccup and Toothless.

They are both evolving and growing, becoming greater than they know. It's about the possibility of family. It's about creating the legacy that honors those you love, those who came before you. In that "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World" becomes that hidden treasure.
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10/10
Reinvent Life in "Alita: Battle Angel"
19 February 2019
It's Earth 2563. In the aftermath of the apocalyptic War, resurrected wide eyed cyborg Alita, embodied by youthfully resilient Rosa Salazar, woefully tells kind human friend Hugo, played by spirited Keean Johnson, "I'm just an insignificant girl." Yet, from her simple origin, the Hero arises in Producer James Cameron and Director Robert Rodriguez's futuristic "Alita: Battle Angel". The screenplay by James, Robert and Laeta Kalegridis is based upon creator Yukito Kishiro's popular Manga "Gunnm".

Cybernetics surgeon Dr. Dyson Ido, played by sincere Christoph Waltz, recovers the remnants of the young cyborg girl in a city junk heap. Her brain is alive in the cybernetic shell. Ido re-engineers the robotic body of his late daughter Alita, whom tragically died years previously. When this "Alita" awakes, she has no memory of who she is. She reinvents her life from zero, along with fatherly Ido.

When human Alita died, her distraught Mother Chiren, beautiful icily sullen Jennifer Connelly, left Ido. Revered scientist Chiren becomes the lover of powerful nefarious Vector, played by charismatic Mahershala Ali, who deals in black market cybernetics and runs the Iron City Motorball Games. Motorball is the shiny loud CGI upgrade of roller derby or "Rollerball" from that 1975 movie. Deadly contestants race on roller-skates on a treacherous track attempting to push a metal ball into a hole.

Elevated above populous industrial Iron City is the sky city Zalem, possessing advanced technology. Perhaps, cyborg Alita is artifact of Zalem technology? Both Ido and Chiren were both born on Zalem, and were banished to Iron City. If Chiren helps Vector prosper in the Motorball Games she can regain access to Zalem. She will be free to return home.

The Writers' solemn futuristic narrative turns complicated. In 2563 there is no law enforcement to protect citizen from renegade cyborg. The secret society of Hunter-Warriors, a group of bounty hunters, take down cyborg criminals. In high-stakes action, Alita discovers her great physical prowess and martial arts skills as she protects Ido from evil cyborg Grewishka, played by capriciously intense Jackie Earle Haley. Alita is the formidable cyborg warrior. Perhaps, her past is remerging?

A link to her forgotten past lies in Martian technology from 300 years ago. Yeah, Martian. Alita recovers her symbiotic robotic body. She brings it Ido. Alita maybe be the fiercest, most advanced cyborg warrior in human history. Alita wants "her body" back. Ido tells her that the body is just a shell, "neither good nor bad". Good or bad is entirely up to Alita.

Although 300 years old, Alita has the brain of, the spirit of a teenage girl. She befriends Hugo, vibrant Keean. Hugo is the rogue hustler, who along with his buddies ravages and jacks cybernetic parts to sell to Vector, ruthless Mahershala. Alita and Hugo fall in love. More than the spectacular high octane Motorball Games or the stunning Wu Shu and mixed martial arts smack down of Warrior-Hunters, what captivates is Alita and Hug's poignant love story.

In this, James Cameron and Rosa Salazar create subtle movie magic. Rosa's visage of Alita is created on screen using performance capture technology. Rosa is beautiful and looks in real-life like Alita. Yet, the nearly human visage of cyborg Alita is beautiful and wonderfully strange. Alita has the big bright hazel eyes of an Anime character. The hair wisps are cool. Her tears streaming down her cheek touch. She kisses as the youth madly in love. Rosa is amazing.

James and Robert's Alita gracefully transforms as the Hero, who bravely says, "I do not stand by in the presence of evil." "Alita" is about the young woman defining herself, discovering her power within, and falling deeply in love. Alita boldly reinvents her life. Although mostly machine, she is so poignantly human -- becoming greater than she knows herself to be. That makes "Alita: Battle Angel" something truly special.
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10/10
Mary Poppins Returns - Nothing's Gone Forever...
3 January 2019
In "Mary Poppins Returns" uncompromising Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins tucks the Banks children into their beds. Innocent young Joel Dawson as Georgie says, "I miss Mother." Pausing Mary's bright blue eyes turn sublime in gaze. She sings, "The Place Where Lost Things Go". In touching lyrics Mary says, "Nothing's gone forever, only out of place." That lands in our very hearts as well.

Director Rob Marshall's sequel to the beloved "Mary Poppins" is the brilliant musical that's eloquently about loss: be that child-like wonder or the passing of the Mother of three beautiful children. "Mary Poppins Returns" dazzles in its blend of animation and song as Mary and the Children immerse in the art work of their Mother's vase. In Old School flourish, the leeries (city street lantern lighters) break into the breathtaking musical number in the London night.

As "Mary Poppins Returns" opens Lin-Manuel Miranda, of "Hamilton", as Leerie Jack sings the opening song while riding through the streets. My friend Cheryl and I both thought: WTF. This is a classic movie musical. Well, at least I went WTF. "Mary Poppins Returns" isn't just the narrative with songs and musical numbers fused together. Marc Shaiman's amazing songs are the narrative - gifting amazing poignancy.

"Mary Poppins Returns" takes place about 25 years after "Mary Poppins" left off. The original Banks children Jane and Michael are now adults. Sweet Emily Mortimer is Labor Activist Jane. Sad worried Ben Whishaw is the bank teller Dad Michael, who is also the long suffering Artist.

Through Michael's song we discover that his wife passed away, leaving him and his sister to care for Anabel, John, and Georgie played by talented Pixie Davies, Nathaniel Saleh, and Joel Dawson. Solid Julie Walters plays loyal housekeeper Ellen. Michael dearly misses the love of his life.

Although, he works at the Bank that gave him his loan for their London home, Bank President Wilkins, played by masterfully duplicitous Colin Firth, informs Michael that he must pay off the loan or forfeit his home. That's unthinkable. For the Banks, home is where their memories of their Wife and Mother live.

As fate unfolds, while the children play with an old family kite during a storm Mary Poppins returns - descending from the clouds prim and proper with ankles turns outward. With her signature hat and magical talking umbrella Mary is summoned back to take care of the Banks children, the old and new ones.

Emily Blunt is profound restraint: obviously the smart beautiful Mary knows more than she will let on. Emily's eloquence as Mary reveals the deep well of emotion within in her gentle eyes and measured speak. She also has an amazing voice. Ironically, her Mary is seemingly omniscient albeit hysterically condescending.

Jack tells the children, "She never explains anything." That's the beauty of Screenwriter David Magee's "Mary Poppins Returns": Mary is just being Mary. In this revelation Lin-Manuel as Jack is all charm and compassion. He and Emily have miraculous chemistry either in conversation or paired in song and dance in the animated circus tent. Director Rob reveres homage to the past with heartfelt cameos by Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury. Yet, his "Mary Poppins Returns" celebrates the new in song and its own hybrid rap.

Mary Poppins tells the children, "Everything is possible, even the impossible." In this Emily is authentic, and so is "Mary Poppins Returns". In one sense: "The past is in the past." The past can't be changed like the passing of the beloved Mother. Things and people can be and will be lost. Lost, but not forgotten.

Mary Poppins reminds that those we lost, live on within us when we believe. When we remember them in our hearts. That is the wondrous beauty of "Mary Poppins Returns".
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Bumblebee (2018)
9/10
"Bumblebee": Being Me Again
26 December 2018
In Director Travis Knight's "Bumblebee" it's 1987: Hailee Steinfeld's 18 year-old Charlie stands as her beloved "Bee" readies to thrash the Special Forces soldiers led by John Cena's Jack Burns, who dared harm his dear friend Charlie. With tears in her eyes Charlie raises her and says, "Stop."

There's an old movie adage: Never act with children or animals. These days that might apply to sentient scene-stealing towering metallic yellow robots, albeit entirely CGI. Yet, like her Charlie, Hailee is fearless, reminiscent of her Nadine in "The Edge of Seventeen", in her humanizing vulnerability. Bee's luminescent blue circle eyes do help, too. Director Travis of the stop action masterpiece "Kubo and the Two Strings", creates the authentically poignant bond with Bee and Hailee, which gifts this "Transformers" movie something unique: A heart.

"Bumblebee" is "Transformers" prequel humorously written by Christina Hodson that reinvents the exhausted "Transformers" franchise created by previous Director Michael Bay. No doubt Michael pushed the envelope in inventing the mesmerizing shiny objects of Autobots battling their mortal enemies, the Decepticons. But sacrificing humanistic storytelling in lieu of the "blowing stuff up" visually dependent narrative got old. Honestly, I stopped watching "Transformers" at "Dark Side of the Moon".

The visual effects of "Bumblebee" are stunning like the opening battle sequence on the Transformers Home World - Cybertron. In the losing cause Autobot Leader Optimus Prime, voiced by noble Peter Cullen, instructs his charge - yellow warrior robot B-127, voiced by innocent Dylan O'Brien, to go to Earth and await for his return. And so it begins.

Refreshingly, Travis and Hailee's distinct gift is their resonant emotional impact in the midst of the commercially driven special effects noise. Really, "Bumblebee" works, because Travis makes us cheer for the touching relationship of Charlie and Bee. "Bumblebee" is Hailee's movie. Her beautiful face and gentle eyes enroll us in the story of the lonely 18 year-old girl, who suffers from missing her Father, who passed away.

Charlie's Dad taught her to fix cars and gave her his love of them. Charlie believes that if she can somehow restore her Dad's classic Corvette, she can have her Dad back. She can get herself back. In one scene Charlie stops repairing the Corvette in her garage. She cries, "I can't do this anymore." She just wants her suffering to end. Now that is way more captivating than a bunch of shining robots kicking the crap out of each other. Just saying.

The memory and speech damaged B-127 lands on Earth disrupting the military exercise of Col. Jack Burns, played by strong funny John Cena. Fortunately, B-127 escapes capture; thus, embarrassing Jack. B-127 assumes the shape of a yellow Volkswagen Bug. Obviously.

Charlie, played by Haile, is the loner high school gear-head only interested in cars, let alone boys. Charlie's Mom Sally, played by funny scattered Pamela Adlon, remarried Ron, played by comically well intentioned Stephen Schneider. Comfortably geeky Jason Drucker plays her karate nerd younger brother Otis. Insecurely charming Jorge Lendeborg Jr., of "Love, Simon", is Charlie's neighbor, who has the biggest crush on her. Finally summoning his courage to possibly ask Charlie out on date, he witnesses Bumblebee in full transformation. Charlie gives B-127 the name Bumblebee after recovering him from her Uncle's junkyard.

Evil Decepitcons Shatter, voiced by frightening Angela Bassett, and Blitzwing, voiced by tough David Sobolov, land on Earth in search of Bee. They convince Jack and his superiors that they are the "good guys": That Bumblebee poses the gravest global threat. Actually, the Deceptions scheme to destroy the humans for their own strategic gain. So Jack must locate Bumblebee.

Surprisingly, my favorite scene in "Bumblebee" is Charlie and Memo standing through the sunroof of the yellow Volkswagen, hands raised in the air with Tears for Fears singing "Shout" on the radio. That captured 1987, and the spirit of youth - being free to be yourself. You just didn't care what anyone else thought. That's also the distinct charm of Travis and Hailee's "Bumblebee". We see that sense of innocent wonder in Hailee's gaze. We all just want to be free to be ourselves.
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10/10
Into the Spider-Verse: Take a Leap of Faith
24 December 2018
"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" is astounding stylized state-of-art animation with the look and feel of 3-D Japanese Anime. The animation is visually shadowed and soulful with vibrant pastels. Not just mesmerizing eye-candy, team of Directors - Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman craft a fresh rites of passage narrative of immerging Spider-Man, half-African American Miles Morales, voiced by spirited and smart Shameik Moore. Although in Phil Lord ("The Lego Movie" and "22 Jump Street") and Rodney Rothman's screenplay, Miles is one of several 'Spider-Men' and 'Spider-Women' intersecting in this Marvel superhero, sci-fi, family mashup.

Turns out that villain "Kingpin", voiced by malevolent Live Schreiber, the blockish hulking bald cartoon figure used his invention - the Super Collider to collapse the multiverse. To what ends? Honestly, I don't think even Phil and Rodney know. That might be beside the point. Because, "Into the Spider-Verse" is just raucous fun with a warped sense of humor and a big heart.

Directors Bob, Peter and Rodney introduce the Spider-Man in New York that we all know and love: Peter Parker, voiced by whimsical Chris Pine. He's the guy, who was bitten by the radioactive spider that gave him his amazing strength, agility and 'spidey sense' as in sixth sense. After an extended Superhero career of 22 years including his failed marriage to the love of his life Mary Jane, voice by Zoe Kravitz, Spider-Man dies as a Hero, doing what he loves to do: Saving others.

Miles is a teen attending a college prep school on scholarship: The brilliant computer geek, who chills to Post Malone. His Dad Jefferson Davis, voiced by stalwart funny Brian Tyree Henry, is a police officer, who not a big fan of Spider-Man and his "along with great power comes great responsibility" dogma. Somewhat self-absorbed, he unconditionally loves Miles. Jefferson even coerces Miles to say, "I love you, Dad." - in front of his entire school.

At school Miles is sweet on pretty smart blonde Gwen Stacy, voiced by wonderfully aloof Hailee Steinfeld. Their attraction is mutual. Miles derives security in his relationship with his Uncle Aaron, voiced with street gravitas by Mahershala Ali. Aaron and his brother Jefferson Davis are estranged, given Aaron questionable shady dealings. Yet, Aaron is the cool Uncle, who encourages Miles's distinct gift as the street tagger of amazing urban spray paint murals. While working one of his masterpieces, Miles is bitten by what looks like a radioactive spider. Consequently, Miles acquires his Spider-Man powers.

At the same time Miles meets his alter-dimensional persona in older paunchy Peter B. Parker, voiced by funny, mildly cynical Jake Johnson, who teaches Miles the ropes of Spider-Man's web-slinging. While escaping from Kingpin's facility and swinging through the snowy forests, Peter and Miles encounter sleek white suited Spider-Gwen - Gwen Stacy (Hailee). Turns out too, that Gwen is the Spider-Woman from yet another dimension. Like Peter, she also needs to return to her home dimension.

So it's up to Miles, who must wrestle control of Kingpin's Super Collider, to forge the dimensional pathway back to their respective dimensions. Meanwhile, Miles meets Spider-Men from other dimensions. Black and white Spider-Man Noir, voiced by off-the-wall Nicolas Cage, is from a past dimensional era. There's Warner Brothers-like cartoon Spider-Ham, voiced by hysterical John Mulaney. Life-size Japanese Anime Peni Parker, voiced by quirky Kimiko Glenn, is from the 31st Century sporting her advanced robotic Spider-Man. As Peter says, "This could literally not get weirder." Balancing this phase-glitched universe are versions of Spider-Man's villains: Green Goblin, Scorpion, and a few others that I don't recognize.

There is a whole lot of nonsense running amok in "Into the Spider-Verse", yet the directors resonate in asking, "What makes a Hero?" With surprising poignancy, cartoon Spider-Ham tells emerging Hero Miles, "You can't save everyone." Otherwise, the great responsibility and power become a curse.

When Miles has doubts that he can become the Hero, Peter tells him, "Take a leap of faith." Believe in the hero that's within all of us. Our Heroes arise from our belief from within, and from the love those who believe in us. For Miles that's the world-weary and wise Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker, and brave and compassionate Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen. Radiant Shameik Moore makes us believe that his Miles shall discover his own greater than self within.

"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" is about summoning the Hero within all of us. Even more so than the amazing animation, that narrative makes "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" one of my favorite movies this year.
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The Favourite (2018)
8/10
The Favourite: 'It's all about me!'
18 December 2018
Set in 18th century England, Director Yorgos Lanthimos's "The Favourite" stars Emma Stone as maid Abigail and Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah, who both serve Queen Anne, played by amazing Olivia Colman. In "The Favourite" Abigail and Sarah contest to be Anne's 'favourite' in more than conventional distinctions.

Rachel's Sarah is Lady Marlborough, whose husband leads the English military campaign against the French. The physically unattractive self-aware Queen suffers from gout and associated maladies; thus, rendering Sarah as her renegade proxy. The Machiavellian Sarah instructs Anne to double the taxes to finance the War effort to support her husband, ending the War, and bringing him home.

Pretty young Abigail, played by Emma, arrives on the scene reunited with her cousin Sarah, played by Rachel. Abigail was from a noble family, but dark financial times beset her Father, who sold her to the older German rival, essentially selling her into sexual slavery. Consequently, Abigail is driven by redemption. She seeks to regain her nobility and stature at any cost. Perhaps, cousin Sarah becomes her leverage point?

Sarah enlists Abigail to tend to the Queen, while she basically manages the affairs of England. The skilled herbalist Abigail soon gains favored status of Anne, played by Olivia. One night while surprisingly educated Abigail reads in Anne's library, she discovers the nature of Sarah's relationship with the Queen. It becomes transparent to Abigail what she must do to become the Queen's "Favourite".

Olivia plays Anne with touching wounded loneliness. Her Anne knows that she can get whatever she wants, because she is the Queen. If not for that, hardly anyone would want anything to do with her. Olivia's profound sadness in Anne humanizes the angry beast. She exposes the lightness and darkness in Anne, and in ourselves. Anne is all about herself, as is everyone in Writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's narrative.

In a defining scene in a local bar, Emma's Abigail confesses, "I'm on my side!" The hysterical, yet mostly anguished narrative of "The Favourite" is: It's all about me. In Yorgos's tale women rule with power up front and behind the scenes. This is not necessarily the polarized #Metoo narrative either. Yorgos depicts the well of ugliness in society in vast contrast to the stunning visuals of Robbie Ryan's beautiful cinematography. We see Sarah riding her horse on the immaculate English estate. At the same time, Abigail and Sarah scheme to one up the other in gaining the Queen's favors in the palace.

Both Emma and Rachel are inspired. Rachel's Sarah is the regal lioness, who takes no prisoners. However, in her utter humiliation Rachel reveals her humanity in redemption. Emma is brilliant initially enrolling us in the suffering innocent maiden with the tortured soul. Emma subtly transforms Abigail as the gentle eyed ruthless mercenary. For Abigail the ends and the means are the same. In the heartbreaking scene Sarah cries to Anne, "I never lied to you... That's love." Perhaps, love is more than just that.

"The Favourite" might be one of the best movies of the year. Yet, I wasn't on anyone's "side" in "The Favourite". Everyone in the movie is all about themselves. I suppose that's Yorgos, Deborah and Tony's point. "The Favourite" is hysterical with its clever banter of classism and sexism. Yet, ultimately it is all very sad. Everyone uses someone else. And so goes the world of "The Favourite". "The Favourite" is a great movie, although not my favorite. Let's put it this way: I won't be seeing it again.
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Green Book (2018)
10/10
The Courage to Change People's Hearts
26 November 2018
In 1962, in the middle of the night, in the pouring rain, in the Deep South Mahershala Ali's concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley in tears tells his driver Tony, played by Viggo Mortensen, "So if I'm not Black enough! If I'm not White enough! If I'm not Man enough! So tell me what am I?" Tony listens in resound silence. That resonates even in 2018. This is the lyrical power of Writer and Director Peter Farrelly's "Green Book".

The screenplay by Nick Vellelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Farrelly is based on the true story of the friendship of Dr. Don Shirley and Tony Vellelonga, who couldn't be more different or more unlikely. The wondrous screenplay authentically looks at the impact of prejudice with heart and a surprising sense of humor. On Tony and Don's road trip on their concert tour, Don delicately fingers his Kentucky Fried Chicken drumstick in the backseat, while Tony drives. Don has never eaten fried chicken before. Don admits it's actually quite good. I laughed so hard.

Tony agrees to chauffer and "bodyguard" Don on his concert tour in the Deep South for 8 weeks, returning home to his understanding wife Dolores, plays by kind beautiful Linda Cardellini, by Christmas. Viggo's Tony was the bouncer, "public relations" man at the Copacabana Club in New York City shutdown because of a mob "misunderstanding". Tony is blue collar Italian American with street smarts: way wiser than he occurs. The Father of two boys, he's all heart. Tony also pays attention. Viggo's distinct humanity is in being so present.

Back in the 1960's the Green Book was the listing of all the approved Lodgings for Blacks. At times Tony and Don were not allowed to share the same hotels. On the one instance they do Tony looks out from his hotel room balcony. He spies solitary Don, alone sipping his glass of whiskey. There's more to Don's story than divorce and his estranged brother. Mahershala embodies a regal self-absorbed suffering in Don, who along with being the accomplished pianist holds two PhDs and a law degree. He is also very alone. Is his loneliness self-imposed or thwarted self-expression?

Here Director Peter unconceals eloquent acceptance in the narrative. Don gratefully thanks Tony for saving him from himself. Tony compassionately says, "I know it's complicated." Later Don asks to see the letters Tony writes home to Dolores. They're horrendous. Consequently, Don dictates to Tony what to write, "Dear Dolores..."

Viggo and Mahershala amaze in their authentic love and soulful respect for each other. Mahershala is the brilliant straight man when comedy summons. He displays powerful awareness on the stark narrative turns. Viggo is masterful understatement. His Tony has his prejudice as we all do, yet through his eyes we see his compassion and deep regard for the man that Don is.

Viggo's visage as Tony acknowledges the miraculous talents of artist Don. Don and his musical trio play for White privileged folk, who seemingly feign tolerance. Soon Tony discerns the pretense as mere tokenism, cloaked racism. So why does Don hold his tongue, graciously thanking his hosts, who only see him as Negro?

Don's band mate Oleg, played by silently strong Dimiter D. Marinov, tells Tony, "... Because it takes courage to change people's hearts." Amen. Maybe we can't change what's in other people's hearts. What we can to do is have compassion in our own hearts. That's a place to start.

That's the profound brotherhood of Tony and Don's journey. "Green Book" may be the very best movie of the year. At least it's my very favorite.
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Creed II (2018)
8/10
What We Love...
25 November 2018
In "Creed II" elder noble Sylvester Stallone reprises as legendary Rocky Balboa. Rocky asks Adonis "Donnie" Creed, played by amazing Michael B. Jordan, "What are you fighting for?" World Heavyweight Champion Donne was physically massacred in a previous fight with 6' 5", 245 pound 'beast' Viktor Drago, played by real-life German boxer Florian Munteanu, son of Ivan Drago, surprising Dolph Lundgren.

Recall from "Rocky IV" Ivan killed Adonis's Father Apollo Creed in an exhibition boxing match that Rocky declined. Rocky could have saved his best friend Apollo by stopping the fight, but he didn't. That haunted Rocky for the last 33 years. In "Rocky IV" Rocky traveled to Moscow to fight Ivan to avenge Apollo's death. He knocks out Ivan in the final round. Steroid juiced Ivan was supposed to be the "perfect" fighter. Perhaps, not. This all happened before Adonis was even born. In the past.

So what is Donne fighting for? Director Steven Caple Jr. creates Donnie's journey in "Creed II" with less poignancy and clarity than the original "Creed". Steven replaced Ryan Coogler as director with somewhat lesser human transparency. Yet, "Creed II" is good enough. "Creed II" is the compelling narrative of the 'Sins of the Fathers'. In a touching moment in Rocky's restaurant "Adrian's" Ivan confronts Rocky for the first time since they fought.

Granite-like Dolph as Ivan commands subtle gravitas. He says to Rocky, "Because of you, I lost everything." When Ivan lost to Rocky he plummeted from virtual paragon to social outcast in Ukraine. His wife left both him and his son Viktor. All Viktor knows is fighting. He was "raised in hate" by Ivan. We witness their "tough love" relationship as the movie opens as Ivan chastises Viktor to run faster while driving in his van. They both have something to prove.

That volatile Father-Son dynamic is the realistic anchor of Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor's screenplay. Sly and Juel might have intended for more Shakespearean, but the narrative is too broad and unfocused. In "Creed" I was in tears as Donnie tells Rocky not to stop his fight. He still had something to prove: "That I'm not a mistake." In "Creed II" Rocky has become the Father, Donnie needed. However, Rocky is incomplete in his own relationship with his son Robert, played by Milo Ventimiglia.

Donnie must reconcile his late father Apollo's legacy, a man he never knew. Totally chiseled Michael B. inspires authentic suffering and vulnerability as Donnie seeks to discover himself. The boxing scenes in "Creed II" are visually astounding. Michael gained 20 pounds of muscle and along with Florian trained intensely for months.

Where the fights in "Creed" had an authentic realism, "Creed II" is more theatrical in the shear speed and power displayed on screen. The traded blows make you wince. That visceral emotion comes across in the first fight. Donnie is the valiant champion, who is truly afraid. Viktor is bigger, faster, and stronger. How can he win?

It's in the life outside the ring that redeems and transcends "Creed II". In the whimsical scene after Donnie wins the Heavyweight Championship, he asks his "Unc" for advice in proposing to Bianca, radiantly beautiful Tessa Thompson. Bianca is Donnie's longtime girlfriend, the gifted singer-composer gradually losing her hearing to a degenerative disease. Rocky tells Donnie to forget what's in your head, go with what's in your heart. When "Creed II" shows its heart as Michael B cries watching the diagnostic monitor in the hospital, it reminds that humanity and family worth fighting for.

Michael B eloquently defines the Hero in his courageous acts and in the power of his tears. He and Dolph discover the forgiveness in our sins of the past. Michael empowers "Creed II": Life is about the passion of what we love, whether we win or lose. That's what is at stake in Donnie and Vilktor's climactic Championship fight.

In the timeless tale of Fathers and Sons: The Son wants to know that his Father is proud of him. The Son wants to know his Father's love. In this "Creed II" delivers a knockout. We all need to know that we're enough, that we all deserve to be loved.
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Boy Erased (2018)
10/10
Unconditional Love: A Mother Knows
19 November 2018
A panicked fearful Lucas Hedges as Jared makes a desperate cell phone call crouched in the Men's Restroom, "Mom, I'm in trouble!" Jarred is captive in a conversion program "The Source" which is supposed to "cure" him of his homosexuality. Nicole Kidman as Mom Nancy rescues her son, confronting program leader Victor Sykes, played by Joel Edgerton, as fraud. "Shame on you!"

Holding Jared's hand Nancy says, "A Mother knows... I'm sorry I let you down." Nicole and Lucas are touching screen partnership. At times Writer and Director Joel Edgerton's "Boy Erased" is capricious narrative darkness, yet the story of a Mother's unconditional love transcends. Nancy boldly declares, "I love God. I love my son." That's not as transparent for Jared's Preacher Father Marshall, played by earnest solid Russell Crowe. Regardless, Marshall is a decent man.

Nicole is so strong and so compassionate as unassuming Nancy. Lucas completely beguiles in his naked authenticity as suffering Jared. He's the rising star and the soul of "Boy Erased". Lucas and Nicole's visceral poignant chemistry unconceals the beauty in some of the movie's imperfections. Imperfection reveals in the ugliness of suffering conversion therapy and the depiction of graphic rape. I presume the narrative sources from Garrad Conley's memoir "Boy Erased", the basis of Joel's screenplay. Yet, Joel's harsher cinematic brush strokes occur exploitive.

Joel also plays conversion program leader Sykes as villainous homophobe. This fails in the sense we can't discern the nobility of his cause to 'cure' Jared and others. Sykes himself possesses the stereotypical vibe of one pretending what he's not, in terms of his own sexuality. Joel's Sykes seems only opinion, not at all clinician. He comes off as stupid albeit well-intentioned which doesn't enroll us in his purpose. Despite these narrative failings, Director Joel acutely focuses on the profound impact of Jared's loss of self-expression, his freedom to just be.

When his college mate Henry, who raped Jared-- played by Joe Alwyn, outs Jared, he confesses his sexuality to his parents. He says, "I think of men... I'm so sorry." How tragically sad. Jared is sorry for being who he is? He has no freedom to be himself.

His Father Marshall says, "God cannot love you, the way you are." He sends Jared away to the conversion program to "cure" Jared of his sins. Nancy stays with Jared while he receives his treatment. Amazingly, these conversion programs still exist in the over 30 States in the US.

Lucas is brilliant composed awareness as Jared. He gets that he won't change, and that will go badly for him. Lucas's eloquent gentleness is his distinct power and his voice. He shows kindness to bullied Cameron, quietly sad Britton Sear. For survival sake, gay participant Gary, played by Troye Sivan, instructs, "Fake it till you make it."

"Boy Erased" is one of the year's best movies in its inquiry into the nature of our humanity. There are things that we can change. There are things that we can't. What about the things that we can change that will make a difference? That possibility exists for both Jared and his Dad. Russell is authentic conflict as he resolves the things that can and can't change. He is a Man of God. He loves his son. Jared is gay. So what will he do?

"Boy Erased" is about the freedom to be who you are: Accepting what you can change and what you can't. Like Nicole's Nancy says, "A Mother knows." Love others unconditionally. Grant them the freedom to be. Freedom is everyone's birth right.
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10/10
Having 'Almost Everything'
18 November 2018
"Bohemian Rhapsody" soars to the heavens as the cinematic chronicle of the rise, fall and redemption of legendary rock band Queen and its charismatic lead singer Freddie Mercury, authentically inhabited by Rami Malek: The tragedy and joy of their iconic music. Yet, what touches foremost is the love story of Freddie and his soul mate Mary, played by radiantly strong Lucy Boynton.

While lying in bed together after Freddie dazzled in Queen's concert, he confesses to Mary that the only place where "I'm not afraid" is performing on stage. Mary loves Freddie. Still discovering his amazing voice through his music, he suffers in his inauthenticity, in his sexuality.

After returning from a lengthy Queen tour, Freddie discloses his sexuality to Mary. He says, "You are almost everything..." Mary is heartbroken. 'Almost' is never enough. That visceral sense of sadness resonates in Director Bryan Singer's "Bohemian Rhapsody".

This very much is Bryan's film, although the studio fired him before the movie's completion. Another director completed the filming for theatrical release. Openly gay Bryan poignantly reminds: Finding and accepting your distinct voice is scary regardless of gay or straight. Announcing who you are to the world is terrifying for all of us. Bryan, Rami and Lucy compassionately say that we try to love ourselves and gift from what is within us. Freddie Mercury brilliantly did that.

Freddie Mercury died of AIDS at 45 years old. I was a huge fan of Freddie back in high school. Freddie had flamboyant charisma and the voice of an angel. I found cathartic joy in Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", "We Will Rock You" or "We Are the Champions". Although, Queen's music represented freedom, it ironically cloaked Freddie's suffering: To be himself. In his journey Rami astounds as Freddie.

Accepting his life's deception, Rami's Freddie tells Mary in the pouring rain, "I'm happy for you." Lucy's tearful visage is her hope that Freddie discovers his own joy in life. Bryan Singer's narrative is about healing as Freddie sees what he has become and his fate. Rami is powerful vulnerability and humanity. You see his soulfulness in his eyes. You hear it in his voice. He beautifully regenerates the late Freddie's immortal sound. Rami expresses Freddie's vibrant spirit that captivated us all those years ago.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" begins in London with young design student and Heathrow baggage laborer Freddie. He's the son of the Parsi family, followers of the Zoroastrian faith. Traditional Father Bromi, played by solid Ace Bhatti, disapproves of his son's choice not to follow in his professional footsteps. Freddie wants to be a rock star.

His opportunity arises when guitar god Brian May, played by compassionately wise Gwilym Lee, needs a lead singer for his band. Brian and drummer Roger Taylor, played by spritely Ben Hardy, take a chance on Freddie. While joining the band, Freddie falls for beautiful kind Mary. Freddie eventually meets Paul, played by subversively charming Allen Leech, who reveals as the duplicitous seducer.

At times Anthony McCarten's screenplay veers into the indulgent excess of the 'rock star' life, coming across as caricature. Yet, his narrative has the authentic feel for the creation of music as when Brian stamps out the beat for "We Will Rock You."

In the end Anthony and Bryan create profound compassion for Freddie Mercury: Whether he is free to express his voice in the world, regardless of what others think. We care whether Freddie finds true love, again. "Bohemian Rhapsody" is full of sound, sadness, and joy. It will rock you, too.
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10/10
Say Something So People Want to Hear It
8 October 2018
What do you have deep inside that you want to say? In Director Bradley Cooper's "A Star Is Born" his fading rock star Jackson Maine holds in his arms Lady Gaga's rising star Ally as they gaze at the billboard of her record album cover. Gravelly voiced Jack says, "Dig down into your soul... Say what you wanna say, because what you say is the stuff of angels." Director Bradley Cooper's feature debut poignantly asks what do you have to say to the world, so people want to listen.

"A Star Is Born" is uncompromising in discovering one's voice in the world acknowledging the darker humanity of addiction and depression. Bradley and Lady Gaga, in her first starring movie role, are authentic and genuine: strength and frailty. Sam Elliot is eloquently powerful as Jack's older Manager brother Bobby, who loves his self-destructive baby brother.

Not only did Bradley direct "A Star Is Born", he wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth and Will Fetters. He learned to sing for a year and a half. He wrote songs for the movie with Lady Gaga. On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Lady Gaga said that she was blown away by Bradley: "He sings from his gut."

As country rock star Jackson Maine, he is so convincing singing, "Maybe it's time to let the old ways die." He pops painkillers going on stage. He downs a bottle of Jack Daniels in the limo ride from his concert. Bradley embodies Jack's weary numbing suffering.

Looking to get a drink, Jack drops in a dive drag bar in Los Angeles. His eyes widen listening to Lady Gaga's Ally singing a French song classic. Ally is special.

Over drinks Jack discovers Ally, who works as a restaurant server, is a songwriter. He asks her why she doesn't sing her songs. Ally says that people like her songs, but not the way she looks.

Lady Gaga is "unplugged" in natural brown hair, sans glam makeup. Gaga inhabits Ally's insecurities like a glove. Yet like Jack, we see her greater within. Jack tells her, "If there's one reason we're supposed to be here is to say something so people wanna hear it..." That's the beauty of "A Star Is Born": It says something we want to hear.

Predictably, yet naturally Jack and Ally fall in love in their star-crossed romance. Ally's star ascends when she sings her song "Shallows" with Jack in concert. Sadly, Jack's star tragically descends in drug and alcohol addiction. Ally and Jack are truly in love: They see the greater within each other. However, love alone may not save Jack from his addictions.

Bradley and Gaga are fearless compassion in the kind of poignant sadness that can heal. Director Cooper trusts his actor's humanity in stark authentic conversation. Ally cries to Jack, "You hurt me!" Jack breaks down to Ally, "I'm so sorry..." When Jack confesses to Bobby about "stealing his voice" I cried.

Lady Gaga is the star. She is so fierce in Ally's vulnerability. Her singing amazes. And you never catch her "acting"; she is just being. She and Bradley don't romanticize the suffering of loving a drug addict; loving someone suffering from depression. You can only do your best. Responsibility is often a two-way street. That's the eloquent message of "A Star Is Born".

Listening to Gaga's closing song moved me. Being in love is perhaps most important in life. Yet, we can't know what goes on inside another, even ones we love. "A Star Is Born" reminds us that we must also have forgiveness in our hearts. I truly loved "A Star Is Born".
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Peppermint (2018)
7/10
Revenge is Meaningless in "Peppermint"
11 September 2018
In "Peppermint' convincingly sinuous and sullen Jennifer Garner as vengeful Mother Riley North exacts vengeance upon the corrupt Judge, who freed her family's murders. Although justified, Riley callously tortures Judge Stevens, played by sniveling Jeff Harlan, in unspeakable ways. The Hero becomes what she despises most: cruel and merciless. However, that tragic irony seems lost on Riley along with Director Pierre Morel ("Taken") and Writer Chad St. John.

Jennifer is amazing as the hero nihilist Riley, enrolling our compassion. Yet, when she's stripped of her humanity immersed in rage murdering money launderers and evil drug cartel members, she transforms as the cold-blooded murder she so vehemently despises.

Being on the lighter side of justice alone, doesn't make her the force for good. She has no forgiveness, no compassion. That's the big missing in Pierre and Chad's often formulaic and predictable "Peppermint". Jennifer Garner is the movie's lone saving grace.

Jennifer is heartbreaking horror as she witnesses the murder of her daughter Carly, played by innocent cute Cailey Flemming, and husband Chris, played by troubled Jeff Hephner. Drug dealer Diego Garcia orders the hit on Chris in retribution for his plotted conspiracy.

Also injured in this gang style hit, Riley is hospitalized. Detectives Carmichael and Beltran, played by John Gallagher Jr. and John Ortiz, are assigned to her case. Riley soon realizes that the judge, prosecutors, and some of the police are beholding to Diego. She chooses to flee, in hopes of bringing those responsible to justice.

"Peppermint" open 5 years later after Riley's return to Los Angeles. She kills one her family's murderers with effective skills. In Chad's narrative, Riley mastered muay thai kickboxing and other martial arts over the last 5 years. She's also the expert in automatic weaponry. She's back to make those responsible pay with their lives.

Jennifer's Riley is tragically strong and broken. She lives out of a van in LA's Skid row while she wages her war of vengeance. Riley is so very sad, having nothing to live for. She's consumed with rage, no love within. At the narrative arc, Riley tells Diego, "I want justice." She demands her revenge. Even if she has her revenge, then what? There is no peace in her chosen path.

In Riley's suffering, Jennifer salvages "Peppermint". We get that Riley never healed herself. Near the end she says, "I want it all to end." That is so authentically sad. Riley would rather die; than live than live without those she loved. Jennifer humanizes Riley in spite of its predictable storyline. We know her pain. We pull for her to heal and find a new life.

The martial arts and automatic gunfire are orchestrated with style and visual effectiveness. We get some satisfaction in seeing Riley take out her evil adversaries. Yet, that won't bring her family back.

Pierre and Chad could have created a greater sense of redemption and forgiveness in the narrative resolution. What they resolve occurs as convenient throw away. I think Riley deserved better. In a sense so did we.
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Searching (III) (2018)
9/10
Human Loss on All Platforms
2 September 2018
Writer and Director Aneesh Chaganty's "Searching" poignantly tells the story of human loss through the eyes of all media platforms. It's striking, distinctly disorienting in its imagery. Yet, "Searching" possesses undeniable power. In "Searching" the unthinkable occurs: Widower David Kim, played by John Cho, discovers that his 16 year-old daughter Margot, played by Michelle La, is missing. David along with assigned Detective Vick, played by Debra Messing, must discern what may have happened to Margot through her Social Media footprint and texts. Concerned David gets that he really doesn't know his daughter in the aftermath of his wife Pam's death.

"Searching" opens with the heartfelt eloquence of "Up" or "Arrival". Margot is born. FaceTime feeds, Tweet, Facebook posts, texts, and computer screen shots mesmerize telling the story of Margot growing up albeit in grainy resolution. Pam, played by beautiful kind Sara Sohn, loves her daughter and David so dearly.

Quietly, Pam loses her battle with lymphoma when Margot is 14 years-old. Although, "Searching" is entirely filmed through the sometime dizzying perspective of multi-media platforms either FaceTime or whatever, it's profoundly about the human loss; its impact on all of us. We're all human. We shall all experience loss.

David soon discovers through Margot's Social Media footprint, that she was this lonely girl, basically without any real friends. However, Margot was close to David's brother Peter, played by breezy cool Joseph Kim. David's online research fuels abhorrent suspicion in their confrontation in one of the movie's electrifying scenes.

In the aftermath, David confesses to Peter that he was waiting for the last couple of years for Margot to come to him and talk about her Mom's death. Peter with compassion in his eyes tells David, "She wanted you to come to her first..." David gets it. We get it. Our humanity reveals in our shared loss.

Debra Messing is strong conviction as the single Mom Detective Vick, who helps David determine what might have happened to Margot, including the unthinkable. David's immersion into Margot's Social Media presence reveals the young girl in desperate isolation, whose only friendships arise as virtual in the platform "Youcast". David's path derails in anger. Fortunately Vick is there to reel him in. However, all is not what it seems in "Searching".

Eloquently composed, Aneesh and Sev Ohamian's story of "Searching" is about the power of compassion. We can never truly know what goes on inside another. Yet, we can have compassion for them. Or at least recognize when we did not. In this narrative message John Cho is sublime, and fiercely vulnerable.

John authentically captures David as the man who gets that he never allowed himself to experience the loss of the love of his life, yet expected that both he and his daughter would maintain the stiff upper lip and prevail. This might also be the cultural dynamic as well.

Aneesh explicitly tells the story of the Korean American family experiencing tragedy. As Japanese American I get the inherent cultural mandates and constraints. In either Korean or Japanese culture the well of emotions lie just beneath the surface. Instead of suffering and done, suffering sustains in the affect of saving "face". John and Michelle are so authentic in their portrayal. That I believe gives "Searching" its distinct and unique power. The ending amazes. It shall move.

My friend Cheryl taught me, wabi sabi - Beauty lies in the imperfection. "Searching" isn't perfect, and that's its distinct beauty. There is the poignancy in loss that completes us; makes us whole. Wisdom allows that to occur. Wisdom is also having compassion for others, especially the ones we think we know too.
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