End of the Year Summary

It’s the end of the year and time to narcissistically look back on what my Movie Year entailed. After two years of Covid impact, things started to get back to normal, but the streaming monster that was awakened may very well be set to stomp all over the Cinema World.

Data Dump

I saw fiftythree new features in theaters this year but I actually went to a lot more film screenings than that number would indicate. Fully forty percent of all Theatrical experiences I had this year would be called “Classic Film Releases” 

There were an additional thirty one films that I saw in theaters, these ranged from 1940s War pictures to three of the Harry Potter films. This will also include our annual theatrical screenings of Lawrence of Arabia and Jaws (Including a 3D screening of the shark film)

It is the practice of this site to focus on films seen in a theater, so the seventeen new films that I saw which went straight to streaming are excluded from this inventory. I will say however, that “Prey” the Predator sequel, would have made my top ten list for the year if it had a theatrical release. “The Banshees of Inisherin”, “Glass Onion” and “Tar” all disappeared from theaters so quickly that they never had a chance to make it on this site. “The Fabelmans” might have suffered the same fate if I had not diligently sought a venue where I could see it before it vanished into our televisions. 

The Lambcast

On the Podcast Front, I personally hosted 48 of the 52 Lambcasts this year. I’d like to thank MovieRob, Todd Liebenow and Howard Casner for volunteering to cover for me when I was traveling in the past 12 months. It always lets my head rest easier when I know I have competent, responsible LAMBs who can back me up. In addition to the Movie of the Month, Decade Lookback Shows, Compilation shows, we covered 24 new theatrical releases. That averages out to two new films a month, most of which were crowded into the Summer film season. 

Here are links to three of my favorite Lambcasts from 2022:


Almost a dozen of the classics I took in were at the TCM Film Festival in April. We stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel for the first time in the eight festivals we have attended. Of course that is because I am no longer commuting from home everyday for the festival, having moved to Texas in 2020. The most amazing thing about the trip was that my friend Michael, who I met for the first time at the TCMFF in 2014, picked us up at LAX and drove us to Hollywood for the first night we were there. Michael is a

longtime friend from the blogging community, and you can read his work at “It Rains…You Get Wet“.

Listening to Steven Spielberg at the opening night screening of “E.T.”, was also pretty good.

Strother Martin

Over the Summer, I did a weekly dive into the Strother Martin Film Project. I tried to cover films that had not been on the project before, and the weekly post I put up became “Strother Martin Wednesdays”. 

You can visit the site by clicking on the link to “Pocket Money”

I still hope to put together a scrapbook/journal of my 007 thoughts and experiences. If I ever get it done I will self publish, and put a link here, but I doubt it will be ready this next year

Biggest Disappointments of the Year

Don’t Worry Darling” may have been the film I hated the most this year. It was pointless and the premise, a take on “The Stepford Wives” was less clever than that 50 year old film.

Coming in a close second on my list of shame, Alex Garland’s Men

This is a pseudo intellectual proto feminist, revisionist horror film that wastes the great Jessie Buckley and has poor Rory Kinnear as the face of every man in the story. Up until Babylon, it had the most visually disgusting sequence of the year. Gross but not frightening. 

Racing past “Men” for the most vile imagery on the screen this year, just under the wire, is Damien Chazelle’s look at Hollywood history in the tears the film industry was transitioning from silent to sound films. “Babylon” does have some things to recommend it, including a great performance by Margo Robbie. Unfortunately, the style that makes some scenes so appealing, also renders many sequences revolting. If you are willing to be defecated on, vomited on and peed on, there may be something here for you. For me it only held disappointment.

How you take five great actresses, but guns in their hands, and make the most boring action movie of the year is beyond me. Simon Kinberg manages to do it with “The 355“and test my patience, even though I am wired for this kind of film . 

One other Thing

I did this to my bedroom. I am not a big DiCaprio fan but I am a big fan of Rick Dalton.

The Whale

Let’s get the Elephant in the room out of the way immediately, yes, it is extremely likely that Brendan Fraser will follow Will Smith as the winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor. I don’t want to take anything away from his performance, but there is a sociological reason for this to happen in addition to the artistic achievement. Fraser has been largely absent from the film world since his heyday twenty years ago. A story about his physical decline and about abuse by Hollywood entitled power players suggested a career that was largely in the review mirror. This is a comeback story, and the guy making a comeback is one of the most likable fellows you are going to encounter. This is perhaps the perfect counter-programming to last year’s disastrous ceremony, where the eventual winner of the Acting prize, assaulted the host and was not removed from the venue but actually got up a few minutes later to receive an award that was overdue but was now clouded by controversy. Two years after presuming a win by the late Chadwick Boseman, only to be shown as craven exploiters of the emotional turmoil, the Academy needs a clear win for a popular player that will generate little controversy and much needed good will.

Now as to the performance itself, it is truly memorable. Fraser has to restrain his emotions in some segments and let them spill out in others. His voice is heard early on when talking to his on-line class, and the deep tenor of that voice feels completely appropriate for the English professor he is. When we see him, it is at first difficult to reconcile the voice with the body because of our natural reflex to classify things together. “Tall, dark and ugly” is not the phrase that comes to mind. We expect handsome. Now take the voice. “Rich, assured and disgusting”, no that does not work either, but in the long run, that is what we are going to be faced with. “Charlie”, is not disgusting simply because of his morbid obesity, but rather the sloth that has lead to it. His self concept reflects self loathing and he recognizes the destructive path he is on, but is unwilling to change it. Fraser plays Charlie as a sympathetic figure with deep flaws. He is a real human being with emotions and conflicts that all of us share. His uplifting attitude in talking about his daughter and the essay about Moby Dick that he continues to focus on, are inspiring and frustrating at the same time. He has taken the words of  Samuel Hunter the playwright and screenplay author, and made them sing at the right moments.

Director Darren Aronofsky has made one film I love (“The Wrestler”) and one that I find maddeningly irritating (“Black Swan”) and two films I have stayed away from because the word of mouth on them simply told me I should avoid them (“The Fountain”/”Mother!”). This story adapted from a play, probably tightens the direction of the film a bit because the locations are very limited, and the biggest visual element is the physical presence of the main character. I did very much like the way the characters coming into the scene were sometimes glimpsed in shadow, passing by a window before entering the apartment. On the other hand, the number of times the angry daughter storms out and pauses in the doorway in silhouette, seemed excessive. In spite of the limited cast, the camera does not overuse close up to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. The real dilemmas of a morbidly obese man are painfully demonstrated without being used to manipulate our emotions.

There are only six characters on screen in the film, and the two youngest other than Fraser himself, have to carry a lot of the story burden. Ty Simpkins is a young actor with a pleasant face who coneys an innocence that may not be real. The character of Thomas, an evangelical missionary, presents discordant behaviors, sometimes offering us a sympathetic person who can be admired for his faith, but also someone leads us to a point of anger with the blind judgmental way his faith may influence his perception. Sadie Sink, from “Stranger Things”, is the other jewel in this film. She perfectly embodies an entitled Gen Z teen with resentful Daddy issues. Her casual cruelty may or may not be in the best interest of the other characters, but we can see how it can go either way. It is Charlie’s insistence on his perspective that ends up making this an emotionally engaging story. 

In a way, this film is about selfishness. Charlie’s selfish decision in regard to romance had a devastating effect on others. Alan, his dead partner committed one of the most selfish acts known to man and it had consequences to others that were as substantial as Ahab’s metaphorical whale. Charlie is repeating the process by committing the slowest, most indulgent form of suicide you can imagine. This film reminds me of “Leaving Las Vegas”, where our protagonist has elected to deal with his grief in the most destructive manner they can choose. We need to understand Charlie’s grief a little bit more so that we can sympathize in spite of his self destructive behavior. We never quite get there, but it is close. In the end it is the love he has for his estranged daughter, in the face of all her animus and anger, that allows us to forgive the character. He does not fling invective at Thomas for his conclusions about Charlie, and that is another plus. The two other women who appear in the story deserve better than what Charlie is giving them, but they too have made their peace with it and so we can as well. The essay that he obsesses over, is itself a commentary on his life, and it is a theatrical device that works well for the story.

Be warned that there are moments in the film where you will feel revulsion at Fraser’s character. Gluttony is not, as once observed by Orson Welles, a secret vice. Seeing it frantically displayed however can be a bigger challenge than observing the results. Aronofsky’s film “Requiem for a Dream” may be one of the best anti drug messages ever made, “The Whale” could do the same thing for our dietary habits, except that some idiot out there will probably argue that it is fat shaming.  

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Well I saw this on Christmas Day and I wish it had been the second film of the day rather than the first. We finished the evening with the bad taste of “Babylon” in our mouths, but the memory of earlier in the day helped because this movie is simply delightful. Sure it’s a kids animated feature, but the lead is Antonio Banderas doing the Puss in Boots character and he is exactly what a movie like this needs. Sly charm, cocky confidence and a little bit of befuddlement in his voice and you have a character that everyone will recognize immediately. 

Two plot lines make up the story and they converge about halfway through in a couple of unexpected ways. Puss in Boots has used up most of his nine lives and has to retire to a secret identity as a housecat to a crazy cat lady. He is being pursued by a bounty hunter who is actually a more sinister figure as we find out down the road. He is also being pursued by others who want his assistance in tracking down a map to a fallen star that will grant one last wish. So there are a few fairy tale characters who get in on the pursuit and fit this movie into the Shrek Fairy Tale Universe. 

When I saw the first trailer for this movie, I was not very interested. Something in the animation looked cheap and not up to the levels that we have come to expect from theatrical animated films. The word of mouth however was pretty positive and the grim “Babylon” looked like it was going to be our main option on the holiday, so I decided to take the chance. There is something different about the animation, but it was not necessarily bad. Most of the film looks like it is pretty standard Dreamworks quality, but the action sequences are stylized very differently. They are not bad but they seem deliberately distinctive which gives the movie a little unevenness. 

There are plenty of slapstick moments for the kids to enjoy but there is also a quip, look or character to give the adults something different to laugh at. That is exactly the secret to having an animated film break out of the kiddie ghetto, Mom and Dad need to get something out of the movie as well. Of course my kid is now thirty four, so maybe I need to just accept that the film wants to entertain all of us. It’s been eleven years since the last “Puss in Boots” movie, and I don’t think the character or Banderas have suffered at all by the decade layoff. 

If like me, you want the theatrical experience to survive, you need to support movies that are aimed at a general audience and legitimately try to entertain you. Antonio Banderas’ self parody is worth the price of admission, but there is more to enjoy as well. This may not have anything to teach our kids, but it won’t hurt them and it can bring you together and that is a pretty good goal in itself.  So put away your catnip mouse and laser pointer and go out to see a movie. It may not be purrfection, buy it will provide a Meowy Christmas memory for you. 


Director Damien Chazelle is a talented visualist with a love of style. His movies “La La Land” and “Whiplash” are two of my favorite films since I started blogging. So it is with regret that I must say “Babylon” is a misfire of gigantic proportions. This movie is visually audacious and simultaneously repugnant.  There are moments of great beauty, juxtaposed with some of the vilest imagery you can imagine. Chazelle may have wanted to comment on the the ugliness hiding under the veneer of movie fantasy, but instead, he has made a movie that proves that sometimes the path of success leads to excess. Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and recently Sam Mendes have learned that the the power of success gives license to shoot yourself in the foot. Whether Chazelle can recover from this self inflicted wound will take time to discover.

“Babylon” is the dark side of early Hollywood, as seen by a lover of movies but a hater of the system that produces them. Taking urban legends and real historical characters for inspiration, Chazelle has created the anti-“Singin’ in the Rain”.  The Gene Kelly classic is the polar opposite of this movie. When Debbie Reynolds cute wannabe drops into the movie business, she is charming, full of energy and sweetness galore. Margo Robbie as Nellie LaRoy is a  conniving, entitled climber, with a little talent but a big appetite for stardom.   Brad Pitt is a John Gilbert stand in. Replicating his success in silent pictures, frequent marriages and loss of popularity with the coming of sound. So no Gene Kelly happy reclamation by trying his star to Kathy Selden, Pitt’s Jack Conrad is a closer approximation to Gilbert than we may have seen before. 

The underbelly of Hollywood is shown in it’s most grotesque forms, including a scene with a Fattie Arbuckle style character, enjoying a golden shower and accidentally crushing a woman’s chest cavity. Meanwhile an orgy is being entertained in the rest of the house with a lesbian chanteuse, a diarrhetic elephant, and Nellie, fearlessly dancing in an orgiastic manner with the crowd. People engage in sex amid the throngs of people at the party, and drug use is rampant. The whole purpose of the title of the film is contained in the long opening sequence. Of course there are moments of beauty as well. The jazz inflected party is pumped up by a band of black musicians who know their stuff and deliver it with verve. The double edged sword of creativity and debauchery is being wielded with a heavy hand from the very start of the movie.

Jack makes an impassioned speech to one of his wives about the art of cinema. The passion for film as art is shown when Robbie’s character gets on a set and emotes more effectively for the silent screen than had been seen before, and her erotically charged dancing brings a spark to a melodrama that would certainly be forgettable without her. The casual friendship she struck up with Mexican immigrant and also Hollywood wannabe Manny Torres, played by Diego Calva, will become the spine for a story that brings the three leads, Calva, Robbie and Pitt, into one another’s orbit on regular occasions as the movie business is transitioning to sound. Manny is no Donald O’Conner, he really wants to make movies and be a player at the executive level, his Spanish Language skills and ethnicity seem to banish him to doing the Spanish version of bigger English language films. His infatuation with Nellie, his contacts with Jack and the random insertion of a story about how blacks were treated in the era, make for a rough plot to follow. 

As the story grows darker, the scenarios become more off putting. Nellie is a degenerate gambler and coke fiend who has gotten deeply in debt to a shady mobster with slight connections to the Hollywood scene. Manny’s mission to help her out when she is desperate, is a trip down a rabbit hole that can literally be labeled a descent into hell. Toby Maguire, a producer on this film, plays the gangster, and he shows us a walking nightmare world that is hypnotically repugnant.  This is another path that Chazelle has decided should push the boundaries of what is acceptable to portray in films. The goal may be to demonstrate the lack of humanity in Hollywood, but it really just feels like a freak show that is designed to make the audience nauseous.   

There is a coda segment that may be trying to explain and justify what happened in the first two hours and fifty minutes of the movie. Foolishly, Chazelle references the film that this movie is at the polar opposite of, and instead of redeeming the character of Manny, it feels like it is mocking him. A montage of other great film moments is dumped on us as a recompense for what we have endured, and I suppose the message is that it may be all worth it, except that’s not how it feels. After being shit on, vomited on, peed on and visually assaulted, it will be hard for anyone to appreciate the many dazzling moments in this movie. To get them, we have to keep stepping over piles of feces left for us by the writer-director. I’m sorry, but the fact that after to step in it, the smell follows you home, does not mean it was successful. 

It’s a Wonderful Life

This is the classic Christmas film that is widely regarded as one of the best emotional experiences in movies.  We covered it extensively as the Lambcast MOTM for December. 

We went to a new theater complex for us which is basically a bar and restaurant with movie screens.  FLIX Brewhouse is a well run place and the screening was a TCM Fathom format. 

It’s a Wonderful Life,  doesn’t need a lot of justifications.  It’s simply great.

Avatar: The Way of Water

You have probably already heard some of the comments, “Never doubt James Cameron”, ” Cameron delivered “, and  “the most amazing cinematic journey” by James Cameron to date. When it comes to visual splendor and technical excellence, Cameron is “The King of the World”.  Now when it comes to the narrative, that may be another thing entirely. The director is sometimes criticized for simplistic story telling and cringe worthy dialogue.   I don’t think those are always true faults but they will certainly not be swept away by this film, which continues to wear it’s heart on it’s sleeve, and go for the most direct approach to your emotions possible. 

“The Way of Water” is set a decade after the events of the first film, still on Pandora, so maybe the delay in arriving is appropriate. The lead characters played by Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana are in the story, but the main protagonists, especially in the second act of the film, are their children,  Neteyam and Lo’ak; their biological daughter, Tuk; and adopted daughter; Kiri. They are forced to flee into hiding in a new environment with the distant tribe of  Metkayina reef people. This creates a new cross cultural story, with adolescents acting more human than you might expect from the Na’vi. This is the section that will probably give critics of Cameron’s storytelling, the ammunition they need to launch their attacks. Teens get jealous and act capriciously to prove themselves. Kids get alienated from peers that they don’t see as like themselves, I guess growing up is the same all over.

Relocating from the forest to a seaside location gives Cameron the chance to invent more creatures and environmental twists and he runs with that opportunity. Tulkun, an intelligent and pacifistic cetacean species, is the most interesting of the new inventions. I do think this is a place where Cameron can use alien species in a non-human form, to make the future stories more creative. Like the connection with the planet itself in both films, the relationship between the tulkun and the Na’vi gives a moral center to the actions of our heroes. The “skypeople” are the hunters, the tulkun are the buffalo, being hunted only for one thing, and physically cast away once that has been acquired and the Metkayina are the Indians, shaking their heads at the horrible waste. Unlike the buffalo however, our game here is sentient and understands the threat and conveys the fears that go along with it. Cameron’s allegory is not very subtle. 

Once again, the visuals are the thing that can most sell a James Cameron story. The tech weapons used by the invaders are inventive upgrades from the earlier film. The adaption of the mech suits to a water environment is clever and you will see the creatures it is based on immediately. The characters move in an underwater environment because the motion capture was done underwater. The actors and director should get all the praise they deserve for the innovation and hard work that this took. I saw the movie in 3-D and I think it was screened at the 48 fps for some sequences. I did not have any of the reservations that I experienced when looking at the Hobbit movies of a decade ago, but this is a hyper-stylized world with very few human characters, so the images my slip by a bit more easily. The 3-D effect is well worth the effort, and I don’t always think that is true. 

This movie looks amazing and you should see it on the biggest screen you can find, in 3-D. In the long run, this is the kind of film that may save cinemas, but only for the epic quality of their visuals. Traditional dramas may get relegated to streaming if these are the only kinds of movies that people will go out to see in a theater. The basic war adventure parts of the movie create some terrific action beats, and Cameron tops himself as well as cribbing from himself in a couple of spots. James Cameron should always be respected when it comes to the visualization of his stories, but the stories 
continue to be the least innovative part of his film-making.

Conan the Barbarian 40th Anniversary Fathom Event

I remember the first time I saw “Conan the Barbarian” in a theater. It was opening weekend in May, 1982, and it was at the Edwards tri-plex in Monterey Park. While we were there to see “Conan”, one of the reasons I remember the event so well is that there were promotion postcard posters for “Star Trek II the Wrath of Khan” available at the theater, and I was quite excited about that movie. 40 years later, I can say I went to anniversary screenings of both films at a real theater.

We can start with the obvious, Arnold Schwarzenegger is perfectly cast in the film. I read a story many years ago about Arnold meeting with Dino DeLaurentis, the film’s producer, as he was being considered for the part. According to what I read, Arnold was his usual arrogant and playful self, and inulted Dino in his office by asking him “Why does such a little man ( De Laurentiis was 5’4”) need such a big desk?’ In spite of that awkward opening, Arnold got the part, because who else were you going to cast? It was his big break into action films and as a lead performer. His Austrian accent might have worked for him a bit as a character, and he trained like the dickens to get the swordplay, stunts and action just right. It also helps that in a two hour or so movie, his character does not speak for the opening twenty five minutes, or in the last twenty five minutes. 

Director John Milius is a favorite of mine, I am a big fan of his “Dillinger” and a huge fan of “The Wind and the Lion”. This film seems to fit his sensibilities immediately. The Nietzschean attitude and the strong sense of masculinity, are very much part of his wheelhouse. When I posted that I was at a screening, the first response I got was a prompt for the famous line about what is best in life. Although Oliver Stone originated the script, Milius transformed it with several important changes and when he directed it, those changes become obvious. The opening credit sequence features the powerful Basil Poledouris theme playing over a sequence of the forging of a sword. You can see only brief ghost images of the characters in this sequence, everything is focused on the “steel” and fire of the moment. 

Anyone expecting this to be a cartoonish kids adventure will be soon disillusioned. Young Conan’s village is burned to the ground, his father is slain in valiant battle, and his mother is unceremoniously decapitated while she is holding his hand. This is going to be a brutal, violent story with grim surroundings and an air of doom hovering over our lead character.  William Smith, who was so often the bad guy in seventies and eighties films, got a nice brief turn here as Conan’s father. Smith, who passed away just a year ago, was always a favorite of mine to spot in a movie or television show. 

There is a clever montage sequence where young Conan transforms into the Arnold visage, as he build his muscles and endurance as a slave at a mill site. Slowly he becomes the only surviving slave pushing the wheel, and we see shots of the child  shifting to shots of the adult and finally he lifts his head and reveals the face that we all know today. A similar montage shows him developing fighting skills as a pit gladiator and training with a sword master. The muscles that Schwarzenegger is famous for come into full play as the camera captures them in sweaty, bloody combat and sleek sword play sequences in the sun.  

Once Conan is freed from his captivity, he acquires companions and they embark on a series of action scenes that tell us more about the character. They are bold thieves with little regard for their own lives, much less the lives of others. Subotai, the thief he rescues from the captivity of a witch, is played by surfing champion Gerry Lopez. Lopez is fine, although his voice ends up being dubbed. Sandahl Bergman on the other hand is excellent. A professional dancer with a few acting credits prior to this film, she puts on a very good performance as Conan’s love interest and thieving companion. She looks great in the action sequences and she did her prep to get the combat moments right, but her dramatic chops were solid in a couple of important moments. As she embraces Conan at one point, she talks about the loneliness of the life she has lead. 

      “I would look into the huts and the tents of others in the coldest dark and I would see figures holding         each other in the night. And I always passed by. You and I, we have warmth. That’s so hard to find         in this world. Please. Let someone else pass by in the night. “

This was a terrific character moment. She gets another great scene later when she and Subotai are protecting Conan’s wounded body from the spirits that are trying to take him to the next world. She is more defiant there and this is another great character piece. 

The second lead of the film is the villain Thulsa Doom, He murdered Conan’s parents, and heads the snake cult that is engulfing the surrounding kingdoms. James Earl Jones has that magnificent voice to convey ominous power, but his face is also very animated. He has a couple of moments where he uses his eyes to control the women he is adding to his cult. We see that first when he freezes Conan’s mother at the beginning of the film. He attempts to do the same with Conan at the end, as he twists the story of his relationship to the Barbarian, in a manner that will benefit him. With the hair extensions and contact lenses, it might seem like a comic book performance, but it is really a skillful use of expression and voice that makes Thulsa Doom a character that is memorable. 

King Osric, the man who sends the thieves after Thulsa Doom to return his daughter to him, is played by the late Max Von Sydow. This is an actor who had a career that spanned from the late forties to just a couple of years ago before his passing. He has been in a dozen of my favorite films over the years and I can’t think of a role where he disappoints. He has only one scene in this film and he practically steals the movie. In the brief trailer above, you will get the immediate sense of fun he seemed to be having as part of this cast. 

Although I have seen this movie a dozen time, I was foggy on one moment in particular. I had not remembered the animated effects in the scene on the beach when the spirits are coming for Conan. The subtle images that never look like cartoons but are clearly animated creatures, were very satisfying. I thought it worked much better on the big screen than I remembered from home viewings. Just another example of why seeing a movie in a theater is so much better. This was the thirty third film I saw this year that was a screening of an older film(Five of those films were from 1982). More than a dozen of those have been Fathom Events. Let me offer my heartfelt thanks for Fathom and the studios they work with. I know that sometimes the showings are not much more than commercials for upgraded video releases, but that’s OK with me. I’ll buy the 4K or Blu-Ray, but first let me re-experience it where it belongs. 

Empire of Light

I have to say that I was disappointed in this film, but not nearly as let down as I thought I might have been. I try to avoid looking at other reviews before I see a film for myself, but the Rotten Tomato scores popped  up somewhere and when I was looking for guests for the podcast, a couple of preview statements on Lamb pages seemed to be discouraging. While they are mostly right, there are a few things to recommend the film, and I want to start with those.

Regular readers are aware that this site is sometimes driven by nostalgia, heck, that was most of the original purpose of the initial project, and I have continued that with a couple of other projects that you can find here. “Empire of Light” is set in 1980/81. Some of the films that get referenced are treasured favorites, from “All That Jazz” to “Being There”. Sadly, the movies mentioned get short shrift from the script and the promise held out by the marketing team is broken. The power of movies to transform lives is not really the focus of the story, no matter how luminous Olivia Colman looks while watching a film in a dark auditorium. The setting on the other hand does much to make up for these oversights. The “Empire” Theater is a glorious old movie palace, in spite of half the screens and a restaurant gone to seed. The glowing lobby, the red velvet curtains and the traditional auditorium seats, made me wish I was watching this movie in that theater.

Lighting Magician Roger Deakins does his usual fine work in making the images on screen look spectacular. From the Lobby of the theater, to the beach-side dunes, to the main character’s drab apartment, we get a feeling about how to feel because of how things look.   He also lights Coleman as the zoftig love interest in a way that highlights her mood swings very accurately. One moment she is sweet and longing, the next she is threatening and harsh. Colman of course does most of the heavy lifting for these moments, but the lighting and composition make it work really well as she descends into her pit. A sex scene that is meant to be off putting is exactly that, in large part due to the unflattering lighting of a dingy office with the scent of shame washing over us in waves of shadow.

Michael Ward, who is the second lead and who the story should really be about, also looks great on screen. He has a natural charisma and he plays his character of Stephen as a real person, surprised to find himself struggling with his life but drawn to the much older Hilary.  The problem is that screenwriter Sam Mendes, has given himself a schizophrenic story to direct. There are at least four plot lines that could be the spine of the story; the romance, the racial unrest, the me-too relationship and the miracle of movies thread. Unfortunately, they don’t all gel together, and some are so underdeveloped that they feel like plot contrivances rather than real moments in the character’s lives. 

See this movie for Coleman’s performance, Deakin’s paintbox, and Ward’s star suggesting turn. Just don’t get your hopes up too much. We aren’t going to finish watching this film and see a beautiful curtain close behind an ornate proscenium. Your multiplex may be nice, but it won’t create the warm feeling that going to the movies used to produce. Unfortunately, neither will this film. 

link to podcast:

Violent Night

This was so up my alley that I am not even sure a review is necessary. The trailer above is filled with spoilers of some of the best moments in the film, and I still managed to enjoy, laugh and groan at the things that I’d already been tipped off to. This is the kind of counter programming movie at the holiday season that I thrive on. Like “Krampus” and “Anna and the Apocalypse“, “Violent Night” goes to some dark places at the most joyous time of the year. Don’t get me wrong, I still love a sentimental Christmas movie, in fact I’m  in the middle of a Movie A Day Christmas watch that is filled with Netflix fodder as well as classics, but you have to take a break every now and then. 

The set up of this movie is easy. This is “Die Hard” crossed with “Home Alone” and Santa is John McClane. David Harbour has just the right feel as a sadly dissatisfied Santa, weary of the instant gratification culture that modern Christmases present. He has not gone completely to seed, but he has been tippling a bit on Christmas Eve and his fuse is getting shorter with every stop he makes. Maybe the one weakness of the film is that Santa has magical powers, but they don’t protect him from physical harm, and he can be hurt. The problem is that those powers are inconsistent, and sometimes he can use a magic trick and sometimes he can’t. The only explanation we get is that Santa doesn’t understand how it works either.  

Santa is also given a slightly different backstory here than you will find in most traditional origin tales. His history as a Viking Berserker, being redeemed by love and the opportunity to be kind to the world, means that when he has to get down and dirty in this story, we can believe he has the skills to do so, and boy does he let loose with those skills. As John Wick is to a Gun, Santa is with a Hammer. Yeah! His reluctance to engage at first is understandable, but when his conscience gives him permission, he takes off and it is a lot of bloody, violent fun. 

John Leguizamo plays a part that feels like it could have been done by his character in “The Menu“. He is all scenery chewing badguy, and his unfettered resentment at Christmas reflects his narcissism. Beverly D’Angelo gets to play the matron of a family at Christmas time again, but this time she is hard-bitten and bitter rather than Griswold sweet and patient. Alexis Louder was my favorite thing about “Copshop” but it is not until the end of the film that she gets to shine a little. There are several other supporting players who also work primarily because they are well cast and the caricatures that they play are so easy to pick up on. 

If you are not the kind of person who thinks violence can be played for laughs, you may want to skip this one. If however, you wanted to see what would really happen to Marv and Harry if Kevin’s traps were real, this is a film you should embrace. The nail on the ladder scene will be enough to justify your ticket price, but there is so much more. Dash away, dash away, dash away now, to your nearest multiplex, before the woke sugar plum fairies realize what a demented bunch of fun this is. 

The Fabelmans

Arguably, the most important film director of the last fifty years, Steven Spielberg has created on origin story for himself. This autobiographical, but supposedly fictional story, shows us the inspirations and the learning curve that Spielberg encountered on his journey to fame and cinema excellence. The frequent theme in his movies of an absent father or parents divided, shows up in his own narrative, and at times it is inspiring while being simultaneously frustrating. Oh yeah, you get to enjoy the hypnotic effect that movies can have on you both by watching the Spielberg stand in, but also by simply being in a theater to experience this. 

Let’s begin by complimenting the performers in this film. The main young actor playing the Spielberg based Sam Fabelman, is Gabriel LaBelle, and he sure looks like a doppelganger for a young Steven. Every time he has the camera in front of his face, making one of those childhood created movies, you can see the future creator of “Jaws”, “Saving Private Ryan” and Jurassic Park” at work. Casting is everything for a part like this and whoever found this young man deserves a bonus. We may not have the same secure visual references for his parents, but Paul Dano as the father and Michelle Williams as the mother, are completely believable. Williams has the meatier role and she runs with it. There has been talk that she would walk away with the Academy Award if she was being promoted as a supporting actress, but that would be such a misclassification of her contribution to the film, that it would be the equivalent of saying Brando was a supporting actor in “The Godfather”. Regardless of screen time, this is the central character in the film. Even the Spielberg character plays second fiddle to the mother in most of the story. Judd Hirsh arrives for one extended sequence and walks off with the picture in five minutes of screen time. Seth Rogan plays it straight as a dramatic actor, although the character has light moments, and he also is quite good. In the final moments of the film, we get one more great performance from an actor in a single scene, but I won’t spoil it for you. When the identity of the actor dawns on you, you will laugh and be amazed.

For most film buffs, the key parts of the story will center around young Sammy’s movies. The montage of his sisters and friend, role playing in his pre-teen and teen productions is almost enough to satisfy, but then we get extended moments in the making of his war epic, the filming of a family picnic and his film project presented at the prom, that also add to the juice that we movie fans crave. The editing, special effects and camera tricks show us that he is a great story teller, but as we see him making his film about his Mom, we get to see how he learns to put heart into his stories. Sammy (Spielberg) learns that it is not just technique that makes a movie work. The audience needs an emotional investment, and we actually see him learning that as the movie unwinds.

Things in the film get a little tricky when confronting the Jewish heritage of our hero. No doubt there were times in his life when bigots swarmed but given the experiences of his earlier schools, boy scouts and neighbors, these Aryan idiots in Northern California seem like bad guys issued by Central Casting. The fact that a cute Christian girl takes a distinct interest in him also belies the notion that anti-Semitism ruled the school.  That one of his antagonists has a moment of moral crisis after being presented as the equivalent of a Greek God at their High School in Sammy’s film, is confusing. The closest explanation I could come up with in my own head was that this High School Star is being confronted by his apex moment, and it simply underlines that it is all downhill from here on. I sort of like the idea that the film of student activities will alter people’s perspectives, but it was a little fuzzy how this ended up benefitting Sammy. It does end up with a pretty funny punchline however, which works because we are watching this movie when it gets delivered.

Not to give anything away, but the film ends on a promising note and a terrific scene. The brusque advice Sammy gets from a legendary film director, is quickly applied in a manner that allows the audience to laugh and see a technique at work. Director Spielberg playfully lets us in on the fact that he is still influenced by the films he saw in his youth and the lessons he was taught as a teen. The last sequence is where we get that surprise I mentioned earlier and it is a great five minutes of film. Maybe this will not rank with his great adventure films, but when the list of dramas made by Spielberg is presented, “The Fabelmans” will probably be somewhere near the top.