Top Ten List for My Birthday # 9

 I have been writing this blog for over ten years now, and I have resisted putting up a list of my favorite films for that whole time. As the Borg say “Resistance is Futile!” 

This year I am marking another year in my sixth decade of life. I did several birthday posts in the past and enjoyed them immensely. The last two years my heart has just not been into it. This year however, I am trying to push my way back into normalcy, but I don’t have the energy to generate 63 things for a list. So what I am going to do is a ten day countdown of my favorite films.

Every year when I have posted a top ten list, I always point out that it is a combination of quality and subjective enjoyment that creates that list. Those are the guiding principles here as well. I will not claim that these are the ten greatest movies ever made, although I know several of them would be deserving of a spot on such a list. Instead, these are my ten favorite films as it stands at the moment. In a month, I could reconsider or remember something that I have tragically left off the list, but for this moment here is how they rank.

#9  Once Upon a Time in the West

I love John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper and a dozen other stars of the Western Genre. It just so happens however that my favorite western isn’t directed by John Ford, Don Siegal or even the accomplished western director Eastwood . It comes from Clint’s collaborator and directing mentor Sergio Leone, but it does not star Eastwood. Instead, it features another tough guy actor who has a face as iconic as Wayne’s voice or Clint’s stare, Charles Bronson. It is also a western of the Italian variety, though populated with American actors, and it is directed by Leone himself. 

To some degree Leone follows the template he set up in “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”. We have three primary characters that we are following. Two anti-heroes and one very bad man. The most unique thing about the film cast is that this bad man is played by an actor who is famous for portraying decent men on screen, Hollywood Legend Henry Fonda. The character of Frank is an irredeemable murderer who shows a sadistic side as he kills most of his victims in this story. Jason Robards is Cheyenne, a desperado, known to lead a gang of robbers, who turns out to have some interesting and maybe noble characteristics. Bronson is the mysterious stranger known only as “Harmonica”, who is set on a path of vengeance that crosses with the other two. 

With a music score by maestro Morricone, it is amazing that the most impressive scene in the film is the opening lead up to a shootout, that features no music but rather just ambient noise to build the tension. In this ten to fifteen minute segment, film students will learn all of Leone’s tricks of the trade. There are sweaty close ups, silent stares, long pauses and lighting that makes the environment in which the scene takes place, into another character. 

Leone is widely loved for the “man with No Name” trilogy, but this is a movie that is art. It is richer in character and setting than Good,Bad,Ugly , and it is more morally ambiguous and splendidly detailed than any other film he made. 

Previous Posts on Once Upon A Time in the West
Once Upon A Time in the West

Top Ten List for My Birthday #10

 I have been writing this blog for over ten years now, and I have resisted putting up a list of my favorite films for that whole time. As the Borg say “Resistance is Futile!” 

This year I am marking another year in my sixth decade of life. I did several birthday posts in the past and enjoyed them immensely. The last two years my heart has just not been into it. This year however, I am trying to push my way back into normalcy, but I don’t have the energy to generate 63 things for a list. So what I am going to do is a ten day countdown of my favorite films.

Every year when I have posted a top ten list, I always point out that it is a combination of quality and subjective enjoyment that creates that list. Those are the guiding principles here as well. I will not claim that these are the ten greatest movies ever made, although I know several of them would be deserving of a spot on such a list. Instead, these are my ten favorite films as it stands at the moment. In a month, I could reconsider or remember something that I have tragically left off the list, but for this moment here is how they rank.

#10  Goldfinger (1964)

There may be bigger James Bond Fans out there than me, but I have yet to meet one in the flesh. Since I was six years old, the idea of 007 has been in my head. The first Bond films I saw were the first four that were made, and that was enough to imprint on me for a lifetime. 

Other Bond films may have more spectacular stunts, or complex plots, or may be speaking to our times in some way that is important, but no 007 film has had the power that Goldfinger has had, both on me and the world we live in. 

The plot of the movie is pretty simple, James Bond must stop a raid on Fort Knox. The process of discovering the plot and meeting the antagonist tales up the first third of the movie, and it introduces us to some of the most iconic elements of all the James Bond Films. The AstonMartin DB 5 is introduced in this film. The dangerous henchman became a trope as a result of Odd Job as seen in this movie. After the famous line where Bond introduces himself, the one quote that most people can recall from a Bond film is Goldfinger’s retort to Bond when asked if he expected 007 to talk, “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”

Shirley Eaton sprawled on the bed in gold paint, Shirley Bassey belting out the theme song and Sean Connery at the apex of his time as 007, complete the significance of this film on my list. It is the Bond film I have seen the most, and I think you will discover that most 007 fans see it as the best of the franchise. Who am I to deny this type of acclaim? Why would I want to? Goldfinger is cinematic perfection. 

Previous Posts on Goldfinger

A Double O Blast from the Past  

007 Double Feature at the Egyptian Theater  

007 Countdown: Goldfinger  

Countdown to Skyfall Part Six  

the little things

Crime procedurals are a dime a dozen on television. In forty minutes we can get a set up, surprise reveals, a fake lead, a new piece of evidence and the case wrapped up with a soul searching song over the titles. So why do we need a movie like this? There are a couple of reasons and they start with the main leads. You have three good actors who can make the story work without feeling as if you are being rushed through things. These three men bring something to the table that you will not get in episodic television.


The main star is Denzel Washington, who adds gravitas just by showing up. Of course Denzel never just shows up, he invests himself in his roles. Here he is playing a pretty conventional character, the world weary detective who is burned out by the years of exposure to the horrors of the world. Writer/director John Lee Hancock adds an ambiguous backstory to layer the morality of Officer Joe Deacon’s mission. On the same track but many years behind, hotshot homicide detective Jimmy Baxter overlooks the warnings he gets from former colleagues of Deacon’s, in order to get a handle on a case that has him stymied.  Rami Malek is all wide-eyed intensity as he starts to see the case from the old timer’s perspective. The third side of the triangle is provided by a suspect, who screams his guilt without ever providing any evidence. The way Jared Leto smirks as Albert Sparma, the suspect who denies killing anyone but acts as if he knows everything about what is happening, make you want to punch the character yourself.


Our story opens with a crime being executed but blocked along the way. That sequence is suspenseful and pulls us in, but in the big picture it has little to do with the main process. It comes up at one point, mainly as another complication for the investigators rather than a piece of the puzzle that will answer their key questions. That sort of thing is the main thrust of the story. Lots of little things point to the involvement of the subject,  but all of them leave the case short of a definitive outcome. The leads are not false, they simply stop short and that is what is driving the two investigators to the edge.

There is a turn, with the last act, that requires a huge suspension of disbelief. Up to that point, there were plenty of standard moments to draw us in, point at guilt, and start to care about the characters and their past and future selves. However, when the plot device shows up, it smacks us in the face to remind us that this is a work of fiction. Characters can be made to do something that any rational person would know is not a good thing. The trap has been set but I did not think that the need of the target had been built up enough to go for the bait that was being offered. If we decide to go along with what occurs, the movie ultimately works at fleshing out the moral struggle of the police officers. If we keep thinking about what happened and we can’t accept it, the whole thing falls apart. I was willing to accept it but it did diminish the film in my eyes and I wish the resolution could have been arrived at without resorting to the theatrics of that last plot deviceAs in all films of this type, the “criminal” is smarter than he would ever be in real life. The politics of the police department are impenetrable. The main detectives are flawed in ways that undermine their position but also makes them good cops.  Once again, my hometown of Los Angeles, provides an atmospheric background for the story, with assists from Kern county, Ventura, and one wordless shot at an Alhambra restaurant, that fills a modern story (one set in 1990) with depression era noir tones.  In the process of baking this, the cake fell and it doesn’t come out as well as it should, it is however still tasty.

Run Hide Fight

I will let others get involved if they want with the genesis of this movie. I don’t care where it came from, I only know that it is a terrifically tense thriller that seems appropriate for the times. Inevitably it will be compared to “Die Hard”, but that’s OK because the hero in the movie is a lot like John McClane. She is reluctant but resolved. She pushes herself and does so while recognizing the punishment she has to go through. There is an emotional epiphany for her that is prompted by her circumstances but needed to be arrived at regardless of the trigger. Zoe Hull may not have the wise cracking persona of Lt. McClane, but she does have the spirit of defiance and the recognition that even though the people she is trying to protect are not all her favorites, they deserve to have someone on their side. 

The scenario is simple, which is one of the reasons the story works. A school shooting has started and depressed senior Zoe is caught in the middle of the events. Isabel May plays Zoe, a girl who is in denial of how much her grief at the loss of her mother to cancer recently, is poisoning. her life. The relationship she has with her father, a gruff but loving Thomas Jane, is being tested by her recalcitrance. He has tried to teach her basic skills, including hunting, which might be appropriate for a girl growing up in a farming community in Indiana. Her best friend Lewis, has deeper feelings toward her but she puts up a defensive wall that makes warmth difficult. There are teachers concerned enough to make an effort to reach out to her, but they too are rebuffed. It is the sudden striking act of violence that begins to awaken her to what she may be losing out on. 

The movie is not for the faint of heart. It opens with a scene that features hunting and the reality of that activity is not really minimized. Some might question it’s inclusion but it is needed to show Zoe is capable of taking a violent action herself, and it also sets up a payoff that we will see coming later on. The takeover of the school cafeteria and the ensuing execution of students is even more brutal. It is not glamorized or played just for gore. The four perpetrators are shown to be  merciless and indiscriminate in their dealing out instant death. In older style movies, some measure of hesitation might be shown by the gang of misanthropes, but here it is casual without consideration of consequences or emotions.  The lack of character background for the victims is mostly a function of story efficiency rather than weak writing. This is not a disaster film where we are hanging on the edge of our seats praying for characters we have come to love. Instead we are shown more about the culture than the individuals, because these school shooters are millennial bumps with social media as their primary teacher. 

The leader of this troop of monsters is Tristan Voy, a school misfit played by Eli Brown. He certainly does not have the charisma of Hans Gruber, but in these circumstances, he does stand out as a villain worth of our hate. Ultimately, the satisfaction we derive from having a revenge fueled action picture like this, is proportionate to the degree of loathing we have for the main antagonist.  Tristan’s casual indifference to the emotions of his classmates, along with the capricious decisions about when and who to kill are probably enough to justify our eventual reactions. He is however shown to be  a sociopath in a couple of other ways, including the humiliation of the principal, the Spanish teacher and the security guard. His manipulation of the other three attackers is also going to give us some reasons to loath him. Social media fame fuels his narcistic ego, but it also makes the community of viewers accomplices to the horror that we are witnessing. 

The title of the film actually comes from the simple training that students are given in real classrooms today. Because an active shooter incident is such a noticeable event, despite it’s remote possibility, schools now require student training. My last three years in the classroom required an annual lockdown exercise, that included the paraphrase of directions, first run if you can, second hide if needed, and finally fight if you must. It is the transition from running to fighting that forms the story arc for Zoe. She has an internal monologue with her Mother, and Mom gives her the advice and encouragement she already knows she needs to follow. Zoe’s acts of heroism and resistance, undermine Tristan’s goals, not just the plan. So while he and Zoe do not share the repartee that John McClane and Hans Gruber did, we can see why she would be such an annoyance to him. 

The nature of the training and the procedures become a tool for the shooters. School administrations are tied up in policies. Teachers are reluctant to change from the established procedure, even when an alternative is called for, and of course students are responding emotionally to what is happening to them. Lewis does not become a pivotal player because of his actions, but rather his social media. Zoe rediscovers her empathy and that helps her manage a problem and turn it into a tool to her benefit. The climax of the picture does involve some of the movie make believe that all such stories require. Dad’s reemergence into the story, and Zoe’s suddenly strong peripheral vision are shortcuts to the end, but the intervening tension has been more than sufficient to forgive some of that.  

The movie does have things to say about our culture and the schools. The police do not come in for the criticism they might deserve after the incident a couple of years ago in Florida. The police chief played by veteran actor Treat Williams, is a sympathetic character who hates being forced to operate in the conditions that are presented, but he does manage to find a way to adapt. The news media also gets a bit of a shellacking for the emphasis on the sensational that drives their coverage. So this is another beat lifted from “Die Hard” which is moderated a bit but still relevant. 

In summary, this is a violent action thriller that takes pride in the difference one person can make.  It understands the ambivalence many students have to their high school experience, but also how important some of those experiences can be in building us as people. Best of all, it provides the action and emotion beats that a thriller like this needs to keep an audience glued to the seat. I really liked it. 

2020 Wrap Up/ Best Of

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say the Movie Year of 2020 was insane and disappointing. As it became clear in early March, theaters were going to be closed. Overseas markets had been cut off, and a string of dominos fell, pushing back the most anticipated films that had been scheduled for the year. Some studios thought a few weeks or months would be enough, and then they discovered the pandemic was not abating. So they pushed back again, and the holiday season looked ripe to save studio box office from the worst case scenario, sorry again. 

Most of the big films rolled back to 2021, and we are still in a wait and see formation. Disney did get Mulan on to PPV and seems to have done alright. Warner Brothers decided to dip their toe in the water with a day and date release of Wonder Woman 1984 on their Streaming Service for no extra charge, and a theatrical release. Then, Warner’s jumped in head first by planning to do the same thing with their entire 2021 schedule. Disney followed by putting Soul on Disney Plus without any extra fee. 

Plenty of films skipped their planned release and went straight to  Netflix or Prime or other streamers, confusing theatrical with television and making the distinction meaningless for the Academy Awards. Oh yeah, the Awards season got extended and who knows what is going to happen with all the other film award shows. 

This site is primarily dedicated to theatrical releases, with an occasional exception. Usually that exception is a retrospective series or a unique film that is not widely available. I have been based in the Southern California area for most of this site’s history, and Theaters in Southern California have remained closed since March. I relocated to Texas in August and theaters here are open but the pickings have been slim. As a result, my traditional Top Ten is going to be contracted and modified to reflect the times. I have four top five lists for you, and they are based on a selection of films that is a quarter of my usual annual consumption, (This is especially true for theatrical release).

So here are the lists I have for you, such as they are.

Five Favorite Theatrical Releases of 2020

5. The Personal History of David Copperfield

I thought this was a delightful re-imaging of the Dicken’s classic story. The conceit is that the movie is made with a color blind cast and contains a number of whimsical images to make the story a little more lively and modern. 
The talented Dev Patel plays David and the host of British actors who are dragooned from television and other films made by the director Armando Iannucci , is long and impressive. This was a small film that benefits from great production values and a good sense of imagination.

4.  Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in his Own Words

For some of you, this might be a controversial choice. Justice Thomas is reviled by many on the left side of the political spectrum, but this is a movie not a political ad. Clarence Thomas has a fascinating personal history and his selection for the high court produced a dramatic historical event.
His judicial philosophy is outlined in solid detail. You don’t have to agree with it but if you listen, you will understand it more completely.  The structure of this film is pretty standard, but it has the benefit of being told through his writings, interviews and historical record. It is not groundbreaking but it is intelligent.

3.  The Broken Hearts Gallery

This was a little romantic comedy that I happened upon back in October. It played in theaters and that was the main reason I saw it, because it afforded me a chance to get out and support movie theaters in their time of crisis. Imagine my surprise at how much fun it was.
I thought the casting was a little unconventional, and the story idea at the heart of the premise is one of those things that can only happen in movies set in New York, but still it caught my fancy. It delivers on the two things you wan from a rom-com, laughs and heart. Probably not an awards contender but you will be happy you saw it. 

2.  Onward

The last major film release before everything went down, “Onward” was also the subject of a Lambcast which explored the film in depth. Probably not as widely anticipated as Pixar’s other 2020 release “Soul”, but a quite respectable outing for the animation giant. The twist here is that fantasy creatures live in a world where magic has vanished and their daily existence is not too different than you would fins in a first world suburban community.
It starts off as if it is a father-son story, but it will slowly dawn on you that a different relationship is the key to the heart of the movie. Not all the story elements work but as usual, the voice cast is top notch and the visual design is stellar. A week after it opened, theaters were closing and it jumped to Disney Plus immediately. 
1. The Gentlemen

This is a typical Guy Ritchie crime film. Which is pretty much all I needed to get me into a theater in January. The fact that the cast is diverse and ultimately brilliant is a cherry on top. This convoluted plot circles around a marijuana kingpin, in the middle of a transaction to sell his business. There are plots within plots and you get a gruesome bit of comedic violence every few minutes. As has become standard for the genre, the movie is told in a non-linear format and partially through narration
Hugh Grant, who has never been nominated for an Academy Award, shows again that comedy performances are ignored by the snobs at the Academy, not because the work is sub-par. If you have liked Ritchie’s previous films, this one should be up your alley. Colin Farrell deserves to stand  next to Grant at the Awards platform this year. 

Five Favorite 2020 Releases Not in Cinemas
Plenty of critics and other bloggers will be able to fill a top ten list because they don’t exclude films from consideration when that have not been released theatrically. I however, have attempted to keep this blog focused on cinema experience. That said, I did see some films streaming that would be contenders for my own personal list, so I have created a separate category for them so that you can enjoy as well.
5.   Lost Girls

The harrowing true story of a mother fighting police incompetence in order to find her missing daughter. Along the way, a horrifying discover is made in spite of the oblivious authorities.  Amy Ryan is fierce and sad in the starring role, which has no glamour or hope attached to it.

4.   Emma

My daughter is a Jane Austen fanatic, and we would have gone to see this together except that she moved to Texas a few months before me. As it was, she saw this in a theater and I watched it with her a few weeks later on a video chat when we had the digital version to share. I don’t know that the 1996 version needed to be improved upon, except this version features Bill Nighy and that is enough justification for me. 

3.   The Trial of the Chicago 7

Aaron Sorkin directs from a script that he wrote. The fact that many of the pieces of dialogue from the courtroom scenes come from the transcript of the trial and not Sorkin’s pen is remarkable. This was a controversial moment from fifty years ago. There is an implication that it was a political moment but what really transpired is a piece of insanity, inspired by another piece of insanity, which was responding to the a first piece of insanity. A litany of great performances. 

2. Host

This was MOTM on the Lambcast in October. A Halloween Horror film for a Zoom bound world. A low budget film, put together in a short amount of time, with the stars of the film staying socially distant and recording their own parts to be assembled by the director. It sounds like a disaster, instead, it is plenty scary and very entertaining. Even better, it’s just an hour. 

1.   Soul

Knocked out of  prime real estate in June, banished to Streaming at Christmas, this was my pick in the box office draft a year ago, oh those were the days. Pixar might be accused of repeating itself because there are similarities to “Inside/Out” in this film. If you are not a fan of that movie, don’t worry, the annoying parts and sanctimonious tone are largely missing. Instead we get some great music, a different lesson and some characters that deserve to be remembered. Another Pixar Home Run.  

Because I was limited on the number of new releases to review this year, I thought I would toss in a couple of bonus lists for you. First up are some film releases from years past, that I am finally catching up with. 
Because I keep a list on Letterbxd of all the movies I watch during the year, I can provide you with a statistical breakdown of films watched by decade.

The seventies and the 2010s took up a lot of space. Many of the things I watched were not new to me but comfortable rewatches of old friends. Of the things that were new to me, here are five favorites.


Five Favorite New To Me Films this Year
5. They Live By Night

This noir style classic is a film I have heard about for years. So much so that I believed I had already seen it. While it was running I came to the realization that I had it confused with another older film and that this was brand new to me. Nicholas Ray directs this sad and taut film about a prison escapee who is overwhelmed by his circumstances but tries to find a way to stay in love with a girl who helped hi,

4.  Fighting With My Family

I have never been a fan of wrestling but I know that the world is full of people who are. This tells a true story about a woman wrestler who finds her way from a small town matches in Britain to the WWE, It stars Florence Pugh in a role entirely different from her turn in last year’s “Little Women”. I enjoyed it a lot. Oh, and it features Vince Vaughn who is in both of my next two favorites in this category. I guess I’m a fan.

3.  Dragged Across Concrete

As far as I can tell, this never had a major cinema release, so that may be why I did not see it until I was on Lockdown looking at steaming to feed my movie fix. Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn are cops with some problems that lead them into unfamiliar territory, mostly because they are good at doing their jobs, and that might include cutting corners occasionally. It ends with a bloody shootout that is an appropriate climax.

2. Brawl in Cell Block 99

Vince Vaughn again, and this is directed by the same guy who brought us “Dragged Across Concrete”, S. Craig Zahler. He made a slow but great bloody western with Kurt Russell a few years ago called “Bone Tomahawk”. I must be a fan because I really have liked all three of the movies he has directed. This one is brutal, let me repeat that BRUTAL, It is not for the faint of heart. It builds to a climax and creates a compelling character in Vaughn’s small time criminal who has lines he will not cross. 

1. The Man Who Invented Christmas

Have you seen every version of a Christmas Carol that has ever been made? Do you know the story backwards and forwards? If the answer to those questions is yes, this is a film for you. A fictionalized account of the writing process that Dickens went through in putting together this most treasured of his stories. Internal monologues mix with dramatic incidents and Christopher Plummer is a Scrooge for your imagination. This was my favorite discovery this holiday season. 

To finish up, I have five theatrical screenings of old classics that I can share with you. Normally, I would have a couple of dozen because I haunt the Fathom Events films, attend the TCM Classic Film Festival and have been a member of the American Cinematique. Closed theaters, cancelled festivals and a move to Texas have altered that this year, but here are some gems. [I excluded Jaws and Lawrence of Arabia because they are repeat pilgrimages]
Classic Screenings

Jurassic Park was special because it signified a return to theaters after the lockdown. It was the first film I saw when I got to Texas and the theaters were open under Socially Distant Guidelines. It was far too long for me and I was happy to just be sitting in a theater.


John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is one of our go to Halloween films and it’s practical effects hold up and make the movie scary as f*@k. My first Alamo Drafthouse film since becoming a Texas resident.

The “Evil Dead” experience was a Halloween Day film. We went to a special screening at a classic movie palace in downtown Austin, and we got a meet and greet picture with Bruce Campbell before the show and his fantastic talk before the movie. 


The Last of Sheila” was a presentation by the Cinematique at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, a year ago. A great movie, a great talk and one of the few things I will miss about California these days.


The last film I saw in a theater before everything closed up, was not some comic book blockbuster or animated Pixar treasure, it was an 87 year old, Black and White classic. King Kong leaves me in awe every time, in spite of some of the creaky 1933 trappings, it completely sucks me in. The day after I saw this, everything closed across the country. Fortunately this left me on a high. 

Monster Hunter

Frankly, there is not a lot to say about the film. It has no subtext, the acting is in service of the action not really the characters, and the action is from Paul W,S. Anderson, who has been making this kind of movie for a long time so he knows his way around this stuff. The only hook I have for potential fans is my own nostalgia for movies like this and I will get into that in a moment.


The story does not spend anytime explaining what is going on. It drops us into a mission, transports us to another dimension and starts throwing monsters at us pretty damn quickly. No one will be surprised that Milla Jovovitch’s character, Captain Artemis, ends up as the one real survivor of the opening half hour. The other characters are so thinly drawn that you can see it coming immediately. What does work in the movie is a long sequence where she combats and collaborates with a true resident of this world, Tony Jaa, a martial arts movie star that you will recognize if you like those kinds of films. Their initial interactions are full of hand to hand combat and the sort of action work you would find in Anderson’s other movies.

The process by which the two become allied is reminiscent of a number of other films, the first that come to mind is “Enemy Mine”. My nostalgia radar was going off very early, thinking of one of my favorite childhood movies “The Mysterious Island” from 1961, but also some cheesy 1970s films starring Doug McClure, “At the Earth’s Core” and  “The Land That Time Forgot”.  Basically a group of outsiders gets plopped down in an alien environment and gets attacked by monsters. Edgar Rice Burroughs should have received a story credit on this movie.


“Monster Hunter” is a brisk time waster that will go down well on a rainy Saturday afternoon, but it is not especially good. The design of the monsters is fun and a little confounding. Since this review is mostly name dropping of other films, I will throw in “Starship Troopers”. When you see the night crawling nest of creatures after Artemis and the Hunter, you will understand why that reference is relevant.   I’m not sure why a sailing ship crossing a desert works visually, but in the opening sequence it does, inspite of the fact that it is confusing. When you notice that the Captain of the ship is played by Ron Pearlman, yo will not at all be surprised that those images come back later in the film.


For me, the main reason to see this is that it is playing exclusively in theaters now, and dammit, I am on a personal crusade to try and sustain movie theaters until things get back to something more normal. If we don’t try, they will all give up and we will be left alone in our living rooms. That is a monster that I am hunting. 

Wonder Woman 1984

So we finally get to see the movie that most fans of Comic Book movies have anticipated for the year. It was pushed back from it’s original release, and then pushed back again to Christmas, and finally, it is released on streaming at the same time it shows up in theaters. It turns out that it is mostly a lump of coal rather than the diamond in the crown. WW84 will probably turn out to be the biggest critical disappointment of the year. After so may expectations created by the first stand alone Wonder Woman, this will feel like a huge letdown.

The failures of this movie are not in production values, performance or any technical field, they are mistakes in the storytelling. As I’ve said a dozen times or more over the years, I am not a comics guy. So I can’t tell you how this story follows the path of the character in the comic books. I understand that this was a storyline in 1984, so that must account for the reason the film has been situated in the past, and that seems to be the only reason it is. That and the fact that 1984 will give the film makers a chance to lampoon the fashions of the era, basically playing off the same trick as “The Wedding Singer”. Otherwise, there is no reason that the movie could not be set in a contemporary framework. 

As usual, I avoid spoilers as much as possible, but the first thing I want to talk about is the opening of the film, and I myself see no real connection to the rest of the story, so it will not ruin anything in that regard. The opening is a flashback sequence to Diana as a young girl on Themyscira and basically it is a long sequence from an episode of “Wipeout” or “Ninja Warrior”. At the conclusion, we get a few words from her mother Connie Nielsen and her Aunt Robin Wright, and then they are gone and the land of Diana’s origin is never revisited during the movie. That is understandable given the story we had before and the Justice League follow up. However, if you watch the trailer, it suggests a cross cutting story between two past timelines and that makes this a disappointment. The bigger issue on the other hand is that the sequence introduces a plotline about the “truth”, but it is forced onto the events in the sequence and there is not really a follow up in the main part of the film. It probably would have been better to stick with the idea that there are no shortcuts to real happiness or success. At least that would have fit in with the story that develops in the 1984 setting.

The main plot is attempting to do what other superhero films sometimes try and usually fail at accomplishing, creating two antagonists for the hero to deal with. Barbara Minerva is a potentially great character who would match up well with Diana Prince in both of their personas. Kristen Wiig plays Barbara as mousey and lacking the confidence of Diana Prince in spite of her clear accomplishments. When she develops the “Cheetah”, she is a match for Wonder Woman but that process get interrupted by and pushed aside by the second villain. Pedro Pascal plays Max Lord, a TV investment guru who has designs on an ancient object that might grant him his wish to save his crumbling empire. His efforts are the thing that lead to the usual cataclysmic outcomes that these stories always seem to demand, even when they are not needed. We spend so much time following a chain of events in his plot that we lose the promising story of the two powerful women heading into a conflict. That relationship becomes a side issue to the third act end of the world scenario and CGI-fest that  has undermined most of the DCEU films so far. Max Lord is basically Jafar from “Aladdin” at the end of the film. 

In an attempt to avoid repeating themselves and having one of the ancient gods appear as the opponent [Ares in Wonder Woman, Steppenwolf in Justice League], we get an object that is the equivalent of a magic lamp. Then the mystical object is anthropomorphized as a human character. There is a repeated quality to the film  that does not escape notice by screenwriting trickery. The fish out of water device that was used amusingly to introduce Diana to WWI era Great Britain, is repeated almost note for note with a fashion show for Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) when he appears in 1984. The mocking of men’s clothing styles from that time period is fun, but it is merely a side note. Also, the sacrifice of one of the characters is a dead on repeat of the original story, it is not disguised at all. 

There are a number of inconsistencies in the world the screen writing team and director have come up with. The way in which wishes are granted is arbitrary, suggesting at one point that a person can have only one, but then turning around and granting an additional wish to one of the antagonists without any explanation. The idea that “wishes” have unintended consequences ala the old monkey’s paw style curse, is fine and may explain a trade off in powers that is part of the story, but later on it seems that the wish granter may take anything they so choose in exchange for the wish. The long standing joke about Wonder Woman flying in an invisible plane is another one of those confusing conundrums that are largely skimmed over. Also, the setting is 1984 and there is a sequence with the President of the U.S., but that person is never referred to by name and the actor playing the part bears very little resemblance to the 40th President. The answer that the President gives to a question about his deepest wish is the exact opposite of the widely known desire that Reagan had for no nuclear weapons. It was the underpinning of the Strategic Defense Initiative to render such weapons powerless.  

I generally avoid reading or listening to other reviews before I provide my hot take on a film. I waited to edit the Lambcast on this subject until after I’d seen the movie and formed my own opinions. My friends on the Lamb were harder on the movie than I was, so maybe these criticisms are not as minimal as I thought. I just know that although I was glad to see the film (In a Theater!), I was let down by the script and direction. There are some fine action scenes but the heart of the movie should have been the relationship between Diana and Barbara, and that turns out to merely be the gall bladder of the film. 

The Croods: A New Age

So when I reviewed “The Croods” seven years ago, I finished off my comments by suggesting that there is no need for a sequel and that going to the well again would probably diminish the results. Let me say I was wrong. It turns out, that there is an idea for a sequel that might be worth some time to develop, and you should never underestimate the talent of artists who are given enough creative freedom. While “The Croods: A New Age” is not essential, it is a remarkably entertaining diversion and it comes at a time when we need those kinds of diversions. 
This family of Cavemen has a voice cast that includes three Academy Award winning actors, and  several more very talented performers who imbue the characters with some personality as they are put through their paces. This is a raucous film, that mostly lets the plot move along without making much sense but allowing the characters to entertain us and the production design to dazzle us. The writers, artists and director have focused on elements that are appealing to watch without trying to be too heavy handed in the message department. The narrative is simple, the Croods encounter a more evolved group of people and culture clash ensues. 
As a baby boomer, I enjoyed the extensive use of the Partridge Family hit “I Think I Love You” , and I hope that because it is a song from fifty years ago, it comes across as a classic rather than simply a pop culture reference that today’s audiences will not recognize. The film makers largely eschew the overuse of contemporary pop elements with the exception of some things that they are mocking. “A New Age” is not just a reference to a time epoch in caveman world, but also takes a bite out of some modern trends like men’s fashion sense and managing your katra. The idea of a balance in the environment gets broken when the new characters, appropriately named the Bettermans, are forced to confront the unintended consequences of their carefully regulated utopia. 

One path that the story wisely does not exploit for the conventional purposes is the love angle that is embodied by Eep and Guys romance. You might expect a love triangle that pits the two women against one another, but thankfully, the creators find a more productive use for the two teen girls that does not involve one-upsmanship and prickly rivalry. The conflict at the end is more comedic and focused on a wacky culture and the baiting of two teen girls never arises. In fact, the women get a funny sequence which is not very organic, but feels more authentic than a similar moment in “Avenger’s Endgame”.  Cloris Leachman gets another chance to show us why she has been a successful character actor for fifty plus years, and fans of comic book style TV shows and movies will feel appreciative of the homage, however in-organic, that the girls in the story get. 

There was a nice sized crowd at our screening, in spite of the covid limitation on capacity, it almost felt like it really was a Thanksgiving weekend like any other at the cinema. The movie is not essential but it is enjoyable and the visuals are enough to keep our admiration for the animation wizards at Dreamworks, pretty high. While the story telling is not up to Pixar standards, the art work certainly is and the humor should appeal to kids especially. 

The Last Vermeer

I love history, it is where some of the most amazing stories get told and they are not fiction. While you always want to be careful about taking a feature film as authoritative on a subject, many of them do reflect events fairly accurately or at least convey the essence of that history. This is a story I’d not heard of, it is apparently largely true, and it worked twice as well for me because I have never encountered it before. This independent film was the only new film opening this last week and as soon as I saw who the star was, I was ready to commit. 

Set immediately at the conclusion of the war in Europe in 1945, Captain Joseph Pillar of the Canadian military,  who is a Dutch Jew, has returned home to locate art treasures plundered by the Nazi’s during the occupation. After discovering a Vermeer, in Goring’s personal collection, he attempts to track down how this piece of art ended up in the hands of Hitler’s second in command. The story appears at first to be a mystery about collaborators in Amsterdam,  who allowed these treasures to be taken in return for money and special treatment by the invaders. Pillar tracks this painting as a legitamate sale, through brokers and others in the Dutch art community.  Here he encounters Han van Meegeren, an unsuccessful artist who somehow seems to have thrived during the war. 

The interviews and cat and mouse games played out in the first third of the story suggest that the film is headed in a particular direction, but of course there is a turn that drives the rest of the story in a very different direction . Van Meergeren is played by Guy Pearce, an actor who has always been a favorite of mine. Han is a contradictory personality,  he faces execution for collaboration with the enemy, but seems to be a charming, slightly eccentric social climber, who was popular in the party circuit,  despite being perceived as a mediocre talent. Pearce plays him as aloof from the threat he faces and distracted as he tries to continue painting while incarcerated.  Pillar and his partner are befuddled a bit by this attitude and they delve deeper into the events that lead them to Han in the first place.

As I said, there is a twist that alters the relationship between Han Van Meergeren and Captain Pillar. When the film focuses on that relationship,  it usually works well. Unfortunately,  we get a back story about Pillar and his wife during the war, and there is a potential Romance between him and his art curator assistant Mina. The Captain is played by Danish actor Claes Bang, and he is sullen, guilt ridden and not really very interesting.  When the focus of his role changes, he doesn’t seem to be very motivated.  Maybe the first time director Dan Friedkin, didn’t see that his leading man was coming off like a stiff. It is additionally problematic because Pearce is infusing his character with a sly energy that firs the way the story ultimately plays out. 

There is a creepy side story about the Dutch government trying to punish the collaborators, and it is represented by two characters that add to some confusion at the end. There is an obstinate judge who seems uninterested in justice and more committed to the government’s narrative than he should be. Then there is the police detective who claims jurisdiction over the case and motivates the trial in the last third of the story. He comes across like the Dutch version of the Gestapo, rather than a dedicated civil servant. There is one more twist and I can’t say I quite understood what point was being made. I am also unclear as to how accurate it is to the real story. 

As I said at the start, what makes this film worth seeing is not necessarily the drama but rather the history.  Regardless of motivations,  Han Van Meergeren seems to have been a brilliant artist,  unappreciated for those talents but remembered for his cleverness.  The film has accomplished at least one objective,  I want to read the book this is based on and find out more about this less known aspect of WWII.

Freaky

This is a movie that I enjoyed but wanted to like more than I did. The premise is the main selling point and it is a great one. This is a mashup of body switch comedies like “Freaky Friday”  with a traditional slasher film like “Friday the 13th”.  Doesn’t that sound fun for horror fans? Then as an added twist the victim body is of the opposite gender, but not a cheerleader, rather it is a girl who is underappreciated and struggling with self esteem issues and grief. There is a pattern here if you look closely at the film’s pedigree. 

The writer/director of this film is Christopher Landon, who previously brought us “Happy Deathday” both 1 and 2. I was not a big fan of the first movie and never saw the second. The one thing that made “Happy Deathday” unique was the redemption arc of the lead character. “Freaky” tries to replicate that formula by making this a story of empowerment in two contradictory ways. First, the nebish girl gets a makeover when her body is occupied by the serial killer. Now I know that this is a fantasy comedy and we have to suspend a lot of disbelief in the first place, but the conundrum here is one of the writers own making. By taking shortcuts in the storytelling to hook us in, he sacrifices opportunities for humor and internal logic. The killer, known as the Blissfield Butcher, has been written as a mindless hulking transient with severe hygiene issues and maybe a drug problem. So how does it make sense that he would have a stronger fashion eye and makeup skills than the teen girl whose body he is occupying?  If the killer were more Hannibal Lector than Jason Voorhees,  this could work. The writer just wants us to go with it. The teen girl Millie, does get a little more sensible transition,  marveling in being able to urinate standing up and turning her nose up at the smell emminating from her new body. The second way the story plays up the female empowerment is by letting her revel in her newly aquired strength.  

Serial killer in the girls body, ends up taking revenge on the girls tormentors, with just the slightest amount of reason to limit it to those figures. If the story let it play out more this would be ok, as it is, it feels a bit rushed and coincidental.  Meanwhile, the parallel story of our hero trapped in the hulking body of the maniac does work itself out a little better with trying to connect with her friends at school to get some help. Finding yourself romantically and in your relationship with you mother is a little harder to believe. This is the personal growth story which is supposed to add some weight to the story. I think it clutters up the horror and only occasionally adds to the humor.

Vince Vaughn is the star of the film rightly so, because he has to personify a character. Unfortunately,  Kathryn Newton doesn’t get as much to do after the switch. She is believable in the pre switch section, but merely stares aggressively in the main part of the story, because the serial killer, while having a fashion sense, has no personality or character traits. 

OK, enough with the thoughtful insights, the movie does have two or three pretty gruesome murders to keep us engaged as horror fans. The Opening section that sets up the supernatural twist, has some graphic violence but also a touch of humor. The cocked head of the killer after pinning a victim to the wall is right out of “Halloween” and was subsequently used in some of the Friday the 13th films. Two effective murders are basically spoiled by the trailer, but the buzzsaw sequence still shocks because of It’s graphic depiction.  

There is a coda section that is meant to drive the female empowerment theme home at the end. It makes sense only because we know that the killer always has an extra scene in the conclusions of these sorts of films. It would mean more if the killer had motivations or some background character,  but all he has is the conventions of the genre. 

So my reaction is similar to the feelings I had about the earlier film, but where that story  made the redemption work a little,  it simply feels shoehorned into this film. The movie has enough going for it to make a trip to a theater, but it will quickly fade as other better executed horror/comedy mashups come along.