*MOVIE RECAP: PAIN AND GLORY (Dolor y Gloria)

Full disclosure, Pedro Almodovar is by far my favorite living filmmaker alive today. To me, Almodovar is the closest thing we have to Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini in terms of originality and style. His body of work is beyond impressive and complex, which can be intimidating for anyone attempting to watch an Almodovar film for the first time. However, Pain and Glory is an excellent entry point for anyone interested in exploring the deep and outstanding filmography of Pedro Almodovar.

The story centers around Salvador (Antonio Banderas), a depressed movie director who is thinking of retiring from filmmaking because of chronic health problems. Meanwhile, a film festival wants to screen one of Salvador’s films and have the director and the lead actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) do a Q & A after the screening. But Salvador and Alberto had a falling out and have not spoken to each other in many years.

Reconnecting with Alberto, followed by a series of encounters with people from his past; Plus, a look back at his childhood leads Salvador to reflect on his choices throughout his life. Additionally, the mother and son relationship is a crucial component of this story. Salvador’s mom Jacinta (Penelope Cruz), is a highly influential figure here. The constant collaboration between Penelope Cruz and Almodovar is always magic.

We get to see young Salvador (Asier Flores) coming of age in a small town village in Spain under the influence of Franco’s fascist regime. It is remarkable how the old worldly nature of living in caves and catacombs’ housing style, somewhat disconnected from the modern 20th century, is presented. This depiction of provincial Spain and the old-world country people of Spain is beautifully done.

Young Salvador’s sexual awakening and his relationship with the female energy are significant components of this story. Also, the way that childhood is remembered through the company of women who helped define the world for him is extremely important. The mother-son bedside scene as their older selves is one of the most powerfully moving written scenes in the entire Almodovar filmography.

Ultimately, this is the story of a filmmaker in crisis — Reflecting on his career and life story while dealing with his body breaking down. On top of that, reconnecting with essential people from his past, like Alberto and Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), forces Salvador to reconsider multiple aspects of his life. At the same time, remembering his sexual awakening also allows Salvador to resurrect his creative spirit and piece together all these different elements of his life’s journey.

The parallels between Pedro Almodovar and Salvador are astounding. The character of Salvador is clearly modeled after Almodovar; Salvador dresses like him and even lives in an apartment that closely resembles Almodovar’s place. In addition, they are both dealing with similar health issues, including back pain.

Incredible performance by Antonio Banderas. There is a physical aspect to this role that Banderas captures brilliantly. Plus, Banderas’s vulnerability comes across exceptionally well. Salvador lives in darkness, but there is beauty and a colorful energy around him.

Pain and Glory is an impressive film — It comes off as fresh and different but somewhat familiar to previous films by Almodovar. As far as I can tell, Almodovar uses similar themes here that he developed in his earlier movies. It feels like this is the story Pedro had been making for the last 40 years of his filmmaking career. His stories and themes always seem to relate to the same central thing; sexual identity, cinema culture, and Spanish culture.

All in all, this is a highly complex story, but all of it comes together cohesively. It is an intensely personal film, full of melancholy, regret, addiction, depression, pain, and glory.

Five out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿

Pain and Glory (2019).

*MOVIE RECAP: DON’T LOOK UP

I’m surprised how divided most people are about this movie; some people appreciate the climate change metaphor, and others flat out hate it. The reviews have been all over the place. I sense political sensitivities are driving most of the negative feedback.

Anyhow, the story centers around the discovery of a comet by a tenure university professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), and a Ph.D. candidate, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence). According to their calculations, this comet’s trajectory is in a direct collision course with Earth. And its impact will potentially be more significant than the comet that wiped out the Dinosaurs. As a result, human life on Earth will probably cease to exist — which means they have to urgently bring this information to the US government and the White House.

At the White House, the president of the U.S., Jane Orlean (Meryl Streep), doesn’t really take this information seriously and dismisses it as a political distraction from the upcoming elections. It is important to note that Meryl Streep’s POTUS is a right-wing nationalist modeled after Trump. So these two scientists have no choice but to take this information to the media.

From this point on, it is all-out chaos as our main characters frantically try to convince the world of the severity of this extinction-level event. While the media, the press, and the government don’t seem too concerned about the gravity of the situation. At the same time, most of society seems more interested in the love life of two celebrities. And even Leo’s character falls for celebrity culture and becomes a celebrity scientist, corrupted by fame. 

Eventually, POTUS uses this potential life-ending catastrophe as a political tool to attack the left. She weaponizes the phrase Don’t Look Up as a catchphrase for her right-wing supporters, similar to how Trump weaponized the MAGA phrase. With this performance, Meryl Streep channels most of the current prop of right-wing politicians; her character comes across as somewhat cartoonish, but it rings hilariously and scarily true in many aspects. 

The entire ensemble cast is impressive but somewhat underutilized. Nevertheless, there were some standouts like Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill); this character is pretty notable as the inept son and Chief of Staff to the President — His scenes are hysterical. The Air Force General (Paul Guilfoyle) charging people for free snacks at the White House was genius.

The character of Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) is fascinating as this weird and anti-social tech billionaire. He is a heavy political donor who controls POTUS and sets up the agenda for the White House. This character represents all of the outside corporate interests dictating domestic and foreign policy in the US government. It is beyond obvious that this character is a mashup of a bunch of billionaires like Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg, to name a few.

However, one of the most complex characters in this movie is Yule (Timothy Chalamet); this character provides the spiritual component needed for the overall viewpoint of this storyline. Yule comes across as the spiritual consciousness of this movie. Also, the ending of the film and the credit scenes were definitely my favorite parts of this movie.

Don’t Look Up is a well-intended sci/fi dramedy— A parable for climate change and the cynical, irresponsible approach by those with the tools and power to bring about change. And by using a planet-killing meteor as a metaphor for climate change, this movie directly critiques modern society, social media culture, bureaucracy, and politics. When considering the current political climate where everything is politicized, Adam McKay is one of the few filmmakers out there bold enough to address essential and profound real-world issues by using farce and satire.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

DON’T LOOK UP, 2021. (Streaming on Netflix)

*MOVIE RECAP: THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS

It is hard to believe that it has been over 20 years since the original Matrix was released in theaters. Back then, when the Matrix was released in 1999, I was a young buck, working for AMC theaters as a projectionist, so naturally, I clearly remember this movie’s cultural impact when it came out.

It was a revolutionary film — we had never seen anything like it before; from all the groundbreaking special effects, the wild action sequences, bullet time effects, and the fantastic fighting scenes — it changed filmmaking forever.

Movies in the 90s were failing miserably to integrate new technology like the internet into their plot lines. And their attempt to utilize new cutting-edge special effects was falling hopelessly flat.

Primarily, films released in 1995 had a rougher time — movies like Hackers (1995), The Net (1995), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Virtuosity (1995), and Assassins (1995), to name a few — they struggled to use the internet and futuristic technology in their storylines. They were all clunky and unimpressive movies. However, Assassins wasn’t that bad; it had lots of potential to be a better movie, but it was made in the 90s, and the studio butchered the original screenplay — they should’ve waited a few years to make this movie.

Interestingly enough, Assasins was also written by the Wachowskis.

However, in 1999, The Matrix figured out how to properly integrate internet technology in a film. The mind-twisting storytelling inter-mingled with Eastern philosophy felt radical and fresh. While at the same time, The Matrix helped usher in the internet generation.

Sadly, the sequels didn’t live up to the same level of the original film. For me, their overall storylines felt convoluted. But overall, The Matrix Reloaded (2) and The Matrix Revolutions (3) had terrific special effects and action sequences. Most notably, the highway chase sequence in Matrix Reloaded was outstanding. Oh, and I can’t forget that rave slash dance floor orgy scene in Zion — it was one of the coolest scenes in the entire trilogy. Additionally, The Matrix 2 was a fun and exciting sequel — it introduced cool new characters like the Merovingian, Seraph, Niobe, the ghost twins, the key maker, and so on. And it also expanded on the world-building from the original Matrix film.

But Matrix Revolutions (3) disappointed me and left me perplexed. So, as a result, I was beyond skeptical upon hearing about a 4th Matrix movie. Especially since Neo clearly dies at the end of Matrix Revolutions by sacrificing himself to bring peace between humans and the machines. But we never really saw what happened to Neo’s body after the machines took his dead body away. So as the title of this 4th movie implies, there is a resurrection.

It has been 60 years since Neo died at the end of Matrix 3, and things are way different. The Matrix has evolved; no more dial-up is needed to hook into the Matrix. The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) has replaced the Architect as the new mastermind behind things. Let’s remember that because of Neo’s sacrifice at the end of the original trilogy, humans were supposed to co-exist with the machines and be skeptical of technology. Instead, humans have now entirely embraced it.

The opening scene is an almost identical redo of the opening scene from the original Matrix, but with new character Bugs instead of Trinity. It is important to note that this movie was shot digitally, while the original trilogy was shot on film.

Neo (Keanu Reeves) is back inside the Matrix with no memory from his past — He is now a video game developer who has dreams and visions that resemble Neo’s past from the 3 previous movies. Neo has created a virtual reality game that comes close to the likeness of the characters and narrative of the original Matrix trilogy — By the way, the game is also called The Matrix.

Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is also resurrected and back inside the Matrix under the name Tiffany — she lives a normal life, is married with kids, and has zero memory of her past. Amazingly, the on-screen chemistry between these two is stronger than ever.

Agent Smith, the AI program, returns, but now he is played by Jonathan Graff and not Hugo Weaving. Jonathan Graff is outstanding in this new version of Agent Smith, Graff had some flashes of weaving’s version, but this character is an entirely new take on Agent Smith. There is a new version of Morpheus played by (Yahya Abdul-Maten); this new version is a computer program based on the original Morpheus played by Laurence Fishburne — this new Morpheus annoyed the hell out of me. On the other hand, It was great seeing Naobi (Jada Pinkett-Smith) return as an older version of her character and she is now the leader of the new Zion. Also, brand new character Bugs (Jessica Henwick) is a solid addition to this series.

It has taken me some time to process and reflect on this movie. The premise is bold and daring. Writer-Director Lana Wachowski has created a smart and sophisticated movie with multiple themes. This film attempts to revisit and revise what reality is and what we perceive as real.

All be told, there was no wow factor here like in the previous 3 films. The action sequences are mostly meh until the last action scene of the movie — which was a pretty impressive action scene. The rest of the action sequences are unremarkable and not groundbreaking, like in the previous films. Also, Neo never uses a gun here, which was a refreshing and bold choice. Still, there are some beautiful shots throughout this movie.

There is also this brilliant self-awareness to this movie when they take a direct shot at Warner Bros for making movies about the Matrix, based on Neo’s video game. There is a scene where we hear about Warner Bro’s threatening to go ahead and make a movie with or without Neo’s blessing. Similar to how Warner Bros planned to make this 4th movie with or without the Wachowskis.

The whole concept of a digital self-image was innovative. I loved seeing the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) making a quick cameo, looking Like a crazed hobo —ranting like a lunatic. Massive fan service points for including Sati (Priyanka Chopra) in this new storyline. Sati was an essential character from Matrix Revolutions (3), and now she is again a crucial character in this 4th movie. But I wonder what happened to the “Kid” (Clayton Watson) from the previous films. I thought that maybe he was the heir apparent to Neo, and he is not even mentioned here.

Ultimately, The Matrix Resurrection is a love story between Neo and Trinity — so yes, they are the ONE together. And although somewhat forced, this 4th movie does connect and ties in with the original 3 films. It manages to convey a distrust for the “real” world and the notion that we are being manipulated — and how our whole idea of reality is distorted. You have to go in with an open mind and be free of any expectations. I sense other movies in this series might be coming. I, for one, would love to see live-action prequels.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

The Matrix Resurrection (2021).

*MOVIE RECAP: BEING THE RICARDOS

For one, I’m glad that we have gotten two Aaron Sorkin written and directed movies two years in a row — The Trial of the Chicago 7, in 2020, and now, Being the Ricardos in 2021. It seems like he is getting more comfortable behind the camera and finding his way as a director.

But first, I need to address the elephant in the room. There was tons of nonsensical controversy and outrage with the casting of Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. Primarily by people who don’t have a clue about the art of acting and filmmaking. And by people who go about the wrong way to ensure and promote fairness and equality in media representation.

Here is the thing, people who had a problem with Bardem, a Spaniard playing a Cuban, are beyond dumb. Any actor of Hispanic heritage is qualified to play any member of our Latino culture, simple as that. After all, Javier Bardem already played a Cuban character back in 2000 in the movie Before Night Falls, a biopic of Cuban writer and poet Reinaldo Arenas. A performance for which Bardem was nominated for a best actor Academy Award — Bardem was outstanding in that movie, and he deserved the Oscar nomination for sure.

Additionally, we have many examples of actors from different Latin American slash Hispanic cultures playing characters from different nationalities like Gael Garcia Bernal, a Mexican actor playing Che Guevara, an Argentinian in two movies, Fidel (2001), and The Motorcycle Diaries (2004). Also, Benicio Del Toro, a Puerto Rican actor, won an Oscar for a best-supporting actor playing a Mexican character in Traffic (2000).

Not to mention all those times when Antonio Banderas, a Spaniard, has played Mexican characters, like in Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico and those two Zorro movies, to name a few. Recently, we had Wagner Moura, a Brazilian actor playing Pablo Escobar, a Colombian character in the hit Netflix series Narcos — which was a critically acclaimed portrayal.

So I ask, where was the outrage then?

In any case, I could sit here and point out tons of actors successfully playing characters from different cultural backgrounds. But, unfortunately, and sadly, all of those people outraged by Bardem playing a Cuban are the same exact people who are setting back the decades of little progress for proper representation that we have made as a culture in recent years.

But what do I know about this? I’m just some random Hispanic immigrant — and a wannabe screenwriter. Right? not really an expert at all.

Anyhow, the story of this movie is centered around a week in the life of Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem). And it is set during the same week of production for an upcoming live shooting of the I Love Lucy show — with some flashbacks sprinkled throughout the story.

This movie is not your typical biopic per se; It starts with a fake documentary featuring older versions of the original writers for the I Love Lucy Show, Madelyn Pugh (Linda Lavin) and Bob Carroll (Ronny Cox). And the executive producer, Jess Oppenheimer (John Rubinstein). I was thrilled to see Ronny Cox in a big-time Hollywood movie again; he played one of my all-time favorite movie villains, Dick Jones, in Robocop (1986).

The main plot point of the story here is the accusation by the press that Lucille Ball is a member of the communist party. The implications of this accusation could cost Lucy her career and the possible cancellation of their hit TV show. So the tension and the stakes of this shocking accusation become the main obstacle for our heroes to overcome. And we get to see how this real-life TV couple had to tackle this issue head-on. Desi has to deal with the fallout and navigate through all of the network and corporate politics. At the same time, Lucy is trying to keep the show running efficiently and keep it fresh and funny. And on top of that, she is trying to save her marriage.

Nicole Kidman delivers an interesting performance; She managed to capture the heart of two characters, one real and one fictitious. In essence, Kidman’s performance focuses more on Lucille Ball, the person and not as much as Lucy Ricardo, the TV character. Still, when she transforms into Lucy Ricardo, she nails it beautifully.

There were some excellent scenes where we get to see Lucy display her comedic genius. When the writers pitched scenes to Lucy, you could see how her comedic mind worked as she began to imagine the multiple possibilities within the scene—like a chess master, seeing how a scene would play out ahead of time. Also, we got to see how obsessed she was with physical comedy.

Javier Bardem brings lots of charisma and charm into this role. However, I didn’t really see the same Desi Arnaz that I remember from the old interviews on YouTube at the Johnny Carson show and the old NBC David Letterman show. I still think that the version of Desi Arnaz in the 1992 movie Mambo Kings, played by Desi Arnaz jr, remains my all-time favorite version of Desi. Nonetheless, Javier Bardem has some solid scenes here, most notably, Bardem’s impressive version of Cuban Pete.

Also, the location settings, custom designs, and set pieces are all great and felt right with the period. The scenes in the writer’s room were exceptional; it was cool seeing the writers working out their material — the difficulty of making comedy for TV and how they went about creating comedy. The fake documentary thing, set in the future with the older versions of the writers and producer, was a good choice, but I wanted to see a little more of them throughout the movie.

The taboos and the gender dynamics of the era are also on full display here. It was an era when a handful of old conservative white males were making all the important decisions — and having a pregnant woman appear on TV or even to say the word pregnant on TV was considered obscene. The scenes where the white male, corporate suits clash with Lucille are some of the best scenes in the movie. It is important to note that Lucy was the first visible pregnant woman to appear on TV.

The supporting performances by Nina Aranda (Vivian Vance) and JK Simmons (William Frawley) are praiseworthy. The younger version of the writers, Alia Shawkat (Madelyn Pugh) and Jake Lacy (Bob Carrol), are solid. Also, the younger version of producer Jess Oppenheimer played by Tony Hale, was notable. I appreciate the layers of humanity both central characters were given. It brilliantly touches their past, personal relationships, and comedic genius. Especially when seeing that Lucille’s ultimate goal was to have a real home and a family, and her struggle to keep everything together — it all comes through across to the audience clearly and nicely.

Being the Ricardos is a well-written, sophisticated, and complex movie — Typical of an Aaron Sorkin production. As a writer-director, Sorkin is a superb combination that will only improve as he embarks on more directing and writing projects.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

Being the Ricardos (2021). Streaming on Prime.

*MOVIE RECAP: THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD

At a glance, Those who Wish Me Dead had the makings of a terrific movie. For one, it is directed by Taylor Sheridan and based on a novel of the same name by Michael Koryta. The adaptation was scripted by Taylor Sheridan along with Michael Koryta and Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond, 2006). On top of all that, the casting assembled here is impressive but very underutilized.

Angelina Jolie plays Hanna, a disgraced firefighter and smoke jumper, haunted by the death of a colleague and three young kids due to a mistake on her part. For the confused, a smokejumper is someone who combats forest fires and wildfires.

Hanna now spends her time alone in a fire tower, where people live for months and months in total isolation looking for wildfires. 

We also have Connor (Finn Little), a young boy on the run from assassins. Connor’s father, Owen (Jake Weber), is helping the local DA build a case against some bad people. The DA gets blown up by two assassins, and Owen is the next target — So they have to flee. For me, this whole running from the killers’ premise was a bit weird and convoluted.

In any case, Connor and Hanna cross each other’s paths, and they both have to fend off the hired killers.

The two hired killers have zero redeeming qualities, but they are excellent together; Assassin 1, Jack (Aidan Gillen, little finger in Game of Thrones) is evil and remorseless; Assassin 2, Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) is creepy as fuck. The chemistry between these two psychotic contract killers is outstanding, and the humor is solid.

The rest of the characters lacked more depth and development. Jon Bernthal’s character needed more screen time and more dialogue. Also, Tyler Perry’s character went nowhere and seemed unnecessary. However, Allison (Medina Senghore) steals the movie — She has some of the best action sequences and some of the strongest scenes of the entire film.

Taylor Sheridan has a good track record of well-written and well-developed characters that feel genuine. Unfortunately, this is wasn’t the case here, so this film feels underwhelming. There were no socio-economic themes like in his previous work. And there are plenty of holes in the overall storyline and premise.

The special effects looked silly and not very realistic. Except for the dry lightning storms, those scenes were pretty cool. In addition, the dialogue and overall premise seemed flawed. As a result, the whole movie comes off as a sloppy popcorn movie. In essence, it has an old-school 90s throwback action movie vibe. Most reviewers have compared it as a mixture of The Client (1994) meets Firestorm (Howie Long’s 1998 movie).

Ultimately, Those who Wish Me Dead is not that bad; it is just pretty unremarkable. And it didn’t really do it for me, but it is a short movie to watch, so it is definitely worth seeing at least once.

Two out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿

Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021).

*MOVIE RECAP: 8-BIT CHRISTMAS

I’m a sucker for nostalgia-driven movies and TV shows, especially 70s, 80s, and 90s stuff. So this movie is right on my side of the street.  

8-Bit Christmas is based on a book of the same name by Kevin Jakubowski, who also wrote the screenplay. It follows a father, Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris), telling his young daughter, Annie (Sophia Reid-Gantzert), a story about his obsessive quest to get his hands on a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) during the 1988 Christmas season. 

The story is set around a working-class family in the suburbs of Chicago. Young Jake Doyle (Winslow Fegley) tells his parents that he wants a Nintendo for Christmas. But, unfortunately, his parents feel that video games are bad for kids. As a result, young Jake, along with his group of misfit friends, has to develop a plan to convince his parents to buy him an NES or find a way to get one on his own.

Jake and his group of friends are a hilarious and diverse bunch. Most notably, Jeff, the liar (Max Malas) who makes up wild stories and cannot stop lying about anything and everything. In addition, little Conor Stump (Jacob Laval) is a scene-stealer, this young actor was remarkable in the HBO limited series The Plot Against America (2020), and he is great here again. 

The egotistical Timmy Keane (Chandler Dean) is hysterical as the richest kid in the neighborhood who owns the only NES in town. Timmy makes all the kids jump through insane hurdles while selecting only a handful of them for the privilege of playing Nintendo with him. Also, the school bully Jagorsk (Cyrus Arnold) is pretty notable.

As the town parents come together to push for the banning of video games in their community, the kids have to pool all of their resources together and figure out creative ways to get a Nintendo console for Christmas. And at the same time, setting themselves free from Timmy Keane’s tyrannical hold on the one and only Nintendo in town. 

The adults hold their own amongst the little scene stealers here. Steve Zahn (John Doyle) delivers a convincing and heartfelt performance. Jake’s mother, Kathy Doyle (June Diane Raphael), is solid, and her comedic timing is excellent. David Cross is brilliant as this shady but lovable dealer of black market goods. 

Yes, the premise is similar to A Christmas Story (1983), and it borrows some elements from other similar holiday movies. However, it still manages to feel fresh and original. All of the nostalgic throwbacks hit on the mark — Like the infamy of the NES Power Glove, the scarcity and popularity of Cabbage Patch dolls, and other 80s pop culture stuff. But, it all comes together nicely.

Personally, I related to this movie in many ways. First, it rang true to me because for a short time, I was the only kid in my neighborhood who owned an NES, and my friends would come over and play with me. But I wasn’t a little prick about it like Timmy Keane was. Second, Nintendo dominated the late 80s and early 90s — Games like Mega-Man, Mario Bros, Duck Hunt, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, Tetris, and The Legend of Zelda, among many others, were the obsession of kids from my generation as well as mine. So all of that resonated with me.

8-Bit Christmas is a fun and charming holiday movie, one of the best in recent years, and it belongs amongst the classics. It’s a good throwback to the 80s in the spirit of the Goonies and Stranger Things. It hit home for me; it brought back many memories growing up. I will definitely be adding this movie to my favorite holiday movies list.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

8-Bit Christmas (2021). Streaming on HBO MAX

*MOVIE RECAP: MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN

Here is another film I completely missed when it was initially released back in 2019. and it took me this long to finally watch it.

Motherless Brooklyn was a passion project for Edward Norton that took almost two decades to bring to life. Norton directed this movie and wrote the adaptation — a loose adaption that is, from the Jonathan Lethem 1999 novel of the same name.

The story is set in 1950s NYC, during a time when the city was run by a non-elected official Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin). This character was inspired by real-life New York city planner Robert Moses who from 1930-1968 had uncontested authoritarian power over NYC and NY state—and made every significant decision about infrastructure in New York. Like where the roads went, where bridges were built, which buildings were torn down to make way for developing projects, and so on. Moses used shady tactics masquerading as “community improvement” programs to displace poor and minority communities. Using “Slum Clearing” programs to condemn whole sections of the city—evict everyone who lived there and turn those empty neighborhoods over to his private developers to build whatever he wanted.

The housing policies created and enforced by Moses were based on racist principles. Even today, in our current timeline, there is a direct connection in most of the gentrification policies and practices plaguing Black and minority communities throughout New York City with some of the same methods that Moses implemented.

and by the way…. Moses was also responsible for the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn. 

All of that makes for a pretty compelling story; however, the movie suffers from the plot’s ambitiousness.

Lionel (Edward Norton) is a private detective who witnesses his boss Frank (Bruce Willis) getting murdered. Frank was Lionel’s mentor, a father figure, and closest friend. Lionel suffers from Tourette syndrome, which made life pretty tough for Lionel, considering this movie is set during a time when doctors had not yet diagnosed the condition by name. Norton’s portrayal of Lionel’s Tourette syndrome outbursts reminded me of how he delivered similar outbursts in the movie The Score (2003).

As Lionel digs deeper, he discovers more dark truths about conspiracies and sinister plots involving high-level officials in city government. The story moves pretty slow, but it works because it allows the audience to follow along with Lionel’s detective work, discovering things at the same time as Lionel does.

They tried hard to recreate the look and vibe of New York city of the 50s, but I never really felt like I was in the era while watching it. Many of the location settings felt contemporary and did not capture the essence of the 50s. The soundtrack, however, is terrific, and the Cinematography by Dick Pope is remarkable.

The all-star ensemble cast is incredible. Alec Baldwin delivers a powerful performance; his lines and dialogue are some of this movie’s best moments. Willem Dafoe (Paul Randolph) is brilliant, adding some background to the Moses Randolph character. There is a memorable scene at a diner between Dafoe and Norton that stands out to me.

I always enjoy watching Bobby Cannavale (Tony) in this type of role, but I felt like his character needed more screen time. The late great Michael k. Williams (Trumpet Man) is solid as usual. Coincidentally, both Cannavale and Williams were two of my favorites on Boardwalk Empire.

I really wanted to like this movie, and in a way, I kinda did. But I came out feeling a bit underwhelmed. Many things work pretty well here, and a few things did not work for me.

In any case, Motherless Brooklyn is an entertaining and ambitious film that merits some attention.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

Motherless Brooklyn (2019).

*MOVIE RECAP: DUNE — Part One

Embarrassingly enough, I went into this movie not having read the book. My knowledge of Frank Herbert’s Dune can be best summarized to a simple cliff notes overview of the story. And my other familiarity with the novel is that I used to sell hundreds of copies per year, back when I was a bookseller slash bookstore manager. It was a constant bestseller, so I always kept it in stock.

At the same time, I have to admit that I’m a bit biased when it comes to this movie. Full disclaimer, a few weeks before the official cast of Dune was announced, I got the chance to meet and exchange words with Timothee Chalamet briefly — Oscar Isaac made the introduction. Yes, THAT Oscar Isaac.

All told, I have been dealing with Mr. Isaac for a while now through my day job. He is a normal and down-to-earth dude — extremely likable and personable. Unlike some of those entitled Hollywood types, acting pretentious and asking to be treated special…ahem, Jeremy Strong…. I had an awkward conversation with Jeremy Strong on the phone once. But that is another story for a different time.

Anyhow, meeting Timothee Chalamet was a pretty awesome experience, and even though it was a brief encounter, it was a pretty memorable encounter; He shook my hand and said, “Hi, it is cool to meet you”….It made my day, week, month, and so on… and I haven’t shut up about it ever since.

So yes, it was my own personal “Hollywood moment.” One of many unique Hollywood moments — meeting celebrities is one of the cool perks of working in New York City.

Ok, about the movie. 

So this movie is officially named DUNE: Part One — because it is based on the first half of Frank Herbert’s 1965 Dune novel. And I assume that the next Dune movie will be based on the second half of the book — unless they decide to turn the entire first book into a trilogy, which I doubt.

I read in different pieces that Frank Herbert was heavily influenced by the 1926 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E Lawrence — which was the basis for the epic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia directed by David Lean……One of my favorite films of all time.

In any case, the story of Dune takes place on a desert planet called Arrakis. The native people of this planet are called the Fremen — The Fremen are nomadic, Arab-looking tribes. They are ruled and oppressed by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) of the House Harkonnen; He is like a feudalistic planetary overlord of sorts.

The other power player here is the House of Atreides; Rule by Duke Leto Atreides (my boy, Oscar Isaac). Duke Leto’s young son Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet), heir to House Atreides.

The Emperor and supreme ruler of the known universe assigns Duke Leto to replace House Harkonnen as overlords of Arrakis and all of the “spice” mining operations there. Spice is a precious asset; it is the equivalent to oil in terms of power for fuel — You need this Spice for interstellar travel.

And here is where the fuckery starts…

There is a conspiracy between the Emperor and House Harkonnen to wipe out House Atreides from existence. So not long after arriving in Arrakis, there is a surprise attack by the combined forces of the Emperor and House Harkonnen to kill off House Atreides.

Young Paul Atreides and his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), escape, and the journey between boy and mother begin.

What pleasantly surprised me the most here was the solid screenwriting — primarily in how the knots and bolts of the story are explained to the audience. Mainly the opening scenes and the introduction of the Houses and the whole space mining concept, plus how the movie’s beginning gave us a quick background to the never-ending conflict between the ruling overlords and the Fremen. All of that was written and directed brilliantly, and it was very engaging.

Not having read the book, I was impressed with this adaptation because they did not try to force-feed the entire first book into one movie. Instead, they opted to split the books into parts and thus remain faithful to the source material. Therefore, it doesn’t feel like it was dumb down for the audience like some other adaptations out there.

Brilliant screenwriting work from Denis Villeneuve and his writing partners, Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Passenger) and Eric Roth (Munich, The Good Shepherd, Forrest Gump, and The Insider).

Dune, the novel, is a complex and spectacular story that many consider unfilmable. But director Denis Villeneuve has created an exceptional experience here, adding a visual depth and dimension that I’m sure the book does not have — Villeneuve’s filmography is extraordinary with films like Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and The Arrival (2016), among others. So I’m not surprised by this achievement.

The scope and scale of this movie are epic and breathtaking. The combination of location shooting and special effects is outstanding. Bringing this world to life both digitally and physically is remarkable. The natural environment and the power of the desert felt real, which is something CGI or green screens cannot truly capture.

The atmospheric elements and the middle eastern imagery are well done. There is also a sense of spirituality and mysticism slowly being developed, which I’m sure will be further explored in upcoming films. On top of all that, Hans Zimmer’s score is superb.

The performances are excellent. Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, Stellan Skarsgard, and David Dastmalchia are all fantastic. There is an air of Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now to Stellan Skarsgard’s character — No CGI, only prosthetics for Skarsgard — pretty cool.

Additionally, Rebecca Ferguson is noteworthy here; Lady Jessica is at the epicenter of the story, and Ferguson conveys such a powerful presence in every scene that she is in.

But objectively, Timothee Chalamet is the heart and soul here; he is perfect for this role. At first, he seems flat, stoic, and almost emotionless. But as the story evolves, you see him maturing and embracing his messianic destiny. There is a sense of vulnerability from Chalamet’s performance that merits praise.

And sure, this is another white savior story; however, it gets a pass from me, mainly because the source material is over 55 years old. My other issue is that they did not make time early enough in the story to explain to the audience about the whole aspect of sword-fighting with shields and how those personal shield devices can protect you. I hope there will be a director’s cut available at some point addressing some of the technology, like the whole thing with the lack of computers and Artificial Intelligence in this world.

Lastly, I find it interesting how they went out of their way to exaggerate Zendaya’s contribution here. The advertising was misleading — she was all over the promotion materials, hyping up her performance. Yet, she was in the movie for roughly 10 minutes, but it is evident that she will play a significant role in the second part.

All in all, Dune: Part One is a major cinematic achievement. Here is an adaptation that Hollywood got right, and I have not been this excited about a sci/fi slash fantasy series since the original Lord of the Rings trilogy back in the early 2000s.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

DUNE: Part One (2021).

*MOVIE RECAP: THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK

Mob movies will always capture my attention, especially over the top, cartoonish, bumbling New Jersey mafia guys like the characters from The Sopranos. 

Many Saints means Moltisanti in Italian, which pretty much tells you that this movie is really all about Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) and indirectly about a young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini).

Nonetheless, we still get to see a younger version of Anthony Soprano growing up in Newark, New Jersey, idolizing his uncle Dickie and becoming a man. As we slowly see young Tony picking up some street smarts — I found similar Michael Corleone overtones here, where both characters don’t want anything to do with their family businesses at first.

The casting is impressive across the board. It was fun recognizing the younger characters, and while some of the actors are obviously doing straight-up impressions, they all did an excellent job.

Vera Farmiga captures Livia Soprano brilliantly. Finally, we get to briefly see some of the early toxic relationship dynamics between Livia and Tony from the first season of the Sopranos. Further exploring the relationship between Livia and Tony in the next movie will be crucial — of course, if there is a sequel to this prequel — there should definitely be another movie.

Corey Stoll is outstanding here — he nails all of the Maneurismns from Junior Soprano. We get to see how petty and insecure Junior can be even as a younger man. And how Junior schemes and manipulates his way into more positions of power.

Ray Liotta delivers a convincing performance playing dual roles as twin brothers “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti and Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti. Liotta makes both parts stand out; Hollywood Moltisanti is mean and abusive towards the women in his life. In contrast, twin brother Sally Moltisanti is more philosophical and reflective. Ray Liotta is mobster movie royalty, so having him involved in this movie gives it a sense of gangster movie legitimacy.

The power structure of the DiMeo crime family is not fully explained or broken down like I wanted to, but we still get to see early versions of Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen), Pussy Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola), and Silvio Dante (John Magaro). The backstory of Silvio’s hair and eventual toupee is hilarious.

I wanted to see more of Tony’s father, Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal); he was relegated to more of a background character here. Hopefully, the next film will feature Johnny Soprano in a more prominent role.

Plus, we have a pre-teen and a teenage version of young Artie Bucco. Also, teenage versions of Carmela Soprano (Lauren Di Mario) and Jackie Aprile (Chase Vacnin), all of these three characters, provide some memorable scenes. The teenage version of Janice Soprano (Alexandra Intrator) stands out as a fascinating character to explore further as the Soprano extended universe moves along in other movies or TV projects.

However, the performance by Alessandro Nivola is exceptional — I think that this is an Academy Award-worthy performance. Dickie Moltisanti was always a present memory throughout the series, and Nivola’s performance cements Dickie’s importance and legacy in the general scope of all things Sopranos.

Dickie is a highly conflicted man, wrestling with inner demons, extremely menacing and out of control, while at the same time trying to do the right thing for the people in his life. Alexandro Nivola brings this character to life beautifully.

The women in Dickie’s life are remarkable; His wife, Joanne Moltisanti (Gabriella Piazza), his mistress, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), and even Livia Soprano — all of them assert a particular type of influence on Dickie.

On top of all that, we have a racial component that serves as the backdrop of the whole story. Harold (Leslie Odom Jr) runs numbers, collects money, and works as a street enforcer for Dickie. Through Harold’s eye, we begin to see the cultural and social changes starting to take place in New Jersey and the brewing racial tensions between the established communities living in Newark. Additionally, the 1967 Newark riots are a crucial plotline here, which is a pretty remarkable thing, considering that I cannot recall this historical event ever featured anywhere in cinematic history.

Anyhow, there is plenty of things to dissect here. There is lots of fan service with plenty of references to the TV series sprinkled throughout the movie, so you have to pay close attention — It is a lot more enjoyable if you are familiar with the show.

The voiceover of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) at the start of the movie was cool. I know it is weird because he is dead, but don’t think about it too much or try to make sense of it — let it take you along for the ride. After all, there were many esoteric and supernatural themes throughout the series. So the movie opening this way and being narrated by Christopher throughout parts of the movie is right on brand.

Oh, and there is this brilliant scene of baby Christopher’s reaction to meeting his young uncle Tony for the first time.

Anyway, liking or not liking a movie is a concept pretty hard for me to put together in simple terms of like or dislike. So my measuring stick has always been based on whether a movie or TV series is engaging or not engaging. And whether it is memorable or unmemorable.

The Many Saints of Newark meets all those requirements; it is a fascinating and pretty memorable movie. In essence, it is a fascinating story as it relates to the Sopranos TV series.

So, yes, this Soprano story holds up as a standalone movie. It feels like an origins story; it is a film aimed at fans of the series, as it spends time setting up, putting pieces in place for things to make sense, primarily for fans of the show. It does not taint the legacy of the show, but it actually manages to extend specific themes and storylines from the series

This movie serves as the perfect setup for more Soprano movies and content, especially the impending rise of Tony Soprano within the DiMeo crime family. And the inevitable confrontation between Harold and Tony.

For one, there is tons of space between the end of this movie and the first episode of the Sopranos TV series, which is why David Chase should continue to make more prequels and more Sopranos-driven content.

In any case, I didn’t realize how deep and invested I got into this movie, that when the opening theme song from the series started playing, I was like, fuck, they got me!

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

The Many Saints of Newark (2021).

*MOVIE RECAP: THE SUICIDE SQUAD

I went into this movie feeling pretty skeptical and not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. However, I get the sense that the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is finally beginning to find its way. 

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) was an exceptional achievement. Birds of Prey (2020) was pretty fucking enjoyable. And now we have The Suicide Squad (2021), which is not really a sequel or a reboot of the 2016 Suicide Squad movie, but more of a fixer-upper slash relaunch of the series — Will Smith is out, and Margot Robbie is in; she is now the heart and soul of this franchise.

The original 2016 Suicide Squad movie wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t very memorable. I could tell that some editing issues plague the final theatrical cut. But, surprisingly, Will Smith was actually good in it, playing Deadshot — he was not as annoying as he usually is. And of course, Margot Robbie was excellent. She came to this role well prepared — she took this Harley Quinn character seriously and did some solid research before taking on this role. 

Here, what stands out the most is how director James Gunn uses many of the same elements from his Guardian of the Galaxy movies and how well those same elements work.

The premise is generally the same as the 2016 movie; the Suicide Squad is again comprised of a bunch of imprisoned super-villains who the US government recruits to fulfill a suicide mission. Some of these villains have unique superpowers, and some are just highly skilled at killing people and blowing shit up. 

The members of this new Suicide Squad are quirky characters with some very unique and odd qualities. Most notably, Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), King Shark (Sylvester Stallone ), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior), Savant (Michael Rooker), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), and Weasel (Sean Gunn). All of these new characters get a nice and quick backstory slash introduction at the start of the movie.

We also have newcomer Bloodsport (Idris Elba), who is essentially the same character as Will Smith’s Deadshot. Additionally, the main star of this franchise, Harley Quinn, is back along with Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney). 

Our anti-heroes are sent to a fictional Latin American island nation in a seek and destroy mission to kill an alien creature being kept in a lab. And of course, unexpected things go down, and no one is safe — everyone is expandable.

Spoiler alert! We have a few characters played by big-name actors who get killed almost immediately — that was surprising but also pretty cool.

The casting of super-criminals is solid. John Cena is hilarious, especially when making dick jokes — Cena is finding his niche as a muscle-bound action-comedy actor. 

Polka-Dot Man was a weird-ass character, but a pretty compelling one. He has this sad and tragic backstory with big-time mommy issues. Sylvester Stallone is outstanding voicing King Shark — This character is a more interesting version of Groot. Taika Waititi showing up as Ratcatcher’s father was an exceptional choice.

Rick Flagg was developed better here and was a lot more likable than in the 2016 movie. Amanda Waller is the most consistent character from both Suicide Squad movies. She continues to be a sinister force behind the scenes. 

But unquestionably, Harley Quinn is better as the lead character and not as a side character like she kinda was in the 2016 movie. Margot Robbie embodies this character beautifully, as we all got to see in Birds of Prey. 

I liked the whole thing of Harley getting kidnapped by dictator Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto). This plotline was crucial to develop Harley Quinn further as a character. Not to mention how lucky Juan Diego Botto was on having an on-screen hookup scene with Margot Robbie — Every geek in the universe was dying with envy.

My only issue with this movie is in the same old Hollywood-style representation of Latin American stereotypes.

First of all, whoever wrote the Spanish language dialogue and characters is a clueless asshole. Or maybe it wasn’t one person, and instead, it was a group of clueless assholes. It doesn’t really matter — the whole thing was beyond insensitive; it was dumb and irresponsibly stupid. Hollywood still doesn’t “get it” when it comes to writing Hispanic characters. They don’t really care to reach out to writers like myself or others like myself with real-life experiences and who can actually write legit Spanish language dialogue and write more believable and less cartoonish Hispanic characters.

In any case, Besides all the poorly written Spanish-speaking characters, The Suicide squad is a shockingly fun and wild ride, full of over-the-top, gruesome violence, with some cool and unexpected twists and turns. There is solid chemistry between all of these new characters. They are all bad guys but with some slight redeeming qualities, similar to Deadpool in terms of sarcastic tone. James Gunn needs to make more of these movies.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

The Suicide Squad (2021).

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