*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: 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).

*DOCUMENTARY RECAP: THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH

When William Friedkin set out to direct The Exorcist back in the 70s, he had never personally witnessed an exorcism before the shooting of this iconic 1972 film; however, more than 40 years later, he would witness an Exorcism for the first time and document it for the world to see.

The demonic realm has always intrigued and fascinated me — I try to read and research the subject whenever I stumble upon articles regarding demonic possessions cases. The 2009 book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio: is an excellent read, and it is one of my favorite non-fiction books on the subject of Exorcisms. There was a 2011 movie with Anthony Hopkins based on this book; It was well received, but it wasn’t a faithful adaptation of Matt Baglio’s work, and it wasn’t as thought-provoking as, say, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005). 

Father Gabriele Amorth (1925-2016) has been on my radar for many years now, as I’ve been closely studying his work. He was the Catholic church’s most respected Exorcist. He founded the International Association of Exorcists, a training institution for priests’ training in Exorcism rites. He also wrote several highly acclaimed memoirs; The Devil is Afraid of Me: The Life and Work of the World’s Most Famous Exorcist and My Battle Against Satan

Friedkin is allowed unprecedented access by the Vatican to witness and record an Exorcism by Father Amorth. We meet Cristina, who is believed to be possessed by a demon or some dark entity. By the time we meet her, she has been through 8 Exorcisms, and they are about to perform the 9th. As father Amorth begins the Roman rituals of Exorcism, we see Cristina become violent, aggressive, and this unnatural, terrifying voice comes from inside of her. She screams and grunts — it all seems over the top, but it does feel genuine and straight out of some strange dark realm.

Perhaps the most significant thing this documentary attempts to do is bringing this evidence to medical professionals, scientists, scholars, and neuroscience experts to examine. All of them can’t articulate or properly diagnose what Cristina or other victims of so-called possessions are experiencing in medical terms. They all seem to agree that there is something entirely out of logical explanation happening to these people.

It is exceptionally fascinating to realize that even now, in 2021 the best weapon we have to combat these types of cases is not a medical doctor but Exorcism-trained priests.

Reading serious non-fiction works by Authors like Matt Baglio or Father Malachi Martin and even watching documentaries like The Devil and Father Amorth will challenge your views on spirituality to some degree. However, this documentary does little to satisfy any skeptics of demonic possessions; it instead leaves you with more questions than answers. Additionally, it establishes no concrete medical, psychological, or scientific explanations for this phenomenon. So, yes, this documentary is a must-see.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

The Devil and Father Amorth (2017)

*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).

*MOVIE RECAP: ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE (SNYDER CUT)

There is this unique pleasure for movie nerds like myself to watch a director’s cut of a movie — you know, watching a movie as originally intended to be seen.

My measuring stick determining how good a movie or a TV show is — has always been based on how memorable or unmemorable the movie or show ends up being.

Having said that, by my own personal metric, the theatrical cut of Justice League directed by Josh Whedon, or also known as the Whedon cut, was not a memorable movie. It was way over the top, cheesy, and unfocused in terms of storytelling, with plot holes all over the place. Nevertheless, the Whedon cut wasn’t as awful as most fans have expressed; it was actually pretty watchable and, at times, somewhat entertaining, but it was far from what it was expected from this ensemble cast of superheroes. It was very forgettable, to say the least.

I blame the studio for this meh version of the Justice League. First, they jumped the gun and rushed to make their own version of an Avengers type of movie. And, unfortunately, it was way too soon — Because they were still introducing and developing movies featuring the characters that make up the core team of the Justice League members.

Everybody reading this blog probably knows by now that Zack Snyder had to drop out of Justice League in the middle of the shooting of this movie due to a family tragedy. Josh Whedon stepped in, and the rest of the story lives on perpetually in motion picture infamy.

The controversy between the two versions of this movie prompted an online campaign to release the director’s cut, or the Snyder cut as it is now officially known.

There are people out there who are disgusted by the fandom for pushing Warner bros. hard to release the Snyder Cut. Calling these hardcore fans toxic and such. However, I don’t see it this way; Fans should absolutely have a say in how things are being presented and sold to them. We, the fans, spend our money on movies, toys, merchandise, and all kinds of media entertainment products. Mediocrity will not be easily accepted anymore. This is a lesson for movie studios to pay close attention and to learn from all the outrage this Whedon Cut created.

This version is 4 hours long; I watched the whole thing in 2 seatings — and I was very much engaged in it throughout the 4 hours. It is more than a Director’s cut; it is an entirely different movie. It is leaps and bounds better than the theatrical cut. I think this version could’ve worked in theaters as a two-part movie, just like the Avengers two-parts Infinity war and Endgame movies.

Although my comic book knowledge of the DC Extended Universe is far from being encyclopedic, this movie is the best and the closest thing you will ever get to a superhero comic book slash graphic novel on film. Sin City (2005), 300 (2006), and Watchmen (2009) are my favorite graphic novels adapted into films. Coincidentally, Zack Snyder directed both 300 and Watchmen. I have some issues with 300, but for the most part, I thought Watchmen was actually a pretty damn good adaptation (except for changing the ending from the graphic novel).

This Snyder Cut has epic vibes to it — the CGI looks clean and pretty. It is beautifully shot, a gorgeous movie to watch. And, it is darker, grittier than anything Marvel has released. Dark superhero stories are what I like to see.

Here are the main differences from the theatrical version:

Aquaman is way more involved in the story, and his character has Godlike vibes here, similar to the way Thor was presented in the Marvel universe.

The cyborg plotline here is another vast improvement from the Whedon Cut. Unlike the theatrical version, Cyborg here is an integral part of this movie. We got to see how Cyborg is a God amongst men in terms of his powers and how those powers are unique within the modern technological world.

The Flash is more compelling here and funnier. But I still don’t know much about him and his powers. So I’m looking forward to The Flash stand-alone movie.

Superman kicked ass. I loved seeing this version of angry, pissed-off Superman — and the black suit made things even more extraordinary.

Wonder Woman is also better here than in the theatrical cut; she is presented as an old God in terms of her level of strength and power. But there is zero continuity with the events of Wonder Woman 84. I have no clue how they are planning to make WW84 fit into the larger scope of things.

We get a much better version of Batman and Bruce Wayne. This is the version of Batman the fandom wanted to see or close enough to it. The nightmare scene between Batman and the Joker was incredible. — it teased us on what happened with Robin (it seems like Joker killed Robin). This version of Jared Leto’s Joker was impressive.

We finally get to see Darkseid and how powerful, menacing, and evil he really is. The fighting sequence between the old heroes and gods against Darkseid was terrific. Watching Zeus, Artemis, Ares, King Arthur, and even a Green Lantern in battle was fucking awesome.

The whole premise of the Mother Boxes was better presented. There was also more depth to Steppenwolf. Introducing Granny Goodness on film was an outstanding idea. Let’s remember that both Darkseid and Granny Goodness were original Jack Kirby creations.

The Snyder Cut was an excellent movie-watching experience. I was fine the 4 hours; it didn’t feel like it dragged too long. I think the 4 hours were just about right to move the story forward for the sake of storytelling and character development. This type of long format should be the standard from now on — Maybe even breaking them down in parts might be the way to go. It just feels like it is meant to be consumed that way.

Zack Snyder has pulled off something awe-inspiring here. As movie and superhero fans, we are fortunate to have seen a 4 hour never before seen version of all these unique comic book characters. The next online fan campaign should be for Warner to restore the Snyder verse.

Five out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021). Streaming on HBO MAX.

*TV SERIES RECAP: THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT

Happy to say, I was surprisingly captivated and highly entertained with this TV Series. The Flight Attendant is based on a 2018 novel of the same name by bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian. This adaptation is a frenetic dark comedy — a murder mystery that pushes the pace from beginning to end.

Our flight attendant slash heroine Cassie (Kaley Cuoco) wakes up next to a dead body and with no memory of what happened the night before. The dead body belongs to Alex (Michiel Huisman), a passenger on Cassie’s Bangkok flight with whom Cassie goes out on a wild night of partying and drinking.

After waking up next to her dead date, Cassie frantically runs out of the hotel to avoid the Thai authorities and rushes to rejoin her flight crew back to New York — Within a few hours of hotel staff discovering Alex’s dead body, the FBI gets involved in this international homicide investigation.

Upon the flight’s arrival in the US, the flight attendant crew is interviewed by FBI agents, at which point Cassie becomes their main suspect.

The frenetic pace of the show picks up immediately after Cassie returns to NYC. She goes on this quest to piece together the mystery surrounding Alex’s murder. She learns about Alex’s shady business dealings and dangerous partners. However, this show’s most notable and unique thing is how Alex keeps showing up in ghost-like visions throughout the plot’s critical moments. He seems to be embedded in Cassie’s conscience, where some of the most engaging and emotional scenes between Cassie and Alex take place.

Cassie is this out of control, functioning alcoholic, but in a fun and entertaining way. Kaley Cuoco is excellent here; Her comedic timing is flawless — her body language, facial gestures, and delivery come naturally. No doubt all those years in hit sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory has paid dividends. Her alcoholism and self-destructive behavior are crucial to the plot, and Cuoco rises to the dramatic occasion. In lesser hands, this character would have been annoying and not as likable.

The entire casting is solid, but the most notable performances come from the three supporting female stars; Cassie’s brutally sarcastic best friend Annie (Zosia Mamet), a power attorney representing underworld types. Zosia Mamet is superb here, and her presence on screen is intense. Megan (Rosie Perez) is fantastic as Cassie’s flight crew supervisor. Megan is involved in a sub-plot of international corporate espionage, selling her husband’s company secrets to agents of the North Korean government. Also, the Mysterious femme fatale assassin Miranda (Michelle Gomez) is outstanding.

The plot and dialogue are all well put together, some things feel a bit preposterous, but it ends up working well. All in all, The Flight Attendant is an incredibly charming, fun show to watch. It is high-quality escapism and it is suspenseful enough to keep you invested in every single episode. I am looking forward to season 2.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

The Flight Attendant, (2020). Streaming now on HBO MAX

*TV SERIES RECAP: THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT

You don’t have to care, like, or even understand chess to be fascinated by it and to admire those who have mastered it. There are only two chess-related movies that I have thoroughly enjoyed: Pawn Sacrifice (2014) and Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993). They are both based on real-life characters.

There is also an excellent book that I love; The Eight (1988), a beautifully written novel by Katherine Neville, about the quest to track down a chess-set that belonged to King Charlemagne — it remains one of my all-time favorite works of historical fiction.

And it is safe to say that I can now include The Queen’s Gambit as a new personal all-time favorite when it comes to chess-related works of historical fiction.

The Queen’s Gambit is based on the 1983 Walter Tevis novel by the same name. I have never read any of his books, but I’ve been searching for a mass market paperback copy of The Steps of the Sun by Walter Tevis for a while now. Original editions of Tevis’s books have become very popular and expensive as of late — even used and somewhat worn down paperback copies are selling at higher prices than average. But I’m not complaining; I’m glad they are in high demand — Still, I’m planning to hold off until prices come down a bit.

This Netflix 7 episode series is about a Kentucky orphan on a quest to become the world’s greatest chess player. We follow Beth (Anya Taylor-joy) from the moment her mother kills herself by driving straight into oncoming traffic with young Beth in the backseat. She is placed in an all-girls 1950s orphanage where the children are given a daily diet of tranquilizers until Beth develops a pill addiction, which she carries into adulthood.

She meets the school janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), who teaches her chess and becomes an early mentor and father figure. Bill Camp is always great in everything he does, and he is great here also. Beth Eventually gets adopted by a childless couple, and her journey into chess competitions begins soon after.

There is an extremely high level of quality to the production of this show. The set designs, costumes are all well put together. The chess competitions and chess matches are smartly portrayed. The tension is palpable in just about every chess match. The speed-chess scenes were remarkable. There is engaging and precise world-building that will make you want to become part of the world that these characters inhabit. However, this show is much more than only chess competitions and the mental stress of chess. It is about addiction, childhood trauma, feminism, and communism. Plus, it tackles mental health issues and the thin line between genius and madness.

The relationship between Beth and her adopted mother, Alma (Marielle Heller), is crucial to the plot. Alma’s self-discovery journey late in life after her husband leaves her is parallel to Beth’s journey. Marielle Heller is outstanding here playing this functioning alcoholic, coping with 1950s housewife life, while at the same time abusing alcohol and cigarettes.

The casting of all the supporting characters is on point here. The young Russian chess prodigy is a scene-stealer played by Louis George Ashbourne Serkis (Andy Serkis’ son). Young Beth (Isla Johnston) is just about identical to older Beth — easily could be the same person. Jolene (Moses Ingram) is solid as a fellow orphan and Beth’s closest friend. The two chess-head brothers who travel from tournament to tournament are hilarious. Even all of the cold war era Russian chess champions that Beth plays against are well cast.

Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) is praiseworthy as Beth’s first tough tournament competitor and eventual friend/lover. Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is exceptional as this weird and eccentric US chess champion; he competes against Beth and later befriends her. Her platonic relationship with former chess competitor turned photojournalist Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) is another critical component of Beth’s personality and psychology. There is plenty of symbolism in the type of relationships she has with all the men in her life.

Anya Taylor-Joy is unbelievably good here, in a captivating and soulful performance. This is a complex character with deep psychological issues. Beth has an amazing mind, but alcohol and pills fuel her strategic vision for chess. Her psychological dependence on pills and alcohol are an intricate part of her process of finding focus and finding clarity when envisioning chess techniques and strategies. But at the same time, they are also threatening to become her undoing. Beth can be sweet, charming, and messed up all at once, and Anya Taylor-Joy captures all the complexities of this character beautifully.

The Queen’s Gambit gets better and better with every single episode. The writing, acting, and directing are brilliantly brought together. I felt like it could have been two episodes longer. Nevertheless, Netflix has once again delivered another excellent limited series.

Five out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿

The Queen’s Gambit (2020). Streaming on Netflix.

*TV SERIES RECAP: PERRY MASON (Season 1)

This is not the Perry Mason show most people remember. It is essentially an origins story, where Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) is not a 1950s trial lawyer yet; he is a private investigator working for a defense attorney investigating the kidnapping of a baby that went horribly wrong.

Set in 1932 around the great depression era of Los Angeles — beautifully shot in a gritty noir style, with an obvious high level of quality all around the production; the cinematography, the lights, the sets, the costumes — It is all very well put together. There is this intense and dark atmosphere to the show —plus, all the gruesome scenes and all the police corruption of the LAPD are crucial components of the series.

There is this cool Sam Spade vibe to this early version of Perry Mason. Our protagonist is inhabiting a dangerous and sleazy world while remaining morally ambiguous. He wears a fedora, dresses in black, looks rough, gets into brawls. He is down and out, living in what little remains of his family’s old farm. He buys clothing and personal things from the mortuary out of recently deceased bodies. He fights the good fight but rarely wins; in a way, the system always has the last laugh at his expense.

Matthew Rhys delivers a captivating performance. He portrays Perry Mason as this gloomy, haunted, tormented, full of pain, broken down character. Completely opposite of how I remember the Raymond Burr version of Perry Mason.

The casting is terrific. Especially the Paul Drake character who was Mason’s investigator in the original series and books. He was initially envisioned as a white character; however, In HBO’s reboot, Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) is an African-American LAPD beat cop with a compelling backstory. Detective Holcomb (Eric Lange) was Mason’s nemesis in the book series and showed up on the TV show a few times. It seems like Holcomb is about to become a more prominent character in the upcoming seasons. Shea Whigham shows up as Pete Strickland, Mason’s detective partner — Whigham was outstanding in Boardwalk Empire, and he is outstanding here as well.

Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) is a charismatic 1930s radio evangelical preacher. There is an air of cultish, Scientology vibe to this character and of her entire congregation. Della Street (Juliet Rylance) is Mason’s legal assistant in the TV show and the book series. She is a highly competitive law clerk but cannot practice independently due to all the gender biases of the 50s. Lupe (Veronica Falcon) steals every scene she is in; her character seemed to be the only one to have a deep connection and understanding of Perry’s trauma and suffering. The performances by the entire all-star ensemble cast is excellent.

The show feels somewhat slow at first and a bit drawn out, but I did not mind it much. Things get going after the first few episodes, and then it gets into a solid rhythm. How the storyline came together at the end was well done; it was refreshing, and it came with some unexpected twists.

It is safe to say that the original Perry Mason show of the 1950s basically established the television courtroom drama. However, HBO’s Perry Mason is not your typical courtroom drama; it is an ambitious reimagining of this iconic TV character. His re-introduction to new audiences is different from anything else currently on TV.

Four out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿

PERRY MASON (Season 1, 2020). Streaming on HBO

*MOVIE RECAP: MORTAL KOMBAT

It is hard to believe that it has been 28 years since the first time I played Mortal Kombat, the arcade game at an actual Arcade Center — Man, where the hell have the years gone?

I can still clearly remember how my friends and I would religiously meet up after school at my local neighborhood arcade center for a chance to play this groundbreaking video game. The ridiculous violence of the game was incredible; the blood, the gore — the fatalities. There was nothing quite like this game before 1993, and video game-playing kids from my generation were utterly mesmerized, to say the least. I loved playing Mortal kombat at the Arcade, I wasn’t good at it as my friends, but I still loved playing it.

Hollywood has never been good at adapting video games into movies. The first film adaptation of this game, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997), was cheesy as fuck and almost unwatchable. The video game adaptation of the other 90s sensational fighting Arcade game, Street Fighter (1994), was also a god-awful mess of a movie. Another clear example was the adaptation of Super Mario Bros (1993). The 90s were pretty rough for video game adaptations.

Notwithstanding, I came to this 2021 Mortal Kombat reboot completely open-minded. Still, my expectations were pretty low. 

Mortal Kombat 2021 is not all bad; many things worked well for me, and a few things did not. The opening scene slash fight sequence between Sub-Zero and Hanzo is terrific. I assume that this movie is supposed to be an origins story based on the original characters from the Arcade game, while at the same time adding new characters to the franchise like Cole Young (Lewis Tan).

The premise is pretty absurd and unclear. The main plotline here is that Earth’s greatest champions made up of mercenaries, martial artists, and super-powered fighters, have to fight Earthrealm’s supernatural enemies from the Outer world realm. The tournament rules are never clear, and the actual tournament never really takes place — the whole thing seems confusing.

There is this mysterious Dragon marking on the bodies of random people who are chosen to represent Earth against the supernatural warriors of the netherworld. If they have this Dragon mark on their body, they have to be recruited and trained to fight for Earth.

And while in their training sessions, these chosen warriors are supposed to unlock their unique superpowers and abilities. This Dragon marking concept is a new thing; this idea did not come from the video game.

The movie is a lot more enjoyable if you are already familiar with the characters. The casting is pretty solid, Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Kano (Josh Lawson), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), and Shang Tsung (Chin Han) are all excellent.

All the original characters from the game are back except for Johnny Cage. Spoiler alert! A poster with Johnny Cage’s name shows up at the end of the movie. I assume he will be in the Sequel; if there is a sequel — there should be a sequel.

Sub-zero (Joe Taslim) was fantastic, and so was Hanzo Hasashi/ Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada); their fight scenes are awesome. The video game references like Scorpio’s “Get Over Here” phrase is fan service at its best. It is never really explained why Hanzo choose the new name slash new persona of Scorpio. This should be addressed in the next movie.

Also, the killing of crucial characters was weird and felt somewhat convoluted in terms of those characters possibly returning from the dead in future films. The killing of rogue mercenary Kano was unexpected — He lit up the screen in every scene he was in. And although Kano seemed to be used primarily for comic relief, his character was one of the highlights of this movie.

The same thing goes for the characters of Mileena and Liu Kang, they are fan favorites, and they felt wasted here. There was way too much time spent on the new character Cole Young. He was an uninspiring and underdeveloped character — Cole was by far the most uninteresting character here.

We still don’t know what set of rules we are dealing with, or if there are any, and how those rules can determine the return from the dead of the characters already killed off. Hanzo came back from the dead, so I have to assume other warriors will follow.

This movie packs lots of things and storylines — those things feel forced and awkward at times. This reboot was supposed to be the launching point for a new franchise and series of movies. However, the nostalgic connection to these characters worked best for me; if it weren’t for the fond memories surrounding this game, I probably would not have enjoyed this reboot as much as I did.

Two out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿

Mortal Kombat (2021.

*MOVIE RECAP: THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY

At first glance, this movie had the makings of a powerful story — sadly, it did not live up to my expectations. 

The United States vs. Billie Holiday takes its name straight out of the US government’s prosecution case of Billie Holiday, and it is based on the 2012 non-fiction book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari.

Decades have passed since Billie Holiday’s death. Yet, it seems like we still do not have a complete grasp and understanding of how important and influential she was in our culture, not just musically but also on civil rights activism. She died when she was only 44 years old. Suffering indignity after indignity and humiliated by her own government, handcuffed to a hospital bed as she was dying. 

At the center of the story, there is the song Strange Fruit. The song became controversial in the late 30s and 40s for being a protest song to the lynching of Black Americans, and it is considered to be the launching point in the awakening of the civil rights movement. The song drew the attention of the US government, most notably, the attention of a government agent and known racist Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), who was the first US official to declare war on drugs; targeting minorities and artists. Demonizing blacks and Jazz musicians as drug users and bad influences on the so-called authentic American culture.

Anslinger was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and launched what has become known as the original version of the US war on drugs in the early part of the 20th century. One of Anslinger’s initial targets was Billie Holiday. He was obsessed with taking Billie Holiday down, primarily for her activism and defiance — but also as a symbolic gesture to any other potential civil rights activists out there. 

They used every tool at their disposal to destroy her life and career. They tried to censor her in multiple ways, even went as far as to block and deny her a cabaret license, which was crucial for performers; they needed a cabaret permit to perform at live music venues in those days. 

In this movie, we see how Aisnlinger assigns an undercover agent to infiltrate Billie Holiday’s inner circle to report and keep tabs on her. This undercover agent, Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), becomes emotionally and romantically involved with Holiday.

The weird thing is that apart from Johann Hari’s book, there isn’t much verifiable evidence about this love affair between Billie Holiday and Jimmy Fletcher — and there seems to be an evident exaggeration of this story by this movie’s director Lee Daniels.

Andra Day is outstanding here; she Portrays Billie Holiday convincingly. Still, the highlight of this movie for me was the soundtrack along with Andra Day’s performance of Billie Holiday’s music. She actually sings all the songs herself and captures the essence of Billie Holiday’s signature sound.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a movie that comes across as messy, cluttered, and all over the place. There is way too much focus on the romance between Fletcher and Holiday. Their love affair gets in the way of the story a bit. I wanted to see more about Holiday and her band members and the relationship dynamics between them. There was a powerful story here to be told. Unfortunately, this movie missed a huge opportunity to convey the core story of Billie Holiday’s life and struggles. And on top of all that, it also wasted away Andra Day’s top-notch performance.

Three out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿

The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2020).

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