‘Bullet Train’ – A Bumpy but Entertaining Ride Thanks to Brad Pitt

Bullet Train” is one of those movies which takes you on an adrenaline-fueled ride and leaves you wrung out at its incredibly chaotic conclusion. Now I usually begin writing movie reviews soon after I watch one, but I had to sit down for a bit after and gather my thoughts when it came to this particular feature film. Yes, it is furiously entertaining, but the story does drag from time to time and there are moments which defy simple logic. Also, some have accused the film of trying to be Tarantino-esque as the director wants the characters to look and sound cool when they talk. My response to those criticisms is this: didn’t the trailers spell out to you that this is a motion picture which you will need to check your brain at the door while watching it?

Based on the Japanese novel “Maria Beetle” by Kōtarō Isaka, “Bullet Train” is not a perfect movie, few movies are for crying out loud, but for the most part I found myself really enjoying the chaos on display as we watch Brad Pitt portray an American assassin who makes his way through a Japanese train going at a speed of about 200 miles an hour through the country’s vast railway system.

Pitt’s character has no name here, but he is given the codename of Ladybug by his contact and handler, Maria Beetle (voiced by an Oscar winning actress whose voice you will recognize). His mission is a snatch-and-grab one as he is to collect a suitcase on a train heading to Kyoto and then get off at the next stop. Ladybug is also an experienced assassin who has been doing his job for far too long, and this looks to be one of those last mission before retirement gigs for him. Also, he is trying to find some inner peace in the midst of all his deadly deeds and is quick to encourage others to do the same. Yes, “Bullet Train” is that kind of movie.

Now Ladybug is quick to acquire the briefcase which acts as this movie’s McGuffin, but getting off the train quickly turns into an insane comedy of errors as he keeps running into other assassins whose missions prove to be very similar to his. Among them are British assassins Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Japanese assassin Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji) who looks to avenge his son who lies in the hospital in critical condition, a Mexican assassin known as The Wolf (Benito A. Martinez Ocasio, a.k.a. Bad Bunny) who has a special grudge against Ladybug, and Prince (Joey King) who is a British assassin who received her codename only because her parents really wanted a boy instead of a girl.

With everything set up, we know these characters will eventually collide with one another in inventive and creative ways as their individual missions have an inevitable connection. Seeing it all happen on a train traveling at a very high speed is especially exciting as, while these assassins are trying to kill or trick one another, the rest of the passengers are sitting in their seats as, to quote a line from another movie starring Pitt, “calm as Hindu cows.” Oh yeah, there is a venomous snake which manages to escape its cage and slither about the train in the same way that spider crawled around the McCallister house in “Home Alone,” and you sit in fear of it striking at the least suspecting passenger.

Directing “Bullet Train” is David Leitch who helmed the very first “John Wick” film, the insanely entertaining “Deadpool 2,” and “Atomic Blonde” which starred Charlize Theron who gave a performance which should have had you saying, “not bad for a human.” Clearly, he is out to give us a fun-filled ride, and he delivers for the most part. Not everything lands in the way it should as some moments fall flat, but those which do hit had me enthralled and laughing my ass off. While it may not be as thrilling as “Top Gun: Maverick” or the vastly underappreciated “Ambulance,” Leitch for my money gives this motion picture more entertaining set pieces than not, and that makes it worth seeing in my opinion.

The other actors go out of their way to fully inhabit their roles regardless of whether or not their screen time is long or short. Both Taylor-Johnson and Henry work off of one another very well, and that’s even though I could not always understand every word coming out of their mouths. As for Henry, his character of Lemon goes out of his way to give us all a special appreciation of the British children’s television series “Thomas & Friends” and of all the different kinds of trains there are in the world.

One of my favorite performances comes from Joey King as the oddly named Prince. From the first time we see her, she proves to be an alluring presence as she uses her disguise as a schoolgirl to gleefully throw her antagonists off-balance in an almost sublime manner. Her eyes show us a character who is infinitely dedicated to taking out her main target with extreme prejudice, but she also succeeds brilliantly in deceiving those around her ever so easily. Seriously, King steals every scene she is in.

But yes, the one person who manages to connect everything together here is Brad Pitt who once again proves why he is one of Hollywood’s best and most dependable of movie stars. Even if his performance threatens to be too broad at times, he made this film especially fun and looks to be having the time of his life. There’s also a scene where we see him traveling through the train cars in slow motion (you will now what I am talking about when it happens), and the expressions he gives off prove to be absolutely priceless.

Now I cannot say that “Bullet Train” will remain in the mind long after you have watched it but watching proved to be a blast for the most part. While many may say it pales in comparison to other films from its genre, I was never quick to compare it to others. There may a few bumps and lags on this particular train ride, but I still enjoyed this film for what it was, and that was enough for me. And, like “Where the Crawdads Sing,” it makes me want to read the book it is based on.

Oh, there are some truly brilliant celebrity cameos to be found here, especially towards the end. Seriously, they are alone worth the price of admission, particularly when it comes to the one actor playing an assassin named Carver.

* * * out of * * * *

Emily Blunt On Portraying a Single Mother in ‘Looper’

Sara (Emily Blunt) is a single mom who’s learned to stand her ground to protect her home — and her young son.

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

As single mother Sara, Emily Blunt is a powerful presence in Rian Johnson’s “Looper” and she more than holds her own opposite Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis throughout. It’s been a busy year for the actress as she has appeared in several movies including “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” and “The Five-Year Engagement,” but “Looper” gives her an opportunity to play a different kind of role which allows her to be tough and vulnerable all at the same time. It presents a big acting challenge for Blunt, and those who know her best know she’s always up for one.

“I think I really just want to challenge myself, more than anything,” said Blunt. “People have been asking me if I’m gravitating to these sci-fi roles, but I don’t feel I necessarily am because they’ve been sort of sporadic as to when they come out. But I do like the idea of creating a backstop that is high concept for the characters to really have stuff to play with within that.”

Blunt has described Sara as being a “very tough cookie” who lives an isolated existence on a farm out in the middle of nowhere. Sara looks to have completely shut herself from the outside world and spends the days working on her farm and taking care of her five-year old son, Cid (the amazing Pierce Gagnon). The beauty of Blunt’s performance is how she pulls back the layers of her character to show us what’s underneath.

“I think that I really loved the tough exterior with the inner guilt that she sort of torments herself with,” Blunt said. “I love that unraveling of the character that you don’t know why she’s so tough, you don’t know why she’s so protective. Gradually it unfolds throughout the course of the third act. So really what I said to Rian (Johnson) was that we’ve got to make this whole sequence in the third act like that movie ‘Witness.’ It’s got to have that sort of pastoral tension to it and the feeling of someone coming in that’s alien to your world and disrupting everything and how frightening that must be for her. So, I think really I wanted to make sure we maintain the mystique of the character as long as we could.”

In preparing to play Sara, Blunt had to resort to using what she called those “dreadful sun beds” to get the tan her character has from working outside in the sun all day. Blunt did say she took some time lay out in the sun a lot before shooting began, but also admitted it takes a really long time for her to get a tan. Still, using the sun beds and getting makeup put on top of her tanned skin proved to be preferable to getting a spray tan as she hates the smell.

Blunt also gets to ditch her British accent for a Kansas-sounding one in “Looper,” and she worked with a dialect coach and listened to people from Kansas to get it down right. But what really helped was listening to one Oscar-winning actor in particular.

“The person I listened to a lot was Chris Cooper who’s from Kansas and grew up on a farm. I loved his voice and it sounded very grounded. I found it more helpful to listen to guys than girls because of the toughness of the character,” said Blunt. “I watched ‘American Beauty’ and I watched ‘Adaptation’ but I mainly listened to his interviews, him giving interviews and stuff.”

Watching Emily Blunt from one movie to the next shows her having an understated power to completely transform herself into whatever character she plays. It’s like she almost makes her preparation look effortless, except of course for those scenes where she chops wood with a big axe. As a result, she has become one of the most interesting actresses working in movies today, and we all look forward to seeing what role she will inhabit next.

SOURCES:

Sean O’Connell, “‘Looper’ Interview: Emily Blunt Talks Shotguns, Redemption and A Nickname for Her Fans,” Cinema Blend, September 26, 2012.

Fred Topel, “Butching Out: Emily Blunt on ‘Looper’ and ‘All You Need is Kill,’” Crave Online, September 27, 2012.

‘Morbius’ Isn’t Much of a Blood-Sucker

All actors deserve a second chance at a comic book/superhero movie franchise, don’t they? Ryan Reynolds may have painfully endured a dismal critical and commercial defeat with “The Green Lantern,” but he shot to soaring heights with “Deadpool.” Chris Evans suffered through those first two “Fantastic Four” films, and then he gave us the best Steve Rogers we could ever have with the “Captain America” trilogy. So surely Oscar winner Jared Leto is entitled to a second wind after his disastrous performance in the infinitely disappointing “Suicide Squad,” right?

Well, while Leto may fare a little better playing the brilliant but physically disabled scientist Dr. Michael Morbius in the Marvel/Columbia Pictures film “Morbius,” it quickly proves to be a stunning bore filled with too many stone-faced performances, pathetic CGI effects that belong in a 1990’s motion picture instead of this one, and a story which fails to dig deeper into the characters’ psyches to give us something more compelling. Instead, we get a comic book/superhero movie that plays it way too safe and seems to have borrowed far too many storylines and lines of dialogue from superior films of its genre. And after “The Batman,” I am now just far too sick and tired of watching bats flying all over the silver screen.

Like many scientists in your average cinematic event, Michael is looking to cure himself of a rare blood disease that has left him physically hobbled, and he looks to share this cure with his best friend, Milo/Lucien (Matt Smith), who has only so much time left to live. To gain ingredients for his brand of medicine, Michael gathers up a bunch of bats which he puts into a glass cage for use at his disposal. But then the time comes when he decides to try his cure on himself because, you know, why risk anyone else’s life? But despite the fact he is a Nobel Prize-winning physician who is extraordinarily bright and has prepared for every possible reaction to the chemicals he has been working with, it all goes horribly awry and turns him into a monster. Otherwise, you know, we wouldn’t have a movie. And, as with Tobey Maguire in “Spider-Man,” he gets a nice set of abs in the process, showing the amount of time the actor spent in the gym.

With this, Michael now has a form of transgenic vampirism which has given him superhuman abilities but none of the weaknesses, meaning he can walk in the sunlight without turning into a burnt shish kabob. When Milo wants to try the cure on himself, Michael refuses to give it to him because he sees it as a curse and does not want anyone else to end up in his predicament. But it’s too late because Milo already got a hold of the serum and somehow managed to administer it to himself. This left me thinking; is Milo a doctor? How did he know how to inject it? Moreover, when did he find the time to inject it and develop his own superhuman powers so quickly? Well, when you want to defeat the Grim Reaper at his own game…

“Morbius” does pose some interesting questions for the viewer such as the moral choices Michael faces as he wonders how long he can remain relativity sane before he is forced to drink human blood, and if he will be forced to bite the necks of innocent civilians in the process. The screenplay by Matt Sazama and Bruce Sharpless, however, is hollow at its core and becomes more concerned with filling the screen full of fights between Michael and Milo, all of which are rendered with subpar CGI effects, instead of giving this material any kind of depth. As a result, the whole movie quickly feels like a lost opportunity which makes “Blade: Trinity” seem more energetic in comparison.

As things went on, there were many scenes that took me out of the action as they reminded me of other movies which are far better than this one. The scene where Michael mingles with the bats feels like a steal from “Batman Begins” when Bruce Wayne, as an adult, rises amongst the winged creatures to confront his own childhood fears. Then there’s the scene where Michael tells a pair of FBI agents, “You don’t want to see me when I’m hungry.” Can anyone say “The Incredible Hulk?” And let us not forget the doctor’s storage room which is filled with both human blood and artificial blood which he created. We all know human blood is red, and the artificial blood looks blue. Now it has not been long since “The Matrix Resurrections” came out, and the whole red pill, blue bill thing has forever been burned into our collective consciousness. We know Michael is more eager to drink the blue blood, but sooner or later, we know he will have to go with the red stuff, and not just to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Another really big problem with “Morbius” comes down to how wooden everyone looks here. Leto looks to be deep into his character, but he shows little in the way of emotion, and he has little to no chemistry with Adria Arjona who plays his lover and confident Dr. Martine Bancroft. As for the others, Tyrese Gibson’s character of Simon Stroud has a face that looks etched in stone, Al Madrigal makes FBI agent Alberto Rodriguez look and sound like a John Munch wannabe whose jokes never generate much in the way of laughs, and Jared Harris is all but wasted in a supporting role as all he does is look overly concerned about everything and anything.

If there is any actor who deserves to come out of “Morbius” with any dignity, it’s Matt Smith. Right from the start, the former “Dr. Who” actor revels in portraying such a wonderfully crazed villain as no one is about to hold him back in his performance. Just when I thought I was going to pass out from boredom, Smith succeeded in keeping me awake as his energy was something everyone else onscreen could have drawn on. The only other actor who gave this material as much enthusiasm was Michael Keaton, and he only appears in a pair of post-credit scenes as his “Spider-Man: Homecoming” character of Adrian Toomes/Vulture. Am I giving anything away? No, trust me, I’m not.

When “Morbius” finally reaches its conclusion, the ending seemed very abrupt to where I could not help but say out loud, “That’s it?!” Clearly Columbia Pictures and Sony hope to continue the adventures of this vampire doctor as they desperately cling onto everything Spider-Man-related instead of letting Marvel Studios take everything over. Despite the massive success of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the Spider-Verse, as handled by Sony, continues to experience more bumps and bruises than anyone would like. Perhaps they should consider letting Marvel handle things from here, but considering the amount of money involved, that is clearly never going to happen.

At the end of the day, “Morbius” only succeeds in becoming one of the blandest comic book/superhero movies ever made. Seriously, it makes “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” look like a cinematic masterpiece in comparison. To quote Count Dooku from “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” surely you can do better!

* out of * * * *

‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ is Fantastic Entertainment and One of MCU’s Best

Okay, why beat around the bush. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is far and away one of the very best “Spider-Man” movies ever made. It stands proudly alongside my other favorites (“Spider-Man 2” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) as it gives audiences quite a ride which proves to be as emotional as it is exciting. It also cements the fact that Tom Holland is the best actor to inhabit this iconic comic book/superhero thus far, and it even redeems the weakest Spider-Man movies (“Spider-Man 3” and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) to where I think I can get away with saying all is forgiven. Yes, it really is that good.

When we last saw our friendly neighborhood human bitten by a spider, Mysterio had framed him for his murder which was gleefully exploited by J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, because casting anyone else in this role would be uncivilized) on his Alex Jones-like broadcast. Even worse, the world now knows Spider-Man is really Peter Parker which makes his life a social media nightmare as people are quick to look at the headlines instead of reading the article or looking beneath the surface of things to get to the truth. Of course, even if the truth is revealed, there would still be many people around the world quick to believe the fiction, especially if it fits in with their deluded mindset.

In desperation, Peter seeks out Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks him to use the mystical arts to wipe out everyone’s memory of him being Spider-Man. Unfortunately, Strange’s spells get all messed up when Peter suddenly remembers he doesn’t want Michelle “MJ” Jones-Watson (Zendaya), his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) or his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to forget about him or his alter-ego. As a result, the multiverse cracks open and many of Spidey’s devious enemies are brought into the world this particular Peter Parker exists in to do away with him. It’s up to Peter to, as Doctor Strange says, “Scooby Doo this shit.”

It is fantastic to see some of the best Spider-Man villains back on the silver screen here. I was especially thrilled to see Alfred Molina return as Doctor Otto Octavius as he is still the most memorable nemesis in all of these films. Molina does wonderful work once again as he plumbs the depths of his character to find the humanity within a man who has been driven to madness. This is an actor who never fails us.

The same goes with the always reliable Willem Dafoe who returns as Norman Osborne/Green Goblin. This time, the Green Goblin gets an upgrade to where Dafoe no longer has to bother with the cheap-looking mask he was forced to wear back in 2002 (he must have enjoyed smashing it to pieces). More importantly, he also makes this iconic comic book villain a fascinating study in good and bad, and the bad side of Osborne threatens to far more devious than anyone could have expected.

And in the other corner, we have the return of villains from the worst “Spider-Man” movies: Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx) and Flint Marko/Sandman (Thomas Haden Church). Church was forced to act in a sequel which already had too much going on and contained some truly underwhelming special effects. The same thing happened to Foxx in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” but his performance also proved to be underwhelming as he was unable to make Electro a menacing antagonist. But in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” both actors are clearly having way more fun this time around as their characters fit into the narrative nicely, and their appearances are upgraded to excellent effect. This is especially the case with Foxx who is no longer this blue-looking guy who looked like he belonged more in “Avatar” than a “Spider-Man” flick, and he gets to take Electro in some new directions which makes his performance much more memorable this time around.

As with any Marvel Cinematic Universe offering, there are many cameos from other comic book characters and superheroes throughout, but I will not spoil any of them for you here. Granted, many other websites and outlets have been digging deep into all the surprises and easter eggs just one day after this sequel opened, and I should not be surprised by this, but you deserve to discover these surprises yourself. There’s a number of good reasons why I did not post a spoiler warning at the top of this article.

The best “Spider-Man” movies deal brilliantly with how Peter Parker is just a regular kid who accidentally inherits incredible superpowers which excite him, and who eventually comes to see how with great power comes great responsibilities. Granted, someone usually has to say these words to him, but he does soon realize the magnitude of his actions and his place in the world at large.

Like Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield before him, Tom Holland fully understands the humanity of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, and the actor takes us on quite a journey as Peter goes from being a bright young kid whose world has been turned upside down to a man who is tested in ways he does not expect. Tragedy comes to define his life and takes him down a path of no turning back, but Holland, with his eyes and body, shows us a hero who can and will rise above hatred to take on a new adventure which will come his way eventually. Holland is phenomenal here.

I also liked how “No Way Home” deals with its themes such as the following: Can evil be turned to good? Can bad ways and tragic actions ever be redeemed? Is absolute power such an aphrodisiac to where giving it up really does seem insane? Is J. Jonah Jameson ever going to get sued for his program of shameless propaganda? And, perhaps most importantly, how much must a hero sacrifice in order to save the world? I really loved how director Jon Watts and screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers deal with these themes, even if some get more attention than others.

Some comic book/superhero movies go in and out of me quite easily to where there is only so much worth remembering about them. “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” however, stayed with me long after the end credits and post credit sequences were done. Like “No Time to Die,” this 2021 motion picture packs quite an emotional wallop as Peter Parker and his iconic alter-ego remains as endearing and heroic as ever. This is one of best “Spider-Man” movies ever, and one of my favorite films of this past year. I was expecting a good movie as I walked into the theater, but I had no idea it was going to be this good.

I also have to hand it to Marvel as they know how to finish a trilogy. The third movie in a franchise can often prove to be disastrous to where it sullies everything which came before it, but that’s not the case here. Now if they can just do a better job with the second film in a trilogy, everything would be great. Seriously, does anyone remember anything about “Thor: The Lost World?” I don’t.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ – A Worthy Installment

The “Ghostbusters” franchise is a lot like the “Predator” franchise in that filmmakers take them in all sorts of directions in the hopes of reintroducing classic characters to a new generation. When it came to “Ghostbusters II” and “Predator II,” neither could match the power or cultural zeitgeist of the original, and we were reminded of how you cannot catch lightning in a bottle twice. A third “Ghostbusters” has been lingering in development hell for decades now, and the 2016 reboot looked like the best we could hope for. Then again, despite a terrific cast, the reboot was a financial failure. After that, I had to wonder, now who we gonna call?

Well, after many years and the COVID-19 pandemic which delayed its release, we now have “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” which was directed and co-written by Jason Reitman, the son of “Ghostbusters” (1984) director Ivan Reitman. What results threatens to be a mixed bag as this sequel relies a bit too much on fan service and treads through familiar territory, but if you can get past that, it still proves to be wonderfully entertaining and has a lot to say about the importance of family.

Thirty years after the events of “Ghostbusters II,” we are introduced to Callie (Carrie Coon), a single mother of two kids, the extremely bright but socially awkward Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and the restless and cellphone-addicted Trevor (Finn Wolfhard). This family is struggling financially and emotionally, and only their infinite sarcasm can help them get through the day. And just when they find themselves evicted from their meager apartment, Callie comes to discover her father, whom she has been estranged from for years, has recently died, and she has now inherited his dilapidated farmhouse where he appeared to be farming nothing other than dirt.

The farmhouse is located in Summerville, Oklahoma, a town which looks to be located out in the middle of nowhere. While the land stretches as far as the eye can see, there apparently is very little going on, and it reminds me of what David Ratray, who played Buzz McCallister in “Home Alone,” once said:

“We live on the most boring street in the whole United States of America, where nothing even remotely dangerous will ever happen. Period.”

But soon after this family arrives in Summerville, strange things begin happening which cannot be seen as anything other than terrifyingly supernatural.

I have to say I really admired how “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” reminds you of how things can be forgotten after so many years. Those who watched the original “Ghostbusters” back when it came out in 1984 have watched it many times since as it was that good and so hilarious. But as time goes on, you have to be reminded of how easy it is for people to forget about the past, or that some have not seen nor remember certain events because, well, they weren’t born yet. Phoebe has to remind others of this, and it brings back memories me of when I ask certain individuals, “You’ve never seen a ‘Star Wars’ movie?!”

Jason Reitman has stated this film is about family above all else, and it definitely shows. The family of Callie, Phoebe and Trevor have been through more than the average family should ever have to experience, but then again, maybe this is common for what’s left of the middle class. While the Spenglers may be stuck in a realm of bitterness and a desperation to understand why they are at where they are. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” implies while some families might be better off with certain members, others deserve an explanation. When it comes to explanations, the one this family gets helps to absolve a lot of bad feelings as living in a place of bitterness is a very unattractive quality in a human being.

When it comes to the screenplay, Reitman and his co-writer Gil Kenan have provided the cast with a lot of inspired dialogue as these two do not want them to be saddled with any of the clunky kind which ends up in every other motion picture. Seriously, the characters more often than not talk like real people here, and for me this is such a relief.

The cast all around is perfectly chosen. Carrie Coon, who may be best remembered for playing Ben Affleck’s sister in “Gone Girl,” is sublime as Callie. Right from the start, she makes this single mother a force to be reckoned with even as she matches her children’s sarcasm word for word.

Perhaps my favorite piece of casting here is Mckenna Grace who plays Phoebe as she takes this Wesley Crusher-like character and makes her ever so appealing. When I was a kid, characters like Phoebe were presented in movies as the kind I should avoid being like, but watching Grace here reminds me of how being incredibly intelligent but socially awkward can really pay off later in life. She really invites you to follow Phoebe as she becomes the big hero of the show here.

When it comes to Finn Wolfhard, I imagine many will look at his performance as a regurgitation of his work from “Stranger Things,” but such an accusation is not altogether fair. As Trevor, he portrays the normal teenager who is quick to become enamored of the opposite sex once he arrives in Summerville. What results is something which may feel similar to the infinitely popular Netflix series, but this young actor clearly knows how to distinguish Trevor Spengler from Mike Wheeler just as he did with Richie Tozier from the latter in the recent cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.”

And then there is Rudd, Paul Rudd. The actor, recently named as People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (someday it will be me), is a blast as science teacher Gary Grooberson. Whether he is slobbering over all the Ghostbusters equipment or showing R-rated movies to a group of disaffected kids (kudos to him for selecting “Cujo” by the way), we are quickly reminded of how we can never go wrong with this guy. As much as I want to say “damn you,” the man never ceases to be an entertaining presence.

Now when it comes to the nostalgia featured here, it does come on fairly heavy, but it doesn’t capsize the film. Unlike sequels such as “Blues Brothers 2000” which was so jam-packed with so many familiar characters and scenes to where the déjà vu made me want to turn it off and watch the original instead, this one treads the line carefully to give us something a bit different even as it pays homage to the 1984 original.

Having said that, part of me wishes “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” was bit more original and did not simply re-employ old villains. If this franchise is to continue beyond this installment, and several post-credit scenes indicate it will, the filmmakers should be willing to take new chances in the future. Even Rob Simonsen’s music score sounds more like a simple adaptation of Elmer Bernstein’s to where it is hard to spot any new themes. It is a bit like when J.J. Abrams brought back Emperor Palpatine for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker;” he’s a great villain and the kind you love to sneer at, but he failed once before and we know he will again, you know?

Still, I very much enjoyed this sequel as it provides audiences with terrific characters who are inhabited by a very talented cast, and the effects are excellent throughout. And yes, there are great surprises to be found here, and I am not about to spoil them for you even if others have already.

But most importantly, this is a film with a lot of heart, and this should be completely clear during its last act. The final scene shows how the deeply embittered can be healed through love and understanding, and that’s whether or not you have a proton pack or ghost trap available. As the end credits came up, it was real treat to hear Ray Parker Jr.’s theme song once again. Where it once was annoying as hell, now it has been found again as “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” finally gives this franchise a truly worthy installment.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Venom: Let There Be Carnage’ is Cinematic Chaos and Lacking in Depth

I came out of “Venom” thinking its inevitable sequel (heaven forbid Marvel or Columbia Pictures lets the train stop there) was easily going to be better. The 2018 film was fun and I was willing to accept “Venom” for what it was, but I could not help but believe a better version of it could have been made. With a talented cast of artists in front of and behind the camera, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” had the possibility of being as good as any of the recent “Spider-Man” movies or perhaps be as good a sequel as “X-Men 2.” Well, what results is is nothing more than sheer chaos which is louder than hell, and it lacks much in the way of depth. Whereas this infamous comic book character once showed a lot of promise for a cinematic adaptation or two, it now feels like a tragically lost opportunity.

We catch up with Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and the alien symbiote a year after the events of the first film, and Eddie is still looking for a strong comeback as a news journalist. He finds this comeback while interviewing psychotic serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) who is on the verge of being executed by the state of California. Cletus wants to tell Eddie his life story before he breathes his last breath as he says, “People love serial killers.” But after Eddie and Venom get a peek at Cletus’ prison cell which contains a plethora of clues as to where buried all bodies of victims, they instead betray Cletus’ trust to where his execution gets move up. Cletus, feeling betrayed, ends up biting Eddie’s finger to where his blood quickly infects him. From there, it is only a matter of time before Cletus turns into another symbiote, Carnage.

The most memorable moments in this “Venom” sequel come near the beginning when the title character and Eddie struggle to co-exist with one another. Director Andy Serkis has cited “The Odd Couple” as a major influence on this film, and it certainly shows in the early scenes as Venom is desperate to eat and digest some human heads while Eddie struggles to keep the symbiote’s hunger at bay with chickens and a truckload of chocolate. Still, Venom is quick to physically drag Eddie all over the place to where they literally hanging off the edge of a building.

Of course, considering how messy these two are, I have to wonder who is Oscar and Felix in this relationship. The way I see it, Eddie and Venom could both be Oscar while the role of clean-freak Felix would remain unfilled. Or maybe Eddie is the Felix in this relationship as we watch him meticulously clean up all the trash Venom leaves. Then again, Eddie never seems to shave and rides a motorcycle, things Felix would never do.

Anyway, there is a great scene in which Venom attempts to console Eddie after he discovers his ex-fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) is now engaged to Dr. Dan Lewis (Reid Scott) because she says he makes her feel safe (lord only knows why). Seeing this pesky symbiote make Eddie breakfast while singing him a song is one of my favorite moments as it is truly inspired and something I did not expect to see.

But then there comes a pivotal moment when Venom, having grown tired and frustrated at Eddie for constantly wrangling him in, furiously departs his body and searches for a new host. It is then in which Eddie enjoys the first peace and quiet he has had in what must seem like ages. And that’s the thing, I enjoyed this peace and quiet too. For this sequel to have a moment a silence felt so welcome to me, and it could have used many quieter moments as well.

Before and after Eddie’s moment of comfortable solitude, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is sheer cinematic chaos filled with endlessly loud noises and explosions which proved to be overwhelming instead of thrilling. While Serkis doesn’t go all Michael Bay on us, and I could tell the difference between Venom and Carnage during their fight scenes, what we get is a lot of sound and fury which signifies very little. Sure, there are some laughs to be had, but the story and its characters do not have much in the way of depth.

I never felt fully engaged in any of the characters’ plights even as the world they inhabit is threatened with utter destruction. We learn of how Cletus was institutionalized as a child, and it was there he met the love of his life, Frances Barrison/a.k.a Shriek (Naomie Harris) who is soon stollen away from him. In a film like this one, a broken heart is something to be deeply feared. Still, everyone looks to be going through the motions to where I never cared much for anyone or how things would turn out. The only character I really gave a damn about was Venom as we watch him going up and down the streets of San Francisco looking for acceptance, and seeing him find it at a rave was fun, however brief it was.

Tom Hardy is a perfect choice to play Eddie Brock/Venom, but while he is certainly not bad here, he plays these characters a bit too broadly. While everyone here has gone out of their way to embrace the silliness of the previous film, I was hoping he would bring more pathos to this, but we instead just watch him suffer through all of Venom’s madness while wearing the kind of jacket and t-shirt Axel Foley wore in the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies, and it all quickly becomes tiresome and exhausting.

As for Harrelson, he makes Cletus an entertaining character but does not bring the fear and malevolence to this serial killer which I have seen him do in other films. At this point, I believe Harrelson can play anyone, be it a hero or a villain, and we have already seen him play at least one American President. But here, the screenplay by Kelly Marcel gives him only so much to work with, and he never comes across as a serious threat to the protagonists. Perhaps if Cletus was more like Harrelson’s character of Harlan DeGroat from “Out of the Furnace,” he would have been a far more enthralling antagonist.

In some ways, Naomie Harris represents the stronger adversary as she embodies Frances/Shriek in such a slyly threatening way to where when Shriek screams, the actress makes you feel the power of her scream all the more intensely. Seriously, she makes clear how Shriek can easily render you deaf or, at the very least, can give you a nasty case of tinnitus which will have you begging to be deaf. Alas, it is not meant to be as, like Harrelson, she has been given a role which was not as complex as I thought it would be.

As “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” rages on to is infinitely furious climax, I sat back in my seat wondering if a theater employee would be kind enough to turn the volume down. I was never thrilled with all the chaos being presented, and I walked out this sequel feeling rather empty and let down. While it is tempting to blame this on the weariness I have since developed for superhero movies in general (I have not been in a rush to see “Black Widow” or “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”), this is simply a film which is not very good.

I figured with someone like Serkis, who should have at least 6 or 7 Oscars for his work as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” or as Caesar in the recent “Planet of the Apes” films, would bring a sense of wonder and imagination to this material. Instead, everything here feels average and shallow, and the endless bombast quickly becomes numbing to the senses.

As comic book characters go, Venom always seemed a must for a cinematic adaptation, perhaps even more so than Captain America. His transition to the silver screen, however, has been a bumpy and rather frustrating one. The character’s first appearance in “Spider-Man 3” was more of an after thought than anything else, and it proved to be just as disappointing as the film itself. I did like the first “Venom” film, but many did not, and I think I have a better understanding of why now. This character came with many expectations whereas Captain America initially did not, and it is no wonder as to which Marvel character had the easier time in any cinematic universe it could be a part of.

Despite some strong moments from Michelle Williams, and she is fantastic in everything she does, and a scene stealing performance by Peggy Lu as convenience store owner Mrs. Chen, there is very little I enjoyed about “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” as it feels like a poor facsimile of many superhero movies I have seen before. If there is to be a third “Venom” film, my hope is more attention will be paid to the story and the screenplay. If we should expect anything from any “Venom” film, it should be for it not to seem or feel the least bit average.

And by the way, where was Eminem’s “Venom” song? I kept waiting to hear it throughout!

* * out of * * * *

Daniel Craig on Playing James Bond in ‘Skyfall’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

They say third time’s the charm, and this could not be truer for actor Daniel Craig’s third go around as James Bond in “Skyfall.” Many are calling this latest 007 adventure one of the best ever, and by now there should be no doubt that Craig is the best actor to play Bond since Sean Connery. Craig goes on record about how he prepared to portray the iconic British spy this time around, and of the rules he and the filmmakers broke in this franchise.

At a recent press conference, Naomie Harris, who plays agent Eve, said Craig worked a 15-hour day on set, and then he spends another two hours doing physical training. Craig talked about how he trained for “Skyfall.”

“I’m not a fighter. I pretend to be one. It’s bullshit boxing,” Craig said. “I had to do a lot of running in this movie, which I hate. I did a lot of sprinting and running. Bond doesn’t usually walk through a room. … On paper it looks very easy: it says Bond goes from A to B and he goes from B to C. But he goes from A to B at a lick. He runs down the stairs, he runs up the stairs, and you have to do 10 takes at a time.”

One big question people had for Craig was how many of his own stunts he did for “Skyfall.” He wasn’t about to fool anyone with his answer.

“I get a kick out of it,” Daniel said of the action scenes. “I don’t do all my stunts. I’d be lying if I said that. But I like the fact that occasionally that you’ll see on screen that it’s my face and it’s me. And I think audiences hopefully appreciate that. At least, I really hope they do.”

Craig, however, did participate in one hair raising stunt which takes place during the movie’s prologue which takes place in Turkey.

“My first day on the train was just about learning how to stand up. The train was going about 25 mph, but it’s not the speed that matters, it’s the side-to-side motion,” Craig said. “Then when we get over the bridge, it’s a 300-foot drop over this ravine. They all said, ‘Don’t look down!’ And I tried not to.”

With this particular 007 movie, Craig was determined this time to bring Bond back to the basics. In other words, it was time to bring back the gags and the gadgets audiences had been missing in the previous installments.

“I always had a plan in my head, however tenuous it was, that when we did ‘Casino Royale’ – that was the beginning – we had to set a tone. Then we finished the story in ‘Quantum of Solace’ and wrapped it all up. The third one would always be about bringing in the classic Bond,” Craig said. “The characters, the people that really make a Bond movie a Bond movie. That was my only desire.”

But there is one rule which Craig freely breaks in “Skyfall,” and it is showing Bond crying. Some will say it is an unbreakable commandment for 007 to shed tears over anybody, but ever since “Casino Royale,” the rules for how to make a Bond movie have been broken out of sheer necessity. Things needed to be reinvented in order for Ian Fleming’s famous secret agent to remain relevant in this day and age. Even when Craig jokes how Bond is seen sweating, he makes it clear how he and the filmmakers are looking to break the rules of the fifty-year-old franchise.

“Of course we did, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to mess around with it,” Craig said. “It’s interesting: You said he cries, other people I know said he doesn’t cry, it’s open. But it’s an emotional scene.”

There’s also no forgetting Mr. Fleming whose books gave life to this long series. As time goes on, the filmmakers and whoever plays Bond remain dedicated to portraying the character as closely to the books as they possibly can. At the same time, Bond is a complicated kind of secret agent.

“We always go back to Fleming when we sit and discuss, and if you look at the novels, he’s so conflicted,” Craig said. “Fleming tries to kill him off. He gets really pissed at him. And he’s a killer. He kills for a living. It’s a very dark place he goes to.”

Daniel Craig is contracted to do at least two more movies as James Bond, and he is not about to part with the role. Here’s hoping he lasts even longer as he is the best actor to inhabit this iconic role since Connery.

SOURCES:

Jay Stone, “Daniel Craig on playing Skyfall’s ‘complicated’ Bond,” Canada.com, November 5, 2012.

John Boone, “James Bond in Action, in Love and…in Tears?! Everything You Want to Know About ‘Skyfall,’” E! Online, November 9, 2012.

Stephen Galloway, “‘Skyfall’ Star Daniel Craig Reveals the Downside of Being James Bond (Q&A;),” The Hollywood Reporter, November 8, 2012.

Hollie McKay, “Bond Turns 50: Daniel Craig says ‘Skyfall’ is ‘classic Bond,’ wishes next 007 ‘good luck,‘” Fox News, October 24, 2012.

‘Dolores Claiborne’ – A Stephen King Horror Tale of the Real-Life Kind

Dolores Claiborne” is, on the surface, not your typical Stephen King novel, and this is important to note before you begin watching this particular adaptation of his work. This cinematic treatment reunites him with the great Kathy Bates who won an Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” but she’s not playing a deranged psycho this time around. Also, while much of King’s writings deal with terrifying supernatural powers and unspeakable terrors, the horror generated here comes from real life horrors no one should ever have to endure. In some ways, this makes it one of his more terrifying tales because it deals with the kind of horrible crimes we hope and pray never to experience first-hand. Having said this, it is clear how many of us can never be so lucky as to avoid the worst traumas humanity has to offer.

Bates plays the title character who, as “Dolores Claiborne” opens, is believed to have killed her rich employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). This crime immediately reminds the town of Little Tall Island in Maine when Dolores’ husband, Joe (David Strathairn), died twenty years ago under mysterious circumstances, and the general consensus was that Dolores killed him. Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who had pursued the case against her back then is determined to put her behind bars this time and for good. Into this mix comes Dolores’ daughter, Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a big-time reporter who arrives to defend her mother despite the two of them having been estranged for over a decade.

The novel “Dolores Claiborne” was essentially one long monologue as the story was written entirely from the title character’s point of view. This makes the work director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy have done here all the more impressive. They have taken Dolores’ unsettling story and have stretched it out into a character driven motion picture filled with various characters who have been fleshed out in unforgettably compelling ways. None of these characters, even that drunken lout of a husband and father, are one-dimensional or throwaway caricatures. Each one is complex, and they take unexpected directions which might seem jarring at first, but eventually make sense in the large scheme of things.

The plot shifts back and forth in time as we flashback to when Dolores lived with her drunk and abusive husband and of the vicious abuse she took from him in his endlessly drunken state. Director of photography Gabriel Beristain shoots this hideous past with such vivid colors to where he gives the scenes an innocent look which is soon contrasted with horrible violence. It almost acts as a façade for how the past was seen as if it were some sort of Norman Rockwell painting, the kind made to cover up the severe family dysfunction many would like to pretend does not exist.

For the record, King said he wrote the character of Dolores Claiborne with Kathy Bates in mind, and it is very hard to think of another actress who could have inhabited this role. Stripped of any false glamour, Bates takes her character from being a victim to one who understandably takes matters into her own hands. Her acting here is flawless and compelling, and we root for her even though her actions have devastating moral implications.

When you look at her overall body of work, this movie almost seems like a walk in the park for Leigh. She has gone to great physical and emotional lengths to portray a character throughout her long career, but here it looks like she is taking it easy. However, her character of Selena is no less challenging to portray than the others listed on her vast resume. Selena is not easily likable, but she has to be empathetic because the viewer slowly starts to see how her innocence was irrevocably and unforgivably destroyed. Leigh matches Bates’ performance scene for scene by showing how much Selena wants to forget the past, but she comes to see how her most repressed memories cannot stay below the surface forever.

Special attention also needs to be paid to Ellen Muth who portrays Selena as a little girl. This is not the kind of role parents want their children to portray to as it deals with abuse and molestation among other things, but Muth proves to be utterly convincing in making the young Selena deeply distraught and confused by actions no child should ever have to be put through.

There’s also a bevy of excellent performances from the rest of the cast as well. Christopher Plummer, who is never bad in anything, is memorable as the relentless Detective John Mackey. This could have been a throwaway role, but Plummer makes Mackey a complex character to where you question whether his determination is based more on personal revenge than justice. Judy Parfitt is unbearably domineering as Dolores’ wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, and their relationship runs much deeper than we see at first glance. And David Strathairn manages to flesh out his despicable character of Joe St. George to where he’s just slightly more than your average mean drunk.

Most of King’s novels deal with the horror of supernatural elements or ghosts and demons which haunt our nightmares. But “Dolores Claiborne,” much like “Stand by Me,” deals with the horrors of real life which we are never quick to confront unless we are put in a position where the awful truth can no longer be ignored. Perhaps the unsettling nature of this particular work by King is what kept many from checking out this motion picture when it arrived in movie theatres back in 1995, but those of us who were willing to dive into the dark side of things like myself did not deny ourselves a journey to the horrors this film has to offer. But now, 25 years later, this film fits in perfectly with a time which includes the Time’s Up movement as we are forced to realize we have thoughtlessly ignored the worst abuses made against other human beings for far too long. As a result, this particular King cinematic adaption plays even better than it did back when it was released.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Social Network’ Remains an Unforgettable Statement on Where Society Is

So, why was this particular David Fincher film called “The Social Network” instead of just “Facebook” or “The Facebook Movie?” When going into the movie theater back in 2010, I figured this film would be all about how Facebook came into existence and of how its audience grew so quickly, but it was not just about that. Looking more closely at “The Social Network,” I think the title is meant to be intentionally ironic as it describes the key individuals who got it off the ground, particularly Max Zuckerberg, as they were more antisocial than they cared to realize. Max was clearly more comfortable being up close and personal with a computer screen than in interacting with real people. The Facebook phenomenon may have brought people closer together than ever before, but ten years later after this film’s release, we are reminded of how it also succeeded in keeping us further apart. And in the year 2020, this is more apparent than ever before.

The beginning of “The Social Network” quickly illustrates Max Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) antisocial behavior as we watch him talk with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and it quickly devolves into an increasingly awkward conversation to say the least. Max can’t look her in the eye, and he ends up insulting her without even realizing it. It looks as though his mind is moving at 100 miles a minute to where he never really slows down enough to take in the reactions coming his way. This is our first look at the young man who has long since become the youngest billionaire in America thanks to his bringing about the world’s most prolific social networking website, and he is proving to be anything but social. Erica makes her frustration with his one-track mind and insensitive nature perfectly. Max fears that unless he gets into one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs, he will never be taken seriously and will just be some techno nerd in everyone’s eyes. Erica, fed up with his attitude, tells him people will keep their distance from him because he is a jerk, not because he is exceptionally bright.

Well, love has a very strange effect on us all, and instead of trying to reconcile with Erica right then and there, Max instead heads straight back to his dorm room and creates a page along with his roommates called “Face Mash.” With this page, he allows students to pick which female students at Harvard are the prettiest by comparing them to one another. Of course, this is right after Max cruelly disses his now ex-girlfriend Erica in a number of ways which includes describing her bra size. “Face Mash” ends up bringing in so many viewers in one night to where Harvard’s computer network crashes completely, and Max becomes one of the most vilified individuals on campus, by girls mostly, as well as one of Harvard’s most ingenious students. In record time, he exploited the network’s vulnerability in a way Harvard never saw coming, and the university is quick to cover their own ass as a result.

This all leads to an invitation by identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) along with their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to program a new website they want to put together called “Harvard Connection.” The way they see it, it will be a great way for the students at Harvard to connect with one another. Later, Max meets up with his best, and only, friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and proposes putting together a website he calls “The Facebook,” an online social networking tool which would be exclusive to Harvard University students. Eduardo agrees to help finance the site, and thus begins a phenomenon which just about everyone has a profile on except for those who have long since had their fill of anything with the name Zuckerberg attached to it. But from there on out, battle lines are drawn and lawsuits are underway as the Winklevoss twins and Narendra claim Mark stole their idea, Eduardo ends up suing Max for cutting him out of the whole thing even though he was a co-founder, and friends and acquaintances soon become the most bitter of enemies.

“The Social Network” jumps back and forth between different perspectives of what actually happened. We watch events progress as Max gets “The Facebook” up and running, and of the reaction his supposed business partners have when their friends set up profiles on it. You never know exactly where the film is going as it goes from one event to a litigation between an annoyed Zuckerberg and the infuriated Winklevoss twins and the deeply bitter Divya Narendra. It goes even further to another lawsuit Eduardo files against Max which illustrates how this endeavor forever terminated their friendship. Even if you know everything there is to know about the creation of Facebook, this film succeeds in intensifying the hurt feelings of everyone involved ever so vividly. We know this house of cards will soon collapse on all the main people involved, but you just don’t know how hard the hits will affect you and everyone else.

Now Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin working together might not sound like a match made in heaven, and it’s easier to expect them trying to strangle one another in the process of making “The Social Network.” But together, they make cinematic magic as Fincher’s razor-sharp direction more than complements Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue and story construction. This represents some of their best work, and there is nary a false note to be found here. The visual elements never upstage the script and vice versa. It’s a perfect marriage of sights and sounds in a story of friendship, power and betrayal.

Ever since Sorkin’s unforgettable work on “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” he has mostly worked in television where he was best known for “The West Wing,” my big brother’s favorite TV show. But his screenplay for “The Social Network,” which was adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book “The Accidental Billionaires,” is full of some of the most creative dialogue I have heard in any film I have ever seen. One standout scene comes when the Winklevoss twins meet up with Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) to discuss their desire to sue Max. Watching Summers dryly dismissing their accusations and politely tearing them a new one as if they had no reason to bother him in the first place is so indelibly clever to where the exchange merits a whole play unto itself.

But much of the credit for “The Social Network’s” success belongs to the actors, all of whom were perfectly cast. At the top of the list is Eisenberg who, as Max Zuckerberg, is never afraid to make his character less than likable, and I admired how he and the filmmakers were never looking to whitewash him for the sake of good press. Eisenberg makes you see how fast Max’s mind is moving and of how his single-mindedness keeps him from realizing who he is as a person. You do find yourself admiring Max in spite of himself, and Eisenberg really succeeds in creating a believable sense of empathy for him. It’s this empathy which makes us all want to follow along with this alienated genius all the way to the very end. It’s a tough role, but Eisenberg nails it perfectly while delivering Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue without missing a beat.

Rooney Mara only appears in a couple of scenes as Erica Albright, but her presence on the screen is quite powerful as she wounds Max for all he is worth. This proved to be a stronger showcase for Mara’s talents as opposed to her appearance in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and it made me all the more excited to see her performance as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The fact her performance as Lisbeth was so brilliant was hinted at in her work here.

Then you have Andrew Garfield who, at the time, was more well-known for the role he was cast in as Peter Parker and his alter-ego in “The Amazing Spider-Man.” In many ways, Garfield gives this film’s best performance as the most well-meaning guy of the bunch who becomes the biggest victim of all. As we watch him lose control over something he helped create, Garfield makes us feel Eduardo’s vulnerability and pain of being so thoughtlessly cut out of this internet juggernaut all the more vivid and wrenching to witness. We relate to Eduardo’s situation as we have all been duped once or twice. This could have been a performance which might have come across as hopelessly melodramatic and manipulative, but Andrews makes his character so achingly real to where there is no forgetting him once the film has ended.

With Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network” proved there could be no denial of his acting talents with his revelatory performance as Sean Parker, founder of Napster. Fincher made Timberlake screen test for this role a dozen times, and it looks like all those times he hosted “Saturday Night Live” are giving him dividends he truly deserves. Yes, he gave terrific performances in “Alpha Dog” and “Black Snake Moan” beforehand, but his performance here feels all the more astonishing as he seduces not just Max Zuckerberg, but the audience as well. Timberlake slyly turns Sean into the guy who gets inside your skin to effortlessly take advantage of you as he can clearly see what your soul cries out for. Sean makes you believe that the world can be yours and that anything and everything is possible for you and only you. Timberlake is exquisite in Sean seem all the more appealing to be around while making you completely forget he is a back stabbing snake looking to get Eduardo Saverin out of the way.

A lot of praise is also in store for Armie Hammer who portrays the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler. It helps that Fincher chose an actor most people were not familiar with at the time because, for a while, I honestly thought it was two different actors playing these roles. Seeing an actor playing twins is nothing new, but it hasn’t been done this well since Nicolas Cage played two sides of Charlie Kaufman in “Adaptation.” Hammer nails all the specific nuances of each brother down perfectly to where you can easily tell them apart, and credit also needs to be given to Josh Pence who was a stand in for Hammer. You never catch yourself witnessing special effects whenever Hammer is onscreen, and this makes his work all the more impressive.

Seriously, even the smallest of roles in “The Social Network” are acted with the upmost skill, and no character could ever be mistaken as an easy throwaway. Actors like Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Brenda Song, and Douglas Urbanski all make great use of their time onscreen, and each leaves their mark on our minds.

Trent Reznor composed the score for “The Social Network” along with Atticus Ross, and their music captures how the world around the characters becomes more and more mediatized as the world keeps turning and technology keeps advancing. The electronic sound Reznor is best known for serves to also illustrate the divisions which emerge among everyone here and of how their emotions end up being drained through anger and hurt feelings which may never be fully repaired. Fincher was convinced Fincher and Ross would not receive an Oscar nomination for their work, but they did and eventually won the Oscar for Best Original Score in a way the filmmaker did not see coming. This would lead to a remarkably creative working relationship between these three as they have composed to other Fincher films including the deliciously twisted “Gone Girl.”

“The Social Network” is not meant to be the definitive story of who is truly responsible for the creation of Facebook. Indeed, no one will ever fully know what went on other than the main people involved, and while hefty settlements were made out of court, there does not seem to be a consensus as to what truly happened. Clearly, neither Fincher or Sorkin were interested in getting down to the truth as much as they were in observing the effect this behemoth of a website had on everyone and of how Facebook came to make an inescapable mark in the realm of social media.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn if the movie is completely accurate as there is always a good dose of dramatization in movies dealing with non-fiction stories. What does matter to me is this all makes for a highly dramatic experience which holds our attention from the start to the very end. There are no gun fights or car chases to be found in “The Social Network,” but the emotionally damage inflicted feels every bit as visceral and brutal as any action picture.

The film’s last scene with Max Zuckerberg sitting alone in an office in front of his laptop computer pretty much defines what we have all become in the past decade; a slave to technology and the world wide web. It makes you wonder if we will ever be able to live without such technology as it has long become an inescapable part of our lives. Can we even remember what the world was like before the internet? These days, we are more comfortable being up front and close with our computers than we are with other people, and this was the case before the current global pandemic. Still, there is still a part of us yearning for human contact which we all need, and the fact we are more removed from it than usual is a sad statement on humanity.

* * * * out of * * * *

Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ is Simply Brilliant

It was published back in 1868, but Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” remains one of the most timeless novels ever written. It has been made into a movie six times, been turned into several shows on television, was eventually adapted into a musical, and even an opera was created out of it. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise this particular piece of literature remains a popular one from one generation to the next.

Now we have the seventh adaptation of “Little Women,” and it comes to us courtesy of writer and director Greta Gerwig who is still riding high off of her success with “Lady Bird.” Is it better than Gilliam Armstrong’s 1994 cinematic adaptation which starred Winona Ruder? I don’t know, and at this point I don’t care because making such comparisons threatens to do a real disservice to both versions. All that matters is Gerwig has taken this classic novel and turned it into a motion picture which is uniquely her own. A story which has been read and told to others over the ages now feels fresh again, and it is one of the best films of 2019.

Alcott’s “Little Women” was originally published in two volumes, the first which dealt with March sisters’ (Jo, Mary, Beth and Amy) childhood in Massachusetts, and the second which followed them into their adult years. While previous versions have presenting the story in a linear fashion, Gerwig dares to tell the tale in a non-linear fashion as she has the present and past intertwining with one another. This has the result of giving the story and its characters more depth than was already there, and the emotions are more powerful as a result.

Now granted, this non-linear approach was a bit jarring for me because, at first, it was a little hard to figure out where things were taking place. But thanks to director of photography Yorick Le Saux who uses different strokes of light to differentiate the two parts, I did eventually gain a foothold on where things were going. The childhood sequences are painted in a beautiful set of hues which typically color our most nostalgic memories, and the adult scenes are illustrated with darker and more stark colors to remind us of how harsh the real world can be.

Looking back at Armstrong’s “Little Women,” it almost seemed fantastical in the way it portrayed the March family as if they had it made. Gerwig’s version reminds us of how they lived in poverty and were forced to fend for themselves while the patriarch (played by Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting as a soldier in the Civil War. But thanks to the wealthy Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), they have a friend who will help them during the toughest of times. Isn’t that great? You know, when the rich went out of their way to help out the poor?

“Little Women” features a bevy of fantastic performances from a gifted cast. Saoirse Ronan is ever so wonderful as Jo, the most free-spirited March sisters who is determined to become a writer and defy society’s expectations of her as a lady. Ronan inhabits this character in such a marvelous way to where her spirit proved to be infectious, and she makes you want to follow along with here from start to finish. She is so full of joy here, and you want to experience this joy with her.

Another key performance comes from Florence Pugh who plays the artistically inclined Amy March. Pugh already wowed us earlier this year in the deeply unnerving “Midsommar,” and here she gets to play this movie’s most complex character as Amy struggles to separate her expected duties as a woman from what her heart is telling her to do. Pugh does excellent work in portraying the conflict within Amy as her words express a surrender to what society expects of her even as her eyes show what her heart truly desires more than anything else.

It is also great to see Laura Dern here as the matriarch of the March family, Marmee. While she has done a lot of great work on television over the years, the recent movies Dern has appeared in like “Cold Pursuit” have made unforgivably poor use of her talent. Here, Gerwig gives her a platform to do some of her most memorable work on the silver screen in some time, and she makes the most of it. Dern even gives Marmee an extra layer of depth when she admits how her pleasant nature manages to hide how angry she is at the world around her.

The rest of the cast features actors you can never go wrong with. Meryl Streep is a joy as always, this time playing the far too high-minded Aunt March. Timothee Chalamet shows incredible range as he takes Theodore “Laurie” Laurence from a hopelessly naïve young man to a troubled soul whose broken heart can never be easily mended, and then he shows us the person who arrives on the other side of all that to tremendous effect. Emma Watson makes Margaret “May” March into a character who goes from having endless anxiety about her place in society to becoming a strong individual who comes to see what her heart desires most in life. And then there’s Tracy Letts who has appeared in what seems like every other movie this past year, and he plays Jo’s story editor Mr. Dashwood to great effect.

Gerwig’s “Little Women” is one of those films which had me completely absorbed and engrossed in its story and characters to where I never took my eyes off the screen. There is not a single false note to be found here as Gerwig shows off a sheer confidence as a director which makes clear how her previous successes behind the camera were no fluke. In taking one of the most classic novels ever written, one which has been adapted dozens upon dozens of times, she shows a mastery over the material to where it is impossible to think anyone else could have done as great a job as she has here.

Many will probably view “Little Women” as nothing more than a “chick flick,” but this rather shallow description does it no justice. Regardless of what your gender or sexual preference is, there is a lot of us in these unforgettable ladies. They yearn for better futures, get caught up in the innocence of their childhood to where they let their collective imaginations run wild, and they struggle with what a cruel world which expects only so much from them. Please do not try to convince me you cannot relate to these women go through because of who you think you are. Their struggles are not very different from our own, and this makes this particular adaptation so remarkable as we relate to them in inescapable ways. This is truly one of the best movies of 2019.

* * * * out of * * * *