Best Movies of 2019

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 Movies from 2019. Now, while I see a lot of movies each year, I obviously don’t see every release, and so it’s possible that some of your favorites are not on this list. But here are mine:

10. READY OR NOT

I loved this gory campy thriller in which Samara Weaving plays a bride who finds herself married into a peculiar family: they love games, and on her wedding night, the game of choice is a variation of kill the bride, and they mean it. They’re playing for keeps. But Weaving’s character is no victim. She fights back and then some! Although it sounds like a downer, this one is saved by its lively humor where you’ll find yourself laughing at things you have no business laughing at. Samara Weaving, who was so good in the horror flick THE BABYSITTER (2017) is excellent here once again.

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9. DARK WATERS

This riveting drama about one attorney’s fight against the powerful Dupont chemical company which was not only polluting one town’s water but an entire nation with its no-stick cookware features top-notch performances by Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. The most disturbing part of this film, which was based on a true story, is that the issue was never satisfactorily resolved and continues to this day. A must-see drama.

 

8. JOKER

The lone superhero movie to make my Top 10 list, and that’s a stretch, because it’s not really a superhero movie. It’s a moving and often disturbing drama that chronicles one man’s descent into one of the most iconic superhero villains of all time.  Joaquin Phoenix knocks it out of the park as Arthur Fleck, the man who eventually becomes the Joker. While I still slightly prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) because of the way he dominated that movie, Phoenix’ performance here is very different but equally as satisfying. The strength of JOKER is it makes the story of the Joker completely plausible. You’ll understand and believe how an ordinary person could become the Joker.

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7. THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

This heartwarming tale of a young man with Down syndrome Zak (Zach Gottsagen) who runs away from his state-run home to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler features outstanding performances by Zach Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome in real life, Shia LaBeouf as the drifter who decides to help Zach fulfill his dream, and Dakota Johnson as the concerned social worker hot on their trail. Also features fine supporting performances by Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church. Superior script by writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. LaBeouf’s best performance to date.

 

6. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

The only horror movie to make my Top 10 List, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is all the more impressive because it’s rated PG-13 and still manages to be scary, and that’s because it takes its business of scaring people seriously. Based on the popular book series by Alvin Schwartz, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK succeeds at what a lot of other horror movies fail with, and that is, building suspense. This one gets more exciting as it goes along. It tells separate horror stories that are all connected by one compelling wraparound story. The whole thing works, making for the most solid and effective horror movie of the year.

 

5. THE CURRENT WAR (2017)

Filmed in 2017, THE CURRENT WAR was re-released in 2019 with a new director’s cut, and so I feel comfortable including it on my Top 10 List for 2019. This winner of a movie tells the fascinating tale of the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to be the first to provide electricity for the United States. This period piece which takes place in the late 1880s-1890s is beautifully photographed and handsome to look at. Features two powerhouse performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, both of which drive this movie along, as well as a notable performance by Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Testa.

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4. ROCKETMAN

Outstanding biography of music legend Elton John features perhaps my favorite acting performance of the year, Taron Egerton’s spot-on depiction of the flamboyant and troubled John. Innovative in its approach, mixing the music of Elton John into key moments of the story, this film succeeds as much as a musical as it does as a biography. The sequence where John performs at the Troubadoor club in Los Angeles is one of the more electrifying sequences in any movie this year.

 

3. HOTEL MUMBAI

Not really shown a lot of love by critics, HOTEL MUMBAI nonetheless was one of the more intense movie experiences of the year. Based on the true story of the terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai,  HOTEL MUMBAI tells the compelling story of how— with authorities hours away from reaching the hotel— the hotel staff decided it was up to them to protect the guests from the terrorists who had overtaken the hotel. Thanks to some taut and tight direction by Anthony Maras, and notable performances by Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Anupam Kker,  and Nazanin Boniadi, this one is a nail-biter from start to finish.

 

2. JO JO RABBIT

For me, JO JO RABBIT was the biggest surprise of the year. It came out of nowhere and was a film that I went to see not knowing what to expect, especially considering it tells a tale of a young German boy JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) living in World War II Germany who adores the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, so much so that his imaginary playmate is Hitler himself, played here with hilarious effectiveness by writer/director Taika Waititi. At times wildly comedic a la Monty Python, this one is also a moving drama as JoJo’s mother Rosie (Scarlet Johansson) is anti-Nazi and is secretly housing a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). When JoJo discovers her, he is at first outraged, but as he gets to know her, he begins to learn the truth about what Nazism is all about. JO JO RABBIT is an amazing movie that works on all levels. Thanks to the writing, directing and acting talents of Waititi, and the rest of his talented cast which also includes Sam Rockwell as a Nazi captain with a conscience of his own, JO JO RABBIT is both a deeply moving drama and wild zany comedy, which provided for me the most and the best laughs from a movie all year. This was my pick for the Best Movie of the Year, until the final week of 2019.

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1. LITTLE WOMEN

And that’s because the last week of 2019 I saw LITTLE WOMEN, a perfect gem of a movie by writer/director Greta Gerwig, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers working today. Gerwig makes the bold decision to tell this story out of sequence, and the result is a fresh moving take on a literary classic, one that effectively speaks to modern audiences here in 2019. Features outstanding performances by two of the most talented young actresses working today, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, as well as a superior supporting cast which includes Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep. While I’m not really a big fan of the novel by Louisa May Alcott, I am an instant fan of this movie, thanks to Gerwig’s innovative directing and writing, the message about what life was like for women when they had so few rights, and the powerhouse performances by Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, two actresses to keep our eyes on in the years ahead. Without doubt, LITTLE WOMEN is clearly my pick for the Best Movie of 2019.

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And there you have it, my picks for the Top 10 Best Movies of 2019.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LITTLE WOMEN (2019) – Innovative Adaptation by Greta Gerwig One of Best Films of 2019

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Eliza Scanlen, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, and Florence Pugh in LITTLE WOMEN (2019).

Greta Gerwig is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers.

Her directorial debut was just two years ago with LADY BIRD (2017), a biting yet sensitive story of a high school girl’s turbulent relationship with her mother as she prepares to go off to college.  And before LADY BIRD Gerwig had already been enjoying a career as an accomplished actress and writer.

Now comes LITTLE WOMEN (2019), an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel that I liked even more than LADY BIRD. Simply put, LITTLE WOMEN is so good it’s one of the best movies of the year, if not the best.

And I’m not really a fan of Alcott’s novel or the previous movie versions of this tale.

But I am an instant fan of this movie, and there are two major reasons why. The first is the way writer/director Gerwig frames the story, and the second is the film’s cast.

To keep a classic story fresh, sometimes it helps to shake things up a bit, and that’s exactly what Greta Gerwig has done with this interpretation of LITTLE WOMEN. Gerwig made the bold decision to tell this story out of sequence.  The film begins with events that occur late in the story, and then rather than use simple flashback, Gerwig takes the movie viewer on a journey through events that make perfect sense even though they are not in chronological order.

To do this successfully, one has to have a command of the story or else the audience will be flat-out confused. Gerwig demonstrates full command of this tale. Events are linked through emotional connections rather than time, and so when a character is thinking or feeling a certain thought or emotion, the story goes there in time and those events play out. The result is an innovative take on a classic tale that in spite of not following a chronological order makes complete and perfect sense.

LITTLE WOMEN is the story of four sisters living in Concord, Massachusetts in the years during and following the Civil War. There’s Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the free-spirited writer who values her writing above all else, oldest sister Meg (Emma Watson) who is more traditional and down to earth than Jo, Amy (Florence Pugh), the artist who’s also the loudest and often most troubled of the sisters, and the youngest, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the quiet musician who is the least healthy sister.

They are being raised by their mother Marmee March (Laura Dern) since their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting in the war. Their young wealthy neighbor Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is infatuated with Jo, and as such becomes friends with all four sisters. He eventually proposes to Jo but she turns him down. Now, the film opens after this major event in the story has already happened, with Amy in Paris with her Aunt March (Meryl Streep) where she meets a forlorn Laurie traveling Europe on his own.

The story follows the plight of these four sisters, and in doing so remains remarkably timely as the film has a lot to say to modern audiences about the state of women in the 1860s, and it makes some interesting parallels to today. For example, there’s Jo’s conversation with her mother where she pushes back against the notion that a woman’s purpose is only to fall in love and get married. Jo argues that she wants to make something of her life, not just get married, but yet admits she his horribly lonely. And there’s Amy’s speech about marriage which outlines just how powerless women were in those years, that there was no way for her to make money unless she married into it, and even if she were wealthy, if she married, her wealth would immediately go to her husband, who also would have complete custody over any children they had. The details of what a woman’s life was like without rights resonates today when some of those rights are again being threatened.

It’s a superior script by Greta Gerwig that works on every level.

And what a cast!

The four leads are superb. Saoirse Ronan who also played Lady Bird in LADY BIRD is wonderfully captivating as Jo here. She captures the character’s fiery spirit and brings her to life in a way that seems far removed from the pages of a literary classic. She makes Jo a living breathing character. Ronan is one of the most intriguing actresses working today.

Likewise Florence Pugh is commanding as Amy March. She runs the full gamut from a young immature girl to a wise and worldly woman. Like Ronan, Pugh is another actress to watch. She made this movie right after filming the disturbing horror movie MIDSOMMAR (2019), and in interviews Pugh has said making LITTLE WOMEN served as therapy for her after such a traumatic experience making MIDSOMMAR.

I also really enjoyed Eliza Scanlen as Beth, and Emma Watson, who I feel is underrated as an actress, also does a fine job as the down to earth Meg.

Laura Dern delivers her best performance in years as Marmee March, and that’s saying something because Dern is an excellent actress who has delivered a lot of phenomenal performances. She makes Marmee the glue that keeps her family together, even when she’s gone off to tend to her ailing husband.

Timothee Chalamet shines as Laurie. Chalamet and Ronan also starred together in LADY BIRD, and their familiarity with each other shows here in LITTLE WOMEN as they really have a strong on-screen chemistry together.

Tracy Letts, who was memorable as Lady Bird’s father in LADY BIRD, is memorable here again as Mr. Dashwood, the editor who buys Jo’s stories but is very particular about the kinds of stories he wants. Bob Odenkirk only adds to the acting depth with his portrayal of the patriarch of the March family.

And then if all this isn’t enough, the film has heavyweights like Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper in the supporting cast.  Streep knocks it out of the park and has several scene stealing moments, albeit subtle ones, as Aunt March, and Chris Cooper, as he always does, delivers the goods as Laurie’s father Mr. Laurence. While Cooper here is playing an admirable father, we just saw him play a much less admirable daddy in A BEAUTFIUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (2019).

The entire cast is flawless.

Greta Gerwig is every bit as successful behind the camera as she is writing the screenplay. The film is wonderfully shot and visually attractive. It especially captures the feel of a cold and snowy New England winter. There are also some neatly framed shots, like the scene where Jo rejects Laurie and then finds herself sitting alone in a field with a picturesque New England scene in the background complete with a church steeple in the distance which enhances Jo’s loneliness since she is so far removed from the symbol of marriage.

The dance scenes are lively, the script sharp, full of both poignant and humorous moments, and the pacing perfect. The film’s two-hour and fifteen minute running time never drags.

This version of LITTLE WOMEN is driven by its storytelling, by Greta Gerwig’s innovative script and her on-target directing, as well as by its superb ensemble acting. The result is a completely engrossing tale of four New England sisters who have hopes and dreams and like any family of modest means struggle to achieve them. Through it all, they stand by each other.

And while the main character of the story is Jo—it’s her story arc that frames the entire movie—the film also spends considerable time on Amy. Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are both up to the task of putting this movie on their shoulders and with the help of a strong supporting cast they make it one of the best movies of the year.

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FORD v FERRARI (2019) -Thrilling Race Car Sequences Makes This One a Winner

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FORD v FERRARI (2019) is a fun movie to see in IMAX.

With its thrilling race scenes and camera angles that are low to the ground which put you in the driver’s seat, FORD v FERRARI watched in IMAX is a special treat. The thunderous roar of the engines literally shakes your insides, and the larger screen makes sure you don’t miss a single turn. It’s one very exciting movie experience.

FORD v FERRARI is based on the true story of how car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and race car driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) were recruited by Ford Motor Company to build and race a car that could beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966.

With sales slipping, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) challenges his corporate team to start thinking outside the box to shake things up. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) suggests they need a younger sportier image and that they could learn a thing or two from the ultra popular Ferrari. When Iacocca reveals that Ferrari is bankrupt, Ford offers a merger deal in which the two companies would work together, but Ferrari rejects the offer, instead inking a deal with Fiat. Insulted, Henry Ford II sets his sights on building a race car that will defeat Ferrari, and he says money is no object.

As a result, Iacocca turns to former race car driver and current car designer Carroll Shelby, who against his better judgment agrees to work for Ford. He handpicks Ken Miles as his driver, a decision that irks Ford Corporate, because Miles is viewed as a loose cannon and someone who does not live up to Ford’s conservative image. Complicating matters is Ford’s Vice President Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) cannot stand Miles and does everything in his power to remove him from the team, but Shelby is undeterred and fights for his driver all the way to racing day.

As I said, FORD v FERRARI in IMAX was a lot of fun since the larger screen and louder sound really heightened the race car effects.  And yes, the race scenes are definitely one of the reasons to see this one. They’re done really well, as director James Mangold keeps the camera in tight and captures the essence of race car driving from inside the front seat of the car.

I like Mangold as a director, as he’s directed a bunch of movies I’ve really enjoyed over the years, including LOGAN (2017). the superior R-rated Wolverine conclusion starring Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, the western 3:10 TO YUMA (2007) which starred Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, and way back when COP LAND (1997), which features one of Sylvester Stallone’s better acting performances.

The other reason to see FORD v FERRARI is its two leads, two actors I enjoy a lot, Matt Damon and Christian Bale.

Damon is well-cast as Carroll Shelby, the man who not only uses his talents to build the car that beats Ferrari, but also to keep his team together which is under constant attack by Ford Corporate. This one is called FORD v FERRARI but it could easily have been called FORD v CARROLL SHELBY since more often than not he’s fighting the very company that hired him to get the job done. This is probably Damon’s most satisfying role since THE MARTIAN (2015).

Christian Bale is a phenomenal actor who impresses in nearly every movie he makes. Last time we saw Bale he was unrecognizable as Vice President Dick Cheney in VICE (2018), in a role that required him to gain a considerable amount of weight. Here, he had to lose weight again to play the lean and mean race car driver Ken Miles, and as you would expect, Bale is superb in the role. He easily delivers the best performance in the movie.

Jon Bernthal, another of my favorite actors, does a nice job as Lee Iacocca, and he more than holds his own alongside Damon and Bale. Even though Bernthal is known for his TV work, on shows like THE PUNISHER (2017-2019) and THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2018), he has a lot of film credits as well in some pretty impressive supporting roles, in such films as BABY DRIVER (2017) and WIND RIVER (2017). Incidentally, the real Lee Iacocca just passed away earlier this year.

Josh Lucas is also very good as the very annoying Leo Beebe, while Ray McKinnon is effective as lead mechanic Phil Remington. Rounding out the cast is young Noah Jupe who plays Ken’s son Peter, and Caitriona Balfe who plays Ken’s wife Mollie. Both are very good.

It’s an interesting screenplay by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller, as it tells a less straightforward story than one might expect. The real “villain” here isn’t Ferrari, but Ford, the company and Henry Ford II. The only Ford member shown in a positive light is Lee Iacocca. The rest are portrayed as unimaginative bullies who Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles have to circumvent in order to win. In fact, there are times in this one where I found myself rooting for Ferrari.

FORD v FERRARI is not an incredible or astounding movie, as its story simply isn’t thought-provoking or emotional enough to reach that level, but it does feature top-notch car racing scenes and two actors, Matt Damon and Christian Bale, performing at the top of their games, and they’re supported by a talented cast of actors.

The result is a thrilling movie experience that’s the closest thing to being behind the wheel at the 24 Hours of Le Mans short of actually being there.

Start your engines!

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JO JO RABBIT (2019) – Unlikely Comedy of Boy Who Idolized Hitler One of Year’s Best

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If I were to tell you that one of the best comedies of the year would feature Adolf Hitler as a main character, you probably wouldn’t believe me.

But believe! Because not only is JO JO RABBIT (2019) one of the best comedies of the year, it’s also one of my favorite movies of the year.

JO JO RABBIT is the story of a young boy named Jo Jo (Roman Griffin Davis) who during the waning days of World War II not only wants to be in Hitler’s army but also idolizes the Nazi leader, so much so that his imaginary friend is none other than Hitler (Taika Waititi) himself. He gets the nickname Jo Jo Rabbit when during his youth soldier training he refuses to kill a rabbit, and the officers make fun of him, calling him first a coward and then “Jo Jo Rabbit.”

When Jo Jo discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house, he is at first outraged, but then as he gets to know her through their subsequent conversations, his feelings change, so much so that he finds himself questioning the Nazi doctrine.

JO JO RABBIT is an unusual movie. It’s also a terrifically fun and comedic one. The scenes between Jo Jo and his imaginary Adolf are flat-out hilarious. Writer/director Taika Waititi has a field day with the role, making this one of the most unlikely characterizations of Hitler on-screen ever. Waititi channels equal parts Mike Myers and Michael Palin, and even some Tom Hanks in his completely inane and hysterical take on the character. When asked why he would ever consider playing Hitler, Waititi, who is Jewish, answered, “What better way to say f*ck you to the guy?” And he’s right.

Young Roman Griffin Davis is astounding as Jo Jo. He pretty much carries this movie, and that’s saying a lot for a film that features a strong veteran cast.

Equally as good as Davis is Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the young Jewish girl hiding inside Jo Jo’s home. She is responsible for teaching Jo Jo some truths about life, including that he’s just a kid and not a Nazi. McKenzie stood out in last year’s LEAVE NO TRACE (2018) in which she co-starred with Ben Foster. I may have enjoyed her more here in JO JO RABBIT.

Scarlett Johansson delivers a spirited performance as Jo Jo’s mother Rosie. The two share some of the movie’s best scenes, certainly its most poignant ones, as the film speaks on what it’s like to be a single parent, but don’t expect strife and pain. Johansson’s Rosie is a strong character who is more than up to the task of raising her son on her own, even as she secretly works to take on the Nazis.

Likewise, Sam Rockwell— as he always is— is excellent as quirky Nazi officer Captain Klenzendorf who at times seems as if he walked off the set of the old HOGAN’S HEROES TV show. But there’s also a sincerity to Klenzendorf in his relationship with young Jo Jo that transcends comedic caricature.

And if Klenzendorf hearkens from HOGANS HEROES, Rebel Wilson’s Nazi Fraulein Rahm could easily have walked off the set of a Mel Brooks movie.

And young Archie Yates is exceptional as Yorki, Jo Jo’s second best friend— after Adolf. Yates and Davis share some tender scenes and some hilarious ones.

The screenplay by Taika Waititi, based on a novel by Christine Leunens, is nonstop hilarious. The film works not only as an energetic comedy and satire, but also as a moving drama that looks at the human condition and explores the relationship between Jo Jo and his mother, and more importantly, between Jo Jo and Elsa.

Some may argue that a movie like this may promote pro-Nazi views, and that some folks may not get the joke that these people are being made fun of, but the film combats that notion on two fronts. One, the Nazis here are portrayed as over-the-top buffoons, and two, the love of the Nazis is seen through the innocent eyes of a young boy, who with the experience of getting to know a young Jewish girl realizes how backwards and false those views are. In essence, as the story goes along, Jo Jo falls out of love with Adolf and in love with Elsa.

The film is clear in its repudiation of the Nazi agenda, as not only is Elsa a voice against Nazism, but so is Jo Jo’s mother Rosie, and to a lesser extent Captain Klenzendorf.

Taika Waititi, who also directed THOR: RAGNORAK (2017), and is known more for films like BOY (2010) and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014) has hit a home run here with JO JO RABBIT. Everything about this one works, from its sharp satire, to its frequent laugh out loud moments, to its touching message on the human condition, which is simply put, that love conquers all, and that we are here to love each other, not kill each other.

The film is also shot in bright vibrant colors, giving Nazi Germany a celebratory feel, which goes against the many gray newsreels from history, the point being that ordinary German citizens thought everything was going great. They believed they were living the dream, while others who secretly fought back, realized their government was misguided and working against human rights and decency. So Nazi Germany in JO JO RABBIT is shown as a happy place, where the Nazi agenda operated in the shadows.

It’s not every day that you come across a comedy that satirizes Nazism successfully, but JO JO RABBIT makes it look easy.

As such, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year.

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THE CURRENT WAR (2017) – Fascinating Illumination of Edison and Westinghouse Race

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There are a lot of negative reviews out there about THE CURRENT WAR (2017).

Don’t believe them.

Not only does THE CURRENT WAR successfully tell the fascinating story of Thomas Edison’s and George Westinghouse’s bitter battle over the electric current and how best to illuminate the entire nation, but it also features an A-list cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tom Holland, and Nicholas Hoult.

Which sounds I know like a superhero movie reunion, as all four of these actors have starred in superhero films— then again, who hasn’t?—: Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Shannon as villain General Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013), Holland as Spider-Man, and Hoult as Beast in the recent X-MEN movies.

None of these four disappoint. In fact, Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon who plays George Westinghouse both dominate this movie, and these two together really turn this one into something special.

But back to those negative reviews for a moment. There’s a story behind them, and it pertains to the delayed theatrical release of this film, which was made in 2017. See, back in 2017, this film was set to be released by The Weinstein Company, just before Harvey Weinstein was accused of rape and sexual assault. The release was delayed, the film sold to other distributors, and two years later here it is.

Now as to those reviews, a lot of those regard the film as it was back in 2017. Upon this 2019 release, the film is being called THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT, because director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon re-edited it. I’m guessing a lot of those reviews pertain to the original version, which I didn’t see, but I have seen some of the reviews, and they don’t describe the movie I saw in theaters. The movie I saw is one of the best movies I’ve seen here in 2019.

The movie opens in 1880, where Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not only an extremely successful inventor, but also a celebrity, with fans across the nation. It’s not uncommon for people to come up to him seeking his autograph. His latest invention, the electric light bulb, is poised to illuminate the country like never before.

But Edison’s system isn’t terribly efficient, and it’s expensive, and it’s not easy to light over great distances, meaning some sections of cities will be lit, while others will not be, at least not at first.

George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) believes he has a better system. By using an alternating current, Westinghouse’s system is cheaper and more efficient than Edison’s, and it’s able to light great expanses of land. As such, Westinghouse promotes his system as the one that can give electric light to the entire nation.

Edison decries Westinghouse’s alternating current as being deadly, and predicts that it will result in the deaths of many innocent people. Edison demonstrates that his system is like water. You can touch it without harm, but Westinghouse’s, if you touch it you will die.

Of course, today if you’re doing electrical work around your house you know to turn off the power or else face a potentially lethal shock, so we know which system eventually won out, but that doesn’t take away from the potency of the story told here. It’s a captivating story that held my attention throughout. There are also fascinating subplots, like the origin of the electric chair, seen then as the “future to humane executions,” and the involvement of a brilliant young inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), who was ignored by Edison and who later joined forces with Westinghouse and helped him utilize the alternating current to capture the strength of Niagra Falls to produce unprecedented amounts of electricity.

I really enjoyed THE CURRENT WAR. The story starts in 1880 and continues into the 1890s, and so as a period piece it looks fantastic. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon captures the period, both with colorful photography and authentic costumes. There’s a lot going on in this story, and I thought Gomez-Rejon did an excellent job keeping it all together. It never felt muddled or confusing. It’s a strong narrative.

As such, the screenplay by Michael Minick is a good one. It delves deeply into the characters of both Edison and Westinghouse. Edison was the showman, forever interested in appearances, always working on the next best invention, and always demanding he be paid highly for it. One of the better lines in the movie is spoken by Edison’s personal secretary and right hand man Samuel Insull (Tom Holland), who warns Edison against his own personality, cautioning him that if he’s not careful he’ll  “be remembered more as P.T. Barnum than Sir Isaac Newton.”

Westinghouse, by contrast, believed more in principles, did not want to fight dirty when engaged in the war with Edison, but also was shrewd and smart, and knew when to hit back hard. He also understood the bottom line, that his system was cheaper and more efficient, and so he knew that unlike Edison with all his bells and whistles, all Westinghouse had to do was to keep repeating that simple message, because it was true.

The story remains interesting throughout. I was hooked right way and remain riveted until the end credits rolled.

My favorite part of THE CURRENT WAR though were the performances of the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse. Cumberbatch is perfect as the intense Edison, turning off as many people in his inner circle with his egocentric approach as the lights he turned on, all the while never losing his grip on his celebrity status. Likewise, Shannon is masterful as the more down to earth and lesser known Westinghouse, a man who keeps to his principles until cornered, and at that point, does what it takes to survive.

Nicholas Hoult is also memorable as Nikola Tesla, the genius and dreamer whose ideas rivaled Edison’s. Tesla’s downfall was that, unlike Edison, he didn’t understand business and money. He died having made little or no money off his inventions.

I also enjoyed Matthew Mcfadyen in a supporting role as financer J.P. Morgan, a staunch Edison supporter who eventually jumps ship and puts his money behind Westinghouse.

Of the four big names in the cast, Tom Holland probably has the least impact. His role as Edison’s personal secretary Samuel Insull is a small one, and he doesn’t really do a whole lot.

And while THE CURRENT WAR reunites Tom Holland with his AVENGERS co-star Benedict Cumberbatch, since this film was shot in 2017, technically this is the first movie in which these two starred together.

One drawback I had with THE CURRENT WAR was the absence of key female roles. While there are women characters, like Mary Edison and Marguerite Westinghouse, neither of them figure all that prominently in the proceedings, and their absence is notable.

Other than this, THE CURRENT WAR is a superb movie which tells a riveting story from history that covers a time when the world was changing, when the nation went from darkness to light. The story of the two men involved in the race to give the nation that light is one that is definitely worth learning about.

As such, THE CURRENT WAR is must see viewing.

Even though it was filmed n 2017 and is just getting its theatrical release now, THE CURRENT WAR is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Don’t miss it.

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ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – Tarantino’s 9th Film Enters Fairy Tale Territory

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At first glance,  ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, seems to be an exercise in style over substance.

It takes place in Hollywood in 1969, and Tarantino masterfully captures the look, feel, and very essence of the time, with impeccable costumes, set design, and a killer soundtrack. Watching this movie, I really felt as if I had been transported via time machine back to 1969. The experience was that authentic.

Tarantino also gets top-notch performances from everyone involved, especially his two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.

The style, the filmmaking expertise, it’s all there.

But the substance? The story?

That’s harder to find because ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD takes its sweet time, and for most of its two-hour and forty-one minute running time, it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere, and so it tells its multiple stories with as much urgency as two guys sitting inside a saloon drinking whiskey. In short, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

And yet it’s told with an affection that clearly shows this time period and these characters and their stories were a labor of love by Tarantino. And it’s all light and funny, in spite of the fact that it’s built around one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, the brutal murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s insane minions. There is a strong sense of dread throughout the movie, knowing what’s to come, and then— well, then Tarantino decides to have some fun at our expense.

ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD is mostly the story of two men, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is somewhat of a “has-been,” as his last major starring role in a western TV series was from a decade earlier. Now, he’s reduced to playing the villains on 1960s TV shows like MANNIX and THE FBI.

This is clearly wearing on Dalton and is one of the prevalent themes in the movie, of how quickly success can pass one by, and how artists of a certain age need to work harder and be open to reinventing themselves if they want to remain relevant. There’s a lot of truth to this part of the movie. As we age, we have to make adjustments. One of the ways Dalton eventually reinvents himself is by going to Italy to make “spaghetti westerns,” and so it’s easy to see here how Dalton’s story is inspired by the real life story of Clint Eastwood, who did the same thing in the 1960s.

Stuntman Cliff Booth’s best days are also behind him, but he’s taking it much better than Dalton, because, as he says, he was never a star to begin with and so as far as he is concerned he’s still living the dream. He enjoys being Dalton’s “gofer,” driving the actor wherever he needs to go, being a handyman around Dalton’s home, and just hanging out.

Dalton, who lives in a Hollywood mansion, is miserable, while Cliff, who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, is happy, but this doesn’t stop the two men from being best friends. They truly like each other and care for each other, and the dynamic between DiCaprio and Pitt in these roles is a highlight of the movie.

And while Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional characters, their famous neighbors, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, are not. They are real, and tragically, Sharon Tate’s life was cut short on August 9, 1969 by the insane groupies of Charles Manson.

So, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD also tells the parallel story of Sharon Tate, and the film really allows its audience to get to know Tate as a person.

These parallel stories move forward until that fateful night in August 1969, and in spite of the comedic elements of this movie, there is a sense of dread throughout, that builds as the film reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that suddenly introduces a major plot twist allowing the film to keep its light tone. I have to admit, for me, this was a head scratcher.

As a result, I’m not so sure ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD works as a whole, but it does have a lot of little parts that work very well.

The best part by far are the two performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. They work really well together, but this isn’t a buddy movie, and so they’re just as good if not better in scenes where they are not together. Some of DiCaprio’s best scenes are when Rick Dalton is acting as the villain in a 60s TV western, trying to prove that he still has what it takes. DiCaprio also enjoys a couple of outstanding scenes with a child actor played by Julia Butters who at one point tells him sincerely that his performance with her was some of the best acting she had ever seen.

Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the livelier of the two characters and the one who is larger than life. Cliff, as we learn later, lives in a veil of infamous secrecy as rumor has it that he killed his wife and got away with it. Cliff also enjoys a fun scene in which he tangles with Bruce Lee, one of the more memorable sequences in the movie. 

Cliff is also one of the connections to the Manson family, as he befriends a young woman Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) who’s part of the Manson clan. And a quick shout-out to Margaret Qualley who steals the few scenes she is in with one of the most energetic performances in the movie. She’s terrific.

The scene where Cliff drives Pussycat back to the ranch where the Manson family resides is a perfect microcosm for the entire movie. Cliff brings Pussycat to the ranch, a place he worked at years earlier. Concerned that this group of hippies may be taking advantage of the ranch’s elderly owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Cliff wants to make sure the man is all right.

In an extremely long and meandering sequence, a lot like the entire movie, Cliff gradually makes his way through the various members of the clan, learning where George is supposed to be “napping.” He eventually makes his way to George’s room, and in a scene where you fully expect George to be dead, it turns out he is only napping, and what follows is a highly comedic banter between Brad Pitt and Bruce Dern, which is the route the film ultimately takes.

Which brings us to Sharon Tate. As I said, Margot Robbie is excellent in the role. On the surface, Robbie makes less of an impact than DiCaprio and Pitt because she has far less screen time than they do, but underneath the comedy and the drama Tate’s quiet spirit drives things along, and Robbie’s performance makes this happen.

Unfortunately, people can be defined by their deaths, especially if they were murdered. Tarantino seems to be pushing back against this notion with Sharon Tate. In ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD, Tarantino lovingly crafts Sharon Tate as a real person and not just as a footnote to the Manson murders. The film paints a portrait of Tate as a beautiful person, and really allows that persona to sink into its audience. I liked this. A lot. However, I would have liked it even more had Margot Robbie been given more screen time as Tate. She largely plays second fiddle to main characters Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The entire cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Bruce Dern and Margaret Qualley, but the film also has key contributions from Kurt Russell and Timothy Olyphant.  Also present are Dakota Fanning and Al Pacino, and look fast for Maya Hawke who is currently starring in Season 3 of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS.

So, you have this meandering movie, which looks terrific and features powerhouse performances by lots of talented actors, with a fairly funny script, although the dialogue is somewhat subdued from the usual Quentin Tarantino fare, and it’s taking its sweet time, taking its audience for a pleasant ride with the knowledge that tragedy awaits. All of this, I didn’t mind and mostly enjoyed.

But it’s the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD that I find most problematic and is the part of the movie that is the least effective. To avoid spoilers, I will not get into details, but what happens here is the film enters into the realm of alternate reality, and once it does that, well, all that came before must now be looked at with a different lens, and a new question arises, which is, why did we just watch all this? 

In other words, for me, one of the reasons the movie had worked so well up until the ending was it was a piece of historical fiction. Fictional characters were appearing in a real setting (1969 Hollywood) with a canvas of real events in the background. Once these events are changed, the film enters the world of fantasy, of historical reimagining, and once this is done, I don’t think the film possesses the same impact.

In short, to turn this tragic story into a comedy, even with the best intentions, is something I’m not sure entirely works.

At times, ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD seems to be a love letter to Sharon Tate. I liked this part.

At other times, most in fact, it’s a take-no- prisoners shoot-em-up dramedy about an aging movie/TV star and his laid back infallible stunt man. I liked this part, too.

But the last part, the punch line, seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s desire to do what he did to the Nazis in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) to Charles Manson and his “family.” It’s this last part that, while good for some laughs, seems the most out-of-place.  While there are hints in the film that this is where this story is going to go, it still feels jarring to watch the events unfold, events that change history, and thrust the movie head first into fairy tale territory, appropriate I guess for a movie entitled ONCE UPON A TIME— IN HOLLYWOOD.

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THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019) – Costner/Harrelson Pairing Low Key and Lackluster

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The pairing of Kevin Costner with Woody Harrelson immediately piqued my interest and had me tuning into the premiere of THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019), Netflix’ latest original streaming movie release.

Costner and Harrelson play Texas Rangers who are called out of retirement to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde in this period piece drama based on a true story.

It’s 1934, and Texas governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) is fed up with the elusive Bonnie and Clyde. She accepts the advice of prison warden Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) to hire former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) to  do what the current slew of FBI agents are unable to do: track down and kill Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer agrees to take the job, and helping him is his former associate Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson).

To do the job, Hamer and Gault have to dust off the cobwebs of retirement and deal with being a lot older, but once they feel they are up to speed, they’re hot on the trail of the infamous outlaws.

I was really into seeing THE HIGHWAYMEN because of the pairing of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, but surprisingly the two actors share little chemistry onscreen together.

Costner is very low-key as Frank Hamer, and as such, he just never really came to life for me. I never quite believed he was the infamous Texas Ranger who had killed so many people in the line of duty.

Woody Harrelson fares better as Maney Gault, and Harrelson’s scenes and lines of dialogue were among my favorite in the movie. But his character plays second fiddle to Costner’s and the story never really becomes about him.

And Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, and Kim Dickens all have limited impact with very small roles.

There’s also not a whole lot that’s cinematic about this one. It plays like a mediocre TV movie of old, and watching it at home on Netflix only added to this substandard feel. Director John Lee Hancock even keeps the R-rated violence somehow tame.

Hancock’s previous film THE FOUNDER (2016), a bio pic on McDonald’s controversial “founder” Ray Kroc, which starred Michael Keaton in the lead role, was a much better movie than THE HIGHWAYMEN. In THE FOUNDER, Hancock pushed all the right buttons, including capturing the look and feel of the 1950s. Here in THE HIGHWAYMEN his take on the 1930s is less impressive.

Hancock also directed the critically acclaimed THE BLIND SIDE (2009).

The screenplay by John Fusco focuses completely on Hamer and Gault and strangely spends hardly no time at all on Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, the infamous pair are barely even seen here. It’s a decision that doesn’t really help the story, because even though Hamer and Gault continually talk about how monstrous Bonnie and Clyde are, and even though we see the pair commit murder, because so little time is spent on them we never really feel their menace.

As a result, Hamer’s and Gault’s quest is largely one-sided. It’s hard to join them in their passion when we never see the object of their manhunt.

The dialogue was average, with most of the good lines all going to Woody Harrelson.

I also was looking forward to watching these two characters deal with their advanced years as they hunted down the younger Bonnie and Clyde, but the script doesn’t play up this angle very effectively either.

All in all, I found THE HIGHWAYMEN to be lethargic and lackluster. It never really ignited any sparks, and the two leads surprisingly never really connected.

At the end of the day, THE HIGHWAYMEN was more roadblock than highway.

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