Mo’ Better Blues

Spike Lee’s fourth film is a celebration of music and color. It features a stellar performance from Denzel Washington, thrilling music, and an exciting use of color.

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing premiered at Cannes in 1989. It was met with massive controversy. People believed it would cause race riots and violence. People objected to the depictions of Italians, African Americans, and police in the film. After the storm subsided, Lee returned with a film that couldn’t be more different.

Bill Lee is a well known jazz musician. He plays a number of instruments for a myriad of artists. He’s also an accomplished composer. He is also the father of Spike Lee. Bill Lee instilled one his son a love of music that can be seen on display in all of his films. In each of his previous films there is at least one extended musical number. School Daze itself is a musical. Mo’ Better Blues is a fascinating look at one mans relationship with music and how he sacrifices all else for his music.

The film follows Bleek Gilliam, a jazz trumpeter who knows exactly what he wants musically and not a thing about what he wants for the rest of his life. The film introduced Bleek as a child being forced to practice his trumpet by his mother. She makes young Bleek send his friends away so he can continue practicing. It’s a moment that comes to define Bleek’s life.

Bleek as an adult is played by Denzel Washington. This is the first of four collaborations between Washington and Lee. Here Washington is magnetic. He carries such intensity of thought in his eyes. His every gesture is executed for maximum impact. He is intense and focused on his music and distracted and distant when dealing with people. It’s an amazing performance. Watch the movie for the lesson in acting Washington gives.

Bleek has a good friend ironically named Giant, played by Spike Lee. He’s a gambler who bets too much on every game, but believes he’ll win this time much like every gambler. What’s interesting here is that Giant is never shown winning. He makes several bets, but he always comes out the loser. Movies tend to glorify anything they depict, and when an audience sees someone winning a bet, it looks like the coolest most thrilling thing that can happen. Winning tends to overshadow the losses in movies, so when movies try to sermonize on the dangers of gambling they still inadvertently make gambling look really cool. Lee sidesteps that here by showing only the danger and downside. It’s a really smart decision that pays off in a gut wrenching later scene.

Bleek plays in a club with a backing band that has plenty of disagreements chief among them how much they’re getting paid. These backstage scenes have the thrill of improvised moments. They just soar as these actors are able to play off each other and play the energy of the moment. The scenes rise and fall like a roller coaster. It’s a ton of fun to be in the room with these guys.

The use of color is fascinating here. Lee uses colored lights and colored costumes in a deeply attracted fashion to emphasize certain moments and isolate characters from the background. Not only does this use of color create some stunning compositions, but it also highlights the most important dramatic moments of the film. It’s a beautiful movie to look at.

Bleek’s main tension in the film is between his music and the two women he’s with. We are first introduced to Indigo Downes, plate by Joie Lee, Spike’s sister. She and Bleek share a really nice moment together before she leaves. Then we meet Clarke Bentancourt, played by Cynda Williams. She interrupts his playing for a sex scene. It’s another classic Spike Lee sex scene. It’s strange and oddly shot, but also fascinating. It’s nowhere near as weird and cringe inducing as the sex scene in School Daze, but it is odd. Both actresses rise above what could be considered underwritten roles. They give their characters depth and independence that is lacking on the page.

The film is unlike any of his other films in that it primarily focuses on one character and his journey rather than a large group of people or a community. It’s singular focus without sacrificing the side characters. Spike Lee populates his film with interesting and varied personalities like few filmmakers do.

The musical numbers in the movie are actually really exciting to watch. I worried they’d be full. Just watching people playing instruments isn’t exactly riveting filmmaking. However the way Lee shoots and edits these scenes gives them a life that captivated me throughout.

Now, with all that going for it, does the movie work as a whole? Almost. The movie sags in the middle as plot threads are set up that will lead to a climactic moment. Once that incredibly powerful moment takes place the movie sort of rushes to its conclusion obscuring a what could have been a riveting story in the process. I guess my main complaint is that I wanted more movie.

This one isn’t as important as his other films, but it is smoother and more polished. The filmmaking here is a little more streamlined and fluid not so rough around the edges. Watching it gives the sense that here, Spike Lee is defining his style.

I definitely recommend it and not just to people studying Spike Lee. It’s a really entertaining and well made movie with its fair share of problems, but more than enough positives to make up for it.

It’s my cup of tea. B+

Titanic

Yup, Titanic. After years of backlash and mockery, I decided to take a fresh look at what the biggest movie in the world to see if it is any good and if it deserves the derision it receives. (Spoiler alert: it is good and not it doesn’t.)

Titanic was released in 1997. It was written, directed, and produced by James Cameron. It started Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. I was a kid when the movie was released, and I like everyone else at the time loved it. It captured my imagination and emotions in a way nothing had up until that point. The movie grossed a staggering $2 billion at the worldwide box office and won 11 Academy Awards.

Inevitably when something is popular there is a backlash against it. Titanic endured the parodies and the late night jokes, but then something interesting happened. The mockery only deepened and became more intense. The jokes transformed into genuine hatred and debates over whether the movie was any good at all. Much like the real ship, the movie has rested at the bottom of the cinematic ocean for the last decade.

I admit I was a part of this. I grew to hate the movie. I thought it was tripe. Illogical, maudlin, and melodramatic. Looking back I think the forces the influenced me also played a part in the wider reaction to the film. The first was what I’m going to call putting away childish things. Every kid loves Barney at 3 years old. Every kid hates Barney at 8 years old. You outgrow the need for a show like that. You see it as simplistic. You feel embarrassed you ever did need that kind of kids stuff. The same thing happened to me with Titanic. I loved it in my youth, but by the time I was a teenager I thought it was overly simple. I thought it was base and did nothing to satisfy my newly sophisticated palette. People who loved it in their teens became cynical adults who rejected the movie for its sincerity. It’s a natural reaction.

Hand in hand with this is the popularity of the thing. When people get caught up in the tidal wave of popular opinion it is common to reject that opinion once the wave subsides. Once the initial enthusiasm is over people need to reclaim their individuality by distancing themselves from the popular opinion. After the hype dies down a popular thing will always be met by those claiming they never liked it to begin with. This was me. Trying to define myself as a teenager by rejecting the movie everybody loved.

Finally, the movie played on network television. I think this is the biggest one. It amplified every criticism one could lob at the film. If you thought it was long in theaters when it 3 hours and 30 minutes, you’ll really think it’s bloated when you try to watch it for 5 hours with commercials. Speaking of commercials, every time the story got going it was cut off by ads. The movie thrives on its momentum. Breaking that momentum every six minutes destroys the audience engagement. I remember flipping channels and watching the “I’m flying Jack!” Scene. It got cut off by and ad, and I changed the channel. I thought about that scene and how melodramatic it was and how the whole movie was melodramatic. I flipped back later to watch Rose floating on the door. I thought he definitely could have fit on there and it’s dumb that he didn’t. I figured the whole movie was illogical. The movie really needs to be experienced as a whole, a single story beginning to end, not bits and pieces. The movie is an emotional one not a logical one. “I’m flying Jack” plays perfectly with the proper build up. The door isn’t about whether he could logically fit. It’s about the fact he will sacrifice himself to ensure her survival. He’s going to die so she can live. It’s a beautiful ending when viewed in context.

At long last we come to the movie itself. It’s really good. The story follows Rose as she recounts the story of Titanic’s sinking to a team of divers excavating the wreckage of the ship. Her tale involves class conflict, repression, and love.

The story telling is fantastic. The way Cameron sets up the character arcs and the conflicts that will charge the story is beautifully handled. He also sets up the ship, how it works, and how it sinks both visually and through well placed exposition. of course the ship itself is the real stunner here. Through special effects magic, he convincingly recreates the ship in all its glory. The effects hold up shockingly well despite being 23 years old. It is a completely convincing magic trick that is wonderful to behold.

Young Rose, played by Kate Winslet, is deeply repressed by her class and social pressure represented by her severe mother played by Frances Fisher. Her family is broke, and her mother has arranged a profitable marriage with Cal Hockley played by Billy Zane. Fisher is wonderful. She has such a disdainful way of looking down on others, yet she conveys real desperation in private moments with Rose. However it’s her performance during the sinking that really stands out. Billy Zane is wonderful when he’s playing the smarmy rich boy, but when he flies into fits of rage it just feels silly. Perhaps it’s the way these scenes are written or the way he plays them, but they don’t work for me.

As Rose, Kate Winslet is truly fantastic. It’s a classic Hollywood Star making turn. She is wonderful throughout, but watching she’s her upper class ways and come alive is a nice bit of acting. The way she walks the tightrope between the upper and lower classes, the repression vs the free spirit is truly excellent. She also makes us believe that her love for Jack is real. The depth she brings to that love story is the reason the movie succeeds.

Jack is of course played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Jack is beautiful. He is a stunningly good looking young man in this movie. No wonder every teenage girl fell in love with him when this movie came out. His performance is fine. There’s just not a lot to Jack. He’s just a simple beautiful free spirit who falls in love with a girl. He is not the deepest character, but he is charming, reckless, and caring, and you can see why she loves him. It’s not a deep part of a deep performance, but it totally works in this movie.

The love story works, and it provides the back bone for the action movie that takes place in the second half. Cameron uses every action movie trick in the book to make the sinking as thrilling and engaging as possible. Scenes of Jack and Rose racing down corridors trying to escape the raising water play like something out of Terminator. When the ship breaks apart it’s shot like the best disaster movie you’ve ever seen, and when a key gets dropped on the wrong side of a gate, it is like watching a classic Hitchcock suspense film. However in all this action excitement the movie doesn’t lose its human moments. When Rose shares a quiet glance with a woman at the back of the boat, or when Jack looks at a man desperately holding on before everything goes wrong. The movie never loses sight of the human cost of the story. That’s what makes it a great movie. That attention to the human element.

The movie is an emotional experience. It builds and crescendoes to the final shot. The lovers journey, the desperation of the sinking, the despair of those left in the icy water, all takes you on a beautiful journey if you’ll let it.

I’m really glad I took the time to rewatch this movie. It has its flaws. It can be melodramatic at times, but that’s kind of the point. The filmmaking, characters, and storytelling more than make up for it. I am glad I could put aside the criticism and just experience the movie again. I loved it and I think you will too if you give it a chance.

My cup of tea A

Here is the video essay that inspired this review…

Do the Right Thing

This is one of those big movies that carries the heavy reputation of being”important!” I was pleasantly surprised to discover a movie brimming with rich characters, delightful filmmaking, and a wildly entertaining energy all in the service of a very serious subject matter.

Following the commercial success of School Daze, Spike Lee looked to current events for inspiration. A series of racially motivated violence as well as a viewing of an old episode of Alfred Hitchcock presents inspired him to make a film about race relations and how extreme can push people to the edge of violence.

To secure funding, he returned to Paramount Pictures (the studio behind School Days) who agreed to finance the movie. However, when Lee refused to alter the ending, Paramount pulled out. Luckily for Lee Universal Studios had just experienced great success and controversy with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. The studio was eager for another controversial hit and agreed to finance the film with no interference.

The film is really about the residents of a Brooklyn neighborhood and how they interact with one another during the hottest day of the year. The neighborhood is predominantly black, aside from its two local businesses;a grocery store owned by a Korean family, and an authentic Italian pizzeria run by Sal and his sons.

Sal is played by Danny Aiello. He’s a big classic Italian American, but due to Aiello’s nuanced performance he is never just a stereotype. Sal’s son Pino, played by an excellent John Turturro, hates his job. He hates that the pizzeria is in a black neighborhood. That black neighborhood is populated by some wonderful and vibrant characters.

Da Mayor, played by Ossie Davis, is an elderly gentleman who wanders the streets looking for a drink and anyone who’ll listen to him about the way things used to be. Mother Sister, played by Ruby Dee, is like everyone’s grandma. She looks after everyone in the neighborhood. There’s Radio Raheem, played by Bill Nunn, who blasts music on his boombox go drown out the world. There’s also Mookie, played by Spike Lee, who works for Sal. He’s like a son to Sal, and he’s trying to make a little something for himself and his infant son. The mother of his son is Tina, played by Rosie Perez in her first role.

The movie isn’t about one person so much as it is about the tapestry of people who occupy this neighborhood. It’s a true ensemble filled with amazingly well drawn characters who crackle with every interaction.

Race is a key theme in this film. The movie actually opens with an extended dance sequence that essentially encapsulates the movie in the interaction between dance and musical styles. If you don’t know what happens in the movie I won’t reveal it here. I was only vaguely aware when I saw it and I think that’s the best way to see it. Let the film unfold naturally. Let’s it’s tensions build and suck you in the way it did me. That ending is a powerhouse and it should be experienced without prior knowledge.

Of course the movie is incredibly controversial. Anything dealing with the subject of race is going to be controversial, but this film famously elicited divided opinions upon its release. The ending and it’s message have been debated ever since? Did Mookie do the right thing? Did anybody? This film should be seen and digested and discussed. It asks important questions and causes the viewer to think about different perspectives a little bit deeper.

That might all sound very heavy and important, and it is. But it’s also really fun to watch. As we’ve seen so far in his films, Spike Lee uses the camera and sound design in exciting and unique ways. The script is sharp and vibrant. The pacing is fast. The production design is top notch. It’s a great film.

I would just encourage anybody who thinks this movie is too serious or heavy or depressing or important for its own good, put aside everything you’ve heard and give it viewing for yourself. It’s worth it.

My cup of tea. A+

Tenet

I really wish I liked this movie. If you love stunning action, incomprehensible plots, beautiful people looking very serious, ludicrous amounts of exposition, and an eardrum pummeling soundtrack, you might enjoy this movie more than I did.

Tenet is the latest science fiction action film from Christopher Nolan. It follows John David Washington playing an unnamed hero. He saved the people inside the Russian national opera house from a terrorist bombing. Or maybe it’s a military coup, or maybe it’s a political assassination dressed up to look like a terrorist bombing. It’s very unclear. Also unclear is why this American is in Russia doing any of the things he’s doing. But don’t worry about it. Before you have time to wrap your head around it, the movie is zipping off to the next thing.

Eventually Washington’s character becomes involved with a secret organization that is using time travel to save the world from a future war that will wipe out humanity. Kenneth Branagh plays a Russian businessman who uses the future technology to enrich himself and may be planning to destroy the earth. I say “may be planning” because I seriously don’t know. In spite of the literally two hours of explanatory dialogue some things remain very unclear.

Part of the problem is the sound design. The music is incredibly loud. The sound effects are incredibly loud. The background ambient noise in the scene is incredibly loud, and all of this noise is playing over the dialogue. A lot of that dialogue is delivered I’m rushed whispers. It’s impossible to hear everything they’re saying and to make sense if it before the movie has hurried on to the next scene of explanation.

A couple things are clear. Using future technology, objects or people can experience time in reverse. People are literally moving backwards in time. This creates some stunning moments. There’s a fight scene in which one person is moving forward in time and the other is moving backwards. The fight choreography is incredible. The way it’s shot and the use of effects is mind boggling.

There is a car chase that involves people moving forward and backward in time. This is shown twice. The first time it’s a pretty standard car chase. The second time it comes alive because it is shown through another characters point of view. Seeing the whole thing play out in reverse is so much cooler than watching it forward.

The actors all do their best. John David Washington, gives a really solid performance. He anchors the movie. He’s a mostly stoic protagonist, but he has charm and charisma carries the action well. One late scene between him and Robert Pattinson really works as his emotions break through. Robert Pattinson has an easy charm as a somewhat foppish agent of sorts who takes care of business with an impish grin. Elizabeth Debicki plays the suffering wife of the villain. It’s a role she’s played before and better, but here she brings an emotionality that the movie desperately needs. Everybody here is so cool it’s nice to see someone who isn’t so calm and collected. Kenneth Branagh is genuinely scary here playing the Russian villain. He really has the smoldering villain thing down.

The trouble is that these great actors aren’t given much to say aside from explaining where they’re going next, what they have to do when they get there, and why it’s so dangerous. It feels like a bad version of mission impossible. It’s all tell very little show.

It’s not without its moments and it’s merits, but in the end it’s just not that good. You definitely shouldn’t risk your life to see it in the theater. Nolan is one of the visionary’s of modern cinema, but this one is a gorgeous misfire. It looks great, the ideas are there, but it doesn’t do much of anything.

Not really my cup of tea. B

School Daze

Spike Lee’s second feature film is a wild musical comedy that is disjointedbut also invigorating, refreshing and honest.

When Spike Lee first attempted to conquer Hollywood he did so with a script. He went to every studio that would meet with him with a script about college life on historically black college campuses. Everyone rejected him. He returned home to Brooklyn and shot She’s Gotta Have It. That film went on to make $7million at the box office (against a budget of $175,000) and help usher in a new wave of independent cinema. With that clout and success Lee returned to Hollywood with his college life script and found the doors open and the money available. He used his newfound clout to produce School Daze.

As with She’s Gotta Have It, Lee wrote, produced, directed, and costars in School Daze. Set against the backdrop of homecoming weekend, Lee weaves a tale of fraternity pledges, campus protests, and romantic relationships. underneath it all is a discussion of race that is challenging and deeply insightful. On top of that it’s also a musical.

The film follows an array of people navigating life on campus. Dap, played by Lawrence Fishburne, is a protester and activist on campus. The university has money invested in South Africa which at the time still operated under Apartheid. Sap and his fellow protesters are in constant conflict with the men of the Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity lead by Julian “Dean Big Brother Almighty” player by Giancarlo Esposito. The fraternity objects to the protest and uses their pledges in a humiliating demonstration to disrupt the protest.

This campus is populated by fascination people. To say the movie is about Dap vs Julian is reductive. It leaves out Darrell “Half-Pint” player by Spike Lee. He’s Dap’s cousin and he’s pledging Gamma. For him the weekend is about who’s he’s going to become and what kind of person the fraternity is going to turn him into. It also leaves out Jane, Julian’s girlfriend and head of the Gamma sorority. She loves Julian and wants to support the fraternity, but at what cost? It would also leave out Rachel. She’s been dating Dap but struggles with her own identity and place on campus. There isn’t one central conflict. There are a million. This film presents a kaleidoscopic view of life on campus.

This wide view is held together by some strong central themes. Classism, elitism, and colorism are a few of the biggest themes the movie tackles.

There’s a fantastic sequence where Dap and his friends discuss how far they should take their political activism. Dap’s friends are all for the cause, but none of them want to risk their place at the school with potential expulsion. Their parents worked so hard so they could be the first ones to go to college. Following this they go to a restaurant where they encounter a group of locals lead by Leeds played by Samuel L Jackson. The locals give the college kids a hard time. Dap insists they are all brothers. At which Leeds berates the kids for coming to town taking all the jobs and looking down on the locals. The college boys drive home and have a quiet scene where they let it all sink in. These three scenes in connection are such an amazing distillation of the themes of the film. It’s worth watching the movie just for this.

The other big theme of the film is colorism. the light skinned women of the gamma rays sorority have it out with the darker skinned women in a massive old fashioned Hollywood musical number. They clash over skin color and hair. Natural vs straightened hair. The fact that Spike Lee turns this debate and very sensitive topic into a musical number is a brilliant decision. It turns what would have been and awkward and potentially vitriolic scene into a something that can be more easily digested. It also interprets conflict through dance. As the women dance and out dance each other with varying styles it brings home the conflict without turning it into a slugfest. He follows the old musical rule. Talk until the emotions become too much at which point you sing. Sing until the emotions become too much. Then you dance. It’s a stunning musical number.

Just two movies in and some strong motifs start to turn up in his work. The first is that everyone is heard from. Every perspective is given a chance to speak. The other is music as a means of expressing theme. I’m Shes Gotta Have It, there is a dance sequence shot in vivid color in the middle of the film. In School Daze, there is an over abundance of musical moments.

That over abundance is really the problem with the movie. There are too many musical moments. Too many songs that don’t always serve a point. Too many sex scenes including the weirdest sex scene I’ve ever scene in a movie. There is too much hazing. There are endless scenes of the Gamma men hazing the pledges. It’s just too much.

Looking back at the film it’s very disjointed. There are scenes of deep realism followed by scenes of absurd comedy followed by tragic moments followed by musical numbers. In the moment it all works and flows, but looking back it feels like I watched a couple of different movies.

Full disclosure I was expecting to hate this movie. I’m not a big fan of college comedies, but there is so much more going on in this one. It opened my eyes to problems and discussions I never knew existed. I feel like I peaked behind the curtain and saw a brand new perspective I hadn’t considered before. there is so much going on in this movie to think about discuss and absorb. The movie feels fresh, prescient, and relevant today. Definitely check it out. It’s available to rent anywhere you rent your movies.

It’s my cup of tea. A-

She’s Gotta Have It

Thirty four years ago Spike Lee burst onto the scene with his feature directorial debut. She’s Gotta Have It is a narrative breath of fresh air. It bursts with invention and excitement. It’s a messy sometimes dated movie that remains engaging and entertaining all these years later.

Born in Atlanta as Shelton Jackson Lee, Spike (his mother called him Spike) was surrounded by art and music. His father was jazz composer Bill Lee and his mother taught arts and Black literature. Early in his childhood his family moved to the city that would become a massive influence on all of Spike’s films; Brooklyn.

Spike earned a degree from Morehouse college then studied film at NYU. His thesis film won him a Student Academy Award. He went to Hollywood hoping the award would open doors for him and jumpstart his career as a film director. He found nothing but closed doors, so he returned home to make She’s Gotta Have It. Shot in two weeks on black and white film with local talent in front of and behind the camera, Spike Lee pulled out all the stops to make Shes Gotta Have It something special.

The story follows Nola Darling, a artist who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to get it. In this case that means the love of three different men. The first is Jamie, played by Tommy Redmond Hicks. Jamie is sentive, strong, and straight forward. He’s also a little old fashioned and wants Nola to commit to him and only him. The second is Greer, played by John Canada Terrell. He is a vapid, shallow, douche. He is the kind if guy who is constantly working out and talking about his body is a temple. Then there’s Mars Blackmon played by Spike Lee himself. Mars is quite the character. He’s loud, immature, and goofy. He’s like the little kid sitting at the grown ups table.

These three men navigate the tricky waters of all vying for and enjoying the affections of one woman. There is a lot of sex in this movie. It’s a highly sexual film. There’s nudity and graphic discussions, but it never feels vulgar or excessive or out of place. The movie is about sex, and it doesn’t shy away from depicting that subject in a realistic and complicated way.

The film is often beautifully shot. The black and white cinematography is stark and stunning. However there are moments where the camera is out of focus. Sometimes it looks like the framing was just wrong for the moment. And there are some very weird and out of place edits.

There are also a few moments where the acting is very clumsy and awkward. Where line delivery is stilted and forced. For the most part the performances are fantastic and real. They create a lived in feeling. However some scenes could have used a second take.

That’s the thing about all these criticisms. The film was shot in two weeks. Most films are shot in 3 or 4 months. The messy and awkward quality the film sometimes has is the result of pulling off an impossible feat.

The movie is made with a verve for storytelling. It pushes the boundaries of storytelling and explores every aspect of the film medium. Most of the film plays out like any narrative film would, but the narrative is interrupted repeatedly by the characters directly addressing the camera and talking to the audience about the situation and how they feel about it. This documentary feel allows greater depth to the characters, and gives everyone a chance to express their side of the story. Everyone has a unique perspective. Everyone has the opportunity to be more than their type. Jaimie is not just a strong noble guy. Greer isn’t just a douche. Mars isn’t just a loudmouth. Everyone is more than what they appear to be, and this film wants to show us that.

This aspect above all is what carries through Spike Lees work. The idea that there are no heroes and monsters. In the real world everyone is a shade of everything. Everyone has the capacity to be good and bad and everywhere in between. Spine Lee starts his journey as a filmmaker looking at complicated people in a complicated situation, and every film he makes following this one will do the same.

She’s Gotta Have It is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch it for an exciting storyteller bursting out with creative energy. Watch it for a surprisingly modern take on love stories. Give it a chance. It’s a fun and rewarding experience. Definitely my cup of tea A

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Tom Hanks gives a perfect performance as Mr. Rogers in this beautiful little movie that isn’t quite a biopic, but isn’t exactly fictional either.

The movie opens with an impeccable recreation of Mr.Rogers’ neighborhood the beloved children’s show that ran from 1968 until 2001. The movie get every detail right, the music, the camera movement, the little miniatures that make up the neighborhood. Then Mr Rogers himself walks in. Now it’s clearly Tom Hanks playing Mr. Rogers, but the warmth, the compassion, and the aura is pure Rogers. For a moment I am five years old again watching this kind man talk about feelings. It’s like being wrapped in a blanket from my youth. Mr. Rogers introduces us to his new friend Lloyd played by Matthew Rhys. Lloyd is hurting on the inside and Mr. Rogers wants to tell us about it.

Lloyd is a jaded and cynical magazine writer with a challenging past, a father he hates, and a newborn son that he doesn’t know how to relate to. Lloyd is assigned to write a profile on Fred Rogers for Esquires heroes issue. Lloyd goes to Pittsburgh to interview Fred. Fred asks more questions than he answers and he begins to change Lloyd with his innate goodness.

The movie does a wonderful job of not deifying Rogers. He doesn’t like to be considered a saint or a hero. He’s just a man who loves people. He cares deeply about everyone. That honest, earnest sincerity is baked into every layer of this movie. it is a movie that quietly affirms the dignity of every living person just like the real Mr. Rogers did.

There are so many wonderful moments in this film. A full minute of total silence as Fred asks Lloyd and the audience to think of all the people whose love made you possible. A moment that should be saccharine, but turns out to be deeply moving in which Fred and Lloyd rude a subway. Fred is recognized by some kids and soon the entire car is singing his theme song. It sounds hokey, but it’s s beautiful moment.

The story with Lloyd and his family could’ve also been a series of played out cliches, but here it feels honest and genuine if a little melodramatic at times.

The movie is not a biopic of Fred Rogers. It touches on his life and who he is, but importantly it’s about the effect that he had on the lives of those around him. His kindness and decency made everyone he touched a better happier person. This movie made me a happier person.

Tom Hanks is so good in this movie. He is truly wonderful in this role. He perfectly nails Rogers’ mannerisms and inflections that we all know so well, but he also creates a real performance filled with rich details and subtlety. The way he looks and especially the way he listens is just magical. Watch the way Hanks listens to his costars in this movie, it’s a masterclass.

It’s not a perfect movie. It is full of minor flaws, but the movie made me happy and made me feel a little bit more optimistic. That warmth and goodness I felt totally washes away the negative aspects of the film. It is an antidote to the world around us. Everyone should watch this and the stellar documentary about Rogers Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Both films show a man who lived by example. A Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers believe that the best sermon is the one you live everyday. Let’s all be a little bit better.

It is my cup of tea. A

Bill and Ted: Face the Music

After almost 30 years, Bill and Ted are back for more absurd adventures through time. Happily, the movie works and is a lot of good natured fun. The perfect prescription for this awful month.

Back in 1989, two dudes from San Dimas, California were visited by a man from the future to help them with their history report. If they fail the report their band will have to break up and that will destroy the future. In the future Bill and Ted are known as the great ones. Their music will unite the world and create a utopia. Over 30 years later, these most excellent dudes are struggling to write the song that will change the world. They are summoned to the future and told they have 75 minutes to write the song or else all space and time will collapse in on itself. They decide to travel into their future and steal the song from themselves instead of writing it themselves.

The plot doesn’t make any sense. It is just complete nonsense. Time travel has always been silly in the Bill and Ted world, but here it just doesn’t make any sense. The reason this is a problem is because there is so much plot in this movie. It relies really heavily on the mechanics of time travel. When those mechanics don’t work and don’t make sense it just bogs down the movie in needless plotting.

That aside, the movie is a pure delight. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are back as the dim witted Bill and Ted. After 30 years, they still have the characters down cold. They are dumb, but in the smart way. They are immature, but they show their age. There is real heart and humor in these performances. Their chemistry and rapport is what has always carried these movies, and it still works wonderfully. As Bill and Ted travel through time and meet different versions of themselves, the actors are given the chance to explore wildly different versions of themselves. The actors get to play and it’s a joy to watch them play. One of the biggest laughs in the movie involves Bill and Ted trying to do something that they won’t remember in the future. It’s so dumb and surprising and perfect that I laughed out loud for a solid minute.

Joining them this time is their daughters. Billie and Thea, played by Brigette Lundy-Paine, and Samara Weaving. Lundy-Paine, delivers an impeccable impression of young Keanu Reeves while playing his daughter. She nails his mannerisms and inflection perfectly. Samara Weaving has the harder task as Alex Winter’s daughter. He didn’t have as grand a style as Reeves. He’s a harder one to mimic, but she nails it while adding some of her own touches to the character. They decide to help their dads by borrowing a time machine and creating a band of the greatest artists in history. This segment is classic Bill and Ted. Traveling through time, collecting historical figures. They find Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix, and a very excitable Mozart among others. Just silly fun.

The short end of the stick goes to Bill and Ted’s wives. They were 15th century English princesses who left their own time to be with Bill and Ted in the first movie. They’re having problems with their marriages mostly involving how dimwitted their husbands are. They are sent on their own side quest that we never see. They just get to disappear for the rest of the movie until they can come back for the big finale. It’s a really satisfying finale, but these two could be fascinating characters who are just given nothing to do.

The movie runs the gamut of shenanigans. They travel through time. They go to the underworld. They meet up with Death, yet again played by William Sadler. Death was one of the best characters in the last Bill and Ted. Here is doesn’t have as much to do, but hearing his absurd accent and watching the grim reaper play hopscotch by himself is absolutely hilarious.

This film has a a couple of really wonderful musical scenes. Watching Mozart and Jimi Hendrix jam together is a really wonderful scene that just elevates the movie in a really fun way. The movie has a deep appreciation of music and what music means for people. It takes its time to create interesting and meaningful musical moments throughout the film.

In the end, is it a great movie? No. The plot makes no sense and there’s too much of it. Not every joke lands. The ending is telegraphed from miles away. The characters are about as deep as a puddle on the sidewalk. If you haven’t seen the previous movies, this movie won’t mean much. That said, it is a delight to see such a positive and good natured move. It loves its characters. It loves music. It just wants people to be excellent to each other and party on. It’s a simple message, but it’s perfect for a Sunday afternoon movie.

Definitely my cup of tea. B+ The movie is playing in theaters, where theaters are open. It is also available to stream from iTunes, Amazon, or wherever you get your streaming rentals.

The New Mutants

Shot in 2017 and delayed and delayed and delayed, New Mutants finally sees the light of day. After all that waiting, it turns out the movie is only okay.

New Mutants was shot in 2017. It was delayed for reshoots. Then Disney bought 20th Century Fox. This brought more delays. Once the dust settled on the merger, the reshoots were rescheduled. Then canceled. Then the film was shelved indefinitely. Then it was finally completed. Now it has been released.

After all that, it would make sense that the film would be a complete and total disaster. It’s not. It’s also not as one reviewer stated “the worst X-Men movie ever.” There are far worse. This one is just okay.

It gets off to a rocky start. A very clumsily handled action chase through the woods. Dani, played by Blu Hunt, is a young Native American girl living on a reservation with her dad when she awoken in the night by the destruction of her community. An unseen force destroys everything and kills her father. This sequence is clunky and poorly executed. Not a great start.

Dani wakes up in a vaguely menacing hospital. She meets Dr. Reyes, played by Alice Braga. Reyes explains that Dani is a mutant who’s powers have manifested but remain a mystery. She needs to be kept in this hospital until they learn what her powers are and how to control them. This is also really awkward. It’s a weird exposition dump. The relationship isn’t clearly established. Reyes is sort of a blank slate early on. She’s not a comforting presence, she’s not frightening. She’s just there and so is Dani.

From here the movie really picks up. From here, Dani meets the other teens at the hospital. They have unique powers and unique trauma to go along with them. The teen performances are fantastic. Their dynamics are engaging and their conflicts very entertaining. The stand out is Anna Taylor-Joh as Illyana. She’s a Russian teen with a deeply troubled past who used her powers to escape her trauma. She reacts violently and cruelly to those around her in order to protect herself. Her conflict with Dani and the rest of the group is what drives their growth and change. It’s really solid.

From there the movie takes on elements of a horror movie as things start to get weird for everyone. Ghosts from their pasts seem to be emerging for all of the new mutants. Apparitions and horrifying visions lash out. Sometimes this works really well, sometimes not so much. There’s a great scene in a confessional. Then there’s an awkward scene in the shower.

The horror element is also abandoned in favor of a super powered cgi slugfest in the final act. CGI monsters are slain by CGI super powers. There’s an amazing moment when Illyana steps forward in all her super powered glory to defend the others. Then there’s a generic fire guy fighting a generic monster.

The movie really feels like a mitigated masterpiece. It has moments of greatness, but every time something good starts to happen it gets cut off. Once the group dynamic starts to get rolling, they dispense with that and move onto the horror movie. Once the horror starts working and the tension mounts the movie shifts gears and turns into a straight up action movie. The movie just doesn’t commit to one thing. If it did it could’ve been great as it is, it’s too much and not enough.

As with everything I’ve seen recently, I can only recommend portion of the movie not the film as a whole. Is it worth risking your life and going to the theater for? No. Is it okay enough to stream it someday? Sure.

Kind if my cup of tea. C+

Project Power

Magic pills unleash people’s inner superpowers in this gritty and surprisingly gruesome action thriller from Netflix.

The movie Starz Joseph Gordon Levittown and Jamie Foxx. Levitt is a cop in New Orleans working drug cases and trying to figure out the source of the new super drug. It seems everyone has an innate super power and these glowing pills unleash your inner power for five minutes. Or they just make you blow up. Several times people take pills and explode into buckets of blood and viscera.

Jamie Foxx is the mysterious loner who is somehow mixed up with the pills, but he has his own agenda. He beats and brutalizes his way through the New Orleans underworld tracking down the pills.

The connection between these two is Robin, played by Dominique Fishback. She is a street kid who sells pills to help out her mom. Foxx thinks she can lead him to the supplier, so he kidnaps her and is genuinely frightening in a scene where he interrogates her in the trunk of his car. It’s apparently more frightening for the audience than for Robin because within five minutes she’s forgotten about the abduction and becomes his plucky side kick.

The relationship between Foxx and Fishback is really nice. Their chemistry is solid and the father daughter bond they have works. The problem is the movie skips the building of that relationship. He goes from terrorizing her to being buddies in no time at all. It’s jarring. Watching it felt like ten minutes of character development scenes were cut to get to the action. The same thing happens when Gordon-Levitt and Foxx meet. They go from enemies to partners in the least convincing way possible. The movie wants payoffs without taking the time to do proper setups.

The action here is good for the most part. Foxx faces off against someone who can control fire early on. It’s a genuinely cool sequence. There’s a great chase scene involving a man who’s power is that he is essentially a chameleon. His body is constantly changing colors as he races through the streets to avoid the cops. It’s a cool idea with a solid execution. Then there’s a chase through a club where someone takes too many pills and turns into a cgi monstrosity that’s is just plain silly.

There is a shady and corporation and some corrupt police, but these are just cliches used to justify action scenes. In the same way that the main through line of rescuing the kidnapped daughter is just a worn out cliche that only serves to make the extreme violence feel more acceptable.

The movie almost coasts by the problems on the charm of the three leads. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jamie Foxx, and Dominique Fishback are all great performers, and their charm is almost enough to make up for the movies failings.

I’m the end it’s a middle of the road movie. It’s not great, but there are worse movies for your Friday night. Kind of my cup of tea. B