Napoleon


Add this to a list of long movies this year. Following in the wake of Killers of the Flower Moon at 3 hours, 26 minutes, and Oppenheimer at an even 3 hours, this 2 hour, 38-minute romp through the battlefields of early nineteenth-century Europe doesn’t even make your butt sore.

If you’ve seen 2000’s Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott, you know what to expect with NapoleonGladiatorwas also directed by Scott and also featured Joaquin Phoenix, though not in the lead role. Locations, costuming, and immersive cinematic violence are his strengths. The role of Commodus, which Phoenix played with creepy intensity in Gladiator is more or less reprised here in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte, history’s “short guy,” who set out to conquer the world. In both cases, he looks convincing in a Roman-style laurel leaf crown.

Don’t look for much about his stature. Only a couple of times was he seen standing on a box or needing assistance to mount a horse. As a side note, the actor is two inches taller than the subject at 5 foot 8 inches. And the “hand in the vest” thing is entirely absent.

The film begins with Marie Antoinette’s trip to the guillotine in 1793 France. Young General Bonaparte returns from the field and begins a string of military victories that eventually claim the lives of three million soldiers. From an initial triumph at Toulon to his eventual undoing at Waterloo, the parade of battles is on display in the film in graphic detail, though not with a total emphasis on gore. War is ugly, cold, hot, and lengthy. From Egypt to Moscow, the poor souls under Bonaparte’s command suffered from exposure to the elements, disease, and starvation while lofting him to Emperor of France. He would not settle for simply being king.

Royalty throughout Europe is displayed during Napoleon’s ascension and eventual quest for an heir to the throne. His volatile relationship with Josephine suffers from the conflict between two equally dynamic and acerbic personalities. Josephine is well-played by Vanessa Kirby.

Phoenix pulls off the portrayal of a man who may have been a highly functioning autistic savant. (It wouldn’t be surprising if Phoenix is as well.) But his ingenious military tactics were eventually no match for equally brilliant, and adaptable, generals like Britain’s Wellington. Some artistic liberty is taken in the scene between the two leaders, which is fictitious.

Depictions of infantry and cavalry charges, a military staple until technology changed warfare in World War I, are gut-wrenching to watch. The term “cannon fodder” is gruesomely illustrated. You’ll do yourself a favor if you read (or watch) “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens, or “Les Misรฉrables” by Hugo to get a feel for the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror. At least look up some of the historical characters presented in the film, like Alexander, Talleyrand, Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and Von Blucher. Significant events and dates are labeled with subtitles, but people are not always identified.

Napoleon was never boring, but left me feeling that perhaps a four-hour version would be appropriate (ninety minutes of additional footage in a Director’s Cut is promised.) And as engaging, visually stunning, and well-acted as it is, I didn’t leave saying “Wow!” More like, “Yeah, that was good.” I might recommend watching at home if you have a really large, high-quality system, otherwise, viewing in a theater is recommended.

Napoleon (2023) runs 2 hours, 38 minutes, and is rated R.



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Genie

If you’re looking for some light Christmas entertainment, Richard Curtis, the writer of Love Actually and Notting Hill has something for you. Partnering with relatively inexperienced Director Sam Boyd over a heavily spiked cup of hot cocoa while binge-watching Elf, I imagine them saying, “If we could just get Melissa McCarthy to play the genie!”

And they did. And I like anything with McCarthy in the lead role, but this bordered on embarrassing, so let’s revisit the notion of “light Christmas entertainment.”

 

Where do you find a movie rated PG these days other than Disney? That rating pretty much guarantees that you won’t have to explain things to the kids or be offended by gratuitous sex, violence, or vomit. And we’re all busy at this time of year, so ninety-three minutes of mindless fun feels just about right.

 

The story is worn out on two levels. First, a mysterious object, when rubbed, brings forth a genie in a flurry of second-rate visual effects with an unlimited supply of wishes to be granted. Wait, unlimited? Aren’t genies supposed to grant three wishes? Yes, that’s explained. All of the usual “I wish for,” regret and hijinks ensue.

 

Second, the underlying theme of a father so caught up in his work that he misses a series of his daughter’s important events has been overdone for a long time. Here we begin to get glimpses of Walter Hobbs, though a much nicer portrayal in the hands of Paapa Essiedu as Bernard, than James Caan’s mean dad in Elf. Bernard’s entitled wife is quick to kick him to the curb, and really not very forgiving when he devotes himself to making things right (with plenty of magic.)

 

The Elf comparisons are numerous, mostly because McCarthy seems to be channeling Will Ferrell’s character to keep things silly. There are lots of visual gags for a magical being to use after an absence of two thousand years, and several verbal ones as well. “You knew Jesus, the son of God?” says Bernard. “I thought he was kidding!” replies the genie. She then proceeds to wash her hair in the toilet. 

 

I’m not giving away anything that isn’t in the trailer. So, grab some egg nog and cookies, don’t bother hitting pause if you have to go to the bathroom, and light up the Christmas tree. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, just not always for movies.

 

Genie (2023) runs 1 hour, 33 minutes and is rated PG.


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Killers of the Flower Moon

Be aware of a couple of things if you choose to see this movie. First, it is based on actual events. Second, it is three hours and twenty-six minutes long. We’re talking 1980’s Heaven’s Gate length, which was only ten minutes longer in its highly criticized truncated theatrical release than you’ll spend squirming in your seat for this film.

A long movie is not a problem, particularly when the legendary Martin Scorsese produces it. Here he summoned actors Robert De Niro for the tenth time and Leonardo DiCaprio for the fifth. Together, they made everything from Taxi Driver to The Wolf of Wall Street. They are wonderful and we love to see them on screen. Also appearing are John Lithgow and the still fake-fat Brendan Fraser, both in cameos as lawyers later in the film. But I believe the real star of the film is Lily Gladstone, who plays Mollie, the wife of Ernest Burkhart, played by DiCaprio.

 

Martin himself appears twice in the film. Before the opening credits roll, he gives a passionate introduction to the film he’s long desired to produce, about a topic that means much to him. At the film's end, he appears as a narrator in a live radio play (pre-television) that summarizes the story we’ve just seen.

 

Elsewhere in the film are a number of Fox Newsreel silent-movie-era headlines about the rise of the Osage people subsequent to the discovery of oil on their land. Instant wealth brought with it instant interlopers from white society, initially as predators and eventually as murderers.

 

Scorsese and his period-specific tactics seem gimmicky and silly, disrupting the flow of the film unnecessarily. We get that the film is set in the 1920s. Fake old footage adds nothing. It is otherwise beautifully filmed, set, and costumed.

 

The sad undercurrent of the events within Killers of the Flower Moon is their proximity between our time and the “Trail of Tears” that came before them. Despite the indignity, treachery, and horrors inflicted upon Native Americans in our country during the previous hundred years, the Osage tribe found themselves willingly thrust center-stage into yet another tragedy beyond their imagination. We watch it all play out as De Niro uses his nephew DiCaprio as a thick-headed puppet in a marriage-and-murder scheme to inherit Osage wealth.

 

Gladstone masterfully balances trust with cautious suspicion in her soft-spoken demeanor, but eventually is taken in despite the death of her entire family. But the murders that occur at the behest of William Hale (De Niro) don’t need to be acted out in scene after scene. Their violence is gratuitous. Likewise, the investigation and eventual trial seem like an entirely second film that could be cut to shorten the movie.

 

Despite its flaws, Killers of the Flower Moon is worth seeing as an educational experience, though maybe at home, where you can create your own intermission. And those who prefer not to learn about or believe in episodes of American history that cause them emotional discomfort might be better off watching old John Wayne westerns.

 

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) runs 3 hours and 26 minutes and is rated R.


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Barbie

Barbie is confused. Ken is insecure. But the really weird thing is that Barbie is self-aware. I’ll get back to that.

If this film had to be made (and over a billion dollars in box office receipts indicates, yes it did) Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling were great casting decisions. They were both injection-molded in real life as Hollywood stars that seem flawless, from Ryan’s abs to Margot’s, well, everything. I dare you to find a blemish on either face.

They’re both perfect as the original incarnations of the Mattel toys. Then came…the other ones. You know, Beach Barbie, Doctor Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, President Barbie, Mermaid Barbie…and Ken. The first point made in the film is that Ken is nothing without Barbie. He’s more or less an accessory, off to one side and at the bottom of the toy box.

 

I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to reveal that Barbie, after suddenly dreaming of death (to the great horror of other Barbies) enters the real world in an apparent coming-of-age quest for purpose.

 

There’s even a Weird Barbie, well-played by Kate McKinnon. In an appropriately weird exchange, human Barbie proclaims, “I’m not pretty anymore. I’m not ‘stereotypical Barbie pretty.” Then, narrator Helen Mirren says to the audience, “Note to the filmmakers: Margot Robbie is the wrong person to cast if you want to make this point.” There’s an uncomfortable pause as Robbie turns toward the camera and lets this sink in.

 

Fans are apparently in an uproar over this line that was voted the worst in the movie.

 

But they get over it, and Barbie continues her self-assessment, confronting Will Ferrell, CEO of Mattel. He tries to “put Barbie back in her box”—a transparent metaphor for her literal repackaging as the unaware doll. Ken then goes rogue and takes over Barbieland, and the two confess to gawking strangers that they lack genitals. Hardy har.

 

Barbie’s conundrum is a less-than-nuanced layered onion of conflicting wants, needs, and perceptions. By the end of the film, the audience should be feeling confused, but Barbie confidently struts into the office of her…I’m not going to spoil that one.

 

So what’s the message of this movie? Is there more than one? Perhaps therein lies its power. Like Barbie, it can be whatever you want it to be.

 

Barbie is too good to be real, but she wants to be real until she’s real.

Barbie can do anything. Women can do anything.

Ken is nothing without Barbie. Tear down the patriarchy!

Barbie is stressed by her own perfection, don’t expect her to do it all.

She wants to be Everywoman, just don’t demand it of her.

She wants to be pretty, but don’t objectify her.

Why can’t everything just be the way it used to be? Make Barbie great again.

 

Around and around we go, with little girls everywhere as beneficiaries or collateral damage. At some point, the Mattel greed machine determined that a superhuman role model was the way to empower and motivate generations of toy-loving impressionable children. Of course, they just wanted to make money. Did they really care about empowerment, feminism, diversity, and inclusion?


So, best not to overthink this one. People are having tons of fun with it, and that's what going to the movies should be all about.

 

I never played with a Barbie, Ken, or GI Joe, so I’m fairly mystified by the phenomenon this movie became. I played with Silly Putty. Silly me. Go see Oppenheimer. There won't be a Silly Putty movie.


 

Barbie (2023) runs 1 hour 54 minutes and is rated PG-13.


๐Ÿ˜Ž


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Oppenheimer

The film Oppenheimer is a black hole into which three hours of your life will disappear, so make sure you go to a theater with comfortable seats.


I have a passing interest in physics, having taken a pass on physics in college. I cut so many classes it would take Schrodinger to determine if I was in the class or out – or both. (that’s a physics joke for certain friends.)

 

If you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory, you’re about to meet all of the names that were routinely dropped by the science nerds on the show. Of course, everyone knows Einstein, but here we get to meet Oppenheimer, Bohr, Heisenberg, Fermi, Teller, Feynman, and others.

 

A little terminology you’ll encounter during the film, and a side note that Alfred Nobel, of the Nobel PEACE prize fame, invented TNT. A kiloton of TNT is one thousand tons (two million pounds) of dynamite. One stick weighs less than half of a pound, so try to visualize four million sticks of dynamite! A megaton is one MILLION tons (two billion pounds.) It’s hard to even imagine what that would look like.

 

Christopher Nolan directs this fascinating look at the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, commonly called the father of the atomic bomb, the scientist who directed the Manhattan Project. The famous endeavor was headquartered in Los Alamos, New Mexico but divided into four compartmented, super-secret locations, one of which could have killed my mother, but I’ll get to that.

 

Oppenheimer is one of those dark, complicated individuals, so brilliant and sure of his expertise that he becomes something of a rock star in a very competitive scientific community. He likes to blow things up, like relationships, and that’s where the focus of the movie dwells for a long time, since we all know how it ends. BOOM.

 

Nolan, who loves dark personalities like the one he created for Batman in The Dark Night, clearly enjoyed peeling away the layers of “Oppy,” as the main character came to be known.

 

Oppenheimer realizes the potential for a nuclear chain reaction early in the film and says to a fellow scientist, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking? A bomb!”

 

That one was for the audience, along with other out-loud thoughts to help us understand. In a lecture to physics students he states that light can be both a wave and a particle, new thinking at the time. He was on the forefront of quantum theory.

 

Cillian Murphy, familiar from other villainous roles, is perfectly cast as the fedora-wearing leading man. Emily Blunt is solid as always, as his wife. But Matt Daman as Temporary Brigadier General Leslie Groves, was a casting mistake. He’s too likeable and has done far too much comic work to be taken seriously, though a slight hint of humor is appropriate in a few scenes when he’s trying to understand the true nature of the project he’s leading, and the possibility that it could destroy the world.

 

Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as Lewis Strauss, a Cabinet member wannabe who will stop at nothing to be appointed. We’ve certainly become familiar with bullying lawyers and Congressional committees, but it’s interesting to see it play out in the 1940s. Antisemitism, communism, McCarthyism – there were a lot of “isms” back in the good old days.

 

But back to my personal interest in what Oppenheimer accomplished.

 

My mother seemed almost Forrest Gump-like in her encounters with historical figures. I’m grateful that she told me these stories. For a young woman to leave a sheltered suburban life in 1940 to work in Hyde Park at the University of Chicago speaks volumes about her intellect and courage. She became a secretary in the Music Department on the south end of the campus.

 

A scene in Oppenheimer takes place in an unused football stadium at the University. Mom was working about a half mile away while the first controlled nuclear fission reaction in history took place. It was one compartment of the Manhattan Project, named for the New York location of the Army component of the eventual 130,000-person endeavor.

 

Have you heard of Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois? Well, Enrico Fermi was down the street from Mom, directing the insertion and removal of shielding lead rods from a self-sustaining prototype reactor, being careful not to set off a nuclear explosion or meltdown that would have predated Chernobyl by 46 years. They worked under cover of the name The Metallurgical Laboratory, now an historical landmark. They succeeded with their test on December 2, 1942, avoiding a blast that would have vaporized my mother and much of the south side of Chicago. A meltdown might have created an unlivable mess for thousands of years, encompassing most of the city and suburbs. If you consider the “exclusion zone” around Chernobyl with a radius of 19 miles, the Willis Tower is only eight miles away. And by the time of Chernobyl they supposedly knew what they were doing. In 1942 this was entirely new and barely understood.

 

When the resulting nuclear bomb was eventually detonated in New Mexico, scientists expressed a very real concern that the chain reaction they were about to unleash might ignite Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, a terrifying new weapon entered Mankind’s arsenal, causing Oppenheimer to regret his work and state, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Still, it was that or allow the Germans to develop the bomb first, use it against our allies and change history in a very detrimental way. 

 

Or was it? The Germans had already been defeated, yet work on the bomb continued. We then dropped a bomb on Hiroshima, and a second on Nagasaki, populated and industrial areas respectively, to see what would happen. Japan was not given time to surrender after the first bomb before Hell was revisited upon the Earth three days later.

 

President Truman is cast in a new light here, portrayed by Gary Oldman, and the lust for power on the world stage we see on the evening news is proven not to be a modern tendency. It’s as old as mankind.

 

You can go to the concession stand or the bathroom at just about any point during this film and not feel the need to catch up, but it’s definitely worth seeing.

 

Oppenheimer (2023) runs 3 hours and is rated R.


๐Ÿ˜Ž


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Or if you'd prefer seventy non-fiction stories inspired by a town in Illinois, please consider buying Park Ridge Memories also on Amazon. Click on the image below.


 

M3gan

     

            We’re always up for a Blumhouse movie. Jason Blum created Blumhouse Productions in 2000 and quickly established a reputation for a particular flavor of horror films. If you’re not sure if you’ve seen any, they include The Purge, Split, Get Out, Us, The Invisible Man and The Black Phone.

            Get Out was a sleeper that debuted as a streaming offering, then went on to win an Academy Award for best screenplay and gross $255 million worldwide. Shot in 23 days, it was Jordan Peele’s breakout success as writer and director with an edgy social commentary in a horror wrapper.

            So, that’s a tough act to follow. We’d credit beginner’s luck, but at the end of the day, it was just good entertainment with a creative concept and great scripting. According to Jason Blum, it is the quintessential Blumhouse film: low budget, high on entertainment and social commentary, all in the hands of a director no one believed in.

            And I’d say they’ve done it again.

            Blumhouse pictures tend to be steeped in gore, but not as gratuitously as, let’s say, Saw. So you’ll find yourself squirming a bit and on the edge of your seat, but remember, you’re there by choice. Each Blumhouse film feels unique. They haven’t resorted to the formulaic feel of teen slasher films. You get something new with each offering.

            As with many trends in filmmaking, our fear of new or unfamiliar technological breakthroughs often give birth to new genres in the SciFi category. If you watch the news at all, you’ve been hearing a lot about Artificial Intelligence or AI. Recently, ChatGPT has dominated headlines with stories of cloned voices, computers that write sermons and college papers, and WHO KNOWS WHAT’S NEXT. Clearly the robots are about to take over. This is nothing new if you’re a fan of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. The scariest robot of all is the one you can’t tell is a robot, right?

            Well, we can certainly tell that the newly created children’s toy named M3gan is a robot. She retains enough jerky movements and dilating camera eyes to ensure us that nothing could possibly go wrong. But of course, M3gan is a learning AI, and that’s when her role as protector of her paired child owner, Cady, becomes problematic.

            Longtime fans of robot science fiction recall Issac Asimov’s brilliant laws of robotics. They are: 1) a robot shall not harm a human, or by inaction allow a human to come to harm. 2) a robot shall obey any instruction given to it by a human, and 3) a robot shall avoid actions or situations that could cause it to come to harm itself.

            Well, scrap that. M3gan didn’t go to that school. With knowledge comes power, and M3gan has plenty of both. (Note: some reshooting was required to reduce this film’s rating to PG-13.)

            M3gan has a creepy resemblance to actress Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the famous Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley. Her movements often appear human, thanks to her costume wearing human actress, twelve-year old Amie Donald.

            Eventually, M3gan goes on a rampage. How do you stop something that can outsmart and out muscle you? I guess you’ll have to see M3gan before someone tells you!

 

M3gan (2022) runs one hour 42 minutes and is rated PG-13.


๐Ÿ˜Ž


If you like fiction and you're in the mood for over 50 short stories, please consider buying "Natural Selections," at Amazon.com.


Or if you'd prefer seventy non-fiction stories inspired by a town in Illinois, please consider buying Park Ridge Memories also on Amazon. Click on the image below.


 

 

 

 

 

The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

This is one of those films with a difficult title to remember. Even the ticket taker at Regal stumbled over it as he confirmed our purchase....