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92nd Academy Awards preview: Parasite v 1917

For the sake of posterity, here are my predictions and thoughts on tonight’s Academy Awards:

Best Picture:

Going to win – 1917, the runaway winner at BAFTA and odds on favorite tonight, the Academy will likely favor an old standard in Best Picture winners: the technically proficient, period war epic

Should win – Parasite, probably sitting in the runner-up chair, Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece has a strong chance to pull the upset thanks to the preferential balloting system and is the year’s best film by a significant margin

Dark horse – Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the Academy loves movies about Hollywood and this Quentin Tarantino period dramedy is probably the most accessible of his filmography to Oscar voters

Best Director:

Going to win – Sam Mendes for 1917, Mendes should get the BP boost along with the film’s overwhelmingly spectacular technical achievements to hand him an Oscar for putting all the right pieces around him

Should win – Bong Joon-Ho for Parasite, same story, different category, Bong creates a rich, deep world that constantly keeps audiences on the edge of their seat and masters nuance from start to finish

Dark horse – Realistically no one, although some voters will cast their ballots for Tarantino, one of Hollywood’s best auteurs never to win this award

Best Actor:

Going to win – Joaquin Phoenix for Joker, the darkest, most actor-y performance of the year is essentially a guaranteed first time win for Phoenix, who elevates an otherwise marginal comic book movie to Best Picture contender worthy status

Should win – Adam Driver for Marriage Story, a performance that is probably more nuanced than Phoenix but less showy, which doesn’t bode well given Phoenix has swept everywhere else

Dark horse – None.

Best Actress:

Going to win – Renée Zellweger for Judy, a tolerable performance in a vastly mediocre film that somehow got crowned as the best of the year back in September without any real discussion or debate

Should win – Saoirse Ronan for Little Women, a four-time Oscar nominee by the age of 25, Ronan puts together her most Oscar-y performance yet as Jo March, but with a depth of conviction and character that underlies her immense talent.

Dark horse – Scarlett Johansson for Marriage Story, double nominated in both lead and supporting actress, Johansson is better in the first twenty minutes of Noah Baumbach’s film than Zellweger is at any moment of Judy

Best Supporting Actor:

Going to win – Brad Pitt for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a much deserved accolade for one of cinema’s best character actors who just happens to be among its most attractive, which shields out sometimes how good of a performer he is and how effortless it is for Pitt to be charming.

Should win – Pitt

Dark horse – Joe Pesci for The Irishman or Tom Hanks for A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, 2019 was a terrific year for supporting actors and both of these men could easily have run away with the award in another year.

Best Supporting Actress:

Going to win – Laura Dern for Marriage Story, another example of a race that was over before it began, Dern is good as a no-prisoners-taken divorce attorney but there are other performances that are as good or better that deserve more attention as well.

Should win – Florence Pugh for Little Women, the breakout star of Midsommar takes a reviled literary character and turns the tables on audiences with a standout performance as Amy March. The most difficult performance to pull off of any of these nominees, Pugh knocks it out of the park.

Dark horse – None

Best Original Screenplay:

Going to win – Parasite

Should win – Parasite

Dark horse – Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

 

Best Adapted Screenplay: 

Going to win – Jojo Rabbit

Should win – Little Women

Dark horse – The Irishman

Best Animated Feature:

Going to win – Klaus

Should win – Toy Story 4

Best International Feature:

Going to win – Parasite

Should win – Parasite

Best Documentary Feature:

Going to win – American Factory

Should win – American Factory

Best Original Score:

Going to win – Joker

Should win – 1917

Best Original Song:

Going to win – “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman

Should win – “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman

Best Sound Editing and Mixing:

Going to win – 1917

Should win – 1917 for editing, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood for mixing

Best Production Design:

Going to win – 1917

Should win – Parasite

Best Cinematography:

Going to win – 1917

Should win – 1917

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

Going to win – Bombshell

Should win – Bombshell

Best Costume Design:

Going to win – Jojo Rabbit

Should win – Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

Best Film Editing:

Going to win – Parasite

Should win – Parasite

Best Visual Effects:

Going to win – 1917

Should win – 1917

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Dear Basketball: Preserving the legacy of a man, not just a legend

I never liked Kobe Bryant growing up.

To me, a life-long Dallas Mavericks fan, he was a smug, self-indulgent rival who wasn’t as good as everyone else thought he was.

As a film aficionado and budding critic, it bothered me even more that one of my most-disliked sports antagonists won an Academy Award. It reeked of the bravado that annoyed me watching him dunk on Mavs centers or bank in game winning jumpers in route to another championship he didn’t deserve.

Part of the pageantry about sports is creating and hating the villain. It’s what endears us to our heroes who best someone else’s hero that we view through the lens of the enemy.

I was in a movie theater Sunday afternoon watching the film I intended to write this review over, Guy Ritchie’s crime caper “The Gentlemen” starring Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell and Hugh Grant.

About halfway through the film, I was strangely moved to do something I rarely do in a theater; stop watching and check my phone.

The screen flashed up with several text messages, a missed phone call and an ESPN news alert, all of which were commonplace for me to see once the credits start rolling on a movie.

For some reason, instead of putting my phone away, I walked down the aisle and into the hallway, far enough out of view to not interrupt other audience members, but close enough to keep myself inside the world of the film.

I opened my phone again expecting to see some text messages that wouldn’t matter in the long run and someone I needed to call back on my way home.

The ESPN alert jumped to the top of the screen, “Breaking News: Kobe Bryant killed in helicopter crash at 41.”

It was an unexpected, stunning revelation and one I couldn’t stop thinking about amid the ensuing diatribe and violence that concluded Ritchie’s film.

It’s lingered in the back of my mind all afternoon and evening; someone I grew up watching and reviling was gone in the most tragic of fashions along with eight other people I’d never known of or met, among them his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.

The thoughts that clouded my mind brought me to the one piece of Kobe lore that I’d never seen before: “Dear Basketball,” the five-minute film based on his retirement poem that won Bryant an Academy Award in 2018 for best animated short.

Director and animator Glen Keane takes Bryant’s words penned for an article in The Player’s Tribune and vividly animates them through hand-sketched pencil work that leaps off the screen in spite of its two-dimensional style.

As Kobe narrates his own story, audiences are shown his legacy not through championships, but through the impact Bryant’s relentless passion for a sport had on him as a man, illustrating his growth from a six-year-old boy shooting hoops with his dad’s rolled-up tube socks into a legendary member of the Los Angeles Lakers.

It’s a touching short that grows more poignant now on the day of his passing, hearing Bryant talking about savoring “every moment we have left together, the good and the bad” in a way that becomes a rallying cry for renewed hope in whatever passions we may have.

Oscar-winner John Williams pens a sweeping score that combines the majesty of athletic competition with the final notes of impending exit. It veers slightly toward the point of excessive, but still hits home hard enough to draw tears from even the most stubborn of viewers.

Keane’s expert use of color palette keeps the focus on Bryant, muting nearly everything but the yellow and purple of Kobe’s jersey and layering black strokes to enhance detail in life-like comic book form, enveloping the Bryant of “Dear Basketball” to superhero status in the mind’s eye of Kobe as a child.

“Dear Basketball” perfectly illustrates not the myth that was created for him, but the inner soul of the man himself.

Poetry and poignancy was something I never expected from Bryant.

The Kobe I thought I knew wasn’t capable of that.

It’s saddening to think that only his untimely passing – and especially that of his teenage daughter – would bring me to reframe the image of him in my mind’s eye.

The power of film comes from its ability to have an impact on its audience and to preserve eternally people and moments in time.

In this regard, “Dear Basketball” is a perfect film, keeping the memory of a legend, but more importantly a man, alive.

 

The animated short film, “Dear Basketball,” can be seen online at believeentertainmentgroup.com/portfolio-item/dear-basketball.

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Just Mercy: Truth in the final hours

A star-studded, politically relevant courtroom drama based on a true story released right in the middle of awards season is typically the kind of film Oscar voters and general audiences eat up.

So why is no one going to see “Just Mercy,” the latest film from indie darling director Destin Daniel Cretton starring a pair of Academy Award winners and led by “Black Panther” standout Michael B. Jordan?

There’s nothing wrong with the film. It’s a perfectly adequate, well-crafted feature that tells a simple story in poignant, heartfelt ways.

“Just Mercy” just happens to be about seven years too late.

The film follows the beginnings of the Equal Rights Institute, a non-profit law firm started by Harvard-educated African American lawyer Bryan Stevenson who moves to the heart of Alabama to counsel disenfranchised and wrongly condemned death row inmates on their final appeals.

While encompassing the first years of the institute in general, the film most closely follows the case of Walter McMillian, wrongly convicted for the murder of an 18-year-old woman in spite of significant evidence ignored during his racially charged trial.

Despite being based on Stevenson’s autobiography of the same name, “Just Mercy” serves more as an acting tour de force for a trio of talented character actors, most notably Oscar winner Jamie Foxx delivering his best performance in over five years as McMillian.

Foxx brings an earnest heart to the role that been hardened not by the prison that’s stolen his life from him, but by an ever-increasing distrust of a justice system that’s failed him time and again.

His chemistry opposite Michael B. Jordan’s steady, stoic turn as Stevenson is consistently solid throughout the film, but what sets Foxx apart in “Just Mercy” is the emotional bonds his McMillian is able to form beyond walls with two adjacent death row inmates played by Rob Morgan and O’Shea Jackson, Jr.

Unable to see or feel the others’ presence, the three men instantly develop an emotional rapport and support that feels earned in spite of the extraordinary circumstances around them and help provide the film’s most heart-wrenching moment at the end of the second act following the decision of one inmate’s final appeal.

In the least heralded great performance of 2019, Morgan blows audiences away with a remorseful passion mixed with bewilderment and confusion that will leave viewers stunned and awe-struck.

Similarly, Tim Blake Nelson plays a pivotal role as a fellow inmate accusing McMillian of the murder whose confrontations with Stevenson feel comically caricature at first glance but becomes revelatory as the film catapults its way through the courtroom stage.

“Just Mercy” fails to make the most of its biggest box office draws as Jordan is a serviceable protagonist through which to follow the story, but he never truly makes much of a mark on the film as Stevenson. Likewise, Oscar winning actress Brie Larson lends her credibility and star power to her third collaboration with Cretton after “Short Term 12” and “The Glass Castle,” but is given almost nothing to do in a small role as Stevenson’s aide.

The fatal flaw within “Just Mercy” is that the scope of the film exceeds the Stevenson-McMillian relationship far too much for a tight narrative structure, but doesn’t expand the world wide enough to justify a lengthy 137-minute running time. While the subject matter is more than worthy of chronicling, Cretton sacrifices a relatively thin plotline for character moments better suited for television miniseries.

Cretton doesn’t force the action visually in any special way, leaving the audience to rely on the ensemble cast’s largely terrific performances to prop up the film as a whole. The cinematography doesn’t get in the way and the musical score swells at all the expected moments, but the whole project technically reminds of an extended television crime procedural rather than a weighty, cinematic courtroom drama.

“Just Mercy” will have a stronger run on streaming platform and home video rather than on the big screen as Warner Brothers rightly focuses their attention on larger projects like “Joker” and “Richard Jewell.”

A competently made, brilliantly acted drama, “Just Mercy” is worth taking a chance on later this year when the film is made available for private home viewing.

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1917: War close at hand

You’ll never see Roger Deakins on screen, but he’s in every frame of director Sam Mendes’ new war epic “1917,” from the opening frames bathed across a sea of endless green grass until the final cut to black before the credits.

World-renowned as a master craftsman in his art, the British-born Deakins achieves his magnum opus with “1917” – a visual spectacle combining his years of experience as film’s premiere cinematographer and his unique eye for capturing fleeting moments to last a lifetime.

The film intends to follow two young English lance corporals as they journey across enemy lines during World War I to deliver a message calling off an impending attack on German forces that will ambush and kill 1600 British soldiers, and for the most part, it does so considerably well.

What “1917” truly is, however, is an arresting, unparalleled feat of technical cinema that will dazzle audiences with its extended, world-spanning one-take camera work that pulls audiences in and gives the effect of continuous, unedited filming over the course of two hours, fully immersing viewers in the shoes of two brave, yet scared young men.

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman propel the engine that makes “1917” work as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake, respectively. Their easy chemistry amid the most difficult working conditions for actors is especially impressive and the relatively limited dialogue in the screenplay allows for the pair to wear their emotions on their sleeve with haunting eyes.

“1917” pulls the camera in close on both performers and presses in on these non-verbal cues to show, not tell audiences about the mental strains placed on young WWI servicemen and MacKay’s stoicism matched with Chapman’s heart leaps off the screen at every turn.

Though the bulk of the film follows the two young leads, “1917” is also littered by brilliant supporting turns from a number of talented British character actors from Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, to Mark Strong, as well as Andrew Scott and Richard Madden. Each actor pops up at exactly the right moment to provide gravitas and emotional depth.

The film’s harrowing subject matter and plot leave audiences constantly on edge as Schofield and Blake could easily encounter imminent death over every ridge or around the next corner. An unbroken, continuous camera frame heightens this suspense and keeps audiences dialed in to the duo’s circumstances, equally unsure what’s to come next.

Mendes and Deakins masterfully contend with the elements over the course of meticulously pre-conceived panning shots, often relying on natural light to illuminate scenes and operating free-flowing panoramic cameras that allowed for steady and smooth 360-degree rotation.

Each second of “1917” is a precisely choreographed dance between actors and camera operators, moving across dynamic, uneven terrain and across miles of intricate bunkers and sets hand-crafted for shooting.

Mendes and editor Lee Smith blend scenes together confidently with limited breaks in the dynamic visuals, cheating slightly as the camera is obscured from viewing Schofield and Blake at various points to hide cuts in the film. Most viewers won’t notice these slight imperfections in the cinema that provide the overall look of the film as they will be too entrenched in the pair’s plight and Thomas Newman’s gripping score to peer behind the curtain.

A multiple Golden Globe winner, “1917” is certain to be one of the most nominated Academy Award contenders this spring, immediately vaulting into frontrunner status for cinematography, direction and production design. Newman’s haunting, pitch-perfect orchestral score should win as well, though it has lost recently to Hildur Guõnadóttir’s equally transfixing accompaniment to the comic book origin film “Joker.”

The film could easily win Best Picture following its Best Motion Picture – Drama win at the Golden Globes, but could just as easily fall into the same trap other technically profound films like “Gravity” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” did at the Oscars, winning in many smaller categories but missing out on the top prize.

There’s absolutely no reason to see “1917” on anything less than the biggest, best screen imaginable – even if that means avoiding closer theaters. A visual marvel unlike any other, “1917” requires a grandiose, epic cinematic experience to match the vastness of the film itself.

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Uncut Gems: Loving the uncomfortable

Tense situations often provide for the best drama and leave bystanders watching things unfolding on the sidelines captivated in awe.

It’s a compulsion that pulls us to slow down and gawk at accidents and train-wrecks; the very thing that allows a television program like “The Jerry Springer Show” to exist.

Cinematically, that uncomfortable draw that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats can be the same feeling that prevents people from seeing an incredible film more than once.

The much heralded, Golden Globe-winning “Joker” is like that, as is the latest feature from Josh and Benny Safdie, the writer-director brother indie darling tandem behind 2017’s standout crime drama “Good Time.”

With their new movie “Uncut Gems,” the Safdie brothers crank the volume up to 11 on their signature brand of frenetic, gritty New York City film spectacle in a must-see, then likely never see again drama.

Adam Sandler gives the transformative performance of his career as Howard Ratner, a diamond district jeweler whose obsession with sports gambling and the big score puts him at odds with clients, loan sharks and his estranged family.

Sandler disappears so fully into Howard that it’s often hard to remember Sandler’s comedic work during “Gems.” There’s an eccentricity to Sandler’s performance that emboldens audiences to live inside the world of the film and accept this familiar character on his own terms and not as it relates to Sandler.

When audiences watch an actor like Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, they often find themselves engulfed within their performances and still never take their minds off the fact that De Niro or Pacino are playing the parts. Who they are as personalities can never be totally removed from the work.

Sandler’s Howard pulls viewers in so fully – in large part thanks to the Safdies’ pitch-perfect screenplay – that the comedian himself fades away behind the glasses and goatee, something Sandler has never been able to pull off before in a 20-plus year movie career.

The film’s ensemble cast boasts a bevy of talented character actors with ruthless, memorable work including Eric Bogosian as a vindictive loan shark, Broadway and “Frozen” star Idina Menzel stunning as Howard’s angry wife Dinah and Lakeith Stanfield as Howard’s assistant and client valet.

Former National Basketball Association star Kevin Garnett delivers a tremendous, intense performance as a fictionalized version of himself in one of the best acting performances by any major sports athlete, enhancing the film with an authentic, controlled turn that pushes the drama in new directions.

The film’s breakout star is newcomer Julia Fox, who pulls focus away from Sandler in a wonderful supporting turn as Howard’s employee/mistress. Fox charms audiences in a way that feels manipulative but largely isn’t and her presence on screen is reminiscent of the dynamic energy Margot Robbie brought to her first major role in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

What sets “Gems” apart is the film’s relentless uncertainty where literally any outcome or repercussion can occur at any time. This keeps viewers apprehensively engaged and tense, forcing them into Howard’s corner as every action he takes feels like a miniature wager with ever-growing stakes.

It’s a tremendous pairing of screenplay and performance that allows the chaotic pace of the film to genuine and earned rather than deliberately contrived. The Safdies, who have sought Sandler for the role of Howard for the better part of a decade, perfectly pen a character to fit the longtime comedic actor’s unique quirks in such a way that opens up Sandler to a world of new opportunities cinematically.

Shot on 35 mm film, the visual artistry of “Gems” maintains a raw, gritty vibrancy and the Safdie brothers play with lights and colors to keep the dynamic energy of their screenplay alive regardless of the situation. This works especially well during a scene where Howard enters a club filled with blacklights which gives the screen an off blue hue complemented by a bright neon orange hoodie worn by a character antagonizing Howard that visually represents the story the Safdies are trying to tell.

“Gems” is likely far too controversial for major awards season considerations although the movie will likely be heralded by critics and independent film groups.

Sandler has an outside chance for a best actor nomination if newer members of the Academy rally behind him and the film, though it’s more likely their support will go to Eddie Murphy’s turn as a struggling comic turned movie star in Netflix’s “Dolemite Is My Name.”

“Uncut Gems” clearly stands out as one of 2019’s best independent films and a dramatic career pinnacle for Sandler that needs to be seen on the big screen to truly be appreciated.

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Little Women: Frantic urgency in domestic life

Another period drama remake of an oft-told story isn’t what cinema needs these days.

There’s far too little originality in filmmaking to warrant updated versions of a book that already has six feature film adaptations.

“Little Women” is the exception.

From the opening moments where writer/director Greta Gerwig begins at the end, it’s readily apparent that Louisa May Alcott’s classic coming-of-age novel about four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – living and loving in Civil War-era Massachusetts has never been adapted with the amount of vibrancy or dedication that Gerwig and her cast create.

It’s a highly personal, classical and yet richly modern interpretation that uses the ballpoint pen as a jackhammer to Alcott’s linear narrative.

While prior adaptations have centered primarily around bold writer Jo, Gerwig layers her version with richer examinations of all four sisters and interprets the novel with a bold vision that elevates the source material.

“Little Women” works thanks in large part to its dynamic cast led by three-time Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan as Jo and 2019 breakout actress Florence Pugh as Amy.

Headstrong and meticulous in her performance, Ronan sears the screen with an intensity befitting prior interpretations of Jo, but with a soulful complexity that creates a deeper connection between audiences and the character.

Ronan’s Jo works tremendously well on her own within the film, but her work is emboldened further in concert with the rest of the cast especially Pugh, who creates the sort of unrequited sibling rivalry with Jo that is both grounded in the original text and feels authentic as sisters so identical that their similar passions drive them apart.

Pugh approaches Amy as someone who has felt held back by her sister and society but matures over the course of the film to find her own voice and identity in a way that is sincere not perfunctory, passionate not shrill.

As much as “Little Women” elevates Pugh’s Amy, Emma Watson’s Meg and Eliza Scanlen’s Beth are both showcased individually and give strong supporting work in larger group scenes that accent the Jo-Amy duality as well as highlight the importance of their own characters to the narrative. A pivotal scene featuring Jo and Beth at the beach is overwhelmingly emotional thanks in large part to what Ronan and especially Scanlen aren’t saying to each other in the moment and leave to non-verbal cues to the audience.

In one of the film’s most challenging roles, Timothée Chalamet weaves himself flawlessly in and out of the lives of each March sister as neighbor/best friend/love interest Laurie, adding different flourishes to his performance depending on which sister he interacts with. This gives the film much needed complexity and helps showcase the individuality of each sister.

There’s magic visually as the camera kinetically flows through space in the sisters’ younger years, leaping into the middle of the fray of their playful arguments and gliding along as Jo and Laurie dance along an outdoor patio in one of the year’s best crafted shots.

Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux takes a more reserved approach to the older half of the movie with more stoic, wide-arcing shots that create elegance rather than distance.

“Little Women” leaps off the pages of Gerwig’s screenplay with a frantic, chaotic energy that permeates its way through the March sisters and radiates a palpable heat that cinema – especially period historical fiction – rarely strives towards.

There’s an exceptional amount of passion to the film that draws in even many a skeptical viewer. Dialogue is delivered with vigor, often overlapping to the point where words burst from these four talented actresses as if their vitality were about to explode out of their bodies.

So much of Ronan’s performance is driven by this churning, inner desire for a fulfilling, artistic life that fuels Jo’s constant “writing like you’re running out of time, like you need it to survive,” to borrow a phrase from the Broadway smash hit “Hamilton.”

This relentless pace and dynamic energy allows Gerwig’s most daring conceit of the film to be successful as the filmmaker rips apart Alcott’s traditional narrative structure. Folding two timelines – one in the girls’ teenage years and another ten years later as they grow into adulthood – Gerwig reshapes and recontextualizes the classic tale for modern cinema, overlapping scenes from both times to enhance emotional growth amid a sense of nostalgia in the March sisters and allow audiences to see things from a fresh perspective.

Occasionally, this plot structure will jar viewers to keep them engaged in the action and may confuse some audiences unfamiliar previously with the Alcott story. Gerwig takes some slight liberties with the plot itself that brilliantly illustrate the struggles women had in being taken seriously as artists during the 1800s, but not so much so that audiences will lose their way or that the intentionality of the original work is altered.

A virtual lock for Academy Award nominations, the frontrunner status come Oscar season for “Little Women” will be determined more by nods in less certain categories. Best Picture, best actress for Ronan and best adapted screenplay for Gerwig are all but assured.

If potential nominees like Pugh in supporting actress, Gerwig for direction and Chalamet in supporting actor come through alongside technical nominations for costuming, production design and score, then “Little Women” could vault itself to the top of the race alongside “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story.”

More than just a simple book adaptation or period piece, “Little Women” is a dynamic, inventive piece of cinematic storytelling from an emerging master filmmaker that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

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The Rise of Skywalker: No real end to never-ending saga

Millions upon millions of dollars have been poured into a series of Flash Gordon-esque movies about the unseen “Force” around us for the better part of a half-century.

Many millions more have been poured into the bank accounts of Disney execs by casual and ardent fans of the acclaimed “Star Wars” franchise that reached its summation this weekend with director JJ Abrams’ second turn at the helm of the series, “The Rise of Skywalker.”

Equally fulfilling and frustrating, the ninth entry of the Skywalker Saga gives audiences a dynamic and exciting experience to keep family members occupied this holiday season.

Set well after the events of the eighth episode “The Last Jedi,” “Skywalker” follows Resistance fighters Rey, Poe Dameron and Finn as they seek to destroy the reborn Emperor Palpatine and escape the clutches of Kylo Ren’s First Order.

 

As “Star Wars” films go, “Skywalker” is better than the forgettable prequel trilogy from the early 2000s, but lesser than the first two films of this new trilogy and all of the classic original set of films from the 70s and 80s.

Young fans to the series won’t know the difference in this tale, which provides a satisfying conclusion to a lengthy tale of good vs. evil, the Force against the Dark Side. It just won’t hold up against the upper echelon of films in the “Star Wars” canon and could be forgotten once the inevitable spinoffs hit theaters.

For the third straight episode, future Oscar nominee Adam Driver continues to be the best thing about this “Star Wars” trilogy with a layered, considered turn in a franchise that puts character development on the back burner for pomp and circumstance.

His conflicted villain, Kylo Ren, is a perfect blend of petulant and saddened and Driver takes a role ripe for caricature and breathes depth and life into a one-note emo baddie.

He’s matched well opposite Daisy Ridley’s most versatile turn in the role of Rey, the last hope of the Resistance seeking her identity while fighting for the lives of her friends. Ridley shows conflict within her own character and the inner turmoil she experiences resonates with audiences and feels as authentic as it can in a nine-film space odyssey.

Talented actors like Oscar Isaac, Keri Russell and John Boyega are given plenty of screen time, but take a relative back seat to the Rey-Kylo Ren saga and sacrifice for nostalgia’s sake.

Carrie Fisher, who passed away prior to filming, is in far more of “Skywalker” than expected as Abrams utilizes unused footage from prior films in this trilogy to shape the beginning of the film.

While admirable, it’s still evident that Fisher’s performance is CGI-ed on top of new footage and there’s a disconnect between characters in scenes opposite her Princess Leia that’s hard to overlook.

“Skywalker” stumbles most when it forces in plot elements for the sake of fan service or toy marketing.

One of the best things about Rian Johnson’s superior entry into the Star Wars canon, 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” was the director’s clear vision to make a film on his own terms regardless of fan expectations. “Last Jedi” is largely successful with its bold, audacious subversion of expectations.

Abrams blatantly walks back Johnson’s film — sidelining characters and tossing aside plot points — in an effort to counteract perceived disappointment to end the trilogy, but this actually has the opposite effect, sacrificing quality for mass appeal.

The film has some truly remarkable action sequences, though “Skywalker” is far more visually dynamic and inventive fighting on the ground than blowing things up in the air.

Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel put Ridley and Driver through the paces in a whirlwind of lightsaber flares and giving “Skywalker” must-see moments that will stick with audiences far longer than Rey’s ret-conned origin story.

A potential awards nominee, “Skywalker” probably isn’t on the level it needs to be to receive a Best Picture nomination. John Williams, however, is a strong contender for a Best Original Score nod.

There’s a little something for everyone in “The Rise of Skywalker” that should drive audiences to theaters in droves and though it’s worth the experience on a big screen, something feels incomplete that keeps Abrams’ film from matching the dazzling heights a “Star Wars” movie is capable of.

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Richard Jewell: The measure of a man

The parallels are far too clear and distinct, so it’s best to just get them out of the way.

“Richard Jewell,” the latest docudrama from director Clint Eastwood, is a striking indictment of law enforcement officials too quick to judge and trigger-happy media outlets trying to scoop each other before confirming all the facts.

In very unsubtle terms, “Jewell” is a microcosm defense of the current U.S. presidential administration that seeks to endear audiences to an innocent man wrongly accused and equate his plight to today’s political climate.

That being said, Eastwood’s film is so much more than its ideology.

It’s a straightforward, brutal examination of a simple, genuine man ardently wanting to protect others and one of 2019’s most engaging features for good and bad.

Based on real events, “Richard Jewell” follows the title character – a freelance security guard working the 1996 Atlanta Olympics – who discovers a backpack bomb in a crowded concert area in Centennial Park, saving the lives of hundreds to instant media acclaim.

When the Federal Bureau of Investigation turns its attention to Jewell as a potential suspect in the bombing, a front-page story naming Jewell as the bomber changes an innocent man’s life forever.

Paul Walter Hauser gives perhaps the best performance of the year as Jewell with an approachable honesty to the portrayal that disarms the audiences and allows viewers to rally behind the character. Hauser is measured, yet free flowing in his work in a way that makes each line of dialogue feel spontaneous.

It’s a testament of Hauser’s immense talent that the earnestness Jewell displays over the course of the film can simultaneously be considered as an indictment by skeptical law enforcement and media in the film and as reinforcement of his innocence to the audience watching events unfold.

Hauser is especially captivating in scenes opposite Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s attorney Watson Bryant and Kathy Bates as Jewell’s mother, Bobi.

Both Oscar winners provide support to Hauser’s performance in different ways, Rockwell’s Bryant feeding confidence and anger to the flame and Bates’ Bobi Jewell taking on a large bulk of the emotional baggage.

The three actors work in synchronicity to allow Hauser’s natural cadences in the role to maintain a calm balance as an over-played Jewell would turn the audience away from his plight.

On their own, neither Rockwell nor Bates are doing anything exceptional, but speak volumes within the confines of how their characters impact Hauser’s steadiness in the title role.

Less successful are the film’s primary antagonists, Jon Hamm’s bullish FBI agent and Olivia Wilde’s controversial Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter.

Thinly written and equally portrayed on screen, Hamm loses any pretense of impartiality within the first 20 minutes of the film in an increasingly smarmy turn while Wilde portrays Kathy Scroggins as a headline-obsessive journalist willing to trade sexual favors for tantalizing, unverified innuendo.

Both performances rarely exceed the level of mustache-twirling villain in the eyes of Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray, never leaving a shred of doubt or drama to the question of Jewell’s innocence.

“Jewell” struggles to maintain a clear visual composition in night scenes as Eastwood and cinematographer Yves Bélanger opt for authenticity in poorly lit areas rather than targeting specific lighting to enhance visibility. This is especially troublesome during the lengthy and chaotic recreation of the night of the bombing, where audiences are led bumbling through the relative dark out of confusion rather than increased tension.

Eastwood is notorious for shooting limited takes of scenes in his movies and rarely does it feel more apparent that early in “Jewell,” where care for the technical aspects of filmmaking seem to be shortchanged for a more laissez faire, “get the shot and move on” approach.

Both in the screenplay and the visual style, there’s a lot of potential for “Jewell” to be a richer film than it ultimately becomes.

There’s simply no chance for “Richard Jewell” to break into the Oscars race as its late release coupled with the political overtones of the film should keep it off January ballots.

Bates did receive the film’s lone Golden Globe nomination for supporting actress, however, and Hauser more than deserves universal acclaim for his work as the titular Jewell.

“Richard Jewell” is an uneven, yet captivating docudrama with an exceptional lead performance that deserves a wider audience than it will likely receive in theaters.

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Marriage Story: Finding the beginning in the end

We’ve been told there’s two sides to every story.

Often it feels as if it’s as simple as the truth and then anything other than the truth.

But what happens when both sides of the story are true but conflict, or worse yet, outright contradict one another?

Writer/director Noah Baumbach explores this complex duality through the structure of a fractured relationship in his latest dramedy, “Marriage Story,” a semi-autobiographical film about finding oneself amid divorce.

“Marriage Story” finds New York theater director Charlie and actress Nicole working on their marital issues when Nicole is offered a television pilot in Los Angeles. When Charlie visits California to see Nicole and their young son Henry, divorce papers await as the couple’s relationship dissolves.

Baumbach’s personal film requires a pair of performers singularly focused on feeling the moment and his selection of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson to play the ill-fated couple could not have been more perfect.

Charlie is exactly the kind of slightly neurotic, disengaged character Driver relishes portraying and he gives Charlie just enough warmth to be a man that audiences will root for as a father, but not so much to prevent doubt from seeping in as to his ignorance of Nicole.

Charlie’s directorial instincts pushing him to control every aspect of life are brushed aside by circumstances that prevent him from unilateral decision making, giving Driver ample room to find Charlie in a place of re-discovery as both Driver and the character sort through the emotional ballast of the film.

Johansson finds an emotional fragility in Nicole that endears audiences to her, while slowly beginning to discover her individuality outside her marriage as if she were a caged bird given a key to freedom unsure what to do with an unlocked door.

If Driver’s Charlie is finding himself again, Johansson portrays Nicole as a woman finding herself for the first time, becoming increasingly emboldened over the course of “Marriage Story” without losing the tremendous heart displayed early in the film.

Paired together, Driver and Johansson move in synchronicity, pushing and pulling apart magnetically as scenes between the duo often feel like live theater shot on camera. Neither performance works without the other being equally exceptional and Baumbach beautifully adjusts the audience’s relationship to each character as viewers bounce back and forth between the two.

There’s a sense of perspective reflected back on itself by another person – Charlie to Nicole, Nicole to Charlie – appears to each character to be the antithesis of themselves. Each sees the other through their own jaded lens and neither side tells nor understands the full story.

Baumbach emphasizes this duality through blocking, physically positioning Charlie and Nicole at odds with each other in the same frame or from fractured one-shots that push each to their respective corners visually.

The film’s deep and talented cast was recently honored with the Robert Altman Award by the Independent Spirit Awards, given to the year’s best ensemble in an independent film.

Laura Dern will likely earn her third Oscar nomination with a driven supporting turn as Nicole’s take-no-prisoners attorney Nora, whom Dern infuses life into with a charismatic flair that radiates off the screen at every turn. In the most positive sense, it’s as if Dern is operating in a different film altogether, giving Nora a brazen edge that allows Johansson to explore Nicole’s internal emotions without becoming overly explosive.

Ray Liotta provides significant spark in scenes as a hotshot lawyer Charlie meets with, while Alan Alda’s calming presence is a wonderful change of pace as another potential attorney. Watching Driver react to the variety in Liotta and Alda’s work offers some of the film’s most refreshingly light-hearted moments.

Duality is key in all aspects of “Marriage Story.” Scenes, shots of cinematography, acting, camera placement each feel and accentuate this wavering plurality.

It’s evident that Baumbach has truly considered both Charlie and Nicole’s perspective and there’s true effort to maintain a balance for the audience between Driver and Johansson’s performances.

However, Baumbach clearly holds a sub-textual preference for Charlie’s relative plight, often siding with Driver’s character in the meticulously crafted screenplay. This comes to a head during a pivotal scene midway through the film where Charlie laments Nicole for being upset by a cheating accusation rather than sharing a laugh with someone else.

By the end, “Marriage Story” ultimately becomes “Charlie’s Story” as Nicole’s perspective fades and crystalizes while Driver continues to evolve Charlie into something more.

Visually, “Marriage Story” achieves the cracks in Charlie and Nicole’s relationship through camera placement combined with expert cinematography from Oscar nominee Robbie Ryan, who maintains a muted, yet dynamic energy to the aesthetic of the film. There isn’t a film this year that does a better job of informing character with cinematography than Ryan and Baumbach achieve with “Marriage Story.”

A critical darling that will be equally loved by awards voters, “Marriage Story” is all but assured Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and acting nods for Driver, Johansson and Dern. How this film fares will likely have much to do with Netflix’s dual-prong campaign that sees the streaming studio trying to bevy the chances of both “Marriage Story” and Martin Scorsese’s mob epic “The Irishman.”

Netflix may opt to push either film into frontrunner status or continue equal efforts that may negate either movie and propel Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” across the finish line.

It’s a shame that Baumbach’s meticulously considered, wonderfully crafted drama was not given the same large theatrical run by Netflix as Scorsese received with “The Irishman” as “Marriage Story” is perhaps the finest family drama to be released since at least 2008’s “Revolutionary Road.”

Deeply thoughtful, emotional and yet surprisingly entertaining, “Marriage Story” is without question one of 2019’s top five films and a must see in theaters or streaming at home on Netflix.

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A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood: The measure of a man

What is the impact that one person can have on another?

How is that one life can intensely, irreversibly be altered by coming into contact with someone?

It’s a common theme in modern cinema, but rarely told as simply and unapologetically in a PG-rated film as director Marielle Heller’s latest film.

“A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” is not a biopic. It’s a wonderfully layered drama about meeting the person you need in your life at exactly the moment you need to meet them.

Inspired by the friendship between celebrated children’s TV show host Fred Rogers and journalist Tom Junod, the movie follows cynical Esquire Magazine feature writer Lloyd Vogel as an assignment to profile Mr. Rogers affects his relationships with his wife as well as his estranged father.

Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks is not the star of the film and the version of Fred Rogers audiences see on screen isn’t intended to be the same man chronicled in last year’s outstanding documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”

Casting Hanks as Rogers is a stroke of genius because, on a surface level, the iconic actor known for playing roles of virtue lends instant credibility to Rogers’ genuine warmth and spirit.

But in the subtext, as viewers question Hanks in the role because he isn’t a perfect mirror image of Rogers, the film’s protagonist – Matthew Rhys’ Vogel – maintains doubts about his authenticity in a way that subtly attaches audiences to Vogel.

No actor can truly match the singular persona of Fred Rogers, but viewed through the lens of a skeptical journalist, Hanks delivers a more than compelling facsimile that feels pulled from Vogel’s imagination and recollections of the past.

Rhys pushes the envelope just enough as Vogel to make the film’s dramatic moments compelling, but not so far as to intercede in the moments where it’s clear viewers are meant to just bask in Hanks easily charming audiences with Rogers’ message of kindness at every turn.

It’s a performance that doesn’t particularly stand out in any way, but Rhys offers enough character development to pay off the film’s overall conceit.

Veteran character actor Chris Cooper gets the most screen time he’s seen in several years and stuns audiences with a heart wrenching supporting turn as Vogel’s father Jerry.

Cooper brings a presence to the screen that challenges Rhys at every turn and forces better performances than the screenplay sets up.

Heller frames her film as if it were an extended episode of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” weaving in and out of the main story with to-camera interludes by Hanks that treat the audience like Rogers’ young viewers and location changing transitions featuring miniature sets like those from the television program.

Considerable detail went into the film’s production design to get the nuance of the era correct from costumes to virtually identical sets for “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” to the faded texture that permeates across Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography.

“Neighborhood” deserves far wider accolades than it will likely get, although Hanks is all but assured an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and co-frontrunner status with Brad Pitt in “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.”

The film has an outside chance at a Best Picture nomination though Heller as director and Rhys as lead actor will likely miss the cut.

A much more somber film than any true biopic of Fred Rogers probably deserves, the beauty of “Neighborhood” comes from the essence of the man and his impact on those around him rather than his life story.

No filmmaker will be able to do complete justice to Rogers’ tale better than the 2018 documentary and Heller, Hanks and company opt not to even try.

Compelling and emotional, “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” is a worthy drama that focuses on impact over legacy in a tale of fathers and sons that will tug at the heartstrings of audiences willing to let their hearts take over for their brains over a two hour period.

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The Report: Setting the record straight

There’s a brief moment in “The Report,” a new docudrama about the U.S. Senate investigation into prisoner torture, that name drops its cinematic cousin, the Oscar-nominated 2012 drama about the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty.”

“The Report” goes out of its way to make this reference, accusing that film of furthering the idea that a tortured prisoner gave up actionable intelligence that led U.S. forces to Bin Laden.

Over the course of two hours, writer/director Scott Z. Burns drags audiences through a prolonged examination of the CIA’s conduct in the war on terrorism that feels like aimless wandering through the desert until the puzzle pieces finally connect.

In truth, setting the record straight – atoning for the cinematic sins of “Zero Dark Thirty” if you will – is the only real reason a film like “The Report” exists.

Purchased by Amazon Studios after its January debut at the Sundance Film Festival, “The Report” is a cerebral, clinical look at the five-year efforts of staffers working for Senator Dianne Feinstein on an in-depth investigation of the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program.

The film serves as a terrific showcase for Adam Driver, who carries “The Report” with a relentless energy as lead investigator Daniel Jones. His performance is accelerated with finesse like a sports car driver with his foot constantly on the gas but deftly easing in and out of the turns.

Driver’s Jones commands the screen from the opening moments and serves as a rallying point for audiences who may get lost in the details. His ability to resonate emotion while maintaining control imprints Jones onto viewers, putting them firmly in his corner and reinforcing the film’s moral compass.

Casting as celebrated an actress as four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening implies Feinstein plays a major, transformational role in the events of “The Report,” but Burns underutilizes a very willing Bening with brief, expository scenes that often seem to demarcate moments in time rather than serve to advance the story.

In many ways, the entire ensemble cast – save for Driver – is marginalized at the expense of viewers watching how Jones and his team research and develop their report.

Maura Tierney and Tim Blake Nelson essentially star in their own short film sprinkled across the early part of “The Report” as CIA employees working a black site where the first waterboarding of prisoners takes place. Though vital to the overall scope of the film, audiences don’t see enough of the world of the black site as Driver’s Jones uncovers it with “The Report” often getting bogged down in minutia.

Secondary characters like Ted Levine’s CIA Director John Brennan and Jon Hamm’s White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough veer close to mustache-twirling villain territory without completely crossing the line, although it’s clear Burns isn’t interested in creating complexity in his characters.

“The Report” plays to Burns’ strengths as a screenwriter with tense, memorable dialogue that will help engage and captivate audiences in spite of far too many scenes of Driver scrolling through documents on a desktop computer.

The film does a terrifyingly authentic job of showcasing the brutality of waterboarding and other torture techniques described in the report, although a yellowish haze that accompanies these flashbacks feels cliché.

Much like “Molly’s Game” for celebrated writer Aaron Sorkin, “The Report” is a solid directorial debut for a filmmaker who clearly hasn’t figured out a visual style and it often feels as if Burns is paying too close a homage to Alan J. Pakula’s taut, apprehension-inducing work directing “All The President’s Men.”

Despite being Amazon’s biggest release of the year, “The Report” likely won’t have the push to garner many accolades come Oscar season. Driver’s strong performance here will add to his frontrunner status as a Best Actor contender for Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” from Netflix and Bening’s turn as Feinstein isn’t transformative enough to secure her a spot in the supporting actress category.

The film’s best shot at nominations may be in screenplay, where Burns’ strong writing carries audiences through large technical segments of data collection in brisk and inventive ways.

“The Report” isn’t strong enough technically to merit going out of the way to see it on limited screens, but the screenplay and Driver’s compelling performance do merit audiences taking a chance on the film when it hits Amazon Prime November 29.

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The Irishman: Legacy of a cinematic Don

At the end of the day, what’s it all about?

It’s a question that continuously lingers under the surface of celebrated auteur Martin Scorsese’s latest feature, a melancholy retrospective that acts almost like a career summation filled with riddles of bullets and dynamically vulgar dialogue.

For the premier filmmaker in the gangster genre, Scorsese’s “The Irishman” definitively closes the book on how crime dramas have been made and any future Mob movie will have to live in a post “Irishman” world.

This isn’t to say – although exceptional in its own right – that “The Irishman” is on the same level as his classics “Goodfellas” or “Casino” or “The Departed” for that matter.

But intensely, quietly, there’s a lot on Scorsese’s mind as he puts audiences through an arduous character study on the virtues of loyalty and family and how those often-conflicting ideals can make or ruin the best of men.

Clocking in at just under three-and-a-half hours long, “The Irishman” is an expansive look into the worlds of organized crime and organized labor that somehow never fully gives a complete picture into either, but positions audiences to view things through the lens of an Irish Teamster who joins the Bufalino crime family as an enforcer.

The film truly encapsulates a lifetime in American history, chronicling the events of the film with major moments like the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. But “The Irishman” feels epic in scale, layering years upon years of information at the same time body after body falls to gunfire.

“The Irishman” being the first Scorsese film produced by Netflix seems appropriate as there’s almost an episodic nature to the movie that will allow audiences to break up “The Irishman” into a multiple night viewing experience. That being said, it’s a shame that most audiences will never get to see this gem on a big screen as it’s best when viewers are fully immersed in the world of the film without distractions or interruptions.

As the titular “Irishman,” two-time Academy Award winner Robert De Niro balances a fine line between uncertain, often competing relationships and his Frank Sheeran is confident, yet more empathic to the mobsters surrounding him than his own family.

It’s unusual nowadays to see the veteran actor playing the role of mentee rather than mentor, though De Niro flourishes in the part of Mafia apprentice as he displays a rigorous callousness to his work that is matter of fact rather than cold.

The demonstrativeness that audiences are accustomed to seeing from Al Pacino are ever present in “The Irishman,” as Pacino attacks his dialogue as Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa with rigor.

Surprisingly, this vibrancy works for Pacino here. His constant bravado does not overwhelm the film as it usually does and there’s considerable warmth shown by Pacino in smaller moments featuring Hoffa, Sheeran and Sheeran’s daughter Peggy.

The best performance in the film by a wide margin is a career-best turn from Oscar winner Joe Pesci, who reteams with De Niro and Scorsese for the first time since 1995’s “Casino.”

As Sheeran’s mentor and a Bufalino crime boss, Pesci is brilliantly understated and quiet in the role, deceptively drawing audiences in with the calm affectation of a friend. He often outduels De Niro and Pacino in intimate moments and is by far the most compelling character whenever he appears on screen.

“The Irishman” boasts a deep and impressive supporting cast including Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons and Bobby Cannavale. Among the secondary characters, Sheeran’s daughter Peggy – played as a young girl by Lucy Gallina and an adult by Anna Paquin – is the most compelling of all in spite of her lack of dialogue.

Both Gallina and Paquin exhibit an unspoken depth of emotion within their haunting eyes and most of their incredible two-part performance is fully synchronized through non-verbal cues that inform how audiences view Sheeran.

The screenplay from Steven Zaillian, adapted from Charles Brandt’s novel “I Heard You Paint Houses,” delivers some knockout dialogue that allows De Niro, and especially Pacino, to produce highlight-reel quality, career-defining scenes.

Scorsese and Zaillan build “The Irishman” slowly and deliberately over the three-plus hour running time to build to a crescendo of a third act that is both demonstrative and exceptionally pensive for a Scorsese film.

There’s a finality to “The Irishman” that seems to coincide with Scorsese’s own foray into the gangster genre that comes out in the filmmaking. The extended running time and partnership with Netflix feel like a director unconcerned with audience expectations and wanting to make a film on its own terms.

A self-homage tracking shot opening the film that mimics the Copacabana scene from “Goodfellas” cements this notion from the word go.

If this is the last film of Scorsese’s career – though those odds are unlikely – “The Irishman” is a fitting culmination of a master’s work and a movie that will certainly appreciate considerably with age as audiences re-watch it again and again, picking up the subtle flourishes and nuance that come with exception Scorsese filmmaking.

With the full weight of Netflix behind it, “The Irishman” is certain to be a major player come Oscar season and is a virtual lock for Best Picture and Best Director nominations. Despite a crowded field in the category, De Niro should be one of the final five in the Best Actor category and “The Irishman” could sneak both Pacino and Pesci in Best Supporting Actor, although odds likely favor Pacino’s showy performance over Pesci’s subtlety if only one can get in.

This film will likely be most remembered as “Scorsese’s Netflix gangster flick” rather than on its own merits by many audiences.

Those who venture out to find “The Irishman” on a big screen and give themselves over to the world of the Bufalino crime family will find themselves mesmerized and transported by one of America’s finest cinematic craftsmen.

Unquestionably one of 2019’s top five films, “The Irishman” is more than worth the time regardless of how or when viewers find it.