REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” Season 7

ClonePOSTER1It goes without saying that K&M is predominately a movie site. But on rare occasions a television series or season resonates so profoundly with a particular fanbase or the culture in general that I feel compelled to write about it. The long-awaited final season of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” recently wrapped up on Disney Plus, and a Star Wars die-hard like me couldn’t help but spend some time on it.

When Disney bought the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas in 2012 it brought with it some real highs and a few lows. One real travesty to come from the acquisition was the immediate cancellation of the hugely popular animated series “The Clone Wars”. It caught many people by surprise and it left several lose ends, never giving the series a proper finish.

It took years but Disney finally green-lit a 12-episode final season which brought back most of the talent and creative team who had made the series so great. To no surprise the announcement was met with unbridled enthusiasm and the reactions to the finished product have been just as exciting.

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Photo Courtesy Disney Plus

The first four episodes are back to business and do a great job reoriented us with the series, its tone, and its characters. The episodes introduce the Bad Batch, a special-ops team of four clones enhanced with “desirable” mutations. They’re called in to help Rex and Cody on a mission to discover how the separatists are predicting every strategic military move the Republic makes. Again, it’s a great way to get us back in tune with the series.

The next four episodes bring back crowd-favorite Ahsoka Tano (voiced by the terrific Ashley Eckstein), really digging into her character and showing her first steps back on her destiny’s path. We see Ahsoka lost and rudderless after leaving the Jedi Order in season 5. She keeps to herself in the lower levels of Coruscant, hiding her identity and her past. After crashing her speeder bike she meets two sisters, hitting it off with one, not so much the other. Ahsoka ends up accompanying them on a mission that quickly turns dangerous. Does she reveal her true self and face the danger or stay hidden and hope for the best? It’s a great setup for what’s to come.

That seamlessly leads into the final four episodes chronicling the long talked about Siege of Mandalore. These are without question the best of the entire series and some of the best Star Wars storytelling we’ve ever seen. With breathtaking precision these episodes don’t just lead up to “Revenge of the Sith”, but they cross over into it. And they do so while wrapping up long unfinished storylines of their own which include Ahsoka, Darth Maul, and others. Surprising connections, startling revelations, and exhilarating showdowns fuel what is a proper finale to a tremendous series.

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Photo Courtesy Disney Plus

Quick tip: If you’re only following the animated series you may remember Darth Maul was last seen in season 5 in a rather precarious position with the soon-to-be emperor. In season 7 he’s already on the throne in Mandalore. Wondering what happened in between? Check out the graphic novel “Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir”. It’s a great story that nicely fills in that gap. It’s a brisk, entertaining precursor to season 7.

I can say without hesitation that “The Clone Wars” Season 7 is essential viewing for any Star Wars fan. It’s also one of the best television finales I have every watched. The animation was always good, but it has taken a step up. The direction of each episode still gives each a big screen cinematic feel. Tonally the writing fits the series beat-for-beat while masterfully wrapping up the story’s many moving parts: Maul’s arc gets the attention it needed, Ahsoka gets her well-deserved time to shine, the clones themselves get their moments as well.

Everything comes together in the best way imaginable, brilliantly connecting to “Revenge of the Sith” while setting up what’s to come in the next animated series “Rebels” and elsewhere. Supervising director Dave Filoni deserves a ton of credit for not only recapturing the spirit of the series but also giving it a spectacular send-off (if this is truly the final season). It’s infinitely rewatchable and deserving of every ounce of praise it has received.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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5star

REVIEW: “Capone” (2020)

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Josh Trank burst onto the scene in 2012 with “Chronicle”, his own spin on the superhero genre. While I wasn’t as smitten with it as most, the film earned high marks and seemed to put Trank on the fast-track to bigger projects. That came in 2015 with “Fantastic Four”, an unmitigated disaster that was widely panned and hampered by rumors of production discord between Trank and the studio.

“Capone” is Trank’s first film since the “Fantastic Four” debacle and he couldn’t have picked a more intriguing subject or a more captivating lead actor. Exploring the final days of arguably the most notorious mobster in American gangland history is fascinating in itself. Casting Tom Hardy to play the titular character just added to the excitement. Unfortunately “Capone” is a lethargic mess that never fully gets its feet under itself. On the other hand, the angle it takes in exploring one man’s madness couldn’t be done in a neat and tidy way.

The movie takes a look at the final months of Capone’s life as he lives in exile on his Palm Island, Florida estate. He’s no longer deemed a threat by the government, but they still keep him under constant surveillance. By this time Capone was a physically and mentally deteriorated shell of his former self, his body and mind eroded by neurosyphilis. So he spends his time confined to his mansion, battling ghosts from his past and haunting hallucinations that may or may not be rooted in reality.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

“Capone” is a one-man show, resting squarely on the shoulders of the intensely committed Tom Hardy. There are other characters though including Linda Cardellini playing his wife Mae, a woman trapped in their relationship but content to let it play out. Kyle MacLachlan plays the family doctor who is coerced by the feds into being their earpiece. Matt Dillon pops up as an old friend and enforcer who pays Al a visit. And we get Gino Cafarelli as a loyal-till-the-end lieutenant who watches over his dying boss’ place.

But it’s all about Big Al and Hardy’s ‘method’ deep-dive which leaves no detail unexplored. His performance fits well with Trank’s self-aware treatment which is partly based on fact and just as much on fiction. Hardy digs down into the cigar-chomping Capone’s fractured psyche, portraying a dementia-riddled 47-year-old in a doddering old man’s body.  It’s a surreal portrait, slightly absurd and even more grotesque, masked by raspy growls, bloodshot eyes, and a sickly pale complexion. It shows a man consumed by guilt, paranoia, and indignation but held captive by his pitiful, steadily weakening frame.

Trank (who wrote, edited, and directed) teases Capone’s violent past, but he never gives it space to be glamorized. From his blood-drenched nightmares to his urine-soaked pajamas, the Capone seen here isn’t afforded a single scene of celebration. Instead Trank focuses on the ugliness of a man stripped bare of his former glory and living with the rotten fruits of his brutal, violent labors. Every frame of this film is intent on shattering the Al Capone mythos. On that level Trank accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

“Capone” is an ugly, uncomfortable movie, but so is its subject matter. Neither Josh Trank’s filmmaking nor Tom Hardy’s performance allow a second for nostalgia or romanticizing. There are no warm flashbacks or reminiscing of the glory days. The movie isn’t interested in what got Capone to this point. It is interested in bringing him face-to-face with the futility of his opulence, power and past pleasures.

“Capone” has already proven to be a polarizing film and in many ways it was destined to be. This is not your standard biopic nor does is feature a conventional narrative. It’s a movie full of blurred lines and disorienting visions. There is no steady dramatic throughline except for a fun macguffin involving the hidden $10 million Geraldo Rivera thought he found back in 1986. Everyone wants to get their hands on it, but its location is lost in Capone’s addled mind. Trank throws out clues to where the money is hidden and I had fun figuring out where I thought it might be.

But that’s about all the “story” you’re going to get. The rest is a grim foray into a disease-ravaged mind anchored by Hardy’s grab-it-by-the-throat performance. Is that enough to warrant sitting through so much unpleasantness? You’ll have to make that call. Me, I’m kinda on the fence. I really want more in terms of character depth and story. At the same time I can’t help but appreciate Trank’s audacity and unflinching commitment to his vision. And the sheer craft on display shows a side of Trank we haven’t seen before.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Call of the Wild” (2020)

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When prepping to watch “The Call of the Wild” I couldn’t help but wonder which is the greater American classic: Jack London’s timeless 1903 novel or Harrison Ford? If I was honest I’d have to admit that I find Ford to be the bigger draw. But personal bias aside, London’s beloved novel is a significant blind spot for me so I was anxious to see what it was all about.

This latest adaption had its share of pluses and minuses. I’ve already mentioned Ford and the source material as strengths. Add to it a really good supporting cast. On the negative side, a movie with a $150 million budget getting a February release usually isn’t a good sign. And you never know what you’re going to get when there’s such a hefty dependence animal CGI.

Long-time animator, screenwriter, and director Chris Sanders makes his live-action directorial debut, working from a script written by Michael Green (“Logan”, “Blade Runner 2049”). Their lead character is a congenial and rambunctious St. Bernard-Scotch Collie dog named Buck. Here’s the catch, he isn’t played by a real dog at all. He’s an elaborate coat of CGI on top of a fine motion capture performance from the talented Terry Notary. The problem is you never fully forget he is a digital creation despite how impressive he looks.

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Photo: 20th Century Studios

In fairness I’m not sure London’s story could have been told any other way. Buck’s harrowing adventure across the Yukon is filled will action and peril and I simply can’t see a real pup pulling it off. The good thing is there is enough personality in Buck to make him feel like a full-on character. He works best when he is simply being a dog and doing doggie things. It’s when the filmmakers add human expressions that Buck suddenly comes across as fake.

Buck’s overall story is heart-tugging but it’s the human actors who sell it best. Set in the 1890’s during the Gold Rush, the story begins in Santa Clara, California where the clumsy but lovable Buck lives happily with a well-to-do local judge (Bradley Whitford). Gold Fever has driven people to pay top dollar for able dogs to pull sleds in the Yukon where “there’s gold in them thar hills“. Buck is snatched by scoundrels, sold to an abusive trader, and stuck on a freighter bound for the Klondike.

Buck is purchased by Perrault, a kind man who delivers mail across the frozen Yukon. He’s played by the delightful French actor Omar Sy who brings a lot of warmth to the screen. Perrault needs an extra sled dog for his arduous route and sees something special in Buck. But once again not everyone Buck encounters represents the best side of humanity. Dan Stevens is a hoot playing a dastardly business man who only cares about the glittering fortune hidden in the mountains. Stevens’ scene-chewing is fun to watch even though his cruelty towards Buck isn’t.

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Photo: 20th Century Studios

As Buck moves from master to master, he keeps crossing paths with John Thornton (Ford), a tortured lost soul trying to cope with a family tragedy. He also serves as the movie’s narrator. From their first meeting the two seem destined to come together. Both are far from home and both are looking for something more valuable than gold. The grizzled Ford gives an earnest and understated performance, quietly lending pathos to Thornton while doing all he can to help us believe in Buck.

The story plays out through picturesque locations set across the gorgeous Canadian wilderness. Surprisingly, the bulk of it was shot in and around Los Angeles. Most of the stunning backdrops are CGI but so well done that you would never know it otherwise. That makes it easy to get lost in the beautiful, lush scenery.

In “The Call of the Wild” we get a story of a dog who witnesses the best and worst of humanity. Think of it as a Disney-fied “Au Hasard Balthazar” which is still giving it way too much credit. I hear it has been tamed down from the novel which might not sit well with purists, but that’s why I never pit movie against book. When taken on its own merits, it’s a satisfying crowdpleaser. A quick note: be careful with its PG rating. If you have young children go in thinking PG-13 instead.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Christmas Chronicles” (2018)

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They had me at Kurt Russell as Santa Claus. You heard me right. The bushy-faced Russell is a hoot playing the jolly old elf in the big red suit. It’s a hilarious bit of casting and it’s surprising just how well it works. While it’s Russell who steals the show, “The Christmas Chronicles” puts most of its focus on a struggling Massachusetts family.

Co-producer Chris Columbus is no stranger to Christmas films (“Home Alone”, “Home Alone 2”, “Christmas with the Kranks”, “Jingle All the Way”). Here he teams with animator turned director Clay Kaytis. Their film follows a brother and sister whose relationship has soured since the death of their father.

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For Kate (Darby Camp) and her older brother Teddy (Judah Lewis), life at home was a joy especially during Christmas time. Their fireman father (Oliver Hudson) was a fountain of Christmas cheer that always overflowed to his wife Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) kids. But when he is killed in the line of duty his family begins to crack under the weight of grief.

That’s pretty much the setup for what is the bulk of the story. Kate and an disinterested Teddy craft a plan to catch Santa in the act of delivering his goodies. Things don’t exactly go as planned and (as is often the case in these things) their actions unintentionally threaten to derail Christmas. But after meeting Santa face-to-face, the three join up to try and save the night before it’s too late.

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Don’t be mistaken, there is still the sentimental sappiness you expect from these types of movies. Not the Hallmark Channel variety (thank goodness). But the kind that flows from the insatiable yuletide spirit the majority of these movies embrace. As a festive person I’ll admit this usually works for me. But I can see where certain Scrooges in the audience might not be as forgiving.

“The Christmas Chronicles” is a fun, spry holiday movie that should fit nicely onto your Christmastime watchlist. Just don’t go in expecting it to break new ground. It’s predictable and it strikes nearly every familiar Christmas movie chord. At the same time it has an undeniable charm not to mention it’s a little bizarre. I mean Kurt Russell Santa on the lam for grand theft auto? Who wouldn’t watch that?

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Clemency” (2019)

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Chinonye Chukwu’s upcoming film “Clemency”channels a lot of information through its opening shot. We see Bernadine Williams, the warden of a maximum security prison, on her way to oversee a execution by lethal injection. She walks with steadying confidence yet her eyes reveal something different. Bernadine is burdened and her job’s psychological toll is evident.

“Clemency” is the second film releasing in the next few weeks dealing with the death penalty (the other being Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy”). Chukwu’s film looks at it through the eyes of Bernadine who is played by Alfre Woodard. It’s a powerful and emotionally layered performance that gives us a window into the process while also offering a character study of a woman so tightly wound that she could blow at any second.

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© 2019 Neon Pictures All Rights Reserved

The opening scene uncoils in a truly visceral way and the impact of it reverberates throughout the remainder of the film. With an icy cold professionalism and a by-the-books approach Bernadine orders her officers through each step of a young man’s execution. She puts on a good show. You can see she’s done this a dozen times before and she knows the procedure like the back of her hand. But when the execution is botched it reveals a crack in her facade which only becomes more pronounced as the story moves forward.

Bernadine’s position as warden doesn’t allow for her to wrestle with any feelings or emotions. She has to be ready for the next execution (in this case a young death row inmate named Anthony Woods played by Aldis Hodge). So it’s her relationship with her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) that ends up taking the brunt of her aloofness. “I need a pulse” he pleads realizing their marriage is on life support. But Bernadine quietly crumbles before his and our eyes, trapped in a personal hell and completely unable to convey her feelings. “I am alone, and nobody can fix it” she painfully affirms.

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© 2019 Neon Pictures All Rights Reserved

Chukwu (working as both writer and director) uses Woods and his desperate attempts at clemency to dig deeper into Bernadine’s poorly-veiled misery. Several others around her are retiring, worn down by the weight of their jobs, including the prison chaplain (Michael O’Neill) and even Woods’ attorney (Richard Schiff). But Bernadine resists, unwilling to walk away from her job and all the work it took to get it, especially as an African-American woman.

“Clemency” is a movie full of brutally honest moments, and so many of them are also the quietest. Chukwu will often allow her camera to sit and observe her characters, carefully framing her shot and then trusting the performances to do the rest. It’s why having Alfre Woodard is such a strength. She’s able to convey so much feeling in a simple stare. And in a movie with this much heavy material, that kind of lead performance is priceless.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Curse of La Llorona”

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I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow I had not realized that “The Curse of La Llorona” was considered a part of the Conjuring universe? Clearly someone wasn’t paying attention. And it’s funny because I’m generally a fan of the tethered horror franchise specifically the two proper “Conjuring” films. The side movies have been inconsistent but still entertaining.

“The Curse of La Llorona” was the sixth installment in the ever-expanding Warner Bros. horror-verse (there has been a seventh film since). It also marks the feature film directorial debut for Michael Chaves who is also directing next year’s “The Conjuring 3”. The film is based on the actual Mexican folktale of The Weeping Woman. According to the legend a mother drowned her two children and then herself in a jealous rage after her husband left her for a younger woman. As a result she is cursed and her spirit roams the earth looking for children to replace hers.

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Following a brief introduction to the legend, the movie sits down in 1973 Los Angeles. The often underrated Linda Cardellini plays Anna, a widowed mother of two and a child services case worker. She’s asked to do a welfare check after the children of a client (Patricia Velasquez) are reported missing. Once there, Anna finds the two kids locked in a closet and their distraught mother who claims she is protecting them from La Llorona.

I won’t spoil how it happens but La Llorona switches her sights to Anna’s children (played by Roman Christou and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen). The rest of the film features Anna getting a grasp of the terror they’re facing and protecting her kids from the violent apparition decked out in billowing white lace and with a ghoulish ashy face that could have been copied and pasted straight from “The Nun”.

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“La Llorona” is frustrating mainly because it starts out pretty strong. It puts its pieces in place through a nifty setup with real horror potential. But then it does what the weaker of the Conjuring spin-offs do – leans way too heavily on obvious horror movie conventions. You know, jump scares, squeaky doors, wide-eyed people slow-walking through a dark house at night (just turn the lights on people).

There is a brief but neat appearance by a someone who links this film to another from the franchise. But we also get a character who feels off from the first moment we meet him. Raymond Cruz plays this excommunicated priest turned shaman who Anna seeks out for help. The character has the personality of a plank of wood and his dry, monotone dialogue doesn’t help. He adds to the overall generic feel of the film’s second half. And again, what a shame. “La Llorona” gets off on the right foot and Cardellini does what she can. But it’s yet another Conjuring installment built on a promising idea but with execution that feels all too familiar.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars