[REVIEW] ‘The Irishman’: Leave the Movie Take the Ingredients (Spoiler Free)

Every once in a while there comes along a movie where it seems like dissension or diversity of opinion is not allowed. You either have to like or hate it or you are not worthy of being called a true aficionado of film. This is how I felt going into the new film from Martin Scorsese, The Irishman. I was told it is a masterpiece (a word that has lost all meaning from over-use these days) and it is destined to win best picture at the Oscars. This may be the case, but unfortunately I walked away from the screening with very mixed feelings. I will do my best to explain why.

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Let’s start out talking about the positives. First, the performances are outstanding. Of course, Robert Deniro as the lead character Frank Sheeran and Al Pacino as famous teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa are the standouts. However, there is also a lot of exemplary supporting work: Joe Pesci is excellent as Russell Bufalino. Ray Ramano is wonderful as mob attorney Bill Bufalino. The list could go on for days.

The Irishman is also wonderfully produced with beautiful period details from costumes, hair and makeup, to production design. As it’s a very long movie at 209 minutes these details helped immerse you thoroughly into in the story. I also think the de-aging technology is flawless. You forget Robert Deniro is 76 years old in the flashback scenes! There is no sense of uncanny valley or weirdness we’ve seen in other attempts such as in the last Pirates of the Caribbean film.

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All of these positive aspects left me wrestling with my score for The Irishman. Unfortunately I had a lot of problems with the story and characters. As I mentioned, this is an over 3 hour film, which in and of itself isn’t a negative. However, the problem is the story does not sustain such a run-time and the pacing feels self-indulgent and ponderous. There are so many scenes that felt unnecessary or over-extended beyond what is needed for the plot

For example, there’s a scene where a character has a wet car and they joke about the wetness coming from a fish. “What kind of fish?” He doesn’t know. “How can he not know the fish?” I guess that is supposed to be interesting or funny? It certainly was neither for me. There are so many scenes like that where the narrative went nowhere or it told us things we already knew about our characters. So, unless you just love being in the world of mob movies you’re going to lose interest real quick.

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A lot of the problems in the narrative come down to Frank as a character. At the beginning he talks about coming out of the army and how he learned to follow orders and not feel emotion about the horrors he was both seeing and participating in. This military-like approach becomes his philosophy for working with the mob. He’s workmanlike about his actions and doesn’t have much guilt or conflict about them.

In contrast, in The Godfather Michael’s character is actively fighting his destiny as head of the family. Practically the first scene of the film is him telling Kay he is not his family. Every part of the narrative then leads back to that core conflict. Will Michael give in and follow his father or will he stick to his morals and leave? This is an interesting character arc and it is reinforced by every other character’s choices throughout the film. Each person in the family learns their lives would be better if they just listened to the Don.

In The Irishman there is no such conflict. Up until the very end Frank does what he is told without any kind of moral crisis. I heard some claim the film is about introspection and questioning our legacy. I did not see such a theme. For most of the movie he’s a character who is perfectly happy to be a team player to fiery characters like Jimmy Hoffa.

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Pacino as Hoffa is more interesting than Frank but we still don’t get much of a character arc from him. He ends the film at the same spot he began at, which would be fine, if I wasn’t asked to watch him not change for over 3 hours. And I know not all movies need someone to root for but with such a run-time shouldn’t we at least empathize with someone? Again, in The Godfather, we are rooting for Michael because his motivations begin so pure.

In my opinion, any good mafia movie should be at least slightly allegorical. The insular nature of the society makes it easy to weave metaphors about both our own society and the individual choices we make. However, for The Irishman I don’t understand what the allegory is? What are we supposed to learn from this mafia soldier? Even the most dramatic moment of the story is executed with little emotion or seeming moral conflict. It is not until the very end that we finally get a narrative of regret and contrition, which in my opinion wasn’t enough.

In the end, despite many strengths in performances and production, The Irishman is not a film I can recommend. As I said, the pacing is too ponderous and self-indulgent, the characters are too stagnant, and the story lacks an emotional punch. Other people clearly disagree, and that’s fine. If it sounds like something you’d enjoy I encourage you to go and see for yourself. It will soon be on Netflix so most people will be able to easily watch it at home. I hope you enjoy it more than I did.

4 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’: Watch the Documentary and then See this Ok Movie

Sitting down to review the new film about Fred Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, I fear I am going to come across as very negative, so let me state out front: this movie is perfectly amiable and pleasant to watch. I will give it a fresh review. Unfortunately I found the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers from last year to be outstanding. It was one of my favorites of the whole year, so I can’t help but feel a little bit disappointed with this just ok narrative movie.

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I will be shocked if all the critics don’t at least agree that Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as Mr Rogers and his scenes carry the film. However, he is not the lead character, which was a mistake. Matthew Rhys is fine as a the cynical journalist interviewing Fred Rogers for a column in Esquire, but he felt kind of like a case of generic bitter-man syndrome. I wanted to spend more time with Fred Rogers and was anxious to get back to his more layered and interesting character.

They were very careful to not cheapen Fred Rogers’ legacy or scandalize him in any way but the documentary was so much more profound in showing the impact Fred had on millions of children. It had one touching scene after another profiling how his decision to love created a movement of kindness, which blessed so many lives. In this film he seems more like a nice man who makes pies for a few select people. It’s not the same.

Chris Cooper is very good as Rhys’ elderly father. He has been a huge disappointment to his children, and he may be seeking forgiveness a little too late. (Nobody plays a bitter, angry father like Chris Cooper!). There are nice moments between Rhys and Susan Kelechi Watson who plays his very patient wife, and I loved a scene where Fred Rogers prays individually for all of the Vogel family members by name, even the little baby.

I also loved a scene where Fred Rogers is on a train and all the people sing ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’ to him and it seems to brighten everyone’s day. I wish there was more of Fred Rogers interacting with the people.

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In fact, there is a great moment in the documentary, which I was sure they would include, where Fred is testifying before Congress to get PBS funding and he is able to win over the heart of a crusty old Senator from his speech. It’s such a cinematic life-moment and would have been easy to include with a flashback or something.

I don’t know. Like I said. I am being harder on it than I probably should. I just think the documentary is much better. But A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a perfectly serviceable and amiable film. If people are opposed to seeing documentaries than they will probably love it. As for me, it’s fine, but not as great as I was hoping for.

Watch the documentary and then if you want more watch this…

6 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Knives Out’: Murder and Mirth at Thrombey Hall

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One aspect of covering Hallmark movies for my podcast, The Hallmarkies Podcast, that might surprise some people is I find myself talking about murder mysteries quite often. In fact, they have an entire channel called ‘Hallmark Movies & Mysteries’, which is devoted for most of the year to what are called ‘cozy mysteries’. Similar to Murder She Wrote these stories are about amateur sleuths who help uncover the culprits behind usually quite grisly murders in their midst. They have to be enjoyed with a grain of salt as typically the clues don’t stand high scrutiny but they are fun escapism where we can all envision ourselves cracking the case.

In director Rian Johnson’s new film Knives Out we get a taste of this type of murder mystery but on the big screen (there is even a recurring gag about Hallmark cozy mysteries throughout the film!). I was as skeptical as anyone going into this film as I have not been a huge fan of Johnson’s previous work in Looper or The Last Jedi. However, I am delighted to tell you he has made a very entertaining film that will keep everyone guessing from beginning to end.

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First of all, the cast is outstanding. Daniel Craig steals the show as Detective Benoit Blanc: a man who is hired by a mysterious benefactor to look into the death of famed author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer). Upon arriving at the house Blanc begins questioning all involved including Thrombey’s relatives and the staff of the home.

Ana de Armas stars as Thrombey’s nurse and close confident. She is helpful for a detective because she cannot lie without throwing up. Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis and more all do entertaining character work. I also really enjoyed the production design of the house and the music by Nathan Johnson.

All that said, it comes down to the script. Johnson manages to have huge exposition dumps but make them entertaining. A recent comparison can be seen in the 2017 version of Murder on the Orient Express which wasted a similarly gifted cast on exposition that landed with a thud. The key difference is Johnson isn’t taking his film deadly serious where Branagh was so we as viewers can sit back in awe at each new reveal. It’s a blast!

Like I said with the Hallmark cozy mysteries, Knives Out, needs to be taken with a grain of salt and enjoyed as fun escapism. The characters are kooky and the twists surprising, which makes for a really good time at the theater. I highly recommend it.

8 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Ford v Ferrari’: Friends, Feuds and Fast Cars

Ford-v-Ferrari-IMAX-poster-600x751-1-600x364Sometimes with all the hubbub around the Oscars this time of year we as cinephiles can get a little snobby about what makes a great film.  Yes the art-pieces are an important and vital part of this artform we love but so is the crowd-pleasing entry that makes the audience stand up and cheer. This is why I am always happy when I see films like Hidden Figures and Black Panther received Best Picture nominations. Despite what some people say making entertainment for the masses is not easy and when it is done well it should be celebrated.

Such is my experience with the new film from director James Mangold, Ford v Ferrari. In this film, he has crafted an immensely satisfying story of an unlikely friendship (theme of 2019) and the battle to build the ultimate racing car that brought them together.

Based on a true story Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby an ex-racer who is tasked by the Ford Motor Company to design a car that can compete, even beat, Ferrari at the Le Mans 24 hour race in 1966. He then recruits the more reckless driver and car-maker Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to drive the car and lead the team. Both actors are excellent in their roles but they are also surrounded by a talented cast including Jon Berenthal as Lee Iacocca, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Ray McKinnon and more.

Christian Bale and Caitriona Balfe in Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI.

I especially loved Caitriona Balfe as Miles’ wife. She was funny, unpredictable and brought a lot to a role that could have been a one-note long-suffering wife. Tracy Letts is also great as Henry Ford II especially in a scene where he unwittingly endures a test-run on the race track.

Most people will probably praise the racing scenes in Ford v Ferrari, and they are excellent, but  the real star lies in the script and performances. I was so drawn into the characters and story and by the end I wanted to stand up and cheer. I love underdog sports movies and Ford v Ferrari is a very satisfying entry in the genre. But add to it a story of the friendship between Shelby and Miles that felt real and authentic and we have a winner!

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I even liked this movie despite watching it in a theater that felt more like a sauna. It’s rated PG-13 but a mild one. I certainly would feel comfortable taking the whole family and seeing Ford v Ferrari. It’s that good. The only major problem is it is a bit too long at 2 hr 32 min but I didn’t feel the length much. Other than that, it’s a wonderful film everyone will enjoy. The story is interesting, the acting is great, script is well done and the racing scenes work.

Go see it! It’s really good!

9 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’

Going in to see Terminator: Dark Fate I must admit my expectations were not very high. After 3 underwhelming, bland films in a row it is hard for me to get excited for another entry in this once iconic franchise. Coming out of the film I’m afraid to say I felt basically the same. Terminator: Dark Fate is not nearly as irritating as Terminator: Genisys but it continues on the trend of bland, forgettable action movies in this franchise.

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Terminator: Dark Fate tries to spice things up by giving us a trio of female kick butt characters led by Linda Hamilton returning as Sarah Connor. Shes campy enough to be a little bit fun but not enough to save the movie. Mackenzie Davis plays an augmented woman named Grace from the future who is sent to save a woman named Dani (Natalia Reyes) from Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) a terminator that can split into 2 bodies and is practically unstoppable.

The strength of this film is in the performances from Davis, Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger (back as curtain selling family man version of the T-800). They may say ‘I’ll be back’ way too many times but they are entertaining in their roles and know how to sell the action scenes. Also the action scenes are well staged especially the long opening chase sequence.

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The problem is Terminator: Dark Fate has nothing new to bring to the table and it falls into a predictable rut real quick. Exposition, action, exposition, action. For a film with this much action I should not be so bored but that’s what I was for most of the time. The characters aren’t interesting and the film has nothing new to say about humanity, war, AIs or anything else (I believe all good scifi should have something to say). The Rev-9 brings nothing new to the table as a terminator and the time travel concept isn’t explored well. It’s just action interrupted by people cracking jokes and talking about the past.

I am always bad at box office predictions but I don’t see this movie making much money. People have been burned too many times and this entry is at best a vessel for serviceable action scenes. Why when we’ve had such excellent action movies this year like Avengers: Endgame or Shadow would you waste time watching this? I think time has run out on the Terminators, and we need to let Sarah, John and Carl the drapery man go back to their regular lives. No more!

3 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Jojo Rabbit’

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I have to admit I have been holding off on my review of Jojo Rabbit because I really loved it but it’s a hard film to properly put into words. A side of me wants to just close the review out now and say ‘go see it and decide for yourself!’ But alas, I will make the attempt to write a review of this weird, sweet, funny, crazy little movie.

As you have probably heard, Jojo Rabbit is a dark comedy by acclaimed director Taika Waititi. Some may only know him from his Marvel film Thor Ragnarok but he has done other wonderful films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows.

In Jojo Rabbit, Waititi takes his biggest swing by casting himself as an imaginary friend of a little boy during the closing months of World War II. The only catch is this particular imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler (a cookie zany version of Hitler as dreamed up by a little boy named Jojo).

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I think the reason this frankly bizarre concept works is because it is from the perspective of a child. We are all in many ways the product of our environment so of course he accepts the horrors surrounding him. The goal of the movie is then to help him realize his indoctrination is wrong until we get to a climatic moment where he literally tells Hitler to @#$# off. He is helped along this process by his Mother (lovely performance by Scarlet Johansson), Sam Rockwell as a snarky officer, and a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie who was great in Leave No Trace and is great here), among others.

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Jojo Rabbit reminded me a little bit of ‘The Book Thief’ which is my favorite novel. It is also set in Germany during WWII and is narrated by death with a dry, sarcastic look at the misery humans have created. ‘The Book Thief’ is not satire but it has a similar message about what we decide to believe and how we chose to treat other humans.

And that’s the reason why Jojo Rabbit works so well. It can be quite funny but the emotion and heart are equally strong. I cried multiple times. It’s especially poignant because not only are you seeing war and evil but you are seeing it through the mind of a little vulnerable child.

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Indeed, Waititi has said he kept the movie PG13 because he wanted to talk to young people. Just like Jojo in the movie he wants them to question what they have been taught and decide for themselves how they want to treat others. He seems to want to catch them when they are young and impressionable and steer them towards kindness and away from hate. That’s a powerful message, which deserves repeating over and over again.

I don’t know if what I have said has convinced you to see Jojo Rabbit but I did my best. It’s such a lovely, moving, funny, different, original film with a fantastic script! Go see it!!!

9 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘The Lighthouse’

Every year while attending the Sundance Film Festival I am reminded there 2 kinds of indie films. First, you have the crowd pleasing, more-mainstream films like Blinded By the Light or Late Night. On the other hand you have the true art-house indie that is experimental and more challenging to watch. Distributor A24 often selects these risky films and as with all high art some of it I resonate with and others I do not. Fortunately for the new film The Lighthouse I did respond to what it’s trying to do but I fully admit many people will not.

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The Lighthouse is directed by Robert Eggers and stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as 2 men who get more than a little stir-crazy while operating a lighthouse in the middle of nowhere. Much of what we see between the 2 men is questionable. Some of it is real. Some of it is a dream. Some of it is the delusions cabin fever can bring on. Some may be the result of a guilty conscience. We don’t know and the movie doesn’t tell us.

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Both Pattinson and Dafoe do a great job with their physically demanding roles and the movie looks gorgeous. Shot in black and white with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, Eggers helps us dive into the 19th century setting without ever saying that’s when it is occurring. The aesthetic also helps muddle the dream and real life scenes. In color it would be more clear what is gritty and real with what is an illusion. Here we keep guessing.

Watching The Lighthouse reminded me a lot of Ingmar Bergman especially The Seventh Seal. I also thought of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Truffaut’s 400 Blows. There’s a mixture of surrealism and passion running throughout all these films that make them unforgettable. They are weird and different but that’s part of the experience of watching them.

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That said, The Lighthouse is not for everyone. If you don’t like abstract, strange art-pieces you won’t like this film. I recommend taking a look at the trailer and if it looks intriguing to you, than you will probably enjoy it. It’s an intense, strange movie that got me thinking. Can’t go wrong there!

I’m still not sure what Eggers is trying to say with his film and there are scenes which feel more than a little repetitive, but I still enjoyed it. It’s a movie you can think on for several days. One where every person in the audience will have a different take on, whether they like it or not. I anticipate this film will have a low cinemascore because it is so different but I still recommend it.

If you want to see something challenging and more than a little nutty than give The Lighthouse a shot and let me know what you think in the comments section. Also what’s one of the most abstract artsy movie you’ve seen that you enjoyed? 

8 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’

If you have been following this blog for any amount of time you know I am a tough critic when it comes to the Disney live action remakes. A few I like (Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella) but most are bland at best. However, there’s a special level of hatred in my heart for 2014’s supposed reinterpretation of Sleeping Beauty called Maleficent. I hated pretty much every decision that film made, so you can imagine my hesitancy when they announced a sequel for this year, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. But I pride myself on keeping an open mind for EVERY film. So, I went to see it today, and left with surprisingly mixed feelings.

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First, let’s talk about the positives. Maleficent: The Mistress of Evil is not a cash grab. It is obvious the creators tried their best to improve upon the original film in almost every way. To begin with, the production design is far better. The original felt like a bland CGI world I’ve seen a million times. In contrast, this film has beautiful cinematography and world building, which felt fresh and original. I particularly loved a long sequence in a nest where everything was monochromatic: filled with beautiful grays and whites woven as background for the bat-like Maleficent. Also, all of the costumes and make-up were stunning. Some of the best I’ve seen all year.

For the first act of the movie I was actually digging the film. It starts out as a fantasy version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was weird and different. As opposed to the original, which felt like an apology and bastardization of Sleeping Beauty (especially the fairies! How dare they!), this film felt alive with its own lore and story. The acting was also much better especially from Michelle Pfeiffer and Elle Fanning who is actually given something to do as Aurora.

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Unfortunately this is where my positives stop. Once we have our basic setup of Maleficent vs Pfeiffer the movie begins to falter. Where the dinner scene was surreal and strange, most of the remaining second half is a bland fantasy war movie. It reminded me of the war scene in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which I hate, except it went on much longer. Despite being pretty, the story dragged, and Maleficent becomes a character who is acted upon more than she acts. Most of the time she is moping around waiting for other people to do things, so she can either sulk or acquiesce to their ideas.

I also was puzzled by the tone and audience Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (the title is so dumb by the way) is going for? The battle gets intense including a scene that is gas chamber-like for our heroes. I don’t think kids will find this entertaining nor are adults invested enough in the lore to be engrossed. I never watched Game of Thrones, but I know enough about it to spot the many times Hollywood has tried to capture the themes and aesthetics of that series, and this is definitely one of those films (there is even a long sequence with a dragon…)

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It’s a real bummer because if they had kept the strange tone of the early scenes I could have had a surprise hit. I don’t even see why the war plotline is necessary? Why not have a movie about Aurora trying to plan a wedding with Maleficent and Pfeiffer bickering the whole time? That would have been amazing. As it is, we got a impressive looking war movie that loses its guts midway through.

I wanted to go fresh because I do appreciate the obvious attempt to improve upon the ‘Maleficent turning into the victim of a man’ nonsense of the original film, but that second half was too dull and derivative for me to recommend. Maybe give it a rental if curious? Otherwise, I’d say pass on this fairy story.

Frown Worthy

4.5 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Lucy in the Sky’

Anyone who reads my reviews knows I am not a strict literalist when it comes to cinematic adaptations of true stories. I am on record of enjoying both Green Book and The Greatest Showman. However, both of those films offered entertainment that made up for some problematic elements. Unfortunately, in the case of the new film, Lucy in the Sky, this is not the case. Despite a good lead performance by Natalie Portman, this new film loosely based on the experiences of astronaut Lisa Nowak is a big case of wasted potential.

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In Lucy in the Sky, Lisa is turned into Lucy Cola, a recently returned astronaut who struggles to come to grip with life on Earth after being in space. Everything that gave her joy in the past like her marriage to her husband Drew (Dan Stevens) now feels bland and empty. In an attempt to regain the sense of adrenaline of space she becomes increasingly reckless. She participates in risky training exercises like holding her breath for over 2 minutes under water, she gets drunk, she steals a gun from her Grandmother and finally she starts an affair with fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm).

Natalie Portman does a good job playing Lucy and the film captures the spiraling feeling of a panic attack but it doesn’t help us to understand Lucy’s choices very well. When it does try to get inside her head it does so by using gimmicks like changing the aspect ratio of the screen or showing on-the-nose metaphors like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon…

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It was also painfully obvious the script was written by 3 men as the film simplified Lucy’s mental health crisis and then proceeded to judge her and her choices. In contrast, the Jon Hamm character is practically given a high five for being the rational womanizer who mistakenly let this crazy person into his life. What about it takes two to tango? Dan Stevens is better but we hardly get to know him so that doesn’t help much.

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What’s especially odd is the team decided to remove the more sensational aspects of the case- like her wearing an adult diaper in her quest to follow Mark, and yet it remains so shallow. One can only assume they made this choice to give it more gravitas, but I honestly wish they had embraced the madness. Why not make something funny and nuts like Raising Arizona or if you wanted a true story use BlackkKlansman as your guide?

I didn’t hate Lucy in the Sky. Portman puts in too strong an effort to totally dismiss, but I do think it is a big case of missed potential, which is frustrating. They could have done something cool and interesting and instead they made a movie I will forget soon after I post this review. Too bad. Oh well!

3.5 out of 10

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