Hang On

My Tivo gave me a present. After I got it, it went through a stage of recording shows I had absolutely no interest in watching – Real Housewives, Ghost Adventures, 90 Day Fiance. I hadn’t even heard of that last one until it showed up in Tivo’s suggestions. About once a week I’d go through and delete all the recorded crap. But then it started recording movies, and because of it I found a small gem from 2019 that I’d missed in the theaters.

Don’t Let Go stars David Oyelowo as LAPD Detective Jack Ratcliff. The movie opens with him receiving a distress call from his niece Ashley (Storm Reid) that her parents hadn’t picked her up from the light rail station. Jack rescues her and buys her supper at a favorite restaurant, and later he talks to his brother Garrett (Brian Tyree Henry). Garrett had been mixed up with drugs along with facing mental health issues, but he’d turned his life around. A few days later, Ashley calls and thanks Jack, saying things were much better with her parents now. But then, a short while later, Jack answers a call from Ashley only to hear her in distress before the line goes dead. He rushes to his brother’s house and finds his sister-in-law and Garrett dead in what looks like a murder-suicide. Ashley is in the bathtub, also brutally murdered.

Jack’s partner, Bobby Owens (Mykelti Williamson), is assigned to investigate while the head of the detective bureau, Howard Keleshian (Alfred Molina), puts Jack on compassionate leave. To Jack, though, the scene seems staged, clearly framing his brother, but he doesn’t know how to figure out what happened. Then Jack’s phone rings, and it shows Ashley is calling him. He comes to realize that Ashley is talking to him from two weeks earlier – a couple of days before her death.

The movie, written and directed by Jacob Estes, contains echoes of Frequency in the plot. However, the vibe of Don’t Let Go is hard-boiled L.A. Noir. It has more in common with L.A. Confidential or Training Day than the other movie. While it has the usual convention of the time travel genre where a small change to the past alters the future, the compact time frame of the movie make the changes more subtle, with only Jack aware of thems. They also allow the plot to make shocking, lethal twists and turns.

Oyelowo was outstanding as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, and he’d also starred a couple of years later with Rosamund Pike in a historical romance picture I thoroughly enjoyed, A United Kingdom. This time he’s cast in an action hero role, but he brings his signature intelligence to the part. This was Storm Reid’s follow-up to the debacle of A Wrinkle In Time, and she is compelling and winning as Ashley. Since then she’s done two limited series (“When They See Us” and “Euphoria”) and had a main supporting role in this year’s The Invisible Man. It appears that she will successfully navigate the transition from child to adult actor, which is never easy, and I look forward to watching her in future roles.

At 103 minutes, Don’t Let Go keeps a strong pace throughout. It also manages to resolve the sci-fi aspects of the plot in an unusual but effective way. It didn’t do well in its release, essentially making back its production cost, but if you’re looking for a thriller that manages to present a fresh story, check this movie out. Click below to see the trailer)


Pedestrian Story, Soaring Execution

With the coronavirus shutting down the movie theaters – and questions about possible safety even when they do reopen – I’ve spent most of the last two months watching favorite movies. However, I have managed to catch some new ones via streaming services. One I watched recently was a co-production between Amazon Studios with the German company Augenschein Filmproduktion.

7500 would win a competition for the most claustrophobic thriller hands down, if there were such a prize. From shortly after the opening credits end through to almost the last shot, all the action takes place in the cockpit of an Airbus A-319 airliner. It makes the underwater scenes in Das Boot seem positively spacious. Not even United 93 kept the story this tight.

The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as co-pilot Tobias Ellis, an American living in Germany and flying for a regional carrier. He and pilot Michael Lutzmann (Carlo Kitzlinger) are preparing for an evening flight from Berlin to Paris. While Lutzmann does the preflight walk-around of the plane, Tobias is joined in the cockpit by Flight Attendant Gokce (Aylin Tezel). While they keep their personal life separate from their professional, Tobias and Gokce have had a relationship for a couple of years and have a son together.

After a minor delay, the flight takes off without incident and heads for its cruising altitude. But when the cockpit door is unlocked by the pilots so one of the attendants can enter, a group of men rush forward and burst in, armed with makeshift knives. Tobias manages to fight off a young man (Omid Memar) and secure the cabin door, though he’s stabbed in the arm during the melee. He then overcomes and knocks out the hijacker who attacked Lutzmann, whose wounds are much more serious than what Tobias suffered. It leaves Tobias on his own to fliy the plane, try and keep Lutzmann alive, and do something about the unconscious terrorist before he awakens. At the same time, on a monitor, he can see into the galley just outside the cabin door where the other hijackers are trying to break down the door.

The title of the film is taken from a code that pilots can enter in their plane’s transponder. Normally the transponder gives the identification of the plane – airline and flight number – but changing the code to 7500 is a silent warning to the Air Traffic Control Center that a hijacking is in progress.

The film was directed and co-written by Patrick Vollrath, and is both his feature film debut after several shorts, and his first English-language film (though a fair portion of the story is in either German or Turkish). The story, such as it is, doesn’t get any awards for originality. It hits the expected plot points over the course of its 93 minute running time. However, Vollrath makes up for the standard story by telling it with style. The opening credits play over surveillance camera footage of the airport, focusing on the young man. Its commonness serves to increase the tension. On the plane, the director turns the subtle movement of the curtain separating the galley and the passengers, visible on the monitor, into a moment worthy of Hitchcock. I look forward to seeing what Vollrath will do in the future, especially with a better story and a higher budget.

But what truly makes the movie work as well as it does is Gordon-Levitt. From his first films after graduating from “Third Rock From The Sun,” like the excellent high-school noir Brick (the first feature by Knives Out director and scribe, Rian Johnson) and the romantic comedy 500 Days of Summer, to major productions like Inception, Looper, and Lincoln, Gordon-Levitt has demonstrated a true gift for both disappearing into a character while making them mesmerizing. (I’d also recommend checking out a small caper film, 2007’s The Look-Out, that’s a memorable showcase of his ability.) Tobias is by necessity an interior performance with most of it projected through his eyes, and Gordon-Levitt nails it.

If you have Amazon Prime, 7500 is available to stream now. As noted, it has its faults, but it also has its pleasures.

To view the trailer, please click here.

Classic Horror, Classy Update

Aussie-native Leigh Whannel has been scaring people for seventeen years. He began his film career as an actor, appearing in a couple of Australian TV shows and small films before getting a role in 2003’s Matrix Reloaded. But that same year he appeared in a low-budget horror film that he also wrote – Saw. He’s continued to act, amassing 45 credits on IMDb, including as the cargo plane pilot in Aquaman. His main focus, though, has been behind the camera, adding producer and director credits to his writing. He left the Saw series after the third film (a wise decision), only to mine a new vein of terror with the Insidious series. Now he’s taken a classic horror story and reimagined it for the #MeToo generation.

The Invisible Man was a different entry in the classic Universal horror films, as it stayed closer to science fiction than Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Wolf Man. That was to be expected since it was based on an H.G. Wells story. It did prove one truism of horror – sometimes it’s what you don’t see that scares you. The 1933 version was helped by having the classic voice of Claude Rains as the Invisible Man, and the female lead was played by Gloria Stuart, whose heart would go on until she played the elderly Rose in Titanic. The story, or variations on it, has been filmed a score of times, not always well. You have a comedic version with Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, and the over-the-top Paul Verhoven film The Hollow Man, and everything in between. Most share the essential plot of a scientist who creates a formula that turns his body invisible, but the serum also twists his mind into a narcistic murderer, freed from the constraints of morality by his god-like power.

In the new version of The Invisible Man, the story focuses on Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), the wife of millionaire optics inventor Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). In the middle of the night, Cecilia awakens and climbs out of bed after carefully removing her husband’s hand from where it rested on her side. She lifts a water glass from his bedstand, and we can see residue from her drugging him. Her silent escape from the house is incredibly tense and brilliantly highlights her fear of Adrian. The tension is ratcheted higher when the family dog trips the motion-sensor alarm on a car, causing Cecilia to dash away and quickly scale the wall surrounding Adrian’s modern mansion on the coast north of San Francisco. She races to a dirt road, where she meets her sister,Emily (Harriet Dyer), but before they can leave Adrian races out of the woods and breaks the car window, trying to grab Cecilia. Emily floors the accelerator and they make their escape. (A nice touch with the filming is that you never clearly see Adrian. He’s either hidden by covers or obscured by darkness, so right from the start he’s essentially the invisible man.)

Cecilia hides out with James Lanier (Aldis Hodge), a police detective, and his teenaged daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Wracked by PTSD from the physical and mental abuse inflicted on her by Adrian, it’s almost too much for her to leave the house to check the mailbox. She’s angry when Emily shows up at the house two weeks after her escape, afraid that Adrian could follow her. Emily, though, has important news: Adrian is dead by suicide. Cecilia doesn’t believe it since Adrian is too much of a malignant narcissist to ever take his own life. But the body was identified by Adrian’s brother Tom (Michael Dorman), who also has news for Cecilia – Adrian left her five million dollars. At first it seems like the nightmare is over. Then things start happening – the heat on a fry pan gets turned up high, causing bacon grease to catch fire; a door opens by itself; a blanket is pulled off in the middle of the night as Cecilia sleeps. Cecilia soon comes to believe that Adrian is alive and has found a way to make himself invisible, but that makes the others doubt her sanity.

I won’t go any further on the plot, only to say Whannel keeps the intensity building and building. It’s hard to watch the mental torture of Cecilia early on, but Whannel isn’t interested in simply portraying every woman’s nightmare. Between her roles in “Mad Men” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Moss has portrayed the underdog who comes to find an inner strength, and Cecilia is another example. She may be victimized, but she won’t let herself remain a victim. There are multiple twists that take the story in new directions, something that Whannel has always excelled at in his writing.

Made for what these days counts as a tiny budget (approximately 7 million dollars), Whannel as director, producer, and writer makes every dollar count. The special effects actually help with the plotting this time around, and they’re a far cry from the wire work of the Claude Rains version. The tiny budget also means the film which won the box office in its first week, is already a financial success. The good news is, it’s also one of the better thrillers to come along in a while.

Better Classics Through Technology

The explosive expansion in computer graphic effects, along with the achievement of photo-realistic quality, has remade the way films can tell a story so they are, strangely enough, more realistic. Disney can go into its animation vault and pull out stories that could never have been done in a live-action film. The rubber suit of Godzilla or the stop-animation effects of King Kong, effective in their day, are now the equivalent of sailing ships in the era of space probes.

It’s a positive when it comes to animal stories. Back when “Lassie” was a hit TV show in the 1950s and ‘60s, a stable of dogs were needed to play the role – one for close-ups, others for particular stunts. You could also have concerns about an animal being endangered to get a shot, which led to the Humane Society’s monitoring and certifying the safety of actors who couldn’t speak for themselves. With the new film version of Jack London’s classic tale, The Call of the Wild, the dog at the center of the story is a CGI creation that lets the story be told without worries about the animal.

The Call Of The Wild is the granddaddy of dog stories, predating “Lassie, Come Home” by 35 years. Buck is a St. Bernard/Scotch Shepherd mix, a massive, strong dog. He lives a pampered life as the pet of a judge (Bradley Whitford) in a Californian town in the mid-1890s. Far to the north, though, the Klondike gold rush is in full swing, and strong dogs for use with dogsleds bring a high price. Late at night, Buck is dognapped by a local ne’er-do-well and sold to a wrangler heading to the gold fields. Separated from his family and starved, Buck attacks the wrangler, only to be taught “the law of the club.”

When he gets off the boat in Alaska, Buck meets a kindly prospector, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), before he’s sold to Perrault (Omar Sy), who handles the mail runs along with Francoise (Cara Gee). At first Buck is hapless working with the team, but slowly he becomes integral to the pack – something that doesn’t sit well with Spitz, the vicious white Husky that leads the pack.

Director Chris Sanders was part of the classic Disney animation renaissance, helping to write Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan. He added director to his resume with Lilo and Stitch and codirected How To Train Your Dragon. This is his first live-action movie. This is also the first time, after multiple adaptations over the course of a hundred years, that the filmmakers matched London’s description of Buck. It happened that Sanders’ wife owned a dog of that exact mix of breeds, named Buckley. Buckley became the model for CGI renderings of Buck.

London was a product of his age, and that is visible in The Call of the Wild. But Screenwriter Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049, the Branagh version of Murder on the Orient Express) has made the story less prejudiced and more multi-cultural. He also expands the character of Thornton with a back story that mirrors Buck’s, so when they come together in the last portion of the film, they’re like kindred souls. Ford has often been underestimated as an actor, but he is outstanding in the role of Thornton.

In the end you completely forget the CGI aspect of the film and accept Buck as the central character. I confess that I’m a sucker for dog stories, and The Call of the Wild had me tearing up a couple of times, but in the end it’s a triumphant story of overcoming adversity. While I might recommend bringing along a tissue or two, I do also recommend you see The Call of the Wild.

Modern Romance

For a day celebrating romance, this past February 14th didn’t offer much in the way of love stories opening in theaters. You had horror masters Blumhouse putting their distinct touch on the TV series Fantasy Island, while the black comedy Downhill had the marriage of Will Ferrell and Julia-Louis Dreyfus falling apart. The box office champion was the videogame adaptation Sonic the Hedgehog. But there was one adult romance available – The Photograph.

While researching a story on the continuing effects of Hurricane Katrina, magazine writer Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) interviews Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan), a fisherman on the bayous outside New Orleans. While there, Michael sees a photograph of a striking woman. Isaac explains she was his lost love Christina Eames (Chante Adams) who left the bayou and made her way to New York City where she became a successful photographer. Back in Brooklyn, Block discovers Christina had recently passed away. He reaches out to her daughter Mae Morton (Issa Rae) who works as a curator for one of the galleries in the city.

The movie becomes a retelling of Christina’s star-crossed love affair with Isaac, even as Michael finds himself falling for Mae. Mae is consumed with fear, though, that she will be exactly like her mother, who was always restrained and distant with her daughter and her husband, Louis (Cortney B. Vance). even as she achieved the success she desired.

Written and directed by Stella Meghie, The Photograph harkens back to the classic love stories filmed in the 1930s and 1940s, but with a decidedly modern take. It also deals with the mystery of parent and child, where the child is completely familiar with the parent, yet they’re also a complete obscure, as if they had no life before parenthood. Meghie sets a leisurely pace as Michael and Mae are drawn together, even as Christina and Isaac fall apart.

It helps to have two excellent actors in the main roles. Stanfield and Rae have a palpable chemistry between them, and it’s a delight to watch two fine actors working off each other. Morgan shows the regret for what might have been, and Chante Adams is wonderful as Christina. You see the desire for success burning inside her, and the knowledge that she can’t fulfill that dream without leaving the world of her childhood behind. There’s also a short but striking performance by Marsha Stephanie Blake as Christina’s mother, in whom you see an echo of both Christina and Mae.

Some complain that these days you can’t find a movie that doesn’t have explosions or wall-to-wall special effects or superheroes. There’s none of that in The Photograph, just a compelling modern take on love, romance, and whether they can survive success.

Two Halves That Don’t Make A Whole Movie

I’d look forward to the release of The Rhythm Section since I saw the first trailer. I’ve been impressed with Blake Lively’s work, starting with The Town, and she was one of the good parts of Savages. I became a fan with the wonderful romance Age of Adaline. A Simple Favor had charm in its wicked sense of humor overlaid on a film noir plot. The Rhythm Section’s trailer looked like a foray into the thriller genre in the John LeCarre vein with a sprinkling of Bourne action. The movie does deliver on that promise, but only after you sit through the tedious first half.

It’s based on the first book in a series that was published in the late 1990s and early 2000s, written by Mark Burnell. Burnell himself adapted the book for the screen, so he doesn’t have the excuse it was a bad adaptation. Rather than building an authentic female character, the story comes across as a male fantasy with unrealistic actions and reactions. The director, Reed Morano, had been a cinematographer before she moved into directing, and she’d done good work on early episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which won her a Primetime Emmy. The visuals are effective throughout the film, but she appears to go with the script rather than leavening the testosterone of Burnell’s novel or fixing its structure.

After a brief opening scene (more on that later) the story jumps back eight months. Stephanie Patrick (Lively) is strung out and working in a brothel in London. A man hires her, but it turns out he’s a journalist named Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) who’s hunted Stephanie down. Three years earlier all of Stephanie’s close family died in a plane crash over the ocean. Proctor has found it was brought down by a bomb, an assassination of a dissident with 250-plus collateral victims, only to be covered up by the government. Proctor has found the bomb’s maker, a London student named Reza, but the person who got the bomb on the plane is a shadow known as U-17. Stephanie gets a gun, intending to kill Reza, but she can’t go through with it. Reza steals her bag, learns about Proctor’s investigation, and murders him. From Proctor’s notes and phone, Stephanie discovers his source, a disgraced former MI-6 operative who goes by B (Jude Law). Stephanie pushes B to train her so she can get revenge on Reza and U-17. After at first refusing, B begins to tutor her in the necessary skills.

There are several weaknesses with this. The descent of Stephanie from bright and beautiful (seen in brief flashbacks with her family) to drug-addled whore is extreme, to say the least. Harder to believe is the progression from that low point to a trained killer seeking revenge. But that is the first hour of the movie – Jude Law putting her through a punishing physical regimen to toughen her up, all against the bleak landscape of rural Scotland in winter. It becomes a marathon for the audience to maintain their focus through the repetitive scenes. As mentioned, the movie starts with a short scene as Stephanie approaches her first target after her training. If the training had been integrated with the pursuit of vengeance – flashbacks to show how she acquired the skills she needs – it could have increased the energy of the story.

For the second half of the film is effective, as Stephanie pursues her vengeance while also masquerading as a lethal contract killer whom B had dispatched months earlier but whose death is still a secret. There are several thrilling set pieces, including a violent car case told with the camera in the car with Stephanie. The second half also features a CIA agent who’s gone freelance, played with fluid charm by Sterling K. Brown. But getting to that part is a hard slog. Lively is also more – I have to say it – lively in the second half, and she could make a believable female agent in a different movie.

Here, though, the latter half can’t make up for the former. It is a disappointment.

No Gentlemen Here

Guy Ritchie blew into the consciousness of movie-goers 22 years ago with a rough and tumble updating of the classic British gangster flick. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels was sharp and stylized, a twisty ballet of violence at the height of the independent film renaissance. He followed it up with the quite successful Snatch that seemed to cement his place as an enfant terrible of the cinema, an English Quentin Tarantino. But he lost his way, becoming Mr. Madonna for a while. After that his career became hits and misses. He did well with the Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes, made the The Man from U.N.C.L.E. better than the original TV series, and joined the billion-dollar box office club with last year’s Aladdin. Mixed in with those were the box office dud RocknRolla, the muddled Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, and the eminently forgettable King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword.

With the trailer for The Gentlemen, it seemed Ritchie had reconnected with his roots to make a crime drama whose action was turned up to eleven. Instead we get a byzantine story that has twists on its twists, made opaque with the untrustworthy narration of a paparazzi who’s observed the story. The role is played by a pretty-much unrecognizable Hugh Grant in a characterization that’s the equivalent of fingernails on the chalkboard. It’s either a brilliant performance or a horrible one. In the end I didn’t care.

The basic plot is this: Mickey (Matthew McConaughey) is a hugely successful pot dealer in London. With weed soon going legit, Mickey knows his past is too dodgy to transition to an honest producer, so he decides to sell his empire to Matthew (Jeremy Strong) for a tidy profit. But then through the machinations of Dry Eye (Henry Golding), Mickey’s empire is about to come crashing down around him. Assisted by his loyal second-in-command Ray (Charlie Hunnam) and his wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), Mickey must figure out who’s playing him and why.

Think of that plot, but then re-write it like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books where you go to different pages based on your choices – then tear the book to pieces and try to put it back together with tape, and you might have an idea of how confusing the story is until it finally spins out to a resolution. The crazy thing is, Ritchie comes close to pulling it off. The fatal flaw is surprising though, considering Ritchie’s early mastery of the genre. With a few exceptions, the characters are either forgettable or annoying, and sometimes both.

On the plus side, Colin Farrell does a nice turn as a boxing coach who’s pulled into Mickey’s world when the rambunctious teens he works with stage a raid on Mickey’s business – and film it for YouTube. Both Hunnam and Dockery are effective in their roles. But everyone else is on the minus side, including McConaughey who acts like the film’s a really long Lincoln commercial. Golding, who was personable in Crazy Rich Asians, is forced to flit between wildly different versions of his character because of the nature of the unfaithful narrator. Strong is so bland and dull, there’s more character in the hat he wears throughout the flick.

The convoluted plot feels like a retread, and one subplot – featuring Eddie Marsan as a Murdockesque publisher – was lifted from an episode of “Black Mirror.” There’s also a gratuitous attempted rape scene that highlights the misogynistic nature of Ritchie’s work over the years.

The Gentlemen is definitely another miss on Ritchie’s resumé.

All Good Things

Forty-two and a half years ago, I was in Los Angeles, attending a party with friends. A group of us decided to go to Westwood for a midnight showing of a new film that opened that weekend. The huge first-run theater held a respectable crowd, though it was by no means full. We settled in our seats, the theater darkened, and after the 20th Century Fox logo, we saw blue letters saying, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Then with a classic John Williams fanfare, the name “Star Wars” appeared on the screen, followed by the introduction’s scrawl. The camera panned down so we saw a planet and a small spaceship racing away. While it looked good, it was pretty much standard sci-fi. Then the Imperial Cruiser came onto the screen, and kept going, and going, and going. By the time the ship finished sliding over our heads, accompanied by quadriphonic sound, we knew the world of movies had changed.

Star Wars became a world-wide phenomenon that only grew with the release of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Later the original film was rechristened A New Hope and reset as Chapter 4 of a triple trilogy. In the late 1990s we flocked to see The Phantom Menace, even though it was a disappointment (Curse you, Jar-Jar Binks!). Attack of the Clones was moderately better, and it did lead to the operatic-level battles and betrayals of Revenge of the Sith. For almost a decade, it looked like those six films would be it. And then the Mouse roared. It’s only natural that the franchise that made merchandising a billion-dollar business would end up with the studio that essentially started merchandising in the first place.

The Force Awakens was both a resurrection and a rejuvenation. In Daisy Ridley’s Rey we had another Luke Skywalker, going up against the Vader wannabe, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Yet we also returned to the world we’d discovered years earlier. When Han and Chewy come aboard the Millennium Falcon, it’s not just them who were home, it was us as well. While others were disappointed with Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, I liked it. It had to take the story to the most perilous point to set up the climax of the series. By its end the Resistance faced extinction while Kylo Ren had ascended to the pinnacle of power.

From the release of the first trailer for The Rise of Skywalker, we knew Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) would return, since we hear his classic laugh at the end. That’s resolved right at the beginning of Skywalker as Kylo Ren locates one of two talismans that are guides to the hidden planet of the Sith. Ren sees Palpatine as a competitor, but one who could be useful. Meanwhile Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) meet up with a source who brings them information on Ren’s plans, received from a spy in the First Order. The meeting is interrupted by a score of Tie Fighters, forcing Poe to push the Millennium Falcon almost to its breaking point to escape.

In the year that’s passed since the events of The Last Jedi, Rey has honed her Jedi skills, but she’s still finding her way. She also still has the connection with Kylo Ren we saw in The Last Jedi. When Poe and the others return with their news, Leia (Carrie Fisher in archival footage from the two previous movies) sends Rey and the others off to find the last talisman so they can discover Palpatine’s location and – hopefully – put an end to him finally.

J.J. Abrams returns to the director and screenwriter chairs (with co-screenwriter Chris Terrio) that he’d occupied for The Force Awakens. Curiously, though, the movie feels rushed with awkward scene cuts early on, like Abrams wanted to get some parts of the story out of the way as quickly as possible. With a movie that runs over two-and-a-quarter hours, and knowing it will easily make over a billion dollars at the box office, you’d think the filmmakers would take more care with the construction of the story. Eventually things smooth out as Rey and her band set out on their quest.

Abrams has chosen to mirror The Return of the Jedi with the structure of Skywalker, so it becomes a story of redemption rather than a simple battle of good and evil. The big question, though, is does Skywalker satisfy the viewer after living with the story for 40-plus years. For myself, while it doesn’t reach the level of the central trilogy, overall I was happy with the movie. Not ecstatic, but happy. It closes out the story arc and answers the central question about Rey. Getting to see characters I’ve known for decades one last time was good, too. Skywalker brings back Lando (Billy Dee Williams) along with last hurrahs by Fisher and Mark Hamill (and one surprise return as well). Other things don’t work out so well, including the additions of a couple of characters (one played by Keri Russell, though you only get to see her eyes) and a superfluous new droid.

It’s hard to stick a landing after so long and with such high expectations. Just ask the creators of “Game of Thrones.” Even in the sequel-happy world of Hollywood, all good things must come to an end. With the final scene of Skywalker, and the final shot, Abrams at least brings us full circle. The franchise will live on, and Baby Yoda will make a mint for Disney in merchandising, but we can close the book on Luke, Han, and Leia and bid them adieu.

Not So Little

“Little Women” is one of those rare classics that has remained a popular read for 150 years and has influenced writers such as Margaret Atwood and J.K. Rowling. While its characters are true to their 1860s milieu, there’s no doubt the story speaks to the striving of women to broaden their lives from the societal constraints of their world in every generation.. Even with its happy ending of the characters married, the portrayal of those unions is of partners, not the woman subject to the male. It has been adapted to stage and television multiple times, including a musical stage version. Now we have the 7th feature film of the story, and it may be the best.

Greta Gerwig had been asked by Sony to adapt the story after they’d rejected a couple of attempts from other screenwriters. Then, with the huge success of Lady Bird, Sony offered Gerwig the director’s chair as well. It was an inspired decision. Gerwig breaks Little Women free from the chronological structure of the book and the previous movies. That change adds resonance and emotional depth to the film when you know that the dreams the March sisters have earlier in life have not played out as expected. Gerwig also added more of Louisa May Alcott’s own story into her avatar Jo, especially at the climax where the choice of ending becomes a negotiation between Jo and her publisher.

For any readers who have somehow missed the story, the film focuses on the March sisters, each of whom has their own talent. Meg (Emma Watson) is outstanding as an actress, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) has talent as a writer; Amy (Florence Pugh) paints beautifully, and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is an accomplished pianist. They live with their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) in a small New England town. While they’re rich in their love for each other, they’re financially strapped, especially since their father is away fighting for the Union during the Civil War. Yet Marmee knows the value of charity for those even less fortunate, and on Christmas Day they take the simple feast they’d planned to have and give it to a family even worse off than them. Their generosity doesn’t go unnoticed though, and when they return home they find an even grander feast set out on the table, a gift from the wealthy Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) who lives across the green from them. It’s through this that the girls meet Mr. Laurence’s grandson, Theodore, though he goes by Laurie (Timothee Chalamet). Soon Laurie becomes a member of the girls’ world, while on the edge is Laurie’s tutor Mr. Brooke (James Norton).

The brightness of those days is contrasted with where the sisters are a few years later. After refusing Laurie’s offer of marriage, Jo has left home for New York City, where she’s become a working writer. Meg is married to Brooke, though they’re painfully poor. Beth’s health was ruined by an illness contracted while helping the poor. Marmee’s rich dowager aunt (Meryl Streep) has taken Amy with her on an extended European trip, but time studying art in Paris has shaken her confidence in her talent. While there, she meets up with Laurie, though it’s hardly a happy reunion – Laurie has become dissipate in the wake of Jo’s refusal, aimlessly drinking his way through society.

Past adaptations of Little Women have boasted exceptional casts. The first sound adaptation featured Katherine Hepburn as Jo, while a technicolor version in 1949 had June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret O’Brien and Janet Leigh as the March sisters. Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film had an exceptional case, with Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Samantha Mathis, and Kirsten Dunst, along with Christian Bale as Laurie and Susan Sarandon as Marmee. Overall, though, the new cast is the strongest. Saoirse Ronan is always mesmerizing on the screen, and she captures the vibrant, tomboyish energy of Jo. Watson makes you believe her love for Brooke, and anytime you have Meryl Streep or Laura Dern in a film, it’s wonderful. Having them together is almost an embarrassment of riches.

Scanlen is an actress to watch, after she made her mark in HBO’s adaptation of “Sharp Objects.” Beth is the tragic heart of the story, but Scanlen imbues her with an inner strength and nobility. Chalemet is a wonderful choice as Laurie, while Chris Cooper disappears into his role. (While I’ve seen him in many films, it wasn’t until near the end that I realized who was doing the role.)

Gerwig’s greatest accomplishment with the film, though, is re-establishing Amy within the quartet of sisters. Most previous adaptations have played up her spoiled nature, and when young she does have her bratty moments. But you also see the sisterly dedication to one another. Pugh has had an exceptional last two years, starring in the AMC/BBC adaptation of Le Carre’s “The Little Drummer Girl,” and following that with the sadly underseen Fighting With My Family and slow-burn horror of Midsommar. She next enters the Marvel Universe as Black Widow’s younger but just as lethal sister.

Little Women has 6 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, though Gerwig should also have received a directing nomination. Both Ronan and Pugh are nominated, for best actress and best supporting actress, and it’s also nominated bor best score (Alexandre Desplat) and costume design (Jacqueline Durran). It is worthy of all of them.

A Walk Through Hell

Last year at this time saw the release of Peter Jackson’s stunning documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Thanks to the geniuses at Weta Digital, original footage shot during WWI was restored, colorized, and dub with sound. The soldier’s voices were recovered by having professional lip readers capture what they said, then voice actors dubbed the dialogue, while the narration came from hours upon hours of vets who recorded their experiences for the Imperial War Museum’s archives. (If you have any interest in history, I heartily recommend you watch this film.) The weaknesses of it, though, were the footage is propagandist in nature and, because of the crude technology of the equipment, battle scenes are shot at a distance. Now a year later, Sam Mendes has made the intimate war epic 1917 that captures trench warfare in all its gory glory.

Mendes was inspired by the war stories told by his grandfather Alfred, who was in his late teens and early twenties when he fought in the war. Alfred passed away in 1991, but the stories remained with Mendes who, for the first time in his career, wrote the script, in collaboration with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. (Wilson-Caines had done shorts before becoming a staff writer for the Showtime series “Penny Dreadful.” Now she’s an Academy Award nominee.)

The story is deceptively straightforward. A sergeant tells Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) to pick another man and follow him. Blake chooses his friend Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay). The sergeant leads to two men to a bunker where General Erinmore (Colin Firth) tells them that a regiment has chased the Germans far from the British lines. The commanding officer thinks he has Germans on the run, but intelligence has discovered it is an elaborate trap. When the regiment attacks the next morning, they will be wiped out. The two corporals must cross No Man’s Land and catch up to the regiment, carrying an order from the General to stop the attack. Blake has been selected because he has a reason to push to succeed – his brother Joseph (Richard Madden) is a lieutenant in the regiment.

What sets 1917 apart is it was filmed as one single shot in real time. The only break comes when a character is knocked out for a few hours. Hitchcock had made Rope that way in the 1950s, though it was actually a series of long takes. Hitchcock would pull the camera in tight on a person’s back as a place to cut the scene. It was a bit of showmanship from the director but ended up being a distraction. More successful were single long shots in films such as the opening sequence of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Alfonso Cuaron has made such shots a feature of his films like Children of Men and Gravity, and his close friend Alejandro Inarritu played with the style in Birdman. With 1917, though, the style increases the tension of the story as well as centering the audience on Blake and Schofield. You feel you are literally walking through Hell with them (or running or crawling or diving for cover). It helps that Mendes recruited Roger Deakins to do the cinematography. He’s shot some of the best films in the past few decades, including Fargo, The Shawshank Redemption, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men, and the Coen Brothers version of True Grit. He’d previously worked with Mendes on Skyfall. With the digital film technology and steadycams, the camera floats around the main characters, weaving in and out, while hardly ever betraying where the scene was cut.

Mendes chose two fresh faces for his main characters. Chapman has mostly done television, where his biggest role was as the young King Tommen Baratheon on “Game of Thrones.” MacKay began acting at eleven and has amassed 40 credits, though his largest role was as Viggo Mortensen’s oldest son in Captain Fantastic. Both actors deliver powerful performances. Mendes filled in the supporting roles with stars. Along with Firth and Madden, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Adam Scott all have small but important roles.

While it’s episodic in nature – crossing No Man’s Land, passing through the enemy trenches, walking through a destroyed orchard – the film’s two hour run time means the audience only has a few brief moments to catch its breath before the story moves on to its next set piece. Throughout it, bodies lie where they were killed, and if you can’t handle rats, this is not a movie to see. While They Shall Not Grow Old gave you the long view, 1917 shoves your face into the brutality of war. Yet it also serves as a testament to the human spirit under inhuman conditions.

If only the world’s experiences of war could be limited to historical movies.