First Hit: I left the theater slightly confused about this film, and today, the following day, I’m still confused.

The confusion about this film is around the question; what was the coalesced point?

To set the stage, Luce is a young black senior in High School. His parents Amy and Peter Edger (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth respectively) adopted Luce as a seven-year-old orphan boy from a war-torn country. Amy couldn’t pronounce his name, so Peter suggested giving him a new name, they came up with Luce, which means light.

Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is smart, and from the beginning of the film, he’s shown in this light by always doing his homework, getting excellent grades, being head of the debate team, and giving amazing speeches. Despite this, there is a sense feeling that all this is a show by Luce, that there is an underlying agenda. So what is it?

This film touches on multiple issues, but because it doesn’t focus on one, the point is never crystallized.

Is the film about Harriet Wilson’s (Octavia Spencer) perceived dislike for Luce and others? After completing a writing assignment where the students were to take on a character and create a story, Luce chose to write about revolution and violence. Upon reading this, Wilson goes into his locker, finds and removes a bag filled with illegal fireworks. Attempting a discussion with Luce turns into an antagonistic argument. Discussing this with Amy, Wilson shares her concern that something may be going on with Luce and that they need to pay attention.

Amy and Peter’s discussion of this issue leads to highlighting some of the difficulties in their relationship through how they each attempt to elicit the truth from Luce but fail. His response is that he loves the subject of the class but Wilson is out to get and demean people.

That Wilson is black, Luce is black, and Luce’s closest friends are of mixed races. Was the film about racism? Yes and no. The film talks about racism, and in a scene when Luce enters his teacher’s home, Wilson gives him a sure fired lecture on what it means to be black and black in today’s society. So is this what the film is about?

Is the film about the truth? The film addresses fact in multiple ways, from the absence of telling or sharing information to outright lies. When Amy and Peter attempt to get information about the paper, and even the fireworks from Luce, there is a dance of misguided parries of questions. That Amy and Peter speak being truthful, the not sharing of the information they know with Luce is deceitful in its own way. When Amy and Peter lie in front of Wilson and the school principal, truth flies out the window.

Is the film about manipulation and control? Towards the end of the film, Wilson brings this subject out into the open by stating that Luce might be manipulating all of their behaviors. This is a good step in the movie because I, and maybe others in the audience, suspect this from the very beginning. However, Luce, when needing to seem sincere and apologetic, he makes his behavior very believable.

There are examples of manipulation one being with Luce’s possible girlfriend Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang). At one point, Amy seeks to speak with Stephanie about what happened to her that caused Wilson to demean her in class. Stephanie begins telling a story about an event at a party. Her telling the story is powerfully believable. But was it real or was this really manipulation of Amy by Stephanie? Or, was all of this created by Luce? Was any of this genuine, part of it correct, or was the subject a way of manipulating people?

When Wilson queues up Stephanie to share the truth of a sexual incident at a meeting with Amy, Peter, Luce, and the school principal, what happens appears to be manipulated. And is it manipulation by Luce when he calls Amy “mother” or “Amy” based on what is going on at that moment?

The whole film is always on the edge of sharing the truth about Luce, the strain between Amy and Peter about adopting versus having their own child. The law around the searching personal property, how some people seem to have a light shined on them naturally, or is it really earned? How race factors into perceptions of people.

The ending gives little clue to the real intent of the film and only slightly more about Luce.

Harrison Jr. is very successful at creating an enigma of a person. His smooth transitions in a single scene from accepted kindness to a penetrating stare and back again were excellent. Watts was solid in this role as a mother, protector, and caring, engaged parent. Roth was fascinating as the father who carried resentment of not having his own child but also loving his adopted son, Luce. Spencer was almost as enigmatic as Luce. At times, I believed she had a slight grudge, and at other times, she felt thoroughly sincere. Bang was convincing in her telling the story of an incident to Amy, yet also elusive in what her true feelings were. J.C. Lee wrote the screenplay from his play. I’m not sure why I ended up with confusion after seeing this film. Was the basis of my confusion the screenplay or the direction by Julius Onah.

Overall: The film had promise, and I’m not sure what it delivered.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

First Hit: Not everyone will appreciate and engage with this film, and I did.

This film runs and works on many different levels, and it only works because of the fantastic performance of Kate Blanchett as Bernadette Fox.

I laughed out loud numerous times and in a theater with only thirty people, often I was the only one. However, as the film went on, others seemed to join me as the amazing Blanchett showed us the complexity and depth of this character. One such scene is when she walks into a store, comments to the sales staff that they have a wonderful Chihuly, and the salesgirl is stupidly stunned because she has no idea what Bernadette is referring to. Because I’m aware of Chihuly’s work, I saw it right away and therefore was fully prepared, got her reference, and felt that I was in on the joke as it evolved.

Bernadette is married to Elgie (Billy Crudup), and they have got a young teen daughter named Bee Branch (Emma Nelson) who is getting ready to go to boarding school for her high school education. They are living in Seattle because Elgie created a technology product company that was purchased by Microsoft. He continues to work with Microsoft developing new high tech innovations.

Early in the film, we see that Bernadette’s quirky behavior and Elgie’s work patterns have created a deep divide in their relationship. The story also points out how close Bee Branch and her mother are. Dutifully Bernadette picks up Bee Branch from school each day, and this is where we learn how disliked Bernadette is with the other mothers when Audrey (Kristen Wiig) makes fun of her and her quirkiness to anyone who is within earshot. Audrey and Bernadette, who live next door to each other, have a relationship filled with animosity.

One of the quirky things Bernadette does is use her phone to dictate all the things she wants to be done. These commands go to a personal assistant in India. An example of the types of orders she gives the assistant include “I need a fishing vest,” and one arrives at her home via Amazon.com. There are other scenes with this assistant in which Bernadette is writing an antagonist email to someone, or requesting medication that will help her not get seasick, and making a dental appointment along with other life tasks.

Although she’s afraid of being around people and doesn’t like boats, Bernadette and Elgie agree to take Bee Branch to Antarctica as a middle school graduation reward.

One day while Bernadette is visiting the Seattle Library, a young woman comes up to her and asks to take a picture of her. Bernadette is clearly annoyed because of the intrusion, and the woman insists that Bernadette is her hero because of what she brought to the world of architecture. The woman mentions an online video of Bernadette’s career.

Arriving home, Bernadette grabs her computer and begins to watch the video, and we get the opportunity to know more about Bernadette’s artistic and creative architecture skills. For the audience, it is a moment where we begin to understand this fantastic creative person.

But it is when Bernadette meets up with one of her former associate architects (Laurence Fishburne) that Bernadette’s story spills, and I mean spills, out of her in one long rant. The power of her being able to talk to a fellow architect, who will understand her, is powerful. After a long spilling of her story, I loved it when Fishburne says something like, “is that it”? “Are you finished”?

He tells her what the audience is slowly learning, she needs to get back to work, creating. However, through her quirky life and other incidents, her husband has become increasingly concerned about her behavior. But it’s when the FBI contacts him and tells him that Bernadette’s online assistant is really a Russian operative who is going to steal all their money that he sets up an intervention.

How Bernadette resolves her struggles with her neighbor Audrey, her husband, and her internal demons is the rest of the film and story.

Blanchett is absolutely sublime as Bernadette. It is by far and away the best performance of the year by an actor (or actress). I loved how she pulled me into her madness and how I fully understood what she was going through. Wiig was outstanding as the long-time neighbor who tried to put on a superior face about her family life only to realize that there was envy about Bernadette and Bee Branch’s relationship. Nelson was outstanding as Bee Branch. I loved how her faith in her best friend, her mom, was successfully tested. Crudup was excellent as the distracted focused but loving husband and father. Holly Gent and Richard Linklater wrote an engrossing screenplay and were deeply rewarding and entertaining. Linklater also directed the film.

Overall: If you go to see this film, you’ve got to be ready to accept and dive into Bernadette from the beginning, because if you do, you’ll be rewarded in the end.

The Kitchen

First Hit: At the beginning, this film had promise, but this promise fell away to mediocrity in the end.

The idea of three housewives taking over their husband’s gang-related activities because the husbands were jailed had intrigue and promise.

Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy) is married with two children. Her husband, Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James) is part of the local Hell’s Kitchen crime group that fleeces businesses for protection. He’s probably the least aggressive of the three men.

Ruby O’Carroll (Tiffany Haddish) is married to Kevin (James Badge Dale) who is currently the leader of this local crime group. His mother Helen (Margo Martindale) provides her son with direction about the band of thieves he runs. Her husband started the group, and therefore, she still holds some power over the neighborhood.

Claire Walsh (Elizabeth Moss) is married to Rob (Jeremy Bobb) who is a brutish bully of a man, and he regularly beats Claire and is a primary thug in this Hell’s Kitchen enforcement group.

The three men get caught by the FBI while robbing a local business and are sent away. The new temporary leader of the enforcement group said they will continue to financially provide for the wives while their husbands are doing time. However, the stipend is not enough. So the girls get together and decide they can become an enforcement group, thereby overriding their husbands' protection club.

Upon hearing that Rob, Claire’s husband, is in jail, Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson) comes back to the neighborhood and announces his return by shooting and killing a man who is attempting to rape Claire.

Teaching the three women how to efficiently cut up and get rid of the body, he becomes their primary enforcer. However, Claire wanting to never be bullied again, learns to kill and is exceptionally competent at this and cutting up bodies - she's a natural.

As the three women build their protection business, the old group comes after them. But are stymied because as the women take over another neighborhood, the local mafia head Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp) calls for a meeting, and a deal is created between his group and the girls. Together they neutralize the original Hell’s Kitchen group and gain support by providing protection and labor jobs for the community.

There’s a side story that is hinted at and finally brought to life that Ruby is having an affair with one of the FBI investigators Gary Silvers (Common). This, to me, creates an unnecessary distraction and side story and is not required to advance, what could have been, a good story.

Ruby slowly tries to take over the group that Melissa, Ruby, and Claire started together, and the writer used this FBI link as a significant part of the reason for the takeover by Ruby.

When the women’s husbands get out of jail early, there is trouble as expected, and the conflict doesn’t end well for the husbands.

This story is about women taking charge and with Ruby’s link to a male FBI agent seemingly having some influence, took away the power and guts of this story.

Additionally, I thought the movie was too long by taking too much time to prove points. Also, I didn’t believe the FBI piece of the story needed to be even part of the film. There easily other ways to create motivation for Ruby.

Another part of the film which didn’t quite work was that the director, Andrea Berloff, didn’t ensure each scene was correctly set in the 1970s. For comparison to this sort of attention to detail watch Quentin Tarantino’s latest film and this one – the aspect isn’t there in this film.

McCarthy is strong as the Irish woman who, loves her children, works at creating a good home life, but when push comes to shove, she is tired of playing second fiddle. Haddish is equally strong in this role; however, the whole FBI relationship back story just wasn’t needed. There were other ways she could claim her race, sex, and power. Moss was outstanding as the pushed around wife who wasn’t going to take it any longer. Having been a punching bag for her husband, she commits to protecting herself and does this in spades. But it was her eyes and facial expressions that sold both sides of her really well. Camp was great as the honorable mafia head that kept his integrity in tack by honoring his agreements. Gleeson was excellent as the guy who finally got to have a relationship with Claire that he always wanted. Martindale was instrumental as the once-powerful wife and mother to her family’s mob protection group. She gets her comeuppance. Berloff wrote and directed this film, and as I’ve previously stated, the story lost its effectiveness by adding the unnecessary Ruby and Gary Silvers relationship. The film also ran out of steam and probably needed pruning.

Overall: This film had potential, showed it at times, but ultimately failed to deliver.

The Farewell

First Hit: Wonderful story about how this Chinese family deals with a prognosis of death.

I cannot tell you that it’s factually correct that Chinese families often do not mention one of their older members that they have cancer and are going to soon die. The reason for not telling is to let them enjoy the time they have left without worry. If it is true, it’s understandable and if not, it might be worth exploring as a way to deal with such a prognosis.

In this film, we are introduced to Billi (Awkwafina) who lives in New York City talking on the phone with her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) who lives in China. We learn that Billi was born in China but left when her parents, Haiyan and Jian (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin respectively), went to explore an opportunity in the United States. She was two years old.

The film does a great job of showing the audience their closeness.

Nai Nai has cancer, but she doesn’t know it. She believes she still has a bad cough from an early bout with pneumonia. Nai Nai’s grandson Haohao (Han Chen), from Nai Nai’s other son Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), has announced a wedding to Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) after only dating her for three months.

It is unsaid but understood, that the reason for the wedding is that Nai Nai will be dead soon and it would be joyous for her if she got to host this one great event before she dies. Nai Nai is shown happily planning the event.

Under the guise of this wedding, everyone is traveling to China to partake in the celebration. What Nai Nai doesn’t know is that they are also coming to say goodbye to her.

It is recommended by Billi’s parents that she not come because they fear she will tell Nai Nai the truth about her illness. Billi decides to go anyway, and because she’s the main character, we go with her.

This Chinese family’s situation and dynamics are explored as are other Chinese traditions. The dialogue is smart and often in Chinese, so the audience has to read subtitles on the screen. It is kept within the confines of when Nai Nai is in conversation because she doesn’t understand or speak English and actually adds to the flavor of the film.

The preparations for the wedding have some funny moments like when Nai Nai tries to understand why the chef has changed the lobster meal to ta crab meal. I also loved how Nai Nai teaches Billi how to do morning exercises.

The scenes in China are durable and reflective of life in some parts of China today. I thought the way the film allowed each of the characters to express their impending grief and current love for Nai Nai to be lovely.

Awkwafina was excellent as Billi. Generally known as a comedian, she handles this serious role with studied excellence. Ma and Lin were as wonderful as Billi’s parents. The dialogue between Billie and her mother in the car about expressing emotions was particularly touching and pointed. Zhao was sublime as the matriarch grandmother. Chen, as the groom to be, was very effective at showing a certain reticence and honor for the actions he was about to participate in. Lulu Wang wrote and directed this film and showed she had a deft touch for creating a realistic storyline.

Overall: I like this film, and it did remind me of some of the behavior and language inflections of Chinese families I’ve known.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

First Hit: I was transported back in time and thoroughly enjoyed this film.

For me, what makes a good film is if I am moved intellectually or emotionally and I’m learning from, or interested in the story. What makes a great film is when I’m transported into another place and time, I’m fully engaged and curious about each character, and I’m riding the crest of anticipation about the story as it unfolds.

Great films start with a great story, followed by great acting; however, it is the director who puts this all together in scenes that capture the color, time, place, and essence to make the story great.

Quentin Tarantino as writer and director has delivered a great film. One of the best he’s ever done and, so far, easily the best film of the year.

This story is about a fading actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is used to playing the heavy in his films. He’s played in westerns and Army characters as shown in black and white flashbacks. This technique of using dated-looking footage to create backgrounds was used for both Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

While Dalton is dealing with his fading career, we learn that Cliff is more than just his stunt double, he’s also Dalton’s closest friend and chauffeur. As they travel from set to set together, we learn more about Cliff with a flashback that he may have killed his wife. This is part of the setup to show that Booth is no pushover and maybe a ruthless hombre. One of the funniest scenes exemplifying this power is the scene with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Lee’s squeals as he prepares to strike Booth are hilarious — just an extra-level above the real Bruce Lee. As they begin to square off in a fight to prove who is the toughest, we see the inner power of Booth and his intelligence and physical prowess.

At one point Booth and Dalton are driving through Hollywood, and they encounter a group of “hippy” women digging through a trash bin, these are Charles (Charlie) Manson’s (Damon Herriman) girls. This scene combined with one in which Charlie is confronted by Dalton as he attempts to get up to the former home of Brian Wilson, introduces the audience to the weirdness of and story of the Manson Family. The house he’s trying to go to is next door to Dalton’s and is now occupied by Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). This sets up the tension of what we all know is history.

But that’s what’s impressive about this film. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” shines a new and different light on history as we know it. Although the movie does have violence, it changes the outcome of the original Manson murders in a way that left me reflective of the actual murders and the era in which they took place.

The effectiveness of the sets, as this film is set in the late 1960s, is phenomenal. I grew up in Southern California and outside of one freeway exit sign, which was too new, everything was just as it was in the Hollywood area back then. The Cinerama theater, the restaurants, the business signs, and the street scenes were all fantastic. But it was the cars that touched my heart the most when I think of the time. Dalton’s caddy, Polanski’s MG, Mustangs, Volkswagens, all of them, perfect. All the cars, whether on the freeway, parked, or driving the streets, were accurate to the time and, for me, cemented the moments.

DiCaprio was phenomenal. Showing Dalton’s insecurities and strengths all within moments of each other – perfect. I especially loved two scenes; when he returned to his trailer after flubbing a couple of lines and he berates himself with mercilessness self-flagellating dialogue. The other scene is when he’s talking to a young actor Trudi (Julia Butters). Their back and forth dialogue was sublime. Pitt was amazing as Booth. This is one of the best roles I’ve seen Pitt in, and it felt like the culmination of all the different parts he’s played, from heavy to a supportive, nice guy. Here he is all of them. Robbie, as Tate, was excellent. She captured the wonder and starry-eyed sense of a young woman finding her place in the world of acting. The theater scenes when she’s watching herself on the screen were powerful. Butters was incredible as the young actor who was serious about her job. Margaret Qualley as Manson girl “Pussycat” was terrific. She captured the free love feeling of the time so very well. Dakota Fanning as Manson girl Squeaky Fromme was powerful. She exemplified the focused control of the situation she put herself in. Moh captured the essence of Bruce Lee plus a little more. Bruce Dern was perfect as a grouchy and funny George Spahn, owner of the ranch that Manson and his followers took over. There are a ton of actors in this film in various sized roles, and I won’t name them all here but suffice to say everyone was outstanding. As I said earlier, Tarantino has peaked, for now, this was his best.

Overall: I was fascinated by this story and the way it unfolded — easily best film of the year so far.