The Equalizer 2 stars Denzel Washington, once again in the role of McCaul, a former CIA Agent turned good guy vigilante. When we meet McCaul in this sequel he is on a train in Turkey with a fake beard. McCaul is attempting to retrieve the daughter of a woman he knows that has been illegally taken by her ex-husband and scuttled out of the country. The scene is a re-introduction to the unique set of skills McCaul has; which includes timing the way he beats up bad guys.
This scene has nothing to do with the plot of The Equalizer 2 other than as a way of contextualizing the character for those who may not have seen the first film in this budding franchise. Then again, the plot of The Equalizer 2 is so loose and threadbare it’s hard to say which scenes are plot necessary and which are indulgent, unnecessary scenes intended only to show what a god-like, benevolent being McCaul is.
The plot, such as it is, kicks in when McCaul’s friend, Susan (Melissa Leo) is murdered while investigating a murder in Belgium. McCaul immediately smells a rat and decides to come out of hiding in order to investigate. His first visit is to his former partner, Dave (Pedro Pascal). Dave was with Susan in Belgium when she was murdered, helping her investigate. Is Dave a friend or a suspect? You will have to see the movie to find out but if you’ve seen a movie, you likely already know.
Antoine Fuqua hasn’t made a movie this lazy and loosely structured since King Arthur, which is the last time it felt like he was making something even he didn’t care for. The Equalizer 2 ranges from boring action to boring scenes of unneeded exposition to equally boring establishing scenes of a character who is on hand only to be device later in the movie. I’m afraid that if I even begin to describe this character it might be a spoiler as the device is so nakedly predictable.
Denzel Washington has been on auto-pilot since his 2012’s Flight. That’s the last time I can recall seeing Denzel fully invested in fleshing out and living within a character. That may sound funny for those who point to his Academy Award nominated work in Fences and Roman J. Esquire and think I am crazy, but I am not a fan of either of those performances. Both of those movies are showy, over the top, capital P: Performances, not great acting.
In Fences, Washington is performing for the stage and not the screen. His bombastic performance is ill-suited for the movie screen. Roman J. Israel meanwhile, is a different kind of over the top, a performance that is all tics and mannerisms. These performances are, at least, not boring, they have a vitality that The Equalizer 2 does not have. Despite how much he shapes this character and seems to care about it, he comes off as rather bored.
Bored is probably an unfair, even inaccurate way of describing Denzel’s performance. I’m sure his intent is to be inscrutable or unflappable, but it comes off unaffected and uninvested. Part of that is Denzel’s fault but a bigger part is the fault of Fuqua who fails to give the movie around Denzel’s performance much life. The film aims for moody but arrives at tired, it aims for gritty and ends mildly irritated.
Even the action, which had been the best part of the original The Equalizer, is lifeless in comparison and that film wasn’t exactly lively. The first The Equalizer appeared invested in its action, if not in creating memorable characters or a believable story worth investing in. Denzel’s physicality is fully present in that performance and is less so here. I’m not going to speculate about Denzel aging, because he could easily take me in a fight, despite having 20 years on me age wise, but regardless he appears slowed.
Denzel being a little slower might have worked in the film’s favor if the movie had used it but instead, the movie appears slowed down so Denzel can keep up. Denzel is at all times quicker and smarter than everyone else in the movie, even people younger than him who he apparently taught and influenced when he was a member of the CIA. I’m nitpicking here but shouldn’t this character, at very least, feel a little bit of angst about this fight?
I won’t go into spoilers but the ending of The Equalizer is nonsense. It’s filmed in the midst of a
hurricane on an empty Martha’s Vineyard or some such town and it’s a shame to say, it’s not nearly as fun or exciting as a similar scene in Hurricane Heist earlier this year. Hurricane Heist is basically a parody of an actual movie. That movie, at the very least, knew how to have fun. The Equalizer 2 has the audacity to be dour on top of being predictable, lazy and sloppy.
Sorry to Bother You is among the most bracing and stupefying movies of this century. Directed by Boots Riley, no film aside from perhaps Get Out, has felt this alive in this moment of our shared American history. This absurdist masterpiece about identity politics, corporate greed, liberal guilt and moral licensing, works on so many unique levels of satire it can be hard to keep up with but it’s damn sure worth trying to keep up with.
Sorry to Bother You stars LaKeith Stanfield, a star of the aforementioned Get Out along with equally of the moment series Atlanta on FX. Stanfield plays Cassius Green a lean and hungry young man, quite literally hungry, he has almost no money, who we meet as he attempts to lie himself into a new job. Cassius is is applying to work at a telemarketing firm and once hired he finds himself struggling to make sales.
Then, an older telemarketer, Langston (Danny Glover), gives Cash some very important advice, use your white voice. Here’s where the transgressive kick of Sorry to Bother You kicks in. Immediately, Langston gets on the phone and the surreal voice of Steve Buscemi is coming out of the mouth of Danny Glover. Soon, Cash gives his white voice a shot and he’s a natural with the voice of David Cross laying over that of LaKeith Stanfield.
This is the first layer of the identity politics satire at play in Sorry to Bother You. It gets a great deal more intense after that, after Cash realizes how powerful he can be with his ultra-confident white voice. Soon, Cash is promoted to Power Caller and is working in a pampered office with a six figure salary while his friends, including Union organizer, Squeeze (Steven Yuen) and girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson) are left behind to try and fight for more pay without the power of Cash’s earning power to help their position.
Cash’s rise through the ranks is rapid and he soon catches the attention of the company’s biggest client, a slave labor corporation known as WorryFree. WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is a psychotic mashup of Martin Shkrelli and Elon Musk, with just a dash of Jeff Bezos’ union busting egotism. Whether intentional or not, the notion of Worryfree signing workers to lifetime contracts that offer them room and board in exchange for permanent employment feels like a shot at Bezos and the conditions he’s rumored to have created for Amazon warehouse workers.
Then again, the way it is framed, the corporate satire could play off of any number of modern, soul-less, labor busting CEO. Where this satire winds up is a stunner of transgressive ideas that are terrifyingly and yet hilariously staged. Sorry to Bother You is wildly unpredictable and boldly weird, a refreshingly artful and funny mix. A scene featuring a party at Lift’s house features one of the most explosive and uncomfortably real scenes I have ever witnessed.
The scene is textbook moral licensing, a concept wherein people, or a group of people, excuse their worst behaviors by doing something they feel is moral or selfless. In this case, allowing Cash into their world gives the white people at Lift’s party, in their minds, the moral license to ask him demean himself and his race for their amusement and its okay because they claim he is now one of their peers.
We aren’t finished though with the multiple levels of transgressive satire in Sorry to Bother You. Boots Riley turns social science into a gorgeous work of art. With an incredible cast that also includes a stellar performance by Tessa Thompson and a horrifyingly pitch perfect villain turn from Armie Hammer who combines the worst qualities of the billionaire class and amps them with eye-bulging energy.
President Calvin Coolidge famously said of D.W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation that it was “History written with lightning.” I’m taking that statement away from Griffith’s racist screed and giving it here to Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. THIS is history written with lightning, just history that is in progress, as we speak. This film is a bolt of lightning to our collective soul, an electrifying and vital work of art.
The more we allow corporate greed to separate itself from moral guidance, the closer we get to Sorry to Bother You. The more we condone or fail to recognize moral licensing, the closer we get to the vision of Sorry to Bother You. We need to recognize these things and Sorry to Bother You is a clarion call to recognize these vital issues and it’s artfulness is a hilarious and horrifying guide to the kind of moral rot that could be our future if we fail to change.
Identity and politics and satire all in one package, Sorry to Bother You deserves Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Lakeith Stanfield, Best Supporting Actress for Tessa Thompson, Best Supporting Actor for Armie Hammer, Best Director for Boots Riley and Best Screenplay, among other awards. That’s how incredibly brilliant Sorry to Bother You is. I haven’t seen a movie this excitingly, scathingly, bravely, transgressive as this in my life and I am excited this exists.
Low expectations and an upgrade in the director’s chair have combined to make a Mamma Mia sequel so unexpectedly good that I am still humming about it. Mamma Mia Here We Go Again has no right to be as fun and entertaining as it is, based off of the horror show that was the sloppy, 2008 original and yet here we are. Director Ol Parker has brought order to the chaos of the original Mamma Mia and delivered a prequel/sequel far superior to the dismal original.
Mamma Mia Here We Go Again picks up the story of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) five years after the action of the original story. Now 25, Sophie is running her mom’s, Donna (Meryl Streep), hotel and is about to hold a gala grand opening. Unfortunately, mom won’t be there. Nor will two of her three adopted fathers, Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth). Luckily, Sam (Pierce Brosnan) is at hand, along with Auntie Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Auntie Rosie (Julie Walter).
Worse yet though, Sky (Dominic Cooper), despite being Sophie’s one true love and business partner, will not be there either and is considering a job offer in New York. This leads Sophie to once again pick up her mom’s diary for some bolstering. The diary is the lead in for a flashback to that glorious Greek summer when Donna met Harry, Bill and Sam, and became pregnant with Sophie. Best of all, it brings us the vibrant Lily James as the young Donna.
Do you recall that time you first saw Julia Roberts’ megawatt smile in Pretty Woman? If you’re my age you likely do and you remember the electricity of seeing a movie star emerge before your eyes. That’s Lily James in Mamma Mia Here We Go Again, a star bursting to life before our eyes. Sure, she was great in Cinderella and has honed her craft in other films, but here, she bursts forth with charisma to spare in a one of a kind performance.
James is so great she overwhelms all three of her male co-stars, none of whom make a dent in your memory despite being young and handsome. I could list their names but I couldn’t pick them out of a lineup even after having just seen the movie. James’ vibrancy is such that her co-stars don’t really matter, they are but mirrors through which to bask in Collins’ star-making performance. Can she sing? Yeah, well enough, but like Streep in the first film, she can sell the singing with passion and performance and that’s what matters.
I kept getting annoyed with the present day Sophie storyline for getting in the way of the flashbacks which were far more compelling. Slowly but surely however, the main story begins to turn an emotional corner. The flashback story begins to underline the action of the modern story in lovely ways and what emerges is a story for mothers and daughters and one that isn’t about the absurd and nasty notion of turning into one’s mother. One would count themselves lucky to become Donna.
As for the music of Mamma Mia Here We Go Again, my favorite performance is Waterloo, though it is arguably the most superfluous in terms of the plot. Indeed, I can recognize that praising the one performance that violates the order and structure that I have praised as a remarkable improvement over the original, is slightly contradictory. That said, Lily James and Young Harry (Hugh Skinner) really steal the show in this performance.
Director Ol Parker sets the scene in Paris where Harry and Donna met in 1979, the same summer she left for Greece. Though Donna is leaving, Harry nevertheless, throws himself at her feet and tells her he loves her and then they sing Waterloo at a French restaurant where waiters are dressed as Napoleon (Ho, Ho!). It sounds cheesy and it is, intentionally so. Director Parker directs the performance like an old school, early 80’s music video, ala Adam Ant’s Goody Two Shoes, with wacky set pieces and even slightly grainy cinematography to really sell the bit.
Waterloo is wildly funny and a wonderfully shorthand way to bring Donna and Harry together before taking them apart. The other standout is My Love, My Life which will leave many audience members, especially moms and daughters, a weepy mess. The trailer has spoiled that Sophie is pregnant and the correlation between her pregnancy and her mother’s pregnancy, is brought to bear on this wonderful performance with James and Seyfried singing in different time frames with the same meaning.
Ol Parker had an uphill battle to bring the unwieldy mess that was the Mamma Mia backstory into some semblance of order and he’s done an exceptional job. Sure, he takes the easy way out by mostly ignoring the problematic elements of the original backstory, but what he cobbles together works and the orderly plot helps strengthen our bond with these characters, something that was missing in the first film while we puzzled over how all of the pieces fit.
Thanks to director Parker, we can forget about the nonsense of figuring out when the film is set, it’s 1979 when Donna meets Sophie’s dad, by the way, and get on with enjoying some Abba. The disco backlash of the early 80’s robbed us of the joy of Abba’s pop silliness and soapy dramatics and I’m glad to have it back, even if it isn’t the most respectable comeback. Abba was a heck of a lot of fun if you give over to them and we’re able to do that here with far less work involved than in the original.
By the time we reach the credits climax with Super Troupers, a reprise from the original movie, featuring the full cast in full Abba regalia, the movie has won us over with its bubbly spirit and Lily James star-calibur, Awards calibur performance. James is a powerhouse movie star. I won’t go as far as to say she deserves an Academy Award, though I am not opposed to the idea, but wow, we don’t need to see anyone else when it comes Golden Globe time, this is your Best Actress in a Comedy or a Musical, hands down.
I went into Mamma Mia Here We Go Again with a sour attitude, assuming it was going to be as insufferable as the original. What a joyous surprise to find that the sequel makes logical sense, fixes the holes punched in the space time continuum in the original, and crafts a heartfelt and quite funny story out of a bunch of goofy, funny, melodramatic tunes from one of the most underrated groups of all time. This is what Mamma Mia should have been all along, a brassy, blowsy, ballsy, belt it to the back of the room Broadway comedy in execution as much as in idea.
I’m not ashamed to admit, I have a soft spot for the music of Abba. The music snob in me tries to hide this part of my fandom, much like my critic snob side tries to pretend I am not a fan of professional wrestling, Grey’s Anatomy and The Big Bang Theory. Then again, he’d rather people think I spend my time watching obscure European art films when I am not trashing the latest Hollywood flotsam but that’s just not the case.
Deep in my psyche are stored every lyric of Dancing Queen, always ready to be cued up and adored in my mental jukebox. For a time this wasn’t so shameful either. In 1999 Spike Lee threatened to make disco respectable again when he used it alongside punk rock to illustrate his gritty and remarkable New York City tableau, Summer of Sam. Then along came Mamma Mia the musical and a million cool Abba fans went back into hiding.
Mamma Mia, the 2008 jukebox musical starring Meryl Streep and directed by Broadway veteran Phyllida Lloyd could not possibly be more square. It’s a musical made for moms to drink wine to. It’s a sloppy, slapdash, mess that happens to look gorgeous at times while remaining maddeningly, deafeningly lame. Yes, moments of the film genuinely transcend the badness but they are but tiny bubbles in an sloppy cauldron.
Mamma Mia stars Meryl Streep as Donna, the iconoclastic owner of a broken down Greek Inn that thrives only because it is in the single most beautiful location in the world. Donna’s daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), is about to get married to Sky (Dominic Cooper) over Donna’s objection. Donna thinks her daughter should get out and see the world before tying herself down to one man for the rest of her life. And she should know something about that.
20 years earlier, when Donna arrived in Greece and discovered the tiny island where she would make a home, she had an adventure in which she met and fell in love three times. First came Sam (Pierce Brosnan), then came Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and finally Harry (Colin Firth) and all in a short amount of time. Short enough in fact that Donna isn’t quite sure which guy knocked her up and is in fact Sophie’s father.
Sophie, desiring to know her father, decides to steal Donna’s diary and when she finds out about all three men in one summer she decides to invite all three men to her wedding. Her hope is that fate, and perhaps facial similarities, will tell her which man is her dad and then he can perhaps walk her down the aisle. Naturally, Donna is not going to take kindly to her daughter’s plot and there you have your rather thin and forgettable conflict.
Mamma Mia is almost unendingly maddening. We have no idea when it what period of time the film is set, though it appears to be modern times, i.e 2008. If that’s the case however, then why does Donna remember being in a disco trio with her two oldest friends, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). If that’s the case, that the film is set when Donna could have been young enough to be a Dancing Queen then how come she remembers Brosnan and Skarsgard as hippies?
And how is it that Donna had an affair with Harry when she remembers him as a London punk?
These time frames make no sense. She’s disco, Sam and Bill are hippies, Harry was a punk, these time frames barely cross one another and never at the same time and certainly not in 1988 when, if the movie is set in modern 2008, the romance between these characters were to have taken place. Did she drop acid and meet all three men at a costume party?
Those who enjoy Mamma Mia are now accusing me of over-thinking it and perhaps they are right but perhaps if the movie as a whole were better, I might not care so much about the timeline. As it is however, Mamma Mia is a maddening, sloppy mess. Don’t get me wrong, the film looks fantastic. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukis takes the already gorgeous Greek shores and makes them look even more inviting. The film is spectacular as a travel brochure, if not a movie musical.
The musical, that’s the other problem with Mamma Mia. If you’re going to make a musical shouldn’t you take pains to hire actors who can sing? What are Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth doing here? Skarsgard, at least, has the decency to hide his singing voice, Brosnan is given, arguably the film’s romantic climax and his voice cannot handle it. Brosnan is cringe-inducing as he warbles the film’s closing ballad and even worse when he’s forced to swan through a painful version of one of Abba’s best, “S.O.S.”
The “S.O.S” sequence is perhaps the most painful and maddening in the movie. Played as a duet between Streep and Brosnan, the story of the song is at great odds with the characters’ backstory. From what we are told, and will be told in greater detail in the upcoming sequel, Brosnan’s Sam abandoned Donna to return to America to marry his fiancee. One can only scratch their head then when Brosnan sings the opening lines:
“Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find
I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind
Whatever happened to our love?
I wish I understood
It used to be so nice, it used to be so good”
Hey dude, YOU LEFT HER! I realize the film attempts to retcon this later in the story in order to force a happy ending but not before muddying up the timeline even more. In a scene in which Donna and Sam are arguing over Sophie’s future, Sam offers up that he has two grown children and thus a little helpful perspective. That’s curious, because if he has two grown children, that would mean he had these children before he met and fell in love with Donna 20 years early and then left her to then get married to what we are to understand was the mother of these grown children.
I’m not trying to play the morality police here, Donna gets no judgment from me for her free-spirited sexuality, it was allegedly the Disco-Punk Rock-Hippy Free love era after all, but this pushes Brosnan’s character into nasty perspective doesn’t it? What kind of guy runs off with another woman with two small kids and a fiancee back home and then leaves his new woman behind, possibly pregnant, to go back home and presumably dump the fiancee and the kids to return to Greece? That’s a lot of inference and guessing based on the sloppiness of this plot, but it certainly takes what is meant to be fun and turns it sour.
I’ve complained plenty about what’s wrong with Mamma Mia but I should point out that there are moments where the idea of a good Hollywood musical transcends the abysmal plotting. First, there is Christine Baranski who takes a scene that should not even be in the movie, as it has nothing to do with the plot, and merely stops the movie dead from that perspective, but it’s so good I didn’t mind.
Baranski, a Broadway legend, is given a solo number and boy does she bite right into it. Her character, Tanya, is being pursued by a much younger man. So, she takes the 1979 Abba single “Does Your Mother Know” and turns it into a showstopper, as if the movie belonged to Tanya and not to Meryl’s Donna. Like I said, it doesn’t make much sense in relation to the plot, but Baranski is so brassy and sexy, it’s irresistible.
The other transcendent moment in the movie is Meryl Streep’s show-stopping, belt it to the back of the mountain performance of “The Winner Takes it All.” Streep takes the pop ballad and turns it into a Jennifer Hudson level triumph ala her nearly impossible Dreamgirls solo “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going.” No, of course, Meryl can’t sing like J-Hud but the performance is invested with a similar amount of passion and pathos.
Meryl performs the hell out of the song and the cathartic bitterness and the teary ending are what I wish the rest of the film had. She uses the song to bring context to Donna’s pain and Sam’s character that unfortunately is missing in the rest of the movie, especially in the tin-eared performances of S.O.S and the cheesy happy-ending use of I Do I Do I Do and When All is Said and Done. A better film would have followed the example of The Winner Takes It All and clarified the details and fleshed out the character relations so that the songs mattered.
Sadly, that is not the Mamma Mia musical we get. Instead, we get a sloppy, cringy, mishmash of ideas that never cohere into a story we can follow and invest in. The sequel is set to create even more holes in this ridiculous plot mess as we go back in time to when Donna met Sam, and Bill and Harry and likely forgets about their comical hippie and punk origin stories. Then there is also the ludicrous notion that Cher could play Meryl Streep’s mother but that’s something to complain about when I review the sequel on Friday.
You Were Never Really Here is an ugly masterpiece. Writer-director Lynne Ramsey takes us into the dark and twisted mind of an uncomfortably sympathetic killer. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe is undoubtedly a bad man, a cold-blooded killer but who he kills here matters and makes him relatable in the most skin-crawling, discomfiting ways. The story is dark and mean and gritty as is the direction and design of the film and it all comes together to make one of the most engrossing and enervating movies of 2018.
We meet Joe in the wake of his latest set of murders. Wielding a ball-pein hammer, Joe has murdered several men and is wrapping up his nasty work by erasing any trace of himself that may be at hand at the scene. Joe has been unleashed like a nasty pitbull upon a group of child pornographers and he’s done his nasty business put them out of their nasty business. Joe rescues children but he does so outside the law and he does so with severe brutality.
Joe himself, we will come to find, was the victim of much abuse as a child. That abuse shaped Joe’s compassion and desperate need to protect the innocent via his almost mindless brutality. Yet it also formed him into a dutiful and loving son to his impaired mother (Judith Roberts). What happened to Joe’s mother has become part of his very being down to his choice of weapons of destruction but I will leave you to discover the connections.
Joe’s latest job is set to pay him nearly half a million dollars. In any other movie this would create a desperate need for escape via financial freedom but if Joe cares about money he doesn’t let on. Joe’s job is to rescue the daughter of a State Senator who has gone missing and may have fallen victim to human traffickers. Joe does his brutal work but something goes wrong in the aftermath and now Joe is on a track for revenge.
That last line of my plot description is deceptive. A track for revenge would be what happens in another, lesser movie. What Lynne Ramsey does with this aftermath and seeming notion of vengeance is something you will need to witness for yourself by seeing this remarkably bleak and fascinating movie. The film is dark and gritty and yet carries an ironic soundtrack filled with often bubbly forgotten pop songs that manage to underline how stark the story and characters of You Were Never Really Here are.
You Were Never Really Here is not a movie for all audiences. The film is blood-soaked and grim with a dark irony that will turn off those with more mainstream sensibilities. Don’t go looking for typical thriller beats in this movie or well-worn suspense tropes, You Were Never Really Here is a grim character study turned Greek tragedy. If that notion is unappealing to you perhaps you should consider going to see The Equalizer 2 in theaters this weekend. I’ve heard it’s a corker but one with a familiar beat and a Denzel Washington performance you can dance to.
That’s just not the vibe of You Were Never Really Here. That doesn’t, in itself, make it superior to something more mainstream and conventional like The Equalizer, just more artful and experimental. Far less classically ‘entertaining’ to be sure but if you are on it’s intellectual wavelength and dig the dark and gritty, you are going to adore You Were Never Really Here for it’s bold, unconventional approach to the thriller genre.
You Were Never Really Here is now available on Blu-Ray, DVD and On-Demand.
Rampage stars Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as Primatologist, Dr. Davis Okoye. A former military officer, Davis specialized in battling poachers in Africa. That’s where Davis met his best friend, George (Jason Liles, in full motion capture), a giant white ape. Davis brought George to America to keep him away from poachers who would pay a hefty price for such a rare creature. Over the years, George became a leader and he and Davis developed communication via sign language.
The plot kicks in when a plane carrying an experimental serum belonging to an evil corporation that specializes in… being evil, crashes, it exposes George and several other animals to the evil serum and causes them to grow out of control. Aside from George, the evil serum affects a wolf that develops the ability to fly and a crocodile that eventually swims across the country, even where there isn’t a large body of water, to enact destruction upon Chicago.
The evil corporation, I assume, intends to weaponize the animals afflicted by the serum. When they turn on a beacon on top of their evil skyscraper it sends out a signal to the now monstrously over-sized animals that causes them to go crazy and make a mad dash for Chicago. Only Davis and a former scientist for the evil corporation, Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), can stop the animals from destroying Chicago… in a Rampage. Ha!
Rampage sounds like a lot of fun, in description. Unfortunately, as directed by Brad Peyton, director of the equally forgettably competent, San Andreas, it’s merely a movie that exists. Rampage has no personality, no life, no charm. Everything in the movie is in frame, it looks professional and the CGI is a well-produced. Competency however, is only part of a good movie and Rampage is missing those other essential qualities.
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is one of the most entertaining movie stars of recent times and yet even his charm can’t bring Rampage to life. Like his performance in the recent flop Skyscraper, The Rock’s performance is muted, he doesn’t go for the jokes and appears to be taking the silliness of Rampage far too seriously. There are too many scenes that appear to be going for action movie suspense when they should be going for the kind of goofball, comic thrills The Rock gets in his Fast and Furious franchise.
Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays a wacky CIA Agent, on the the other hand, as opposed to The Rock, appear to know what movie they are in. Though they don’t achieve much flying in the face of the overly serious direction and score, the three supporting players, try hard to bring laughs to their roles. These three get that a movie with giant animals on a ‘Rampage’ in a big city is not something to be taken too seriously.
Morgan is unquestionably the best thing about Rampage, aside from the terrific creature effects. Morgan is grinning and giggling throughout Rampage and affects a bizarre drawl that is laughably over the top. Morgan’s looseness and giant grin are a clear port in a storm of boring exposition and tepid, acceptably well produced action. It’s a wonder Morgan isn’t a bigger star, he’s got personality to spare and as seen in Rampage, he can steal scenes from both The Rock and giant CGI animals.
The biggest problem with Rampage is an approach that takes the material way too seriously. I get that giant animals attacking a large city would be something we would have to take seriously were it to ever happen but let’s be real here. This is a silly premise that needs to be treated as such for the movie to work. The supporting players get that and act accordingly comic, with Akerman twirling an absent mustache and Lacy being slimy and weaselly and Morgan making a joke of the whole thing.
Sadly, The Rock, the most charismatic star in the world today, fails to get the joke of Rampage and in the star missing the joke, the movie fails. Director Brad Peyton especially needed to get the joke of Rampage and he completely misses the boat by going for genuine action movie suspense rather than amping up the goofiness ala The Fast and Furious franchise or the recent Jurassic World movies. That kind of approach could have made Rampage a classic. As it is, I don’t even recommend it as a time wasting rental.
I Feel Pretty stars Amy Schumer as Renee Bennett an attractive and funny woman who doesn’t find herself attractive. Renee’s low self esteem has hindered both her personal and professional life where she works for a famed makeup company but works in the I.T department in a basement office, well away from the glamour and fashion that the company is known for. Though she longs to be in the big office, she lacks the confidence to go for what she wants.
Things change when Renee takes a spin class and proceeds to tumble off of her bike. Having hit her head hard, Renee’s concussion changes her life and personality. Suddenly, post head injury, Renee is super-confident and believes she is the best looking woman in any room she’s in. This causes a rift with her friends, Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips, but it does help her climb the corporate ladder as she lands a gig working in the big building at the makeup company owned by Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams) and her grandmother Lily (Lauren Hutton).
Renee’s personal life also takes a positive turn as her confidence attracts a boyfriend, Ethan (Rory Scovell) and the attentions of Avery’s stunningly handsome, playboy brother Grant (Tom Hopper). Ethan is a perfectly down to earth guy while Grant is a dreamboat and when Renee finds herself the object of both of their affections, even her newfound confidence can’t contain her nervous excitement.
I Feel Pretty requires a bit of unpacking in your emotional response to it. For me, I’ve always found Amy Schumer attractive, dating back to before her popular Comedy Central series, Inside Amy Schumer, to her time as a stand-up comic on the rise. It was hard to accept the gags that intended to show Renee as being unattractive as I did find her attractive. The key however, is to remember that this is Renee’s perspective of herself and not an objective take.
Here, the inexperience of the writing and directing team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein shines through. A more experienced filmmaker would have found a way to let audiences in on the idea that we are seeing the movie not from our objective position but completely from Renee’s subjective perspective, how she sees the world and assumes the world sees her. From that perspective the story of I Feel Pretty makes more sense.
It’s not that the direction failed to communicate the perspective, it’s rather that it was clumsy in communicating that idea and thus it’s easy to misunderstand the story as an objective idea of how the world sees Renee. If taken the wrong way, it can seem as if Renee is the butt of all of the jokes, as if the movie is making fun of her for seeing herself as attractive. Once you look at it subjectively and recognize that the film is entirely Renee’s unreliable, biased perspective, it makes the film easier to understand and enjoy.
Rory Scovell, in his first leading man role is quite good at reacting to Schumer’s bawdy antics. A scene, well-featured in the film’s trailer, has the two of them visit a bar that happens to be hosting a wet t-shirt contest. Watching Scovell’s shocked reactions to Schumer first wanting to go on stage and then what happens when she actually is on stage is very funny, and the scene immediately after that has a nice romantic undercurrent that I wish the film had been better at presenting in other scenes.
It's odd to call Michelle Williams a scene-stealer as she is well known, Academy Award nominated actress but indeed, scene-stealer is her role her. As Renee's boss and idol, Williams plays Averyaas confident, assured and comically disconnected with the world beyond her bubble of rich excess. The baby voice that Williams affects in the movie is a terrific device to show how everyone has something they are insecure about no matter how rich or confident they appear. In another, lesser comedy with a lesser actress that voice would be the extent of the character.
Amy Schumer is a terrific comedian with a great sense of timing and the jokes in the movie are terrific. Yes, some of the gags are a little forced and Schumer is put in the position of using broad physicality to sell some of the lesser material but there are plenty of well-timed and quite funny moments in I Feel Pretty. At the very least, there are enough good jokes for me to recommend the movie on Blu-Ray, DVD and On Demand on Tuesday, July 17th.
It’s so strange, sometimes movies get a reputation for genius and you hear about it and hear about it and then you see it for yourself and you wind up wondering what all of the fuss was about. That’s the case for me with A Fish Called Wanda. Yes, I had seen the movie before, back when it was on HBO in the 90’s and I think that I tried very hard to like it as much as the critics of the time seemed to like it. I liked it so I could seem smart.
A Fish Called Wanda turns 30 years old this weekend and once again I watched with the aim of wanting to like it so I could seem smart. Only this time, I am mature and confident enough to say I simply didn’t care for it. A Fish Called Wanda just doesn’t work on me. I disliked the characters, I was barely amused by the gags and Kevin Kline’s Academy Award winning supporting performance, for me, came off as forced and shrill.
A Fish Called Wanda is a comic heist movie which stars Jamie Lee Curtis as Wanda, a woman who is dating a thief named Georges Thomas, played by Tom Georgeson, a gag funnier than most in the movie. Wanda is only setting Georges up so that she and her lover, Otto (Kevin Kline) can double cross him and their other partner, Ken (Michael Palin). Georges isn’t stupid however and to insure his cut, he hides the loot until he knows he’s clear, an idea that pays off when Otto secretly turns him, unaware of where the loot actually went.
To figure out where the loot is hidden, Wanda and Otto begin a convoluted plan surrounding Georges’ barrister, Archie Leach (John Cleese). The hope is that Otto will give Archie the location of the loot as a way to reduce his sentence after he is caught. The plan is for Wanda to seduce Archie to get him to reveal the location of the loot so that they can steal it back and leave the country. Things take a turn when Wanda develops a soft spot for Archie.
A Fish Called Wanda was directed by Charles Crichton, sort of. Though John Cleese claimed to have put his name on the co-director credit in order to allay studio fears about the fact that Crichton hadn’t worked in 23 years and was in his mid-80’s, it appears from on-set stories from Curtis and Kline that Cleese was the creative force. It was Cleese who came up with the memorable running gags about Wanda’s fetish for foreign languages and Otto’s insecurity about being called stupid.
There are other Cleese-ian touches as well such as Archie having a wife and the two of them having separate beds ala his character on the famed British television series Fawlty Towers. Regardless of who is responsible however, not much of anything in A Fish Called Wanda got a laugh out of me. Whether it’s the door slamming, Noises-Off style gags of people running in and out of rooms and weaving elaborate lies when caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or the almost nihilistic approach to right and wrong, I found nothing appealing about A Fish Called Wanda.
The characters in A Fish Called Wanda are all terrible people, and that includes Palin’s Ken who, though he may feel guilty about a few of his evil deeds, is nevertheless as terrible as anyone else and has arguably the most notable body count in the movie, if you count dogs. The gags involving the elaborate ways in which Ken accidentally murders an old ladies three dogs is some of the ugliest humor I can recall in a supposed comedy.
We are supposed to like Ken because Palin plays him as a simpleton, a dupe who thinks he's helping his friend but is blundering his way into crime. We are supposed to either sympathize with or find funny his stuttering but it only engenders a sad sort of pity that is far from funny. A scene where Palin and Cleese finally share the screen comes late in the film, as we've anticipated seeing the Python guys together, and the scene is a wretchedly excessive scene of Palin struggling with his stutter and Cleese becoming more and more explosively irritated while trying to stay calm. There is no gag here other than Palin's stutter and it's never funny, merely insensitive.
A Fish Called Wanda presumes its own sophistication. The filmmakers and stars appear as if they should be erudite, sophisticated players in a farce but somehow the film never earns a laugh. I shouldn’t say never, I was amused a few times, such as when Cleese dances about spouting Russian phrases while Jamie Lee Curtis writhes in ecstasy but the amusement was tempered and rare.
In his 1988 review of A Fish Called Wanda, Roger Ebert says “One of its strengths is its mean-spiritedness” and I could not disagree more. I don’t find the mean-spiritedness of A Fish Called Wanda to be a strength. It’s my least favorite thing about the movie. I don’t enjoy these odious characters and their greed and I especially don’t care for the ending that rewards each of them in some strange way.
I revere Roger Ebert which explains why, nearly 30 years ago, I watched A Fish Called Wanda and desperately attempted to like it. I wanted to seem cool to a man I would never meet. I wanted to impress this idol who didn’t know I existed via some transference of psychic energy; as if the universe might inform my hero that I was no ordinary teenage movie fan, I was a teenage movie fan who liked A Fish Called Wanda.
I still revere Roger Ebert, his writing will influence me for my lifetime but as an older man I find myself able to politely disagree. While Roger enjoyed this movie, I loathed it. I didn’t enjoy the mean-spiritedness because the characters weren’t pleasant or entertaining enough to earn it. I don’t mind a mean character winning in the end if they are charming or interesting enough and they are perhaps thumbing their nose at some societal ill. But when characters are just terrible because being terrible gets them what they want, I lose interest.
The characters of A Fish Called Wanda aren’t charming, their ugly. I don’t mind that they are criminals, I mind that they aren’t interesting or funny criminals. I don’t mind that they are killers or thieves, I mind that they aren’t charming or silly or funny killers and thieves. The characters appear as if they and what they are doing should be funny and yet I don’t laugh. I dislike these characters and thus they never become funny.
Hotel Transylvania Summer Vacation is the third and least offensive of this trilogy of Adam Sandler starring animated comedies. I wasn’t a fan of the first two Hotel Transylvania movies which felt, to me, too scatological, like a sanitized version of what Sandler does in his live action work. This time, however, with the franchise leaving the titular hotel there is something of a different feel to everything and for the first time, I laughed out loud more than once watching a Hotel Transylvania movie.
Hotel Transylvania Summer Vacation finds our hero Drac (Sandler) lonely. Sure, he has a loving family and great friends but he wants a companion and at the same time feels guilty for wanting one for the first time since the death of his wife. Drac’s daughter Mavis meanwhile, mistakes his loneliness for stress and comes up with a solution, a dream cruise to the Bermuda Triangle. The whole family is going including Frank (Kevin James), Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade), Murray the Mummy (Keegan Michael Key) and Wayne the Wolf and his wife Wanda and ALL of their kids.
While Drac appreciates his daughter’s effort a cruise for a hotel owner feels rather redundant but things pick up when he Drac meets the Captain of the Cruise ship, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn). Drac is immediately smitten and I must say, the scenes with Drac overcome with feelings on meeting Ericka is very cute and it made me smile. The follow up scene in which an over-confident Drac struts around the ship to Bruno Mars’ “24 Karat Magic” is delightful with a funny if not all that original payoff.
So, we have a love story on our hands and that means we need obstacles and this movie has a pretty good one. Ericka has a secret, the cruise is a sham and she has set it up so she can get revenge on Drac. You see, Ericka is Ericka Van Helsing, of the vampire-killing Van Helsings. She’s trained her whole life to kill Drac. Her great-grandfather Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) has stayed alive long past a normal lifespan, just to see his granddaughter vanquish Drac as he had failed to.
That’s a pretty clever conflict, I gotta admit, I really liked that. The first film played a similar conflict with Andy Samberg’s human falling for Selena Gomez’ vampire but that was somehow far less fun than this. This film seems to delight a little more in the conflict as Drac is the one who is unaware of the danger he’s in. I really enjoyed the romantic sequence of Drac repeatedly saving Ericka while she’s attempting to recover a weapon she intends to kill him with. She begins to fall for him and yet she’s torn. It’s just clever enough to be amusing.
My favorite gag in Hotel Transylvania could not be more simple. It’s a flashback to Van Helsing attempting to capture Drac and his friends on a train. We see Van Helsing enter, we know the monsters are hidden at the front of the car. We see Van Helsing pull out a box of matches, the tension builds because we know what’s coming, we know from the other movies how Frank reacts to fire. When Van Helsing lights the match, Frank freaks out and the scene and the movie are off and running. There’s nothing special here, but the simplicity made me laugh.
Hotel Transylvania 3 Summer Vacation is nothing special, it’s certainly not a Pixar quality work. This isn’t art but for a shallow kiddie flick, it’s pretty good. It made me laugh at these monster characters for the first time in the entire franchise so that’s something. Having low expectations certainly helped matters. But there is something more genuine and winning about this outing in the Hotel Transylvania franchise. Something slightly more clever and less lowest common denominator. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed it enough to say this one is worth seeing.
Releasing Skyscraper on the same weekend time frame when Die Hard was released 30 years earlier was a bad idea. Tributes abound this weekend to the staying power and quality of Die Hard and those who revisit the Bruce Willis classic will not look favorably upon the similarly plotted but far less accomplished Skyscraper. Just how bad is Skyscraper? Not even Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and his megawatt smile can save it.
Skyscraper stars The Rock as Will Sawyer a former Army Ranger turned FBI Agent and now family man and entrepreneur. After retiring from the FBI following a mission that ended tragically, Will started a family with his wife Sarah, who happened to save his life after he nearly died in that failed raid I just mentioned, and he’s just launched his own security firm. Will’s pal Ben (Pablo Schreiber) has even gone to great lengths to get him his first client and what a client he is.
Zhao (Chin Han) has just opened the world’s largest building; he calls it ‘The Pearl’ for the giant pearl design that sits above the 200th floor. Before he can open the residential section of ‘The Pearl’ however, Zhao needs to get insured and that means a full security systems check and that leads him to Will. Unfortunately, for both Zhao and Will, a group of terrorists want something that Zhao has locked away inside ‘The Pearl’ and they will go to extreme measures to get it.
Director Rawson Marshall Thurber is best known for the Ben Stiller comedy “Dodgeball.” He could have used some of that film’s sense of humor and good nature as Skyscraper is a dry, joyless exercise in simple minded, plot-heavy idiocy. The script, also by Thurber, is bursting at the scenes with clumsy, forced, exposition to the point where characters communicate plot points by speaking out loud to no one but the movie watching audience.
I’m not kidding, at one point, the main baddie of Skyscraper, played by Roland Moller, talks to no one in particular and makes mention of something important to the plot of the movie. Later, The Rock is also alone and also expositing plot points to no one but us and the scene is so forced and clumsy that even Rock’s billion dollar charisma can’t sell the line. The Rock could sell ice cubes in the arctic but the awful dialogue of Skyscraper fully defeats him.
I’m a huge fan of Dwayne Johnson and I have been since his early days in the WWE. He’s always had an air about him, a swagger, a star presence that, even in subpar efforts, still shined through. Until now, I thought The Rock was invincible, the kind of actor who unfailingly elevated the movies he chose to star in. Here, however, with Skyscraper even The Rock’s magnetism is defeated by a terrible script and subpar direction.
This Skyscraper should be condemned! Is what I would say if I were a terrible critic looking to score a cheap giggle. Instead, I will say that Skyscraper is one of the worst movies of 2018, a flat, dull-witted bit of action nonsense that can’t hold a candle to its undoubted influencer, Die Hard which, even 30 years later, feels fresh, fun and exciting and more so when compared to the dreck of Skyscraper.
Is Die Hard a perfect movie? Well, it’s a perfect Christmas movie. As for an action movie, it’s as close to perfect as the genre is likely to ever come. John McClane is the quintessential everyman action hero. He’s the guy next to you on a subway who happens to know how to fire a gun and is trained to be a little more observant than others, but he’s not some muscled-up beef-head. He’s just a capable guy in a complicated situation, the right hero for the right moment.
It’s Christmas 1988 and John McClane (Bruce Willis), though he hates to fly, is headed to Los Angeles from New York to spend the holidays with his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and their two kids. Holly has recently accepted a high paying position with a west coast conglomerate of some unknown but expensive nature and the move has put a deep strain on the McClane’s marriage, so much so that in Los Angeles, it’s Holly Gennero and not Holly McClane at the office.
The Christmas visit is supposed to change things but when the couple reunites, the old tensions are still there and they fight. They don’t get a chance to make up because soon after Holly leaves the room angry, the office, on a high floor of the Nakatomi Plaza, is overrun by terrorists with machine guns. A highly capable leader and killer named Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) has taken over the building with his thugs and is aiming to pull of a complex heist.
John manages to escape while Holly is taken hostage and soon John uses his New York cop skills to throw a wrench into Hans’ plans. Can John, with no shoes and only a pistol slow down the terrorist scheme in time for the cops to arrive or will Hans pull of his heist and kill everyone, including Holly, to make his escape? That’s the basic tension of Die Hard but the story is much richer in detail and lively performance.
Die Hard was directed by John McTiernan though it’s difficult to give him much credit for the films’ success. McTiernan hasn’t directed anything nearly as well as he directs here but his contribution is mostly in his competence. McTiernan knows how to provide basic structure and how to shoot action in interesting, even witty fashion such as his homage to the Ride of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now that ends with a bang.
No, the credit for Die Hard appears to solely belong to the casting of Bruce Willis. Willis was famously not the first choice for John McClane. His biggest credit prior to Die Hard was the romantic comedy TV series Moonlighting. Sneakily, that show turns out to have been just the training that Willis needed for this role. Willis smartly scales down what undoubtedly was a role intended for a muscled up stud.
Having the smaller in stature Willis in the role makes John McClane relatable in a way that the Stallone’s, Schwarzenegger’s and Van Damme’s could never be. Unable to simply punch his way out, Willis’ McClane has to be crafty, witty, and street smart. These are qualities far more relatable than rippling physiques and mumbled macho posturing nonsense. Willis uses his comic instincts in concert with his action instincts and makes John’s wit as strong a weapon as any.
With Willis in the role, Die Hard becomes something of a critique of other action movies that rely on heavy testosterone and screaming to force audiences to pay attention. Watch the scene where the cops first arrive and Paul Gleason’s Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson comes swaggering into the scene. Immediately, he’s all macho posturing and immediately he screws up, even as McClane is doing everything to help him.
The same goes for the big swinging… guns from the FBI show up, oozing even more testosterone than Robinson. They too ignore our smart, resourceful hero in favor of the most macho answer, helicopters blaring Ride of the Valkyries, and wind up getting themselves killed. These characters aren’t explicitly critiques of the muscle head action stars of the late 80’s but they do function as a commentary on the shoot first mentality of too many other boring action movies.
John McClane doesn’t shoot first, he doesn’t have to. His wits and instincts are just sharp enough to even the odds with anyone he’s up against. He’s an action hero breath of fresh air, charming and tough, smart and savvy. He’s everything the muscle guys wish they could be but aren’t smart enough to pull off. Sure, Willis would eventually dumb himself down to the level of the muscle guys, but his first effort as John McClane is the indelible mark of the character, the antithesis of the typical action hero, not the exemplar.
Of course, Willis’ McClane is elevated greatly by getting to face off against arguably the greatest action movie villain of all time. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is an icon of fashionable, bad guy charm. He’s smarmy enough for us to know he’s evil but charming enough for us not to write him off. We want John McClane to get him in the end but we also can’t help but get a visceral thrill out of his witty capering.
Rickman’s best scene in the film comes to down to the most precise and ingenious facial expression and tone of voice. As Hans is talking with Hart Bockner’s weaselly 80’s guy, Ellis, Rickman’s barely concealed contempt is a masterclass of comic acting. Listen to the way he drips with contempt for Ellis, he sees right through him and yet knows he has a useful idiot in his hands. He’s decided to kill Ellis from the moment he enters the room but dangles him on a string to get just enough information to be useful in his battle of wits with McClane.
That may be my favorite scene in the film. I am definitely not rooting for Hans to shoot the innocent Ellis but I can’t say I am all that sympathetic when he goes. In fact, as guilty as I feel about it, I can’t resist giggling with delight as Rickman toys with Ellis and that seething scorn he’s just barely holding back as the yuppie arrogantly blathers on about negotiating with him to bring in John McClane.
I asked at the beginning of this review if Die Hard is a perfect movie. It’s not, there is no such thing. But, as action movies go, there may not be one better. Die Hard is a brilliant action movie with high tension, suspense, charm and thrills to spare. It’s the best of Bruce Willis before he gave up acting in favor of gathering paychecks. It’s an everyman’s action movie, a down to earth adventure that happens to have multi-million dollar explosions.
Why write about something as silly and seemingly random as Universal Soldier? It goes back to being a teenager who fell in love with the movies while on an adventure with friends. When I was 16 years old on a June day in 1992, myself and three friends decided to see a movie. We intended only to see Batman Returns, the sequel to 1989’s blockbuster Batman starring Michael Keaton. Once we saw that film however, we hatched a sneaky idea.
The theater was extremely busy. Batman was selling tickets fast and the staff was harried and distracted. When we finished Batman we noticed that the baseball movie A League of Their Own starring Tom Hanks was about to start. We decided, we were going to sneak in and see another movie. This sneaky teenage capering (which I am aware is akin to stealing, forgive my aimless, amoral youth) led us to try and make it three movies in a day. We chose the Eddie Murphy comedy Boomerang which had the extra benefit of being R-Rated.
Once that film ended and night was beginning to fall we made one more rash decision. We decided to sneak into a 4th movie. This one would not be easy. Universal Soldier was R-Rated and by this time in its release, it was not well attended. This meant, we’d be rather visible in a slightly empty theater, in an R-Rated movie. We’d be in a situation where a vigilant staff member might notice us. We went ahead with our scheme anyway and here we are with Universal Soldier.
Regardless of how remarkably bad Universal Soldier is in terms the art of cinema, it’s general silliness is irresistible. The film stars Jean Claude Van Damme as Luc and Dolph Lundgren, Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, as a pair of Vietnam vets. I say vets, but when we meet them first they are in Vietnam fighting the war and fighting each other. Scott has lost his mind and wants Luc to help him execute a pair of innocent villagers. When Luc refuses, the two get into a gun battle and end up killing each other.
It’s a curious start but that brings us to present day 1992. Luc and Scott are suddenly alive again although they don’t remember their past selves, yet. Now, the two are elite super soldiers in the Universal Soldier program, a secret sect of American Intelligence. The UniSols are called on when no other soldiers can solve the problem. They are so deep cover that no one has seen their faces, that’s probably also out of fear that someone will recognize the supposedly dead soldiers.
After a particularly difficult mission, Luc begins to recover his memory. Scott as well is regaining some of his psychotic tendencies and when he tries to execute a journalist, played by Ally Walker from TV’s The Profiler, who gets to close to the UniSols, Luc flashes back to Vietnam and tries to save her as he tried to save the Vietnamese villagers. This leads Luc and Ally to go on the run with psycho Scott and the rest of the UniSols on their tale.
Universal Soldier was directed by schlockbuster director Roland Emmerich who would go on to direct Independence Day and Godzilla before the 90’s big dumb action movie trend began to die off. Emmerich is not a director who does subtle. His every scene is a bombastic, shouty, sloppy mess that occasionally coalesces around a plot point or a sight gag. Universal Soldier is Emmerich at his most Emmerich-y.
The film is the apotheosis of the Emmerich style of action movie. In the span of about 20 minutes, Van Damme and Walker manage three consecutive narrow escapes and three straight sight gags, two involving Van Damme’s well-toned backside. Each scene ends with a hail of bullets or a glass busting fists and kicks fight scene each played with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head.
Universal Soldier is big, dumb and loud and not particularly well crafted but it has a knowing sense of its own limitations. For all his flaws as a filmmaker, I can’t argue that Roland Emmerich doesn’t have a sense of humor, no matter how disjointed or forced the gags may be. The pair of sight gags featuring Van Damme’s backside are legitimately funny and a scene of Van Damme battling a diner full of rednecks has some unintended wit from Van Damme’s placid silence.
There is an almost endless stream of unintentionally laugh out loud moments in Universal Soldier. The film is a gold mine for fans who love to riff jokes during a movie. The incompetent direction and the honestly, intentionally funny moments, collide to make the film a modest pleasure. The film is pure camp, a muscled up, frothing testosterone-fueled kind of camp, but camp nonetheless.
I can see where 16 year old Sean probably earnestly enjoyed the silliness in the same way that the adult me appreciates the camp quality of the movie. As a less discerning teenage filmgoer it makes sense that I would be attracted to this nonsense. As an adult and a critic I am equally drawn to the movie but for more nostalgic and unintentionally hilarious reasons. That doesn’t make Universal Soldier any kind of classic but it’s certainly a movie I won’t ever forget and a surprising part of why I love the movies.
A Quiet Place stars John Krasinski as Lee Abbott a father and husband trying to protect his family in a post-apocalyptic future. It’s 89 days since monsters of unknown origin began attacking the world and Lee and his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) have gone to extremes to keep their three children, oldest daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), middle son Marcus (Noah Jupe), youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward), safe from these unique monsters.
The monsters in question are a strange breed, they’re blind and they hunt by sound. Any sound above a low whisper can attract the monsters which strike quickly and brutally and once they attack they are relentless in devouring their victims. The Abbott family was lucky to have daughter Millicent whose deafness inspired Lee and Evelyn to learn and teach sign language to each of their kids. Their ability to communicate in silence is what has helped keep them alive after much of society has been destroyed.
The tension of A Quiet Place is established early on with a disturbing and shocking death early in the film. The opening sequence is shocking and sets a tone of tension and suspense that will have you clinging to your chair from beginning to end. The use of sounds, seemingly mundane, everyday kinds of sounds is brilliant as are the seeds planted about dangers that could lead to sound, especially Evelyn’s pregnancy, raise the tension as you wonder how the family will handle such a potentially noisy situation.
A Quiet Place was directed by star John Krasinski and it is his third feature after the well reviewed pair of 2009’s Brief Interviews of Hideous Men and 2016’s The Hollars. I have not seen those two films but Krasinski’s highly skillful work in A Quiet Place makes me want to see his other films. This is an exceptional piece of direction that smartly uses pace and sound, and especially the lack of sound as filmic devices.
Scene after scene is built with tension surrounding the potential for members of this family to make a sound that could be the end for them all and the tension builds throughout the film to almost unbearable degrees. The birth scene especially is a nail-biter as the carefully laid plans of Lee and Evelyn to create a space where she can safely give birth go awry in unpredictable fashion. This is a very smart movie and much of that comes from the tight control that Krasinski has over what he presents the audience visually and audibly.
My only complaint about A Quiet Place is that the creatures at the heart of the tension of the film aren’t all that impressive. Various inspirations appear to have influenced the creature designs from Alien to Cloverfield and the derivative nature of the design and the at times clumsy special effects that give the monsters life threaten to ruin some otherwise great work. Thankfully, the monsters are only glimpsed as needed with the anticipation of the monsters doing the work that the special effects can’t in creating fear and dread in the audience.
A Quiet Place was one of my favorite moviegoing experiences of the year thus far. Not only was it a terrific movie it was fun to watch with a big audience, eager to jump and yelp and squirm throughout the movie. The audience for A Quiet Place was nearly as much fun as the movie itself. Will the film lose anything in the home theater experience? Maybe a little of the energy of a theater audience but if you watch for the first time with someone who didn’t see it in theaters then perhaps the experience will be similar to the experience I had.
A Quiet Place is available today on Blu-Ray, DVD and for rent on various streaming services.
Bull Durham is the best baseball movie ever made, bar none. You can have your Field of Dreams or your A League of their Own or The Babe Ruth Story, for those of you with terrible taste, but for me, there is no contest, Bull Durham is THE BEST. Funny, smart, romantic, sexy and quotable, Bull Durham goes even beyond baseball and into the realm of simply being a great movie.
Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is playing out the string of a long career in minor league baseball. He’s been everywhere in baseball, dozens of teams, endless bus trips, and innumerable cities, he’s recently just woke up in Durham, North Carolina with the Durham Bulls. An unnamed major league team has picked up Crash to come to Durham to help work out the kinks in a strange young pitcher with a million dollar arm and five cent head.
Eppy Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh (Tim Robbins) is rangy and throws hard but he has little control of his gift. It’s obvious if someone can get Nuke to throw straight he could be a major league starter with the talent to be an all-star. Crash wants nothing to do with saving the kid’s career, he’s more interested in Annie, Durham’s biggest fan and a baseball guru in her own right. Annie seems to have interest in Crash but she’s also attracted to Nuke’s talent and untapped potential.
Each year, Annie choose a Bulls player to take under her wing. She has a track record of helping guys improve their game and Nuke appears to be just the kind of project, in both baseball and life, who could benefit from her help. Naturally, this rubs Crash the wrong way leading to conflict between he and Nuke. In a conventional movie, the plot would turn gears to bring these characters into familiar conflicts before a pat, predictable conclusion. But that’s not what Bull Durham is.
That’s not to say that Bull Durham is an art picture with no plot and a series of unconnected scenes, the film is unconventional but not oblique. Bull Durham is a movie about pace and style and personality. The film proceeds like a great game of baseball, a patient, at times exciting, at time meandering but consistently entertaining. The film has the ebb and flow of a game and a wonderful conclusion as when your team wins in the end.
You don’t have to be a sports fans to love Bull Durham. The film is about baseball and the script and characters rhapsodize about the game but these characters remain fascinating in a way that goes well beyond genre niche. The characters speak in a unique fashion, they relate to each other in the homey fashion of people who live in a small town, who live on top of each other, always in each others business. If you can relate to that, you can relate to Bull Durham, baseball or no baseball.
Director Ron Shelton somehow never reached the heights of Bull Durham ever again. His obsession with sports narratives drove him to try and recreate the magic of Bull Durham with the basketball movie White Men Can’t Jump, the boxing movie Play it to the Bone, and Shelton’s last good effort and the one that comes remotely close to capturing the same sphere as Bull Durham, the golf movie, Tin Cup.
It’s not unfair to wonder if Costner is more of the secret ingredient of Bull Durham than writer-director Shelton. That’s not to take anything away from Shelton’s smart script and stylish direction, but it would not be the same without Costner’s explosive charisma. Costner is a movie star and an actor, both out of this world handsome and serious about his craft. He makes the rest of the cast better just sharing the screen with him and his chemistry with Susan Surandon is downright molten lava levels of hot.
The supporting cast, headed up by comic Robert Wuhl, and Jennie Robertson adorable Millie, round out the near perfect universe of Bull Durham. These supporting players are remarkably well used, they lend personality and comedy to the movie in just the right places and create that homey, warm, comic atmosphere that makes the film so remarkably relatable. Wuhl even gets, arguably, the best comic moment of the movie when he plays arbiter of the teams many, many, strange issues in a visit to the mound mid-game. A curse, Nuke’s eyelids, and a wedding gift equal comic gold in Wuhl’s rapid, energetic hands.
I love Bull Durham so much. This movie is spectacularly brilliant. And now, thankfully, in time for its 30th Anniversary, Bull Durham is receiving the Criterion Collection treatment. The film is receiving a brand new 4K transfer to improve the original print, overseen by director Ron Shelton. There will also be a pair of commentary tracks, one with Shelton and the other with Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins and several other features. The movie itself would be enough for me but I appreciate the Criterion Collection’s hard work.
The Criterion Collection Edition of Bull Durham goes on sale July 11th.
Mission Impossible doesn’t really hold up. I hate to say it because I really enjoy most of the franchise but the 1996 movie doesn’t hold up 22 years later. Watching Mission Impossible with modern eyes, the flaws stand out from Cruise’s desperate performance, Jon Voight’s lazy performance and the underwritten female characters stand apart from the lesser good things about the movie.
Ethan Hunt is an agent of the Impossible Mission Force, a branch of the CIA that specializes in the kind of espionage of the most impossible nature. Hunt works under veteran agent Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) alongside a team that includes Jack (Emilio Estevez), Sarah (Kristen Scott Thomas), and Claire (Emmanuelle Beart). Claire is Jim’s wife though quickly see that she and Ethan appear to have eyes for each other.
A digression, the chemistry between Cruise and Beart has heat from time to time but the great disappointment of the movie is how little is done to exploit that chemistry. Brian DePalma is one of the great sleaze directors of all time and for him to allow the Ethan-Claire relationship to be so innocent to the point of being cookie-cutter, ala dozens of similar movie relationships, indicates how little this is really a Brian DePalma movie.
On a mission in Prague attempting to prevent a Russian spy from stealing a list of the real identities of IMF agents worldwide, everyone on Hunt’s team is murdered and he is framed for their deaths. On the run, Ethan is surprised and notably suspicious, to find Claire had survived despite having been in a car that later exploded. Nevertheless, he trusts her to be part of his mission to find the person who framed him.
Mission Impossible was directed by Brian DePalma who appears to have been hired for his name value and not his style. Mission Impossible contains almost none of the classic DePalma style of sexy, weird, chaos. Sure, some of DePalma’s output is deeply problematic through the lens of history but you can’t argue that he was boring except when he directed Mission Impossible.
Compared to movies like Snake Eyes or Carrie, the action tropes of Mission Impossible or dull.
It’s hard not to assume that Mission Impossible is boring because of Tom Cruise. I say this as a fan of Tom Cruise. I am genuinely someone who believes Cruise is a fine actor. However, the deep, almost fetishistic control Cruise has over his onscreen persona can keep him from being fun. The actor assiduously avoids anything controversial, he plays it safe especially here in the wake of his first real failure, his much mocked performance in Interview with the Vampire.
Mission Impossible is such a rigidly paced action movie that even that classic Tom Cruise twinkle in the eye and million dollar smile are toned down and held back in favor of a stoic, dare I say, charisma dimmed performance. I get that Ethan Hunt is supposed to be a rigid, by the book hero but we go to the movies to see stars and big personalities and while his willingness to let the action do the talking is nice, I’d rather he have some personality while he’s action-ing.
It’s especially egregious because I expect so much more from both Cruise and Brian DePalma. DePalma has an eye for idiosyncrasy and had he been allowed to find the idiosyncrasies of Ethan Hunt and exploit them and had there been anything even remotely controversial about the character, perhaps the movie would hold up over time. Instead, looking back at the original, it’s a wonder this franchise is still around.
Thankfully, the franchise picks up the personality in the other movies, especially when they allow John Woo to make the film franchise his own. Here however, Brian DePalma is wasted and the film is shockingly by the numbers. Cruise is sweaty and desperate throughout, rarely allowing Ethan to have a personality beyond his remarkable competence and impressive physicality. Kristen Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez are killed off and Emmanuelle Beart is left with far too much of the dramatic heavy lifting.
The one thing that stands out as genuinely inspired in Mission Impossible ‘96 is the casting Vanessa Redgrave as the big bad. The veteran actress is the one person in the film who is genuinely having fun. Redgrave sinks her teeth into the role and in her brief screen time the film is as fun as she is. The rest of the movie however, is just dour. Jon Voight especially is miscast as Jim Phelps.
Oddly the only even remotely controversial thing about Mission Impossible, and mind you I am not asking for the film to be outre in a violent or transgressive way, just have some personality. The only controversy the film courted was in the portrayal of Jim Phelps. Phelps was one of the main characters of the beloved TV series Mission Impossible and the twists and turns of his plot angered fans who held a love for Peter Graves’ stoic, reliable performance.
Even the famed train sequence that closes Mission Impossible appears less impressive though the frame of history. In wrestling terms, Mission Impossible is what is called a Spot Fest, a match centered on the biggest moves the competitors are capable of. The series focuses heavily on topping one big action spot after another and what’s happened in the more modern sequels has rendered the helicopter spot from the original film not unlike the Hulk Hogan leg-drop, a move that was once iconic and now seems rather silly next to a 5 Star Frog Splash.
If only Mission Impossible had half the personality of a wrestling match, perhaps it wouldn’t be so unremarkable.
What is missing from the world in this day and age? Kindness. Kindness appears to be missing in this day and age. While everyone is yelling at each other and becoming tribal via social media, kindness is becoming more and more rare. Kindness exemplifies the work of Fred Rogers, the remarkable host of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. The life and work of Fred Rogers is now being celebrated in a new documentary called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?).”
In the 1951, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Fred Rogers was on his way to become a Presbytarian Minister when he first saw a television. The remarkable invention inspired him with its seemingly endless possibilities. Mr. Rogers would become a Minister eventually as well as a music scholar with a degree in music composition from Rollins College in Florida before settling into the world of television at WQED in Pittsburgh.
Rogers determination from the beginning was to work in children’s television and by 1963, the seeds of what would become Mr. Rogers Neighborhood were sewn. You likely know about Mr. Rogers and his sweaters and his songs and puppets but did you know he studied child development with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh alongside? That’s just one of the fascinating notes that make Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?) so unique and interesting.
"Won’t You be My Neighbor(?)" was directed by Morgan Neville, a documentarian who specializes in music documentaries. His “20 Feet from Stardom” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature at the 2013 Academy Awards. Neville is a smart, thoughtful and curious director who comes at the material of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?)” with an eye toward a conventional documentary narrative, a linear, life story, approach.
However, the unusual part of the “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?)” is in the weight Neville gives not just to telling Mr. Rogers’ life story but explaining the impact he had on the lives of his viewers. Rogers was a quiet revolutionary, a Republican who fought for the funding of PBS in front of Congress and won. In 1968, in the wake of the death of Robert F. Kennedy, Rogers engaged his child audience in a conversation about death.
That same year, as controversy raged over civil rights and black people were being kicked out of public pools, Rogers enlisted his friend, Francois Clemmons as Officer Clemmons in the Neighborhood, to share a soak in his pool. The conversation had nothing to do with race or the raging controversies, it was just pleasant small talk about the weather but the visual of two people, black and white, sharing a kindly conversation, said what the conversation did not.
Clemmons is among the very emotional interviews that are featured in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?), alongside Rogers’ sons and his wife, Joanne. Naturally, everyone has lovely things to say about Rogers but the stories aren’t saccharine hagiography, but rather an earnest, emotional, fond remembrance. The film humanizes Rogers, especially near the end of the film when we get a glimpse of Rogers’ own insecurities, the kinds of things he helped children get passed.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?)” is a remarkable documentary without being showy or over-dramatic. Like its subject, the documentary is quietly revolutionary, playing to our emotional attachment to Mr. Rogers while genuinely educating us about this remarkable man and his impact on the world. For me, his kindness is a model. Rogers’ kindness is a superpower better than most superhero powers. Kindness is at the heart of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor(?) and that kindness, remembering that kind of kindness, makes this the best documentary of 2018 thus far.
Usually when a movie bombs in spectacular fashion there is a very good reason why. Whether it was production delays, a star who finds trouble in the media, or a general lack of quality, there is usually an obvious reason to point to why something failed. Thus far however, it’s hard to say exactly why Borg Vs McEnroe is one of 2018’s biggest losers. Despite an 83% positive rating from critics at RottenTomatoes and an audience score nearly as good, the film barely broke the surface in terms of attention and with a $65 million dollar budget, there is not excuse for the movie tanking so badly.
Borg vs McEnroe takes audiences behind the scenes of one of the most epic battles in tennis history, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe’s spectacular fight over the 1980 Wimbledon Championship. With Borg chasing his 5th straight Wimbledon and McEnroe the cocky upstart, making consistent headlines with his consistently bad on-court behavior, the match up was instantly iconic and more than lived up to its legendary expectations.
Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnasson) wasn’t always a Swiss Cyborg with laser focus and no emotion on the court. As we learn from Borg vs McEnroe, Borg had more in common with the young John McEnroe than we ever imagined. Borg was cocky and filled with rage as a teenager and nearly found himself kicked out of tennis before he could ever become a champion. Borg nearly chose hockey as a more apt outlet for his rage filled tennis game.
Then, Borg met Swedish tennis legend Lennert Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard). It was Bergelin who rescued Borg’s career when he was nearly kicked out of the game as rage fueled teen. It was Bergelin who taught Borg to slow down and take one point at a time and, most importantly, not to let his opponent see his emotions. Despite Borg’s cyborg behavior on the court we learn from the movie that he had perhaps a form of OCD, or at least a deeply held superstition, that drove him mad and could at times hamper his on court abilities.
John McEnroe is at once more and less complicated that Borg. As played by Shia LeBeouf, McEnroe is quick to rage on the court and stand-offish off the court. McEnroe was friendlier than Borg and actually made friends on the tennis tour, while Borg practiced in private and rarely left his highly appointed hotel room with his ritualistic layout of tennis gear and his fetishistic approach to sleep temperature.
There are more interesting details about Borg and McEnroe in Borg vs McEnroe but I won’t spoil them here. Director Janus Metz does terrific job of setting the stage for Borg and McEnroe’s epic match. We get a great sense of the character’s histories and how they form the men they are on the court and the more volatile behind the scenes moments have a riveting quality in the context of the final act of the movie, the Wimbledon final of 1980.
Sverrir Gudnason is a real life tennis pro, once Sweden’s number 1 player though not someone who broke out into worldwide fame. His credible impression of Borg on the court is a highlight even as the film appears to be hiding Lebeouf behind quick cuts. Lebeouf does well to look credible but it’s hard to imagine he would be good enough to recreate the actual style of Borg vs McEnroe as even the real life Borg and McEnroe struggled to find the magic in real life.
Borg vs McEnroe is a terrific sports movie. It’s conventional but still compelling. Gudnason is strong for a guy who plays professional tennis for a living. He’s genuinely compelling as Borg even if it never seems like we get a glimpse into what he’s really thinking. LeBeouf gets the showier part and it works as Lebeouf’s own youthful troubles seem to somewhat mirror McEnroe’s.
Why did Borg vs McEnroe fail so spectacularly? The film made only $7 million dollars worldwide on a budget of $65 million dollars. It’s hard to say why it happened but it wasn’t the fault of the movie. The film is solid, well made and well acted. The characters are compelling, the tennis is exciting. What happened to make fans reject the film so hard by not buying a ticket? It’s baffling but there it is. $65 million dollars down the drain all because audiences decided to skip on seeing a pretty good sports movie to the point that it didn’t even make it to nationwide release.
Borg vs McEnroe is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD and On-Demand Streaming.
Ant-Man and the Wasp is an absolute blast. The latest movie to shine in the Marvel Universe, this fast-paced, funny action flick more than lives up the super-hero hype with a pair of delightful lead performances from Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly, as the titular duo, and an exceptional colorful supporting cast including Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Pena.
Ant-Man and The Wasp picks up the story of Scott Lang (Rudd) 2 years after the events of Captain America Civil War wherein Scott, as Ant-Man, took sides with Captain America (Chris Evans) and in doing so violated the Sokovia Accords. This led to a year in jail and another year in house arrest where, at the very least, he gets to spend time with his daughter when he isn’t learning sleight of hand magic or playing drums, in a video game.
The story really kicks in when Hope Van Dyne (Lilly) and her father, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), open a portal to the Quantum Realm where Scott was nearly lost forever in the last film and where Hope’s mother, Hank’s wife, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) has been lost for decades. Opening the Quantum Realm reveals that Janet has created a way, via Scott, for her to communicate and perhaps escape her decades long exile.
Meanwhile, a baddie calling herself The Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) is trying to steal Hank’s lab to try and save her life. The less revealed about Ghost the better, the character has a fun secret that is revealed throughout the movie. The Ghost isn’t the only baddie however, as a shady arms dealer, played by Walton Goggins decides that he wants to steal Hank’s technology in order to sell it to the highest bidder.
That’s the set up for a whole bunch of terrifically funny gags. Ant-Man and The Wasp is so much fun! Director Peyton Reed, much maligned for taking over the first Ant-Man after fan favorite Edgar Wright was dropped from the project, shows growth as a visual artist and in the confidence of a man with a vision. Reed appears to want Ant-Man to be the comic conscience of the Marvel Universe and two features in, he’s lived up to that title.
So how does Ant-Man and The Wasp fit into the narrative of the wider MCU? Well, I am not going to spoil that, you need to see this movie for that fun. I will say that the mid-credits scene is where the ongoing narrative is addressed and that there is no need to stay for the end credits scene which is merely the end of a running gag in Ant-Man and The Wasp and one of the few things in the movie that isn’t particularly funny.
Ant-Man and The Wasp is another triumph for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a film that combines the best traits of the Marvel Universe from big laughs to big action to genuine drama. Michael Douglas adds genuine gravitas to Ant-Man and The Wasp and when he and Michelle Pfeiffer finally share the screen the scene is legitimately moving thanks to the wide-ranging talents of both actors and this super smart, funny script.
Ant-Man and The Wasp is one of my favorite movies of 2018.
The First Purge stars Lex Scott Davis as Nya, an activist opposed to a new social experiment in crime. The New Founding Fathers of America, a right wing political party, has come to power, replacing Republicans and Democrats in the American power structure and they believe they have a solution for America’s crime problem. The idea comes from a scientist named Dr. Updale, Marisa Tomei, who isn’t convinced her idea is a cure-all.
The experiment which will come to be called ‘The Purge’ entails allowing people the opportunity to get out their pent up aggression with a night of legalized violence. For the experiment, the NFFA will cordon off Staten Island, New York and pay residents and visitors $5000.00 to stay on the Island and take part in 12 hours of legalized debauchery of all types. For her part, Nya believes The Purge is an attack on the poor and oh, how right she is, even if she doesn’t know it yet.
As the experiment of The Purge unfolds in this already crime riddled area, things begin with a strange peace. Few, if any, residents are actually engaging in criminal behavior. The NFFA has a lot riding on the night being an example of the effectiveness of their new rule and when things appear to be working in favor of the better angels of our nature, aside from a murderous crackhead named Skeletor, the NFFA decide to tip the scales a little with some outside help.
Soon, the streets of Staten Island are littered with bodies as the world watches on news networks supplied a ringside seat via drones that capture the action from on high. There is also the added attraction of first person perspective on the most gruesome crimes as some Island residents have been fitted with special contact lens cameras to capture the mayhem. The contacts are also a neat visual to help differentiate the truly dangerous from the endangered.
The First Purge is the fourth film in The Purge franchise, though the first in the continuity of the story which began being told in 2014 with Ethan Hawke and Lena Headley. The original The Purge posited an almost lackadaisical air surrounding the nationwide mayhem known as The Purge. Families discuss The Purge with the urgency of going to the supermarket or the video store. By the time of that film, The Purge is just another part of life.
The First Purge enlivens the franchise by taking it back to the beginning. Director Gerald MacMurray, taking the directorial reigns from franchise creator James Demonaco, who did stick around to write the script for this outing, embraces the social satire of the original conceit more blatantly than the first three films in the franchise. Indeed, MacMurray’s take on The Purge concept is straight ahead satirical polemic with the visual style of blaxsploitation movies of the early to mid-seventies.
There is no hiding the politics at play here, the NRA gets name-checked as the financial backers of the New Founding Fathers of America and a scene where Nya is assaulted by a sewer dwelling, masked stranger contains a reference to President Trump that is sharply pointed. All of the New Founding Fathers of America seen on screen are doughy white guys reminiscent of a current White House casting call.
The First Purge pull no punches in its social commentary with scenes ripped from recent American history from the streets of smoky streets of Ferguson circa 2014 to the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, just last last year. Though tiki torches are surprisingly circumspect, there are men in Klan robes and men in uniforms reminiscent of the German S. S that are as striking as ever and similarly worn by hate groups at the Charlottesville riots in real life.
If the characters and storytelling had been as pointed and forthright as the social satire, we’d be talking about a much better movie. Unfortunately, the characters in The First Purge wind up underwritten in favor of the atmosphere of dread and, as mentioned, the high level of social satire. That’s not to say that Lex Scott Davis or Joivan Wade, who plays her brother in the movie or Mugga, who plays a Nya’s neighbor, are bad actors. Rather, they’re just pawns of the plot rather than people whose action drives the plot.
The editing of The First Purge is also a tad suspect, contributing to a choppy style that can be a tad hard to follow and not all that pleasant to look at. The Cinematography and production design appear to be areas where the filmmakers were attempting to save money as the film’s visual style rarely stands out, aside from one scene that appears to be a full-on homage to the low budget aesthetic of a Gordon Parks or Melvin Van Peebles.
Newcomer Y’Lan Noel plays drug dealer turned leader Dmitri and gets all of the best visuals in the movie. Late in the film, as Dmitri and his crew are traveling the streets battling the mercenaries of the Klan, the Alt-Right and the NFFA, Dmitri turns full on action hero and MacMurray films him like a combination of Shaft, Bruce Lee and Killmonger. He even gets to be John McClain for a little while as he makes his way through an apartment building picking off bad guys one floor at a time.
The homages and the social satire are the best and boldest part of The First Purge which is an otherwise middling affair. The characters are thin, the dialogue is often stilted and awkward, especially the supposedly ‘Street’ dialogue which plays the hits of all the worst cliches of gang speak. I want to embrace big parts of The First Purge but too much of the movie is too subpar for me to fully celebrate what works.
When their daughters make a sex pact on Prom Night, three parents set out stop them in the new comedy Blockers. Lisa (Leslie Mann), Mitchell (John Cena), and Hunter (Ike Barinholz) entered each other’s lives when their daughters met and became lifelong friends in Kindergarten. Now, with college on the horizon and Prom Night at hand, the three parents are adjusting poorly to their daughters growing up.
For Lisa and her daughter, Julie (Kathryn Newton) separation anxiety is setting in. Having been so close for so many years, with Lisa as a single mom, the idea that Julie will be leaving for UCLA from their home in Chicago is fraught. It’s fraught to the point where Julie is afraid to actually tell her mother that she is considering moving hundreds of miles away to the same school that her boyfriend, Austin (Graham Phillips), happens to also be attending.
For Mitchell, the angst is similar except that he and his wife Marcie (Saraya Blue) have raised their daughter, Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) as a tomboy in hopes of delaying her from getting involved with boys. No such luck on prom night, however, as Kayla has a date with Connor (Miles Robbins) who doesn’t seem capable of hiding the fact that he’s a stoner with a unique reputation.
Hunter’s distant relationship with his daughter Sam (Gideon Adlon) is best left for you to discover when seeing Blockers. The thing to know for the plot is that Hunter is distanced from not just his daughter, but also his former friends, Lisa and Mitchell. Despite this, he will be joining them for the raunchy hi-jinks as they chase after their daughters after finding out the girls have made a pact to lose their virginity on Prom Night.
Blockers is the first feature film behind the camera for director Kay Cannon. Cannon’s previous experience was as the writer of each of the Pitch Perfect movies which, much like Blockers, were hit and miss but mostly hits. None of the Pitch Perfect movies rank as great comedy but each was good enough and that is where Blockers lands. It's good enough. For a silly, raunchy, R-Rated comedy, Blockers delivers enough laughs to get a pass from me.
The biggest issue with Blockers is the film’s trailer, which contains many of the biggest gags in the movie. What should be the loudest punchlines in Blockers have much of their power taken away by the fact that most audiences have heard the jokes before. The one big, too raunchy for the ad campaign gag involves Office Space standout Gary Cole and sexpot Gina Gershon. I will leave you to discover that gag on your own. I will just say it pays off in a brief post-credits scene that John Cena fans will not want to miss.
Read the full review at Geeks.Media
With Sicario Day of the Soldado opening this past weekend starring Benicio Del Toro, I was called to think of my favorite Benicio Del Toro performance. And while I enjoyed his work in Traffic, his Academy Award nominated performance, for me, his performance as Dr. Gonzo is an all time classic in Del Toro’s canon. Del Toro is the wild, raging, drug fueled id of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a film itself that appears like a raging fire.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas stars Johnny Depp as Doctor of Journalism Raoul Duke, an alias of one Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson is famed for his gonzo journalism, a drug fueled style that earned him a loyal readership in Rolling Stone Magazine over three decades from the 60’s to the 80’s. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is taken from Thompson’s book of the same name about a drug fueled trip to Las Vegas that Thompson, as Duke, took to supposedly cover a motorcycle race for his magazine.
Of course, Duke has little interest in motorcycle racing. No, he’s in this for the road trip with his best friend and attorney, known here as Dr. Gonzo (Del Toro). Whether Dr. Gonzo was a real person or a Thompson creation cobbled together from several friends and fellow drug users is part of Thompson’s legend. The road trip debauchery is the focus of the movie and it starts right away with a red cadillac procured with Rolling Stone funds and a suitcase bursting with every kind of mind altering drug imaginable.
Eventually, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas shifts gears from motorcycles to district attorneys as Gonzo has procured them a suite to attend the national district attorneys convention. Unfortunately, that is not all that Gonzo has procured as he is now in the company of a potentially underage girl, Lucy (Christina Ricci). Having just met, Gonzo has given the young girl her first taste of acid and the trip is going bad.
There isn’t much of a story in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s a film of feel rather than substance. Director Terry Gilliam wants you to feel like your with Hunter S. Thompson on one of his famed drug trips and see the world through Duke’s eyes. This means fisheye lens and a queasy making visuals to illustrate the mind on various different types of hallucinogens from ether to acid to marijuana.
The film is remarkable at making you feel like you’re tripping right along with the characters, even if, like me, you’ve never used an illegal drug. I recall seeing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on the big screen and walking out into a world that didn’t look real after words. It took a little while before my eyes could adjust to the real world again and I recall liking the feeling. The film’s trippy visual is less effective on the small screen but no less artful.
Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro have a terrifically weird chemistry. I am not going to speculate as to the on-set drug use behind the scenes of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but it’s hard not to imagine that both actors don’t have some personal experiences driving their performances. Del Toro especially seems familiar with the wild emotions of mind-altering drugs with his wild eyes and bizarrely perfect sloppy speech pattern. It has the practiced, polished feel of someone trying not to let on that they are on drugs.
For his part, Depp radiates endless charisma. Even playing a bald man in bizarre 70’s costume, he still comes off as handsome and engaging. It’s a star performance and yet one pitched perfectly for this strange and unique role. Depp and Hunter S. Thompson became friends in real life during the making of the movie. So close were the two that after Thompson took his own life, Depp was part of a celebration that shot the author’s ashes out of a cannon.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a true cult classic. A strange, trippy, bizarre comic creation with wit and star power. Great performances combine with inventive visuals to create arguably THE best drug trip movie of all time. It’s a film that remains a go to for revival theaters across the country that roll the film out on a yearly basis, with the blessing and backing of its parent studio, Universal Pictures which has benefited greatly from the continuing popularity of the movie which barely eked out a profit on its theatrical release.
This weekend the Eddie Murphy flick Coming to America turns 30 years old. Released on June 29th, 1988, the film was the latest in a string of blockbusters for the former Saturday Night Live comic turned superstar and the beginning of the end of his run of unmatched 80’s hits. Murphy was, at the time of the release of Coming to America, perhaps the most famous and popular actor in Hollywood.
That’s what makes Coming to America so fascinating, it’s such an outlier to the Eddie Murphy persona we’d come to know. Coming to America casts Murphy not as a fast talking, Bug Bunny-esque schemer but as an innocent, good-hearted romantic seeking his one true love. Yes, Coming to America is chock-a-block with R-rated humor and some uncomfortable, stereotype based comedy, but what stands out 30 years later is how genuine and sweet Murphy is in the role of Prince Akeem.
In Coming to America, Murphy’s Prince Akeem is a pampered Prince, the heir to the thrown of the fictional country of Zamunda, think Wakanda minus Vibranium but with serious oil wealth. Akeem’s every whim have been attended to throughout his life and he finds the treatment lacking. Akeem longs to be challenged, especially by a woman of intellect as well as attractiveness. Unfortunately for Akeem, his birthday is also his arranged wedding day.
After meeting his bride and finding that she’s been bred to serve his every whim, just like everyone else in his life, Akeem asks his father, the King (James Earl Jones) for the chance to travel and see the world, a plea that his father believes is about ‘sowing his wild oats.’ With his friend and faithful servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) at his side, Akeem decides to go to America to seek the girl of his dreams and chooses the aptly named borough of Queens as his destination.
Here’s where the film squanders its premise. Director John Landis, rather than sew the film with magic and romance to go with Murphy’s talent for getting laughs, he instead chooses crudity and sitcomic slapstick of the slamming doors variety. While Akeem is all sweetness and charming naivete, the rest of the movie is crude and the script by veterans Barry Blaustein and David Shefflied chases the easiest possible fish out of water laughs.
Don’t misunderstand, Coming to America is funny but it could have been something more. Eddie Murphy delivers a genuine and romantic performance as Prince Akeem. It’s an outlier in Murphy’s career, playing a character who is earnest and genuine and not hiding behind quips or a gun. Murphy is still charming and as wildly charismatic as ever with that big, goofy grin of his but, for once, we believe the character is happy not at the expense of others.
Murphy elevates the material which is deeply lacking in originality. His chemistry with everyone from Jones as his father, to Hall as his best friend, and even bland leading lady Lisa, played by Shari Headley, is typically off the charts. It’s a star performance of the highest order and that’s what makes me wish the film had more ambition. There is a rich idea in play here and yet everyone except for Murphy appears content to take the easy way out.
That is not to say that Coming to America is completely bereft of invention. Costume designer Deborah Nadoolman earned an Academy Award nomination for her elegant and lively costumes including the African wedding party decked out in such an elaborate display that the two scenes depicting the wedding may well have been all that was needed to secure her nomination. It’s not just the elaborate costumes though as Murphy and Hall, Jones and Headley all carry a modern, moneyed style that is striking in a GQ fashion.
The set design is also a great deal more ambitious than the script for Coming to America. Production Designer Richard MacDonald created brilliant sets for the African portion of the film with opulence to spare. The King’s castle in Zamunda is elaborate and beautifully designed while the Queens portion more or less designed itself with it’s trashy, earthy grit, though MacDonald deserves credit for Akeem and Semmi’s briefly stylish apartment and the design of the home of Lisa’s father, played with abundant charisma by John Amos.
There is also invention in the makeup department of Coming to America as director John Landis indulged Murphy’s love of playing multiple characters by having him play four separate characters aside from Akeem. Murphy is especially good at playing loudmouthed no-it-alls and his barbershop character Clarence is right in his comic wheelhouse. Even more impressive however, is Saul, an old Jewish denizen of the barbershop who seamlessly fits the aesthetic of 80’s Queens even as he embodies a very particular stereotype.
There are also clever running gags in Coming to America that elevate the otherwise moribund and derivative script. Eriq LaSalle plays Lisa’s boyfriend, Darrly, the son of a jheri-curl magnate. Jokes about Darryl and his family’s chosen hairstyle pop up throughout Coming to America and while the jokes are desperately dated now, I still laughed when they popped up 30 years later. Younger audiences might get the joke in a different way, tittering in disbelief that such a hairstyle was indeed a popular 70’s and 80’s trend.
Coming to America is a mixed bag. It’s far from a bad movie, thanks to Murphy, but it is lacking in ambition. The script is too simple and John Landis’ direction takes the easy way out on the jokes while almost overdoing the production design and costumes. I love the production design and the costumes but they are a sign of a movie of a great deal more ambition than that of Coming to America which wants to deliver sitcom laughs at feature film prices.
Uncle Drew is a movie that shouldn’t be as good as it is. The movie is based on, of all things, a Pepsi commercial starring a basketball player. In 2015 Pepsi hired then Cleveland Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving to star in a series of commercials. The concept for the campaign was to have Irving dress as an old man and get into pickup games in the park where his overwhelming, real life skills would act as a prank on the cocky streetball players.
The commercials were clever and Irving carried a natural charisma behind all the makeup that sold the concept. That said, that’s pretty much where this story should have ended. The commercial campaign lasted about a year and slowly faded away. Somehow however, someone got inspired. Whether it was the success of Johnny Knoxville’s similarly conceived Bad Grandpa, a film about Knoxville pranking people in old man makeup which earned $151 million dollars on a $15 million dollar budget, or Irving’s plucky charisma, someone got it in their head that Uncle Drew, Irving’s character, would make a good movie.
Uncle Drew tells the story of a basketball legend on the streets of New York in the 1960’s, who simply vanished after his equally legendary streetball team no-showed the finals of the biggest streetball tournament in New York, The Rucker. Decades later, the legend of Uncle Drew lingers as the latest iteration of The Rucker tournament is about to get underway. Dax (Lil Rel Howery, the scene stealer from Get Out), needs Uncle Drew’s help.
Dax has just lost his entire team to his rival, Mookie (Nick Kroll). Dax has already paid the $10,000 fee to get into the tournament and can’t get his money back. The only solution is to get a team together and when he sees Uncle Drew schooling young players on a random streetball court, Dax enlists the legend to be on his team at The Rucker. Drew agrees but only if he can get together his old team including his former best friend turned enemy, Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal).
It’s a fairly conventional plot from here as Dax and Uncle Drew begin road-tripping to get Drew’s old teammates including Preacher (Chris Webber), Lights (Reggie Miller), Boots (Nate Robinson) and Big Fella. We’ve seen putting the team together montages before but there is something so strange and endearing about this one. Each player is given a tiny story arc to riff on and each is rather surprisingly delightful.
Webber especially has a great deal of fun playing Preacher as a henpecked husband to Betty Lou, played by Women’s Basketball legend Lisa Leslie. The dynamic between Webber and Leslie is basically lifted from the Aretha Franklin subplot from The Blue Brothers but instead of a brassy R & B number, Leslie throws on her basketball shoes and gets in the game. It’s an ancient anti-feminist running gag about a nagging wife that pays off with a surprisingly progressive and clever twist.
Miller and Robinson have lesser notes to play but Miller’s infectious energy is downright adorable while Robinson’s character has genuine pathos. When we meet Boots he’s in a wheelchair and seemingly in the throes of a serious medical condition that renders him speechless. He’s cared for by his granddaughter, played by Erica Ash, who is quite transparently in the film as a love interest for Dax. As the road trip goes on, Boots works his way from a wheelchair to a running, jumping, slam dunk, it’s hard not to smile at the cheesy, empowering never give up message.
In some sort of strange pop culture convergence, Uncle Drew shares the same ethos as the recent comedy Tag: You don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing. It’s a riff on a line from the legendary George Bernard Shaw who appears to be having a minor pop renaissance, even though Tag intentionally gives his famous quote to Benjamin Franklin. It’s a good line, and a great idea to hang a movie on as both films demonstrate.
I am almost embarrassed about how much I enjoyed Uncle Drew. Yes, the movie is clumsy at times and unbearably derivative at other times. It’s a movie that includes a gathering the team montage and a dance-off sequence. And, it’s based off a character from a Pepsi commercial. By all accounts I should abhor Uncle Drew and yet I don’t. The film is fun, far more fun than some movies with fully original characters and stories.
Uncle Drew has a big goofy heart and a genuine love of sport that somehow won over my curmudgeonly soul. It’s just so darn fun and positive that I could not resist it and neither will you if you give Uncle Drew a chance.
Sicario was a movie where one character tied herself in multiplying more knots in order to do what she thought was right in the pursuit of justice. Sicario may be the Spanish word for hitman but the movie of that title was not about the hitman but rather about an FBI agent who is young enough to still be idealistic about her job until she is confronted by the futility of her work and how even doing the right thing can be a misguided notion when the line between right and wrong is so desperately murky.
It’s unfortunate that Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado doesn’t have an Emily Blunt like character for us to identify with. With Blunt’s everyman innocent, the story of Sicario 2 is left to a pair of characters who are charismatic but not very believable as arbiters of the moral ground. Sicario 2 asks us to believe that the characters of CIA Fixer, Matt (Josh Brolin) and hitman, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) are somehow guided to do the right thing when their cold-hearted depravity was the point of the characters when they were conceived.
The story of Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado begins with a pair of terror attacks at the border between the U.S and Mexico. In a shocking sequence we watch three terrorists walk into a super-market and each detonate bombs strapped to their chests. This is the act that convinces the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) to go after the people who are believed to be helping terrorists into the country, the drug cartels.
For this dirty work he turns to CIA Fixer Matt and tasks him with a black op. The idea is that Matt and his team will kidnap the daughter of a drug kingpin and drop her off in the territory of a rival kingpin. The goal is to get the cartels into a war with each other and in so doing, keep the cartels from providing cover for terrorists to cross the border into Texas. The idea is solid in planning but the execution is bad. Mexican police are supposed to provide a safe lead into Mexico but instead, they go into business for themselves and nearly kill Matt and his team.
This leaves Matt’s friend and professional killer Alejandro to care for the kidnapped girl while Matt high tails it back to Texas to deal with the fallout of Americans killing Mexicans in Mexico. What you have here is a plot with a lot potential, plenty of rich ground to cover in crafting these characters and evolving them from the first film. Unfortunately, the makers of Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado can’t seem to make up their mind about what film they are making.
Turning Matt and Alejandro against each other is a clever idea, their alliance may feel close but there is underlying tension to be exploited. The story is timely and potentially bold but the makers of Sicario: Day of the Soldado can’t seem to decide what movie they are making. Is this a gritty, hard-bitten drama about hard men doing the hard things or is this a critique of the secretive and dangerous methods of an American law enforcement acting from a place of fear and weakness.
As I said earlier, this is a rich playing field for characters like these. Unfortunately, director Stefano Sillima is unable to capitalize on the work of his terrific cast. Sillima’s direction is lazy and deeply conventional. Where the original Sicario was an artful study of characters struggling with their morality in an amoral world, Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado is a macho, posturing, pointless action movie.
Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado trades the best part of the original, the character based acting and observational plot in favor of the more familiar gun fights and chases of the action genre. What they fail to consider are the expectations of people who’ve seen the first Sicario. I loved Sicario for its thicket of moral grey area and how Blunt’s character would navigate that thicket. I enjoyed her struggle and understood her frustration.
Without Blunt or a similar character in this sequel what is left is rather weak sauce. There are far less complicated notes being played. The motivations of the characters are lacking as is the clever visual technique of Academy Award winner Roger Deakins who made the grit and grime of Mexico come to life as if Mexico itself were a dangerous character. All of the best stuff of Sicario is missing from Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado and what a shame that is.
Sicario stars Emily Blunt as Kate, a tough young FBI Agent who is recruited for a joint government task force on drug enforcement. Immediately she smells something fishy, especially after she meets Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a specialist in cartel politics who is supposedly working for the Department of Justice. Alejandro answers only to Kate’s new boss, an equally shady character named Matt (Josh Brolin).
Both Alejandro and Matt are suspiciously good with a weapon for a pair of Department of Justice lawyers and that’s not the only thing about this new assignment that is nagging at Kate. Among other things, Kate’s first day on the job finds her crossing the Texas-Mexico border to capture a high level drug asset. The fact that she’s flanked by an elite military force for this mission gives the strong impression that whoever has arranged this, is working outside the bounds of diplomacy and the rule of law.
As the story evolves, Kate is torn between the desire for results in the unending battle between the government and the fractured but still functioning cartels which have only grown more violent and territorial since the fall of the Medellin cartel which had kept an uneasy peace among the cartels while keeping the flow of drugs into America as high as it has ever been. The choice for Kate is simple, the idealistic and seemingly futile pursuit of results inside the bounds of the law or giving up a piece of her very soul for the chance to slow the flow of drugs into the country.
How much moral flexibility does Kate have? Can Kate kill unconvicted people if it means capturing or killing those who’ve earned it? These questions form the drama and suspense of Sicario and director Denis Villenueve gives these questions weight and patiently unfolds them as the movie goes on. Villenueve, one of the finest filmmakers working today, an Academy Award nominee for his work on Arrival, has a mastery of pacing and building toward powerful moments.
With the help of two time Academy Award nominee, Editor Joe Walker, Villenueve slowly allows tension to build via clever character moments and splashes of sudden violence. The editing is seamlessly brilliant and essential to how Sicario slow builds to a pair of remarkably tense closing scenes including a sweaty and intense dinner conversation with a drug kingpin and one final moment between main characters that is downright devastating.
I could go on and talk about the brilliant production design by Patrice Vermette, another two time Academy Award nominee or about the breathtaking cinematography of Roger Deakins, an Academy Award winner for his work on Villenueve’s Blade Runner in 2017 and the only member of the cast and crew of the first Sicario movie to be nominated for an Academy Award. Believe me when I tell you, every sequence of Sicario is impeccable.
Great performances, tremendous direction, beautifully spare cinematography and production design and a great story combine to make me very excited for the new movie Sicario Soldad. It should be fascinating to watch Alehandro and Matf do what they do without Kate around to force them to weigh their consciences. Just how low will these rogue elements of our spy underground go to stanch the drug pipeline between the U.S and Mexico.
have seen amateur movies on YouTube, shot on an IPhone, that have better special effects than the cheeseball fluff featured in the new movie Escape Plan 2: Hades. This Sylvester Stallone starring sequel to the not-so-great to begin with, 2013 feature, Escape Plan starring Sly and Arnold Schwarzenegger, is among the worst movies of 2018. Bad special effects, inept direction, and abysmal editing make Escape Plan 2: Hades, nearly impossible to endure.
Once again Stallone is playing the character of security expert Ray Breslin. Here Ray and his team, including Jesse Metcalf, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Jamie King, are hired to rescue hostages in a foreign country by developing an executing an ‘escape plan,’ get it? When the escape plan goes bad, Ray is forced to part ways with two members of his team, Jasper (Wes Chatham) and Shu (Xiaming Huong).
After firing Jasper, Ray let’s Shu take a leave of absence and from there, Shu goes home to Thailand and reunites with his cousin, a tech millionaire. The cousin is wanted for his deus ex machina technology and when he’s kidnapped, Shu gets taken as well. The two end up in Hades, a state of the art prison, said to be inescapable. Naturally, when Ray finds out his buddy is missing he knows what he needs, as escape plan.
My plot description is intentionally snarky but the movie deserves it. Little care is taken by director Stephen C. Miller to make Escape Plan 2: Hades watchable so the film deserves my condescending descriptors. Miller’s direction is borderline haphazard, as if we’re lucky when he’s able to plant his camera in the direction of the actors. The editing is employed to try and hide the directorial and storytelling deficiencies, using quick cuts to try and distract from the bad production design and bored acting.
Sly Stallone looks as if he’s not getting enough sleep these days. His speech has always been a tad slow but here, words fall from his mouth as if pushed with great effort but little energy or life. He doesn’t appear to care much about what he’s saying and comes off as content to deliver the minimum effort needed for his check. Director Miller tries to cover for his star’s disinterest by giving newcomer Xiaming Huong most of the heavy lifting but his martial arts can’t overcome Miller’s inability to capture martial arts in a visually interesting fashion.
The fight scenes in Escape Plan 2: Hades are nearly as sloppy as the special effects are laughable. Huong appears to be a capable fighter but the slapdash camera work and quick cut editing do more to hide his abilities than to exploit them. There are times during major fight scenes where it was impossible to even locate the lead characters amid the chaos of the staging of these scenes.
The CGI of Escape Plan 2 is camp level bad. The effects rendering on something as routine as muzzle flair from a handgun are laughably inept with tiny fireballs that look like cotton candy popping out of a gun. A big explosion in the opening of the film looked like an effect from the legendary modern bad movie Birdemic: Shock and Terror. That film however, at the very least, was entertainingly terrible, Escape Plan 2: Hades is merely embarrassingly cringe inducing.
Just what the heck was Dave Bautista thinking when he accepted this role? Was he desperate to share the screen with Sly Stallone? Bautista is billed as the second star of Escape Plan, equal to Stallone and yet he’s barely in the movie. Bautista doesn’t even have a fight scene, content to just hold a gun in one scene and fire the gun while lightly jogging toward danger later in the movie. Bautista matches Stallone’s lack of energy with his own barely there performance.
Escape Plan 2: Hades was supposed to be released theatrically, nationwide this weekend but someone thought better of that idea. Instead, this abysmal effort will haunt the DVD and Blu Ray racks as of Friday, tempting Stallone completists and those who can be tricked into thinking Bautista is doing another Drax like character. Don’t be fooled, Bautista is barely there and Stallone, in a sense, is barely there as well in one of the worst movies of 2018.
John Waters has become an icon of those with eclectic tastes. Waters is a fascinating personality and artist whose fame as an iconoclast may at last have surpassed his fame as a filmmaker. He’s written a number of bestselling books based almost entirely on his style and personality. Film is almost secondary to who John Waters has become in popular culture. This is not to say that his movies are or should be forgotten, it’s more an indication of how the art of John Waters has evolved.
Waters began making movies in the late 1960’s in his beloved hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.
With his group brassy, over the top pals, Waters set out to make the kinds of movies that he and his friends wanted to see, if not audiences at large. His 1972 breakthrough movie, Pink Flamingos set the tone for the John Waters aesthetic of low budget shock with largely transgressive themes of deviant behavior and sexuality.
To give the uninitiated a sense of John Waters, Pink Flamingos is best remembered for star, Divine, a wild-eyed drag queen, part Norma Desmond part nightmare, eating dog feces. This wasn’t just a gag either, it was a part of the plot which found Waters’ characters competing for the title of ‘Filthiest Person Alive’ and featured numerous variations of fetishes both disturbing and fascinating.
Is Pink Flamingos a comedy? I believe people are intended to laugh in some portions of the movie but honestly, the movie is more about dropping jaws than guffaws. In that same vein, Waters’ Pink Flamingos follow-up, 1974’s Female Trouble isn’t a comedy either but a series of transgressions that you may or may not react to with a mixture of awe or horror depending on your disposition. Female Trouble is now the subject of a Criterion Collection release beginning today, June 26th, 2018.
Female Trouble stars Divine as Dawn Davenport, a High School dropout turned criminal and mother of an illegitimate daughter. Dawn is a terrible person desperately seeking fame and fortune while engaging in sex, crime and whatever impulse that happens through her reckless mind. When Dawn meets the owners of a hair salon who have a fetish regarding taking pictures of women in the midst of committing crimes, she finds her purpose in life as their model.
That is sort of a description of the plot of Female Trouble but that doesn’t begin to explain what is going on in this movie. There is a plot and a little bit of structure but, for the most part, Female Trouble a series of shrill, shrieking arguments between Dawn and her family and friends and her enemies, especially her eventual mother in law, Aunt Ida played by Edith Massey as a nightmare come to life.
Mink Stole plays Dawn’s daughter Taffy and she more than matches the shrill shrieks of Dawn in their numerous squabbles. Taffy has a fetish for staging elaborate car accidents in the family living room, that is when she isn’t castigating her mother for her criminal lifestyle. It’s hinted that Taffy has been kept in a state of perpetual adolescence and Mink Stole is disturbingly good at getting to the heart of an almost entirely unsocialized young adult.
The most striking and lasting element of Female Trouble isn’t that it is funny or even how remarkably transgressive or horrifying it is as the movie tramples on modern morality. Rather, the lasting element of the film is how it presaged our fame obsessed culture. A version of Dawn Davenport wouldn’t feel out of place on a modern reality show with her gross behavior fitting in on anything from Cops to the Real Housewives franchise.
Divine’s performance could be a parody of numerous modern reality show characters despite the fact that she existed before reality television. Divine himself passed away in 1988, well before he could have seen what came after in the fame-seeking world of reality television. Dawn’s sweaty, desperate desire to be in front a camera, to be adored by someone, anyone, is a trait that would be required of any performer wishing to satirize modern reality television.
Despite Female Trouble featuring a photo camera rather than video or TV cameras, the same ugly, impulsive neediness is still in play in this character as would be in the future with reality TV stars. That Dawn is also disfigured in an acid attack and ends the movie with a killing spree and a trip to the electric chair all while bulbs flash, either for real or in her mind, only serves to create a broad template satire of the horrific lengths a hypothetical reality star could go to.
It’s as if John Waters could see into the future and satirize it. That’s a rather remarkable legacy for a movie that is otherwise a whirlwind of NC-17 rated chaos. Don’t go into Female Trouble seeking a conventional film with three act structure and familiar, comforting, character arcs. Female Trouble is simply one transgressively trashy scene after another that builds one audacious scene after another into a wildfire of chaos and insanity until Dawn’s cartoon death sends everyone home with a strikingly dark comic visual.
Female Trouble is available beginning today as part of the Criterion Collection and features a newly restored print, directly from John Waters’ own collection, along with deleted scenes, commentary, interviews with the people involved in the making of the movie, and most importantly, the involvement of Waters himself who lends his colorful persona to all of the features of this new collection.
Detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) stands framed by a tunnel leading him to a physical and emotional destination. On the other side of the tunnel is the place where he needs to go to save his new friend, Roger, but it is also the place where, years earlier, his brother and partner was killed. The conflict weighs heavily on him as he ponders his fate, past and present colliding in a whirlwind of emotions.
I could be describing a 1940’s detective movie directed by John Huston or Jules Dassin with a story by Daschiell Hammett and starring Gene Tierney or Robert Mitchum. Instead, the movie I am describing in the opening of this review is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the iconic live action-animated feature from visionary director Robert Zemeckis. The comedy comes from the remarkably brilliant clash animated storytelling and love of classic detective stories.
The scene I mentioned at the top gets a big laugh from me every time only after I realize that what I am seeing is a man trying to rescue his cartoon friend from the same cartoon thug that killed his brother. It’s this collision of past and future in style and drama and comedy in tone that never fails to get a big laugh from me. How remarkably clever, to draw a laugh from something ostensibly serious yet inherently comic.
That’s the complex genius of Who Framed Roger Rabbit which was released on June 22nd 1988. The story follows Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) who we meet as he is struggling with a gag in his latest cartoon. Roger’s boss, R. K Maroon (Alan Tivern) believes that Roger is distracted by his wife, Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner), who Maroon is convinced is cheating on Roger with another man.
It’s Maroon who hires private eye Eddie Valiant to trail Roger’s wife and catch her playing paddy cake with her sugar daddy, Acme Products owner and Town Town proprietor, Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). When he gets the photos and they get back to Roger, the cartoon rabbit is a mess, literally exploding through a window, leaving a perfect, cartoon cut-out. When Acme is found dead the following day in his warehouse, Roger is the prime suspect and only Eddie Valiant can save him.
Part of the genius of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is how it is a classic noir story of an innocent man fighting a corrupt system that wants to put him away for good and a first rate animated comedy. The tone of the film is consistently hilarious on a level that children adore and yet film fans can’t help but appreciate the genre touches that show director Robert Zemeckis must have been a huge fan of 40’s detective movies, not unlike the French New Wave directors of the 60’s who took the same influence and made iconic icy drama where Zemeckis finds comedy.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is legitimately that inspired. Not only is Roger Rabbit an iconic kids comedy it’s a real work of art remarkable attention to detail. The production design and costuming is as detailed and brilliant as the inspired comedy. The plot details influenced by 40’s detective movies are as nuanced as the wonderful comic character work of Bob Hoskins, and the underrated duo of Stubby Kaye and Alan Tivern.
And then there are the remarkable special effects of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The detail is remarkable. A scene where Roger, in Eddie’s office convincing Eddie to save his life, attempts to sit in the dusty chair of Eddie’s late brother shows Roger’s fingerprints on the chair as he pulls it back. Is that level of detail necessary? Perhaps not, but it is effective in showing how deeply committed Zemeckis and company are in establishing Roger in this real world scenario.
The seamlessness of Eddie and Roger’s interaction is breathtaking. Bob Hoskins deserved an Academy Award nomination for his deeply committed and yet still very funny performance. Hoskins’ feels like the kind of actor who would have sweated his way through one of this pulpy detective novels of the 1940’s. Rumpled and cynical, he would have been right at home in a Daschiell Hammett story and yet fits brilliantly into the comedy of Roger Rabbit just as well.
I absolutely adore Who Framed Roger Rabbit. As a kid it was one of my favorites and today, despite the undeniable influence of childhood nostalgia, I genuinely believe it to be one of the best movies I have ever seen. It ranks right alongside some of the more reputable dramas and esteemed genre pieces I have seen in my more than 20 years as a critic. The huge laughs, the attention detail, the stunningly great effects and the timeless quality of the film earn Roger Rabbit a place in my list of all time favorite movies.
In thinking of a classic monster movie to write about this weekend in correlation with Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom I wanted a non-traditional choice. Lots of critics and movie fans will be writing about classic monsters this weekend, it’s a good theme to coincide with a big budget monster movie. I was leaning towards Jaws but then I remembered The Meg is coming out this summer and that seemed apt moment to write about Jaws. So, I settled upon the unique choice of Cujo.
Now, you can argue that Cujo isn’t a monster movie. A dog getting rabies is a terribly sad story with many dramatic implications. But, as written about by Stephen King and directed by Lewis Teague, Cujo has much the same tension and arc as a great movie monster. In Fact, having seen Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, I can tell you that Cujo is, for me, as frightening as Fallen Kingdom’s newest villain, the Indo-Raptor.
Cujo begins with a little boy frightened of monsters in his closet. Danny Pintauro, who would go on to child stardom on the 80’s series Who’s the Boss, plays Tad, a normal kid who will be terribly traumatized by the end of this story. Tad’s parents, Dee Wallace and Daniel Hugh Kelly, have hit a rough patch in their marriage. As we join the story, Dee is having an affair with a neighbor and Daniel is soon to find out about.
In the meantime, Daniel needs his car fixed and turns to an amateur mechanic who live just outside of their idyllic small town. Mr. Kember (Ed Lauter) is a jerk but he works on cars cheap. He has a dog named Cujo who we’ve already met. The opening of the film sets the tension early on as we watch Cujo get infected with rabies. Cujo chases a rabbit into a hole and while he is barking at the rabbit, he awakes bats also hiding in the hole and is bitten.
From there, the tension comes from when Cujo will turn, frothing and feral and ready to build a body count. Director Lewis Teague is very patient in how he deploys Cujo. We see the dog early in a scene where he’s introduced to Tad and his family and before he’s gone fully rabid. The scene is tense and Teague lays in the suspense with a shot of the bloody bite on Cujo’s nose. It’s 45 minutes, nearly half way through the movie before Cujo goes full Cujo.
Director Teague cleverly uses the dogs eye point of view to create tension in scenes. When Dee and Tad arrive at the Camber farm to get Dee’s car fixed, we know only Cujo is home at this point but Dee doesn’t When the scene shifts to Cujo’s point of view from the barn he’s resting in, waiting for victims, the tension builds quickly and when he burst forth it’s nearly impossible not to gasp as Dee scrambles back into her shambling Pinto.
From there it is a series of tense scenes, a little bit of overacting from all involved, and some smartly played suspense over how Dee and Tad are going to survive this bizarre situation. I can’t speak to how much of the movie version of Cujo hues to what Stephen King wrote in his book but I can imagine that he mined the tension of this stand-off in a similar fashion. This is a classically Stephen King sort of set-up with average people in not so average peril.
Cujo isn’t an all time great film. Early on, the family drama is rather weak sauce. I understand the necessity of setting up the family dynamic and tension as it will be paid off at the end but the family stuff is clumsy and the film could have done a better job of tying this portion thematically to what Cujo is doing. The stuff about Daniel’s job as an ad executive is almost egregiously uninteresting.
That said, the tension surrounding Cujo the character is top notch, legitimately terrifying. I don’t know what an actual rabid dog is like but the rabid Cujo is a spectacularly gory horror show. Dripping with blood and other bodily fluid and covered in dirt and guts, Cujo is the dog body horror at its most horrific. Whoever dressed this dog did a magnificent job of making him legitimately terrifying.
I don’t want to think about what it may have taken to get Cujo to bark as he does but I hope that trickery and movie magic made him look so scary. The alternative is that the dog was made to do horrible things and that would make me hate this movie. For now anyway, I certainly don’t hate Cujo. The film is a remarkably good bit of B-Movie terror. The dog is scary, the way the dog is filmed is suspenseful and amps up the jump scares. It’s far from perfect, but for a drive in monster movie, Cujo is top-notch.
Zen Dog stars Kyle Gallner from Shameless as Reed, a boring man stuck in a routine. He has a unique job attempting to create virtual reality tours of cities he’s never been to. Reed’s life is upended when his friend Dwayne (Adam Herschman) comes to stay. Dwayne interrupts all of Reed’s well crafted routine, messes up his apartment and generally throws Reed’s life into a general chaos.
One night Dwayne sees Reed having a nightmare, something that Reed admits is a regular occurance. Dwayne claims to have a solution to Reed’s problem, lucid dreaming. Using a special kind of tea that he curiously refuses to reveal the origins of, Dwayne claims that Reed can control his dreams and get away from his recurring nightmare. Reed is dubious of Dwayne’s claims but tries the drink anyway.
In Reed’s dream, his name is Mud and he’s just quit a job where someone has just taken their life. The revelation sets Mud on a cross country odyssey from Los Angeles to New York City with a bizarre stop in Las Vegas and a fortuitous stop in Denver, Colorado. It is in Denver where Mud meets Maya (Celia Diane), a beautiful French woman with nowhere to go after breaking up with her boyfriend. Maya agrees to join Mud for a day which becomes a week and then a full romantic road trip.
Zen Dog can be confounding if you allow it to be but if you hang in there and get on the film’s unique vibe you will be rewarded. First time writer-director Rick Darge is a cinematographer turned director and his remarkable visual style carried me past my reservations about confusing story threads, including one about a character played by Clea Duvall that goes absolutely nowhere. The style of Zen Dog, the unique use of color saturation and the clever production design and costume pushed me passed my reservations or confusion.
Zen Dog is a beautiful, meditative art piece featuring a lead performance by Kyle Gallner that is warm and inviting. Gallner’s unusual face is a great asset to his work here as he sleepiness, his heavy lidded eyes are a lovely way of delineating Reed from the much more lively, smiling and charismatic Mud, even as they are apparently the same person. Gallner’s face is so different yet the same from Reed to Mud that, much like the lively visual style of the film, it helps get you into both stories being told.
There is a legitimately Terence Malick quality to Zen Dog. It’s not nearly as polished or confident as a Malick film like Tree of Life or To the Wonder but the crisp visuals and the exploration of the psyche is similar. Like Malick, Darge likes to use changes in color as a visual shorthand for a memory or a dream. The desaturated look of Reed’s apartment and brightly colored Volkswagon that Mud drives are each lovely in their own way and help differentiate where we are in each story. It’s a lovely way to visually cue a story.
Celia Diane is wonderfully cast a manic pixie dream girl. Diane’s face and manner have a lovely dream-like quality in the way she moves like a dancer, so effortlessly. Her French-ness is part of the fantasy, especially if you’re a movie fan. There is a 60’s quality to Mud’s journey, from his uniquely styled jacket, covered with 60’s art to his VW’s psychedelic paint job. If you’re a cinema snob of the 60’s then all you wanted in the world was a road trip with a beautiful French out of a Godard fantasy. That’s Celia Diane.
I am reading way more into Zen Dog than most maybe, probably because this kind of movie is right up my alley. In reality, Zen Dog is not a movie for all audiences. If you desperately need a linear story with a conventional plot, Zen Dog is not for you. If you are impatient, Zen Dog is not a movie for you. If you are not someone who gets swept up in beautiful visuals, Zen Dog is not for you. If however, you have a love for great cinematography, costumes and the romance of cinema, Zen Dog is exactly the kind of movie you’ve been looking for.
Zen Dog is available now to rent via most Video On-Demand or Streaming Services and is on Blu Ray in some stores.
Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom picks up the action of Jurassic World not long after the action of the first film in the reboot franchise. Here we find Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire now working as as a dinosaur advocate. Claire is lobbying the government to mount a mission to Isla Nublar, former home of the Jurassic World theme park, to rescue the dinosaurs who are threatened with extinction due to an active volcano on the island.
When the government declines the effort, on the advice of none other than Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jeff Goldblum’s character from the original Jurassic Park, Claire is forced to accept the help of secretive billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (Jame Cromwell) and his associate Eli Mills (Rafe Spall). Lockwood was a partner of the original park owner, Dr. Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough from the original Jurassic Park), before he dropped out of the project following the death of his daughter.
Lockwood and Mills will bankroll a secret expedition to save as many dinosaurs as they can but only if Claire can convince her old flame Owen (Chris Pratt) to come with her. Owen is the only person on the planet who can likely convince Blue the Raptor to remain calm enough to be captured and taken off the island. Once he agrees, the expedition is all set but of course, there is a secret agenda at play and once the dinosaurs are secured, plans get underway to bring them to Lockwood’s estate and not the island sanctuary that Claire was promised.
Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom was directed by J.A Bayona who took the reigns of the franchise from Colin Trevorrow. Trevorrow had left the project behind after he’d been hired to direct the final film in the Star Wars franchise, a film he was famously fired from. Trevorrow remains on this project however as one of the screenwriters alongside Kong Skull Island screenwriter Derek Connolly. Bayona brings a unique, childlike sensibility to Fallen Kingdom that makes the film scary yet still family friendly.
Bayona was the director of the wonderful 2016 family adventure A Monster Calls and that experience appears to have influenced the making of Jurassic Park Fallen Kingdom. The film features a subplot involving a the granddaughter of Benjamin Lockwood, Maisey played by newcomer Isabella Sermon. This subplot brings a child’s perspective to the film similar to the perspective in the original which featured a pair of kids in peril.
There is a warmth to the production design of Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom that was lacking in the original. This is owed to the main setting of the film, an elaborate mansion filled that becomes filled with dinosaurs as the film progresses. Despite the chilling scenes of suspense and terror with characters running for their lives, the mansion is actually rather inviting, like a library or a museum but filled with real dinosaurs.
The strong production design of Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom extends to the special effects which are top notch. The dinosaurs remain an extraordinary sight and the ways in which the effects interact with the human characters are as remarkable today as they were in 1993 when Steven Speilberg made us believe that dinosaurs had roared back to life in Jurassic Park. The effects and design go along way to make up for a tepid script and lacking characters.
I remain a fan of Chris Pratt but boy does he need to change up his style soon. His Owen is barely a step away from his Star Lord character from Guardians of the Galaxy. Owen is perhaps a tad more muscled up and slightly more mature but the wisecracks and tough guy posturing remain Pratt’s prominent acting tics. Howard meanwhile, has moments when she breaks out of damsel in distress mode but it’s a mostly one note performance undermined by a script that doesn’t seem to know what to do with her.
The human villains are the weakest part of Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom. Rafe Spall’s weasley assistant and Toby Jones rat-like underground arms dealer the ostensible villains but they never prove necessary beyond providing a reason to get the dinosaurs to the mansion. They lack personality and their ambitions appear silly. The notion that gangsters and arms dealers are paying millions to buy dinosaurs never registers as realistic and the supposed buyers are mere caricatures of villains from other movies.
The best villain in the film is the one that doesn’t have an agenda or a scheme. The Indo-Raptor is a remarkable creation, combining the DNA of a T-Rex and a Raptor. The bad guys were hoping to create a hunting, killing dinosaur that could be controlled and used as a weapon. But, when the Indo-Raptor gets loose, there is no controlling it and it’s rampage provides the best parts of Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom.
I don’t love Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom but by the lowered standard of brainless summer blockbuster, it’s not bad. Turn off your brain and enjoy the remarkable dinosaur CGI and you will have fun with this movie. It may not be great art but it’s fun enough for me to say take the kids and have a good time. Keep in mind, Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom is rated PG-13 and the violence can be scary for young kids, especially the Indo-Raptor is a potential figure for children’s nightmares but as long as you prepare them and hold their hands, kids 8 and up should have a good time here.
Today the name Allan Carr is not a name that rings many bells but in the 1970’s, he was one of the most famous Hollywood movie producers in the world. Known for his lavish movie premieres, Carr was a fixture on talk shows such as Merv Griffin where his flamboyant personality was as notable and entertaining as many of the movies he was supposedly on hand to promote.
The new documentary The Fabulous Allan Carr brings the famed producer back for another look at his unique legacy. Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1937, Allan Carr was always a little different from the other kids. From an early age he was fascinated by fashion and was friends with all of the girls and yes, these are the cliched traits of many gay men of Allan Carr’s time but nevertheless true as shown in the documentary.
With his lively personality Allan took to the High School theater crowd and found his first love in show business. With the help of his parents he rehabbed a Chicago Theater and booked shows with Hollywood legend Bette Davis, far from her heyday as an Academy Award winner but still a big name who, until Carr came along, was touring High School gymnasiums and small dinner theater outlets. Carr put Davis back on the stage and got his first hit.
From there, Carr parlayed a job booking talent for Hugh Hefner’s Chicago set television series, “Playboy Tonight” into a career in Hollywood. He began as an agent for big name clients like Ann Margaret who credits Carr saving her career by taking her to Las Vegas and helping create a lavish stage show that turned into one of the highest grossing acts in the history of sin city. Carr also produced Ann Margaret TV specials but it was on the big screen where Carr found his biggest success.
In 1978 Carr teamed with music mogul Robert Stigwood to create Grease. Based off a popular Broadway musical, Grease became a monster hit and propelled Allan Carr to the talk show circuit and fame well beyond that of many Hollywood producers. The Fabulous Allan Carr has wonderful interviews with Carr’s closest friends talking about the success of Grease and how it transformed Carr’s life.
If there is anything lacking from The Fabulous Allan Carr it is interviews with the stars that Carr worked with in his fabulous career. Despite his work on Grease we don’t here from John Travolta or Olivia Newton John. There is an interview with one of The Village People who Carr worked with on the flop musical Can’t Stop the Music but no Steve Guttenberg or Katelyn Jenner, though Valerie Perrine does show up.
Then there is the most interesting flop of Carr’s career, the 61st Academy Awards. Carr was hired to produce the Academy Awards and wound up producing what is remembered as one of the biggest disasters in Oscars history. Carr was the man who came up with the idea of having Snow White sing Proud Mary with Rob Lowe in a disastrous opening musical number that cost millions of dollars and lasted more than 20 minutes to open the show.
The documentary hints that perhaps this number wasn’t all that bad and that Carr’s vision for the Oscars was something that had been maligned by history but the filmmakers do little to back up that assertion. Instead, the makers of The Fabulous Allan Carr dedicate several minutes to telling us that it was Carr who first had presenters use the phrase “And the Oscar Goes to…”, a notable anecdote but not exactly enough to make us forget Proud Mary.
Overall, The Fabulous Allan Carr is an interesting documentary for anyone who loves a slice of behind the scenes Hollywood. It’s worth checking out on-demand where it is available for rent from Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play services.
The Catcher Was a Spy stars Paul Rudd as Morris ‘Moe’ Berg, a former major league baseball catcher turned international spy. Berg played 15 years with the Boston Red Sox before retiring at the end of 1938. By 1941 Berg, known as Professor Berg among his teammates, a graduate of Princeton University, sought and received a position at the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.
Rudd plays Berg as a man of many secrets and discretion. An early scene finds Berg going to a bar, thought by many as a haven for gay men. When he’s followed there by a suspicious teammate, Berg turns to violence to try to cover his tracks. Later, on a baseball tour of Japan next to luminaries such as Babe Ruth, Berg took the initiative to dress in Japanese garb and covertly film footage of a Japanese naval yard. He then parlayed the footage into his position with the OSS.
Sienna Miller co-stars in The Catcher Was a Spy as Estelle, Berg’s girlfriend. The relationship is fraught by Berg’s unwillingness to commit to Estelle, his desire not to have children and Estelle’s seeming awareness of Berg’s proclivities. A side mistress is less aware leading to an argument that illustrated Berg’s commitment to being discrete, even if it means losing someone he appears to care about.
Once Berg moves toward becoming a spy we meet his new OSS boss, played by Jeff Daniels. Daniels’ blunt, blustering military man turned spy is impressed by Berg’s initiative and ambition though wary of the secrets he keeps from the secret keepers. Nevertheless, it’s the OSS chief who assigns Berg to go to Italy and eventually on to Sweden to investigate how close Germany may be to having an atomic bomb.
Along on the mission in Italy, where he faces down enemy fire from fleeing German soldiers, are an army Colonel played by Guy Pearce and a physicist played by Paul Giamatti. Their target is the well known German Physicist Werner Heisenberg, played by Mark Strong. Heisenberg was one of the few scientists who chose to stay in Germany after the Nazi take over and was appointed head of the German effort to make a bomb.
The question is, is he helping or hurting the German cause? The Catcher is a Spy is ingenious and exciting in laying out Moe Berg’s mission and what is at stake. Having been a major league baseball player turned spy, Moe has never had to kill a man and much tension and drama is built around whether he could, if called upon, kill Heisenberg to keep him from building the atomic bomb.
History tells us how that played out but if you, like me, aren’t fully aware how this turned out, it’s an exciting and exceptionally well told story. The Catcher Was a Spy was directed by Ben Lewin, a Polish director best known for his 2012 feature The Sessions starring Helen Hunt, a film that earned high praise for Hunt who was thought to be a possible Oscar contender. Hunt played a sex therapist working with a handicapped man played by John Hawkes in an equally lauded performance.
Similar acclaim could be coming for Paul Rudd who brilliantly plays Moe Berg. Rudd, known for his work as Ant-Man and as the comic foil of director Judd Apatow in several films, plays Berg very low key, almost unknowable. It’s a complex character to play, a man so insular, who kept his own council, with few broad strokes in his personality. Rudd finds smart beats to play, especially employing Berg’s talent for languages which Rudd and the story use late in the film as part of the spy play. Listen for his intentional lack of accent in an important scene, subtle but ingenious.
The Catcher Was a Spy will be a treat for anyone who loves an old school spy movie, one without the trappings of a James Bond or Jason Bourne. The film played as part of a new series of Independent Films at the Putnam Museum. The Putnam is partnering with the New York Film Critics Series to show 10 independent features unlikely to play at local multiplexes. The next feature for the month of July is yet to be announced.
You can keep an eye out for The Catcher is a Spy on on-demand services such as Amazon Prime over the next few months.
Yesterday I wrote about Gordon Parks’ seminal 1972 film Superfly, a landmark of film and culture. Superfly 1972 influenced fashion and music that came after it and while it was never intended to glorify the lifestyle of drug dealer Priest Youngblood, the unintended consequence of the film was that Priest became an exemplar of an idea that had little to do with the film or the character and the message of the film was transformed from an observation of a character to a pop culture caricature.
That caricature gets a new coat of paint in the new Superfly from music video director, X. The new Superfly has some of the themes of the original Superfly and some of the style but it lacks the central thesis of Parks’ work which was dispassionate, observation of a character and not a movie that created heroes or villains or told a conventional story with conventional morality in play. The new Superfly has an interest in glorifying Priest Youngblood and in doing so, it misses the essence of the original.
Trevor Jackson, best known for his work on the series Grownish, stars here as Youngblood Priest, a reversal on the name of Ron O’Neal’s O.G Priest Youngblood. This Priest is a flashy, stylish but clever drug dealer whose approach to business is stealthy. Priest lives the high life with high fashion, money and cars but carefully avoids killing and the kind of profile that attracts the attention of the police.
Through his mentor Scatter (Michael K. Williams), and with his partner Eddie (Jason Mitchell), Priest has a comfortable existence hidden behind a wall of respectable businesses, including an art gallery run by his girlfriend, Georgia (Lex Scott Davis). Priest and Georgia also have a girlfriend named Cynthia (Andrea Londo), another spin on the polyamory of the original Superfly Priest who had two women as well though he kept them separated.
The plot of Superfly 2018 kicks in when Priest decides to go around Scatter and connect directly with Scatter’s supplier, a drug cartel headed up by Adelberto Gonzalez (Esai Morales). Priest believes he can move more product than what Scatter is giving him and he seeks a new partnership. Secretly, Priest’s plan is to turn a few million dollars into multiple millions of dollars and retire from the game altogether. However, with the cartel involved and a dirty cop played by former House star Jennifer Morrison getting involved, Priest’s retirement could be perilous.
Many of the story beats are the same as the beats in the original Superfly, but the 2018 model lacks the urgency and kinetic energy of the original. Superfly 2018 adds an unnecessary subplot involving a rival gang called Snow Patrol who dress all in white and like to make it rain at strip clubs. One member of Snow Patrol is jealous of Priest and through a series of accidents and misunderstandings an all out war begins to unfold.
This subplot is not needed and seems to exist solely for the aesthetic and the costumes. Snow Patrol is unique and stylish but they add little to the story and nothing that could not have been added either by the cartel characters, a more interesting addition to this story or the corrupt cops who provided the bad guys of the original film. That plot was knotty and scary and far more interesting in Parks’ take than anything in this Superfly.
The new Superfly truly goes wrong with its ending which seems to treat Priest as a hero rather than a real life character. Again, the thrust of the original Superfly was not making Priest a legend or a hero but to examine the life of a man like Priest, warts and all. Superfly 2018 takes the easy way out by trying to pretend Priest wasn’t such a bad guy and asking us to root for his escape. This approach is far closer glamorizing the life of a kingpin than anything in the original in which Priest narrowly escapes with his life and money and may not have escaped entirely.
The original remains iconic, unique and influential. The new model is merely stylish and less accomplished. Superfly 2018 is not at all a bad movie, it’s sexy and well crafted aside from a couple of bad special effects scenes and some genuinely awful green screen. X is a director with good energy and the film has a strong, aesthetic which includes modern fashion with nods to the garishness of the original. This version however, won’t stand the test of time as the original which has earned a place in pop culture legend.
With a newly modernized take on Gordon Parks’ provocative 1972 movie Superfly having arrived in theaters this past weekend, I took the opportunity to look back on Parks’ original film and came away shocked and very impressed. While the film’s low budget keeps it from rising to the level of great cinema, the pieces are in place, and Parks’ incredible direction stands out more today than it did when the film was written off as a low budget drive in movie in 1972.
Superfly may seem like a silly movie on the surface. It’s easy to dismiss Gordon Parks’ 1972 action drama about a drug dealer trying to escape the criminal life with one last big score as just a Blaxsploitation movie, or a low budget, b-movie. People underestimated and discounted Gordon Parks throughout his brief career and often without giving his low budget movies the kind of chance that did go to bigger budget movies with white directors and white lead actors.
What was missed by dismissing Parks and his low budget, indie aesthetic was the authenticity and earnest quality of his work. Parks was unfairly and incorrectly accused of glorifying criminal life and making drug dealing look like a lifestyle worth pursuing. In reality, Superfly is a character piece about a criminal that carries an air of detachment about crime, similar to the approach taken by big budget movies like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Obviously, Superfly is not as rich or epic as The Godfather but both movies are about charismatic criminals, one just happens to be high toned and big budget while the other is gritty and low budget.
Superfly stars Ron O’Neal as drug dealer Priest Youngblood. Priest has grown into a successful cocaine dealer through the liberal use of violence and a stake from his mentor, Scatter (Julius W. Harris). With his partner, Eddie (Carl Lee), he’s managed to gather $300,000 which is just enough to trade for more cocaine, high quality product that they can then sell with the aim of making a cool million dollars, split 50/50.
The key to the scheme is getting the now retired Scatter to put them in touch with The Man. Unfortunately, what Priest and Eddie don’t know, ‘The Man’ happens to be a cop named Reardon and once you are in business with The Man, you are in business for good, or you go to jail. This puts Priest in a tough spot: work with The Man and risk getting arrested when he tries to get out of the game or walk away with nothing.
Ron O’Neal’s tough guy posturing is electric. O’Neal’s eyes are brilliantly convincing, his wheels are always turning and there always seems to be a whole other story going on behind those eyes. O’Neal oozes charisma and charm and this is likely what people who reacted negatively to Superfly were thinking when they came to believe the movie was a glorification of drug dealing. O’Neal’s off the charts charisma is mistaken as Parks’ glamour.
O’Neal’s Priest as a character indicates that he doesn’t think drug dealing is cool, it’s merely a means to an end. Racism pushed many black men of Priest’s age, and especially of his ambition, into the world of crime because they believed that legitimate avenues were not open to them because of race. It’s not a justification, it’s a character trait, not unlike the way members of the Corleone family believed that crime was the only avenue for an Italian in their corner of New York City.
Superfly is outsized and over the top in how it portrays Priest but it is not to a comic degree. Gordon Parks was in touch with the style and fashion of the streets of New York City and at times his Superfly feels like as much a fashion shoot as a movie. The fashion of Superfly influenced fashion among black culture in New York City for years but it was the drug dealers of New York that inspired Parks who then captured the zeitgeist.
You can argue whether you find it acceptable that Parks glorified the style of the street dealers and kingpins of New York City, but it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t authentic and that authenticity was Parks’ goal, not celebrating drug dealing. Portraying a drug dealer authentically, the high fashion and the low crime is no different and no less provocative than what Francis Ford Coppola did for Italian gangsters in The Godfather or what William Friedkin did for dirty cops in The French Connection.
The big difference between Superfly and those two Academy Award winners is a much lower budget and the lesser talented performers that come from that lower budget aesthetic. Parks’s style, the gritty cinematography, the authentic production design, are top notch given the restrictions that Parks was working under in terms of budget. The camera work is lively, the editing keeps the pace humming throughout and the script by Phillip Fenty is lively, colorful and clever.
Is Priest a sympathetic character? Yes and no, he’s a complicated character. Gordon Parks shows us everything about Priest, his dark and dangerous side and the frightened side that longs for a life away from drugs and criminality, the kind of life he believes only white people get to have. That’s the harsh undercurrent of Superfly, the one polarized audiences and critics in 1972, the presentation of Priest as neither hero or villain but as a character who believed, right or wrong, that his race drove him to be a criminal.
Parks’ provocative approach came from not judging Priest but observing him. Audiences prefer the simplicity of taking sides, of clear cut right and wrong and Priest was a criminal battling other criminals, battling corruption among people in power and using his wits to build his escape. The ending of Superfly is a thrilling bit of misdirection that Parks lays in beautifully without tipping his hand before the big reveal at the end that may make Priest seem heroic but is much more subversive and murky than a happy ending.
A new version of Superfly hit theaters nationwide this past weekend and I will have a review of the new Superfly on Tuesday here at RegionalDailyNews.com.
Is Tag juvenile? Of course, the comedy featuring an all star cast playing an extreme version of the schoolyard classic game will inspire a number of think pieces about growth stunted man-boys and their unwillingness to grow up. This however, misses the genuine and very sweet, and very funny point of Tag. Based on a true story, Tag is an ode to friendship and how the friends we make as children remain special whether we stay in touch or not.
Tag stars Ed Helms as Hoagie, a veterinarian with a thriving practice, a loving and supportive wife, played by Isla Fisher and even kids that we don't meet in the movie. However, for one month of each year, all of Hoagie's grown up responsibilities go out the window. In the month of May, Hoagie plays an unending game of Tag with his group of childhood friends including Callahan (Jon Hamm), Chili (Jake Johnson), Sable (Hannibal Burress) and the best of the best Tag champion, Jerry (Jeremy Renner).
In the near 30 years that these friends have played Tag, Jerry has never been tagged and now, he's decided to retire, un-tagged. This sends Hoagie and the rest of gang on a desperate quest to get Jerry before the end of the month and his retirement. How far is Jerry willing to go to keep his streak alive and make things interesting? He's scheduled his wedding on May 31st and specifically did not invite his four closest friends.
Naturally, Hoagie finds out about the wedding and notes it as the perfect time to tag Jerry. However, these guys are actually Jerry's friend and don't want to ruin the big day, thus allowing for rules to be in place specifically to cater to the feelings of Jerry's new bride, Susan (Leslie Bibb), who may or may not be in on Jerry's scheme to remain un-tagged. Along for the ride is a Wall Street Journal reporter, Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis) who drops her story on Callahan as the CEO of a major company in favor of this story about this epic game.
Tag is the first feature film for director Jeff Tomsic. Previously, Tomsic has made his career in television, directing comedy specials for people like T.J Miller and sitcoms such as TBS's underrated The Detour and Comedy Central's much loved Broad City. Tomsic doesn't yet have much visual invention in his work but it's solid and professional. The stand out moments are the big comic set pieces such as a forest chase where Jerry has an elaborate escape and a church set scene that once again finds Jerry out thinking his buddies.
As I was saying in the opening however, as juvenile as Tag unquestionably is, there is a good heart to it. The goal of these guys, characters who are based on a real group of friends in Oregon, is to remain friends and remain in touch, quite literally. Many of the set pieces in Tag are based on bizarre things these real guys have actually done including dressing in costumes and chasing one another on golf carts.
The point is that the childlike joy inspired by the game Tag keeps these life long friends from growing complacent. That's the thing about friendships from childhood, complacency and distance creeps in and while modern technology allows many ways for us to stay in touch, there is nothing better than a milestone moment of being in the same place at the same time to really remind you how important having friends is. Life can so easily get in the way, a game of Tag now and then, or your friendship equivalent, may be just the thing an adult needs to get by.
Why don't I love The Incredibles? I have been racking my brain trying to come up with reasons why I have fallen out of love with the Pixar franchise and there really are too many little issues with the story, characters and lack of laughs for me to narrow it down. After sitting through nearly 4 hours of an Incredibles 1 and Incredibles 2 double feature I walked out baffled that the magic I felt back in 2004 was missing.
The Incredibles 2 picks up the story of the Parr family led by Bob Parr AKA Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Helen Parr AKA Elastigirl and including their three children, oldest daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), middle child Dash (Huck Milner) and baby Jack Jack (Eli Fucile). Like their parents, the kids have superpowers as well with Violet possessing invisibility and able to create force fields and Dash having super speed.
And then there is Jack Jack whose powers only came out at the end of the first Incredibles movie and only when mom and dad couldn't see them. In Incredibles 2 a significant subplot is dedicated to Jack Jack's developing more than half a dozen superpowers, none of which he can seem to control and some of them incredibly dangerous. Jack Jack's powers are the bright light of this otherwise drab outing.
The main story of Incredibles 2 centers on Helen taking a job as a superhero and leaving Bob at home to care for the kids. The CEO of a major corporation, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) has dedicate some of his vast fortune to helping bring superheroes out of hiding. If you remember the original film, Supers were driven underground following a series of catastrophes and lawsuits. Deavor wants to use Elastigirl to show the world it still needs superheroes.
Helen immediately finds a nemesis in The Screenslaver, a villain who uses screens to hypnotize people into doing his bidding. Using her smarts Helen is able to make quick work of The Screenslaver but she wonders why it turned out to be so easy, considering how brilliant the villain had seemed as he was executing his plan for world domination. The answer is rather unsurprising, I had the villain guessed rather quickly and had to hope that the movie would find a clever subversion of expectations. Sadly, that never comes.
There is nothing all that remarkable about the story being told in Incredibles 2. Where most other Pixar movies have invention and humor on their side, The Incredibles relies on vague allusions to deep issues intended to flatter the audience for recognizing them. This is however, only puddle deep philosophizing. The makers of Incredibles 2 claim to have something to say about gender roles as they put Helen in the workforce and Bob at home but there isn't much beyond that presentation of the idea.
Helen is a terrific hero, smart and tough and a great role model of how a woman can be both a world class superhero and a great mom. This isn't exactly new ground that we are covering here, The Incredibles 2 is set in a vague early to mid 60's aesthetics and is deeply rooted in the aged politics of the time which seem quaint in today's environment. The Incredibles 2 director Brad Bird brings nothing new to this and the lack of depth in the characters is exposed by how simple the empowerment message is.
Yes, it's a movie for kids, I can hear and I am well aware of what The Incredibles 1 & 2 are. Toy Story is also a movie for kids and yet the makers of that film franchise still find deep and meaningful messages about family and aging and acceptance that go beyond the surface while maintaining a story simple enough for kids to follow. The Toy Story movies are also wildly funny on top of the deep themes, something that neither of The Incredibles movies are.
There is a distinct lack of laughs in The Incredibles 1 & 2. In fact, Incredibles 1 is downright disturbing at times in its lack of a sense of humor. A running bit about the dangers of capes features multiple deaths of superheroes and eventually the death of the film's lead villain. Then there is the Gazerblade scene wherein our hero hides behind the rotting corpse of a former friend to escape detection by a high tech hunting gadget. Incredibles 2 doesn't have anything that rivals those dark moments but it's not much brighter in tone either.
Watching this double feature of The Incredibles I was taken aback by the lack of fun. There is a dourness that hangs over these films, an oppressiveness that edges into the movie in the subplot about superheroes forced into hiding. The stories nod toward Ayn Rand of all people in blatant talking points about how super people have to sublimate themselves to make average people feel better about themselves.
In The Incredibles 1 the super villain, Syndrome (Jason Lee), wants to give everyone high powered gadgets so that everyone can be super and thus no one can be super. The Incredibles 2 turns Winston Deavor into a John Galt like figure who aims to create a utopia where superheroes can once again take their rightful place in society, out of the shadows. I'm not here to argue Randian philosophy, I'm just expressing how off-putting it is to endure such mediocre philosophy during what should be a fun adventure.
In The Incredibles 2 there is an attempt to hypnotize supers and use them for villainy. Some have pointed out that this is akin to the government using the best and the brightest to further the agenda of the mediocre. I'm not saying that was Brad Bird's intention but the film is so obvious in the Randian comparisons that I can see how people would arrive at the conspiracy theory. Here again, even if there is an agenda at play, there is no depth or commitment to it just as there is no commitment or depth to notions about gender roles.
The makers of The Incredibles 1 and 2 seem to want credit for depth without actually having to be deep. The defenders of these movies want to claim they are 'just kids movies' while still wanting to claim they have deeper themes. None of it works because neither The Incredibles or The Incredibles 2 commits to a specific idea of what the movie is supposed to be beyond a pastiche of superhero cliches dressed up with the talent of Pixar animation.
Then there is the villain, The Screenslaver. This is not a particularly compelling villain. I already mentioned how obvious the identity of the villain is and how the film fails to make the character or the plot all that interesting beyond the predictable reveal. What I haven't yet discussed is the very notion of The Screenslaver as a character. The character uses screens to hypnotize people. The movie is set in the 60's so the screen in question is the television screen, for the most part.
The obvious joke however is like a dad joke observation at its most lame. The Screenslaver is a puddle deep comment on our addiction to our screens, our phones, tablets and other such modern technology. Like the attempts at Randian philosophizing and gender role questions, this idea is underwritten and relies on surface level observations. Obsessing over screens is bad, put away your screens and spend time with your family and blah, blah, blah. Thankfully, this a mostly unformed idea and we don't spend much time on it but it's another failed attempt at a deeper theme, a hallmark of The Incredibles movies.
I have long been a Pixar apologist, one who has gone as far as defending the quality of The Cars franchise, which yes, I do believe is a better and much funnier series than The Incredibles. I have loved nearly everything Pixar has done and back in 2004, I was a big fan of The Incredibles. I had misgivings then but I brushed them aside to focus on how fun the movie was. It's less fun on a rewatch however as its flaws stand out more now that I am so familiar with it.
The Incredibles 2 underlines the flaws of the originals and piles on more even larger flaws. Brad Bird's baby is filled with underwhelming ideas and a lack of laughter. There is a distinct joylessness to The Incredibles 2. The filmmakers need to lighten up a bit and while scenes involving baby Jack Jack have a light funny feel, the rest of the movie is rather drab and obvious. Worst of all, the fun is undermined by the faint notions of depth, ideas dressed up as deeper themes but lacking actual depth.
Wonder is a real, well, wonder. Rarely do tear-jerkers work as well as what director Stephen Chbosky assembles here. Everything in Wonder seems set to be a clichéd way of sucking out tears. A child with a facial deformity, a pair of goodhearted parents, a sick dog, these are all elements that under the guidance of a lesser director, would be used to physically assault audiences in the search for tears. Stephen Chbosky is, quite thankfully, a terrific director and he employs these elements in the way a good director does.
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Is Hollywood finally being forced to grow up? On one hand, no, as the fact that Superhero movies still dominate our box office allows us all an escape hatch back to childish notions of good and evil. On the other hand however, a grown up conversation about race and racism has emerged as a significant narrative in Hollywood 2017 and it’s a conversation for grown-ups only. Get Out, Jordan Peele’s exceptional meta-horror movie, began the conversation with a spoonful of genre horror to help the medicine go down. Detroit, followed this past summer by serving up some recent true crime history.
Click here for my full length written review of Mudbound
Man on the Moon was one of my favorite movies of 1999. I had no idea what went into making the movie at the time I saw it in 1999. Had I been more aware of the tabloid crazy story that was going on behind the scenes I likely would have loved the movie even more. Jim Carrey has now detailed the making of Man on the Moon in a new Netflix documentary that debuts November 17th and it is a remarkable and fascinating insight into the mind of an artist.
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The problem with Justice League and the problem with the entirety of the DC cinematic universe is the vision of Zach Snyder. I realize that laying the blame for what many perceive as a significant failure on one person is a little unfair, but hear me out. I like the movies that Zach Snyder has made in this universe. I like Justice League but the fact of the matter, for me, is that these movies fail to transcend into being truly great movies because Zach Snyder isn’t a great director, just a pretty good one.
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I can’t feel bad for the makers of Daddy’s Home 2; the movie is too poorly made for me to feel bad for anyone involved, aside from the poor children who didn’t know any better. That said, there is part of me that sort of tilts my head to the side and thinks “awe, that’s a shame.” Daddy’s Home 2 has unfortunate timing, arriving as it does with its wildly awkward take on masculine identity, and with Mel Gibson in tow, Daddy’s Home 2 is like the guy who arrives at a party late, unaware that things have gotten awkward, and proceeds to make things even more cringeworthy through their ignorance.
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I’m torn on the movie Devil’s Whisper. One side of me finds the film stylish, well acted and some of its ideas daring. The other side of me, however, cannot abide yet another movie where a demon of dubious abilities opens doors, manipulates electricity, or other such nonsense via mind control or some sort of demonic form ESP. When will filmmakers tire of these moronic tropes? When will a movie that has some good ideas about how to couch evil in a horror form to discuss big issues? Devil’s Whisper approaches big ideas but can’t resist demonic silliness.
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Man on the Moon was one of my favorite movies of 1999. I had no idea what went into making the movie at the time I saw it in 1999. Had I been more aware of the tabloid crazy story that was going on behind the scenes I likely would have loved the movie even more. Jim Carrey has now detailed the making of Man on the Moon in a new Netflix documentary that debuts November 17th and it is a remarkable and fascinating insight into the mind of an artist.
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A Bad Moms Christmas is quite funny. The gags delivered by these very funny ladies work most of the time to great effect. So why don’t I love the movie? As much as I laughed at A Bad Mom’s Christmas, I was rolling my eyes during scenes that weren’t centered on off-color gags. For all the uproarious laughs brought on by the brilliant Kathryn Hahn, the non-gag scenes, the ones centered on moving forward the supposed plot of A Bad Moms Christmas, simply don’t hold up.
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Thor: Ragnorak is a heck of a lot of fun. Director Taika Waititi is the first director to fully tap the potential of the Thor character and star Chris Hemsworth. Though we’re aware from The Avengers’ movies that Hemsworth is a real talent, he’s not had a solo, leading man effort that has lived up to the outings of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man or Chris Evans as Captain America. Even Tom Holland had schooled Hemsworth by making his Spiderman: Homecoming this past summer one of the best reviewed and well-loved movies in the Marvel canon.
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Thank You for Your Service is a deeply respectful and respectable movie about veterans and PTSD. The film stars Miles Teller as Staff Sgt. Adam Schumann who is just returning from Iraq from a traumatic third tour of duty. Having been praised for his unique ability for locating roadside mines, Adam’s last experience in Iraq was seeing a friend shot in the head and him having dropped that friend as he carried him down the steps of a building under fire by terrorists.
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Matt Damon stars in Suburbicon as Gardner, a man in debt to the mob and desiring to get rid of his wheelchair bound wife, Rose (Julianne Moore) so that he can be with Rose’s twin sister Margaret (Julianne Moore). Caught in the middle of Gardner’s scheme is his son, Nicky (Noah Jupe). When after Gardner’s wife is murdered, Nicky goes along to the police lineup, he spies his father intentionally failing to identify the killers. Here is where the façade of his father’s life comes tumbling down.
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I am so bummed out by Jigsaw, the continuation of my favorite horror franchise, Saw. It’s not that Jigsaw is bad; much of it is actually pretty good: the scares are good, the gore is outstanding, the acting is top notch B-movie stuff, a staple of the franchise. No, what bums me out is that Jigsaw fails miserably in its attempt to tie back into the original franchise which seemed to definitively end with Saw 3D back in 2010. That film, to me, was a misunderstood piece of horror trash that wonderfully, darkly, and humorously commented on the films that came before. Jigsaw upends the premise of Saw 3D, and that hurts me to my franchise fan core.
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As part of a celebration of Halloween weekend, the Everyone is a Critic Movie Review podcast, which I co-host, will be doing a special bonus episode dedicated to the Saw franchise. We will discuss in-depth each of the Saw movies including the brand new Jigsaw, which opens Halloween weekend in theaters nationwide. With that in mind, I am also writing about each of the Saw movies for Horror.Media. Spoiler alert, I am a huge fan of all seven of the previous Saw movies and I am very much looking forward to the debut of Jigsaw. You can get our Saw Bonus episode and every episode of the Everyone is a Critic Movie Review Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or anywhere podcasts are available.
One of the toughest jobs for a screenwriter is finding a unique premise. It seems that everything has been done. Many aspiring screenwriters have had that frustrating moment of having written 10 pages and then realizing everything you wrote sounds exactly like something you just saw, or remember seeing. Who knows how many times that happened to writer Leigh Whannell, but he got over it and found a very unique premise for his film debut Saw.
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In what was thought to be the final installment of the Saw films all seemed to finally come clear to me about this oddly brilliant horror franchise. The murderous Jigsaw, played by Tobin Bell, is the vengeful Old Testament God and his victims are the sinners being delivered through anguish and deciding whether they will repent and live on or die horribly. Biblical scholars can take issue if they like. It’s a loose metaphor but it fits.
Click here for the full length written review of Saw 3D.
Only The Brave is based on a harrowing true story. In 2013 the Granite Mountain Hotshots wildfire fighting team was sent to Yarnell Hill in Arizona to battle a wildfire. When the weather turned and the wind kicked up the flames in a new direction, 19 members of the Hot Shots team was caught behind the fire line. All 19 were killed despite their use of flame retardant covers which proved ineffective for this raging blaze.Click the poster for the full length written review.
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I have a genuine pity for the faith-based audience. Few audiences are as underserved as the faithful. And few audiences are as exploited as the faith based filmgoer. The people at Pure Flix have made their fortune exploiting this audience by serving them half-baked, poorly made movies that pander to their faith without serving it. Pure Flix has little interest in the quality of their work and exist solely to make a buck. Just look at the awful roster of Pure Flix movies and you will find it difficult to argue my point. Click the Poster for the Full Length Written Review.
What is there to be said about Tyler Perry's Boo 2! A Madea Halloween? You already know it’s not any good. We all know that Tyler Perry doesn’t give a damn about the quality of his work. It’s completely critic-proof. I am epically wasting my time writing a review of this, or really any of Perry’s work. And yet, I am somehow here to write a review of Tyler Perry's Boo 2! A Madea Halloween. It really makes me begin to question my profession. Not completely, lord knows I wouldn’t want to get a real job. Click here for the full length written review.
Before I formally go into my review of The Snowman, let me preface this review stating my respect for director Tomas Alfredson. In press interviews for The Snowman he is not sugar-coating the film’s problems. He’s been up front about the abrupt production time in Norway, the lack of a finished script and the reshoots that nevertheless failed to find the missing pieces of what is one truly jacked up puzzle of a movie. Click the poster for the full length written review.
It seems that I am not a big fan of the work of actor Pierce Brosnan. It’s not that I have an active dislike for the man, but rather, in looking at my cumulative opinion of his work over his 35-plus year career, I have only given Brosnan two positive reviews. Grant you, I have only been a critic for 20 years, but Brosnan was on TV for most of the time before I came into my profession. He had arguably his biggest successes in the James Bond franchise during my time as a critic. Then again, I don’t have a particularly high opinion of that franchise, either.
Click the poster for the full length written review of The Foreigner...
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women stars Luke Evans as Professor William Moulton Marston, the man who created the Wonder Woman comic book. Marston was an academic who studied and taught psychology before he somehow found himself creating a comic book as a way to sneak his psychological theories into mainstream thought. The character of Wonder Woman was created, according to the movie, as a composite of the two women in Marston’s life, his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and Olive (Bella Heathcote) their lover.
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Marshall stars rising superstar Chadwick Boseman in the role of legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Set years before Marshall rose to be one of the most respected judges in the country, at a time when black people were still fighting for civil rights, Marshall is a terrific introduction to the man. Boseman, future star of Marvel’s Black Panther, demonstrates the supreme intelligence and charisma that Marshall no doubt possessed as he came up through the ranks of the NAACP to become a leader.
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Happy Death Day is one of the best surprises of 2017. This seemingly throwaway teen slasher flick turns out to be a sneaky black comedy version of Groundhog Day if Bill Murray were being murdered every day. The film was directed by Christopher Lambert whose résumé is riddled with mediocre screenplays for the Paranormal Activity franchise and whose first feature was the idiotic Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, which leaves me to wonder where he’s been hiding this version of his work?
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The Mountain Between Us is damn near comedy gold. This so bad it’s fun nonsense romance posits two attractive leads delivering silly dialogue and rote drama in the midst of hyper-circumstances. When Dr. Ben, played by Idris Elba, responds to his new friend Alex, played by Kate Winslet, saying that ‘the heart is just a muscle,’ try to control your gag reflex and for the sake of the few who might be able to process such schmaltz, stifle your giggles.
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Having seen the unique and oddly fascinating documentary Bronies a few years back, I have been trying to come to terms with the adult fans of My Little Pony. Is this simply large scale trolling or are these grown men for real in their pony based fandom? Oddly, I don’t feel like either of the Brony documentaries that have been released in the past couple of years have answered my question. I still don’t get what it is that grown men see in My Little Pony.
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“Sometimes, to love someone, you have to be a stranger.”
Out of context, the above line of dialogue from Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t seem so profound. But when it lands in the context of the story being told by director Denis Villeneuve, the line plays as remarkably poignant. I won’t spoil the context in this review. Indeed, I will venture to avoid any spoilers whatsoever. What I can tell you about Blade Runner 2049 is that it has all of the atmosphere of cool that the 1982, Ridley Scott-helmed original had but with even better characters and deeper meanings, and yes, genuinely poignant moments.
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I’ve spent a few days wrestling with why I don’t love the new, true life drama Battle of the Sexes from two of my favorite directors, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. The directors of the wonderful Little Miss Sunshine and the sublime Ruby Sparks have delivered a solid effort in Battle of the Sexes, but there is just something lacking. It’s not the performances either, as both Emma Stone and Steve Carell deliver standout takes on real life counterparts Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs. So just what’s wrong with Battle of the Sexes?
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When I first saw Logan, the latest spin-off of the X-Men franchise, I was not impressed. There was so much hype, so much discussion about how the R-Rating would finally allow Wolverine to be Wolverine. Then I saw the film and found it to be as conventional as any of the other X-Men movies with a little bit of gore tacked on for fan service. So what’s changed for me since March of this year? Why was watching Logan at home on a DVD screener from the studio so different from watching the film in theaters earlier this year?
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American Made stars Tom Cruise as Barry Seal, a real life character who was at the center of the drug, guns, and South American contras controversies of the late 70s and 80s. Barry was just an airline pilot for TWA until the CIA caught wind of his trafficking in Cuban cigars. Sensing that Barry has just the kind of moral flexibility that the CIA needs, Agent Shaffer (Domnhall Gleeson) recruits him to run reconnaissance missions in South America, spying on supposed communist outposts.
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Stronger stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman, a man who lost his legs to the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Before the marathon, Jeff was just an anonymous Costco employee who loved the Red Sox and wanted to reconcile with his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) who dumped him because he rarely showed up when he was supposed to. On April 15, 2013, Jeff finally showed up at the Boston Marathon in the hope that his homemade sign cheering Erin on to the finish line might win her back.
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Lego Ninjago has not one single laugh. It has amusing moments but not a single instance of induced laughter. And I am not just speaking for myself here. The audience I watched Lego Ninjago with was really ready to laugh and you could hear some forced attempts at trying to laugh but as the movie went on even those that kept smiling and trying to find what was happening in Lego Ninjago funny weren’t laughing. It was strange; there was no outward disdain for Lego Ninjago but there weren’t any laughs.
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Friend Request is yet another failed attempt to combine social media and horror. It really shouldn’t be that hard to combine the two when you consider the daily horrors that social media enacts upon us when we simply pick up our phones, but filmmakers have thus far made the combination look impossible. Social media has numerous innate existential horrors that could be exploited by a smart filmmaker but the question seems to come back to how you can exploit that for a body count and so far no one has been able to pull that off.
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Kingsman: The Secret Service was a not particularly inventive rehash of Mark Millar’s previously adapted work, Kick-Ass. The derivative spy take on the same tropes of the super-hero send-up bored me endlessly with its nihilistic approach to James Bond minus the strange wit of Kick-Ass, which shared not just creator Millar but also director Matthew Vaughn, who couldn’t help but seem to rip off his own work in a lazy rehash.
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The Princess Bride is one of the most rewatchable movies in history. This rich, robust, and homey comedy never ages and never falters. Rob Reiner’s direction, aside from a truly terrible film score, is unassailable in every comedy beat. Then there is the absolutely perfect casting. Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant, and each of the supporting players, from Chris Sarandon as the evil Prince, Christopher Guest as the evil six-fingered henchman, and Billy Crystal’s cameo as Miracle Max, could not be better.
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American Assassin stars Dylan O’Brien as Mitch Rapp, a normal college age kid who we meet while he is vacationing in Ibiza with his beautiful girlfriend. Just after she has accepted his marriage proposal, terrorists sweep over the beach, killing dozens of people in an all too plausible scenario that calls to mind the Paris nightclub attack. Among the dead is Mitch’s new fiancée while he is wounded in the leg and shoulder but narrowly survives.
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I can’t decide if Mother(!) is Darren Aronofsky’s way of pleasuring himself on screen or if it is a legitimate work of art simply out of the grasp of my pea brain. The film has some seemingly obvious metaphors but they are metaphors that are so blatant that your brain fights the idea that they could be so simple to untangle. At least we can all agree that Mother(!) is a pretentious as all get out work of an egotist artist who’s either far too oblique for his own good or a complete troll.
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Fatal Attraction stars Michael Douglas as a seemingly happy husband to Ann Archer and father to an adorable 6-year-old daughter. So why, if he’s so happy, does he decide to cheat on his wife? This questions comes to consume the mind of Alex (Glenn Close), the woman Douglas’ Dan decides to sleep with one night while his wife and daughter are away visiting family in the suburbs. Alex can’t understand why Dan would choose to sleep with her and then retreat back to his marriage.
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The Pick Up Artist is a bizarrely bad movie of the kind only James Toback seems capable of. This mess of a romantic comedy and a gangster movie attempts to be both conventional and unconventional. Toback’s thing has always been arthouse style talky existentialism with a healthy dose of New York. Watching him try to cram that unusual sensibility into a mainstream movie would be unwatchable were it not for Robert Downey Jr. and Molly Ringwald who, at the very least, remain likable even as they struggle against a director lost in his attempt to serve the commercial and the arty.
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The Wilde Wedding has the chance to be a pretty great movie but lacks the courage to pull it off. The film brings together the talents of Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Patrick Stewart for a wedding comedy and the charm factor would be off the charts except that writer-director Damian Harris can’t resist mucking up the works by having the younger cast too often crowd out the more interesting veterans. Click the picture for my full lenghth written review of The Wilde Wedding and watch for the movie on all streaming services this weekend if you're interested in seeing. It's also in some theaters nation wide.