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Movie Reviews

Movie Review Halloween (2018)

What is there to say about a sequel to a movie I spent 2000 words tearing down a day ago? Reaction to my review of Halloween (1978) has not surprisingly been negative. I would say Michael Myers is more beloved in Haddonfield, Illinois than I am among horror movie aficionados today, but I meant what I said, I don’t care for the faulty premises of John Carpenter’s supposed masterpiece.


Halloween 2018 does away with nearly all of what has come before it and after the 1978 original. In this timeline, Michael Myers, aka ‘The Shape,’ portrayed by James Jude Courtney has been locked away for 40 years and studied by Doctor Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) who carried on the work taken up by Dr Loomis (the late Donald Pleasance) years earlier after Loomis passed away. In that time, he’s learned almost nothing from Michael who does not speak. 


Meanwhile, Laurie Strode (Curtis) has spent the past 40 years readying herself for the day Michael escapes the asylum, something she feels is inevitable. The film layers in the backstory of Michael and Laurie with the lamest possible device, a true crime podcast dedicated to providing exposition for those who haven’t bothered to watch the first movie. The podcasters, played by Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees are merely cannon fodder for Michael’s eventual escape, a way of padding the body count while placing the film in a modern context. 


No surprise that Michael escapes while being transported from his current facility to a new, supposedly more secure facility. Whoever had the sense of humor to transfer Michael Myers on the day before the 40 anniversary of his famed massacre should probably be fired. Of course, we know that Michael is headed back to Haddonfield where he will search for Laurie Strode and her family on a path of revenge(?). Still upset about getting stabbed by Laurie, I assume. 


Is he there to kill Laurie though? How does he know that Laurie Strode is still around? Oh, there’s a twist that kind of explains this aspect but it’s rather lame and predictable. I will say however, Michael’s first kills upon arriving in Haddonfield carry a bit of a surprise and shock factor. Director David Gordon Green does a much better job of making Michael menacing as opposed to laughable. At no time does Michael pull his now I am here, now I am not schtick that I found so silly in the first movie. 


This version of Michael Myers has a purpose, he’s here to kill and while he is somewhat picky over who he decides to kill, the initial random murders have more tension and suspense than what is generated in the first movie, aside from the late third act where the original comes close to reaching the supposed classic status some have placed upon it. That’s not to say that the new Halloween comes any closer to being a classic, just that a few things about this version improve on the most obvious flaws of the original. 


Jamie Lee Curtis has, in press materials for Halloween 2018, made allusions to her Laurie Strode as a heroine for the #MeToo movement. I’m in no position to argue that point. Laurie is a woman who was stalked and nearly killed by a crazed maniac and the attack wrecked much of her life afterward, consuming her and her family and affecting the lives of two generations of Strode women after her, Laurie’s daughter, Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). 


The allegorical connection to #MeToo is strong even if we have to assume it from Jamie Lee Curtis’ interviews and not from anything in the actual movie. The movie itself doesn’t dwell much on the relationship of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode as anything other than hunter and the hunted. That, plus we still don’t actually no what drives Michael Myers as a killer. Carpenter’s allegorical notion was Michael Myers as a figure of urban menace invading small town America but that is also an assumed metaphor, as the movie is far too narrowly drawn for us to get that metaphor without Carpenter plainly stating it after the fact. 


The new Halloween lacks the focus of the first film. I may not think the original is a classic but Carpenter does have a narrative focus that this film lacks. There is some fat on this one, such as everything to do with Laurie’s granddaughter. We suffer scenes of her and a boyfriend who has nothing to do with the plot and a plot for two male teen characters who exist solely to pad the film’s body count. 


I mentioned the podcasters already and how clumsy and unnecessary they are. I will admit, their death scenes had a gruesome, fearsomeness that nearly redeems the way the film uses them as a cheap form of exposition. Green, much like Carpenter, has a solid instinct for these kill scenes where inevitability and timing coalesce to raise the dread level. Why Michael Myers felt the need to show-off with a set of busted teeth is weird but also par for the course in the bizarre portrayal of Michael Myers. At least he didn’t throw a bed sheet over himself like a wacky, psychotic prankster. 


Halloween 2018 still stinks about as much as the original but in slightly different ways. Where the first film irked me with continuity errors that ruined what little good there was in the final act and in Carpenter’s skillful direction, Halloween 2018 is disappointing for narrative shortcuts, like exposition podcast and narrative flab like the boyfriend subplot. Neither film gets around to making Michael Myers a believable character. He’s fearsome but he remains an obtuse figure whose motivation is nebulous at and negligible at worst. 


If the filmmakers don’t care why Michael Myers does what he does, then why should I care


Movie Review Halloween (1978)

Controversial opinion: I don’t think John Carpenter’s Halloween is a classic. I know, horror fans are clicking away from this review with a large groan but it’s how I feel, it’s not a classic. Director John Carpenter is a legitimate legend of the realm of horror but Halloween is too full of holes to be considered in the same arena as Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Nightmare on Elm Street, superior contemporaries of the genre. 


With another new take on the legend of Michael Myers now hitting the big screen I decided that reviewing Halloween and confronting the flaws of this giant of the genre was worth a full write up. I understand that this is not a widely held belief and that many will say that I am picking at nits but that’s kind of what we all do when it comes to criticism. What you see as nitpicking, I see as legitimate criticism of what is supposed to be a high example of the form. 


In a flashback to 1963 we watch the murder of 15 year old Judith Myers through the eyes of her killer, 6 year old Michael Myers, Judith’s brother. The entirety of the sequence is shot from Michael’s perspective as if we were watching through his eyes. We watch him spy on his sister and her boyfriend through a window, we watch him pick up a knife, we listen to his breath as the boyfriend escapes the seen unaware and we watch as Michael puts on a Halloween mask. Through the eye holes we watch Michael rain the knife down upon his terrified sibling. 


15 years later and we have no idea why young Michael did this. We are stuffed into a car with with a psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and a nurse who are traveling to the institution where Michael has been locked up all of this time. It’s a rainy night but in the distance we can make out patients in gowns wandering aimlessly and we know something terrible has happened. Soon, Michael attacks and Dr Loomis and the nurse flee as he takes their vehicle. 


Cut to Haddonfield, Illinois, Michael’s hometown where he’s presumably headed in the stolen vehicle. We meet Laurie Strode, 16 years old and a perfectly normal young woman. We see Laurie with her friends, Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda (P.J Soles), and planning for babysitting kids on Halloween night. What we know and Laurie doesn’t is that the creepy figure she sees repeatedly on her way to and from school is Michael Myers, he’s settled on her and her friends for his Halloween victims. 


Why did Michael Myers choose Laurie, Annie and Lynda? Who knows, the film doesn’t care to give Myers a motivation beyond what we assume to be an obsession with sexually active women of a similar age to his sister, Judith. We know that he saw Laurie that morning when she went to the abandoned Myers’ house to drop off a key under the mat for her father, a real estate agent, but beyond that, Michael’s motivation appears unimportant to the filmmakers. 


The opening scenes of Halloween are cherished among horror fans even if that fascination is something of a mystery to me. I find Michael’s murder of his sister to be remarkably clumsy and oddly filmed. Does it look kind of cool to shoot from the eye perspective of Michael Myers? Yeah, kind of but it creates awkward issues of continuity as well. For one, how tall is 6 year old Michael? The scene makes him appear to be nearly 6 feet tall if we account for the furniture height in the Myers’ home. 


Then there is the strange perspective of the murder. At a particular point mid-stabbing, Michael turns his head to watch his own hand bring the knife down on his sister. How this is possible given the angles involved is anyone’s guess but my guess is this was done so that the film didn’t receive an X-rating. After-all, Michael’s supposedly 15 year old sister is topless in the scene and if the camera spent time lingering too long her being stabbed in the chest, an X-rating might have been the least of the film’s problems with censors. 


Then there are Michael’s apparent supernatural qualities. Michael Myers, on top of being a psychopath, has supernatural qualities that allow him to appear and disappear on a whim. One moment he will be off in the distance, the next he has vanished into thin air. I can’t be the only one who chuckles at the idea of a giant, masked psychopath dodging through bushes and backyards so he can remain spooky to a pair of teenage girls. 


Also, what is with Michael Myers and his bits of business. What exactly does Michael Myers accomplish from appearing and disappearing? Why not just get down to business and start in tih killing? Who taught Michael Myers to drive a car? Why does he use that ability to drive around following teenage girls? Why did he steal his sister’s headstone and set up an elaborate display around Annie’s body after he killed her? 


Why did Michael Myers throw on a bedsheet and a victims glasses before killing a girl? What was the point of that? Suspense? Was that suspenseful? Was it supposed to be funny? Is Michael supposed to have a sense of humor? You may call it nitpicking but I am calling it all of the many reasons why I was unable to emotionally invest in any of the action of Halloween. My suspension of disbelief was broken far too often during the film. 


Halloween does pick up some steam once Michael turns his attention to Laurie Strode but by then it is far too late. For me, Michael Myers is a figure that I mock far more than I ever fear. The film fails in every way to lend a believable context to the character and I am not specifically talking about the film being unrealistic by a real life standard. The film fails entirely to create a universe where Michael’s abilities make sense. 


Let’s, for instance, take a character remarkably similar to Myers, Jason Voorhees. By no standard is Jason Voorhees a realistic character but what director Sean Cunningham and subsequent directors do, rather than ask us to simply suspend disbelief, they establish Voorhees in a universe where he functions as a demon-esque figure whose supernatural qualities are a built in part of his character. 


Sequels to and remakes of Halloween have attempted to create backstories for Michael Myers but that’s an entirely separate conversation. We are talking about the original movie and that original, 1978 Halloween is a movie far too flawed to deserve classic status even within the genre it is believed to be iconic within. Michael Myers is simply not the equal of Leatherface or Freddy or even Jason Voorhees. 


Feel free to disagree. It will be interesting to see if the new Halloween 2018 is able to paper over some of the holes in the original. We will find out for sure, tomorrow.


Movie Review Reach

Reach is an at times awkward, always earnest new teen drama that deals with depression, suicide and teen drug use. It’s a movie with good intentions if not top notch filmmaking or style. Sometimes a movie just has its heart in the right place and that’s enough for me to nod along and recommend it and that is definitely the case with Reach. I could decry issues with the look of the film, the awkward acting and the fumbling obviousness of some story points but I was genuinely compelled by some of the characters, enough that I can say I liked Reach. 


Reach stars Garrett Clayton, a veteran of the Disney Channel among other teen oriented products, as Steven, a depressed High School Senior. As Steven begins his return to High School for his Senior year he is also pondering suicide. He knows what is waiting for him at school isn’t merely the pressure of academics but the heart-rending struggle with bullies, one in particular who has had it out for Steven for years, for very personal reasons. 


Nick (Jordan Doww) is that bully, a former friend who turned into a bully following an incident between Steven and Nick’s parents, specifically their fathers who are former police partners. Nick’s father is now an abusive alcoholic and Nick appears ready to continue the cycle of violence. Nick however, is interrupted by Clarence (Johnny James Fiore), who decides to adopt Steven as his new best friend and defends him when Nick starts in on the bullying. 


Though Steven tries to escape him and get back into his depression spiral, Clarence won’t let Steven alone and eventually the two are inseparable and Steven appears on the road to recovery. The tenuousness of that recovery is the driving force of the plot of Reach through the middle and into the final act. Anything could tip Steven back to the dark side and we come to find that Clarence himself is no angel, despite a name that rings a bell, if you know what I mean. (Hint: It’s a Wonderful Life) 


Reach is Steven’s story but first time director Leif Rokesh does occasionally crowd out his star with a lot of plot threads. I mentioned Nick and his father, they pop up repeatedly throughout Reach pulling focus from Steven and his story in order to set up the final act. Then there is an overarching mystery plot surrounding the suicide death of Steven’s mother and what that had to do with something that Steven’s dad may have done. It’s not hard to figure out but the film is clumsy in inserting this plot point. 


All of that said, the clumsiness, the awkward acting, none of that takes away from the strong center of Reach which is the story of depression and recovery of recognizing your demons and confronting them and a story about seeking and finding acceptance amid deep seeded discomfort. Reach tells Steven’s story well and young Garrett Clayton does a tremendous job of communicating Steven’s heartaches and triumphs. 


The main triumph is his friendship with Clarence which is portrayed exceptionally well. Johnny James Fiore is not what I would call a natural. He’s awkward and his part is written in a way that makes him seem too old for the part of a High School Senior. But, Fiore and Clayton are good together. The two have a natural friendly chemistry that comes to the fore as they work through the initial, awkward phase of getting to know each other. 


Many of us have had friends like Clarence, force of nature types who insert themselves into the lives of people they decide should be their friend. Good people, maybe a tad obnoxious and not entirely self-aware but with a good heart and a soft spot for underdogs like Steven. This part of Reach is so good that it is why I recommend the movie. I love the way in which Clarence’s empathy defines his character and the good natured, good hearted way that Fiore plays the role. 


Reach is far from perfect, as I mentioned already, but for a low-budget drama with a big, tough subject like bullying, teenage sexuality, drug use and family trauma, it works surprisingly well. The film has a lot of heart and cares about the subject of teenage suicide and depression and cares to get to the root of a character who is suffering. Not everyone has a friend like Clarence who can cut through your defenses and help you back on the right path but maybe seeing someone model that behavior will inspire someone to be that person, to try to be like a Clarence. That makes Reach a valuable movie and one I can recommend. 


Reach is available to rent via online streaming services starting Friday, October 19th.


Movie Review The Big Lebowski

Yes, despite having reputations as critics as hating all movies, we do have favorite movies. Every one of us critics has a movie that makes us as giddy as every other movie fan on the planet. Sure, for some of us more esoteric critics that favorite film can be something foreign or obscure but there are many critics who share a taste for the mainstream just like everyone else. For me, my choice bridges a particular cult-status bridge between the mainstream and the obscure. 


The Big Lebowski was not a hit when it was released in 1997. It was met with lukewarm reviews and in the blinding glare following the Coen Brothers’ award winning and critically beloved Fargo, The Big Lebowski was seen by some to be a step down or a step backward for the beloved directors. Then, home video happened and a group of passionate individuals began to form an appreciation for the strange world of The Dude. That little world has become one of the most loyal unique cult-fandoms in existence today. 


The Big Lebowski can seem impenetrable to audiences that are not on the film’s unique wavelength. It begins with a voiceover and music that is something out of an old western, if westerns ever began with narrators. Sam Elliott is the voice of someone who may be God, may be a ghost or just some omniscient figure whose fascination with The Dude we will come to adopt as the movie goes on. 


We meet The Dude, AKA Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) in this humorous prologue wherein our narrator makes him out to be a folk hero for the late 90’s, a bathrobe clad layabout takin’er easy for all us sinners. The Dude arrives back at his humble apartment to find a pair of thugs who assault him, having mistaken him for another Jeffrey Lebowski (David Hiddleston), whose wife Bunny owes money to their employer. 


The thugs soil The Dude’s prized rug before realizing they’ve grabbed the wrong guy. After the assault, The Dude goes bowling with his buddies, Walter (John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi). It’s Walter who suggests that the real Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire, should pay for The Dude’s soiled rug and though The Dude may prefer being lazy, smoking weed and drinking white russians, with Walter’s prodding he does seek out the real Jeffrey Lebowski. 


Here is where our plot kicks in like something out of a stoner Raymond Chandler novel. The Dude bungles his way into a scheme by Jeffrey Lebowski to make some money disappear. The Dude is made the bagman on a deal with some kidnappers who claim to have kidnapped Mr. Lebowski’s wife, Bunny (Tara Reid). Naturally, The Dude gets Walter involved and the whole plan goes sideways. 


Among fans of The Dude, there is an unspoken rule that it takes three viewings before you finally get The Big Lebowski. This proved to be true for me. On my third time seeing The Big Lebowski, some time in 2001, the film stunned me by coming to life in ways I didn’t notice the first two times I saw it, in theaters in 1997 and on VHS in 1999. Seeing The Big Lebowski for the third time I picked up on layers of story and coincidence that eluded me the first two times through. 


First and foremost were the little tricks of dialogue. The Dude, as brilliantly lived in by Jeff Bridges in his finest performance, soaks up the world around him and uses what he hears as a way of fitting in with the rest of the world. He hears President Bush utter the phrase “This aggression will not stand” in reference to Iraq and Kuwait, the film is set in 1991, he incorporates the phrase to express his anger at the soiling of his rug. 


The Dude doesn’t express anger so much as parrot the way others demonstrate anger. He recognizes his own discomfort and through the words and actions of Walter or Mr Lebowski or the Police, he is able to express something similar from some selfish place in his weed addled psyche. It’s a fascinating way to build a character and it comes to full flower when The Dude is with Julianne Moore who plays his sort of love interest and the daughter of Mr. Lebowski, Maude Lebowski. 


Moore, for her part, is doing a pitch perfect impression of Katherine Hepburn as a sexually voracious artist so painfully self-aware that her perfect diction and blunt directness make for the single funniest performance in any movie of the last 20 years. She delivers absurd line readings with the crisp perfection of a trained thespian and makes it appear effortless. It’s one of the finest and most underrated performance by an actress I have ever seen. 


The rest of the supporting cast is equally distinctive in smaller roles. The glorious Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Mr Lebowski’s weaselly assistant Grant and his tightly coiled anxiety plays a similar high comic note to what Moore is playing with her unique voice and manner. Each actor is an instrument in this strange and loose comic symphony including Steve Buscemi as the perpetually put-down Donnie and John Turturro as the spiciest note, The Jesus, a rival bowler to The Dude and his team. 


Ben Gazzara shows up for a couple of scenes playing a porn producer who worked with Bunny Lebowski and like everyone else, his oddly laid back performance plays yet another specific note in this comic symphony. Gazzara’s Jackie Treehorn functions as a part moving the plot of The Big Lebowski but like the rest of the supporting cast, he’s not merely existing on screen, his Jackie is filled with comic invention in his few moments of screen time. 


I could go on for days and days about the layers of meaning throughout The Big Lebowski. The way dialogue seeps from one scene to the next taking on new comic meaning each time. The employment of a phrase played as another symphony note in this comic opera cum dimestore detective story. It is a divine work of genius, a true masterpiece in the guise of a shaggy dog detective story from the 1930’s. 


I completely adore The Big Lebowski and will be getting the new edition of the DVD even as it doesn’t contain many new special features. There is a new case for the Blu Ray, upgrading from the plastic bowling ball of the previous special edition DVD release. There is also the inclusion of a documentary made about the fans of The Big Lebowski who turned this near forgotten follow-up to Fargo into a phenomenon that, arguably, surpasses the Coen’s Oscar nominated masterpiece in terms of beloved esteem, if not pure filmmaking. 


The Big Lebowski is my favorite film of all time.


Movie Review Bad Times at the El Royale

The trailer for the new thriller Bad Times at the El Royale impressed me by how it revealed so little about the movie. The marketing was quite close to the vest, giving us little detail as to where this newest effort from Cabin in the Woods director Drew Goddard was going to take us. Well, it turns out, he wasn’t taking us very far. The reason the trailer for Bad Times at the El Royale was so coy was because there wasn’t much of a story to share to begin with. 


Bad Times at the El Royale features a terrific cast headed up by Jeff Bridges as Doc, a bank robber posing as a Priest. Doc has arrived at the El Royale in search of a room that his late partner had stayed in a decade earlier and stashed the loot from a bank robbery. In the room next door to Doc is Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), the one truly innocent person staying at the El Royale. Darlene is on her way to a singing gig in Reno. 


Two doors down from Darlene are Emily and Ruth Summerspring (Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny), though the rest of the guests aren’t aware of Ruth’s presence. Ruth arrived in the trunk of Emily’s car and is now tied to a chair in Emily’s room. How do we know this? Because our final guest at the El Royale is Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and he’s discovered the the Hotel’s secret, a series of hallways in which the guests can be viewed through two way mirrors. 


What makes the El Royale so special? It’s set directly on the border of California and Nevada. You can sleep in California or Nevada but beware, California costs one dollar more per night. This we learn from Miles (Lewis Pullman), the Hotel’s lazy but informative front desk clerk who is required to deliver a spiel about the two states Hotel for each new guest. Lewis is full of all kinds of information, especially secrets regarding the management of the Hotel that he’s not entirely comfortable with. 


There is an awful lot going on here in theory but as Bad Times at the El Royale plays out it becomes more theory than practice. Director Drew Goddard has a story that is simply spinning its wheels with seemingly no direction. Characters have motivation but there is no uniting arc to anything. One seemingly important character is killed off in a fashion that stops the plot nearly as dead as he is. 


This character appears to have the one arc that could push Bad Times at the El Royale forward but he’s used as device for splattery violence instead. So what do we get? We get a story that apes the style of Quentin Tarentino with its flashback structure ala Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill 1 & 2 and title cards, a repeated favorite of Tarentino. What it lacks however, is the narrative drive of Tarentino. Regardless of how unusual Tarentino’s approach seems, it’s going somewhere and Bad Times at the El Royale appears to be going nowhere. 


Much of the narrative of Bad Times at the El Royale turns on the arrival, late in the movie, of Chris Hemsworth as a nasty killer named Billy Lee. Hemsworth’s arrival at the El Royale indicates the start of the 3rd act of the movie but if you think it is going to lead to an interesting revelation or drive the plot somewhere, you’d be wrong. I’m desperately trying to recall incidents in this movie that add up to a story but none of them connect. 


It’s as if Drew Goddard assembled pieces of other thrillers and placed them in Bad Times at the El Royale. Each of the characters here seem as if they are in their own mini-movie and when they cross over each other violence breaks out as if the stars were fighting for the screen time. That sounds like it could be what happened here but I honestly, made that up on my own. If something that esoteric was what was happening in Bad Times at the El Royale, the film doesn’t do a very good job of communicating that. 


I think Drew Goddard is an incredibly talented director. His Cabin in the Woods is the best meta--horror movie I’ve ever seen, a wildly clever and inventive shredding of horror movie cliches. He subverts genre brilliantly in Cabin the Woods and I kept hoping that perhaps he would subvert the thriller genre and deliver something unique. Bad Times at the El Royale is unique but it is unique in the wrong way, it’s unique in how it never coalesces toward any recognizable narrative momentum. 


Is there tension? Sure, you never know when a character is going to be killed. There is no real central character though, that person who carries us forward in the story. I chose to lead with Bridges’ Doc as the focal point of my paragraph starting my plot description, but none of the characters functions as a lead actor or actress. Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene is the closest thing to an audience surrogate but her character is rather remote, distant, and lacks the colorful qualities of the characters around her. 


Erivo is a singer by trade and the film allows her to rely on her background to make up much of her character but beyond her beautiful voice, the character lacks depth, she’s fighting for her life at the end of the movie but her passivity fails to indicate the danger that is in play. Erivo does have one impassive moment, one where she sticks it to Hemsworth’s misogynist killer but the moment is fleeting and by then I was exhausted by the film’s flashbacks and disconnected narrative circuits. And that’s not to mention its unnecessary 2 hour and 20 minute run time.


Movie Review Colette

Colette is a sexy, smart and informative story about a real life figure who deserves a proper remembrance. Sidonie Gabrielle Colette was incredible, a writer, an actress, a pure iconoclast in a time when iconoclasts were some of the most brave people on the planet. Those willing to stand up and be different faced jail, poverty, even death in Colette’s day, even in the supposedly freewheeling Paris of the 19th and early 20th century. 


Keira Knightley portrays Colette as a young woman who had the luck of actually falling in love with the man she was promised to. At the time, most people in Paris loved Henry ‘Willy’ Gauthier Villars (Dominic West). He was a massive personality. Willy was a cultural gadfly, a charming, thoroughly gregarious man of means who never failed to pick up a check and make eyes at every woman in the room, all part of endless cycle of marketing himself as a brand name writer. 


Willy wasn’t really a man of means however. He was actually mostly broke due to his dedication to drinking, gambling and his many attempts to impress women, including his beautiful, much younger wife. Desperately in need of more writing product in the pipeline, Willy finally turns to Colette, the one writer he doesn’t have to pay and won’t hold him up for a payday. When Colette delivers an immediate smash called “Claudette,” their problems should be solved. 


Colette however, isn’t interested in writing, especially in writing something that Willy would eventually take credit for. She wants to have her own life and as their two lives chafe against each other’s needs and desires, the story picks up into a whirlwind of sex and recriminations. When Colette falls for an American woman, Willy encourages it as a way to justify his own infidelity and as a cudgel to get Colette to continue writing. When he decides that he to must sleep with this woman, things begin to get nasty. 


Colette is an exceptionally well told story about young country girl, slowly becoming the woman she was meant to be. Keira Knightley is wonderful with her huge, expressive eyes and effortless wit, she brings forth a Colette that you could never doubt was meant to be a star. If there is one issue with Knightley’s performance it is that she is so much better than co-star Dominic West, an actor inferior in every way to Knightley. 


West’s performance works only in particular context. Willy is intended to be portrayed as a spineless shell and West definitely portrays that aspect. Unfortunately, he’s so lacking in every other aspect that I found it hard to believe that he was this beloved society gadfly. I especially found it hard to believe a woman as incredible Colette could stand this guy for more than a minute. We’d be talking about one of the best movies of 2018 if an actor half as talented as Keira Knightley were playing opposite her. 


Colette was directed by Wash Westmoreland whose previous film was also a showcase for an incredible leading lady. Westmoreland directed Julianne Moore in her remarkable Alzheimer’s drama, Still Alice in 2014. That film could not be any more different from Colette but, what they share is a dedication to showcasing a leading lady in a remarkable performance. Westmoreland has a tremendous eye for moments and both Still Alice and Colette have moments of remarkable power. 


Colette features a moment in which Keira dresses down West’s Willy so much you feel like the actor might not survive. Knightley’s fury is righteous and the emotion is a wallop. Knightley has been accused of being slight as an actress, a shot at her body type more than her acting in my opinion, but here, wow, she is ferocious. Her acting power is devastating and even though West is giving her little to work with, Knightley’s power still resonates. 


Colette is a brilliant showcase for an actress too often underestimated. I can’t claim to have always valued her but in looking back, I can’t think of a single film where she hasn’t impressed me. Even in her best known role, the Oscar nominated Atonement, I didn’t like the movie, but Knightley, I absolutely adored her. She makes movies less than her better and great movies like Begin Again or the criminally under-seen Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, she makes transcendent. 


The real life Colette was a remarkable woman, a brilliant bestselling writer and openly gay at a time when such things weren’t safe. In England she could have been prosecuted for living openly with the woman she eventually came to fall in love with and the two struggled in France, though less than they would have in other parts of the world at that time. Colette persisted and her talent won the day and the movie based on her remarkable life is a loving tribute. 


See Colette for Keira Knightley and appreciate Wash Westmoreland, a director who doesn’t work all that often but when he does, he knows to work with the right leading lady. 


Movie Review Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

One of my favorite mni-trends of 2018 at the movies is the number of times a bad looking movie exceeds expectations. It’s happened a few times for me this year, more often than it has happened ever before. A good example is The House with a Clock in Its Walls. By all accounts, that film should not work, it’s a kiddie horror movie directed by the guy behind Hostel, not exactly a recipe for greatness. It turns it however, the idea and the cast are brilliant and it works. 


I had similarly low expectations upended by Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. The film is a sequel to an only okay first movie which starred Jack Black as R.L Stine, watching as his dark kiddie horror stories came to life and having to write them back to safety, Goosebumps 2 arrives without Black in the lead, without any of the other human characters from the first film and a new creative team behind the camera. It should not work but Goosebumps proves to be such a good idea in its own right that this movie works in spite of the circumstances. 


Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween stars Madison Iseman as Sarah, big sister to Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and babysitter to Sonny’s best pal Sam (Caleel Harris). Sarah just wants to finish her creative writing assignment but Sonny and Sam can’t stop getting in her way. They’ve started a business recovering what they hope will be valuable junk from abandoned houses and their first big find is a doozy. 


In the abandoned childhood home of author R.L Stine, Sonny and Sam have uncovered a book that unleashes Slappy the Dummy (Jack Black). Slappy initially seems like a friend, he helps them fight bullies with his magic and appears eager to insinuate himself into the family dynamic. Unfortunately, Slappy’s motives have a murderous edge and when Sarah and Sonny’s Mom (Wendi McLendon-Covey) appears to get in the way of the fun, he sets out to get mom out of the picture. 


The kids begin to fight back against Slappy and feeling betrayed, the dummy decides to use his powers to raise an army to create a new family. With the help of a giant Tesla coil, Slappy brings Halloween decorations to frightening life and it’s up to the kids  to try to stop him with their plucky ingenuity and with an assist from their weirdo, Halloween loving neighbor Mr. Chu, played by The Hangover star Ken Jeong. 


Honestly, no joke, the film is much more clever than the way I describe it. Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween has big laughs that come from these terrific kid actors and their genuine commitment to the gags. A favorite of mine is an absurd battle with gummi bears that come to life. The scene features some really fun special effects and I just loved the silly notion of big, dangerous gummi bears. 


The film has minor little touches like that just kind of charmed me throughout. I liked the slight element of danger that the film wrings out of something silly like gummi bears or the various decorations that are brought to life unique and silly, fun ways. Slappy the Dummy is the creepiest part of the movie but that works great as well. Jack Black gives the character an energetic voice with a genuine sense of menace if you’re a little kid. 


Black also makes a cameo as the only other character to return from the original movie, author R.L Stine. It makes sense that since the Goosebumps books are an anthology that the original cast isn’t really needed but Black’s Stine coming back makes sense and the way he’s used in the story makes for a terrifically funny throwaway gag. The return of Jack Black to starring roles thanks to Jumanji and The House with a Clock in Its Walls is something I didn’t even know I wanted. 


Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween isn’t a great movie, I can see where most adult critics aren’t wrong in disliking it, it’s a little eager to please and the direction isn’t anything memorable but I enjoyed it enough and compared to most other young adult products we get at the movie theater, I will take a Goosebumps anthology series over something like Darkest Minds or The Maze Runner series any day.


Movie Review First Man

As a kid growing up in Iowa I attended school in a district where all of the grade schools were named for Astronauts. I attended Virgil Grissom Elementary School fully unaware of who the crew-cutted man in the space suit was until I was several years into school attendance. When we visited other schools in our district we visited Ed White Elementary, John Glenn Elementary and Neil Armstrong Elementary.


Growing up, I assumed all schools were named for famous astronauts and I was surprised to learn that wasn’t the case in most other districts. I mention this as a way of leading into just how ingrained in our collective culture our astronaut heroes were. The movie First Man, much like 1983’s The Right Stuff, illustrates that that fascination has not waned even as the wonder of space travel has diminished.


First Man stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the Moon. We pick up Neil’s story as he grazes the top of the atmosphere in an experimental aircraft. This opening sequence is aimed at setting you up for the twisting and turning, borderline violent, way in which director Damien Chazelle captures the action. The opening scene is visceral, queasy and scary insight into the dangers we will face as the space race gets underway.


It’s not just the queasiness of space travel however, we also experience the ups and downs of marriage and family life. Claire Foy plays Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife, a tough as nails lady who refused to let Neil off the hook for his stoic, guarded and standoffish manner. Janet’s love comes through in her toughness and not through a lot of teary bleary worrying. She has a confidence in her husband that is rarely rattled.


When that confidence is rattled however, as we see in a brilliant scene in which Janet confronts Neil’s NASA boss and former astronaut, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), we witness a fearsome and brave moment. Commander Slayton ordered the radio on board Neil’s first space flight silenced to the world outside the control room and an upset Janet drove to Cape Canaveral to make him turn it back on. Claire Foy is ferocious in this moment and director Chazelle smartly lets her shine.


Directors live for scenes like this, moments where their actors capture a moment in time so perfectly. Claire Foy is so natural, so authentic, and unforced in this moment. It's a small scale scene but nearly as breathless for me as the Moon landing moment. The line 'you're just a bunch of boys' hits like a sledgehammer as, like it or not, she's not wrong. For all the know how and ingenuity on hand at NASA in the 60s and into today, space travel is never mundane, it's a razors edge between glorious achievement and horrific disaster. 


All of First Man is leading up to the trip to the Moon. But first, Neil has to train and the program has a lot of tests to complete before the first manned mission to the Moon can get off the ground. The middle portion of First Man is taken up with training scenes and the strain at Neil Armstrong’s home stemming from the death of Neil and Janet’s two year old daughter, Karen, whose spectral premise is something Neil tries desperately to keep at bay while maintaining the stoicism he comes to be known for.


The final act of First Man is the Moon landing and it is remarkably well-captured. The style employed by director Damien Chazelle is intimate and claustrophobic. There are no cutaways back to NASA, few cutaways back to Janet, for the most part, we are trapped in the capsure with Neil and Buzz Aldrin and their pilot Michael Collins and it’s breathtaking to witness. This is a remarkable recreation of an event most Americans have seen in some form or fashion, either having lived it or watched it in documentary form, but Chazelle somehow makes it feel new and vibrant.


You will feel as if you are on the Moon during the Moon landing scenes of First Man. The incredible rumble and noise of the rocket, the fiery burst through the atmosphere into outer space, and the desolation of the lunar surface are all brilliantly captured and while we can’t ever really know what it was like ourselves, First Man brings us closer than we’ve ever been to this momentous piece of history.


Controversy surrounded First Man from its festival debut earlier this year. It became known that the movie does not depict the famous planting of the American flag on the Moon which led to rumors that the film was downplaying patriotism in the race to the Moon. That’s not the case; flags are prominent throughout First Man and Neil Armstrong was inspired by America continually getting beaten by Russia to make sure that an American made the first tracks on the Moon.


That said, yes, the flag being planted is not part of the Moon landing sequence. The idea is not to minimize America but to remind everyone that as much as this was an American achievement, the first steps on the Moon were a global moment that all people came together to witness and take pride in. The world paused to see man’s first steps on the Moon and so not depicting the flag planting is a style choice intended to demonstrate that this was more of a human accomplishment than merely an American one.


I absolutely adore First Man. Ryan Gosling delivers a brilliant performance, one that flies in the face of his previous personaes. Gosling is an actor of tremendous wit and charm and here, stripped of those assets by a real life figure that people recall as anything but witty or charming, Gosling demonstrates range. He focuses his performance on the dignity and carriage of Neil Armstrong. Armstrong was a deeply guarded individual who rarely showed emotion. That makes it all the more powerful during a pair of scenes where the mask falls away as he mourns his daughter and his fallen friends in the space program, Ed White, Virgil Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Elliott Sea.


First Man is a first rate movie made by a visionary and deeply talented director. Damien Chazelle is developing a mastery of form that places him among the most talented directors in the world. He’s a consistently entertaining and thoughtful director who follows his muse to unique and fascinating places. His world’s are filled with small details of manner and conversation that invite you into strange, obsessive conclaves like the Jazz-perfectionists of Whiplash or the entertainment industry inside La La Land, inside which we share in the earnest fascination of outsiders.


First Man is in theaters nationwide this weekend.


Movie Review The Right Stuff

It surprised many in 1983 when The Right Stuff debuted in theaters and promptly flopped. The film was based on a very popular subject, the beginning of the American space program and it portrayed brave men who were beloved public figures. These men had remained part of public life and they had, for the most part, endorsed the warts and all story based on the reporting of Tom Wolff who was on the front lines of reporting on the space race. 


And yet, the film failed to find an audience despite its high profile subject and glowing reviews. The film earned 8 Academy Award nominations and brought home 4 Oscars and still was not able to draw a crowd. Roger Ebert, in his Great Films review of The Right Stuff, pegged the failure to audiences simply not being ready for a movie to make our outer space legends into real men. Despite the primer of Wolff’s bestseller of the same name, audiences didn’t want to see these legends as anything less than legends. 


It’s a shame, because those audiences really missed out. The Right Stuff is a remarkably compelling piece of historical fiction. As directed by a Philip Kaufman from a screenplay adapted by William Goldman, that was subsequently credited to Kaufman after the two famously fell out, The Right Stuff captures the urgency and excitement of the space race while making these outsized heroes into regular size, flawed but lovable, everyday heroes. 


The story begins in the late 1950’s. Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is, perhaps, the best pilot on the planet. With developers eager to push the envelope of what a plane can do, Yeager is the man who volunteers to try and do things people didn’t believe were possible. It was Chuck Yeager who broke the sound barrier and eventually was the first man to travel at Supersonic speed, Mach 2.3. He even travelled higher in a plane than anyone in history. 


You might be wondering why, if Yeager was the best pilot and arguably the bravest, why wasn’t he an astronaut. Simply, he declined the chance to tryout, viewing it as a suicide mission. The earliest version of what we now know as NASA wasn’t exactly keen on having Yeager anyway, or indeed, humans in general. The first thoughts of NASA engineers under famed German scientist Werner Von Braun, was to send a chimp into space. 


Nevertheless, thanks to the demand of President Eisenhower, American test pilots and members of each military branch were brought in to be tested and 7 brave men were finally chosen for what would become America’s first trip into space in 1961. Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) became the first to go into space. He was followed by Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). Eventually, the man everyone assumed to be America’s best and brightest astronaut, John Glenn (Ed Harris), would go and the template would be set for the American space program going forward. 


The film goes from 1957 to 1963 when Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) became the last man to fly solo in space. After him came the multi-man missions, with the goal of getting to the moon. Regardless, the story told in The Right Stuff is deeply compelling. Even at 3 hours and 13 minutes, arguably the real reason the film failed at the box office, the film flows like a much shorter movie. The Right Stuff never feels long, it’s not padded by unnecessary scenes. 


The length though, must be viewed as a factor in why The Right Stuff did not make back it’s 27 million dollar budget. Three hours is a lot to ask of an audience, not to mention how much that length cuts back on the number of times per day the film could be shown in theaters. I’m spending a lot of time on this because fighting the idea that The Right Stuff was a failure is part of my strategy of getting you to see it. 


I do believe that Roger Ebert had a good point about how people didn’t want these legends of space to be too real for them. Humanizing them is one thing but portraying them as boys will be boys playboys, aside from the goody two shoes likes of John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, gave audiences a glimpse they did not want behind the curtain of what had been sold to them 20 years earlier as a great American triumph. 


Indeed, it likely shocked audiences to hear their heroes talking about branding and marketing, how they are commodities to be used to sell the space program to the American public as an expenditure. Then there are the depictions of our many failures and setbacks, real history which saw billions of dollars lost in crashed rocket after crashed rocket before we had to sit by and watch as Yuri Gagarin of Russia, our Cold War enemy, became the first man in space. 


Audiences wanted the glory of the space program they were sold by Life Magazine. They wanted the white bread heroes who loved their wives and went to church on Sunday. The Right Stuff gives you everything, the heroism and the personalities and the less than noble qualities of our famed heroes and it would make sense for audiences to reject that. Tom Wolff’s book was both blessing and curse, a bestseller but perhaps something that preceded the movie enough that it allowed audiences to know what was coming and reject it on principle. 


Nevertheless, I hope you go back and give The Right Stuff another chance. The film is exceptional. Philip Kaufman many not be remembered as a genius director, but he is a fine film craftsman. The film is exceptionally well put together. The pace is brisk, and the big scenes impact as big scenes. The film film soars and never feels like a drag even at 3 hours and 13 minutes. The Right Stuff is deeply nostalgic but it’s nostalgic for something more real and lasting than the hagiographies of the original stories about our heroic astronauts. 


The Right Stuff is available to rent on Amazon Prime and would make a smart primer for the new Ryan Gosling space drama First Man which opens nationwide this weekend. 


Movie Review He Won't Get Far on Foot

Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot stars Joaquin Phoenix in the true life story of cult cartoon artist John Callahan. John Callahan achieved cult fame in the 1980’s for his darkly humorous take on touchy subjects like gender, race and most often, being handicapped. Callahan was in a car accident which left him almost complete paralyzed from the neck down. He eventually regained some of use of his arms and hands, enough to allow him to draw in a unique style, similar to the cartoons some might recognize from Playboy Magazine. 


Interestingly, John Callahan was rejected by Playboy for being too extreme; he was however, published in Playboy’s edgier rival Penthouse Magazine. Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a title that indicates Callahan’s irreverence. The single panel cartoon depicts a posse mid-chase stopped in the desert behind an empty wheelchair with the caption quote “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.” 


We meet John Callahan through a series of flashbacks and flash forwards that can be highly confusing if you aren’t paying attention. We begin with John being thrown from his wheelchair after striking something on a sidewalk while traveling at a high rate of speed for a wheelchair. He’s helped back to his chair by a group of kids who see his drawings and ask him about his inspiration. We then flashback and flashback again and we are in an AA meeting. 


Eventually, we find that John was an alcoholic dating back to his early teenage years as an orphan; he was surrendered by his mother at birth. John was set for a life of partying everyday and barely holding down a job when one of his binges nearly gets him killed. In a car, very drunk, with a new drinking buddy, Dexter (Jack Black), who is also very drunk and driving, John is in an accident and thrown from the vehicle. 


It’s the late-1970’s and medical technology is primitive compared to today and we watch as John is put through a hellish looking recovery. His only solace is a woman named Annu (Rooney Mara) who works as a therapist and visits John weekly during his recovery. John eventually receives a motorized wheelchair and sets about going back to drinking almost immediately. It takes a few months or a year before he finally decides to seek help. 


In a scene that shocked me with how strange and beautiful it is, we watch as John, desperate for another drink but left home alone without his caretaker, has a conversation with his absent mother. Actress Mirielle Enos appears as the ghostly visage of what John imagines his mother looks like and the two have an emotional, if only imagined conversation. It’s a flight of fancy to be sure but I found the scene as deeply moving as it is out of place in this otherwise straightforward biopic. The scene is John's catalyst to quit drinking. 


The acting in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot is superb with Joaquin Phoenix delivering the kind of performance we’ve come to expect from one of the finest actors on the planet today. Phoenix may be cantankerous, strange, even off-putting in publicity settings, he famously melted down on David Letterman then claimed it was all a stunt for his documentary art project, but his acting has always been of the highest level and he’s incredible here. 


Phoenix is matched in his supporting cast, especially by Jonah Hill who transforms more than ever in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Hidden behind a fuzzy beard, a long blonde wig and significant weight loss, you might find it hard to recognize the star of Superbad and Get Him to the Greek but it’s him. Hill’s turn from comic actor to serious thespian has been a delight to watch for those of us who’ve always noted just how hard comedy acting is and how people like Jonah Hill don’t get their due respect. 


Hill is heartbreaking in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot. His character beautifully walks a tightrope of being sensitive and caring and brutally blunt. Hill’s Donnie is John’s AA sponsor, as well as the leader of a small group of people that he is sponsor to, whom he calls his ‘Piglets.’ The conversations during the AA meeting are at times humorous but most of the time they are raw and lacerating. These are powerful scenes, exceptionally orchestrated by Hill’s performance and by Gus Van Sant’s direction. 


The film is not perfect, some of the R-Rated aspects of the movie are a tad forced or clumsy. The frankness of the characters can be funny but it can also feel pushy and awkward, such as the character of a nurse tasked with helping John understand sex as a quadriplegic. There is a problematic quality to this series of scenes that, though they appear honest and in your face, they are far from comfortable in that space. 


Then there are the female characters in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Three exceptional women play standout roles in the movie but none of their roles feel fleshed out. It’s a long time criticism of Gus Van Sant that he doesn’t direct women well and this film highlights that flaw. Kim Gordon, from the band Sonic Youth, plays one of John’s fellow AA attendees and is given only one moment where she delivers a rather tossed off monologue. 


Carrie Brownstein, the exceptionally funny sketch comedy veteran and star of Portlandia, gets short shrifted as a shrewish officiant constantly on John’s case and threatening to cut off his disability benefits. Then there is Rooney Mara, essentially the female lead in the movie. Van Sant botches her introduction as he introduces her as an ethereal ghost, a male fantasy of a benevolent beauty built to take pity on our ostensible hero. 


I was surprised that Mara’s Annu didn’t wind up being a figment of John’s imagination as she is depicted as a saint who is ready to take care of his every need, shares his dark sense of humor, and though he is not the most charming guy, falls into bed with him as if he were the most handsome and charismatic guy alive. The character has seemingly no inner life that doesn’t involve catering to John’s needs and thus she never feels like the real person we’re intended to believe she is. 


That’s is a significant flaw in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot but it doesn’t sink the film entirely. Too much of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is too good for me to dismiss the film. Phoenix is a rare talent, an authentic, raw performer who slithers into the skin of his characters in a way that only the great actors do. With this performance and his performance as a hitman in Lynne Ramsey’s exceptional You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix has authored two of the best performances of 2018. 


That combined with Jonah Hill’s remarkable, transformative performance, forces me to recommend Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot despite my reservations regarding the female characters and a rather confusing flashback structure that many will find hard to follow. I was taking notes and I still struggled with where in time the characters were from time to time during this movie. That said, the movie is rewarding in big moments with big emotion that make all of the other more trying aspect worth the struggle. 


Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot is available now on Blu Ray, DVD and On-Demand. 


Movie Review Hotel Artemis

Hotel Artemis is one of the great missed opportunities as a plot that I have ever witnessed. Writer-Director Drew Pearce had a great idea for a movie and squandered it with poor pacing, a lack of colorful characters and a lack of overall ambition. Settling for a generic action movie, Hotel Artemis failed a really great central premise that reads like something out of the John Wick universe. Of course, I shouldn’t mourn the movie Hotel Artemis is not but it’s hard not to think about how good it could have been. 


Hotel Artemis stars Jodie Foster as The Nurse, we eventually learn her name but most everyone at the Artemis is known by codenames. The Nurse is in charge of the Artemis, a hidden hospital in a seemingly abandoned Los Angeles Hotel. This hospital caters to a specific, high-end clientele of very rich criminals who maintain access via a monthly fee. With a riot brewing outside the hotel, it’s about to be a very busy night. 


First arriving are Sherman (Sterling K. Brown) and his brother Lev (Brian Tyree Henry). They just robbed a bank and in the aftermath, Lev was shot. Lucky for them, they’re paid up on their Artemis bills. Lev is hurt bad but much worse for him is what he’s stolen from the bank. In the midst of the robbery, Lev took an expensive looking pen from a very angry henchmen. The pen is actually a mini-vault carrying millions of dollars in diamonds belonging to a man known as The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum). 


Just the idea of a movie where Jeff Goldblum plays a character named ‘The Wolf King’ would be enough to recommend but sadly the movie doesn’t have much to do with these characters. Instead, the movie introduces several other unnecessary characters who consistently get in the way of the action. Sophia Boutella plays Nice, another Artemis client who has an agenda but plays more like a love interest for Sherman than a character necessary to the plot. At the very least, Boutella is sultry and badass but the character isn't particularly well-rounded. 


The most egregious addition to the cast however, is Charlie Day who has zero to do with the plot of Hotel Artemis. Day plays a patient given the codename Acapulco and is basically on hand to act like Charlie Day. If you’re familiar with Charlie Day’s style you know what you’re getting here. I like Charlie Day but his schtick is entirely unnecessary. His character could be completely removed from Hotel Artemis and have no bearing on the plot. He just consistently gets in the way. 


Jenny Slate and Zachary Quinto also play entirely unneeded characters. Slate is a cop with a connection to The Nurse whom The Nurse breaks the rules of the Hotel to rescue. Slate is on hand to provide backstory but it’s clear that the same backstory could be layered in via the flashbacks the film employs even with Slate on hand to provide the same information. The character is a clumsy addition to an already overstuffed movie. 


I can’t imagine why Zachary Quinto was chosen for the role of The Wolf King’s doofus son. Perhaps he had a lifelong goal of being insulted by Jodie Foster and Jeff Goldblum while he acts like a complete buffoon? It’s a weird motivation but it would be one I could understand. I can’t understand it any other way because the character is atrociously written and badly performed. Quinto plays the role as an over the top, whiny man-baby and while I assume it’s supposed to be humorous, the laughs never come. 


If the intent is to force humor into Hotel Artemis with Day and Quinto, it’s a complete failure. The only actor who manages to get a legitimate laugh is Dave Bautista who employs a little bit of his Drax deadpan from Guardians of the Galaxy to get the only laughs to be had in Hotel Artemis. Bautista is completely wasted in the role of a archetypal good-hearted thug. He's a tremendous presence with well-honed charm from his Guardians role. Little of that charm potential is tapped in Hotel Artemis. 


Bautista’s Everest is a badass killer who works for The Nurse because he cares about her. He’s perhaps a big blunt instrument whose job is hitting people and enforcing the rules of the Artemis but in minimal screentime, Bautista paints an entire picture of Everest as a sensitive soul who could smash you to tiny, tiny pieces with his bare hands if he has to. Bautista has charisma to spare in Hotel Artemis but Writer-Director Drew Pearce has overstuffed the movie so much he doesn’t have time for him. 


Hotel Artemis has such a killer premise. It’s something right out of the John Wick universe, a secret hospital for criminals. I imagine it much like the hotel in John Wick where killers all stay under the same roof but aren’t allowed to kill while they stay there. Hotel Artemis is the same idea but with a hospital. Something like this would have to exist in the John Wick universe and Hotel Artemis could have tapped that unique spirit and failed miserably. 


Again, I should not review Hotel Artemis for what it isn’t, I know that. It’s just such a great premise though! Sorry, as it is, Hotel Artemis is sloppy and clunky, overstuffed with characters and especially with characters of no consequence. The film wastes its best assets like Dave Bautista or Jeff Goldblum’s weirdo qualities, which are sorely missed in a character called The Wolf King, and thus my review of what Hotel Artemis actually is, is simply that is a bad movie. 


Hotel Artemis is on Blu Ray, DVD and On-Demand services this week. 


Movie Review Cabaret (1972)

Cabaret may look like a jazzy, fizzy, Broadway to Hollywood musical, but secretly, Director and Choreographer Bob Fosse was making a horror movie. That’s not me being sarcastic and saying that Cabaret horrified me in some negative fashion. I mean this as high praise. Behind the fashion, the makeup, the music, Cabaret is about the frightening rise of fascism and the way something as horrific as Nazism can seemingly happen while you’re focused on you. 


Liza Minnelli stars in Cabaret as Sally Bowles, a lounge singer in Berlin in 1931. Sally is a hedonist who lives by night, smoking and drinking and loving at the Kit Kat Club where she is a featured performer. By day, Sally sleeps it all off and starts all over again at a Berlin flophouse, home to has beens and never-was’. It’s here that Sally meets Brian Roberts (Michael York), an English academic looking for a room. 


Brian appears to be taken with Sally but their relationship doesn’t unfold like you might expect it to. Berlin in 1931 is a fluid place, fluid of gender, sexuality and politics. The culture is in flux and while so many Germans and ex-pats are using this chance to experiment and find themselves, they have their heads turned from the reality rising around them; the Nazis are slowly rising and the spectre of fascism is in the backdrop of every scene. 


This comes into stark reality in the form of Joel Grey’s Master of Ceremonies. Grey’s perpetually snotty MC of the Kit Kat Club appears to take nothing seriously, mocking everything with a garish glee. But, watch his eyes, watch his manner. The mocking is filled with dread that occasionally comes right to the surface. This is especially true of his performance of “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” which appears like a comic treat but slowly becomes terrifying until a gut-punch of a final line. 


The romance between Sally and Brian is filled with tragedy and misplaced affections. They have their heads firmly planted in the clouds while all around them the world is slipping away. All they seem to do is focus on themselves though Brian offers some contempt for the Nazis, his opposition however, comes from a place of privilege, the ability to know he can get out of Germany before things get really bad. This is thrown into relief as Brian and Sally's friend Fritz comes out as Jewish so he can marry a Jewish woman he's fallen for from a rich Jewish family. 


That Fritz's ultimate declaration of love conquers all is a death sentence is something we know and he doesn't. He's not naive, he knows that he's asking for trouble from the Nazis, trouble that he avoided when he arrived in Germany pretending to be a protestant. He's far more aware than Sally or Brian and yet he runs toward doom because such a move reflects the worldview of Cabaret in which even the purest intentions are portents of doom. 


Sally meanwhile, has blinders on in all aspects of life. She’s wanton and narcissistic. She doesn’t appear to care who is in the audience when she performs because, for her, the performance, the stage, that’s all that matters. Grey appears to attempt to warn her with his sharp witty tunes and jabs but Sally is too far gone. Sally is an American and, much like Brian, she has the temporary privilege of ignorance. 


It is important to note that Sally is an American and Brian is British. In 1931 and into the early 1940’s most Americans reflected Sally’s self centered worldview. The Brits were more engaged but easily distracted something well reflected by the character of Brian. It’s a large metaphor and perhaps an easy one to portray but Fosse portrays it with a sharpness using Joel Grey as a way to presage how our divided attentions are fomenting a disaster. 


The musical elements are brilliantly crafted bits of chaos. Each musical number has a manic energy to its presentation, an energy brimming with equal parts dread and merriment. The songs are happy but spiky, sprinkled with a bitter irony. Fosse wills us in one moment toward feeling for the romance of Sally and Brian as it begins to blossom and then plunges us to the depths once Sally meets Maximillian (Helmut Griem) and is immediately on stage delivering a bizarre, mechanical, iteration of “Money, Money,” a bitter rebuke of romance. 


Fosse works hard to keep us off balance. We are not allowed to be comfortable or comforted. Something disquieting is around every corner whether it is the shambles of the love affair we thought we were promised or a terrifying vision of the future when we witness an Aryan youth singing a spine shattering rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a song so affecting that the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb were accused of using an actual Nazi song. Kander and Ebb, by the way, are Jewish. 


Even the famed showstopper title song “Cabaret” has a bitter aftertaste. Out of context, Liza sings it like a classic Broadway showstopper. In the context of Cabaret however, the title song announces that Sally has put her blinders back on and is ready to pretend the world isn’t changing around her. Joel Grey brings it home with a cheeky call back to the start of the film only this time the reflection Grey mournfully stares down is filled with Nazis in the background. The party is coming to a close.


"Cabaret" is kicky and energetic and filled with the panache we love Liza for but Fosse's arrangement of the song has a darkness to it. There is a curdled quality to the backing track. It sounds as if Sally is trying to will us into believing life is a Cabaret filled with sex, booze and cigarrettes but the real world is beginning to edge in. That's what the final image of the film is all about, the funky reflection of reality slowly coming into focus as if a boozy party led to a fascist hangover. 


Bob Fosse famously beat out Francis Ford Coppola for Best Director in 1972 when Coppola was up for The Godfather. The Godfather and Coppola would have the last laugh by winning Best Picture but it’s still rather momentous. Fosse was not a movie director, he was a broadway choreographer and stage director. His talents however, melded perfectly to the world of Cabaret. Fosse's sense of dark humor and devilish style could find no better home on screen than Cabaret. 


Though I am a devotee of The Godfather I can honestly say, as a piece of direction, Cabaret is slightly more impressive. A first time director making a supremely complex and dense musical, one that is tightrope walk of tone and sensitivity; that deserves recognition. One false move and Fosse’s film career was over with Cabaret but he makes no false moves. Instead, as a first time director, he pulled off the trick of making a rare horror musical, a film of mounting existential terror and dread wrapped in the tinsel and shine of a Broadway show. It’s a marvelous trick. 


Cabaret is available on Tuesday, October 9th on Blu Ray from the Warner Archives Collection.


Movie Review Leave No Trace

Director Debra Granik has a particular milieu she prefers. As a director, Granik finds the backwoods to be a place of comfort and fascination. She likes small enclaves that the rest of the world doesn’t realize even exist. Her Winter’s Bone was gritty and filled unique details of the last places in America seemingly untouched by the modern world. Drugs gave that film a sense of danger that her new film, Leave No Trace, does not have. 


That said, Leave No Trace doesn’t need danger to be compelling. Though it is similarly set away from the modern world, the story of Leave No Trace is family drama that employs unique characters and settings to tell a relatively familiar story. Ben Foster, one of the most interesting and singular actors working today, could not be more perfect for a Debra Granik movie. His quiet intensity drives the plot when seemingly nothing is happening. 


Leave No Trace stars Ben Foster as Will, an Iraq war veteran with PTSD who has found a little peace living far from everyday society. With his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), he’s become a survivalist capable of surviving on scraps of necessities and sleeping under the stars in the forests of Oregon. Occasionally, they go into Portland, the nearest city, where Will gets drugs for his PTSD that he then sells for cash to buy food in an underground economy operated by other vets living in a similar fashion. 


Will and Tom’s idyll is upset when a jogger spots Tom hiding in the woods and calls the local sheriff to check on her. When the cops find their small camp they immediately arrest Will for trespassing and place Tom in a juvenile home. It takes a few days but eventually Will demonstrates that he’s not crazy. The law says they can’t stay in the forest so social services place them in a home and find Will a job. 


Before Tom can get comfortable in regular society however, Will is looking for a way to escape. Unable to return to their place in the woods, they head for Washington state and hopefully a place far from the long arm of Oregon law. What they find, I will leave you to discover but I have no problem believing such a place exists. It’s a fascinating place with colorful characters and a pace of life most of us would not be able to withstand. 


Debra Granik is a remarkably patient and thoughtful director. She never rushes her characters, even when such a rush might seem reasonable. Granik is content to give scenes time to play out at their own pace. Some may find it slow, I would call it deliberate. It works when you have thoughtful and fascinating characters, the kind Granik is adept at creating. In Winter’s Bone it was Jennifer Lawrence delivering a brilliant and original character. Here, Thomasin McKenzie has a similarly breakout performance. 


Thomasin McKenzie is remarkably compelling. At 18 years old she comes off so much younger and though she is originally from New Zealand, you would never no it from her wonderfully measured line delivery. She has the curiosity and thoughtfulness of a character who has spent a life away from the regular world. Part of that has to do with Debra Granik’s exceptional screenplay but McKenzie really does deliver in Leave No Trace. 


Ben Foster is an actor who has missed out on the Academy Awards because he’s just not well known enough. That’s the only excuse I can think of because his work has had a consistent excellence since he was in 2007’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma. He deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work in Hell or High Water in 2016 and he deserves a look for Best Actor for his work here. He has a fierceness in his eyes that only the best actors can deliver. 


Foster has the kind of quiet intensity that can move a plot along just because we find him so fascinating, In Leave No Trace, it’s hard not to get caught up on what Will might be thinking or preparing to do next. He’s a loving father who has kept his daughter educated and fed all while keeping her from the real world. Is he wrong to do what he does? It depends on your perspective. His daughter is safe and fed but also intentionally homeless. 


Foster makes Will’s choice strangely appealing and understandable. When I look around at the world I can definitely see the appeal of going off into the woods and forgetting the modern world. Keeping a child away from the modern world of social media and the consistent ugliness of things like bullying does certainly hold an appeal but Granik smartly reminds us of a few of the good things she’s missing as well like friends. 


Leave No Trace is a tremendous movie. A deeply compelling family drama that challenges you to try and judge Will and Tom. Do you think Will is wrong to intentionally remain homeless? Is Will so sick from PTSD that perhaps he’s not making good decisions? You will have to make up your mind. At times I was screaming inside for Will to stay in the home the government provided but I can understand his desire to run away. 


Leave No Trace is uniquely challenging and yet has a very relatable, rather familiar story of a father and a daughter and the forces at play that could divide them. This film is both deeply original and yet easy to follow and be compelled by. It’s also just a really great showcase for one young actress on the rise and one of the most unknown but consistently brilliant actors working today. 


Leave No Trace is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD, and and On Demand rental. 


Movie Review Venom

After four days straight of writing about tragic romance, Venom, the new superhero adventure from Sony’s bargain bin of Marvel oddities, is not a bad palette cleanser. While I enjoyed much of my time spent in tragic romance-land, getting a big, silly CGI gutbuster is just the way to give me a little distance from that world. Nothing could be more disposable and usefully vacant than Venom, a movie where the hero is subsumed by an alien parasite and fights other alien parasites.


Tom Hardy stars in Venom as Eddie Brock, a crusading reporter in Silicon Valley who exposes corruption in government and industry. Eddie gets himself into hot water when he begins investigating a supposedly benevolent billionaire mogul named Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). First, Eddie steals information from his girlfriend Anne’s (Mchelle Williams) computer, her law firm works for Drake’s company. Then, on live TV he uses the information to attack Carlton Drake mid-interview.


As should happen, Eddie is fired from his TV gig for his unsubstantiated claims and Anne dumps him for getting her fired along with him. Cut to 6 months later and Eddie’s finances are running low as no one will hire a disgrace. This is when Eddie gets the biggest scoop of his career. A doctor at Drake’s company, Dr. Scurth (Jenny Slate) decides to tell Eddie that what he reported initially was true, that Drake is experimenting on homeless people.


It’s way worse than that though, homeless people are being killed in this experiment by an alien lifeform that Drake’s people retrieved from space during a private space exploration project. Scurth is able to sneak Eddie into the facility and while there, Eddie gets attacked by the alien and infected. Lucky for him, the experiment works, the alien Symbiote, as it is called, bonds to Eddie. Eventually, the alien reveals itself to be named Venom and it has plans for Eddie.


Venom is a seriously crazy movie. The tone of the film is all over the place as it struggles with wanting to be very violent and very broad while staying in the lines of a PG-13 movie. Venom eats people, specifically their heads, but we can’t see that in a PG-13 movie so director Ruben Fleischer has to do a lot of tap dancing to show how fearsome Venom is while not crossing the line into R-rated territory. Strangely, this approach worked for me.


Unable to be as nasty as it wants to be, Venom is essentially forced to be funny. Director Fleischer and star Tom Hardy work hard to amp up the comedy with Hardy throwing his full body into the performance as he slowly discovers what Venom can do. The comedy moves to the fore when Venom starts talking inside Eddie’s head and mocking him for the most part. Tom Hardy is a total pro and he throws full crazy into his performance and damned if it isn’t hilarious at times.


That’s not to say that Venom is a laugh riot, or that it is even a really good. It’s not bad, it’s strange and I rather enjoyed this strange approach to a superhero movie. One of the things that all superhero movies struggle with in the glut of their own film genre is finding their own unique voice. Fleischer and Hardy found Venom’s unique voice rather quickly. This feels completely different and fresh from every other superhero movie in the genre.


It’s not without flaws, the weird can go too far and Riz Ahmed’s performance is a tad too bland for someone of his talents, but for just being different and for Tom Hardy’s singularly unique and committed performance, I enjoyed Venom a great deal more than I expected to. That’s also a function of lowered expectations as my critical brethren really set out against this movie but nevertheless, I found Venom odd but entertainingly so.


Movie Review A Star is Born (2018)

Having spent this entire week immersed in the world created by William Wellman, tales of fame and romance and tragedy, I was fully prepared to fall in love once again with the remarkable characters of Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine. Those are the original names anyway, the names of these characters have changed over the years to include Vicky Lester, Esther Hoffman, John Norman Howard, and now Ally and Jackson Maine. The names change but the story is as romantic and tragic and beautifully moving as ever. 


Bradley Cooper takes up the mantle of bringing A Star is Born to a new generation, taking up where William Wellman, George Cukor and Frank Pierson have tread before. It’s a daunting challenge for a first time filmmaker, as this is one of the greatest screen stories ever told. That Cooper proves to be up to the challenge says alot about his talents. That he also comes up short in some areas also speaks to his inexperience. 


Lady Gaga stars in A Star is Born as Ally, a Los Angeles hotel worker who moonlights singing torch songs in a drag queen bar. That’s where by chance she meets rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper). Maine is just off the stage at the L.A Forum and, having run out of alcohol in the limo, he decides to make a stop at the drag club. Here, Jackson listens as Ally swoons her way through a breathtaking, all French, performance of La Vie En Rose. 


The two spend the night talking and even writing music while sitting in the parking lot of a grocery store. Ally has no idea but in less than a week, the lyrics she pulled out of the air in that parking lot, would be sung live on stage in front of a football stadium size crowd at Jackson’s concert. Jackson is completely taken with Ally and when she blows away the concert crowd, the die is cast and Jackson Maine is deeply in love. 


What a shame then that his falling in love is coinciding with beginning of the end of his career. Jackson’s drinking and opioid addiction are catching up with him. More urgently however, he’s struggling with tinnitus, and maybe losing his hearing and thus his livelihood, his very life blood, music. Will Jackson deal with his problems and be there for Ally as her career begins to take off or will he fade away like so many before him. 


If you’ve seen the other A Star is Born movies, you know where this is headed. This is arguably the most famous tragic romance in film history. How we get there is far more important than where are heading and in that journey, Bradley Cooper does well to get us to where we are going. As both actor and director, Cooper is deeply compelling. He has a terrific singing voice, or at least a voice that is good for the kind simple songs crafted for him by the team behind Willie Nelson who went out of his way to help with the making of the movie.


It was at Willie Nelson concerts where Bradley Cooper got many of the live performance shots that we see in the movie. The authenticity of those performances is reminiscent of what made Barbra Streisand’s version of this story so powerful. Something about a real life live crowd interacting with the actors, treating them like their characters are as big and important as the story tells us they are, aids the experience of A Star is Born. 


I have a lot of praise for Bradley Cooper’s direction in A Star is Born but I have a few issues as well. Some of the choices that are made in the movie, especially related to the music performed by Lady Gaga, are rushed and ill-explained. At one point Gaga’s Ally goes from singer-songwriter at home at a piano with a live band behind her to an overly processed pop star complete with choreography and dancers in the blink of a scene or two. 


I assumed this was going to become an issue, that part of Ally’s journey was going to be fighting to be the kind of artist she first set out to be. It appeared that Rafi Gavron’s slick music producer was going to be the foil for Ally to get burned by the business and rediscover her art form but in the end, though he is a villain, we are to believe that the music she created for him is good and frankly speaking, I was not a fan of the dull, bleating, pop music produced for his character. 


The film is quite confused on this point. At one point an angry and drunk Jackson calls out Ally for her sell out pop songs and says he hates them. We assume that’s leading somewhere but it goes nowhere and as he gets sober again he doesn’t say anymore about how he feels about her new musical direction. It’s a jarring choice and one that undermines the character of Ally who quickly loses the authentic quality that Streisand had especially built for her version of this character in ‘76. 


This leads to an ending that rather than building to monster closing number that blows the doors off the building as Streisand did, instead ends with Gaga crafting something closer to Candle in the Wind, not a bad tribute but a rather bland one compared to Streisand’s rocker. I really wanted to see Gaga belt one out but the ending of this A Star is Born is a great deal more muted, surprisingly more staid. It has Gaga in front of an orchestra rather than a band. 


As for Lady Gaga the actress, she’s quite compelling. She’s better than Kris Kristofferson who mostly acted in poses. She’s in the upper echelon of singers turned actors, she has the poise and self-possession of a superstar, thanks to her years of practice as one of the biggest music stars in the world. But it’s her quiet confidence that stands out here. Free of all of the gimmickry and oddity, we can finally just hear that voice and it is as stunning as ever, most of the time. 


Perhaps Lady Gaga’s music isn’t my taste, though I do like many of her songs. If she was the one who conceived the pop songs in A Star is Born that we are supposed to like, especially one she performs on Saturday Night Live in the movie, she was way off. The song is terrible and the lyrics are utter nonsense. I was sure that the story was set up to reject the pop pastiche version of Ally and instead the movie appears to want us to buy into that version just because she’s really Lady Gaga and not the rootsy, singer-songwriter character we meet early on. 


It’s night and day between the terrific music Ally makes with Jackson and the pablum she produces with the evil record producer. Granted, the same disconnect happens in the 1976 version when Streisand goes for a showtune/disco presentation opposed to Kristofferson’s classic rock god but the film set her up in that world before John Norman dragged her into his world and she never tried to be anything other than the singer we eventually hear. 


Attempting to meld a piece of Lady Gaga into Ally instead of melding Ally into Gaga proves to be a mistake. The shift from the character to something closer to the real Gaga is too jarring and poorly plotted. It lacks context, we don’t get a progression from the pop rock of the soundtrack hit Shallow to the god awful electro-pop of Why Did You Do That To Me. For the record, Why Did You Do That sounds better on the soundtrack to the movie than it does in the movie but the shift in musical style is still a major issue for the film. 


I wanted to love A Star is Born, I really did. I wanted this movie to have the same transcendent qualities that the original had. I wanted it to have the power of the Streisand version and the story of the 37 version. I wanted this to be one of the best movies of 2018. Perhaps my expectations were just too high. I like this movie, I recommend this movie, but if you expecting too much from it, prepare to be disappointed.


Movie Review A Star is Born (1976)

As a kid, I could not get past the idea that Barbra Streisand was mom’s kind of movie and music star. Her music, to me, sounded dull and dreary, like elevator music but with words. That perception held far longer than I like to admit, mostly because I made no effort to look into Barbra Streisand’s career. I was stubborn and dismissive of the idea that I could ever enjoy anything that Barbra Streisand ever made simply as a way of rejecting things my parents enjoyed. 


It’s a typical part of the process of growing up, you love and rely on your parents but at a certain point your personality begins to form and rejecting things your parents loved is a simple minded form of rebellion against their values. That’s a long way of saying I just didn’t like Barbra Streisand and I came up with many justifications as to why I should not have to investigate her career and form an actual, defensible position regarding the quality of her work. 


That lasted until I saw Yentl a few years ago. Yentl was a revelation. As much as I may not care for Barbra’s broad showtunes and moony balladic music, I cannot deny that her performance in Yentl was compelling, it was deeply moving. It didn’t cause me to seek out something like Hello Dolly, baby steps here people, but it did make the idea of exploring Barbra Streisand’s work a great deal more palatable. 


This brings us to 1976’s A Star is Born, my third exposure this week to the remarkable story of a woman named Esther and a man named Norman, or John Norman here, two people going in different directions on the road to and from fame. The 1937 take on this story starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March and written and directed by William Wellman remains the gold standard for how this story is told and acted but, unlike the 1954 version, I have a lot of nice things to say about this reimagining of this classic Hollywood story. 


Kris Kristofferson stars in A Star is Born as John Norman Howard, an aging rock star whose bad habits are getting the best of him. He’s drinking too much and using drugs and forgetting the lyrics to his songs. He’s angering fans, bandmates, producers, and radio hosts with his cantankerousness. He appears content to go down in flames until he hears the voice of Esther Hoffman (Streisand) at a nightclub in L.A. 


Esther’s voice awakens something in John, and after a series of misadventures trying to connect with her in the midst of the appalling chaos of his life, the two manage to connect in a deep and meaningful fashion. Eventually, while he’s failing to entertain crowds at his own concert, he turns the show over to Esther who blows everyone away. Her style of disco showtunes doesn’t exactly mesh with his brand of stoner rock but the audience doesn’t appear to care. 


As Esther’s star rises, John’s falls further and further but they manage to stick together until the inevitable end. A Star is Born is a romantic tragedy and thus you know what’s coming, it’s not a spoiler at this point, it’s an inevitability. What happens afterward however, is where a legend is made and even I can’t deny Barbra Streisand’s legend status after seeing her blow the doors off of the ending of A Star is Born. 


I really enjoyed this take on A Star is Born. Shifting the background from the film industry to the music industry was a smart choice but even smarter was the decision not to crowd out the story with musical numbers. The music is there, some of the best music of Streisand’s career undoubtedly, but it’s melded into the story of A Star is Born which director and co-writer Frank Pierson takes great pains to balance. 


It is Hollywood legend that Streisand and producer-boyfriend Jon Peters and Kris Kristofferson clashed heavily with Frank Pierson but the final product of A Star is Born doesn’t appear to show the strain. The final cut of the movie is a tight 2 hours and 12 minutes, it doesn’t contain any of Streisand’s famed ego shots, the movie never comes second to Streisand showing off her vocal virtuosity. It’s a really solid movie with a central performance from Streisand that transcends in a far more effective way than what Judy Garland did in the ‘54 version. 


The 1954, George Cukor version of A Star is Born could very easily be written off as a Judy Garland ego trip or someone’s monument to her greatness, whether she wanted it or not. Frank Pierson is not building monuments to Barbra Streisand’s greatness in the 1976 version of A Star is Born. Yes, he knows to get out of the way at the end and let his leading lady loose to do her thing, and boy does she, but this is no ego trip, that moment especially is fully ingrained to the heart of the movie. 


If I do have some issues with this version of A Star is Born, they are with Kris Kristofferson. I had no idea how much I was going to hate his voice. He’s not great in this at the one thing I assumed he was known for. His singing voice is a raspy, nasty howl that I can’t imagine ever having had a hit record. Perhaps it’s meant to be part of his ongoing downfall, maybe he used to be able to sing beautifully but there is little evidence of that here. 


Kristofferson’s acting isn’t bad, he has an authentic quality that keeps him from being one note. Streisand definitely makes things easier for him. She’s magnetic, she could make anyone seem better just by how well she sees them. That she’s falling for him helps us to appreciate him more. That, and the character is superbly written. Pierson along with the brilliant Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne are credited with the screenplay and it’s some kind of shame they didn’t receive an Oscar nomination. 


This version of A Star is Born is filled with transcendent moments from Esther’s first time on stage, to the hothouse romance of her recording the hit song “Evergreen” to that ballsy, brilliant, teary ending that I adore so much. It doesn’t quite reach the emotional or romantic heights of what Janet Gaynor and Fredric March reached in the 1937 original but it’s far closer than the Judy Garland movie. 


Plus, this version of A Star is Born only serves to make me even more excited about the newest iteration of this story. If Bradley Cooper can create the moments, we already know Lady Gaga can blow the doors down with her voice. If she’s set for an ending like the one we got in 1976, get ready for the waterworks, have some tissues on hand because we are in for some classic emotional rollercoaster rock n’roll romance. 


Movie Review A Star is Born (1954)

George Cukor is a legendary director. I praised his work on The Philadelphia Story in this very space not all that long ago. I own both Gaslight and Born Yesterday, just two of the many iconic films Cukor directed in his 40 plus year career. I have George Cukor bona fides, so I feel I am in a position to offer a critique of one of his most well remembered and should be forgotten efforts, his remake of A Star is Born in 1954 starring Judy Garland and James Mason. 


A Star is Born (1954A) takes the story of Ester Blodgett, so brilliantly and memorably played by Janet Gaynor, and makes it a vehicle for a Judy Garland one woman show. What once was a classic Hollywood tragic romance is now commandeered into what amounts to a Judy Garland concept album that occasionally pauses for some dialogue. The music and the design is spectacular but the story is a complete non-starter and considering it’s one of the greatest stories Hollywood has ever told, that’s not merely a shame, it’s a downright crime. 


Judy Garland plays Ester as a singer performing with a big band at an event at the Hollywood Bowl. She’s on the stage when a drunken movie star, Norman Maine (James Mason) wanders on stage looking worse for wear. Ester improvises and dances with Norman making it briefly seem as if he’s part of the act and her move, temporarily, rescues Norman from another in a string of public spectacles that are slowly sinking his career. 


So intrigued is Norman by Ester’s remarkable voice that he tracks her down to a late night club where she and the band are allowed to perform their favorite songs and sip on cheap booze. When Norman walks in, he's carried away by Ester’s performance of “The Man Who Got Away.” Norman then sweeps Ester away to talk and eventually convinces her not to go out on tour with the band but rather to take a screen test with him for the chance to become a star. 


Ester takes that chance and after a few stumbles and a brief Norman disappearing act, he gets her a big shot with the big shots. Ester lands a lead role and wins the hearts of moviegoers everywhere. All this as Norman, her lover and her mentor slowly begins to fade away. With his star on the wane and hers on the rise, can Norman overcome his insecurities and ego for Ester or will he burn out like the great star that he was. 


Flowery prose aside, the story is there but the team of Cukor, Garland and Mason have no interest in it. This version of A Star is Born is dedicated not to storytelling, not to an iconic Hollywood tale, but to the ego of star Judy Garland. That’s not to say it’s Judy Garland’s fault that I don’t like this version of A Star is Born, but she’s the one whose singing constantly interrupts and upstages the story. 


It’s the dedication to showing Garland perform entire songs that likely explains why James Mason’s performance as Norman Maine has none of the energy or wit of Fredric March’s Norman in 1937. Mason appears completely checked out, he makes no attempt to connect with Garland romantically and without the romance, the tragedy doesn’t resonate as strongly as it should. No one seems to care however, because Judy Garland is hoofing and singing her heart out. 


I genuinely do appreciate Garland’s talents. She’s an incredible performer, much better than the rest of the movie around her. The problem is, she’s so good and so talented, that this amazing story is buried beneath the monuments that George Cukor builds to her talent. Because of the fact that we see her perform so many full length songs, this version of A Star is Born is a punishing three hours long. I could get the same effect from a Judy Garland concept album as I got from seeing A Star is Born (1954). 


The only part of the story that Cukor gets right, and that still remains from the exceptional, all time classic, 1937 version of A Star is Born, is the depiction of just how fragile the male ego can be. One of the few moments that works in the ‘54 version is a scene where Norman signs for a package and is referred to as Mr. Vicki Lester. Mason registers the pain in his eyes beautifully and given that the scene before was a lengthy, playful song, his turn of mood is really effective. 


That one scene however, is not enough to overcome the miscalculations of this version of A Star is Born. This story is too great, too iconic and too deeply, romantically, tragic to turn into a simple minded star vehicle. William Wellman created a remarkable story with the help of some of the finest writers of his day and for a remake to trample that work as George Cukor does here is a crime against storytelling. 


It's fair to say that I am bagging on this take on A Star is Born because of my love for the original. I'm not intending to ignore the good about the remake, I just can't get over how much I love this story, and these characters as they were played by Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. I think Judy Garland is wonderful and her singing is rather divine, it's just badly misplaced here. This is a romantic tragedy, not a one woman show. It needs leads with chemistry and not a checked out leading man who's shoved out of the picture in favor of songs that only serve to lengthen the movie to an ungodly length. 


Movie Review A Star is Born (1937)

A Star is Born is among the most iconic stories Hollywood has ever told. There are few things that Hollywood people love more than stories about Hollywood and what is a better Hollywood tale than a romantic tragedy about a young, up and coming, starlet and a fading film icon. Doomed romance against the glamorous backdrop of old Hollywood. That producer David O. Selznick didn’t stop at the premise and added to it with, arguably the finest writer of her time in 1937, Dorothy Parker, only serves to make the original, A Star is Born the truly iconic version of this iconic tale. 


A Star is Born (1937) stars Janet Gaynor as Ester Blodgett, a small town, North Dakota gal with stars in her eyes. She loves to go to the picture show and dreams of seeing herself on the big screen next Garbo or Harlow or her dreamboat, Norman Maine (Fredric March). Her family wants her to keep her head of the clouds and get married, all except her granny (May Robson), who cashes in her funeral fund to send Ester to Hollywood. 


Once in Hollywood, Ester struggles like most young starlets trying to stand out in a sea of starlets. There is little encouragement for her, save for Danny, the wonderful Andy Devine, a down on his luck assistant director who becomes Ester’s closest friend. It’s through Danny that Ester gets her first job in Hollywood, as a waitress at a Hollywood party. Ester however, seizes the opportunity and in a terrifically funny scene, Janet Gaynor throws herself into impressing people at the party with impressions of Garbo and Jean Harlow. 


It’s here where she meets Norman Maine in person for the first time and their chemistry is off the charts. Norman is the epitome of the Hollywood libertine. We hear legendary stories about his exploits via his friend and studio head, Oliver Niles played by the sublime Adolph Menjou. Oliver has spent the past few years protecting Norman from the press but with his box office numbers dropping, he may not be able to protect his friend much longer. 


The romance of Ester and Norman leads to Ester getting a big screen test and landing a bit part. That bit part bursts into a lead part opposite Norman in which her star power blows him off the screen. Suddenly Ester, renamed Vicki Lester, is the toast of Hollywood and though she and Norman marry, his fading star is set to be the downfall of their romantic bliss. While the going is good however, Gaynor and March light up the screen in one of Hollywood’s greatest on screen romances. 


I completely adore A Star is Born (1937). William Wellman’s direction is superb and the script, though authored by a committee, has just the right committee to make it work. The legendary wit of Dorothy Parker is present throughout A Star is Born. Listen close and you can hear her wit coming from March’s Norman as he cuts through the B.S of the Hollywood system before his ego becomes too much for him to bear. 


Janet Gaynor is the picture of innocent, loving, romance. She’s brilliant and beautiful and she simply radiates with elegance and talent. Then there is her talent for comedy, though underplayed here, I adored the few moments when her comic side comes out. I mentioned the party scene and her wonderful impressions but even a much smaller scene in which she’s traveling in a camper while Norman is driving and she’s singing and burning a steak, she has comic gracefulness that only a true star has. 


Fredric March is charisma personified. He’s completely fearless, with zero care as to whether we like him or not. March is fully self-possessed and exceedingly confident. That’s what makes him such a great character for a romantic tragedy, a man who believes he’s impervious finds pain for the first time and can’t bear it. March is witty and handsome and unafraid to allow us, if no one else in the movie, to see him be wounded, vulnerable and eventually, deeply tragic. 


A Star is Born (1937) is like a chemical reaction; all the pieces come together for this brilliant explosion of romance, glamour, laughs and heartache. That final line in the movie, “Mrs Norman Maine” is one of the most incredible final lines in movie history. It sums up a journey for Janet Gaynor as Ester and for us in the audience who now have this gloriously cathartic moment of joy and empathy, sadness and triumph. 


A Star is Born (1937) is now among my favorite movies of all time. It’s available now on Amazon Prime and for subscribers to the FilmStruck app. It’s the first of four versions of A Star is Born that I will be writing about this week and I predict it will be the best of the bunch.


Movie Review Ace in the Hole

Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is downright diabolical. This brilliant dark drama about a reporter who’s hit rock bottom and sees his ticket back to the big time in a dying man, trapped in a hole, is a masterpiece of cynicism and shock. Kirk Douglas gives a ripping performance as a man whose poverty and boredom overcomes his basic human decency and with Wilder’s witty direction, Ace in the Hole becomes an all time classic. 


Kirk Douglas stars in Ace in the Hole as Chuck Tatum. Chuck’s been fired from numerous jobs across the country, his biggest gig in New York City where his drinking cost him a really great life. Now, Chuck’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he charms his way into a job writing for a local newspaper. Chuck is a slimeball, an arrogant jerk who has charm but little care for the feelings of others. 


In New Mexico, Chuck begins to turn his life around. He gives up drinking and commits himself to writing news stories. Things are working out relatively well but Chuck is bored, he’s eager for a story to break. He gets his chance at a big story when a local man named Leo Minosa gets trapped in a cave while searching for artifacts. Chuck insinuates himself into the plan to rescue Leo and pushes the story to last longer, before turning it into a national obsession. 


Things get uglier when Chuck gets into an affair with the trapped man’s wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling). Chuck also disillusions a young, local photographer whose innocent observations become consumed by Chuck’s obsessive, greedy, desire to keep Leo Minosa trapped in the cave to keep his now national scoop going and keep the accolades and cash for his writing rolling in. 


The cynicism of Chuck Tatum is the defining trait of Ace in the Hole. Douglas rages and roils with petty, cynical diatribes. Douglas carries a vicious intelligence and frightful wit that he uses against the small town New Mexico folks any chance he gets. The gleam in Douglas’s eyes when he sees Leo’s predicament for the first time is chilling. He senses that this is the story that could win him prizes and his big ticket back to New York City. His calculations are villainous and yet, because it is Kirk Douglas we hang in with him far longer than we might with a lesser actor. 


The story of Ace in the Hole is based on a true story. Floyd Collins of Kentucky became trapped in a cave collapse in 1925. The story of how so many people failed and and made terrible choices in their attempts to rescue him were the basis for a tremendous episode of the history podcast The Dollop. Ace in the Hole takes the perspective of a reporter, just as a reporter was at the center of Floyd Collins’ story, only he was more blundering and less malevolent than chuck. 


Billy Wilder is a genius director. His compositions are basic yet brilliant but it’s his characters and dialogue where the legend forms. There is a nasty bite to Douglas’s dialogue that comes from a before its time level of cynicism and calculation. The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award for Wilder and co-writers Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman. For Samuels it was a second consecutive Oscar nomination following his script for No Way Out in 1950. 


It’s a reflection of just how harsh and abrasive yet bracing Ace in the Hole is that the Academy snubbed the film for Best Picture and Best Director in 1951. The film was just to ahead of its time, too nasty, too sardonic for the era of the Hayes Code which forced the film into an ending that, though true to the characters, betrays just how down and dirty the story is for most of its running time. 


Ace in the Hole is available on Tuesday, October 2nd, for the first time on a Criterion Collection Blu Ray release. The Blu-Ray has terrific special features for hardcore film fans including academic commentary tracks, multiple interviews with the late director, Billy Wilder, and a video essay featuring director Spike Lee. I highly recommend picking it up for yourself or your favorite film fan. 


Movie Review Hell Fest

Hell Fest could not possibly be more boilerplate, boring and mechanical. This is horror by committee, this is a horror film made by different focus groups in different parts of the country brought together by talentless hacks intent on giving each focus group exactly what they want. This lifeless knock off of all horror movie cliches barely rises to the level of actually being called a movie, this is 78 minutes, minus credits, of utter tedium. 


Hell Fest stars Amy Forsyth as Natalie, a college student who we are told works to hard. Her best friend, Brooke (Reign Edwards), and sort of nemesis, Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), tell us early on that they did not expect Natalie to join them because she’s focused on school. Natalie however, has picked the wrong weekend to take a break as her friends have procured tickets to Hell Fest, a traveling horror theme park that has a nasty reputation. 


In a prologue we witness a murder. A nameless woman is going through a Hell Fest haunted house when she gets separated from her party and is menaced by a man in a devil mask. The man stabs her to death and then hangs her corpse in among fake corpses in one of the haunted mazes of Hell Fest. We later learn that he body hung on display for several days and hundreds of Hell Fest patrons until the overwhelming stench of death let everyone know what was up. 


This, somehow, did not stop Hell Fest. Natalie and her friends are going to meet boys, Taylor’s boyfriend, Asher (Matt Mercurio), Brooke’s boyfriend Quinn (Christian James), and Natalie’s crush, Gavin (Roby Atal). With our full complement of cannon fodder in place our killer arrives. We never see his face, he has a Michael Myers style denatured mask, and we never learn what his motivation is. He’s here to kill and we’re supposed to be afraid for the obnoxious characters who aren’t Natalie and thus not the ‘final girl.’ 


No surprise, Hell Fest has three credited screenwriters and two more writers who receive ‘Story by’ credit. This is a movie that could only be assembled by committee. I can imagine a version of this movie that isn’t terrible; the idea of hiding murder and actual corpses inside a traveling horror show has a cleverness to it but as executed by this crew of screenwriters and a completely unimaginative director, it’s a rough sit through one dimwitted horror trope after another. 


The makers of Hell Fest kept directing themselves into logical corners they can’t escape from. On multiple occasions the killer has the opportunity to dispose of Natalie, his ostensible target as he’s spent the whole night following her specifically, and he doesn’t do it because she’s the main character. That’s it, that is the only reason why. There is no interruption, no one steps in to save her, she’s simply the main character and the killer chooses not to kill her for no logical reason and the filmmakers aren’t smart enough or don’t care enough to provide a reason. 


Hell Fest is a lazy horror movie for a lazy audience. If you don’t care about what your consuming, Hell Fest is for you. If you just want to passively watch obnoxious characters get disposed of in unimaginitive fashion, Hell Fest is for you. If you want to watch a movie not try in any way to be entertaining, scary or even have a pulse, Hell Fest is for you. If you want to watch an actual good movie, clearly Hell Fest is not for you.


Movie Review Night School

Night School is funny enough. Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish are really good at being funny enough in mediocre movies. Just last year, Tiffany Haddish was just funny enough in the otherwise just good enough comedy Girls Trip, from the same director, Malcolm D. Lee. Kevin Hart has made much of his movie career starring and being funnier than mediocre movies, see Think Like a Man 1 & 2, Ride Along 1 & 2 and Central Intelligence.


In Night School Kevin Hart stars as Teddy Walker, a High School dropout turned successful barbecue salesman. Teddy has a good life despite his being dropout, he has a good job and a beautiful, successful girlfriend, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Things take a turn when Teddy’s barbecue place burns down and he’s left without a job. His buddy, Marv (Ben Schwartz), can get him a job but only if he gets a GED.


This leads Teddy to Night School which is being taught at his old High School. The school Principal, Stewart (Taran Killian), is Teddy’s former High School nemesis who is determined to make things hard for him. Then there is Teddy’s teacher, Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), who is also not going to make things easy for him, though she’s at least, not actively acting against him as Stewart is.


The film takes a few minutes to introduce Teddy’s wack pack of fellow night school students. Rob Riggle, Romany Malek, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Al Madrigal, and and Anne Winters make up Teddy’s class and eventually his new support system as he struggles to stay in class while hiding his ongoing struggle from his girlfriend, leading to the tension that will drive the 3rd act, how long can Teddy sneak around and keep it from Lisa.


The plot is much more mundane than that description. Night School is riddled with cliches and predictability, jokes that you can see coming a mile away and the movie is going exactly where you think it is going. With being so predictable, the pressure is on Hart and Haddish to try and overcome the plot with laughs. That they are mostly successful is a testament to their remarkable talent.


Kevin Hart flails and falls and insults people and still manages be likable and funny. Hart works hard for every single laugh, there is no chill in his performance. This could be annoying from a lesser comic but from Kevin Hart, he’s so great at making himself the subject of a joke that you can’t help but like him and be on his side. Kevin Hart made predictable scenes still funny with the sheer will to want us to laugh.


Tiffany Haddish is one of the most talented comic actors working today. She can raise an eyebrow and get a laugh. She has such an assured comic persona and such complete confidence in her choices that you can’t help but be entertained. She’s very funny here especially when she is torturing Kevin Hart’s character into learning. It is somewhat problematic that the movie thinks dyslexia can be cured by punching but it’s a minor complaint.


Night School should not be as much fun as it is. Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish are a terrific comic team. Director Malcolm D. Lee is an enigma to me as a director. I’ve liked a lot of Malcolm Lee’s movies even as most of them are the same kind of modestly ambitious, overly familiar raunchy comedy. Lee’s talent appears to be creating a space for his actors to find the energy, to find the joke. That safe space for performance is the hallmark of Lee’s work.


Night School works because the stars have so much room to move and be energetic and bounce around. You can sense that the actors are having a great time together, riffing jokes, and working to stay in character as they search for the most fun thing they could do or say. That’s another hallmark of Malcolm Lee’s work, his casts always appear to be having such a great time. Night School is fun because everyone in the movie is having so much fun.


Movie Review Smallfoot

I had extremely low expectations for Smallfoot. This animated feature comes from the director Over the Hedge, a minor animated hit a few years back, which, like Smallfoot, is more pleasant than it is fun or exciting. Indeed, that seems to be director Karey Kirkpatrick’s niche, he makes nice, pleasant, amusing movies. That sounds as if I am damning with faint praise but I don’t mean to. Smallfoot is an adorable movie, if not one anyone over the age of 12 will remember after seeing it. 


Smallfoot stars the voice of Channing Tatum as Migo. Migo is a lovable galoot, a lumbering, good-natured Yeti, eager to go with the flow of his heavily regimented society. Everyone in Migo’s hometown follows the rules of the Stonekeeper (Common), who, though he rules benevolently over his subjects, does not take dissent lightly. Banishment awaits anyone who defies the writings of the ancient stones. 


One of the stones specifically states that there are no other creatures in their world but there are especially creatures known as Smallfoot. It’s odd that the stones are so specific in denying the existence of the Smallfoot, but remember, we are not to question the stones. This makes things extra complicated for simple minded Migo when he finds a Smallfoot on the side of their super-high Himalayan mountain. The Smallfoot makes a hasty retreat before Migo can bring him to the village and when Migo stands by his claim of finding one, he is banished from the kingdom. 


All seems hopeless until Migo is rescued by a small faction of Yetis who also believe in secret in the Smallfoot. This group includes Gwangi (Lebron James), Kolka (Gina Rodriguez), Fleem (Ely Henry) and their leader, the Stonekeeper’s daughter, Meechee (Zendaya). Together, this group will join forces to try and prove the existence of the Smallfoot, a task that proves relatively easy when they stumble over Percy (James Corden), a wildlife expert and down on his luck TV host who happens to be searching for Yeti’s in order to save his TV show. 


That’s just a taste of the plot of Smallfoot and it’s pretty standard stuff except, I almost forgot to mention, Smallfoot is a musical. Yes, the movie is brimming with light, hummable pop songs. Some really terrific pop songs including a fun, if very, very specific cover of David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure by James Corden and a soaring, epic piece from Zendaya. There’s even a big, kind of scary and oppressive tune from Common that really works well in the context of the story, if not as a standalone tune. 


The Smallfoot soundtrack isn’t going to be the next Frozen, it’s far too specific for a pop charts crossover. The best trait of this soundtrack is that the songs are upbeat, and they move the plot rather than being concerned with being on the pop charts. Each of the castmembers with a song, including Channing Tatum, really knock their song out of the park. There is some cheese in these pop songs, but it goes down easy. 


I didn’t expect to enjoy Smallfoot nearly as much as I did. I’m not saying, all audiences will enjoy it, this is unquestionably a kiddie flick, but it is a kiddie flick that won’t make moms and dads want to claw through their seats to escape it. Smallfoot is sweet and cute and clever, it’s not special and you won’t remember it very long after seeing it, but it’s not a bad way to spend a good 90 some minutes with your kids. 


Smallfoot is in theaters nationwide this weekend. 


Movie Review Slice

Slice is a bizarre movie, very much in its own unique headspace. It’s not a movie for all audiences, you have to be on this movie’s very particular wavelength to enjoy it and if you’re not, you will likely turn it off rather quickly. Even someone with vast experience comparing movies to other movies, I have a hard time finding something that I can compare to Slice. Perhaps, Michel Gondry crossed with Donald Glover’s Teddy Perkins, with a little bit of Monster Squad. Yeah, this movie is that strange.


Slice is set in a town that is divided between humans and ghosts. Humans live on one side of town and ghosts live on the other side of town in a sort of human-ghost detente. Each side of town keeps to themselves and coexist in daily life at grocery stores and in pizza places. Mayor Tracy (SNL’s Chris Parnell) devised this plan as a way of keeping the peace and keeping ghosts from haunting people all the time.


The peace between ghosts and humans however, appears to be broken when a pizza guy is murdered on the ghost side of town. Many in town blame the ghosts, including the Mayor but he is being stirred up by a group of activists, led by Vera (Marilyn Dodds Frank), who blames the city for the problems with ghosts because the city built a strip mall over the top of a cemetery and former mental asylum that burned down decades earlier and unleashed most of the ghosts in Ghost Town.


Weird enough for you yet? It gets weirder. Chance the Rapper co-stars in Slice as Dex Lycander, a 1000 year old Werewolf who wants nothing more than to deliver quality Chinese Food at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, his Chinese food place went out of business after all of their delivery drivers, save for him, were murdered exactly the same way pizza guys from the Relax It’s Perfect Pizza franchise are now being murdered.


Paul Scheer from The League appears here as Jack, the owner of Relax It’s Perfect Pizza Place, and yes, saying the name as a whole mouth full, is part of the film’s bizarre sense of humor. Zazie Beets from TV’s Atlanta plays one of the pizza delivery drivers who is out for revenge on whoever killed her pizza boy boyfriend and she’s got her eyes set on Dex, whom everyone assumes is the killer. Everyone except for plucky news reporter, Sadie (Rae Gray) who has a better theory: Witches.


I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved writing that description. It barely cracks the absurd surface of Slice even as it appears to be comprehensive and given that the movie is barely feature length, at a mere 86 minutes, with credits, that should give you a sense of the strange you’re in for if you try Slice. The film was written and directed by Austin Vesely, an actor and regular collaborator with Chance the Rapper.


The film has the feel of something Chance and Vesely cooked up on the set of one of Chance’s music videos and they somehow were able to follow their odd muse all the way to a feature film. Slice is weird and charming in a way quite similar to Chance and his music, an acquired taste, just like Slice. Slice is in its own little world of weird. As much as those elements I talked about in the description might seem appealing from what you know of Werewolves, Witches and Ghosts, you don’t know what you’re in for here.


Slice is delightfully low budget to the point where the ‘Ghosts’ in the movie, are actually just people in makeup who look more like Halloween costume zombies. That effect is budgetary but also intentional, it’s like an homage to how Ed Wood might have portrayed ghosts, to the point where one of the biggest laughs in the movie, for me, came from watching a ghost leave through a door, not glide through it, but rather, he pushes it open as if he weren’t a ghost at all. It’s all in how the scene is set and the weird vibe the movie creates.


Either you’re in for the weird of Slice or your not. If you can’t get in on the strange, funky, arty, kidding vibe of Slice, it’s not for you. For me, I kind of love it. I love the strange sense of wonder in Chance the Rapper’s performance. I love the pluck of Rae Gray’s performance as Sadie the reporter, the only seemingly competent person in the movie. I loved how the movie has no fully identifiable time. There are old cars and 80’s costumes, hard-boiled cops from the 40’s and the internet but seemingly no cellphones.


I find Slice to be strangely charming and quite funny. I laughed loudly and often during the movie and I was consistently amused at the audacious weirdness on display. It took a few minutes but once I was on the film’s bizarre wavelength, I really began to buy in and enjoy it. It’s not for everyone, but for adventurous film lovers, for those with a strange sense of humor, and for fans of Chance the Rapper, Slice is a must see.


Slice is available to rent now on your favorite streaming service.


Movie Review The Seagull

The Seagull is such a small movie that I doubt anyone reading this has heard about it. It was briefly released to theaters on the coasts and a few major markets beyond but didn’t make an impact and was shunted to home video in rather short order. I would not have taken note of it except that it stars Academy Award nominee Saorise Ronan, who happens to be one of my favorite actors working today. 


I count myself very lucky that I am such a fan because The Seagull is one of my favorite movies of 2018. This ode to unrequited love has just about everything I love in a good family drama. The cast is a dream, the production is elegant, there are laughs, there are tears and their are moments of incredibly raw and beautiful emotional insight. There are characters who are villains and their characters who are brokenhearted victims and there are beautiful characters in between to witness it all. What a glorious movie. 


The Seagull, based on a play by Anton Chekhov, is set in a 19th century suburb of Moscow. An elderly man, Sorin (Brian Dennehy), lies on his deathbed. His sister, Irina (Annette Bening) has been called to his bedside, abandoning her curtain call on the Moscow stage. Irina arrives accompanied by Boris (Corey Stoll) who immediately strikes an awkward tone with Irina’s son, Konstantin (Billy Howle). We assume we understand their tension but we will learn so much more through the course of this story. 


The house is bubbling with life with Irina’s longtime caretaker Polina (Mare Winningham) fussing over everyone and her daughter Masha (Elizabeth Moss), already wearing black and appearing to be in mourning. Then there is the wise doctor, Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney) doing his best to make Sorin comfortable by managing his pain and managing the many family members wandering in and out of the scene. 


You might assume that such a fuss over Sorin would mean he’s not merely beloved, but also a patriarch and standard-bearer, a breadwinner. Sorin is some of those things but The Seagull has you by your perceptions in the first act and then uses a flashback device to upend your many expectations. Nothing is what you see in the first act and there is so much more depth and sorrow and wonder to be found in this wonderfully told story. 


At the end of the first act, we meet Nina (Saorise Ronan). Again, we assume her role in this as Konstantin’s true love and the beginning of the second act, the start of the flashback appears to bear that out but director Michael Mayer and screenwriter Stephen Karam, who adapted Chekhov’s play, have something in store for you, likely the same surprises that Chekhov had for audiences decades ago. 


The Seagull is about unrequited love and not great romance. The film is filled with tragic false starts and failures and desperate compromises. Don’t get me wrong, I know I am painting very negative picture, but believe me, the film has as much light and passion as it does sadness and despair. This remarkable group of actors delivers one great moment after another as they reel you in, hold you close and perhaps break your heart along with their own. 


This is a masterfully acted movie. I became immediately invested in these performances. I have not seen much of Billy Howle but he won me over quickly as the tortured young genius, Konstantin. I bought in on his desperate attempts at recreating the art of the stage play and his struggle to do something new and innovative with the form. I also adored his chemistry with Saorise Ronan and found myself deeply affected by the rough course of their relationship. 


Annette Bening is also a standout in The Seagull. She has a scene late in the movie with Corey Stoll’s Boris that is among the most masterfully performed scenes of 2018. The writing in this moment zings but it takes a pair of incredibly convicted performers to deliver these lines and wildly conflicting emotional beats and Bening and Stoll were magnificent. They legitimately, took my breath away by the time the scene had finished. 


I don't want to go on too long with this review as I have already stated such praise for it, but I would be remiss if I did not also single out the perfomance of Emmy winner Elizabeth Moss. Moss, best known for her work on Mad Men, plays Masha, a sad woman who is desperately in love with Konstantin, who, because of Nina, can never return Masha's feelings. It's a sad story but Moss's performance isn't sad, it's bitter and feisty and it's marked by some of the deadliest lines in the movie. Moss's dark sense of humor is what keeps the film dipping into melancholy. That and Annette Bening's unending sunniness in the face of sadness. 


Michael Mayer is not a director I am all that familiar with. I vaguely recall his 2004 debut feature, A Home at the End of the World but it didn’t linger much in my memory. He’s worked mostly in television since then. I will be keeping an eye out for him from now on. You could argue that Anton Chekhov probably did much of the hard work on The Seagull but it is a great director who can make way for a story to truly sing and transcend our expectations. 

The Seagull is among my favorite movies of 2018. 


Movie Review Gotti

Gotti is a weird movie not in its filmmaking but in its perception. The film has received a universally negative reaction from critics, earning a 0% rating from zero positive reviews at I agree that the film isn’t very good but now having seen Gotti, I am a little puzzled at the vitriolic negativity the film has garnered. Gotti is not a good movie but it’s not so unholy bad as 20 other 2018 releases that have received at least one positive review. 


How, for instance, can the same group of critics, for the most part, have watched Gotti and have watched Clint Eastwood’s ludicrously terrible 15:17 to Paris and given that movie 24% positive reviews? It does not speak well of our profession when we damn John Travolta for being someone we don’t like and we kneel before Clint Eastwood because he’s a legend and some of us  aren’t willing to tell him his movie rotted out loud. 


But I digress, there is more than just issues related to John Travolta’s personality that rubs critics the wrong way. Indeed, everyone who gave Gotti a negative review was right to do so. My point is in regards to reviews that were so wildly negative that it appears they didn’t even watch the movie. Gotti is bad but it’s not 15:17 to Paris bad, it’s not nearly as bad as my least favorite movie of 2018, The Maze Runner The Death Cure, which deserves to have a 0% on RT but somehow tricked nearly half the critics on RT to give it a positive review. (42% positive) 


Now that my long preamble has ended, let’s get to what is actually wrong with Gotti. John Travolta stars as the infamous boss of the Gambino crime family. The film goes back in time to the early 70’s and follows Gotti’s rise from hitman to kingpin. From his first stint in jail all the way to his death in a federal penitentiary in 2002. The film replays Gotti’s greatest hits, so to speak, as if it were ticking of checklist. 


If you are familiar, as I am, with the life of John Gotti, then Gotti is relatively easy to follow. If you aren’t familiar, the film will likely play as a confusing mess of mob movie cliches. The film assumes the audience is familiar enough with John Gotti that it can bounce from one well known tabloid story to the next and we’ll be able to fill in the blanks. It’s a bafflingly dimwitted notion, considering Gotti’s been dead 16 years and was mostly a New York phenomenon. 


That said, this is a movie that was made by people fascinated by mob stories for people who are fascinated by mob stories. You aren’t likely to see Gotti if you’re not already familiar somewhat with the man so I can kind of understand why the filmmakers proceeded as they did. It’s baffling to me how limiting that approach is, it completely leaves out any audience that you might hope to draw beyond those well within the small niche of fans but let's assume that's the intent of the filmmakers and move on. 


Even as someone who is familiar with John Gotti however, a few odd choices standout. For one, Sammy the Bull Gravano is so limited in the film I could not figure out which actor was playing him. The Bull, the man responsible for sending John Gotti to jail for life when he flipped and testified against his boss, is barely featured in Gotti and when he is, he’s so minimal that you should not be surprised if you forget he was even there as a character. As a real life historical figure, those familiar with the story may be quite annoyed at how the film minimizes Gravano. 


Then there is the bizarre choice of the filmmakers to seemingly sympathize with, and even canonize to a point, John Gotti. As played by John Travolta, Gotti is a devoted family man, he’s a man who would never harm anyone who wasn’t a member of organized crime. According to the filmmakers, Gotti was a mafia Robin Hood, beloved by his neighborhood and maligned by a government that was always out to get him. 


That guy he killed in 1972 that sent him to jail for the first time, he hurt a little kid. He deserved it, John Gotti was doing the right thing and served his time for it is the thesis statement of Gotti the movie. The hands off approach to presenting Gotti the good guy who only killed other gangsters and didn’t allow his guys to sell drugs is hagiography of the highest sort. The film even portrays Gotti as being almost psychic with a scene in which he claimed to have an immediate distrust of Sammy The Bull, though all evidence indicates otherwise, including and especially, the fact that he named Gravano his Underboss. 


Gotti is poorly crafted and at times poorly acted though not by Travolta. Travolta is not terrible as John Gotti. He pulls off Gotti’s well known traits and tics well enough without becoming a mobster cliche and his performance is filled with fire and passion. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn’t that great. Kelly Preston is especially bad as Mrs. Gotti, John’s wife, who Preston plays by relying on every single mob wife cliche in the books. 


Gotti is the first feature film directing effort from Kevin Connelly, famous for playing Eric on HBO’s Entourage. Connelly needs to go back to the drawing board as a director. His direction of Gotti when it isn’t sloppily slapped together is so indistinct and lacking in personality that the sheer mundanity becomes the film’s biggest fault, aside from Kelly Preston. The film is bad but it isn’t memorably bad. At the very least, it’s adequate, it’s dull and forgettable when it isn’t shabby or poorly conceived. 


Gotti is a deeply misguided film but it’s not bad in the way 15:17 to Paris is bad or The Maze Runner Death Cure is bad. Those films were amateurish, laughable and barely qualified to be called movies. Gotti was merely poorly thought out, ill-conceived and occasionally incompetent. That’s more than enough for me not to recommend it but I guess I am still contending with those reviews that seemingly called Gotti the worst movie of the year. It’s not good, but it’s not the worst. 


Movie Review Solo A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Stars Story was buried the moment that Kathleen Kennedy, steward of the now Disney owned Star Wars franchise, fired the directing duo of Lord and Miller. For fanboys and haters there was blood in the water at that point and the negativity became a feeding frenzy that no director was going to be able to get from out from under. Ron Howard was especially not equipped to get Solo: A Star Wars Story out of the fan dog house.


Known for his dry, doofy dad approach to filmmaking, Howard is mildly respected but for his longevity and professionalism but he’s not the kind of director the kids go crazy for. No one has ever said, ‘I can’t wait for the next Ron Howard movie.’ That’s not intended to continue to bury Solo: A Star Wars Story, it’s merely laying the groundwork for a middle of the road defense of what is a good movie despite all of the chaos, negativity and fanboy vitriol.


Indeed, it is my opinion, that only Ron Howard could have saved Solo: A Star Wars Story. It’s exactly Ron Howard’s qualities as a experienced and professional director that was going to deliver a movie competent and entertaining enough not to be completely dismissed by everyone. Only Ron Howard was going to make the kind of safe but solid Star Wars movie that could withstand the avalanche of online negativity.


Solo: A Star Wars Story is the story of Han Solo, the character made famous, of course, by Harrison Ford in the original and most recent Star Wars trilogies, and here played as much younger man by Alden Ehrenreich. We meet Han Solo as he and his beloved gal-pal Qi’Ra are attempting to escape from their home planet after stealing from a local criminal syndicate. With the baddies on their tale they head to a spaceport but get separated. They won’t see each other again for several years.


In the intervening years, Han joins the Empire, if only for the chance to fly a ship. He quickly tires of the Empire’s war however and looks for a way out. He finds it when he stumbles on a group of smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) who first uses the kid as cover for his own escape and scheme and then comes to take a liking to Han’s moxie and talent for being a scoundrel.


Along the way, Han meets Chewbacca who will, of course, live on to be his best friend and co-pilot. Their meeting is quite well drawn as Han is imprisoned by the Empire for attempting escape and is set to fight Chewie for his last chance at freedom. Instead, he uses his cunning to convince Chewie to save them both and escape the Empire, which they do alongside Harrelson and his crew.


Further down the line through Solo: A Star Wars Story we go through nearly all of Han’s biggest moments that we remember having been referenced in the original Star Wars trilogy including his legendary run as a smuggler who could do the impossible and his first meeting with another lifelong ‘friend,’ Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). The two don’t hit it off right away but their battle of wits is fun and their attempts to top each other’s massive ego is funny.


Lando leads us to the best thing in the movie, which surprisingly isn’t Donald Glover as Lando. Rather, the best thing in all of Solo: A Star Wars Story, is a robot. Lando’s sidekick, a robot named L3-37 and voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is a completely wonderful creation. Phoebe Waller Bridge is a remarkable talent, as anyone who has watched her Amazon series Fleabag can attest, and here, playing a robot with strong feelings, she is the best thing in an already pretty good movie.


Alden Ehrenreich, for his part, is good enough as Han Solo. It was a no-win situation for any actor who would try to play Harrison Ford’s iconic role while not being Harrison Ford. Ehrenreich does as well with it as I am sure any actor could have. He’s funny, he’s charming he captures that edginess that Ford brought to Han, that sense that while he may be a good guy deep down, he’s still part scoundrel, part smuggler, part hustler.


Part of the excitement of the original trilogy is watching Han Solo’s arc from smuggler to hero to a man committed to a cause. It’s arguably the best arc in the trilogy given the amount of personal baggage he sheds ever-so slowly. He went from not wanting to be anyone’s friend or protector to a member of a family and did so in a way that was very compelling and filled with pathos. Ford’s gruffness always kept you guessing but his actions were always noble. It’s a complex set of emotions and exceptionally well rendered.


Asking Alden Ehrenreich to bring that level to the character was a challenge no one could live up to and Ron Howard was smart not to ask him to. Instead, Solo: A Star Wars Story is more about adventure and old school derring-do than it is about character or growth. Yes, at the end of the movie, Han appears to have grown as a person but that is merely window dressing as his character growth is set to really kick in in the original trilogy. Here, he’s just a young smuggler and hustler and that’s all we should ask of him.


Under the circumstances, Ron Howard made the best version of Solo: A Star Wars Story that anyone was going to make. It’s a solid, if kind of forgettable, action movie with a good spine, a few laughs, good character work and enough Star Wars fan service that those who hadn’t already decided to hate it on spec, can find something Star-Warsy to hang our hats on when we tell fellow fans we actually liked Solo: A Star Wars Story.


Solo: A Star Wars Story is lighthearted and accessible and quite professionally crafted. It’s a solid, entertaining, if kind of bland, action movie with just enough quality for me to recommend it as an entertaining action movie and as a Star Wars movie. Solo: A Star Wars Story is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and On-Demand streaming beginning Tuesday, September 25th. 


Movie Review Life Itself

Life Itself is among the most misbegotten ideas for a movie that I have witnessed in my nearly 20 years as a film critic. The failure is so full of nobility and effort that you can’t help but admire it in the way one admires a raging, unstoppable fire, sure it’s pure destruction but it is pure in that destruction. Fire doesn’t choose to destroy, it’s merely the nature of fire. Life Itself is like watching a fire burn down the careers of all involved, it makes you sad in context but you can’t help admire the purity of such a glorious, fiery failure.


Life Itself comes from the mind of This is Us creator Dan Fogelman and is his first attempt at a big screen career. Based on this, he needs to stay on television. For the record, I am a huge fan of Fogelman’s TV work. On This is Us, Fogelman has time to allow emotions to build and to breathe. On TV, Fogelman’s characters have time to build toward big, emotional revelations and important, life altering moments.


Fogelman’s brand of revelatory emotionalism does not work well in the context of a movie. Movies have a different kind of inertia than a television series. Movies have to build to fewer big emotional beats as too many big emotions is way too much for a single movie. Fogelman cannot be restrained to just a few major emotional beats. He’s become accustomed to television and the ability to have 24 weekly hours to draw out a lot of big emotions.


Life Itself definitely bears out what I am saying. Fogelman attempts to pack 24 weekly hours worth of emotions into just over two hours and the rush to get from one big emotional moment to the next renders everything comically overwrought. No lie, I laughed way more than the film intended and from what I can gather, zero laughs were intended in this movie. The laughs start in the first moments of the movie when for reasons that only make sense to Dan Fogelman, we hear a voice over by Samuel L. Jackson.


I genuinely thought I had wandered into the wrong movie. Jackson’s bizarre voiceover wouldn’t be out of place in Assassination Nation, another of this week’s new movies, and until I saw Annette Bening, I wasn’t completely sure I hadn’t walked into the wrong movie. Bening stars in Life Itself, or really cameos in Life Itself, as a therapist working with a depressed man named Will (Oscar Isaac) who has just been released from an institution.


Will’s life went into a tailspin when his wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde), left him. His perception of the world has disintegrated. He can’t remember clearly if he and Abby had been happy once or if she’d always been planning to leave him. He has distinct memories but he’s worried that his memories aren’t the same as Abby’s and this thought has him nearly suicidal. As the therapist and Will talk, Will takes us on a tour of Abby’s life.


Here the film employs an odd device of having Will and the therapist physically enter Will’s memories and watch his life from the vantage point of the ghosts in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s a jarring device. I could only sit in a puzzled haze, staring at the screen, trying desperately to understand why this device was used at all as what is illustrated has little to do with the rest of the story the movie is unfolding except that maybe Will isn't remembering it correctly. We will come back to that. 


Poor Oscar Isaac is badly mistreated throughout this early section of Life Itself. First of all, don’t get comfortable with him as the star of Life Itself because he is gone much quicker than the trailer would have you believe. Worse yet however, is how Fogelman writes Will as a dopey, dramatic, sadsack whose depression is expressed by making scenes in coffee shop while yelling an review of a Bob Dylan record. He also enjoys pretending to be stuck in revolving doors because who can’t relate to that kind of showy sadness.


It’s probably a blessing for Isaac along with Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening and Samuel L. Jackson that their screen time is relatively limited. Lord knows that the rest of the cast wishes they’d gotten off as easy. Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas, Laia Costa, Alex Monner and Mandy Patinkin have to suffer the rest of Life Itself which unfolds over five ‘chapters’ with Cooke and Monner getting perhaps the most screen time.


None of the actors is particularly bad in Life Itself but the film is so overstuffed with revelations and big, emotional blow-ups, that no one has much time to create a character amid the chaos. Characters die in bizarre fashion at random intervals, other characters become temporary alcoholics or get sick with pretty cancer, the kind that is always topped with too much pancake makeup and beautiful head scarves.


Characters are hit by buses in fantasies and in the apparent reality of the movie and other characters are witnesses to the crash and have their lives destroyed and so on and so on until we get to the single lamest and unearned happy ending you could imagine. Well, I say happy ending, I cannot actually be sure of that as the film employs a device that renders everything we witness questionable.


Near the start of Life Itself we are told that Olivia Wilde’s Abby has written her college thesis on the Unreliable Narrator in fiction. This theme of the unreliable narrator is then woven throughout the movie, through Will’s potentially faulty memory, conversations between Costa and Monner as mother and son and the film’s actual narrator who we meet at the end of the movie as she calls into question the entire story she’s just been feeding us as the narrator of the movie.


The unreliable narrator can be a wonderful device in the right hands. Paul Thomas Anderson used it masterfully in his film Inherent Vice. Here, the unreliable narrator is employed so poorly that it becomes a cheat, a way for the director to both own and disown any scene he wants. If I am criticizing a specific scene in Life Itself, writer-director Fogelman can simply say that I misunderstood it because it didn’t happen that way because the narration was unreliable.


It’s a built in excuse to get away with any silly, overwrought, too much-ness, Fogelman wants to jam into Life Itself. It’s a clumsy cheat and it doesn’t work if you really take the time to actually break down the film as a whole. EIther it all matters or none of it matters, either some of what we see happened or none of it happened. What the hell did we just watch? Life Itself is both vividly dimwitted and maddeningly vague in its intentions.


Life Itself is one of the biggest disasters of 2018. An entirely misguided effort, Life Itself reminded me quite oddly of M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. The two films have nothing in common in terms of story or style but in terms of bold failure, they are on par, among the great bold failures in history. Life Itself is trying very hard and misses wildly and erratically in the same way M. Night Shyamalan’s attempt at a new modern fairy tale had ridiculously unmatched ambition that was met by complete failing execution.


Dan Fogelman takes a great big swing at making a movie in Life Itself and his failure is perhaps as big as his ambition. It’s hard not to kind of admire someone swinging completely for the fences and missing so badly. It’s like that fire I was talking about at the start of the review. It begins with just a spark and then rages out of control before spectacularly flaming out. You watch in horror but also in fascination. Fire has a strange, attractive, beauty  even as it renders the world asunder.


Movie Review Assassination Nation

Assassination Nation is a movie packed with ideas but lacking the depth and focus to do those ideas justice. Director Sam Levinson appears to want to make a violent revenge movie for the #MeToo generation, not a terrible idea. Unfortunately, the finished product is sloppy, facile and undercooked. The idea is strong as are the performances but the idea has no time breathe beneath the preening, posturing, look-at-me filmmaking.


Odessa Young stars in Assassination Nation as Lily, a degenerate High Schooler with a beyond her years weariness in her voice and manner. In an opening voiceover, Lily lets us in on the plot and what we are walking in on her small town of Salem, and yes, that name is intentional. A mask wearing mob is out to murder Lilly and her friends, Bex (Hari Neff), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra). Why? Why, indeed.


Cut back to a week earlier, a hacker has begun attacking the private lives of Salem-ites. It begins with the conservative Mayor who is outed via the hack as a cross-dressing fetishist and eventually takes his own life in front of a baying crowd. Things spread to a nice-guy school principal (Colman Domingo) who, though his life is relatively mundane, is nearly run out of town because his text messages and photos of his family are taken out of context.


All while this is happening, Lilly and her secret man, a figure she calls Daddy, in text messages, are exchanging sexts and worrying about whether they could get hacked. When they do, things begin to get dangerous and when speculation turns to Lilly and her friends as the culprits behind the cyber-attacks, the witch hunt is on in ol’Salem. This mob isn’t coming with flaming torches however, they’re coming strapped and the witches, they’re coming strapped as well.


As I said at the start of this review, there are a number of good ideas in Assassination Nation. As the film progresses through its plot it occasionally rises to the level of satire that the filmmaker intends such as a scene late the movie where Lilly talks right to the camera and delivers a monologue on the faceless hordes who hide behind masks and attack people anonymously. The clear metaphor is twitter trolls hiding behind keyboards and for that moment, Assassination Nation is nearly as clever as the filmmakers believe it is.


Those moments are few and far between however as most of the movie is given over to art for the sake of art cuts, strange angles, words on screen text messaging, which has been a plague of this generation filmmakers, and plenty of ogling of Lilly and her friends that tends to fly in the face of the message I assume the film is intending to send. The movie throws accusations in all directions but doesn’t appear to have any self awareness.


Director Sam Levinson sexualizes Lilly the same way that the villainous characters do but has apparently no awareness of that fact. Instead, the film hides behind dialogue in which Lilly accuses other characters of sexualizing things that she doesn’t believe are sexual outside of context. The film wants Lilly in super short shorts and it wants to blame the audience for noticing that her shorts are ridiculously short.


Assassination Nation wants to be a righteous revenge movie for the #MeToo generation but it plays more like an exploitation of that idea than something aligned with #MeToo. That’s no fault of the young actresses, especially Odessa Young and Hari Neff whose performances are more fully realized than the many ideas the film has going on. Young is an assured young actress who performs with conviction and confidence. Neff meanwhile, is a minor revelation, a young actress with an effortless charisma.


I wish Assassination were as good as these young actresses make it appear. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad movie, it’s just a little too flashy for its own good. The flash and the glamour overwhelm the ideas. The ideas aren’t fully formed enough to overcome the flash and high style on display. Sam Levinson isn’t a bad director, but he’s overreaching and his taste for Harmony Korine style visuals and Purge style violence never coalesces into quite the movie he appears to want to make.


There is a desire for Assassination Nation to be both a message movie and an art movie and a hit movie and these desires clash in ways that end up satisfying none of those desires. There are good things in Assassination Nation but they’re all in competition with each other and in the end, little of the good stands out. In the end, the finished film is a mishmash of good ideas, a few bad ideas, and mixed messages that never cohere.


I have a feeling that Assassination Nation will inspire a lot of talk and that talk may end up being more valuable than the movie that inspired it. In some way I guess, that’s a point in the film’s favor. I just wish we were talking about a better movie. Do I recommend Assassination Nation? Yes and no. Yes in that it does cause conversation and these young actresses are quite good but no, because the film isn’t good enough as a movie for me to say spend your money on it.


We’re already having the conversations that this film wants to inspire and would have them if this movie didn’t exist. If you are intrigued by the plot and these young actresses then perhaps you might get something out of seeing Assassination Nation but it is a film that is not essential in any way. It doesn’t have much to contribute to the conversation it wishes to inspire.



Movie Review The House with a Clock in its Walls

As much as I am loathed to praise the work of director Eli Roth, I am left with no choice. The fact is, he’s done a fine job in bringing to life the novel, The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Strange as it may seem, there is something about his perspective on horror movies that actually lends itself well to the mild, PG-13 scares of The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Though restraint has never been Roth’s strong point before, the way he dials back on his worth instincts while still finding way to express himself works here and I am shocked to say that.


The House with a Clock in Its Walls stars Owen Vaccaro as Lewis, a sheltered and shy young boy who is sent to live with his estranged and quite strange Uncle Jonathan, following the death of his parents in a tragic accident. Uncle Jonathan is the black sheep of the family, or Black Swan if you ask him, having runaway at a very young age to explore the world of magic. Over time he’s become a powerful warlock who uses his powers for good.


Alongside his best friend and neighbor, Florence, Jonathan has explored his super-scary house for years in hopes of locating a clock in the walls. Why a clock? Because it’s a doomsday device and what could be more dramatic than a literally ticking time clock counting down to worldwide doom. The clock was placed in the walls by Jonathan’s late former partner Isaac (Kyle McLachlan) whose experiences in World War 2 drove him to want to end humanity, leaving only himself and his wife, Selena (Rene Elise Goldsberry) alive, so to speak.


Isaac was killed in the creation of the clock but there is a spell that can bring him back to life and that’s where the plot of The House with a Clock in its Walls really gets clever in combining laughs and scares. McLachlan plays his evil character perfectly straight, no winking, all menace and world ending fury. It’s a bold choice and gives stakes to what was a relatively weightless plot that needed a little malevolent energy to give it a kick.


The House with a Clock in its Walls has a bold and unique production design. The house is a large part of this ensemble cast and I loved the skilful employment of CGI, not something Roth is particularly well known for. The CGI in The House with a Clock in its Walls is rather exceptional. It perfectly fits in the over the top gothic vibe of the old house and slides perfectly into that place just outside the uncanny valley of believable CGI and rubbery amateurish CGI.


Jack Black is his own CGI character. Black’s energy oozes from every pore, he’s a comic whirling dervish in The House with a Clock in its Walls and it recalls some of his best work, but especially a more grown-up version of School of Rock’s Dewey Finn, an equally fearless, Avante garde weirdo cut entirely from his own cloth. Black excels at characters where he can lend his natural weirdness to the role and the role of a warlock is perfectly suited to him.


Cate Blanchett is even better than Jack Black but only because she’s arguably the most talented actress working today. Blanchett’s Florence is struggling with the loss of her family in the war and with that loss went her magic. With Lewis’s encouragement, however, she starts to get her magic back again and Florence has a terrific arc in the movie. She’s also the star of the film’s best and most subtle scene. As she and Lewis are huddled around a dinner table, watch Blanchett’s arm, just above her wrist. It’s a character detail delivered so eloquently it doesn’t require words and it lands with tremendous impact.


Perhaps, against all of my preconceived notions, Eli Roth is actually a good director. Perhaps when he isn’t intentionally assaulting his audience he actually cares to entertain people. It seemed like a longshot to me but it appears, Roth actually can direct something that isn’t ugly, hateful and violent to an unnecessary degree. I would not have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself. The House with a Clock in its Walls is quite fun and lightly entertaining and Eli Roth is responsible for that.


I can’t believe I just wrote that about the director of Hostel and Hostel 2.


Movie Review School of Rock (2003)

School of Rock is among the best comedies this century. This century is less than 20 years old but still, that's among hundreds of successful and failed comedies. It's still impressive is my point. With Jack Black back in theaters this weekend I decided to take a look back at my favorite piece of his work as a leading man. That, undoubtedly is School of Rock. While Black is arguably better in his supporting role in High Fidelity or his leading role in the little seen indie movie Bernie, School of Rock is the perfect distillation of Jack Black as a movie star, a comic, and an actor.


School of Rock stars Jack Black as Dewey Finn, a faltering rock star who's just been kicked out the band he started. With no gigs coming and no job, Dewey is facing eviction from the small corner of his friend Ned's (Mike White) apartment. Dewey is desperately at odds with Ned's bossy new girlfriend, Patti (Sarah Silverman) who is pushing soft touch Ned to throw Dewey out if he can't come up with rent. When Dewey fails in his attempt to hock his guitar, he appears to be completely out of options. Then, luck strikes when Dewey intercepts a call for Ned about a substitute teaching job at a tony, high priced private school.


Seeing teaching as an easy gig that will pay enough to keep him in his home, Dewey impersonates Ned and takes the job. Once in the job, Dewey figures he can coast just sitting behind the desk and sending the kids on recess. Then he hears the kids playing music in music class and he hatches a crazy plan. Utilizing his seemingly unlimited knowledge of rock n'roll, Dewey will transform these pre-teens into the kind of rock n'roll band that he can use to stick it to his former band and compete at a battle of the bands for a $20,000 grand prize.


Naturally, through the bond of music Dewey comes to gain a new maturity and sensitivity while the kids discover new talents and confidence within themselves. This is a stock arc that dates back to the silent movie era. It's the kind of stock uplift that you see in television pilots and in Lifetime channel comedies. All of that said, the key is taking these stock elements and building on them and that is exactly what director Richard Linklater and writer Mike White do in School of Rock. The basic structure is strong and yet loose enough to allow Jack Black to shine and improvise and deliver the kind of loose and fun performance that made him a star.


Jack Black is not a star for everyone. His spastic dancing, his odd affectations and often bizarre manner can grate on some audiences. I happen to be a big fan of Jack Black's tics and tricks. I enjoy his strange energetic performances which recall Jim Carrey in the Ace Ventura movies but with pathos and a more recognizable personality. Black is absolutely hysterical as Dewey. His massive personality pops off the screen from the first moment and Jack Black plus a classroom of cute kids is a recipe for comic gold. Black himself is a big kid and he throws himself into both the role of manchild best friend and budding grown up.


The kids are something of a faceless mass but a couple stand out. Miranda Cosgrove, the future star of the not bad at all I-Carly, is completely adorable as the business smart grade grubber Summer. I adored the scene where Cosgrove approaches Dewey to confront him about assigning her the role of Groupie for the band project. It's a really funny scene and she nails it. The other stand out for me was Maryam Hassan as Tomika, the shy but super talented singer whom Dewey inspires to come out her shell and come out with her incredibly big and bold voice. It's shocking to find out she never acted again and carries no other IMDB credits after 2003.


Richard Linklater's best work tends to be small and independent. He doesn't appear comfortable as a mainstream director working for a studio. School of Rock is the rare exception where Linklater lends his considerable talent well to a mainstream feature film. It helps that Mike White gave him a strong and funky script to work with and that he had Jack Black at the height of his powers, but there is still plenty to indicate his strong directorial hand at work. In his other mainstream work such as the remake of Bad News Bears, Linklater doesn't appear nearly as engaged in the process and it shows in the lackadaisical plodding pace of that film. School of Rock is like an unstoppable rocket whole Bad News Bears was a massive dud.


Recently, Andrew Lloyd Webber of all people turned School of Rock into a Broadway sensation. The original idea for the film was for it to be a musical and now Webber and his creative team are realizing that original vision. It says something however, about the strengths of School of Rock that it could be so radically reimagined and still become one of the iconic comedies of this young century. School of Rock is a buzzy, energetic and wildly funny movie. I stand by the statement that this is one of the best comedies of the last 20 years. Watch it for yourself and you will see a very basic story told with great invention, energy, love and passion. What more can we ask of a great comedy?


Jack Black is back in theaters this weekend alongside Cate Blanchett in The House with a Clock in It's Walls. That new movie will be Friday's movie of the day on Friday. 


Movie Review Billionaire Boys Club

Billionaire Boys Club was a bad idea even before Kevin Spacey creeped out the world. The story of the Billionaire Boys Club is a desperately 80’s set story that hasn’t aged well. As directed here by James Cox, the story plays like a dinner theater version of The Wolf of Wall Street starring High School kids and their creepy Uncle. That Spacey is cast in the role of a real life creep and plays the role so effectively as a creep only serves to add a level of skeeviness to an already misguided enterprise.


Billionaire Boys Club stars Ansel Elgort as Joe Hunt, a High School genius who has yet to find his way in the adult world of finance in 1983. When Joe hooks up with his scheming best friend from High School, Dean (Taron Egerton) the two hatch a scheme that combines Joe’s business sense and Dean’s connections among Hollywood’s young elite. The BBC, which would come to be called the Billionaire Boys Club down the line, was born of arrogance and con artistry.


Joe’s brilliant plan involves manipulating the commodities market for large short term gains on big risks. It takes a lot of capital and more than a little B.S to pull it off. When Dean gets Joe a meeting with a bunch of young trust funders he slays them and gets them to invest thousands in a plan about as sketchy as your average ponzi scheme. They then go out and land their parents as clients and eventually all of the money gets tied up in Joe’s commodity play.


When Dean introduces Joe to Ron Levin (Kevin Spacey), Joe immediately sees dollar signs. Levin appears to be a big fish and when he offers to bankroll the rollout of the BBC things explode into new offices, fancy cars, and lavish, drug fueled parties. Naturally, it didn’t last and when things began to go wrong, they went deadly wrong with an unexpected but totally real  body count.


The misguided direction of Billionaire Boys Club jumps off quickly as the film begins with a bizarre and entirely unnecessary fantasy sequence. This sequence which depicts Ansel Elgort’s Joe in the famous Maxell Tape Commercial where a guy in a chair is nearly literally blown away by the power of a Maxell Tape, has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. You might assume this was Joe introducing himself using a familiar image from the time in which the movie is set, after all, there is a voiceover, but the voice isn’t Joe’s, it’s Dean’s. Why is he imagining this scenario?


Later, we suffer through a scene at a nightclub costume party that only serves to show how good rich people are at getting neat costumes. Emma Roberts is introduced in this scene wearing a perfect recreation of Daryl Hannah’s Blade Runner costume which is awesome except we don’t actually meet her and I am only kind of sure that was her and the costumes do nothing to further the story. Another character, so minor yet integral enough to keep popping up, appears to be wearing Harrison Ford’s actual Han Solo costume. It’s not important, it’s just kind of neat.


Let’s talk now about the Kevin Spacey sized Elephant in the room. Spacey’s downfall last year was hard enough to watch. Once known as an Academy Award winner, Spacey is now and forever a super-creep and Billionaire Boys Club is unfortunate enough to have cast him in a role that accentuates creepy. Ron Levin was a slimy con man and, based on the evidence of this movie, a flaming homosexual who comes very close to cutting deals in exchange for particular favors.


I have no idea if that was actually who Ron Levin was or if his sexuality played any role in his dealings with the real Joe Hunt or Dean Karny. What I can tell you is that director Joe Cox hints at the idea that Ron is creeping on Joe but doesn’t have the guts to go that far. Perhaps they recut that part of the movie after Spacey’s personal issues were exposed. I can’t say but what remains in the movie is still extra specially creepy based on what we know now and likely would have been more effectively creepy if we didn’t know.


Ansel Elgort and Taron Egerton are fully defeated by the Billionaire Boys Club. Despite their noted talents, neither actor can overcome the ick factor of Spacey combined with writer-director James Cox’s poor choices. Especially egregious is the lackadaisical voiceover he saddles poor Taron Egerton with. The voiceover sounds as if it were added after the producers realized the film was a mess and were trying to save it.


Voiceover is already the last refuge of scoundrels who can’t convey the same emotions or necessary information in dialogue or scene-setting. In Billionaire Boys Club voiceover exposes all of the film’s flaws in the most obvious and insulting fashion. Egerton himself barely seems invested in delivering the confusing mini-monologues he’s forced to give to try to make coherent what director Cox as rendered mostly incoherent.


Perhaps the best example of the failed mindset of the makers of Billionaire Boys Club is that someone thought it would be cute to cast Judd Nelson as Joe Hunt’s dad. Nelson portrayed Joe Hunt 30 years ago in the TV movie version of Billionaire Boys Club, which is somehow superior to this theatrical version. Nevermind the lame attempt at stunt casting, it’s the fact that you have to be someone like me to even remember that Judd Nelson was in the original Billionaire Boys Club otherwise his appearance here is merely an unnecessary cameo. That's if you even remember who Judd Nelson is which, I'm guessing the Ansel Elgort fanbase probably does not.


Billionaire Boys Club is on Blu Ray, DVD and On-Demand now though I would recommend taking your rental money and lighting it on fire as that would be just as much of a good time as watching Billionaire Boys Club.


Movie Review Hearts Beat Loud

Hearts Beat Loud stars Nick Offerman, best known for his work as Ron Swanson on Parks and Rec, and lovely newcomer Kiersey Clemons as father and daughter musicians. Well, he’s been a musician and he would like her to be one but she’s on the fence. Offerman and Clemons are Frank and Sam Fisher. Frank owns a failing record store and Sam is planning to go to UCLA in a week to go on to medical school.


Sam’s impending leave for the other side of the country, they live in Red Hook, a neighborhood in New York, and she’s headed to UCLA, hasn’t stopped Frank from dreaming about starting a band with his uber-talented daughter. Sam’s mother was a singer before she died in a tragic accident and she and Frank met when they were in a band together. Music is Sam’s DNA even if she prefers examining other people’s DNA rather than considering her own.


The shift in our story comes when Frank convinces Sam to have a jam session and the two end up writing a song called “Hearts Beat Loud.” The song is based on a beat Sam has had in her mind for some time and a lyric she picked up in one of her pre-college prep classes. With Frank’s experience to shape it, the song comes together better than either of them could imagine and Dad, once again, starts dreaming of a band which winds up being called We’re Not a Band.


In between Dad and Daughter musical bonding, both are reaching out into the dating world. Frank has an ongoing flirtation with the landlord of his record shop, Leslie (Toni Collette). She wants Frank to stay open, even offers to partner with him but he’s resistant. Sam, for her part, has met and begun falling for an artist named Rose (Sasha Lane), just at the time when falling for anyone is not the best idea.


Life is further complicated by Frank’s ailing mother, Marianne (Blythe Danner) who’s memory is beginning to slip more and more frequently. She’s going to need to be cared for and since she’s still a cantankerous old dame, she’s not making things easy. This is the least of the plot strands in Hearts Beat Loud but Blythe Danner does well to make it matter and has one wonderfully wistful scene opposite Clemons that goes along way toward justifying the inclusion of this subplot.


Hearts Beat Loud also features a supporting role for Ted Danson whose late career continues to fascinate me. Having initially struggled to move from television to film and then struggled to return to television, Danson has settled into the role of elder statesman and utility player beautifully. He plays Danny, a bar owner in Hearts Beat Loud and fills the best friend role for Frank. Mostly, he cracks wise about smoking pot, but Danson’s remarkable charisma never lets that bit get old. I always love seeing Ted Danson and he’s just great here.


Hearts Beat Loud was written and directed by Brett Haley, a director who has been around awhile but whose work has eluded me. I have not seen his much buzzed about film Hero from last year but many were saying that Haley directed Sam Elliott to the best performance of his career, which is high praise indeed. Haley directs Hearts Beat Loud with a deft touch, a light tone that is nevertheless filled with solid drama.


The characters are perfectly rendered and the story unfolds in unexpected ways. I became so invested in Nick Offerman’s Sam that I could not accept anything but a happy ending for him and the film defied my expectations as to how it defined a happy ending. Kiersey Clemons too has twists and turns and the film isn’t afraid of letting her be right about her dad and right about some of the less fun points that she makes throughout the movie.


These are complex, thoughtful and funny characters and they are so wonderfully authentic. That authenticity extends to the music as well. Nick Offerman is a genuine musician and plays all his own music in the movie. Kiersey Clemons has a beautiful voice and working with songwriter Keegan Dewitt, they came up with these wonderful songs. Director Haley actually captured the full process of them recording the song for the first time as part of the film making the whole thing feel that much more authentic.


Hearts Beat Loud is a wonderful film with great characters and a brilliant story. On top of that, the music is exceptional, especially the title song which you get to hear performed ‘live’ in the movie once it is completed. I absolutely adore this movie, Hearts Beat Loud is one of my favorites of the year thus far. It’s available now on Blu Ray, DVD and On-Demand.


Movie Review White Boy Rick

White Boy Rick is a bit of a bait and switch. The marketing materials would lead you to believe that Rick Wershie was a teenage Scarface. The reality is a great deal less interesting. In reality, Wershie was a low level drug dealer who was manipulated by the FBI and local law enforcement at a time when he should have only been worrying about girls and homework. His story has some sadness and weight to it but it is badly misrepresented in White Boy Rick.


Richie Merritt stars in White Boy Rick as Rick Wershie, the 16 year old son a small time gun runner, Richie Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) who parlays his dad’s connections into connections of his own in the drug world. Meanwhile, the FBI is after dad which leads Rick to accept a job working for the FBI as drug buyer and dealer. His job is to be small time and lead the cops to the actual big timers. However, when Rick gets close to a friendly drug dealer and won’t squeal on him, his life takes a violent turn.


Eventually, Rick does graduate to have his own crew of dealers who sell cocaine given to him by the FBI. It’s a harsh charge but appears to have been corroborated in history that the FBI indeed put cocaine on the streets of Detroit in their vain attempt to smoke out big time dealers who come out of the woodwork to slow down upstarts like Rick who get caught in the middle struggling for the scraps of cash and trying not to get killed.


There is perhaps a compelling story there but director Yann Demange never really finds it. His foundation is solid but there is no real propellent energy to White Boy Rick. The film is lethargic and weary and while it looks good and features committed performances, especially from McConaughey, the lethargy becomes overwhelming after an hour. Then, when you realize that Rick was never much more than a small time neighborhood dealer and not the kingpin the marketing made him out to be, it’s hard not to feel you’ve been cheated.


The ending of White Boy Rick is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the movie. What happened to Rick Wershie after he got caught is far more compelling than what happened to him before. It’s a true story so don’t yell at me about spoilers, Wershie fell victim to a prejudicial law in the state of Michigan that led to him spending 3 and a half decades in prison. It was a mandatory minimum sentence for having a certain weight of drugs in your possession.


In most states, the amount of drugs Rick had on him when he was busted would have sent him up for maybe half the time he spent in jail but because it was a mandatory minimum, there was no parole and seemingly no hope. It would be nearly 20 years before Michigan would change the law and begin freeing guys who received ludicrous life sentences but somehow, Rick Wershie was left behind. Wershie was the last man left in prison on this mandatory minimum sentence and would not be for nearly a year after the law was changed that he would get out of jail.


That’s a very compelling story but that doesn’t factor into White Boy Rick until the very end of the movie. The final 10 minutes is when this is introduced and then the movie is over. So we get a lot build up to no payoff on two fronts, Rick wasn’t a big time dealer and Rick’s story of surviving some of the harshest prison sentences in history is left out of the movie completely. What a bizarre choice.


White Boy Rick is not a bad movie. Matthew McConaughey, as mentioned earlier, is deeply committed to his performance. The wild eyes and the wild hair are a tad bit Nicolas Cage, but moments when he softens up the edges such as when he meets his granddaughter or the subplot about Bel Powley playing his daughter, McConaughey is devastatingly effective at reaching for the heartstrings without coming off as pushy.


That said, the movie isn’t a must see in theaters. Wait for Blu Ray or On Demand and see it there.


Movie Review A Simple Favor

A Simple Favor is one of the most delightful movies of the year. It’s a showcase for a pair of actresses who’ve yet to receive the respect they deserve as a pair of our smartest and most unique actresses working today. It’s directed by Paul Feig who continues to be one of the most unique voices in film, an ostensibly comic voice and yet one who, in one movie, can evoke Hitchcock, the French New Wave and I Love Lucy.


A Simple Favor stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie a Type A mom who volunteers for every committee at her son’s school and at home, runs a V-Log for moms with helpful tips for everything from meals to laundry. It’s established that Stephanie doesn’t have many friends and isn’t particularly well liked by the mom’s in her suburb. Then, Stephanie meets Emily (Blake Lively) who sparks something in Stephanie that she never imagined was there.


Emily is a fascinating person and not merely because she is beautiful. She’s witty, she’s self-assured to the point of open narcissism, and she wields words like daggers when she feels like it. You can sense that Emily takes to Stephanie as a cat might to a mouse, with the full intention of eating her alive but far more interested in entertaining herself first. Equally overmatched by Emily is Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding).


Listen to the way Emily talks about him, openly insulting him, confessing their marital and financial issues to Stephanie in order to self servingly emasculate Sean as part of whatever game she’s playing at the moment to amuse herself. Watch the way she makes a big show of making out with him before once again openly dismissing him. She’s looking for a reaction from Stephanie and is amused to find out what that reaction will be.


I absolutely adore Blake Lively’s performance in A Simple Favor and would be willing to support an Academy Award campaign. Her performance is relaxed and confident and yet she makes Emily feel as if everything is of the moment and off the cuff. You get the sense that though she may have long term plans in mind, that the reality is, she’s always looking to be amused or surprised and does things to discover reactions not with a calculation of what the reaction will be.


It is a delicate performance, attempting to appear glib without actually coming off that way. She’s provocative for the sake of pushing an agenda but she also appears to be discovering her agenda as she goes along. This plays out brilliantly in the plot of the movie which unfolds in a way that appears deliberate but when you take a step back, you realize that it’s all been off the cuff and by the seat of Emily’s gorgeously fitted pant suits.


The far more deliberate character is Stephanie and while she is consistently shocked and surprised, her actions have far more intent than Emily’s. When Emily goes missing Stephanie deliberately and earnestly sets out to try to find her friend. That she winds up looking a little crazy is part and parcel of her genuine attempt to find her friend and then becomes the genuine and earnest attempt to solve a mystery.


Anna Kendrick is equally as wonderful as Blake Lively in A Simple Favor. Though she appears to be carrying far more of the comic weight of the movie, Kendrick manages to maintain Stephanie’s dignity and intelligence while also being very fun. She’s riding the most delicate line in the movie because if Stephanie tips to far over into parody the plot won’t work. Kendrick toes that line brilliantly.


One of the more unusual influences on Kendrick's performance, in my opinion, is Lucille Ball. Stephanie has a similarly awkward quality to her that always came out of Lucy when she was trying to get into Ricky's show. Stephanie wants desperately to be Emily's friend, that's the show she wants to be part of. And when Emily goes missing, there is a caper quality to Emily shambling but intentional 'investigation' of Emily's disappearance that plays like that of a classic sitcom character. 


That she can evoke Lucy, right down to the style of dress she prefers, and still make the sexy, thriller portions of A Simple Favor work is a testament to Anna Kendrick's remarkable versatility. She has her innocent and not so innocent qualities and through her earnestness, she combines them into a believable and entertaining character that is both broad and sympathetic, awkward and attractive. It's an incredibly deft performance. 


Director Paul Feig is known for broad comedy in movies like the recent Ghostbusters remake, Bridesmaids and his many other collaborations with Melissa McCarthy. He’s the last director I would expect to evoke elements of Alfred Hitchcock and The French New Wave but indeed he does in A Simple Favor. His direction of A Simple Favor is stylish, smart, witty and wildly entertaining in the same way the influences I mentioned were in their best films.


Like Hitchcock, Feig takes a character who could stand in easily for us all in Anna Kendrick’s Stephanie, achingly normal in her dress and manner, and places her in a situation well above her head. Then, of course, there is the blonde. Hitchcock would have loved Blake Lively. Lively effortlessly evokes Tippi Hedren in Marnie, another pernicious and impulsive character though one who doesn’t have quite the bearing and unending confidence of Lively’s Emily.


In case you doubt the Hitchcock influence on A Simple Favor for a moment I urge you to look back to the top of this page at that poster. If you can't see the obvious influence of the great Saul Bass in that poster you are clearly in contrarian mode. Bass was the artist that Hitchcock turned to for his iconic opening credits in North by Northwest and you can see a similar influence in the opening credits of A Simple Favor. 


The French New Wave influence on A Simple Favor comes much from the fact that the New Wave was greatly inspired by Hitchcock but, there is also the look of the movie. Though the sixties in general is a big influence on the style as well, look at the color and the effortless almost commonplace opulence of the sets in A Simple Favor. That’s just the kind of thing Truffaut and others were brilliant at portraying, the hapless wealth and depravity of the upper class.


The more time I spend thinking about A Simple Favor, the more I adore it. Admittedly, the film is rather slight, it doesn’t have large themes or any sort of message behind it. It’s simply a thrilling bit of highly artful entertainment. I wasn’t deeply moved by it but it’s not that kind of movie. This is a comic thriller with the intent of distracting and deli


Movie Review Mandy

What can I tell you about Mandy? Boy, it’s something, it’s really something. Mandy is the latest demented performance from acting and weirdo legend Nicolas Cage. Mandy is Nicolas Cage steering right into his high level type-casting as a bizarre cult phenomenon of crazy, bug-eyed, screaming nonsense. Much like the recent films Army of One and Mom and Dad, Mandy is Nicolas Cage once again screaming at the world to laugh with him or at him and he doesn’t care which one.


Mandy stars Cage as Red, a woodsman, who works cutting trees. Red’s life is very happy as he has fallen deeply in love with Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), an oddly beautiful woman with an alien quality that you cannot take your eyes off. Their life appears to be ideal but Red worries a little about their remote cabin home but Mandy loves the house and the quiet and being far from the troubles of the world they see on television.


Red and Mandy’s lives are changed forever one day when Mandy goes for a walk and is spotted by Jeremiah Sands (Linus Roache) and his band of weirdo followers. Sands is a guru of sorts, a Jesus Freak who believes he is God on Earth and ordained to take whatever he wants. Jeremiah tells his followers to bring him Mandy and from there, the movie Mandy takes a turn from strange to unspeakably bizarre and wildly, compellingly watchable.


Mandy was directed by Panos Cosmatos a visionary director, part Stanley Kubrick and part Nicholas Winding Refn. The style is slow and patient, the film is slowly turning the screws and drawing you closer and closer to this story, investing you further and further. Once the movie becomes a revenge movie you are so far inside Nicolas Cage’s crazy, far out and murderous perspective you can’t help but be breathlessly caught up in Mandy.


The style of Mandy is unlike most anything I have seen before. It reminded me a great deal of two of my favorite recent films, Nicholas Winding Refn’s remarkable and disturbing The Neon Demon and the Spanish dark comedy horror movie Night of the Virgin. Mandy has the color and patient storytelling of Neon Demon and the outlandish horror of Night of the Virgin and the combination, for me, was electrifying.


That said, Neon Demon and Night of the Virgin are two of the most divisive and disquieting movies of the last few years. If you cannot take extreme violence, bizarre visual styles and highly unconventional storytelling, these three films, Neon Demon, Night of the Virgin and Mandy are not movies that will work for you. They appeal to me as a critic in many ways because they are remarkably bold works of art and they are unlike anything else I see in mainstream movies.


Nicolas Cage’s career is now as bizarre as any meme about Nicolas Cage on social media. With the trio of Army of One, Mom and Dad and now Mandy, Cage’s style is now only wild-eyed, bugged out, over the top crazy. He’s gone from bored and overpaid in the early part of this century to a caricature of a movie star who would take any role for a paycheck to now where he’s delivering some of the most energetic, exciting and fascinating work of his nearly 40 year career.


Mandy is for hardcore fans of whacked out cinema. You have to have a desire for the unconventional and a love for art movies or you won’t get this movie. I can completely understand anyone who says they don’t care for Mandy or even turn it off after starting to watch it, it’s not a movie built to please all audiences. But, for me, Mandy is an avant garde masterpiece of macabre cinema. There are few movies like it and few movies as entertaining and fascinating for me as Mandy.


Mandy is streaming now on for $5.99. Side note, there are no jokes about or references to the Barry Manilow song of the same name. I don’t want you to be looking for that during the movie.


Movie Review The Predator

The Predator is the weakest of the main line of Predator franchise movies. That is a rather surprising revelation for me as Shane Black is by far the most talented director to have worked on this franchise but nevertheless. The Predator isn’t bad but it lacks the fun of the first two Predator movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Glover respectively and it lacks the tension, suspense and action chops of 2010’s Predators. Not to mention the lack of a truly compelling leading man like Adrien Brody.


The Predator stars Boyd Holbrook, the villain from last year’s Logan, as McKenna, a sniper who makes first contact with the newly arrived alien Predator in an unnamed South American jungle. Eager for a cover up, the governor sends in Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), a fixer of sorts when it comes to alien invasions. Traeger has McKenna shipped off to a hospital for the mentally, though he’s fully aware that McKenna is not crazy.


McKenna however, has a trump card. Prior to the arrival of Traeger and his men, he shipped some alien artifacts back home for safe keeping and proof that he’s not crazy. In the meantime, McKenna is re-routed from the hospital, along with a group of fellow mentally ill former soldiers, including Trevante Rhodes as Nebraska, Keegan Michael Key as Coyle, Thomas Jane as Baxley, Alfie Allen as Lynch and Augusto Aguilera as Nettles, to the facility where the Predator he saw is being held and is now escaping from.


The Predator is on the hunt for McKenna’s son, played Jacob Tremblay, who intercepted his dad’s package and mistook the alien artifacts for an elaborate Halloween costume. From there the question becomes: can McKenna and his ragtag band, along with a scientist played by Olivia Munn, get to McKenna’s son before the Predator does and what about the even bigger Predator that just landed on earth?


Shane Black is best known for his witty dialogue and colorful characters. His The Good Guys featured action and violence but the stand out part of the film was the banter between Russell Crowe’s thug and Ryan Gosling’s con man. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang had a healthy body count but again, thrived mostly on the interplay between stars Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. The Predator, unfortunately, does not play to Black’s strengths.


As demonstrated in his take on Iron Man in Iron Man 3, action is not Black’s strong suit, especially of the CG variety. His work with Downey on the character of Tony Stark was dynamite as was his take on the super villain with Ben Kingsley deconstructing the notion with comic flair. Black can script and direct actors with tremendous wit and energy. When it came time for the big action climax, Iron Man 3 got a little sloppy and misguided and thus is remembered as the weakest of that franchise by many, myself included.


In The Predator, the characters are all colorful ala classically Shane Black characters but the focus here is on the action and it is shaky at times. Black remains a little clumsy with CGI and his action scenes are a little all over the place. He does well to deliver unique characters as always but only Olivia Munn appears to give the kind of life to a character that we recognize from Black’s best work.


An example of Black’s struggle with action, late in the film, a significant character dies by accidentally blowing his own head off with an alien weapon. The scene is filled with such chaos, quick cuts, flashy edits, that this death of a significant character, goes almost entirely unnoticed. It took me over a minute to realize that this character had died and I had to intuit how the character died as opposed to have actually been able to see it happen, it flashes by so quickly amongst the chaos it’s easy to miss.


Boyd Holbrook is a good enough actor but he appears to lack the loose, confident vibe of a classically Shane Black kind of hero. He is by no means bad in the role, but he doesn’t have the verve of a Ryan Gosling and is nowhere near the star presence of Robert Downey Jr who carried Iron Man 3 over the hill on the sheer force of his charisma and showmanship. Holbrook is more reserved and conservative as an actor. He rarely let’s loose in The Predator and he rarely feels like the creation of Shane Black.


Strangely, though it appears there may have been on-set tension between Olivia Munn and Shane Black given the controversy that has erupted recently and completely overshadowed the release of The Predator, Munn is the most Shane Black-like character in the film. Munn is tough and confident and sexy and charming. She has a brain and wit and she’s ready for a fight. She never overplays the comedy or underplays the action, she’s perfectly on point throughout and is easily the best thing about The Predator.


The Predator isn’t a bad movie because Shane Black is not a bad director. With the right movie he’s one of the best in the business. The Predator with lots of chaos and special effects is not his forte. He writes great action and great action characters but directing action is not his strong suit. Thus, he’s made the most okay version of this franchise to date, ranking just above the Alien Vs Predator movies but below Predator, Predator 2 and the franchise best, Predators 2010.


Movie Review Predators (2010)

Predators is a strange phenomenon of a movie. It’s a sequel to the Predator franchise began in 1987 with Arnold Schwarzenegger and continued in 1990 with Danny Glover but it feels wholly its own. The film features no references to the previous two movies aside from the Predator character which is now split into a pair of species that now hunt human beings for sport far from the jungles of the Earth.


Adrien Brody stars as Royce in Predators, a mercenary who finds himself dropped from some height and awakening just in time for his parachute to deploy. Royce turns out to be one of eight characters, all among the most dangerous types of people on Earth, mercenaries, soldiers, Asian gangsters, Drug Cartel Assassins, Freedom Fighters and a death row inmate, among others, who have been dropped on this foreign planet and now must work together to survive.


Initially, this ragtag group has no idea they are on another planet, though they know they can’t identify which jungle they believe they are in. Along the way they find small clues to their situation and manage to narrowly escape death as they are stalked one by one by a killer that likes to take trophies from its victims. As members of the group begin to get picked off, Royce looks for some way to get off the alien game preserve planet.


Predators was directed by Nimrod Antal, a Hungarian transplant whose most recent career has come working alongside the band Metallica on their recent concert documentaries and music videos. Beyond that, there isn’t much to judge his work by aside from Predators and based on that, he’s not bad. Antal’s strength is a patient and deliberate pace and character motivations that feel logical and well justified.


Antal smartly allows his characters to be nuanced and true to their murderous natures. He doesn’t force the characters to become friends or linger on bonding scenes, he is aware that these are mostly singular characters who, in this scenario, aren’t likely to get too attached to each other. It’s believable and cathartic to see characters acting in less than ideal fashion; these aren’t the good guys and Antal allows them the freedom to bad guys who might just as soon kill each other to save themselves.


Buffed up Academy Award winner Brody, so gaunt and frail looking in his Oscar winning performance in The Pianist, put on some serious muscle for this character and combines that with his talent for character work and created an anti-hero befitting this unique franchise. At one point, though he is looking out for everyone, he uses his new ‘team’ as bait to draw out the Predators, unbeknownst to them, and they aren’t happy. Royce however, gets key information about the enemy from this move and feels rightfully justified in his choice, despite a member of the team dying in the process.


It’s that cold calculation that fascinates me about these characters. Yes, they pull together for battle but they don’t trust each other at all. At one point, one character offers the old chestnut ‘ the enemy of my enemy is my friend and that is the ethos of Predators. The film features alliances and cold-hearted calculations and while there are obnoxious characters who whine and cry, I loved Brody’s specific, stoic and calculated killer.


The performance of Adrian Brody is key to the appeal of Predators. If you don’t identify with him much of the tension of the film is too easily shifted to what the characters should have done instead of what they end up doing which is using the Predators tactics against it, in order to kill it for good, Brody is a true badass in Predators and despite his more twee and skinny roles, I really bought into Brody as a potential future action star. Time, of course, has sent Brody into a rather confounding obscurity but he could likely come back any day.


While Brody is unquestionable the key to Predators being so very good, Laurence Fishburne is the film's secret weapon. Playing a mentally broken former soldier who has been surviving for some time on the planet having found ways to kill past Predators, he's now a scavenger hanging on to his last threads of sanity. It's a gloriouisly unhinged performance and Fishburne is incredibly entertaining; both funny and a little scary. 


I am quite surprised to say how much I like predators even more than I like the original Predator. Adrian Brody may not be Arnold Schwarzenegger but Predators takes serious what Arnold and the 87 team rendered silly and somehow it works because Brody is so believable and the action is so perfectly attuned to this unique franchise. Predators has a better pace, more interesting and fleshed out characters and better Predators than the original did. Predators is a must see for fans of this franchise.


The latest movie in the Predator franchise, The Predator, opens in theaters this weekend starring Olivia Munn and Sterling K. Brown. 


Movie Review Predator (1987)

Predator is a pumped up, nasty, violent cheese-fest with a performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger that ranks among his most entertainingly goofy and bad-ass. Directed by John McTiernan, the man behind arguably the greatest action movie ever made, Diehard, Predator falls short of that film but finds its own place in the world of both action and sci-fi via a tremendous sense of humor, intentional and otherwise and some top notch gore and effects.


Predator stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dutch, leader of a team of military mercenaries. Gotta job you can’t do in some foreign jungle? Dutch and his team are the ones to call in with their massive guns and even bigger personalities. No joke, the character actors chowing down on scenery in Predator with hamtastically cheesy deliveries and gory deaths include Bill Duke, Sonny Landham and the biggest cheeseball of them all, Jesse ‘The Body Ventura.’


The team is recruited by Dutch’s old friend Dillon (Carl Weathers) who wants Dutch to combine forces with him to rescue diplomats lost in a South American jungle. The military believes that terrorists have taken the diplomats hostage but the reality is far more terrifying. A creature, that we know as simply Predator, has stalked and murdered both the terrorists and their captives in brutal fashion and now has eyes on Dutch and Dillon’s team.


From there, the Predator chews up each supporting player with as much visceral, gory razzle dazzle as possible. The gore effects by the team behind the legendary Stan Winston are grisly and impressive. A great deal of work went into these effects and while some don’t necessarily fit the logic of the movie, the cool factor goes along way to making up for the logical leaps. This isn’t rocket science, it’s Predator, we have to turn off our brains here and meet the movie on its terms.


Predator is arguably Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best performance aside from perhaps Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Arnold’s Dutch is ripped and resourceful, he’s beefy and just clever enough by the standards of the Predator, to make his scenes work. I especially enjoyed the final scenes of Predator and the battle between Arnold and The Predator is really fun and entertaining. Goofy as all get out? You betcha, but in supremely entertaining fashion.


Predator is one of the great action movies of all time but not because it’s a great movie. Predator is a serviceable movie at best. What the film gets right though is allowing room for things to be cheesy and over the top with ridiculous levels of blood and guts. The fake blood industry must have had a boom year in 1987 thanks to all the remarkable buckets of blood and viscera.


Then there is the Predator as a villain, one that has become an icon of popular culture. The Predator has become a ubiquitous figure that inspires devotion in a fashion similar to horror film icons Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. The Predator is a stone cold killer that doesn’t speak but strikes terror in the heart of the audience with a mere three red dots on someone’s chest. When you see those red dots on someone’s face or torso you know something terrible is going to happen and the anticipation is breathtaking.


I adore Predator for its willingness to be over the top and unapologetically cheeseball. I enjoy Arnold Schwarzenegger when he’s at his stoic best or when attempting to pop off badass catchphrases. Schwarzenegger isn’t a great actor but he makes up for a lot with charm and even here with that charm on mute, his bravado, mixed with a rare sense of vulnerability, he’s finally facing a big bad bigger than he is on screen, and I really enjoyed how Arnold acknowledges his own desperate plight.


The Predator, directed by Shane Black, who played the character Hawkins in the original Predator, is the latest movie in this franchise and not likely to be the last. The Predator has a chance of knocking The Nun out of the number one spot this weekend. The Predator opens for preview screenings around the country on Thursday night and then will open across the U.S on Friday.


Movie Review Ocean's Eight

Ocean’s Eight feels like it was inevitable. The idea of an all female version of the Ocean’s heist franchise feels like a natural extension of the brand. Even the lack of involvement from director Steven Soderbergh, the man who steered the Clooney-Pitt brand to massive worldwide success, doesn’t stop the franchise from delivering yet another chapter that has the same breezy, cheesy fun of the Soderbergh flicks.


Sandra Bullock stars in Ocean’s Eight as Debbie Ocean, the sister of George Clooney’s Danny Ocean. Fresh out of prison, Debbie is looking to form a new crew for a massive heist. Returning to New York City, Debbie reconnects with her longtime criminal bestie, Lou (Cate Blanchett), enticing her with her big idea heist which could net $20 million if they can bring just the right crew together to pull it off


The plan: Debbie wants to rob the Met Gala, specifically the jewels set to be on the neck of actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). Stay with me because the plan gets complicated from there. They need to actually get Daphne to wear the necklace they wish to steal. This requires getting a famous but down her luck designer, Rose (Helena Bonham Carter), to join their gang and get her a job as Daphne’s personal designer for the Met Gala.


This being urgent to the plot, this part comes together with a charming ease. No joke, even as predictable as this plot point is, Carter, Bullock and Blanchett are incredibly fun pulling it off. From there, they need to get a diamond expert, Mindy Kaling, a former friend and thief, Sarah Paulsen, a hacker, Rihanna and a pickpocket, Awkwafina and even then, the plan needs a lot of luck and awesome costumes.


Ocean’s Eight is predictable and not really laugh out loud hilarious. What Ocean’s Eight is, is super charming. As directed by Gary Ross, a consummate professional filmmaker, Ocean’s Eight consistently earns smiles and light giggles. Ocean’s Eight is a lot of fun because this cast is having such a great time. Rihanna and Awkwafina may get something of a short shrift in terms of screentime, they nevertheless bring some youthful energy to their scenes, especially Awkwafina, a future breakout star.


I was occasionally bugged by the way Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett appeared as if they were trying to out-cool each other. There are just a couple scenes in Ocean’s Eight where both appear to be relaxing and slowing their speech in order to appear more relaxed and unaffected than the other and it got on my nerves a little but that is a minor thing confined to no more than a couple of scenes.


For most of the film Bullock and Blanchett are bouncy and charming like the rest of the cast. That said, no one appears to be having more fun being bouncy and charming than Anne Hathaway. The former star of The Princess Diaries proves that her comedy chops have improved dramatically over the years. Hathaway’s character is egotistical and bitchy but watch her closely and you can see how much she’s enjoying this performance. That plus the way she’s worked into the plot is really fun.


Ocean’s Eight is not perfect but as a breezy, charming star vehicle in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen, it’s a perfectly enjoyable movie. The story is fun, the plot is predictable but it is exceptionally well decorated in costume and in stylish direction. This is the kind of glossy star vehicle that Sinatra inspired years ago and that Clooney, Pitt and Soderbergh reinvigorated. If you enjoyed the Ocean’s franchise before, you will enjoy Ocean’s Eight just as much.



Movie Review Filmworker

What would possess a man to give up a potentially thriving career of his own in order to subjugate himself to the whims of another man? It’s a strange question, it sounds like some sort of fetish lifestyle choice when taken out of context. In the context of the new documentary Filmworker, it has some logic and a chaste, dutiful service to art that creates an understandable purpose, if not one you could fully get on board with for yourself.


Filmworker tells the story of actor turned filmic jack of all trades, Leon Vitali who gave up a career in film and on the stage to work as a tradesman in service of director and visionary Stanley Kubrick. In 1974 Vitali had a breakout role in Kubrick’s epic Barry Lyndon opposite Ryan O’Neal. Vitali did so well in his role in fact that Kubrick expanded the role as the film was shooting from a brief cameo role to one of the main antagonists.


Even before the two came to be creative soulmates on Barry Lyndon however, Vitali was already seemingly in fealty to the master director. In a story that opens Filmworker, Vitali recalls seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey and later seeing A Clockwork Orange and telling a friend that he wanted to go work for Stanley Kubrick, not act for him, but work at whatever the master director needed behind the scenes.


On the set of Barry Lyndon, Vitali told Kubrick about a desire he had to work behind the scenes rather than in front as an actor and Kubrick assigned him a task of finding something behind the scenes he could do. This led to Leon being hired on to work on Kubrick’s next movie, The Shining where he wore numerous hats including casting director, acting coach and post-production guru.


When he wasn’t working on one of Kubrick’s next projects, Leon was working on preserving the past and dealing with the kinds of things that made Kubrick upset, things such as marketing campaigns which Leon helped to supervise, much to the dismay of Warner Brothers, the company responsible for much of Kubrick’s film distribution. Leon was part of cutting trailers, approving poster and even traveling to videostores to check on how Kubrick’s movies were being marketed. If Kubrick wasn’t happy, the studio would hear about it, from Leon.


Filmworker is an exceptional documentary for film geeks like myself. Rarely have we had the kind of access to Stanley Kubrick that we get in Filmworker. Leon Vitali was there for everything from Barry Lyndon through the end of Kubrick’s run with Eyes Wide Shut in 1999 and the stories he tells are funny, charming and occasionally harrowing. Vitali has the look of an aging David Lee Roth but is kind, generous and unassuming.


The matter of fact manner in which Vitali recalls his time with Kubrick is a strong indication of his familiarity with the man. These stories are old and worn for him, he’s not fascinated with himself, he’s recalling memories not showboating about having been part of something as incredible as the career of Stanley Kubrick. This isn’t a victory lap or a bragging session, he is aware that we’re interested to the point of obsession with his friend Stanley but he isn’t because it was just his life.


I adore Filmworker because it is a fine documentary but also because I adore Leon Vitali. His storytelling is incredibly charming and he seems like a terrific guy. As weird as it might still seem that he gave up his career to be of service to someone else, I get it because he was aware that Stanley was already part of film history and if he was with Stanley, he was part of history as well. He’s not arrogant or boastful about it but he’s certainly proud of that, even it the cost to his personal life was rather high.


I will leave you to discover more about Leon Vitali as Filmworker is an essential documentary. If you are a film fan, this a must see movie, filled with incredible stories and wonderful details. It’s the rare look at the famously shy and reclusive Stanley Kubrick from one of the few people who actually knew Kubrick and was directly part of the incredible art he created. I don’t think we’ve ever had this kind of insight into Kubrick’s life before and for that alone I could recommend Filmworker.


Movie Review God Bless the Broken Road

God Bless the Broken Road is sincere and earnest and almost unwatchable in how poorly made it is. Director Harold Cronk is the man who directed God’s Not Dead 1 & 2, a pair of equally unwatchable films that are somehow better than God Bless the Broken Road in spite of themselves. Cronk is among the most ham-fisted, solipsistic, and lazy directors I have seen enjoy mainstream success.


God Bless the Broken Road stars Lindsey Pulsipher as Amber Hill, a widow raising a little daughter, Bree (Makenzie Moss), and living in near poverty. The need to work means she has to miss church with her daughter, and yes of course the film shames her deeply for this. At work, her boss is a cliche of the worst sort, an unsympathetic woman who serves the purpose of making Amber’s half-assed Job story.


Yes, this is the story of a woman who has everything taken from her and in the process rediscovers her faith. There is nothing wrong with that as a story but God Bless the Broken Road doesn’t approach the idea with the complexity such a story clearly deserves. All Cronk as writer and director here, does is continuously portray the horrors of Amber’s life before rotely returning her to the church for solace and an easy happy ending.


Along the way the film throws in a story about a failing a race car driver who is among the worst matched love interests imaginable. As the film portrays Amber as still grieving, desperately working to save her home and with a child she is struggling to spend time with, having a love interest is exactly the wrong idea. That plus the fact that actor Andrew W. Walker is a cheesy block of wood with the charisma of a beige electrical socket.


Robin Givens, Jordin Sparks and NFL Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson play good hearted, well-intentioned characters eager to welcome Amber back to the church but their screen time is relatively small and they basically don’t embarrass themselves, perhaps because they don’t have enough time. The one actor who doesn’t stink in this movie is veteran Kim Delaney who overcomes a stock villain character on personality alone.


The heavy handed direction of God Bless the Broken Road shoves the plot around with a complete lack of subtlety and nuance. When the director begins to parallel the struggles of the racer on the track and his trouble with love off the track it’s cringeworthy on a ludicrous level. I was genuinely embarrassed for actor Andrew W. Walker having to sell this nonsense and he’s already not great in this movie but this storyline doesn’t make his job easier.


The most egregious and ugly moment in God Bless the Broken Road comes early on when Amber skips church and the movie shames her either intentionally or accidentally, the film is so tone deaf, it’s hard to tell. She drops her daughter at church and goes to work and all of her friends look disappointed and the director makes a point of showing the empty seat in church next to her. Here is a woman about to lose her house and the movie makes missing church for work seem like a genuine sin, as if the movie has as little sympathy for her as her boss, her mother in law or seemingly God himself.


I utterly loathe God Bless the Broken Road. This movie is utterly brutal, an embarrassingly poorly directed film with an execrable story that appears to shame a struggling single mom for not being pious enough in the wake of the death or her husband. And I haven’t even touched on how the movie exploits our military for cheap sentimentality because I might break keyboard in my flaming, foaming anger.


Movie Review Peppermint

Peppermint is a pointless and derivative bit of action movie nonsense. Sure, Jennifer Garner is the same badass actress who slayed us on Alias but that show was smart and intricate. Peppermint is little more than a hammer to the head. Director Pierre Morel directs Peppermint with the nuance of a sledgehammer and the artfulness of a drunk Michael Bay. It’s not the worst thing I’ve seen in 2018 but it’s pretty bad.


Jennifer Garner plays Riley North, a wife, mother and bank teller living in an idyllic Los Angeles suburb. The family is struggling despite having a lovely home in a well to do neighborhood and so the hubby, Chris (Jeff Hepner), decides a small criminal enterprise might help get them, I guess, a nicer house in the suburbs. Ultimately, he decides not to become a criminal but by then it is too late. A  criminal friend has given up his name and drug dealers are coming to kill him.


While the whole family, including daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming), are enjoying a winter carnival they are being stalked by the drug dealers. Then, as dad and daughter are returning to their car, a drive by ensues and they are killed. Riley herself is struck by a bullet but survives. A devastated Riley then takes solace in the fact that she can identify the men who killed her family. Unfortunately, a corrupt judge and prosecutor take that from her and Riley breaks down.


Cut to five years later. Riley is now back in Los Angeles and has become a vigilante. She lives on skid row and beats the heck out of anyone who causes trouble there. She has her very own homeless person fan club. All of this is while she is ramping up to kill an entire Los Angeles street gang headed up by Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). Soon, members of the gang are turning up gruesomely murdered and the cop who investigated Riley’s family’s murder, Detective Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr) comes to suspect Riley is to blame.


It’s a rather solid narrative when you write it out but in execution, Peppermint is a god-awful mess. Pierre Morel’s choices as a director are utter nonsense, slipping between quick cuts in one action scene and slo-mo in another. He’s like a kid learning how to play director and not the veteran director of the far superior revenge fantasy, Taken. Morel appears to mistake quick cuts and numerous angles for artfulness.


Jennifer Garner has rarely been less interesting in a lead role. It’s shocking to watch Garner be pushed along by this idiot movie rather than being the force generating the momentum as she always was on Alias. The performance has no nuance, no inner life beyond grief and revenge. Some might praise how straight-forward that is but it’s dull for anyone who prefers a hero with a brain in there head, especially one played by the former star of Alias, one of the smarter and resourceful heroines of recent television history.


Jennifer Garner is way better than this movie. She deserves better than this mindless, artless exercise in genre tropes. She deserves better than being unfavorably compared with Bruce Willis in the remake of Death Wish or the series of meatheads who’ve played The Punisher on the big screen. Garner’s performance is of one singular note and that note, though well played, is grim and artless.


The only actor who escapes Peppermint with anything close to a good performance is longtime character actor John Ortiz. Playing the partner of John Gallagher Jr’s detective, Ortiz ingeniously subverts our expectations and plays up the ambiguity of his character before a reveal that legitimately excited me. It was a fleeting excitement, but excitement nevertheless as Ortiz smartly reveals his character.


Peppermint is a grisly and grim exercise in action movie nonsense. It wants to play on our emotions by having a grieving mom as David versus a street gang goliath, but it isn’t smart about how to tell that story. Instead, we get a rush of violent scenes that are cut together in a blender and assembled with the rapidity of AK-47. We can barely see the action before it is over and since we can’t get to know the characters or be entertained by them, we’re left to wallow in the grim artlessness of director Morel’s dimwitted revenge fantasy.


Movie Review The Nun

Thank you to the helpful commenter on my The Sound of Music review who pointed out that I forgot to mention the portrayal of Nun’s in The Blue Brothers and Airplane as good examples of the comic use of Nuns in movies. I also feel I should have addressed those movies as well as the large number of movies that use Nuns as signifiers of trustworthiness by using Nun’s habits as disguises, a Nun sub-genre if you will from movies such as Nuns on the Run.


With that out of the way, let’s talk about the latest cinematic portrayal of a Nun in the horror movie The Nun. Here we have an origin story for the evil Nun who has provided some visual terrors in each of the The Conjuring movies. Her frightening visage was the star of the of much of the ad campaign for The Conjuring 2 in 2015. Now, we get to see where she came from and how she came to be the face of the ‘Conjuring Movie Universe.’


Taissa Farmiga, sister of Vera Farmiga, who portrays Lorraine Warren in this universe, stars in The Nun as Sister Irene. Sister Irene is a novitiate Nun, meaning a Nun in training. She’s a Nun who has yet to take her vows. Sister Irene is something special, she has visions that have guided her to her place at the side of God. As a child, her visions brought her in contact with a priest who is now a higher up in The Vatican.


This is what leads to Sister Irene being paired with Father Burke (Demian Bechir) when the Vatican needs people to travel to a large Abbey in Romania where a Nun has died by her own hand. The townspeople believe there is a curse on the Abbey and warn against anyone traveling there. Only Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) is willing to take them to the Abbey in the midst of a forbidding forest surrounded by an eerie graveyard.


Once inside The Abbey, Sister Irene’s visions return and she begins to understand that what happened here was not simply a suicide. Evil is at home in The Abbey which has a dark and fearful history. It will take all of Sister Irene and Father Burke’s faith to face down that evil in the form of a Demonic Nun (Bonnie Aarons) whose gnarled visage is something out your worst nightmares, or would be if the character were genuinely intimidating.


Aside from a pretty terrific makeup job, The Nun is not a fearsome character. She’s downright laughable in the context of The Conjuring cinematic universe. She amounts to little more than a prankster who crawls along walls to provide jump scares or pops up in mirrors to provide jump scares or, here in The Nun, she buries one of our lead characters alive but doesn’t simply kill this character though it is obvious that she could.


What luck that The Nun buries our lead character on top of a treasure trove of material that will help in defeating her or at least slowing her down for future sequels. That’s why I can’t get behind the movies in The Conjuring cinematic universe, each of these movies is built on similar contrivances. Each film, whether a Conjuring movie or Annabelle or, now, The Nun, is merely a vehicle to propel from one jump scare to the next and I simply need more than that.


Jump scare machines aren’t real movies, they are contrived silliness in the form of movies. What truly stinks about The Nun is that both Taissa Farmiga and Demian Bechir are acting their hearts out in service of this machine and their efforts are wasted. Farmiga is a lovely actress with a wealth of innocence and soulfulness. She communicates her intelligence and curious nature effortlessly and as she builds strength in her faith we should be propelled by her through the plot.


Instead, she’s working in service of the next machine tooled jump scare, a scene crafted so that noise or gimmickry will induce a visceral response. The jump scare is a tool in the tool belt of a lazy craftsman. It’s something that any director can do but very few can do very well. Leigh Whannell and James Wan, the creators of The Conjuring cinematic universe, have proven adept at the jump scare but their disciples who’ve picked up making the sequels to their work have proven less adept.


If you’re like me and you’ve seen hundreds of jump scare based horror movies you’ve likely developed a strong callous against them. I am basically immune to most jump scares and takes one of perfect timing to get a response from me that isn’t a laugh or an eye roll. The last time a jump scare actually got me was Leigh Whannell’s brilliant bit of misdirection in Insidious The Last Key back in January. But, as I said, Whannell is one of the few directors who do jump scares well.


Newcomer Corin Hardy, sadly is not adept at the jump scare. His direction of The Nun is hamfisted and lazy. The film looks great and the camerawork is legitimately good but the plot mechanics are grinding away throughout and the factory produced jump scares are of the laughable variety. The timing is lax, the score is predictable and I could not keep from giggling as The Nun popped hither and yon in mirrors and dark hallways.


The Nun adds little to the cinematic canon of Nuns in movies. The Nun characters are demure and pious but don’t have much depth beyond Sister Irene who, though exceptionally embodied by Taissa Farmiga, is not a character of much depth. Farmiga helps make the character more interesting because she’s interesting, the script does her few favors. The film has little to nothing to say about faith which it wields as a weapon but little else in the battle against the evil Demon Nun.


All of that said, if you enjoyed the movies in The Conjuring cinematic universe, Annabelle and so on, you may enjoy The Nun. I didn’t because I don’t like this kind of movie. I can’t stand the trickster Demon/Ghost characters with the power to move furniture or bury people alive but not the strength to simply get to the point and do what it is they are there to do. What is the Demon Nun here to do? What is her goal? What is her End Game? Why does she turn crosses upside down if she’s so deathly afraid of them? Why does she turn on the radio or turn over furniture?


Just once, I would like to see a Demon or Ghost movie where the Demon or Ghost just got down to business and achieved a goal. But that never happens and instead we are left to wonder why the Ghost/Demon broke windows or knocked pictures off of walls. It’s all so silly and pointless and flies in the face of the ‘danger’ we are supposed to fear. What is so fearsome about moving furniture around? Most ghost/demons are minor irritants rather than legitimately frightening in these movies. GAH!


Movie Review The Sound of Music

With the release of The Nun, the latest prequel in the franchise of The Conjuring cinematic universe, that also includes Annabelle, I thought it would be a perfect time to look at movies starring Nuns. A Nun cinematic universe if you will. What better way to examine the role of the Nun in movies than by reviewing the most successful movie about a Nun of all time, The Sound of Music. Sure, Maria may not be the best Nun but the depiction of Nuns in The Sound of Music may be the best the sisterhood has ever been presented on screen.


The Sound of Music stars Julie Andrews as Maria, a Nun who doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the demure, pious and peaceful Nun. Maria is flighty and full life, love and energy that can’t be confined to an Abbey for very long. Indeed, the sisters even have a song dedicated to the difficulties of a problem like Maria. There appears to be no solution for her kind of spirited nature and thus she’s given an assignment far more suited to her than the cloistered life.


Maria has been chosen to be the new Governess for the Von Trapp family, headed Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), a successful career military man who runs his home like he’d used to run a ship in the Navy. His seven children are heavily disciplined, always standing at attention and in uniform in their father’s presence. That discipline however, doesn’t appear to extend to their treatment of Governess’s as Maria is the latest in a long line of caretakers, some who only last mere hours before running away from the Von Trapp children.


Maria however, is not so easily run off. Rather than let the children run her down, Maria uses her innate kindness and positive spirit to reach the sullen children. She’s especially adept at using music to get through to them and when she sings of her ‘Favorite Things,’ she breaks through the children’s defenses. Soon, Maria is making them play clothes so they may get out of their uniforms and she’s teaching them not just songs, but song structure so they know how to sing as much as what to sing.


It’s not just the children that Maria is able to reach either as Captain Von Trapp eventually warms to Maria as well, much to the dismay of The Baroness (Eleanor Parker) who hopes to marry Captain Von Trapp and combine their fortunes and bases of power. The Baroness however isn’t the villain of the movie, despite a couple of questionable things she does. Rather, it’s the looming spectre of World War 2 that comes to dwarf the modest concerns of who wishes to marry whom.


I adore the that director Robert Wise treats World War 2. A scene in which Captain Von Trapp rips down a Nazi flag and tears it in half thrills me every time. It’s comforting in this day and age when war no longer has a single recognizable face to remember a time when our enemy was so well known to us. I enjoy seeing a time when hate-mongers weren’t defending depictions of hate symbols as necessary parchments of history and instead were tearing them off the wall and destroying them as they should be destroyed.


As for the depiction of Nun’s in The Sound of Music, as I mentioned earlier, this is perhaps the finest depiction of Nuns in movies. The Nuns in The Sound of Music, aside from Maria of course, a loving, kind, godly souls who, in the face of evil do the right thing, even if that right thing requires a modest sin. Is there a more satisfying scene featuring a Nun than the final moments of The Sound of Music? I can’t imagine one.


Nun’s in movies tend to range from stodgy and boring to severe and borderline evil to broadly silly and comic. The Sound of Music gives us Nuns who are kind and caring. They provide solace and protection and they express their faith through prayer and through the selfless service to those in need. Unlike something as well known as Sister Act, they are portrayed as silly or foolish or something like Doubt which portrays them as severe and unsympathetic, The Sound of Music gives us Nuns who are ordinary people who happen to be deeply devoted to God. Their faith defines them positively.


That’s not to say that something like Meryl Streep’s powerhouse performance in Doubt is wrong or indefensibly severe, but it does play into a Catholic stereotype whether you like it or not. The severe, cruel, punishing Nun whose faith is expressed in stern, uncompromising, discipline, is a trope that has taken hold over decades and likely has led to the horror movie character we’re set to endure in The Nun.


I will take my Nun’s with a song in their heart rather than a demon in their soul. Give me The Sound of Music any day over any other cinematic depiction of a Nun. This is the way I want to see Nun’s remembered on screen. The Sound of Music is the best possible tribute to the women who’ve selflessly given their lives to God. It’s a lovely and warm picture of the sisterhood with a nice, heroic flourish at the end as well.


Movie Review Adrift

Based on a true story, Adrift takes some unique liberties with the real life story of a couple who were lost at sea. Those liberties include a ‘twist’ of sorts that some will find off-putting. I understand where those people are coming from. In a lesser film, the device that is at the heart of Adrift would likely be quite terrible. Thankfully, Adrift is quite a good movie, with a great story and sympathetic characters. The device works because these characters and the actors playing them are so very good.


In 1983, Tami Oldham and her fiance Richard Sharp accepted the job of taking a friend’s yacht from  Tahiti to San Diego, a 4000 plus mile journey. During the trip they encounter hurricane Raymond which at the time grew to become one of the biggest hurricanes of its day. Though they smartly attempted to get away from the storm, they could not know that the storm was going to take a turn and begin following them until it swallowed them up.


The yacht, named Hazana, was nearly completely destroyed in the storm and Tami was struck on the head by debris while inside the ship leaving her unconscious for 27 hours. When she awoke Richard was gone and the ship was a shambles. Thankfully, Richard was clinging to a busted raft not far from the busted ship and Tami was able to bring him back aboard, despite remarkable injuries to his ribs and legs.


Together they attempt to survive in the middle of nowhere with no one looking for them and no way of contacting anyone for help. With Richard injured, Tami has to do all the work of trying to rescue them both and her inner-strength is easily the most compelling part of Adrift. Shailene Woodley communicates both Tami’s vulnerability and remarkable strength with equal flourish. This is unquestionably, Woodley’s finest work since her breakout performance opposite George Clooney in The Descendants.


Woodley and Sam Claflin have terrific chemistry. When the film isn’t depicting their struggle to survive, it is flashing back to Tami and Richard’s love story which is quick and passionate and exciting. A scene of the two of them at a remote beach is film with such style that you can’t help but be moved by the beauty of the scene and the romance at its center. It’s a gorgeous piece of work and brings the romantic story on par with the survival drama aboard the boat.


Adrift is exceptionally well shot by director Baltasar Kormakur and cinematographer Robert Richardson, who is a three time Academy Award winner. He could win a 4th gold statue for Adrift which effortlessly goes from the peril of the survival story to the gauzy romance without feeling as if the two motifs are at odds. Both stories work and both are captured brilliantly by Kormakur and Richardson with remarkable detail and crispness.


Adrift is exciting, romantic, and heartbreaking, a devastatingly good combination. Shailene Woodley delivers an Academy Award level great performance and Sam Claflin is nearly her equal in his supporting performance. Woodley is doing all of the heavy lifting here, selling both the romance and the survival story with her skillful ability to switch gears from sexy and to scared, from breathtaking to breathless. It’s a whirlwind performance and among the best of the year.


Adrift is available this week on Blu-Ray and DVD.


Movie Review Hereditary

Hereditary is, thus far in 2018, the best movie of the year. I know it’s early and there are still Oscar bait movies to come, one or two of which will live up to their hype, but Hereditary is very likely to remain my favorite film of the year. I have been a professional film critic for over a decade now and a writer of internet reviews for more than 20 years, and in that time I have seen hundreds of horror movies and become jaded. Hereditary gave me legit chills for the first time since I was a naive kid not hip to the tricks of movie makers.


Hereditary stars Toni Collette as Annie, an artist, wife and mother of two. Annie’s mother has just passed away and we watch at the funeral as Annie struggles to find genuine grief for her passing. Mother and daughter had a fraught relationship, as evidenced by Annie’s discernible forced grief and that will be a big part of how the story of Hereditary plays out. While Annie is seeking an understanding of grief, life goes on for her family.


Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is loving and supportive of his wife but can’t understand her complex reaction to her mother’s death. Son, Peter (Alex Wolff) is a typically self-centered teen and thus not expected to reckon with his mother’s emotions. And then there is Annie’s daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Charlie appears to be autistic though whether that plays into why she appears to lack empathy for anyone or anything is not for me to say.


Charlie is not psychotic or dangerous, although one day she could be, but her obsession with death, expressed only briefly in words but mostly in Milly Shapiro’s remarkably expressive face, is palpably disturbing. Charlie is a breathtaking character. Director Ari Aster gives her an almost supernatural presence and yet her parents and sibling think nothing of her other than caring about her like you would a family member. It’s only us who get a sense that something is deeply wrong with Charlie and it’s nothing to do with her being of special needs.


A tragedy plays out once more in this family and that is the catalyst for the scares to come. I will not spoil it here, I will only say that the moment is stunning and left me breathless at the daring and horror of the moment. It is among the boldest moments I have ever seen on film, a scene so shocking that it doesn’t land right away, it punches you in the gut and then holds that punch their, holding you in the grip of breath, before letting you catch yourself before the next blow lands.


Ari Aster is a revelatory director, a new and exciting auteurist voice. Hereditary feels like the singular vision of a true visionary with production design detail that only the truly great directors achieve. Watch the way he uses props and furniture in Hereditary. Everything is just so slightly out of scale. There is a slightly too large guitar in one scene, a hallway table that is just slightly oversized. These little touches are intentional and they intend to skewer your perception and keep you off-kilter without having to resort to many camera tricks or showy narrative devices.


Toni Collette’s Annie is an artist and she works in miniatures, tiny dioramas of her memories and her everyday life. Annie’s art is the cornerstone of the film’s design and as you watch it evolve and you watch Annie slowly unraveling, the models provide a strange and terrifying insight into Annie’s fraying mental state. Watch the opening scene of Hereditary closely and the remarkable subtlety at play in how the action begins.


Toni Collette and Alex Wolff are the standouts of a remarkable cast. Collette’s slow descent into maddening grief is truly terrifying and you will not be able to take your eyes off of here. It’s a gripping and desperate, almost feral at times, performance. Collette is a brave and daring performer and thus the perfect fit for this brave and daring narrative. Alex Wolff on the other hand, is effortlessly brilliant at earning our sympathy. Despite beginning the movie as a self-centered teen, constantly on the verge of being a jerk, Wolff and director Ari Aster find ways to deepen and explore Peter.


I adore every inch of Hereditary. It’s a film of incredible detail and that elusive quality of being legitimately frightening. No joke, Hereditary gets into your head and if you’re not into horror movies, you don’t want this movie in your head. Hereditary is shocking, bold, scary and wildly entertaining. It’s filled with remarkable performances, including at least two, possibly three potential Academy Award nominees.

See Hereditary now on Blu-Ray and DVD


Movie Review Operation Finale

Operation Finale is a gripping historical thriller. The story of the Mossad capture of Adolph Eichmann is filled with twists and turns and the kind of drama that movies live for. Directed by Chris Weitz, whose father was rumored to be the model for James Bond after having worked as a World War 2 era spy, Operation Finale is a perfectly calibrated spy story, a captivating peace of suspense and cracking adventure story.


Oscar Isaac stars in Operation Finale as Peter Malkin, a spy believed to be past his prime. Malkin was believed to have been damaged by his previous work in hunting Nazis and having once killed the wrong man while trying to kill a well-known Nazi. When Israeli intelligence gets information on the whereabouts Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), it looks as if Peter isn’t going to be chosen for the mission.


Adolph Eichmann was known as the architect of the gas chambers. It was said to have been Eichmann’s charge to find the quickest and most efficient way to exterminate Jewish people. His monstrous, callous disregard of basic human decency led directly to the deaths of millions of innocent people. Somehow, he managed to escape Germany amid the chaos of the final days of World War 2 and settled in Buenos Aires where over a decades time, he helped to build a new Nazi party.


Operation Finale hinges on Israeli intelligence getting the luckiest of lucky breaks. When a young woman living with her Uncle in Buenos Aires meets a handsome young blonde man, she has no idea that he’s a Nazi or that he is actually Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn), the son of the monstrous Adolph Eichmann. She invites him to dinner where her Jewish Uncle, though blind, recognizes something in the young man’s story and the chase to capture Eichmann begins.


Operation Finale, even as it is based on real history, nevertheless has the charge of a great suspense flick. I know the story of Peter Malkin from several documentaries and news stories dating to his passing in 2005. I am aware that Adolph Eichmann was captured and brought to Israel for trial and yet I was riveted by Operation Finale as much as I would have been if I didn’t already know how the story came to an end.


Chris Weitz’s direction of Operation Finale is sharp and clever. It’s a clear eyed piece of direction that never muddies the water by trying to make things more artful than necessary. This is a straight-forward suspense movie, it doesn’t need flashy camera moves or odd angles, the camera is stationary and trained on the necessary activities of these characters. The pacing is pitch perfect, there isn’t a single unneeded scene in the movie.


Oscar Isaac is fast becoming one of the most reliably excellent actors working today. He can do anything from being a leading man here to being a colorful supporting player in the Star Wars universe to being the villain in something weird and experimental like Ex-Machina. His range is immeasurable as is his talent. His performance in Operation Finale is effortlessly compelling and when he’s forced to confront Kingsley’s monstrous Eichmann the scene is charged with emotion.


The scenes between Peter and Eichmann are the best in a movie filled with good scenes. Isaac and Kingsley have tremendous chemistry and the angry charge you get from Isaac holding back his bile while trying to use charm to get Eichmann to agree to go quietly to Israel for trial is remarkably tense and energetic. Kingsley’s style can tend toward going over the top but working against Isaac’s energy that kind of works in Kingsley’s favor. He approaches comic villainy at times but Isaac pulls him back to believability.


Operation Finale is a smart, tense, exciting and entertaining piece of historical fiction. Oscar Isaac is a true star, even if his name recognition is still relatively low. He owns the screen and working with a director who gives him the space to perform without stealing the spotlight, Isaac flourishes once more. I greatly enjoyed Operation Finale and I was deeply moved by it as well. It’s a crackerjack suspense movie that yet retains the gravitas to be genuinely moving and tragic.


Movie Review Tucker The Man and His Dream

Tucker The Man and His Dream is the last time the legendary Francis Ford Coppola delivered something reminiscent to his classic movies, The Godfather 1 & 2, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. Tucker is equally artful and entertaining with a historical flair. Much like how The Godfather films take their entertainment factor from their high level authenticity, Tucker The Man and His Dream feels a proper retelling of history.


Jeff Bridges stars in Tucker The Man and His Dream as Preston Tucker, an inventor who rose to prominence by creating innovative items of war for the Allies in World War 2. His innovation in gun turrets for airplanes gave Tucker the seed to move toward his dream of building a brand new car, a safe, reliable car that flies in the face of modern, for the 1940’s and 50’s, car design. A vehicle that is both futuristic yet super-safe.


Tucker may be comfortably wealthy but he doesn’t have enough to build his dream car on his own so he seeks out Abe (Martin Landau), a man with access to money and the halls of power in Washington D.C. Abe thinks Tucker is crazy but when he manages to plant an ad in a magazine that creates demand for a car that doesn’t yet exist, Abe can’t resist Tucker’s charming scheming.


Tucker’s dream appears to be on track to come true until he runs up against a Michigan Senator named Homer Ferguson. Ferguson is in the pocket of the car industry and because of that he goes out of his way to make things hard for Tucker who is attempting to create the first rival to the big three car companies in decades, something the industry comes together to oppose by any means necessary.


There is an attention to period detail in Tucker The Man and His dream that thrills me. The hair, the set design, the color, the light, it all plays into the milieu that Coppola carefully crafts. As I was saying before, authenticity is a big part of what makes Coppola, Coppola and the design of Tucker The Man and his Dream is the last great distillation of Coppola’s artistry. After Tucker, Coppola, though hailed as a legend on par with Lucas and Speilberg, wanders in the woods for years making weird experimental movies and failing mainstream programmers beneath his talent.


If I have a quibble at all with the style of Tucker The Man and his Dream, it’s with Coppola’s use of camera perspective to create tension where the scene is too weak to deliver it on its own. You can sense where the weakest parts of Tucker The Man and his Dream are by the way Coppola employs God’s Eye perspective or up from under perspective with the camera framing the action pointing upward. Rarely does it feel natural for Coppola to shoot this way the choice tends to call too much attention to weaker shots or moments in the movie.


Jeff Bridges is an electrifying presence in Tucker The Man and His Dream. Bridges is full of life and vitality and combined with his movie star presence, the performance soars. His chemistry with co-star Joan Allen is sexy and thrilling without having the be anything more than PG. The two smolder on screen here in the same way the sparked in dialogue in their underrated re-teaming in The Contender.


The supporting cast sadly isn’t as strong as they are mostly underwritten characters in a sea of perhaps too many fighting for screentime. Landau is the only other performer aside from Bridges and his far from bad but he’s no match for Bridge life and energy. Lloyd Bridges does well to hide the cuddliness that made his late career performances so endearing but the character is so minor that he famously didn’t even take a credit despite being the film’s ostensible villain.


All of that said, I do find Tucker The Man and His Dream to be high quality entertainment. There is just enough her for the movie to stand, if not next to Coppola’s great films, not far behind them. Tucker The Man and his dream is bold and ambitious and in Jeff Bridges, it has a dynamic star at the top of his movie star game. The film is now available on special edition Blu Ray for the very first time and it is very much worth picking up for both Coppola and Bridges completists.


Movie Review Kin

Kin reminded me so much of the mishmash mush that was AXL that I half expected the robot dog would be part of the film’s big twist. Like AXL, Kin is two movies grafted into one for reasons only the screenwriters could begin to explain. Instead of robot dogs and motorcycles, we get family drama and aliens(?). Oh and we get a so bad it's brilliant performance from James Franco who appears to be experimenting with becoming Christopher Walken in his next reinvention.


Kin stars Myles Truitt as Eli and Jack Reynor as his troubled brother Jimmy who is fresh out of jail when we meet him. Eli and Jack’s dad Hal (Dennis Quaid) is not crazy about his son’s return home and his suspicions appear correct when Jack falls back in with criminals, this time it’s the guy who saved him in prison, a nutbar named Tay (James Franco). Tay claims that Jack owes him $60,000 for protecting him in prison and he wants to collect.


This leads Jack to get on the road out of town and he decides to take Eli with him. After promising Eli that the trip was their father’s idea, it wasn’t, Jack takes his little brother on a road trip of a lifetime including all the soda the kid can drink, sneaking the 14 year old into a strip club, where they meet a new friend named Milly (Zoe Kravitz) and eventually on to Las Vegas where they get a room for the night and enjoy the glamour.


Oh, did I mention that aliens may also be part of this plot? Sorry, I forgot, just as the movie tends to forget until it’s convenient. Eli has a side gig where he steals copper wire from burned out old buildings and sells it for scrap. In one of these ancient buildings, Eli finds a bunch of corpses and what appears to be some kind of alien ray gun. When he touches it, the gun bonds to Eli and from then on, only he can carry it and fire it. And fire it he does.


Just as the dirt bike racing in AXL was the plot of one movie and the robot dog was part of another movie that were Frankenstein’ed together into a new less powerful and quite terrible movie, the plots of Kin appear similarly stitched. A family drama involving crime and runaway kids is somehow stitched together with an alien invasion plot. Neither plot is very compelling and together they are a sloppy mess.


Poor Myles Truitt has earnest qualities that make him quite likable. It’s a shame that this is his starring role. Truitt is left out to dry by a narrative that doesn’t know where to pull the kid next. He’s adept in the family drama scenes but he lacks the appropriate sense of awe in the laser gun scenes. He appears to approach theses scenes a little too matter-of-fact like. Occasionally, the kid just looks tired and while that may have some context, it’s not very entertaining.


The only truly entertaining thing about Kin, aside from the high level goofiness of the plot, is James Franco. Many will be surprised to know that James Franco is in Kin. That may be because his role was not much publicized, owing perhaps to his having been swept up in sexual harassment charges back in December of 2017. Well, I can tell you that James Franco is in Kin and his performance is completely insane.


Franco plays Tay, a gang leader, drug dealer who appears to cut his own hair and has an affinity for all things acid washed. You can sense a very Nicolas Cage/Christopher Walken thing happening with Franco here where he has little interest in the plot and is only interested in his bits of business and cheesy monologuing. There is one scene in which he is denied the use of a men’s room at a small town gas station and his reaction is priceless.


Franco, like those of us punching our way through the nonsense that is Kin, is not the least bit interested in the plot or the other characters in the movie. He’s experimenting with style and dialogue. I can’t say that the experiment works as it doesn’t really improve the movie but he is the most interesting part of the movie so there is that. If I am a director of a movie that doesn’t appear to have much going for it I might approach Franco and invite him to riff a performance just to see what we might get out of it. That appears to have been his idea with being in Kin.


Kin is quite a bad movie. The performances, aside from Franco, are flat to the point of lifelessness, the plot is nonsense and the action is barely adequate for a feature film. Then there is the laugh out loud ‘twist’ ending. Oh my, the big star cameo at the end of this movie must have owed the director a BIG favor. The silliness of this ending is almost Roger Corman/Ed Wood levels of madness. I was roused from my stupor by this goofiness if only for a few moments so that I could giggle just a little at how much nonsense the movie can squeeze into the final moments.


It’s rather glorious but sadly, not enough for me to recommend Kin.


Movie Review Searching

Searching is a wild ride that is anchored by a terrific lead performance by John Cho. The growth of John Cho from the guy who invented the term ‘MILF’ to the Harold from Harold and Kumar through his turn as Sulu in Star Trek, Cho has grown more confident and assured as a performer. The key thesis to that point is his poignant turn in last year’s little seen but wonderful movie, Columbus. That film showcased Cho’s range and charisma like no role before.


Searching is the next evolution of John Cho as an actor and a risk-taker. A feature film shot entirely via a computer screen using Facetime video chat as the center for much of the action along with livestreams, and messaging services, Searching would be a challenge for any actor. Cho makes it look and feel natural. His grieving father character is a deeply sympathetic figure and Cho’s performance is perfectly calibrated to this unique milieu.


In Searching, John Cho stars as David Kim and Michelle La co-stars as his daughter, Margot. It’s been just a couple of years since they lost Margot’s mom, Pam, seen in flashbacks played by the lovely Sarah Sohn, and father and daughter are strained. We can sense from their awkward interactions via Facetime and chat log that they are going through the motions of keeping each other informed of where they are and what they are doing.


Then, Margot is gone. On a Friday, Margot doesn’t show up for school. She doesn’t come home on Friday night. Saturday comes and she doesn’t come home either and Dave finally decides to call police after one of Margot’s friends tells him, she disappeared on everyone on Thursday night. David had received two calls late Thursday night/early Friday morning but he’d been asleep and now Margot is not answering his calls.


That’s the set up for a plot that has a number of surprising twists and turns ahead. Searching was written and directed by newcomer Aneesh Chaganty, a director of Short Films, graduating here to his first full length feature. The choice to approach Searching in the fashion of computer screens, ala the failed horror movie, Unfriended, was a bold choice but one that pays off by simply being delivered more skillfully than Unfriended was.


John Cho is the key here. His investment in this story and how to properly tell this story is what sells it to us as not just a gimmick. Cho makes you invest in David. You feel like you are searching along with him as he scours the internet for information about his daughter before scouring his wife’s old computer and eventually his missing daughter’s laptop which holds important keys if he can get it to work.


I adore John Cho’s work in Searching, he’s remarkably compelling. His chemistry with Debra Messing, who plays the detective investigating his daughter’s disappearance has an edginess to it that I found irresistible. Messing hasn’t been this good on the big screen in her relatively long career. The twists and turns of her character are surprising and highly compelling as well leading to one phenomenal scene played entirely in silence and at the distance of a video stream.


Michelle La plays David’s daughter and she’s just as remarkable as Cho. La has the most to play with in terms of emotional expression and her bright eyes and smile as well as her poised, poignant, loneliness tell a remarkable story. As the ambiguity of Margot’s motives become clearer it is a joy to watch the young actress portraying her finding just the right sad beat to keep us invested and ill-at-ease with motivation.


Yes, the experimental style of Searching will not be for all audiences. But if you give Searching a chance you won’t regret it. Searching is among the best thrillers of 2018.


Movie Review Eight Men Out

John Sayles among the most underrated directors in history. Perhaps it is the subtlety of his work, the lack of flash, the professionalism that some mistake as mundane. Sayles’ films have personality to spare and yet, his sparse production style and deep focus on the inner lives of his characters are the qualities that people tend to take away from his work. Eight Men Out is, perhaps, the best known work of Sayles’ lengthy career because it is the most accessible.


The story of the 1919 Black Sox scandal was destined to be made into a motion picture. The only question was when? When would Hollywood recognize just how brilliantly cinematic this story was. One of the greatest single baseball teams in history, by the numbers, decided to throw the World Series as a way of sticking it to their skinflint owner, Charles Comiskey, the jerk for whom the stadium was named for several years.


History can lay what the players did in 1919 squarely on the doorstep of Comiskey. A scene in Eight Men Out demonstrates that he had the means of preventing the Black Sox scandal from happening but his greed was far too great along with his ego. When pitcher Eddie Ciccotte, played here by David Straithairn, requests a well-earned $10,000 bonus for having won 29 games in 1919, Comiskey uses a technicality to deny it to him.


This incident drove Ciccotte into the arms of gamblers who’d already recruited several of Eddie’s teammates to throw a few games and let the Cincinnati Reds win a significant upset victory. Buck Weaver (John Cusack) was among the few that refused the money but did not stop his fellow players from doing what they did. Cusack’s Weaver is the heart and aching soul of Eight Men Out and it is possibly his finest performance.


A scene late in Eight Men Out as Buck rails in court about not being allowed his own trial, the Sox faced criminal conspiracy charges, in case the seriousness of this hadn’t set in for you, and how Buck wasn’t allowed to testify on his own behalf so he could state his innocence. Buck Weaver would spend the rest of his life begging to be allowed back into baseball and would be denied every single time for his alleged role in the scandal.


The most well known part of the Black Sox story is the involvement of the great ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, here portrayed by D.B Sweeney. Joe is shown in the movie as taking money from the gangsters but his play in the World Series in 1919 tells a different story. Jackson set a World Series record with 12 hits and a 373 batting average. A legendary quote from a Jackson supporter states ‘If Joe was throwing the series, he did a damn poor job of it.” Jackson committed no errors in the field either.


Joe’s biggest issue was his inability to read. Sayles smartly lays in several scenes of Jackson’s wife, Kate (Wendy Makkena) reading to him. Unfortunately, she wasn’t present when a White Sox lawyer lied Joe into signing a confession. He was told that the confession would only say that he had accepted the money, not that he had willfully acted to throw games, something he demonstrably did not do. Nevertheless, Joe Jackson remains banned from baseball to this day.


There are so many wonderful things about Eight Men Out but my favorite is perhaps Sayles himself as reporter Ring Lardner and legendary sports writer Studs Terkel as Hugh ‘Hughie’ Fullerton. Though historically inaccurate, Fullerton and Lardner wrote for different papers, the scenes between Sayles and Terkel are charged with personality and a moment when Sayles as Lardner begins to serenade the cheating Sox players is an electrifying one, perhaps the best scene in a movie filled with great moments.

Eight Men Out is one of the greatest baseball movies ever made. A smart, cynical, highly polished yet gritty retelling of one of the most important moments in sports history. John Sayles was the perfect director for this movie. His films are well-known for charismatic cynicism. This isn’t angry or polemical work, it’s even handed and filled with real history shaped with cinematic finesse that makes a complex story mainstream and accurate while remaining highly entertaining.


I absolutely adore John Sayles. Sayles is a masterful director whose smaller films such as Lonestar, Silver City and Sunshine State, are under-recognized masterworks. Eight Men Out was the announcement of his remarkable talent to mainstream audiences and while they may not have taken note, that announcement became a clarion call for film lovers who’ve been loving his work for the past 30 years.


Eight Men Out was released 30 years ago this week and is available on Amazon Prime for free to Amazon Prime subscribers.


Movie Review 2001 A Space Odyssey

2001 A Space Odyssey is an experience as much as it is a movie. You watch 2001 as much as you are engulfed by it. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece remains mindblowingly brilliant 50 years after it was released in theaters. And I didn’t even need the kinds of psychotropic drugs that people had in the late 1960’s to enjoy it. Thanks to director Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick’s visionary work is available to the world as it was back in ‘68.


There is only a modest amount of a plot in 2001 A Space Odyssey and it doesn’t kick in until we are over an hour into the movie. The film happens in a series of set pieces seemingly intended to demonstrate the evolution of man. The film begins by observing apes, thousands of years in the past. After a group of apes is chased away from their watering hole they are visited by a large black monolith. After touching the massive edifice inspiration strikes.


One of the apes picks up a bone and begins to pound it on other sets of bones and enjoys seeing them crack and fly into the air. Eventually, this ape gets the idea that this bone could be used to pound on other animals. He uses it on a pig and enjoys a meal of raw meat. He spread it around and soon they are all eating well. Then, it’s time to take back the watering hole. With bones in hand, the apes approach the watering hole and take it back by force.


The scene ends iconically with the soaring Thus Spoke Zarathustra as an ape throws his bone in the air and the scene shifts to outer space. This is man’s next great evolutionary leap. We’ve conquered space to the point that there is a spaceport and a Hilton branded hotel. Space travel in this future world is mundane to the point that no one is in awe. When we meet Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Syvester) he’s asleep on a space shuttle, not enrapt, staring out a window in wonder. He’s been here before and thus, so have we.


Dr. Floyd is headed to the Moon where a large, black monolith has landed near an American base. Floyd is part of the team tasked with keeping the discovery a secret from the worldwide space community. We know this monolith is related to, if not the same, as the monolith that gave the marked the evolutionary leap forward of the apes toward man and it’s fascinating still to find out where we are too leap next.


That’s a thumbnail sketch of the first hour of 2001 A Space Odyssey but it doesn’t do justice to the small and brilliant details that Stanley Kubrick brings to the film. The little touches, the top details and the superior style of 2001 A Space Odyssey can barely be described in a movie review unless you’re prepared to write a book length appreciation of it. I probably could write a book on 2001, I find it that enthralling.


It’s at this point that we are finally introduced to the star of 2001 A Space Odyssey and no, I am not talking about actor Keir Dullea. The HAL 9000 computer is inarguably the star of 2001. No single item in film history has ever been as iconic as HAL. Voice actor Douglas Rain crafts the perfect, soothing and intelligent voice to go with HAL, which is essentially, a single, unblinking, red-eye. HAL sees all and it takes everything Dullea’s Dr. David Bowman can think of in order to get past HAL and complete his mission.


You will need to see for yourself where it goes from there as I am not going to spoil the magic of a true film classic. The soothing, ever calm voice of HAL becomes slightly alarmed later in the movie and it is fascinating to consider just what it means for HAL to feel things like emotions, especially when HAL believes that Dave and fellow astronaut Frank Poole are conspiring against him/it.


The ending is a trip unlike any other. Again, no spoilers. I will only say that I can only imagine what it is like to be high on some drug during the final half hour of 2001 A Space Odyssey but it can’t be far off from the sober experience. It feels like a trip, it feels as if you are loose from your senses in the moments until we’ve reached our final dinner reservation, so to speak. The iconic closing shot of the movie never fails to leave me stunned, not just at how sweeping and epic it feels but because it is all there in the text of 2001 A Space Odyssey, how we got here.


The film earns this unusual ending by layering the plot in such a way that no other ending would make as much sense. The trippiness throws you for a loop, unmoors you from the plot and draws you in deeper toward into the movie. You are an active participant in the last wordless scenes of 2001 A Space Odyssey. You are invited to ponder the infinite and your place within it and what does it all mean all while the birth of new life is ready to descend on the next evolution of man.


2001 A Space Odyssey is road tripping around to various IMAX theaters across the United States. It’s definitely worth a drive to your nearest IMAX as it remains one of the greatest films ever produced.


Movie Review Woman Walks Ahead

Jessica Chastain is, arguably, the best actress working in Hollywood today. She’s a magnetic force, she draws you toward her character effortlessly. She’s tough yet wildly charismatic and even in a lesser movie like Woman Walk Ahead, she maintains a level of excellence that exceeds the limitations of a weak script or soft direction. In Woman Walks Ahead she manages to overcome historical inaccuracy to craft the essence of a true story infused with a faux romance.


In Woman Walks Ahead Jessica Chastain portrays Catherine, a painter from New York City whose husband has passed away. With him gone, she’s free to pursue her passion which is portrait painting with a specialty in portraiture. Catherine has had Senators and Governors sit for her portraits but her next famous painting is unquestionable her most ambitious. Catherine wishes to travel west to paint a portrait of the Indian Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes).


Catherine is met with resistance to her plan almost immediately. On the train to the Dakota territories she’s met by an army Colonel (Sam Rockwell) who assumes she’s a liberal agitator out to stir up an already tense political dispute over a new Indian treaty. The Colonel warns Catherine to stay on the train and go back to New York and when she doesn’t he makes sure she is left at the station.


Not about to give up, Catherine walked the several mile distance from the train to Standing Rock where the Calvary and the Indians live next door to one another in a tense state of detente. In town Catherine is once again told to go home, this time by the Mayor (Ciarin Hinds) who orders her locked in a cabin to be forcibly taken to the train station the following day. This doesn’t happen however as Catherine is taken to meet Sitting Bull the following day and unusual friendship begins.


Woman Walks Ahead is loosely based on a true story. Caroline Weldon was a painter but also an Indian activist, something left out of the movie. Weldon went to Standing Rock as much to fight the Dawes Act as to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait. She did befriend Sitting Bull but when Sitting Bull committed to fighting against the Dawes Act, he and Weldon disagreed vehemently and the division drove the two apart before Sitting Bull’s murder.


The movie builds a romance between Chastain’s Catherine and Michael Greyeyes’ Sitting Bull that is pure invention and arguably, not a needed invention. The romance would be purely filler if Chastain and Greyeyes didn’t have explosive chemistry. There is a smolder between these two actors that turns a perfunctory, tacked-on romantic plot, it makes it feel vital and alive. There may not be any sex in Woman Walks Ahead but there are enough longing stares to fill a lifetime.


Woman Walks Ahead was directed by television veteran Susanna White. White takes quickly to feature filmmaking with good instinct for pace and tone and a few risky scenes of violence, one of which really turned my stomach with it’s severity and yet the film still held me in place because of my investment in these characters and this sort of true story. It’s the truth dressed up with a little melodrama to make it go down easy and that’s likely where White’s TV training came in handy.


Woman Walks Ahead works because Jessica Chastain is a great movie star and an even better actress. She’s charismatic and fierce throughout capturing just the kind of tenacity it must have taken for a single, 44 year old New Yorker to board a train for Standing Rock amidst one of the most tense moments in the history of our relationship with American Indians. It took guts to do with Caroline Weldon did and Jessica Chastain exemplifies gutty in Woman Walks Ahead.


One last thing I want to mention, the score of Woman Walks Ahead is superb. George Fenton was responsible for the score and the mournful, melancholy plucking of a guitar has rarely been so moving. It's a sublime listening experience on top of being perfectly in line with the tone of the film which isn't entirely melancholy but has a certain foresight of sadness to come that lingers in the air and the score perpetuates that air brilliantly. 


Woman Walks Ahead is availalble now on Blu-Ray, DVD and On-Demand, free if you're a member of Amazon Prime. 


Movie Review A.X.L

That A.X.L even exists is rather baffling. Just who thought this was a good idea: A dirt bike racing teen befriends a robot dog and attempts to save him from the evil corporation that created him. It’s a concept that might have worked in 1970’s Disney movie but in 2018 it comes off like an idea we’d poke fun at for being like a 1970’s Disney movie. A.X.L is a deeply, painfully, earnest story without wit or consciousness.


A.X.L stars Alex Neustadter, a star of such magnitude that he is listed third in the credits on IMDB despite being the star of the movie, aside from the CGI. Miles, as the character is named, is a dirt bike racer without a sponsor who is befriended by Sam (AlexMacNicoll), a big time racing star from the same hometown in California. Through Sam, Miles meets and falls for Sara (YouTube sensation and pop star Becky G, top-billed on IMDB) whose mother works for Sam’s family.


The three form a love triangle that will be tested when Sam and Miles are pitted against each other on the dirt bike track. Or, at least, that was the plot to one of the movies that someone cobbled together into A.X.L. The other movie is about a robot dog created by an evil corporate operative played by Dominic Rains and his lackey played by Lou Taylor Pucci. Thomas Jane and Ted McGinley round out the cast as ineffectual parents or actors just picking up a paycheck.


A.X.L is one of the most misguided movies I have seen come along in some time. The plot is utter nonsense, Short Circuit meets The Dirt Bike Kid perhaps, and the performances are irredeemably bland. Poor Alex Neustadter looks like he’d rather be anywhere else than pretending to be acting in front of a robot dog and Thomas Jane appears to be on hand to have a beer and get paid for the privilege.


None of the cast appear to be all that interested in the movie with everyone seeming to adopt the same wide-eyed, gape-mouthed expression to communicate every emotion of every scene. No joke, try watching this movie and not noticing the number of blank-eyed stares. It’s rather humorous but I wouldn’t recommend it as a drinking game. Then again, I don’t recommend anything about A.X.L.


One last note, A.X.L has the dubious distinction of having brought down its studio. Global Road Entertainment, according to industry magazine Variety, is trying to off-load the last of its movies after falling into the hands of lenders. It wasn’t all of A.X.L’s fault, the studio also released the pricey bombs Midnight Sun, Hotel Artemis and Show Dogs but A.X.L with its CGI robot puppy, could not have helped matters, especially after opening to less than 3 million dollars opening weekend at the box office. Woof!


Movie Review Summer of 84

Summer of 84 comes depressingly close to greatness. As I watched it, I thought perhaps I was seeing the next The Goonies or Stand by Me. What a shame it was then to watch the filmmakers trade greatness for shock value. The final act of Summer of 84 is such a bleak and bummer of an ending that what I thought was going to become cult phenomena became just another mediocre schlockfest.


Summer of 84 stars Graham Verschere as Davey, a not so average teenager in a relatively average small town. Along with his friends, Eats (Judah Lewis), Farraday (Corey Gruter Andrew) and Woody (Caleb Embry), Davey runs around town thinking and talking about girls he’s never touched and just generally being a kid. Things change however, when one of the newspapers on Davey’s paper route informs him that kids are missing from surrounding towns.


Davey’s passion happens to be conspiracy theories and his active imagination eventually lead him to suspect that his neighbor, Mr Mackey (Rich Sommer), may be the killer everyone is looking for. His friends are skeptical but eventually they come around and begin helping Davey snoop around Mr. Mackey’s house, rooting through his trash and digging up his garden, all in pursuit Davey’s wild theory.


But is his theory really so far-fetched? Davey did see a kid in Mackey’s house who looked a lot like a missing kid on a milk carton but he says it was his nephew. Mackey does buy a lot of dirt but he also has a sizable garden. Being a cop gives him the perfect cover, he knows how to evade suspicion. But, he’s been a cop in town for years and is a friend of Davey’s parents. Then again, where does Mackey go every night if he work during the day?


This is a solid idea that combines elements of Rear Window and Stand by Me with a touch of The Goonies. Early on, everything in Summer of 84 felt like it was going to provide some comic scares, those jumpy laughs where you’re a little frightened but the jump scares are intentionally funny. I adored that aspect of Summer of 84, the film had me laughing from the beginning and I had hoped that it would stick with that tone.


It’s a solid, professionally crafted movie with a terrific core cast. The stand out for me was Woody. Woody is a sweetheart, a loyal, lovable buddy that I think we all had when we were a kid. That kind of loyal to a fault type kid. You know the one, when you get in trouble, he gets in trouble because he was there to. That’s Woody for Davey, a loyalist, a partisan, a best friend who, when things get dangerous, overcomes his fear to be at his friend’s side.


Graham Verschere is also quite good as Davey, our eyes and ears. The camera is rarely away from Davey, he is the lead character and our surrogate into the world of Summer of 84. Verschere has a wonderfully curious quality, I loved his dogged inquisitiveness. As for Eats and Farraday, the characters of the bad boy and the nerdy kid limit them in terms of interest and aside from a couple of scenes, they become rather superfluous by the end of the movie.


I want so much to explain my objection to the ending of Summer of 84 but I won’t. I don’t do spoilers in my reviews. It’s a rule and it’s not one I am going to break here. Just know that the ending of Summer of 84 is a cheap shot, an unnecessary attempt at shock and it has no place in this otherwise good-hearted movie. Be prepared for disappointment and perhaps you can get over it in a way that I simply can’t. I am angry over the end of this movie.


Summer of 84 is available via on-demand services and is playing in a few movie theaters around the country as well.


Movie Review The Muppet Movie

There is a reason I love to look back on and remember and write about old movies, they can feel like new again. A great example of that is The Muppet Movie from 1979. I remember being delighted by this movie when I was a very small child, I watched it consistently alongside episodes of The Muppet Show. It was formative for me, elements of my personality and my my humor were formed from watching, Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzy.


Jim Henson love of the absurd became my love for the absurd. Something like Pigs in Space which appears so inconsequential today, was the height of comedy for me as a child and has remained influential for me as I love a big, booming announcer voice and the simple juxtaposition that comes from the idea of pigs piloting a spaceship. Watch it today and you get an even more nuanced gag that plays on the pigs acting like the hammy actors from 50’s and 60’s sci-fi cheapies and, of course, WIlliam Shatner.


The glory of The Muppets is in the clever subtlety. The send up of Hollywood and show business in The Muppets is never mean, it’s wildly clever. Are there digs at the pomposity of showbiz phonies? Of Course, but they are done in the fashion of an elbow in the ribs prodding and not a baseball bat to the head obviousness. Watching The Muppet Movie in the wake of the release of The Happytime Murders helped remind me what a true joy the muppets are and always have been.


The Muppet Movie sets out to tell the origin story of Kermit and the gang. Kermit was sitting on a log singing “Rainbow Connection” and playing his banjo when a big Hollywood producer (Dom Deluise) floats up on a boat. The producer is lost and needs to get back to Hollywood but first he tells Kermit that Hollywood is hot to cast frogs for a big movie. Kermit isn’t immediately excited by the prospect of leaving the swamp but he has a desire for some adventure so he gets on his way.


From there it’s a stop at a place called El Sleezo where, after encountering Madeline Kahn, James Coburn and Telly Savalas, Kermit meets his new best friend Fozzy Bear. Fozzy is attempting his stand-up comedy routine and it is not going well so Kermit jumped on stage and still things did not go well. The scene proceeds to a silly conclusion but one that sets the table for the kind of wonderfully slight gags we’re going to enjoy for the rest of the movie.


As Kermit and Fozzy are getting out of town, Kermit is approached by an oily fast food shop owner, played by Charles Durning, and his lackey, played by Austin Pendleton. The fast food man wants Kermit to become the face of his Frog Legs franchise but Kermit recognizes how awful that idea is and he and Fozzy make a hasty escape. Durning and Pendleton follow after and show up when the plot needs kicked along. Eventually we meet the rest of the gang, including Gonzo and Miss Piggy and we get plenty of songs and gags along the way.


The Muppet Movie was directed by James Frawley a surprisingly indistinct director for such a distinctive movie. Frawley’s background is in directing television and in 1979 and even since after The Muppets, Frawley has had nothing to do with The Muppets. With the way he captures the tone and the joy of The Muppets, you might reasonably assume that Frawley was a regular collaborator but he wasn’t he was just a good hired hand.


It’s likely the Jim Henson stepped to the fore to really direct The Muppet Movie and make sure that it met the expectations of fans. Frawley was perhaps brought on board to assure studio execs that there was an adult in the room while Henson and Frank Oz and the rest set about bringing there silly puppet show to life on the big screen. That’s not to take away from Frawley who I am willing to bet didn’t just stand aside and allow the inmates to run the asylum.


The other part that likely got The Muppet Movie made were the cameos. Big time stars jumped at the chance to be in The Muppet Movie for a bit of business. I mentioned James Coburn, Madeline Kahn, and Dom Deluise already. Charles Durning and Austin Pendleton are actually part of the plot but then there are tiny bits of fun from Richard Pryor, Bob Hope, Mel Brooks, and Steve Martin gets an extended cameo as an angry waiter that is a real show stealer.


There are numerous other cameos as well, watch for Carol Kane’s double cameo, the second time she shows up is one of the most random and hilarious gags in the movie. There is an inventiveness to the humor of The Muppets that is too often forgotten when we remember them as kids entertainers or for their wonderful songs. There is a runner in the movie about Hare Krishna’s that repeatedly gets a laugh, the Carol Kane bit is completely random yet ingenious and the pie gag involving Durning and Pendleton’s villain is wonderfully, brilliantly absurd and well imagined.


Then there are those wonderful songs. Rainbow Connection may be a tad sappy but the way it is introduced and then brought back late in the movie is a fine piece of musical filmmaking. Movin’ Right Along is one of the most underrated and adorable songs of all time. It’s also an incredible piece of pop song tunesmithing. Paul Williams is rightfully remembered as a genius and while he received an Academy Award for Rainbow Connection, he could have easily received the nomination for any one of the brilliant songs on this soundtrack.


The Happytime Murders, if it accomplishes one thing, it got me to watch The Muppet Movie again. It reminded me of how wonderfully clever and inventive The Muppet Movie is. I know the films are only really related in name to Henson, Jim Henson’s son, Brian directed The Happytime Murders, but they aren’t truly related. The Happytime Murders is comedically sloppy and tonally inept. The Muppet Movie is exactly the opposite and completely hilarious, the films are in two completely different universes.


The Happytime Murders really could have used a James Frawley to reign things in and perhaps make things coherent.


Movie Review The Happytime Murders

A number of critics have called The Happytime Murders the ‘worst movie of 2018.’ These critics apparently forgot about 15:17 to Paris or The Maze Runner Death Cure. The Happytime Murders is undoubtedly bad, I completely agree with that sentiment; but not worst of the year level bad. Mostly, the film is a failure of a central idea, that idea being that puppets acting like raunchy, obnoxious humans is funny just because they are puppets.


Melissa McCarthy stars in The Happytime Murders as Detective Connie Edwards, the former partner of the first ever puppet police detective, Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta). Edwards and Phillips, now a private detective, are thrown back together when a series of murders involving the cast of a popular puppet television show comes to center on Phil as a possible suspect, one of the victims was Phil’s own brother.


Phil somehow winds up at the scene of each murder and though we know he’s not the killer, it’s no surprise that eventually he becomes a wanted man. The plot then turns on whether he and his former can put aside their past and work together to clear his name and solve the horrific series of murders. It’s a rather straight-forward plot and if it starred human actors instead of puppets you might have a hard time seeing Happytime Murders as a comedy.


Director Brian Henson, the son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, hasn’t had much experience directing feature films and his inexperience shows in how clumsy the approach to tone is in The Happytime Murders. Dark comedy is tricky and if you can’t get the tone just right your film will fail and Henson never finds the right vibe for this movie. Everything is far to serious and straightforward and the plot relies far too heavily on the idea that puppets are inherently funny.


Henson appears to believe that seeing a puppet act in a human fashion, especially an obnoxious or raunchy fashion, is funny regardless of the context and for me that was not the case. I found parts of The Happytime Murders downright bleak with one dark comic gag falling short after another. The film relies heavily on cop movie cliches but doesn’t do anything to deconstruct those cliches other than embody them with puppets.


Phil was fired from the force because he failed to shoot a puppet suspect that had his partner at gunpoint. His shot missed and struck a puppet bystander, killing him in front of his young daughter. Immediately, the film establishes the cliche that Phil will have to prove himself by shooting a puppet suspect later in the movie. Phil is a private detective and he has an affair with a femme fatale client that features a sex scene that I know is supposed to be funny for the over the top nature of the, ahem, climax, but I found the scene far more dimwitted than funny. 


Bill Barnett is best known as the voice of Rowlf the Dog, Doctor Teeth and The Swedish Chef, staples of the Muppets supporting cast. Here, as the voice of Phil, he’s fine. He’s adequate but not memorable. If Phil were a human character he would have nothing remotely funny about him, he’s not written as charming or funny, he’s worn out and worried and has only glimmers of minor happiness during the movie. At times, the character appears not merely sad but genuinely bleak. 


Melissa McCarthy has the only good moments in The Happytime Murders. McCarthy’s Connie has a very funny Jerry Maguire moment when she’s seemingly fired from her job and delivers an unhinged monologue on her way out the door. Beyond that however, and an occasional funny line late in the movie, even McCarthy appears to take the material of The Happytime murders a little too seriously, or, at least, serious enough that the comedy fails to land.


Puppets doing human things just isn’t funny on its own. Comedy requires context and structure and timing and The Happytime Murders has little context, only modest structure and the puppets make timing jokes for the human characters difficult. Melissa McCarthy is an actress whose timing is impeccable in most of her movies but she’s off throughout The Happytime Murders because she’s stuck trying to bounce off of non-human characters who can’t react to her usually effective wordplay.


If it sounds like I hated The Happytime Murders let me assure you that I don’t hate it. I just don’t think it is very good. The film is far more forgettable than it is offensive. The badness comes not from a lack of effort, there is a clear amount of effort on display from the remarkable puppeteers who make the puppet characters feel alive. Rather, it’s the kind of badness that likely only came around as the film was being cut together and the filmmakers slowly realized they hadn’t written any good jokes, just a series of dramatic, cliched, contexts that are only funny if you think puppets are funny regardless of context or character.


An example: is it funny that Melissa McCarthy encounters a puppet junky? The puppet is a drug addicted former TV star. The character doesn’t have much to do, doesn’t do much in the way of jokes, aside from a shot or two at McCarthy’s appearance, and then he’s dead. Is it funny that this comes from a puppet? For me, the answer is no, I need the character to actually be funny, to do or to say something funny.


That said, if you find puppets always funny regardless of the context or content, then perhaps this movie is for you.


Movie Review Papillion (1973)

Papillion is considered a classic movie by some but not by me. For me, Papillion is an ungodly slog through unending misery. Sure, the sun occasionally shines but I would not be lying if I claimed that 95% is uncompromisingly bleak. The term torture-porn is a modern term invented to describe the fetishized violence of movies like Saw or Hostel, but Papillion is, perhaps, a progenitor of the term. The violence isn’t graphic but if you get off on suffering, this movie is for you.


Steve McQueen stars in Papillion as the least convincing Frenchman this side of Dustin Hoffman. McQueen is Papillion, a man falsely accused of the murder of a pimp, or so he claims. Aboard a ship to be taken to the French penal colony in French controlled Guyana, some time in the early 1930’s, Papillion meets Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), the most prolific forger in French history. It’s rumored that Dega has money and can use it to arrange an escape.


Papillion becomes a sort of bodyguard to Dega and eventually his friend. The two plot toward Papillion’s escape as Dega believes that his wife is working to get him out of jail and his money allows him some privileges in the prison camp, privileges he would lose if he attempted an escape and it failed. Indeed, Papillion’s first escape attempt fails as he is captured and brought back to the camp by bounty hunters.


This puts Papillion in solitary confinement for an unspecified amount of time though I believe somewhere in the movie it was stated as five years. This section of the movie is pure torture for Papillion and our patience. We watch as Papillion eats bugs, struggles with hunger, is given illicit food, slipped to him via courier by Dega, loses all but all but scraps of food when his supply is uncovered and he refuses to say where it came from and generally suffers for a solid 20 minute chunk of an already too long movie.


When he is finally released from solitary, Dega is waiting to nurse him back to health, or pay someone to do it for him anyway, and Papillion immediately starts planning another escape. It’s pretty much the same escape as the last only Dega will be going with him this time. Whether it was successful or not, I will leave you to discover. I will say that the escape leads to the only good portion of the movie, we see a leper colony that is frightening yet filled with the only other good people in the movie and a brief glimpse of a life Papillion could be happy with but is, of course, taken from him.


Cruelty, despair, misery are what we face while enduring Papillion. I suppose the film is intended as some kind of triumph of the human spirit stories, it’s based on a novel by a guy who claims to be the real life Papillion, his final escape having worked, but my spirit gave up on the film about half way through rather than anything remotely like triumph experienced. Papillion is a handsome movie but it is not an entertaining or engaging movie.


Papillion is a punishing 2 hour and 30 minute slog. It’s a movie where joy goes to die. You don’t watch Papillion, you endure it. I don’t ask that all movies be happy-go-lucky but I would prefer that movies not be so all-encompassingly bleak as Papillion undeniably is. There is one sequence where there is joy and it ends as abruptly as it arrives and the film scurries back to be even more dreary than before.


Has Dustin Hoffman always been insufferable or have I just been in denial all of these years? I had a similar thought that I pushed to the back of my mind when I watched his jerky performance in Tootsie but it was inescapable here. Hoffman’s stagey tics are more pronounced in Papillion than they were when he was literally playing a stage actor in Tootsie. Hoffman’s Dega constantly has bits of little business to do including limping, vocal tics and constantly touching his coke bottle eye-glasses.

I was glad when his character disappeared for a while and his antics were off-screen and that was during the film’s most bleak sequence so you can understand just how much I was loving Hoffman’s performance here. I would rather be in a dank cell with a dying Steve McQueen than outside in the sunlight with the obnoxious Hoffman. His antics cool off late in the movie and he becomes a compelling character but you likely won’t last long enough to care about that.


If I hadn’t been paid to watch and write about Papillion I would have turned it off rather early on, once I pegged just how dreary the movie was and would remain. I consider it an act of masochism that I managed to watch Papillion all the way to the end. I don’t understand the desire to make, let alone watch, a movie like Papillion. Did director Franklin J. Shaffner just decide he wanted to test the limits of audience patience?


Papillion is being remade and released this weekend with Sons of Anarchy star, Charlie Hunnam as Papillion and Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek as Dega. Here’s hoping it’s not another slog through human misery ala the 1973 original or else I am going to need a drink for this one and I don’t even drink alcohol so you can get a sense of my dread here.


Movie Review First Reformed

First Reformed is a fiery, explosive and controversial movie featuring a first-rate, Oscar-calibur performance from Ethan Hawke. Directed by Paul Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and the director of American Gigolo, First Reformed tackles environmental and religious issues and pits Ethan Hawke’s ailing priest in a battle of wills with himself, his faith and the members of his congregation.


In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a thoughtful and troubled man who has lost a child and a wife in short order. He’s also ill, suffering from an illness that may or may not be cancer but these are only the beginnings of Reverend Toller’s issues. When he’s called upon to counsel a couple, played by Amanda Seyfried and Phillip Ettinger, he’s drawn into a complicated pair of lives that will change the course of his life.


Ethan Hawke is incredible in First Reformed. While I have many issues with the movie, Hawke’s performance wills me past many of those issues with his bubbling cauldron of a performance that begins at a simmer and slowly comes to a boil. Hawke is riveting as we watch him confront his faith, his mortality, despair and the seeming limits of God’s power on Earth. It’s a performance of remarkable depth and restrained passion.


The story of First Reformed is almost entirely told in Hawke’s voice with a voiceover narration that runs through the entirety of the film, ducking out only for the most needed dialogue among characters. Otherwise it is a searing stream of consciousness as Reverend Toller writes in a series of journal entries that bind the narrative. In these entries he is confronting his doubts and fears and confronting his inability to pray and his stalling faith.


Phillip Ettinger and Amanda Seyfried are subordinate to Hawke’s performance but each fills out the story well providing the motivation of Hawke’s performance. Each of them intentionally and unintentionally drive Pastor Toller to confront parts of himself that are deeply disquieting and unendingly compelling. They are joined by excellent supporting performances from Cedric the Entertainer as a morally ambiguous fellow priest and Edward Gaston as a corporate villain who happens to be the church’s main benefactor.


Many will be put off of First Reformed because it has a hardcore leftist environmental message. Hawke’s Reverend Toller is essentially evangelized into the environmental movement and if that is not something you’re comfortable with, First Reformed may not be the movie for you. Director-writer Paul Schrader gives no quarter to climate change deniers, painting them as corrupt and opposed to the will of God in equal measure.


The ending of First Reformed nearly put me off the film entirely. Up until the final moments of First Reformed I was riveted by Ethan Hawke’s award-worthy performance and powerful voiceover narration. Then the ending arrived and my blood nearly boiled when the film simply cut to black. I sort of understand the point of the ending, it’s high art if you will but it does not make for a satisfying narrative conclusion. It’s as rushed and awkward as the rest of First Reformed is deliberate and careful.


First Reformed is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD and On-Demand. I recommend it for fans of Ethan Hawke and environmental activists as well.


Movie Review Action Point

The real story of Action Park in New Jersey would make for one heck of a great movie. Action Park was a controversial amusement park that was opened in 1978 in Vernon, New Jersey and lived on into the early 1990’s despite, or because of, its reputation as the most dangerous amusement park in America. The rides at Action Park are legendary including a waterslide with a loop that bloodied many patrons, a rafting rapids ride where patrons were injured by jagged rocks if they were unlucky enough to be tossed from their raft and a wheeled sledding ride with no brakes that traveled down a concrete and fiberglass track.


It was nicknamed ‘Accident Park’ for numerous injuries and several deaths caused by the unsafe condition of the rides. And yet, if you ask some nostalgic, New Jersey patrons, the danger made the park all the more exciting. Risking pain and even death was such a thrill that the nostalgia for the park lives on to this day. Owner Gene Mulvihill was said to believe in the ethos that the customer was in charge of their experience at Action Park and if risking their life for a thrill was part of the fun, so be it. Hence why they had a wave pool that required a team of lifeguards averaging 30 saves a day, more than most beaches across the country.


The comedy podcast The Dollop, hosted by comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, tapped the storytelling potential of Action Park for their comedy podcast and turned horror stories into glorious dark comedy that would undoubtedly make for a great documentary and a live action feature. Sadly, with Action Point and star Johnny Knoxville, the story of Action Point becomes merely a watered down excuse for Knoxville’s masochistic schtick.


Knoxville stars in Action Point as D.C. When we meet D.C he’s an elderly grandpa, similar to but not the same as his Bad Grandpa character, Irving Zisman, babysitting his granddaughter. When the granddaughter raises the subject of her mom and what she was like when she was a kid, D.C recounts the story of a summer she spent with him at his California amusement park known as Action Park, a park with no rules and plenty of beer and bad decisions.


Cut to a flashback to a summer in the late 1970’s and D.C’s daughter, Boogie (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) has just arrived to spend the summer with her Dad. She’s going to be subject to the strange goings on at Action Park where her dad is the ostensible boss although his style of walking around with a beer and hurting himself testing the ride can only nominally be considered leadership.


The story will progress with trouble between father and daughter, long simmering tensions coming to light and an eventual loving detente arriving on cue. That’s half the plot. The other side of that plot is supplied by the villain of the movie, played by comic character actor Dan Bakkedahl. Bakkedahl plays the owner of a rival, and far safer, amusement park eager to shut down Action Park just as D.C’s no rules edict begins to make the park popular.


This isn’t a bad idea for a story but it never really gets of the ground. The father-daughter story is a stock cliche that Knoxville and Worthington-Cox do very little to re-imagine and the villain plot is the standard snobs vs slobs dynamic from other, better movies like Meatballs. What’s left is basically Johnny Knoxville finding ways to hurt himself and even that is far from original given the Jackass movies and television series.


Knoxville does find ways to hurt himself that perhaps we haven’t seen before such as his take on Action Park’s legendary Alpine Slide, the brake-less cart ride down a cement and fiberglass track. Knoxville delayed production of the film several weeks when he broke his ankle on the very stunt we see him do in the movie. The crash was so good, Knoxville and director Tim Kirkby decided to use the injury take in the movie.


That’s the main highlight however, of this otherwise forgettable and cliched comedy. Johnny Knoxville fans may have interest in seeing him bring harm to himself for their amusement but fans looking for just a funny comedy will not find much to enjoy about Action Point which squanders a great premise in favor of another Jackass stunt show. Action Point is available today on Blu-Ray and DVD.


Movie Review Deadpool 2

Deadpool 2 arrives on Blu Ray and DVD on August 21st and fans will be more than happy with the remarkable Blu Ray presentation of this Marvel Comics action-comedy. The Blu Ray release of Deadpool 2, if you buy the big expensive version, comes with two different versions of the movie as well as a commentary track, deleted scenes, a gag reel as well as visual and sound elements that have been formatted to take full advantage of the home video setting.


Deadpool 2 arrived with much fanfare in theaters earlier this year with our favorite unkillable superhero beginning the movie in a real funk. A tragedy befalls Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) right at the start of our story and for a time our hero is inconsolable, even trying to end the life he cannot possibly end, his mutant power being indestructibility. After being nursed back to life by his pal Colossus (Stefan Kapacic), Deadpool finds himself as an X-Men-in-training when he meets a young mutant who calls himself Firefist (Julian Dennison).


It is Firefist who will eventually reignite Wade’s lust for life as he will seek to defend the kid’s life from Cable (Josh Brolin), a bounty hunter from the future who has travelled through time to kill Firefist before he can turn into the madman that kills Cable’s family. To stop Cable and save Firefist, as well as battle Firefist’s dangerous new friend Juggernaut, a massively destructive monster mutant, Deadpool enlists his pal Weasel (T.J Miller) to assemble a team of mutants, his very own X-Force.


Where the film goes from there, if you haven’t seen it, I am not going to spoil the fun. X-Force is a seriously funny group of characters. It’s an absolutely inspired series of scenes featuring performances by Terry Crews from Brooklyn 99, Alexander Skarsgard from It, Comedian Rob Delaney and the unbelievably talented Zazie Beets from TV’s Atlanta. Beets’ Domino is the standout with her super-powered luck.


Director David Leitch, the director of Atomic Blonde, and the stunt coordinator for John Wick, directs Deadpool 2 with a solid ear for a good gag and a good pace. He lacks the cohesion that Tim Miller brought to the original but that’s a minor quibble. The biggest difference in Deadpool 1 and 2 is that Ryan Reynolds appears to be far more of a creative force here and his mugging and one-liner-ing is on-point even if it does stop the film dead at times so he can do something odd.


Josh Brolin fits surprisingly well in the Deadpool universe. His Cable is a hardass who can’t stand Deadpool’s antics but he comes to respect Deadpool nevertheless and Brolin takes us on that surprising journey. It’s a complex and thoughtful performance by Brolin who has to play everything straight ahead while everyone else is being comic and over the top. This type of performance requires an actor of gravitas and Brolin has developed an above it all air that fits Cable the same way it fit his Thanos performance in Avengers Infinity War.


I still say that Deadpool 1 is better than Deadpool 2 but the Blu-Ray presentation of Deadpool is nevertheless outstanding. First you get the movie that was shown in theaters. Then you get the uncut, unrated extended edition that, though it suffers from being a tad over-stuffed in the joke department, is still a treat with the chance to hear Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool riffing to a ridiculous degree.


The gag reel is a tad short and most of the deleted scenes are in the extended cut but there are still a few choice cuts in those special features as well. The commentary track with Ryan Reynolds, director David Leitch and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick is a real treat for fans who love behind the scene stories. Then there are the sound and picture which, as I mentioned early, have been redesigned to give you the best at home experience of Deadpool 2 you could ask for.


Deadpool 2 is available on Blu Ray and DVD on Tuesday, August 21st.


Movie Review Married to the Mob

Married to the Mob stars Michelle Pfeiffer in one of the best performances in her incredible career. As Angela DeMarco, the increasingly uncomfortable mob wife of ‘Cucumber’ Frank DeMarco (Alec Baldwin), Pfeiffer is the only sympathetic character in a universe of cartoonish killer criminals and duplicitous, weirdo FBI guys. Pfeiffer is the only element of Married to the Mob that makes complete sense.


Angela DeMarco wants out of the life of a mob wife. The bloom is off the rose of being married to a man who furnished their home with items that ‘fell off a truck.’ Angela is tired of the politics that come with being a mob wife which means spending a lot of time with fellow mob wives, a group of shrill, crispy-haired, harridans led by the Boss’s wife, Connie (Mercedes Ruehl), who demands that all mob wives follow her lead.


While Angela is plotting her escape from the mob world, FBI Agent Mike Downey (Mathew Modine) is looking for his way in so he can take down the whole thing. Mike and his partner Benitez (Oliver Platt) have been after mob boss Tony ‘The Tiger’ Russo for a while now and when things break down between Tony and Frank and Angela becomes a target of Tony’s affection, Mike has his way to get after the boss, if he can keep from falling for Angela himself.


Married to the Mob is a strange movie. The title is comically overlong and humorously ill-suited to the actual content of the film. The mob cliches are comically over the top. The Italian accents, the greasy hair, the mob lingo are right out of a parody. The story however, which features hits that would feel at home in an episode of The Sopranos. Despite the comic accents, Dean Stockwell and Alec Baldwin play their characters with a seriousness at odds with the supposed comic nature of the movie.


Then there is Michelle Pfeiffer who plays Angela completely straight, with none of the comically over-arching touches that Mercedes Ruehl and the rest of the female cast, bring to their characters. When she begins the romantic plot with Matthew Modine’s FBI Agent, posing as a plumber while using Angela as bait to catch Tony, the romance has a light touch but she doesn’t play any single beat with the comedy that director Jonathan Demme appears to be directing her toward.


Modine’s character as well is really strange. He appears to be a comic character early on as he and Oliver Platt dip into strange banter, they have a weird slow motion high-five that appears for no real good reason. Then there is the bizarre glimpse of his home life where he has a Pee-Wee Herman style set up to help him put on his suit. It kind of fits the bizarre comic tone of Married to the Mob but the joke only serves to make him seem like a weirdo and not a romantic hero.


Everyone in Married to the Mob appears to be doing their own bit of business. The accents, the hairstyles, the odd quirks, every character seems to take a moment to demonstrate an odd trait and none of it appears to fit either in the comedy that the movie kind of is and the mob drama that the movie also kind of is. All of that said, these touches give the film personality but where that personality fits in in terms of genre is a mystery that keeps the film from greatness.


There are great moments throughout Married to the Mob and Jonathan Demme is a fine director who brings personality to the film but he can’t seem to decide whether we are to take the film seriously or laugh at it. Characters like Mercedes Ruehl are playing straight comedy while Dean Stockwell, who was nominated for an Academy Award for this performance, and Michelle Pfeiffer are taking the film relatively seriously.


The film is a tonal mess. Comedy, violence, mob drama and mob comedy, Married to the Mob is filled with personality but it’s Sybil-esque personality in which we never know which movie is on screen from scene to scene. I don’t have a huge dislike for Married to the Mob but I can’t fully embrace the movie, outside of Michelle Pfeiffer’s star-turn, because it is such a whiplash of weird shifts in tone.


Married to the Mob was released 30 years ago this weekend.


Movie Review Alpha

Alpha is the kind of action movie drama that stacks the odds far too high against the main character creating cartoonish levels of odds to overcome. Albert Hughes, the director of Alpha, sets his scenes in such a way that even Elmer Fudd might shake his head at the lack of believability, and he was repeatedly shot in the face by his own gun. The odds stacked against the lead character in Alpha on top of some silly looking at times special effects make Alpha a right laugh.


Keda (Kodi Smit McPhee) is undersized and gawky and also the son of a chief and therefore a future leader of his tribe. He’s about to go on his very first Bison hunt and his mother is concerned that he’s far too sensitive to be a hunter. His father, a barrel of a man, played by Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, believes that the hunt is exactly what his son needs to develop as a man and as a future leader.


A bison hunt is a strange event, especially as filmed by Mr Hughes in Alpha. The chief tracks the bison by their… droppings and immediately the scene is followed by the tribe smearing themselves in something that looks exactly like the dung. It is apparently mud but the cut from the almost tasting of the bison leavings to the smearing of mud on his son’s face is clumsy and I am left to wonder if this was a failed attempt at a visual joke.


From there, the hunters sneak to within a football field distance from their prey and then drop the stealth entirely so as to begin running toward the bison and screaming. Why did they need the mud bath if this was the plan all along? The goal then becomes using spears to sort of shepherd the bison off the side of a cliff where they can be easily harvested at the bottom of the cliff. This goes wrong when Keda fails to find the ability to move either left or right when a charging bison is running straight at him. Our hero ladies and gentlemen.


Keda has the poor fortune of having one of his garments snagged on the horn of a bison that is running toward the cliff’s edge only to stop right at the edge and throw Keta over the side. Thinking his son has been killed, the father leaves to mourn but the boy isn’t dead and thus a journey of survival and discovery is set in motion, one filled with ever-increasing implausibility and survival and some supposedly heart-warming nonsense about a wolf, quickly domesticated.


Alpha isn’t as bad as I am making it out. Kodi Smit-McPhee is a nice young actor, though his perfectly shampooed hair will likely drive those in search of verisimilitude up a wall. He has a sympathetic quality that is undeniable and a steeliness that could be believable in a less cartoonish context. His mastery of whatever language he’s speaking is impressive, even if at times it comes off sounding like Leeloo from The Fifth Element, whom he oddly resembles in some scenes.


I respect the movie enough to not want to spoil anything by going too far into the implausible scenarios that Keda survives. Let’s just say that Leo in The Revenant was not as lucky as Kodi’s character in Alpha. The Revenant, at the very least, had some recorded history behind it whereas Alpha is based on a theoretical history of how early man interacted with nature. There is some theory that states humans were tougher then but tough enough to survive the trials of this movie? I found it too hard to believe.


I was going to mock the notion of Alphas and the Alpha Male construct but the movie actually does one thing right in how it eventually plays out that outmoded notion. For those who don’t know, the scientist who came up with the concept of the Alpha Male in the early 1970’s now decries it and points to new science that indicates that such things as battles for dominance among wolves are more like familial squabbles over thinning rations and not some battle over leadership or control. The Alpha is not the toughest, he’s the father and provider and his pack are more often than not, his children.


Even then, it’s not always a male wolf that was the provider. In some cases, female wolves acted as the provider for the pack. So, really all of those silly people who consider themselves Alphas and operate on the notion that being the most ruthless making them a leader are operating on their own shoddy intellectual construct and not the actual science of the wolf pack. The science states that a good leader is a good provider for the pack and thus is followed by the pack, not out of fear but necessity. 


That’s a bit of a tangent but only, again, because the ending of Alpha actually acts to deconstruct that notion as well by being much closer to the scientific truth of wolves than I was expecting. That is, unfortunately, the most impressive thing about the movie. The action is stilted, the stacked odds are cartoonish and the special effects are rather weak. Alpha isn’t terrible but it is much closer to terrible than being good.


Movie Review Mile 22

Mile 22 is some hot, flaming, garbage as a movie. I’m shocked that such a mess could feature the talent of Peter Berg behind the camera and Mark Wahlberg in front of it. Not that they are no stranger to nonsense, they did make Lone Survivor together, a film that amounted the Black Knight from Monty Python written as a soldier in Afghanistan but that film is Die Hard compared to the ludicrous, chaotic, rubbish that is Mile 22.


Mark Wahlberg, sort of stars in Mile 22 as James Silva, a CIA operative. I say 'sort of' because the performance is so unhinged and disconnected that it is hard to say if he is fully aware of what is happening in the movie. Wahlberg seems far more invested in the idea that his character is troubled super-genius than in the plot which has him leading a team that broke up a Russian spy ring in an American suburb and is now in some foreign locale following up on what they found.


The plot kicks in when Li Noor (Iko Uwais from The Raid franchise), drives right up to the American Embassy and presents evidence that could lead to the discovery of a cache of some deadly poison. However, he won’t give up the evidence, one of those Hollywood encrypted computer disks that even the world’s great hackers can’t hack, (Gah!), until Wahlberg agrees to take him to America and away from the people trying to kill him.


Uwais is a tremendous physical performer and he gets one truly spectacular fight scene that demonstrates that but his casting appears to be little more than a marketing attempt to evoke the worldwide success of The Raid and The Raid 2. Uwais is supposed to be desperate yet duplicitous and yet his blank-eyed stare only ever looks tired when he’s supposed to seem menacing or slightly untrustworthy. He’s checked out in only a slightly different way than Wahlberg it would appear.


Poor Ronda Rousey makes her film debut in Mile 22 and it’s rather embarrassing. Rousey plays Sam, one of Wahlberg’s lieutenants, and while she’s believably a badass, she is cringe inducing when attempting dialogue. Saddled with an expository scene with co-star Lauren Cohan, Rousey mumbles her way through a wince inducing exchange where she seemed about as natural as a mixed martial artist in a mud wrestling competition.


Mile 22 appears to have been edited with an eye toward satisfying absolutely no one. The film is hard to watch at times as Berg and his team slash cut from perspective shots to security camera footage in the most jarring fashion possible. Berg favors odd angles as well and thus the editing combined with the cantilevered angles and too loud soundtrack obscure the action and assault the eyes all at once.


I have always disliked Berg’s fantasy approach to supposedly realistic action. His Lone Survivor with Wahlberg a few years ago had a real life story to tell but the violence was so cartoonish it obliterated the real life story. The stars of Lone Survivor may have been real life hero but Berg’s cartoonish exploitation of their real life struggle rendered those men like animated caricatures, bulletproof and apparently made of rubber and steel rather than flesh and bone.


That same cartoonish violence and amping of the stakes beyond the point of believability is present in Mile 22 as well. Each character in Mile 22 suffers through a scene where they are injured to a degree that would be unsurvivable by an actual human being. And then when they aren’t defying the ability of the human body, the odds are so heavily stacked against the survival  of our heroes that that we can’t help but laugh and wonder just how dumb or bad at their job the bad guys must be for the heroes to survive.


I don't understand how Mile 22 came to be. Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg are a good team of director and actor. The last two Berg-Wahlberg movies, Patriot's Day and Deepwater Horizon, are legitimately good movies. Patriot's Day was one of the better movies of 2016, a legitimately emotionally involving action movie about the real life Boston Marathon bombing that felt visceral and alive. Here however, both director and leading man appear to be paycheck players who do not care a lick about the movie they're making or how remarkably bad that movie is. 


So, why is this movie called Mile 22? No, I’m not answering my own question for effect, I am legitimately wondering why this movie is called Mile 22? I watched all of Mile 22, or what my mind could take before I had to look away to shake off the latest assault on my senses, and I still have no idea what the title is about. Perhaps it was a production title and they simply didn’t bother to change it? That would fit with how little anyone appears to care about the quality of Mile 22, one of the worst movies of 2018.


Movie Review The Philadelphia Story

With the release this week of the charming romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, I was thinking about culture clash comedies, specifically those related to class warfare, rich versus poor. Crazy Rich Asians features an incredible star-making performance by Constance Wu as a young woman who finds out her boyfriend, played by Henry Golding, is crazy rich and has a crazy rich family that she will have to meet and face off against if she wants to stand by her man.


Class warfare comedies, and especially romantic comedies, have a particular tenor and familiar pattern and much of that pattern was navigated by the legendary director George Cukor whose films such as Born Yesterday and My Fair Lady were all about the clash of cultures as the background to comic romance. Arguably, Cukor’s finest example of the culture clash romance is the 1940 Academy Award nominee The Philadelphia Story starring Katharine Hepburn, Ruth Hussey, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.


The Philadelphia Story stars Hepburn as Tracy, ha ha, get it, Tracy, a famous member of a rich Philadelphia clan. Two years earlier she’d called off a big, upper crust marriage to fellow rich family man, C.K Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), in a fashion that was somewhat scandalous. Now, Tracy is set to marry again, this time to a self-made man named George Kitteridge (John Howard) who isn’t all that exciting or glamorous but is stable and well-heeled.


Naturally, the marriage of a member of the Philadelphia elite is a big deal and it has the attention of Spy Magazine. The editor of Spy wants inside that wedding and is willing to use any means to get it. With that, he assigns a reporter named Macauley Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and a photographer named Elizabeth Imbrie to infiltrate the wedding and dig up some scandal while getting some good pictures of the wedding.


Their way in will be Tracy’s ex, C.K Dexter Haven. Why C.K is helping Spy Magazine get into Tracy's wedding is something that he holds close to his chest but you can assume blackmail is involved in some way. Connor and Imbrie will pose as friends of Tracy’s brother, a world traveler who is not expected back in time for the wedding and should give them the cover they need, with C.K’s help to get close to Tracy and their story.


The wit and style of The Philadelphia Story is legendary, the film was the comic standard-bearer of the romantic comedy genre for decades after its 1940 release. Movie after movie attempted to capture the patter and energy of Cukor’s characters and the understated genius of his sets which were authentically upper-crust but understated enough that the budget isn’t blown up while trying to create them.


Compared to the opulence on display in Crazy Rich Asians, The Philadelphia Story seems rather quaint, but the same sense of upper-crust crustiness, runs through both films. Propriety and decency, the avoidance of scandal and the importance of appearance are common themes to both films. Crazy Rich Asians may have a bigger budget and cast but it, like just about every romantic comedy of the past 70 plus years, takes it’s plot cues from George Cukor and The Philadelphia Story.


Constance Wu, the star of Crazy Rich Asians, carries qualities that compare well with each member of the main cast of The Philadelphia Story. She has the pluck and intelligence of Jimmy Stewart’s writer, the bearing and beauty of Hepburn, and some of the wit that both Cary Grant and Ruth Hussey brought to The Philadelphia Story. And yet, this doesn’t prevent Wu’s Rachel from being a fully modern character, it’s merely that she has some notably great characteristics.


Now, I must broach a subject that some will not be comfortable with but it bears mention. The opening scene of The Philadelphia Story is incredibly jarring and viewers who’ve never seen it before may quite reasonably find it off-putting. The first scene of The Philadelphia Story shows Cary Grant pie-facing Katherine Hepburn, violently pushing her to the ground before angrily storming off. It’s a scene that in 1940 may have appeared comical and indeed is played as such by Hepburn and filmed comically by director Cukor.


That was a very different time. Today, this type of violence towards women is fully unacceptable. I’m not trying to retroactively condemn The Philadelphia Story, I truly love the film. I think it is important however, to recognize modern sensitivities. People aren’t wrong to be offended by this scene or to have it cause them to not want to see The Philadelphia Story. I am mentioning it as a way of paving the way for people to know that this scene is there and recognize that it was part of this movie but not what the movie was about in full.


It’s wrong for a man to strike a woman as Cary Grant does here but such a mistake doesn’t define this movie. Context and time matter, just know the scene is there, be prepared for it and then please keep watching so you can see how incredible the rest of this movie truly is. From Jimmy Stewart’s brilliant comic timing, to Cary Grant’s unending, Ruth Hussey’s wit and Katherine Hepburn’s radiance, The Philadelphia Story is a classic film that deserves to remain in canon as one of the best and most influential of its genre.


As you sit to watch Crazy Rich Asians remember that what you’re seeing comes from a tradition of comedy that dates back decades. It transcends time and it transcends culture. While it is notable and wonderful that Crazy Rich Asians is the first mainstream Hollywood feature with an all Asian cast, it’s still part of a great American tradition of comedy and romance. A tradition for which The Philadelphia Story stands out as arguably the most influential of any Hollywood romance in history.


Movie Review The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez

The tragic story of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez remains legend in Texas more than 100 years later. A simple error in translation between a sheriff and a man accused to stealing horses led to multiple deaths and the largest manhunt in Texas history at the time. Director Robert M. Young adapts the story of Gregorio Cortes with the help of star Edward James Olmos in a lovely, muted fashion that underlines how remarkable tragedy can arise simply from our inability to communicate effectively.


Gregorio Cortez (Edward James Olmos) was a quiet farmer in Gonzalez, Texas until the day a sheriff arrived and accused him of stealing a horse. The events from then on are retold from multiple perspectives with details that change via the man telling the story. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortes unfolds in the familiar style of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and turns importantly on the way perspective and bias can affect the truth.


After Gregorio Cortez shot a Sheriff named Morris, he went on the run and his skills as a horseman and his desperation for escape led him to elude capture for days and hundreds of miles despite the pursuit of some 600 men, led by the Texas Rangers. By the time the manhunt ended, two more people, including another sheriff, would be dead but the truth of how these men died will remain a mystery open to the conjecture and bias of both sides.


Director Robert M. Young directed The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez in 1982 following a career that was of little distinction. His only other slightly well-known film was a bizarre Paul Simon vehicle called One Trick Pony, a movie that served as much as an ad for a Paul Simon record as it did an actual movie. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was something of a revelation for Young who flashes a good deal of talent here despite never before or after showing a similar touch.


The cinematography of THe Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is gorgeous, crafting an authentic western feel that is organic yet still stands out for its harsh beauty. Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos had a long career in Hollywood including such hits as 9 to 5 and Urban Cowboy but would never reach the artistic heights he reaches in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. This is perhaps a function of having a better story and locations than he would see for the remainder of his career.


The Criterion Blu-Ray release only serves to enhance the work of both Young and Villalobos whose work is even more remarkable when you consider that The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was not a mainstream feature film but a made for television presentation to air on PBS stations in the early 1980’s. The film nevertheless has the look and feel of a feature film and arguably looks as good as any 80’s feature film.


Edward James Olmos delivers a remarkable performance as Cortez, capturing the quiet man who would become an unintended martyr and legend and the desperate, sad, resourceful and remorseful killer. It’s a deeply affecting performance especially considering that he wins our sympathy without many in the audience, myself included, understanding what he’s saying. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez does not subtitle the Spanish spoken in the film and while today we would call this ‘Othering,’ it’s actually quite an effective piece of storytelling in this film.


Lack of understanding is at the heart of the drama of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. Not subtitling the film effectively puts us in the position of the interpreter, played by character actor Tom Bower, despite how obviously unsympathetic he is as a character. Forcing us into his perspective makes Cortez even more sympathetic as we ache to avoid the misunderstanding and yet are effectively made part of the tragedy by our lack of understanding.


The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is a feast for those who love great 80’s character actors. Men with familiar faces, if not names, such as Brion James (48 Hours, Blade Runner), James Gammon (Major League), Bruce McGill (Lincoln, Elizabethtown) and Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure, Urban Cowboy), each play pivotal roles in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. Gammon in particular has an incredible scene and brief monologue near the end of the movie.


Another standout who gets only two scenes but still came away with an award for her work is Rosanna Desoto. Desoto was given the Golden Eagle Award by the Washington D.C area group Cine in 1982 for a pair of scenes in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, one of which is an incredibly powerful and emotional scene in which we finally see Gregorio’s side of this story and come to understand the tragic misunderstanding.


The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is available now for the first time on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. It features numerous special features including a lengthy interview with star Edward James Olmos who also served as Associate Producer on the film and helped to secure the funding that got the film made. There is also a documentary discussing the importance of the film in the history of so called Chicano Cinema and a 2016 interview with the director and cast in front of a live crowd.


For fans of westerns and fans of good, solid storytelling, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is now available for the first time on Blu-Ray and is also available for the time being via the Criterion streaming service, FilmStruck.


Movie Review Avengers Infinity War

Avengers Infinity War suffers from being a middle movie. It suffers from being a movie that inherently cannot have a satisfying conclusion because it is merely setting the table for events in the next movie in a series. It’s the kind of thing that works okay on television because often the conclusion is coming the following week or because TV has trained us with seasons and cliffhangers, we are emotionally prepared to wait several months for a pay off to a cliffhanger.


Movies are different. The majority of movies satisfy the requirements of storytelling in three acts, usually in less than 3 hours, often in as little as 90 minutes. When we go to the movies we don’t expect a cliffhanger, we expect a definitive ending with a satisfying conclusion. Comic book movies and series such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy attempt to coerce us into a television series style mindset but it’s not easy to accept that from a movie when nearly all movies have actual endings and only a few, terribly expensive movies ask us to be so patient and prepared for disappointing, cliffhanger endings.


Avengers Infinity War however, feels even more disappointing than say something such Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers which famously ended on a shot of the two ring-bearing protagonists staring off in the vast distance toward Mount Doom indicating that another year and 3 some odd hours were awaiting us before the definitive conclusion to a story we were already relatively familiar with from the book origin.


This extra bit of disappointment comes in part because of the marketing of Avengers Infinity War which switched gears from at one point being called Avengers Infinity War Part 1 to simply Avengers Infinity War. The indication was, for some, that the story that was to be played out over two films was now going to play out in one. That was a lie or at least, Disney misleading audiences for reasons that only appear to make sense to the marketing team.


The story of Avengers Infinity War is the first in the franchise of Marvel Comics movies, the MCU to feel as if it were driven by marketing rather than artistic decision making. The ending is only intended to set up another movie, despite the name change indicating otherwise. Then there is the ending itself with supposed character ‘deaths’ that are guaranteed by both marketing and story logic that have no impact because we already know they will be undone by the next Avengers movie.


We spend a good 2 hours and 40 plus minutes working our way through Avengers Infinity War and it is rather frustrating to have invested that much time to a story that will be immediately ret-conned, a comic book term for reconfiguring a story to account for past or future changes to accepted canon, by the next movie. This in a sense makes Avengers Infinity War little more than a commercial for the next Avengers movie and that, for me, is not a satisfying approach to storytelling.

Avengers Infinity War was directed by The Russo Brothers from their own script and features nearly every character in the Marvel Movie Universe, save for Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye who is absent from the series along with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, though he, at least, was off making his own feature. With nearly every character and franchise involved, Avengers Infinity War does come off as bloated and it struggles to maintain momentum from beginning to end due to having to cut between several stories.


This is most obvious and egregious in the inclusion of The Guardians of the Galaxy who meet The Avengers for the very first time in Avengers Infinity War. The Guardians of the Galaxy are downright abused in Avengers Infinity War with The Russo Brothers bastardizing the on-going stories of the Guardians franchise, reducing the plots to ash in favor of rushing everyone to their places for the showdown with Thanos at the heart of the story of Infinity War.


The carefully crafted romance of Chris Pratt’s Star Lord and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora? That story is destroyed in the first moments on screen as we find Star Lord and Gamora as a couple. Where James Gunn had been delicately building the relationship, Avengers Infinity War pulverizes this story because it is convenient for the story of Infinity War to have Star Lord and Gamora as a couple, without the complex dynamic of budding romance and mutual respect that was a driving force of the far superior Guardians of the Galaxy movies.


This hammer vs nail style of storytelling is dictated by the bloated nature of telling a story with so many characters and the need to simplify or dumb down story points as nuance can only slow down an already lumbering story. This likely reads as me offering the fact that I understand and sympathize with the challenge at hand, and that’s a relatively accurate read. I may understand but I don’t like and I don’t like Infinity War because of it, among other, already mentioned issues.


There are plenty of things that do recommend Avengers Infinity War. Chris Evans delivers some very cool Captain America moments that are in keeping with the remarkable development of that character as a warrior and a hero. Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark is also given more depth and opportunity to learn and grow through apparent tragedy. Give credit to Downey, the way Tony Stark mourns almost sells the ending, almost, as I said, none of it will matter when the sequel retcon arrives.


It would be fair to call Avengers Infinity War a mixed bag. I’m not a fan of the movie because of the many story and synergy compromises at hand in the telling of this story but I can appreciate the challenge of such a large scale event and I can appreciate the many awesome aspects that are brought to the screen, albeit in bite sized portion due to the overstuffed story. I can’t recommend the movie because the problems are too overwhelming for my emotional investment in this universe and how short-changed I feel that I am by Infinity War. But, I am in the great minority of negative opinions of this blockbuster epic.


Avengers Infinity War is available today, August 14th on Blu-Ray and DVD. 


Movie Review Dog Days

Dog Days is an ensemble, family comedy, part-time romance, about people and the dogs who love them. It’s cheesy as the day is long but there is a particular charm to the direction Ken Marino brings to the film. That charm emanates from his terrific cast of comedy veterans toning down their act for the family set. People such as Tig Notaro, Lauren Lapkus, and Jessica St. Clair, make cameo appearances in Dog Days, and not just cameos, they have killer jokes to go with those cameos.


The plot centers on a universe of people beginning with Elizabeth (Nina Dobrev), the host of a popular daytime TV show. Elizabeth is so close to her dog that she leaves her TV on while she’s not home so her pup can laze around and watch mom on TV. Sadly, the dog is there when Elizabeth catches her boyfriend cheating on her and is apparently so broken up about the break up that he has to go to doggy therapy.


Elizabeth would like to be alone but that’s not going to happen as she is then given a new co-host for her talk show, Jimmy played by Tone Bell. Jimmy is a former football player and fellow dog lover who credits his pooch with saving his life after his football career ended abruptly. His style of winging it on the job flies in the face of Elizabeth’s buttoned up, very prepared style. Naturally, this means they are meant to be together.


There are four parallel plots in all in Dog Days. The next biggest involves Vanessa Hudgens as a coffee shop worker who begins volunteering at a dog shelter. Initially, she’s trying to impress a handsome but vacuous veterinarian but soon she begins to find purpose in working with the animals. This leads to a friendship and budding flirtation with the shelter owner, Garrett, played by the always awkward John Bass, last seen embarrassing himself deeply in Baywatch the movie.


Next up are Rob Corddry and Eva Longoria as a married couple who have adopted a young girl named Amelia. The child is sullen and distant despite the attempts of the couple to soften her up but things change when they find a lost pug. The pug becomes Amelia’s best friend and she begins to warm up to the new parents who’ve given her the dog. Unfortunately, we know where the dog came from, plot strand number 4.


Plot number 4 involves Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard as a pizza delivery boy with a bad attitude. When he delivers a pizza to an elderly man, played by Ron Cephus Jones, the elderly man’s dog gets out of the house only to be rescued by Amelia and her new family. The old man is kind and the dog belonged to his late wife. The emotional pull of this part of the story is surprisingly strong, even as it is quite admittedly pulling hard on the heartstrings.


Did I say there are four plots in Dog Days? I meant 5, there are 5 plots in Dog Days. Adam Pally plays a shiftless wannabe rocker who is tasked with dog-sitting for his pregnant sister, played by the brilliant Jessica St. Clair and her husband played by Thomas Lennon. Not allowed to have pets in his apartment, Pally is saddled with a running gag about hiding his dog inside an music equipment box and people thinking he’s transporting a body or a kidnapped person.


It’s not a particularly good gag, it earns mostly groans, though the payoff physical gag isn’t bad. Pally is terrific at playing a slothful layabout, a moocher with charm to spare. His part here is mostly as filler to the other plots but Pally is likable enough and his big puppy is cute enough that the plot doesn’t get in the way of anything and kind enhances the charm of Dog Days thanks to Pally’s inherent appeal.


There is a whole lot of plot here but it works for the most part. Many have, rather unfairly compared Dog Days to the work of the late hack Garry Marshall with his sprawling cast and nebulous plotting but that’s a rather significant insult to this movie. Marshall’s cloying, manipulative, holiday-based dreck were sloppy and earned a consistent series of ever-deepening groans before sloughed off the screen in a heap at their laugh-free conclusion. Dog Days is tighter, smarter and has actual laughs, something the Garry Marshall films only dreamed of having.


I did not expect much of Dog Days and it’s that low bar that likely has us here right now with me recommending the movie. That said, rather backhandedly, I do recommend this movie. The cast is charming and funny, the dogs are cute and it has legitimately big laughs in more than one scene. Given the landscape of modern comedy, Dog Days is a minor miracle as it provides a modern PG comedy with real laughs that don’t all require the sacrifice of one’s dignity via pratfall or bodily function humor. I personally want to give Ken Marino an award of some sort for this modest achievement but I am in the minority of positive opinions of Dog Days.


Movie Review Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians stars Constance Wu, star of the hit series Fresh Off the Boat, as Rachel Chu, an Economics Professor who is in love with Nick Young (Henry Golding). What she doesn’t yet know is that Nick’s family is crazy rich. The Young family has made billions of dollars and are a big deal in their home country. So big a deal in fact, that when Nick’s best friend is getting married much of the speculation and attention surrounding the ceremony centers on Nick and his family.


Rachel is about to get a crash course in Asian high society when she agrees to go as Nick’s date to his best friend’s, Colin (Chris Pang) and Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno), wedding. They will travel around to the other side of the globe, be immersed in the kind of glamour only the super rich understand and Rachel will have to deal with Nick’s disapproving mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, glamorous as ever), while navigating the choppy water of being the girlfriend of the most wanted man in Asian high society.


On the bright side, Rachel’s pal from college, Peik (Awkwafina) is on hand to help, as is the one member of Nick’s family that Rachel has met, fashion icon Astrid (Gemma Chan). Rachel will need all the support she can get, especially when she’s thrown to the wolves at a bachelorette party where it appears that only women who’ve failed at dating Nick in the past are on the guest list and each has their eye on taking down Rachel the outsider.


Crazy Rich Asians is a relatively basic romantic comedy when you take away the social politics at play in having a mainstream romance with an all Asian cast. What director John Chu gets right however, is not relying on the tired romantic comedy plot requirements. The best modern rom-coms are aware that we know everything about their plot mechanics, what we want are great characters who stand apart and above stock stories.


Constance Wu’s Rachel is just the kind of character we need to get passed all of the overly familiar elements of Crazy Rich Asians. Wu is a wonderful comic actress with smart instincts and a terrific face, brilliant eyes that communicate as much as any dialogue might. She’s a wonderful comic player and yet down to earth enough to ground the story of Crazy Rich Asians in something we can relate to and invest in.


Henry Golding is terrific as well, if a little more eye-candy than his co-star. Golding’s shirtless scenes are plentiful in Crazy Rich Asians and the beefcake is rarely necessary. Thankfully, he’s also given a few normal scenes where we get a sense of how much he loves Rachel and the sacrifices he’s willing to make to show her how much he loves her. He is an active part of the plot rather than a function of Rachel’s half of the plot, opposite Michelle Yeoh’s scheming Eleanor.


Another thing I must commend Crazy Rich Asians for is creating realistic stakes surrounding Rachel and Nick’s relationship and the class warfare at play. A lazier movie might ask us to simply accept that class is a reason why two people who love each other would be pushed apart, but Crazy Rich Asians digs into the emotions at play and makes them part of the game of chicken that Rachel is forced to play with Eleanor.


It’s not a revolutionary plot but it’s done well enough and with enough laughs that I really enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians. That the film has an all Asian cast is the most notable thing about the movie but the creators didn’t rest on history or novelty, they hired a brilliant cast and gave them rich characters and emotions to play within a familiar plot circumstance. We’ve seen much of this before but not with this racial twist and not with these wonderful characters.


John M. Chu is greatly improving as a director. His previous feature outing was Now You See Me 2 and while many critics didn’t care for it, I found it to be a heck of a lot of fun, the work of a playful director. With Crazy Rich Asians that playfulness is on display once again and again, I found it charming. Chu has a great eye for set design when he has a good budget and he takes full advantage of his significant budget here, showing us all of the glamour and excitement having money can bring.


The lavish setting serves to help further put us in the mind of Rachel who is completely overwhelmed by the surroundings and is reeling emotionally from the aspects of Nick’s life that he was hiding from her and the family that is not accepting of her as an outsider. It’s a whirlwind of emotions and Constance Wu is incredibly sympathetic but also feisty and intelligent, able to cut through the nonsense and stay true to herself.


Again, all of that is pretty standard culture clash, fish out of water, romantic comedy stuff. It’s just greatly elevated by one of the best comic actresses to come along in some time. Wu is a real winner and because of her and the fun direction by John M. Chu, I’m eager to recommend Crazy Rich Asians.


Movie Review BlacKKKlansman

BlacKKKlansman is one of the most ambitious and daring movies to come down the pike in quite some time. This story about a real-life Colorado Springs, Colorado cop who decided to take on the Ku Klux Klan is bold, audacious, funny and deeply compelling. That is is also a biting satire of our current political climate also serves to remind us why Spike Lee remains one of the most vital and necessary filmmakers.


BlacKKKlansman stars John David Washington, Denzel’s son, as Ron Stallworth, a man fresh out of college and eager to become a police detective. His ambition brings him to Colorado Springs, Colorado where he seizes his opportunity to quickly move up the ranks by volunteering for undercover work. Whether intentional or not, Ron takes advantage of the racism of the department as they need someone young and black to go undercover at meetings of so-called black radicals.


After succeeding in his first undercover gig, Ron is fully promoted to detective in the Intelligence division. It is here where the story of BlacKKKlansman kicks into gear. Seeing an ad in the paper for the Ku Klux Klan recruitment drive, Ron decides to pick up the phone and find out how the Klan recruits. Ron quickly ingratiates himself to the local Klan leader, Walter (Ryan Eggold) who invites him to a meeting.


Naturally, Ron himself can’t go undercover at the meeting, so, he’s partnered with Flip (Adam Driver). Together they will catfish the Klan into believing that Ron Stallworth is a former Vietnam veteran eager for the chance to be part of the coming race war on the side of ‘The Organization’ as they call themselves when in public so as not to arouse suspicion and maintain the anonymity that comes with their traditional hood and shroud.


Where the story goes from there you will need to see for yourself. I will tell you that the scope of the story includes the longtime Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke, here played by Topher Grace in a performance that truly takes the piss out of Duke and his self-righteous attempts at mainstreaming his hateful rhetoric. Grace is terrific at being the butt of the film’s best gags, especially the final payoff laugh which sends the crowd home happy.


This is however, J.D Washington’s show and boy is this kid ready for stardom. Yes, you can definitely hear some of his dad’s voice, his unique inflection, coming from J.D but he demonstrates here, with the help of Spike Lee, that he is fully his own man. This is a breakout, charismatic, a star is born, kind of leading man performance. Washington is funny, confident, bold and sympathetic and yet far from perfect, still wet behind the ears but eager to learn in charming fashion.


Adam Driver as well is fantastic in BlacKKKlansman. Driver’s choice of roles is so smart, always seeming to choose roles that play to his unique strengths. Many of BlacKKKlansman’s best scenes are played in Driver’s eyes, with the thinly veiled control he has over the contempt he feels for the Klan he’s pretending to be part of and for himself for having to spout the racist nonsense back at these redneck losers. It’s a performance of measured cool and Driver is phenomenal.


Spike Lee hasn’t felt this much like the Spike Lee of old since 2002’s 25th Hour. This is Spike once again on an epic scale. This is Spike indulging his style once again rather than pushing his instincts aside to make something mainstream ala 2006’s Inside Man, a fine movie, but not a Spike Lee movie, and 2013’s Oldboy, a film idea doomed at conception. BlacKKKlansman takes us back to when Spike Lee was more than just a director, he was a creative life force.


BlacKKKlansman is vital and angry, funny and dangerous. The film engages and repels audiences, it challenges you and ingratiates you. If you are uncomfortable with political movies, BlacKKKlansman is not for you as it is a film that challenges you with parallels to today’s politics and the dangerous attempts too many people in the political realm have made to equate the hate of bigots and racists with the anger of people suffering from the hate of bigots and racists.


BlacKKKlansman is bold and fearless filmmaking filled with style and humor, fiery polemical rhetoric and damn good storytelling. BlacKKKlansman is a Spike Lee Joint as vital and exciting as anything he’s made since Do the Right Thing, arguably his one true masterpiece. BlacKKKlansman is also simply one of the finest movies of 2018.


Movie Review The Meg

The Meg stars Jason Statham as Jonas, a deep water rescue expert. When we meet Jonas for the first time he’s at the bottom of the ocean, inside a crashed submarine trying to save members of the crew. Unfortunately, something outside the sub is crushing it and Jonas is forced to make a terrible and tragic choice: save some of the crew and leave others behind or have everyone die at the hands of a monster only he believes is real.


Cut to five years later, Jonas is living as a drunken hermit in Thailand when he gets a call from his friend, Mack (Cliff Curtis) telling him that his ex-wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee) and two other crew members are trapped in disabled sub at the bottom of the ocean. By bottom of the ocean, we’re not talking about the known bottom but a newly discovered bottom of the ocean, further down than anyone has ever travelled before.


Jonas, being the hero that he is, jumps back into action to save Lori and company but the rescue has unintended consequences. An explosion has caused a breach in a wall of frost that had kept an ancient monster of the sea hidden away for centuries. Now, the ancient and mythic Megalodon is free and ready to wreak havoc on the ocean. Only Jonas, along with the brilliant scientist and oceanographer Suyin, and her crew, including Mack, Jaxx (Ruby Rose) and D.J (Page Kennedy) can stop the monster shark.


Oh, Rainn Wilson is there as well as the comic relief billionaire who is funding the research that was just to find the new bottom of the ocean but now is to save the lives of anyone who is unwittingly in the ocean with the new super-predator on loose. Wilson can be a little annoyingly quirky at times in The Meg but his final scene makes it all worth it. I would recommend The Meg based almost entirely on that one scene.


The Meg was directed by Jon Turteltaub who knows a little something about making a goofy fun action movie; he’s best known as the man behind the National Treasure franchise with Nicholas Cage. It’s been 11 years since Turteltaub has had a hit movie, the National Treasure sequel, Book of Secrets, and 7 years since he’s made a feature film. His most recent effort, 2010’s The Sorcerer's Apprentice, another attempt at a Cage led franchise, failed spectacularly with fans and critics.


Perhaps leaving Nicholas Cage behind was a good choice, Turteltaub seems reinvigorated by having a new star in Jason Statham who, since joining the Fast and Furious franchise, and appearing with Melissa McCarthy in Spy, has developed the skills that are a perfect fit for The Meg. Statham has the ability to take the nonsense seriously without taking it too seriously. He’s not winking at the audience constantly but he’s definitely in on the gag of how silly it all is, reminiscent of the approach of his pal Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.


Statham strikes all the right notes in The Meg, including the romantic notes. Statham has terrific chemistry with love interest Bingbing Li and allows himself to be playful, charming and vulnerable, a rare combination of traits in a Statham character. Sure, he’s still intense and intimidating as Jonas, but the moments where he lets his guard down are more effective here because they are so unexpectedly charming.


The Meg succeeds on Statham’s star performance by Bingbing Li is every bit his equal in likability and sympathy. Li’s Suyin is a loyal daughter, a terrific mother to scene-stealer Shuya Sophia Cai, and a good friend to her crew members. She even gets some of the films best laughs when she secretly ogles a shirtless Statham and is nearly caught. It’s an adorable and funny performance and Li elevates the goofy material.


Sadly, the special effects of The Meg, including the title character, are the weakest part of the movie. The Meg is just okay looking, it’s not all that special. There is a fuzzy quality to the Megalodon up close and the kills, though appropriately gory, have a low budget quality that keeps them from being legitimately scary. Whether this was director Turteltaub’s intent to make the film more suitable for mass audiences or a lack of care in the effects department, I can’t say. I can only say that the film suffers a little for the lack of genuine frights.


Only a little though, the mediocre effects do work well enough to underline the campy, good natured goofiness of The Meg. This is not Jaws, there doesn’t appear to be any real intent to make The Meg scary. It’s a B-movie production that aims squarely for the PG-13 thrill market rather than the R-Rated horror market. It’s a function of mercenary marketing strategy and not an artistic concern but at least the filmmakers don’t appear to be hiding the mercenary qualities, and rather wearing them proudly as part of the film’s odd campy charm.


I was convinced I was going to hate The Meg. So, I really should not be surprised that the film overtook such low expectations. All Jon Turteltaub needed to do to impress me here was not annoy the bejesus out of me and I was going to be rather happy. That the film, especially Jason Statham, entertained me makes the movie a genuine pleasure. I’m reminded of the same low-quality high fun appeal of the Fast and the Furious movies. If Jason Statham can keep making movies in that vein, he and I are going to be actor and fan for years to come.


Movie Review Jaws

With the release of The Meg starring Jason Statham, the movie spotlight is back on Sharks and that means the spotlight is back on the greatest Shark movie ever made, Jaws. Expect to see listicles about Jaws facts, increased interest in stories about great whites that refer to Jaws and, of course, ironic and unironic uses of John Williams’ iconic Jaws score. The popularity of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week as well as well as the infamy of the Sharknado franchisem are furher indications of the cultural staying power of Steven Speilberg’s waterlogged epic.


I’ve seen Jaws at least 15 times in my life and it remains consistently entertaining and exciting. Steven Speilberg’s assured direction, Roy Scheider’s steady lead performance and Robert Shaw’s incredible performance as Quint never fail to sweep me up in the action at Amity Beach, action that is underlined by the remarkable behind the scenes stories that have become legends in their own right and have served to make Jaws so unforgettable.


Jaws stars Roy Scheider as Police Chief Brody. Chief Brody gave up life as a New York City beat cop for the peace and tranquillity of a small town beach community. In my own head-canon, Scheider’s tough as nails French Connection detective simply dropped out of society and assumed the identity of Brody to escape Popeye Doyle and his cloud of corruption. That aside, Brody is at peace with the slow pace of life in Amity.


That is until a body is found on the beach, the apparent victim of a shark attack. Brody leaps into action with the intent of closing the beaches until he’s sure they're safe but the Amity town council, led by the spineless, pinch-faced, Mayor (Murray Hamilton), won’t let him. This leads to the death of a child when the beaches open without any warning about the shark attack. Even with two deaths, the rage over the beaches doesn’t subside and things only get crazier from there.


At a town meeting, an old fisherman named Quint (Robert Shaw) offers to kill the killer shark for $10,000 but the town won’t agree to it. Meanwhile, a shark expert, named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) arrives in Amity just in time for the shark frenzy to reach a fever pitch with the town keeping the beach open and fisherman seeking a reward for the capture/killing of the shark creating an increasingly dangerous environment.


Steven Speilberg’s direction is so smooth and so assured in Jaws that you’d think he was decades into his career as a master filmmaker and not just a guy on his second feature film. The future directorial superstar appears fully formed here with his command over tone and pace, and the smart editing choices; the film has no fat on it, no unnecessary scenes or characters. The plot unfolds with smart, fresh setups and payoffs all the way to its amazingly satisfying conclusion.


Robert Shaw is the best actor in Jaws. That’s not to take anything away from the solid and compelling performances by Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, but Shaw is just so damned magnetic. Your eyes and ears are drawn to this old salty dog. He commands a scene like a captain on the high seas, all speed ahead. Shaw is both colorful and wise, someone to reckon with and someone you’d no doubt quarrel with, as disagreeable as he is, he’d pick a fight.


When Shaw launches into his soliliquy about having been aboard the famed USS Indianapolis when that boat sank in World War 2, in shark infested waters, the grip that Shaw has on our attention is vice like. And yet, even with that intensity, the moments where Quint softens up and bonds with Hooper and Brody are also some of the best scenes in Jaws, ones that have been copied and pasted into other people's scripts for decades since Jaws by writers hoping to capture similar lightning in a bottle. 

The stories surrounding Jaws are as compelling as the movie itself. It is part of Hollywood lore that Steven Speilberg tripped over his stylish and suspenseful use of the shark that he nicknamed Bruce. Bruce was supposed to be a fully motion-ready animatronic, that Speilberg intended to use a lot in the movie. Then on day one of filming, the shark failed, it barely moved and would remain difficult to manoeuvre throughout the shoot.


This forced Speilberg to use Bruce more sparingly and in so doing, he created tension where we in the audience were always searching the area for Bruce, any time the scene shifted to the beach or away from our safe protagonists, Brody and Hooper. It turned out that not seeing the Shark was actually as frightening as when we actually do see him, during the chaotic and frenzied finale.


History is part of the charm of Jaws which is also, historically, credited as inventing the culture of the blockbuster. We could debate whether what Jaws wrought in terms of the culture of tent-pole blockbusters and their almost inherent lack of quality, but none of that has anything to do with Jaws as a wildly inventive and terrifying work of art. The first time you see Jaws, the giddy thrills rarely slow down and even on the 16th rewatch, there are still a few jumps here and there that you never see coming.


I adore Jaws as a movie and a cultural artifact. The creators of The Meg will be lucky I wrote about this before their movie because otherwise a review of The Meg would likely turn into yet another opportunity to show love to Jaws. Jaws is a blockbuster masterpiece that brings together great acting and directing to craft moments that aren’t merely memorable, they’re iconic.


Movie Review Tootsie

August 8th is Dustin Hoffman’s 81st birthday and while his behavior on movie sets and Broadway backstages has drawn a storm of controversy amid the Me Too movement, his movies remain indelible parts of our shared film history. One film, that has been rendered somewhat ironic given the recent revelations about Hoffman’s behavior, is Tootsie, the 1982 comedy in which Hoffman plays a struggling actor who turns to cross-dressing in order to land a breakout role on a soap opera.


One might assume that having proverbially walked a mile in women’s shoes, Dustin Hoffman might be a tad more sensitive to women behind the scenes. Regardless, Tootsie remains a fascinating, somewhat ahead of its time examination of gender roles and sensitivity. For the record, I am not well-qualified to discuss the sensitivity of Tootsie in relation to the LGBTQ issues the film skirts around, just know that I am sensitive and aware of those issues but I will be avoiding them for the most part in this review. If you want to share your opinion about the film in relation to those issues I would be happy to open a dialogue and expand this review with the input.


Tootsie tells the story of a real jerk of a New York actor named Michael Dorsey. Michael is such a pain to work with that most theater and commercial directors no longer will even entertain talking to him, let alone casting him. As his agent, George, wonderfully played by Tootsie director Sidney Pollack relays, Michael can’t even play a piece of fruit in a commercial without causing a row with the director and delaying the shoot for hours.


With few options and prospects in his ever-aging career, Michael decides to do something drastic. Having witnessed his friend and acting student, Sandy (Teri Garr), try and fail to land a role on a soap opera, Michael decides that he knows how to play that female character better than anyone. This leads Michael to put on a dress and makeup and, quite convincingly, portray an actress named Dorothy Michaels.


Here, Michael’s jerk tendencies, leavened by Dorothy’s womanhood, actually works to get him the part and eventually become a breakout character on the show. Along the way, Michael meets and begins to fall for Julie (Jessica Lange), the co-lead on the soap opera. Unfortunately, Julie doesn’t know that Michael is Dorothy and if she and everyone else were to find out, Michael would be ruined.


I’m struck by what a terrible person Michael Dorsey is. Dustin Hoffman plays Michael as a dyspeptic ladies man with a monstrous ego and self-involvement. Michael has few redeeming qualities beyond his obvious passion for performing and his loyalty to his friend, Jeff (Bill Murray), whose play Michael hopes to fund with the money he makes playing Dorothy. Other than that, Michael is a manipulative, whiny, jerk.


I say that, and yet it kind of makes the character work in a strange way. Michael is an authentic character, there is nothing indistinct about him. Michael as Dorothy becomes a slightly better person or, at least, a slightly more caring and sensitive person, seemingly by osmosis. That growth, as modest as it is, is fascinating to watch considering where the character begins the story, as the monster I have been describing.

The supporting cast of Tootsie is a group of epic scene stealers. Bill Murray’s Jeff is inspired. Murray’s deadpan earns the biggest laughs in the movie and his endless charm is evident even in limited screen time. Teri Garr is wonderful as well as Sandy, a lost soul who gravitates toward Michael’s passion enough that she isn’t entirely repelled by him. Garr’s Sandy is the one redeemable quality Michael has, his friendship with her highlights his few good qualities.


On the soap opera side of the movie we have, of course, Jessica Lange, lovely and vulnerable as Julie, Dabney Coleman, Michael’s equal in caddishness, George Gaynes as the bloviating, sexually voracious leading man and Charles Durning in easily the sweetest performance in the movie. Durning portrays Julie’s father who unwittingly begins to fall for Dorothy as Michael is using the Dorothy persona to get close to Julie.


Here is where Tootsie and I part ways. I can’t stand the film’s ending. That Julie would be willing to forgive Michael and the two to have an implied ‘happily ever after’ is far too contrived and narratively unearned. What has Michael done throughout the entirety of Tootsie to deserve to win Julie’s heart? The emotional gymnastics that we are called upon to perform in order to accept this happy ending are far too much to ask of us as an intelligent audience.


Dustin Hoffman is terribly effective at making Michael terrible in unique and fascinating ways but he’s still terrible. As impressive as his double act as Michael and Dorothy is, Michael doesn’t learn or grow all that much in the guise of Dorothy. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that Dorothy is inherently a deception and not an excuse for Michael to learn a valuable lesson. This isn’t an after school special, if the movie were honest in the end, Michael’s punishment would be teaching acting the rest of his life, drawing students to him via his well-earned infamy.


So, do I like Tootsie? Do I recommend Tootsie? Where do I come down on this movie when I have been so heavily critical of the star and the ending of the movie? I appreciate Dustin Hoffman’s performance for how boldly unique it is, truly unlike any leading man performance I have ever seen. It takes nerve not to settle in and play this character as likably difficult. That Hoffman played Michael not as a comic character within what is an unquestionably comic movie, but as a dramatic character in the midst of a sitcom farce, is a boldness I cannot  deny being impressed with.


Then there is Sidney Pollack’s exceptional direction. Tootsie is an exceedingly well-crafted film. Tootsie is smart and funny and though its female empowerment message is undermined by the nature of Dorothy as a deceptive character, it is quite a notable moment to see even a fake woman telling men to keep their hands off of her and leading other women to do the same. Then again, do women need a man in drag to tell them to stand up for themselves?


Perhaps we can qualify the compliment to Tootsie and say that the film was progressive for 1982 when the movie was released. For this moment, it’s rather patronizing to have a man in drag as a feminist hero, especially one for whom being in drag is not a statement but merely a scheme. Exceptionally well made but problematic, Tootsie is an essential piece of pop history because it is such a bizarre and unique milestone, one forged and ever-changing over time.


Movie Review Life of the Party

The key to Life of the Party is whether or not you are a fan of Melissa McCarthy. Objectively, Life of the Party is a predictable, derivative and sloppily directed movie. That said because it stars Melissa McCarthy, those significant flaws are greatly mitigated. Melissa McCarthy is, arguably, the funniest woman in movies today. In my eyes, she can hardly do wrong, simply the way she delivers a line can induce a minutes long guffaw. She’s just that good in my opinion. Something about her comic timing appeals directly to my sensibilities, even her lesser films.


Life of the Party stars Melissa McCarthy as Deanna, a housewife of more than 20 years who is suddenly thrown for a loop. After a dropping off her daughter, Maddie (Molly Gordon) for her senior year in college, Deanna is blindsided by her husband, Dan (Matt Walsh), who tells her that he’s leaving her for a realtor. Devastated, Deanna needs to pick up the pieces and find a new life and that’s exactly the idea that drives her to go back to college.


This is not just any college however, Deanna is returning to her alma mater, the school that happens to be the same one attended by Maddie. Though she wants to be supportive of her mother, Maddie is not entirely comfortable when mom decides to join her at her college. When Deanna then begins to insinuate herself into Maddie’s social circle things get even more awkward until Maddie decides that having her mom around isn’t so bad.


That is a strong approximation of the plot of Life of the Party though I will admit, I am bringing a little more clarity to the story than the movie does. Life of the Party, as directed by Melissa McCarthy’s husband and favorite collaborator, Ben Falcone, is a much bigger mess than my description indicates. The film could fairly be called sloppy or messy or nonsensical in how it rolls from scene to scene with barely enough story to maintain it.


All of that is a reasonably fair criticism of Life of the Party and yet, I adore this movie. Melissa McCarthy is so completely hysterically funny that the predictable gags, the derivative story, the sloppiness, didn’t matter at all. I was laughing too hard to care about the other stuff. I’m a critic so I still noted what would be problems in most movies but really aren’t much of a problem here because the movie is so funny.


Maya Rudolph co-stars in Life of the Party as Deanna’s best friend Christine and much like McCarthy, she’s wildly hilarious. Christine is an endlessly raunchy character, a note joke of a character, but Rudolph sells that one joke with gusto and never fails to get a laugh. At one point in the film Rudolph riffs jokes for a solid minute and gets a laugh with just about every riff. It’s utter nonsense that could have easily been cut from the movie but the laughs are so good that I get the instinct to leave it in.


The rest of the supporting cast is also quite funny with former Community star Gillian Jacobs stealing scenes as a student who just woke up from a decade long coma. You might think that joke would get old fast but it doesn’t, Jacobs finds wonderfully funny variations on the gag. Also quite funny in a smaller role is Heidi Gardner as Deanna’s new college roommate. What begins as a tired gag about goths becomes one of the stranger and funnier running gags in a movie filled with bizarre runners.


I can’t argue with you if you don’t like Life of the Party. Nothing fellow critics have criticized about the film is genuinely wrong. My only counter to the negative reviews of Life of the Party is that despite the obvious flaws, I laughed a lot during this movie. The individual gags and throwaway dialogue is often really funny and this cast is great at making something out of nothing, especially Melissa McCarthy who turns a legitimately bad movie into one of the funniest movies I have seen this year on the sheer force of her comic persona.


Movie Review The Rider

The Rider is a remarkably thoughtful and moving film about identity and what defines who we are. Writer-director Chloe Zhao has directed a film of delicacy and warmth that doesn’t shy away from anxiety, depression and fear. In Brady Jandreau, the star of the film, Zhao found an actor of natural instinct and innate sensitivity. His status as a non-actor in a leading role in a movie may give him an advantage in acting naturally, but that doesn’t mean that his un-self-conscious performance is any less compelling than traditionally styled acting.


The Rider tells the story of Brady, a bronco rider who, as we join the story, is recovering from what appears to be a career ending accident. We will come to find out that he was kicked in a head by a horse he’d been riding in a competition. The injury is such that if he suffers another concussion or really any other sort of jostling of his brain he could be permanently impaired or even killed.


The answer is simple for Brady’s father, Tim (Tim Jandreau), Brady needs to move on with his life. Tim is being reasonable and practical but not particularly sensitive. Bronco riding in competition is how Brady found his identity. All of Brady’s friends are competitors. Brady’s teenage years were all spent at the rodeo and his closest friend, in a bitterly ironic twist, is a man left wheelchair bound and mentally impaired in a rodeo accident. Brady had dedicated himself to ride on his friend’s behalf.


Brady Jandreau’s real life friend and real life rodeo rider Lane Scott, who really was tragically injured in a rodeo accident, plays Lane in The Rider and scenes when Brady goes to visit his friend are fraught with complex emotions of sympathy and empathy. Brady can’t bring himself to see his friend as a cautionary tale and it’s not hard to put yourself into Brady’s mind where, despite the danger, he doesn’t want to let his friend down.


The Rider centers on a complex and frightening notion: what if you could not do that thing that you feel makes you, you. What is it that defines your identity to yourself and to others? Now imagine having that taken from you; who are you now? Some will simply say you shouldn’t allow one thing to define you or they will remain in denial and dismiss such questions with the stubborn thought that Brady should just accept his fate and move on.


Chloe Zhao however, refuses to look away, she refuses to be in denial. She confronts Brady’s dilemma head on and never cuts corners or accepts easy answers. When Brady seems to find a new potential avenue of employment and life there is an undercurrent of anxiety because that way forward still brings him in contact with horses and carries the potent fear that he could be drawn back into his old life despite the danger.


The film is much more quiet than the aching emotional elements I have written about. The style of the film is reserved and the emotion is tucked below the stoic surfaces of Brady and his father. What we see instead are some lovely moments of silent contemplation on a gorgeous South Dakota plain. The emotion is layered into the story and we feel every inch of it but this isn’t a soap opera, the emotion is perceived and what we are witnessing feels much closer to real life sorrow, joy and discovery.


On top of being exceptionally moving, The Rider is one of the best looking movies of 2018. The cinematography of The Rider is breathtaking and will undoubtedly look just as beautiful on your high def TV as it did on the big screen. Zhao made a point of shooting the film at sunset in South Dakota, as the sun was just beginning to fall behind the mountains and that golden hue is as brilliant as these characters are compelling.


A scene in which Brady begins training a wild horse on a friend’s property is shot in beautiful, bright blue daylight and almost entirely without dialogue. The scene was actually an improvisation as real life horse trainer Brady saw the horse on the set and asked if he could try and settle it down. Zhao turned this organic moment into one of the finest scenes in any movie in 2018. This seemingly random occurrence fits beautifully into this narrative.


The Rider is lovely, authentic and deeply moving. It’s not a documentary, despite Brady and his father and his wonderful little sister, essentially playing themselves. This is Chloe Zhao’s story and it is remarkably well told. The questions about identity and how we define ourselves speak to a universally knowable fear while the gorgeous photography and authentic performances underline those fears in ways that are cinematic and yet so very, very real and engaging.


The Rider is one of the best movies of 2018 and it is available on Blu Ray and DVD Tuesday, August 6th.


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