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 RottenTomatoes.com. 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.
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.
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 Amazon.com 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.
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.
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.
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 RegionalDailyNews.com movie of the day on Friday.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 Amazon.com 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I had really hoped that the phase of young adult dystopian drama had passed after the series of Hunger Games knock-offs tried and failed at the box office. I had a deep and abiding hope that after Maze Runner: The Death Cure, still among the worst things I have seen at the movies in 2018, had flopped into theaters I would not have to suffer another overwrought, portentous piece of young adult post-apocalyptic nonsense for a few years.
Sadly, it’s only been a few months since the pain of the most recent Maze Runner sequel began to subside and already this pathetic sub-genre is back on the big screen. Darkest Minds is the latest young adult flotsam to try and cash in on The Hunger Games in hopes of striking box office gold. Here’s hoping it fails as miserably as the rest as Darkest Minds doesn’t deserve success, it deserves to be buried in a cold wet grave.
Darkest Minds wastes the talents of young Amandla Stenberg, Rue from The Hunger Games, as Ruby, a teenager with a dark secret, the power to manipulate people’s minds. As we are told via generic news footage, teenagers across the country woke up one morning with remarkable super-powers and their parents didn’t know what to do about them. The only thing anyone could think of was to round up the kids and put them in camps to be studied or killed.
Some kids are super-smart, others have telekinesis powers and still others have the horrific power to make fire shoot from their eyes and mouths like a kid whose had too many Smoking Hot Cheetos. Ruby belongs to a dangerous group of kids given the distinction or Orange for their ability to manipulate the minds of anyone they come in contact with. Ruby can Jedi mind trick people into doing her bidding, if she can learn to control her gift.
After escaping an internment camp where she was set to be eliminated after they discover the breadth of her powers, Ruby briefly goes on the run with a freedom fighter named Kate (Mandie Moore) but when she appears to have a partner who Ruby envisions as a bad guy, Ruby runs away and finds herself in a van with a group of fellow teens with super-powers. Liam (Harris Dickman) is the leader, he has telekinesis. Chubs (Skylan Brooks) has super-intelligence and Zu (Miya Cech) can turn electricity into a weapon.
Together they will seek out a utopia headed up by a legend named the Slip Kid, nicknamed for his ability to get in and out of the camps after being repeatedly captured. Naturally, the utopia will not be all it’s cracked up to be and it will be up to our heroes to point the way toward real freedom. Or, at least, I assume what the plot of Darkest Minds is supposed to be; the film is far more clumsy in execution.
Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson makes the jump from animated features to live action with Darkest Minds and you can sense the dutiful approach to making this as if she were assigned a task and not given a creative opportunity. There is a quality of let’s just get this over with to every scene in the movie and the rushed sensibility comes through in the look of the movie and in the performances that stem from a director picking up a paycheck.
Amandla Stenberg is giving the role of Ruby her full attention but you can sense here also a dutiful if not deeply committed approach. Everyone in Darkest Minds seems to just want to get through this so they can get on with their careers in more interesting movies that aren’t mandated by the whims of a studio marketing department. You can almost hear the gleeful cry of the marketing team as they chant “Hunger Games Meets The X-Men” over and over and over as they frenzy themselves toward believing they have a hit concept on their hands.
Darkest Minds is little more than an elevator pitch brought to life and colored in with derivative characters and expository dialogue. It’s unlikely that anyone who made this movie cared about it beyond making sure it wasn’t a full-on, career killing embarrassment. That modest goal is achieved, everyone here can rest assured that what they’ve made isn’t a complete embarrassment, it’s competent and forgettable in the way that will help as these talented people move on and forget that they ever took part in this throwaway nonsense.
Disney has had remarkable success taking their animated properties and repurposing them for live action film. And somehow, they’ve done this with no one accusing them of recycling or calling out the nakedly calculated marketing strategy that was the inception for each of these movies from Cinderella to Jungle Book to Beauty and the Beast and now to Christopher Robin, the live action take on Winnie the Pooh.
Much of the reason that we’ve given Disney a pass on such criticism is because the quality of this strip mining of our nostalgic memories of childhood have been so very good. Exceptional filmmakers such as Kenneth Branagh and Jon Favreau and now Marc Forster have turned this cynical nostalgic cash grab into something genuinely, lovingly artful. Marc Forster has even made, arguably, the most loving and artful of all of these cynical cash grabs.
Christopher Robin is the story of the young boy who found a door in a tree and bravely crossed it’s threshold into a world of wonder in the 100 Acre Woods. There he found magical creatures including a new best friend, Winnie the Pooh along with his pals, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore. Kanga and her son Roo, and the wonderful, bouncy backsided Tigger. Together they played and dreamed and had great adventures.
Years passed however and time came when Christopher Robin was forced to leave behind the 100 Acre Woods in favor of soggy old London and life in a boarding school. From there, Christopher would begin to forget his fuzzy former friends and start a real life. Grown up, and played by Ewan McGregor, Christopher met and fell in love with Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), they had a baby named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) and he went to war.
Now home with his family, Christopher has begun to forget not just about the 100 Acre Woods but about fun in general. Christopher’s job at a luggage company consumes all his time and thoughts and even when he plans to spend a weekend away with his family, at his parents’ former cottage, he can’t get away from his work and the strain on his marriage is evident if only to us and to Evelyn.
Here’s where things take a turn. The scene shifts to Pooh Bear’s cottage. He’s just awoken and found that he has no hunny. He goes out seeking help from his friends and cannot find them. He finds the door in the tree where Christopher Robin always came from and decides to go through it into Christopher’s world. On the other side, Pooh emerges in London and finds Christopher anxiously hiding from a neighbor he doesn’t want to talk to.
Marc Forster is a filmmaker who knows a little something about gentle and pleasant kids stories. Forster’s Finding Neverland was an Academy Award nominee telling the story of J.M Barrie’s creation of Peter Pan. Christopher Robin feels a lot like that film with a similar whimsical, magical essence. Both Christopher Robin and Finding Neverland have an elegiac and plaintive pacing, an air of sadness slowly giving way to the joy of letting go. Forster worked with his Finding Neverland editor Matt Chesse on Christopher Robin and that may have contributed to the similarity in tone and pace.
What sets Christopher Robin apart is the screenplay which features work from three smoking hot properties. Indie darling Alex Ross Perry of Listen Up Phillip and Queen of Earth fame has a credit alongside Hidden Figures writer Allison Schroeder and Academy Award-winning Spotlight writer-director Tom McCarthy. Each contributes to the unique style of Christopher Robin’s story and the wonderful, whimsical way the characters interact.
Don’t misunderstand, these are still fully A.A Milne, by way of Disney, characters. Pooh still feels like Pooh, thanks to the legendary voice work of Jim Cummings and we still get to hear Tigger sing the Tigger song. But, the interaction between Christopher Robin and the rest of the world has a wit and liveliness to it that doesn’t distract from the classic source material. You can sense the respect that this creative team has for the source material, there is a loving care to the way Pooh and friends are presented, never with anything less than dignity; fun with a British sort of propriety.
Ewan McGregor is a wonderful Christopher Robin. I adored his stiffness early in the movie and they his shoulders slowly go from up around his ears to fully at ease. He’s a man under desperate stress to do the right thing and continually does the wrong thing until Pooh comes along and puts him straight. There is a lovely similarity to the recent Where the Wild Things Are when Christopher is in the 100 Acre Woods as an adult and realizes that he may, in fact, be the problem with his life and not everyone else.
McGregor is well matched with Hayley Atwell whose sympathetic care for her husband is only matched by her witty, self-protective, innate feminism. This is not a woman who will put up for very long with a man who doesn’t properly appreciate her, and especially her daughter, and you get that sense solely from Atwell’s manner and grace. She has a steely quality that easily gives way to softness and concern in the way only a great actress can show.
I have not even begun to praise the true star of the show, Winnie the Pooh. Earlier this year people were tripping over themselves to praise the over-hyped Paddington with his childish pratfalling and simplistic story. For me, Winnie the Pooh in Christopher Robin is my thesis statement on why Paddington doesn’t work. Pooh is charming in ways Paddington only hints at. He’s lovable in the ways that Paddington pretends towards. Most importantly, Pooh’s pratfalling antics and general mayhem are more well-explained and lovable than the destruction that Paddington wreaks upon his friends and family.
Christopher Robin is a lovely film, a gentle yet funny, sweet and harmless trifle that will make all audiences smile. Marc Forster is a director of immense talent and he brings that to bear in Christopher Robin with the lightest and most deft touch. The film is artful in how it is never flashy, you don’t feel as if you see Forster directing. The touch is light but effective, you sense how beautiful and well told the story is but it doesn’t feel as if you’re being steered and you sort of melt into the beauty and warmth of this story.
I feel as if, on a moral level, I should be upset about Disney strip mining my childhood for a quick buck. I feel like I should be annoyed that they aren’t developing original material and are instead basking in the dollars that existing products in shiny new packages can bring in. In the back of my mind, in fact, I am rebelling against these Disney products and their weaponized nostalgia. That said, up front and personal, Christopher Robin made my heart happy. The movie is completely adorable and a wonderful film for the whole family, proof that commerce and art can work together to create something beautiful.
Eighth Grade is a movie of this moment; vital and real. Eighth Grade appears uniquely in tune to the teenage mind in a way that we’ve rarely seen in a feature film. Not since perhaps Catherine Hardwicke’s breakthrough 2003 feature, Thirteen, have I seen a movie that feels so uniquely on the wavelength of the modern teenager. Sweet, sensitive, smart and funny, Eighth Grade is one of the best movies of 2018 thus far.
Elsie Fisher stars in Eighth Grade as Kayla, a shy young woman at the end of her middle school years. Is Kayla really shy? Yes and no, she does have her own YouTube channel which is indicative of a desire to communicate with people. However, at school, Kayla has no friends and is given the award as the ‘Most Quiet’ girl at school. Kayla is awkward and angst-ridden around the other kids and it is a constant struggle between that angst and her desire to connect.
That struggle tends to manifest itself quite negatively in Kayla’s relationship with her single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), a doofy, dad joke spouting, good sport who is struggling with his own loneliness and insecurity about being a good father. The relationship with father and daughter is quietly the center of the plot of Eighth Grade which is otherwise plotless. Writer-Director Bo Burnham isn’t interested in plot but in atmosphere and especially in observing character.
In Elsie Fisher’s Kayla, Burnham has a character very much worth observing. Fisher’s remarkably innate likability and acute sensitivity make Kayla such a wonderful character. Unique and independent, Kayla may struggle with meeting friends but she does not struggle in evoking our heartfelt sympathy and care. I cared about Kayla the first moment she came on screen with her painfully earnest YouTube advice show as a window into her young soul.
Bo Burnham uses the device of Kayla’s ‘show’ to great effect as we learn things about the character in a way that feels fresh and organic and doesn’t resort to voice-over or other well-worn gimmicks of information exchange. Kayla isn’t an over the top personality, her YouTube show comes from a place of comfort where the only judgment she faces are from the likes, dislikes and page views, what few views she gets.
The aching, angsty, earnestness of the millennial is captured here in a way that feels almost documentary-like. Burnham has a strong incite into this age group as it has been millennials who’ve helped to raise his profile and made his Netflix special a must see. He’s not pandering to them, he’s going out of his way to be understanding of them and careful in how he portrays them. While Burnham does resort to the kids always on their phone gag, the payoff that comes late when Kayla confronts a pair of phone-toting popular is worth the well-worn trope.
Elsie Fisher is a remarkable find, a young actress of the most natural instincts. Burnham has given her a wonderful character and range to play but Fisher is the one who makes Kayla sing. It’s a performance of layer and nuance and the empathy Fisher evokes for Kayla is the bond that drives the movie. We feel for her, worry for her, laugh with her and urge her forward as she pokes her head out into the world beyond her YouTube channel,
Equally excellent is veteran actor Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s lovingly befuddled father. Though he is the constant focus of his daughter’s unearned ire, we know he’s just as much of a lost soul as she is and loved how the movie never makes it easy for father and daughter to connect. Hamilton’s awkwardness reflects Fisher’s and bonds the two as parent and child. A scene between the two late in the film may be one of the best and most moving scenes in any movie in 2018 and much of the credit for the scene belongs to Hamilton.
Bo Burnham has made a lovely, insightful, warm, and funny movie that feels fresh and like nothing else in theaters today. It’s the first truly millennial movie, the first film to take on this generation and understand them and their unique sensibilities. He captures the earnest qualities that seem to be a very large part of the millennial experience and he does it all with great humor and without pandering. Eighth Grade is one exceptional film.
It’s been 60 years since audiences mobbed the theaters to see The Blob starring Steve McQueen and 60 years on, The Blob remains one incredibly fun flick. This naked propaganda piece about the slow spread of the Red Menace remains a glorious piece of nostalgia and genuinely clever piece of filmmaking that combines the best kind of camp with the best kind of star power.
The Blob stars the legendary Steve McQueen as Steve Andrews, a big man on campus type who we meet while on a date with his girl, Jane (Aneta Corsaut). The two are at a private spot in the woods under the stars, innocently yet romantically, enjoying a night together when they see something fall from the sky. Steve immediately wants to go find it and the two drive off in search. Meanwhile, a nearby hermit gets to the thing from the sky first.
Moments later, Steve and Jane having failed to find the falling star begin to drive home when they encounter the hermit in desperate pain and fear. What he found inside the meteor, because he could not resist the temptation of poking it with a stick, is a purplish-red ooze that has, when Steve and Jane find him, adhered itself to his hand. The kids rush the old man to the doctor’s office and drop him off with ol’Doc Hallen where he will be cared for, though Steve can’t seem to let go of the idea that something more is going on with that oozing blob on the man’s arm.
Steve McQueen is incredible in The Blob. Overall, the film is silly and rather a bunch of sci-fi nonsense, but McQueen gives it gravity, if not gravitas. McQueen is so innately charismatic that you can’t help but get caught up in this story. The Blob was McQueen’s first leading man role in a feature film after breaking into television in the early 1950’s and yet you can see the movie star in him from the first frame.
McQueen commands your attention but not with the kind of macho posturing of his later career but rather through a more gentle charisma, a care and curiosity that is incredibly easy to relate to. He doesn’t stand apart from his co-stars, he’s invested in their performance as much as his own and he elevates a cast that was likely used to being outshined in B-pictures by rising stars or a good monster. His generosity as a performer here has an infectious quality.
Is The Blob cheesy and campy? Oh, absolutely it is and it’s completely charming. The low budget special effects, the obvious models covered in oozing jelly, the extras laughing and smiling as they run for their lives in the legendary theater scene, were likely seen as flaws in 1958, but today, I can’t help but see them as wonderfully campy and hilarious in the best kind of way. The sincerity of the attempt to make The Blob work lends the movie an irresistible pathos.
Then there is the extra charm of ‘The Red Scare.’ Though director Irving Yeaworth and Steve McQueen himself have never acknowledged the Cold War influences of The Blob, the metaphor is camptastically inescapable. Communism represented by an oozing red mass overtaking small town America and threatening everyone’s way of life. And how is it defeated? It’s defeated by the cold, get it, as in Cold War. The film ends with The Blob being dropped in the arctic, because I assume dropping it in Siberia might have been a little too on the nose.
The Blob remains influential to this day though many may not recognize it. The character Blobby in the animated franchise Hotel Transylvania is based on The Blob. Yes, Blobby is green and carries some human characteristics, but the character is undeniably an offshoot of The Blob, where else could the inspiration for the character have come from? The homage is loving and the character fits well in the HT universe, about as well The Blob might have fit in the Dracula, Frankenstein, Werewolf universe, a group of equally cheesy yet serious villains in their original incarnations.
I adore the campy, goofy fun of The Blob. I enjoy it for the sincere effort to turn something so silly into a something so serious and I especially enjoy Steve McQueen whose star-power is a true standout. McQueen appeared destined to be a movie star based off of this starring role, a role that many other actors might have just tossed off as just another teen movie. McQueen doesn’t exactly take the role seriously but he cares enough to make the movie matter a little and his effort is part of the charm of this incredibly charming classic.
The Blob is available as part of the Criterion Collection and is available to stream for classic movie fans via the FilmStruck App.
Dark Crimes is a whole lot of nonsense. While I appreciate that Jim Carrey is taking a risk and playing a role well outside our perception of him as a performer, Dark Crimes is a risk that should not have been taken. This Poland set mystery involving a murder among a violent sex cult is so poorly constructed and so nonsensically plotted that even if Jim Carrey had been brilliant in his offbeat, against the grain, performance, it wouldn’t have mattered against this awful piece of storytelling.
In Dark Crimes, Jim Carrey stars as Tadek, a veteran detective in a major city in Poland. At one point, we’re told that Tadek is the last good cop in Poland but the movie does little to demonstrate that. Tadek is investigating the murder of a man who was found bound in an S & M style and dropped in a river. Tadek’s top suspect is a writer named Kozlov (Martin Csokas) whose latest book, a thriller, describes a murder exactly like the one Tadek is investigating.
The details depicted in the book, which we hear as Tadek is listening to the audiobook of Kozlov’s bestseller, are uncannily like the murder and Tadek is certain that Kozlov is the killer. That is, until he continues down the rabbit hole of this sex cult which is made up of some of the most powerful men in Poland, including Tadek’s work rival, Greger (Robert Wieckiewicz). Thus, Tadek had better be right before he goes so far he can’t come back.
That’s an okay thumbnail of Dark Crimes but it contains a good deal of inference on my part. Dark Crimes is so nonsensically assembled that it is impossible to actually know what is happening. Nudity and an orgy and a murder give us a sense of what the plot is about, and it certainly makes for a jarring opening to the movie, but then the movie abandons the sex cult in favor of one on one staring contests between Carrey and Csokas that stagnate an already sluggish story.
The assemblage of Dark Crimes is almost painful to piece together. A number of scenes appear to have significant revelations but the movie is so clumsy that I am not sure what was being revealed in what appeared to be intended as revelatory scenes. One scene finds Carrey reacting to something for a good long while and when we finally see what he’s reacting to, it’s so tangential to the plot of Dark Crimes that his intense psychic pain barely registers.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose work with Lars Von Trier likely made her time on Dark Crimes feel like a cakewalk, co-stars here as a woman abused in the sex cult. She’s also the girlfriend of Kozlov though she tells Carrey that the relationship with Kozlov is over before the two sleep together in one of the least sexy sex scenes I’ve ever seen. Is Gainsbourg’s character a frightened victim seeking protection or a sexy scheming killer? I have no idea and the movie is too vague and poorly put together for me to even venture a guess as to the nature of Gainsbourg's character or any other character for that matter, including Carrey's Tadek.
The ending is the most nonsensical of bit of all. I watched and then re-watched the end of Dark Crimes in the vain hope that I could figure out what happened and two viewings yielded no definitive answer. The final moment is captured so poorly, literally at a bizarre distance at a cantilevered angle, that the fate of Jim Carrey’s character is unknown as the credits began to roll.
I will say, aside from a desperately unneeded close-up of Carrey's twisted face during a love scene, ugh, Dark Crimes is great looking movie. The cinematography, especially on a high quality Blu-Ray, looks phenomenal. Poland looks beautiful and foreboding, a character in its own right that in a better movie would matter to the plot. But not here, not among the skill free nonsense on display in Dark Crimes.
Dark Crimes is undoubtedly among the worst movies of 2018. Jim Carrey’s bold decision to play a character wildly out of his comfort zone, all the way down to a silly sounding Polish accent, is almost laughably terrible. I admire the big swing Carrey takes here but perhaps he should reign in the ambition just a little. Maybe start with a clever little independent feature delivered by a promising young upstart director. Try going to film festivals and looking for young and hungry filmmakers who could use your star power to get a movie made. Most importantly Jim, stay the heck out of Poland.
Tully is a deeply moving and quite funny exploration of the life of a mother who is barely hanging in there with a third child on the way. Charlize Theron stars in Tully as Marlo, a mother of two, pregnant with a third child when we meet her and married to Drew (Ron Livingston) whose job keeps him away for periods of time. Marlo is struggling with her pregnancy and keeping up with her two young children, a kind of trouble that can only deepen with the arrival of the new child.
On a visit to her brother Craig’s (Mark Duplass) house, Marlo is gifted a night nurse who will come spend the night at her home and watch the baby while Marlo gets sleep. At first, Marlo is opposed to the idea, believing that it would take away from valuable mother and child bonding time. About a month after giving birth however, Marlo is basically a barely functioning zombie and everyone in her life is suffering the consequences.
Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a bubbly twenty-something who arrives late one evening and announces herself as the night nurse. Marlo believes that Craig simply arranged for Tully without her asking him to and she’s initially upset. However, Tully is so great with the baby that Marlo quickly begins to relax and eventually falls into the first night’s sleep she’s had in a long time. The more good sleep she gets, the better her life gets and the better her friendship with Tully gets.
Naturally, there is a secret about Tully and it’s a controversial secret and one that I will not reveal here. This ‘twist,’ if you want to call it that, will turn off some audience members as it is a risky choice by writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman. For me however, I bought it all the way and was consistently fascinated with each shift in the story of Tully and Marlo and their unique bond.
The trick being turned by Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman in this story is pretty remarkable. In the wrong hands, the choices the filmmakers make could ruin the movie. The wrong director could potentially ruin the whole enterprise by making the turn of the story too obvious. The wrong writer might fail to fill in enough detail in the story and fail to use the gimmick at the heart of the film as a way of amplifying the emotion and rather than using it simply as a storytelling device.
Unquestionably, there is a device at the center of Tully but the way the film is written and directed minimizes the obvious manipulative quality. There is so much rich detail and Marlo and Tully are such vivid and engaging characters that they could have turned into space aliens half way through the 3rd act and I would have been happy to tag along back to their home planet. That’s how engaging and funny and meaningful the movie is, these great characters can get away with almost anything.
Charlize Theron deserves an Oscar nomination for her work in Tully. Theron carries multitudes in her sad, tired eyes. When she begins to come to life thanks to Tully’s intervention, she begins to light up the room and the movie appears to become brighter and happier, turning on her increasingly good vibe. That’s a function of the storytelling of course, but Theron makes it feel organic and real in her remarkably touching performance.
Newcomer Mackenzie Davis is also quite good as the peppy and vivacious Tully. At first she appears as if she were some manic pixie dream nanny here to solve all of Marlo’s problems, but that’s part of the fun. Tully offers wish fulfillment in a fun and funny package. The film is setting us up with how helpful and convenient Tully appears to be, it’s part of the trick being pulled and what a great and wonderful trick it is.
Tully is a dazzling and funny piece of character study. The combination of Theron’s brilliant acting, Diablo Cody’s funny and insightful scripting and Jason Reitman’s skillful presentation is unbeatable. This remarkably talented trio, who also made the excellent and similarly funny and insightful Young Adult in 2011, work incredibly well together. They have a rhythm and cadence all their own, much the same that Reitman and Cody had when Reitman made his masterpiece, Juno, with Ellen Page.
I really hope these three will work together again soon because with Young Adult and now Tully, which is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD, they’re two for two in making incredibly funny and deeply emotional movies.
Nature or nurture is a question as old as when man began to question his very existence. This question speaks to the very soul of humanity: am I a product of how I was raised or is my existence a reaction to my environment. To me, the answer is rather simply, a mixture of both but that isn’t exactly a satisfying answer if you’re a social scientist. For years, the field of mental health would draw battle lines surrounding the nature vs nurture debate and it led to something rather monstrous in its coldly calculating science.
In 1961 a psychiatrist by the name of Peter Newbauer decided there was one way to settle nature vs nurture. With the help of a wealthy and well respected adoption agency, he would oversee the separation of sets of twins at birth, sending the siblings to different homes with different demographic make ups and track how they grow up via interviews mandated as part of the adoption agreement.
What? You’ve never heard of this monstrous experiment? There’s a reason for that, it was never published. The fact that this ever happened likely never would have came to light if Bobby Shafran hadn’t decided on attending community college, the same community college attended by Eddy Galland, his heretofore unknown twin brother. Even then, it seemed like a brief heartwarming accident, the kind of story that closes a local newscast.
But then it was revealed that Bobby and Eddy had another brother, David, and were, in fact, adopted triplets. The story became a media sensation in 1980 and carried on for a few years with the triplets parlaying off of their minor fame. That to, could have been the end if the triplets story hadn’t intrigued an award winning journalist into looking into how something so strange could have taken place. What he found turned this heartwarming story, into a heart-rending scandal.
Three Identical Strangers is an incredibly compelling documentary. Director Tim Wardle is new to feature length documentary, he’s worked for several years in television but Three Identical Strangers feels like the work of a veteran. The story unfolds with remarkable clarity and vision with a strong hand at the narrative. Wardle sets us up brilliantly and then employs brilliant twists that are never forced or overly dramatic, but rather perfectly calibrated to documentary storytelling.
Wardle has a cinematic eye as well as a documentarians eye. Notice a scene in which he describes the adoptive parents meeting with the adoption agency after the triplets have found each other. There is a moment here that is dramatized and it is apart from the rest of the doc which is more traditional, face to camera interviews. The father of one of the boys witnesses the adoption agency people toasting over having seemed to dodge a bullet in their meeting with the parents. Your first thought is that this is a throwaway scene and this will now turn into a legal battle, but you’re wrong. I was wrong while watching it as well.
The scene is urgently important for setting up the rest of the documentary narrative. The whole film turns on this dramatized moment and it is an ingenious way to shift the structure of the narrative. The heartwarming and curious portion of the story is now over and the murky and darker side of this story is fully begun and what an incredible story we’re being told in Three Identical Strangers.
The film even begins the debate of nature vs nurture by seeming to take one side before switching and pleading the case of the other side. Again, I find this shift to be incredibly smart and in keeping with the clever way Wardle shifts from heartwarming curiosity to mysterious and murky morality play. The nature vs nurture debate will not be decided here or likely in any kind of text, filmic or otherwise, but Three Identical Strangers offers something unique and fascinating to that debate.
Three Identical Stranger is one of the best movies of 2018 and were it not for my deeply emotional connection to the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, I might call it the best documentary of the year. It’s a wildly fascinating and exceptionally well told story. Tim Wardle is a terrific new voice in feature documentary and I can’t wait to see what he does next after his remarkable triumph with Three Identical Strangers.
The Spy Who Dumped Me stars Mila Kunis as Audrey, an underachiever working a menial job and celebrating her 30th birthday. Audrey is sad about the state of her life, not just the job but also her now ex-boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux), who dumped her via text message. Things aren’t all bad however as Audrey has a best friend, Morgan (Kate McKinnon) who is a constant source of support and great entertainment.
Audrey’s meaningless existence is changed forever when Audrey is thrown into the back of a truck with a pair of secret agents, Duffer (Hasan Minaj) and Sebastian (Sam Heughan), who inform her that Drew is a C.I,A Agent and he’s gone missing. When he pops up at her apartment he tells her that he has a mission she must help him with; she must travel to Vienna and deliver a package to another spy named Vern in order to save the world.
When Drew is left unconscious, Audrey and Morgan decide to actually go to Vienna and try to carry out his mission with the CIA hot on their tale. Once in Vienna, the two end up in gun battles, getting tortured, and facing off against some of the world’s greatest spies. The film travels to Prague and eventually to Paris as the globetrotting and gun toting get going the film gets really, quite funny.
Director Susanna Fogel does a great job of taking good advantage of her talented stars. The story of The Spy Who Dumped Me is a tad thin, so much of the film relies on the clever riffing of Kunis and McKinnon. Fogel smartly gives them room to roam within this goofball adventure to search for as many funny, and often quite dirty jokes. A lesser cast, actors without the ability to riff would unquestionably expose how thin this silly plot truly is.
Mila Kunis continues to grow into a reliable leading lady. Where it once seemed like she was destined to be outshined by funnier supporting players, like Kathryn Hahn in Bad Moms, here Kunis is able to hang in and be as funny as her co-star. Perhaps it’s her improv background, but Kate McKinnon comes off as quite a generous scene partner. It’s clear that McKinnon is capable of dominating a scene, and she certainly takes over a few scenes, but for the most part she is matched riff for riff by Kunis.
That said, McKinnon does star in my favorite sequence of The Spy Who Dumped Me. The scene is late in the movie and involves a Cirque Du Soleil style routine on a trapeze, McKinnon in a wacky costume and a icy contract killer played by Ivanna Sakhno. The scene is high level goofy and McKinnon earns big laughs throughout with some terrific physical comedy. Sakhno is pretty great to having to play completely straight opposite McKinnon’s clowning.
The Spy Who Dumped Me is terrifically funny if a tad uneven. The movie is mostly riffing rather than story but when the riffing is this good it’s hard not to appreciate it. Kunis and McKinnon have remarkable chemistry and the fun they’re having is infectious. I could complain about predictability and the stop start nature of the pacing of the film but The Spy Who Dumped Me is far too fun for such complaints.
The Spy Who Dumped Me opens nationwide on August 3rd.
I am only vaguely aware of the Teen Titans cartoon series. I know that I have flashed past it on cable television, alway pausing for a moment when I would see a recognizable superhero, like a Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, before moving on with my life. I’m aware that it has a reputation of being irreverent and quite funny for the age group it is aimed at, and even some older audiences who appreciate its satiric, deconstructionist take on comic book characters, or so I’m told.
Teen Titans Go to the Movies attempts to bring the magic of the small screen satire to the big screen and it works, for the most part. Teen Titans Go to the Movies is a funny and strange concoction that finds a group of super teenagers fighting for the respect that people their age don’t often get from adults. That’s a story that any teenager or former teenager should easily be able to relate to.
The Teen Titans are Robin (Scott Menville) aka Batman’s sidekick, Beast Boy (Greg Cipes) who can turn into any animal, Cyborg (Khary Payton) a half-human half transformer robot, Raven (Tara Strong) a misanthropic witch, and Starfire (Hynden Walch) a sweetheart alien Princess. Together they fight crime when they aren’t bickering or coming up with coordinated song and dance routines to tout how great they are.
The rest of the superhero world view the Titans as a joke and the opening sequence illustrates why. While they goof around rapping about their powers in front of a giant balloon monster wrecking havoc over a city, Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern show up and do the actual fighting of the big bad before explaining to the Titans and to us that the Titans are a bunch of goofs who should stay out of the way of the real heroes.
The Titans brush off the lambasting and decide to follow the heroes to the premiere of Batman’s new movie, even though technically, they weren’t invited. After sneaking into the premiere they meet Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell) who explains to them why they will never have a movie of their own, they don’t have a good nemesis, a bad guy foil who could raise their profile, an arch-nemesis if you will.
When the call goes out for a crime in progress the Titans leap into action and, as luck would have it, they stumble into a crime being committed by the evil mastermind Slade (Will Arnett). Though Slade laughs off the Titans offer to be their arch-nemesis, he does beat the team up and leave with his criminal booty. Robin meanwhile, is determined to make Slade their arch-nemesis and ride that rivalry to his own movie.
Eventually, Slade does take the Teen Titans seriously which leads him to try to destroy the team using Robin’s desire to be a movie star to drive a wedge into the group. His very obvious accomplice is a rather clever and funny running gag in a movie that has plenty of clever and funny gags. And yet, the comedy doesn’t mean that co-directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michall and their team of 8 credited writers, don’t ground this in some minor melodrama.
Teen Titans Go to the Movies takes somewhat seriously the relationship between the team and that grounding makes the jokes funnier and the plot more familiar, easy to follow even if you’re not a Titans regular. The group dynamic is goofy but with a bloated self-seriousness on the part of Robin that is the funniest thing about the group. Robin can be a goof just like the rest of the group but it’s his pompous belief in himself as a hero that is repeatedly punctured to strong comic effect.
The rest of the characters are less well rounded with Cyborg and Raven barely making an impression while Beast Boy and Starfire get a few solid punchlines though not much depth. The character that arguably has the most well-rounded arc is Will Arnett’s Slade who may not change much from his arrogant, growling bad guy-ness but does slowly come to respect and fear the Titans as they slowly come to prove themselves as heroes, goofball heroes, but heroes nonetheless.
If you like obscure reference humor you will love the fact that Nicholas Cage is in Teen Titans Go to the Movies. The joke is that Cage once was set to play Superman in a Tim Burton directed Superman movie that went as far as having a script and a new super suit and a long-haired Superman. Footage of Cage testing out this new look Superman went online a few years ago and Cage has maintained he would still like to play Superman and it’s nice to hear him get the chance here.
Teen Titans Go to the Movie is not a memorable movie, it’s not a lasting animated classic. It’s a well-made and quite funny television adaptation that likely won’t spawn a film franchise. But, for what it is, with it’s mild ambition and big laughs it’s not bad. Given the state of the D.C movie universe at the moment, it’s arguably among the best of the D.C comics adaptations, but that’s not saying much when you consider Man of Steel and Suicide Squad are part of that universe.
The Mission Impossible series has been a rollercoaster of quality since its inception 22 years ago. The first film wasn’t great but it did begin the slow, upward crawl of the series. Then, the series picked up speed by embracing the slick, shallow style of director John Woo for Mission Impossible 2. Finally, in Mission Impossible 3, the series peaked with the J.J Abrams directed thriller that was brimming with suspense and bursting with action while telling the best story the series has told thus far.
It was back down the quality coaster after that with Ghost Protocol but Rogue Nation began the climb back upwards and now Mission Impossible Fallout has arrived to provide another, somewhat smaller peak for the franchise. Filled with smart twists and turns and a strong payoff, Mission Impossible Fallout is perhaps the best blend yet of Fast and Furious style goofy fun with with the stylish grit of the Bourne franchise, the true sweet spot of the Mission Impossible franchise.
Mission Impossible Fallout finds Ethan Hunt on the trail of nuclear warheads that are on the black market. The spy ring known as The Syndicate, is without its leader, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), whom Ethan and his team captured in Rogue Nation, and they’ve been making up for his absence with even more terror attacks around the globe. The nukes however, are their final big play and Ethan needs to get to them before The Syndicate does.
Unfortunately, after missing out on the nukes in Berlin, Ethan is forced to take along a C.I.A Agent to watch over him and his team. Agent Walker (Henry Cavill) is a hard-headed, cold-hearted, efficient spy who specializes in killing whoever needs to be killed to accomplish his mission. Naturally, Walker’s approach clashes with Ethan’s more nuanced take on spycraft, the kind that doesn’t get a whole lot of other people killed.
Fallout brings the return of Rebecca Ferguson in the role of Ilsa Faust. When last we saw Ilsa she was getting out of the spy business, leaving behind her career at London’s MI6. Sadly, the spy game is not so easy to walk away from. This time, Ilsa’s aims are in direct conflict with Ethan’s and the two will come close to killing each other on more than one occasion during Mission Impossible Fallout.
Fallout was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the screenwriter who tried to save Ghost Protocol with some script doctoring before taking the full reins of the series for Rogue Nation.
McQuarrie may be just the right creative force for the series. His style combines the slick and stylish visuals that are a hallmark of the series but he’s also not blind to the details of good storytelling and doesn’t let the stunts get in the way of telling a good story. Stunts, are, of course, the bread and butter of the Mission Impossible franchise but, in throughout the series, the necessity of Tom Cruise to put his life on the line for some adrenaline rush and a good public relations have come at the expense of the story. Ghost Protocol for instance had a pair of big action set pieces set in stone before the film even had a script. The writers had to write to the stunt rather than coming up with stunts to go with the story.
Any screenwriter would likely admit that having to write to the action rather than forming an organic storyline is less than an ideal way to write a script. That problem plagued Ghost Protocol and to a lesser extent, Rogue Nation where McQuarrie merely had to write in Cruise hanging from the side of a plane as it took off. Fallout has some big action but none of it feels sewn on to the story, it all feels as if it proceeds from the story.
Perhaps the biggest stunt in the movie, if not the most talked about, is a helicopter battle where Cruise has to nearly fall off of the helicopter and save himself by the skin of his teeth. It’s a spectacular sequence and part of a kinetic closing act that is intense and rarely lets up on the excitement and suspense all the way to the end. The most talked about stunt in Fallout is a foot chase in which Cruise parkours his way across London rooftops in pursuit of the enemy.
Cruise was injured in the chase, breaking his ankle attempting to jump from one building to the next in a gnarly jump that rumor has it, is in the final cut of Fallout, though the scene proceeds at a pace where you may not notice it. Cruise’s injury shutdown production for eight weeks and ballooned the film’s budget to reportedly more than $250 million dollars. It probably was not worth it for this particular stunt but studios aren’t inclined to tell a star like Cruise not to do his own stunts.
Mission Impossible Fallout has the best traits of the lesser parts of the Mission Impossible franchise. Slick, stylish and occasionally shallow, the film could have been just another stunt-fest. Thankfully, the story picks up with a couple of great twists, especially a rare call back to the first film in the franchise, and by the end the story and the pace are feeding each other and the thrills coming at you at a frenetic pace.
I really enjoyed how Fallout combines the goofy thrills of a Fast and Furious movie with the gritty seriousness of the Bourne franchise. That’s right where this franchise should be, serious but not too serious, outlandish but not over the top. The first Mission Impossible showed what would happen if you took this material too seriously, the second film showed what happened if you didn’t take things seriously enough. MI3 nailed the formula with great story and great action and Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation and now Fallout have tried with varying success to match what Abrams did in MI3 to little avail.
Fallout is the closest the series has come to its creative peak and for that it is definitely worth checking out in theaters this weekend.
Ranking the Mission Impossible Movies
Mission Impossible 3
Mission Impossible Fallout
Mission Impossible Rogue Nation
Mission Impossible 2
Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol
Mission Impossible 1
Mission Impossible 3 made an indelible mark in my mind as the most entertaining and accomplished take on the entire Mission Impossible franchise. After seeing both Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, I can now say with certainty that the series peaked with number 3. J.J Abrams kinetic direction was artful and exciting with an eye toward drama, action and suspense all in the same package.
That’s not to say that Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation are bad, they just lack the same clarity, focus and skill of MI3. Neither directors, Brad Bird or Christopher McQuarrie, appear capable of imposing their vision on the franchise, or at least, they didn’t impose it as well as Abrams did as each seems far more at the mercy of stunt coordinators and the daredevil antics of star Tom Cruise than Abrams was.
Ghost Protocol picks up the action of the MI story some five years after the action of MI3. Ethan Hunt is behind bars in a foreign country, accused of having murdered 6 Serbian nationals. We will eventually be told that his wife, Jules (Michelle Monaghan), a prominent part of the action in MI3, was killed, but death in a spy movie doesn’t always mean death. The big bad this time out is a man code named Cobalt (Michael Nykvist), an arms dealer with the aim of ending the world with a nuclear missile.
It will be up to Agent Hunt and his new IMF team, including now Field Agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton). Carter is still reeling from the murder of her partner, Agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway, Lost) who was murdered by a killer for hire employed by Cobalt. They are joined by Analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) who gets added to the team after his boss, the Secretary of the IMF (Tom Wilkinson) is murdered and the team is disavowed.
Brad Bird is a competent and highly capable director who keeps the pace up and the action well managed. Unfortunately, the film is little more than set-pieces strung together by a thin plot and a less than compelling villain. Ghost Protocol is remembered for the controversial CGI destruction of the Kremlin and a death-defying sequence in which Cruise appears to scale the outside of the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
Both sequences are solid and well captured with the Burj Khalifa climb coming the closest to evoking the best of the franchise. That said, they appeared to have the stunts before they had a script and wound up tailoring the story to the stunts. This was seemingly confirmed when writer Christopher McQuarrie was brought on half way into production for an uncredited rewrite of the script by Andre Nemec and Josh Applebaum.
Does this make Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol bad? No, it means that it comes up short of the legacy crafted by Mission Impossible 3. That film had big stunts and a big story to tell along with it. Ghost Protocol has ambition stunts but lacks the story to lift it to what I had hoped the series would be after MI3. Still, the movie is good enough, it’s entertaining enough, it has just enough appeal that I don’t dislike it, but I don’t love it either.
Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, at the very least, improved upon Ghost Protocol. Here, Ethan Hunt opens the movie by being captured by the big bad, this time played by Sean Harris. Harris’ Solomon Lane has been eluding Ethan for two years since Ethan began to track him down. Lane has remained 2 steps ahead of Ethan while creating a series of tragedies intended to have a drastic effect on world markets.
Ethan is in so much hot water that the CIA, seen here in the form of a blustering Alec Baldwin, believes he is responsible for the terrorist acts caused by Lane’s outfit called, The Syndicate. In attempting to stop The Syndicate, Ethan recruits Benji to join him on the run from the CIA and they are joined by a British double agent named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has infiltrated The Syndicate and is the key to getting to Lane.
Director Christopher McQuarrie both wrote and directed Mission Impossible Rogue Nation and that fact does lend some clarity to the storytelling. The conspiracy in play is a wild one and rather clever and well executed. The film is still defined by one big stunt, in which Cruise legendarily clung to the side of a plane as it was taking off, but the stunt doesn’t completely overshadow the movie as Burj Khalifa sequence in Ghost Protocol certainly did.
McQuarrie marries the slick, shallow thrills of MI2 with a little of the grit of the original with the craftsmanship of MI3 and creates easily the second best of the then 5 film franchise. I especially enjoyed the use of Rebecca Ferguson whose lithe physicality matches that of co-star Tom Cruise. The way she floats about fluidly in major fight scenes is really cool and in keeping with the action style of most of the Mission movies. She’s a really solid addition.
Sadly, the villain of Rogue Nation is once again the weakest part of the film. Who’s Sean Harris? He’s not a bad actor but I have no reference point for who he is as an actor. He’s not remotely on the star level of the rest of the cast, even Ferguson who makes her debut in this film. Harris’s lack of a profile makes him forgettable and when compared to the best villain in the franchise, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s exceptional, Owen Davian, he comes up well short.
The character of Solomon Lane is not all that compelling. His aims are clear but the character is a shell wear a full-fledged villain should be. He has no life, no personality, he’s not tough and while he’s portrayed as super-smart, our first time seeing him, he immediately chooses not to kill Ethan Hunt even though he easily could. The sequence makes the character look silly, especially when the script gives him zero reason to keep alive the one man he’s aware could stop his agenda.
The lack of care in the details of the script of Rogue One is part of what keeps the film far from greatness. It’s still solid and has terrific stunt work and top-notch action scenes, but sadly I was hoping for more of a brain. Instead, we get yet another Tom Cruise running chase scene and another Tom Cruise motorcycle chase scene, obligatory action beats that likely existed before a script ever did.
McQuarrie is also the writer-director of Mission Impossible Fallout which hits theaters this weekend. I believe Fallout will be good but my expectations have dimmed for the franchise. I had hoped Ethan Hunt would usurp James Bond as the top movie spy of all time. Sadly, Bond’s legacy is kept safe by a star too eager for stunts and directors unable to make the stunts into a fully compelling story beyond the mere presentation of spectacle that just happens to be part of a story.
If Mission Impossible 2 was the height of slick and shallow, action fantasy, Mission Impossible 3 is the height of the series becoming something more than just slick fantasy. Mission Impossible 3 is completely awesome with more genuine suspense and thrills than either of the two previous Mission Impossible movies. Director J.J Abrams, before he manned the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, grabbed the reins of the Mission Impossible franchise and transformed it from thinly plotted, style over substance action into a full fledged movie that also happens to be a great action movie.
Mission Impossible 3 picks up the story of Impossible Mission Force Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) five years after the action of MI2. Now, Hunt is in semi-retirement, busily training the next generation of IMF Agents. Hunt is also soon to be married to Jules (Michelle Monaghan), who has no idea what Ethan did or currently does for a living. Her appeal to him is that she is completely outside the espionage sphere.
That’s unfortunately about to change as Ethan is drawn back into the field and his new bride is soon to be drawn in as well. Ethan is brought out of retirement by a friend and agent named Musgrave (Billy Crudup) who wants Ethan to go to Germany and rescue one of the agents he trained. Agent Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell) had been tracking an arms dealer named Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) when she was captured.
The rescue sequence, featuring Hunt’s latest Impossible Mission team, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, in his third Mission appearance), Declan Gormley (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and Zhen Lei (Maggie Q), is an incredibly tense, fast paced and exceptionally well shot sequence. It’s a nail-biting series of scenes with Keri Russell getting a moment to shine next to Cruise and show the chops that would take her to Emmy leading lady status as another kind of spy on The Americans.
Here, Russell was not long from the fluffy television series Felicity but the gun battle here put any questions about her range as an action hero and actress to rest for good. Russell is every bit the badass Cruise is in this scene and J.J Abrams captures the scene brilliantly with remarkable camera work, editing and scene setting. The tension in this scene is almost unbearable as the perfectly timed events play out., I can’t praise this scene enough, and I haven’t even mentioned the gut-punch payoff to this sequence.
From there we move the plot on to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s big bad, Owen Davian. The Academy Award nominated Hoffman is not playing around with the role of action movie bad guy, he’s deeply invested in this dangerous character. Davian is maniacal but it’s Hoffman’s measured tones and invective that make him scary and not the kind of blustering we get from so many other action movie bad guys.
A sequence in which Cruise and his team invade The Vatican to capture Davian is another stand out series of scenes filled with the kinds of things we’ve come to love about the series, the speculative technology, the expert timing and the thrilling last minute saves. Director Abrams could teach a master class in action movie suspense and just show people this sequence with its expert timing and clever twists and turns.
After the disappointment of the first Mission Impossible and the shallow but exceptionally fun Mission Impossible 2, I was once again surprised by the Mission Impossible franchise with Mission Impossible 3. Instead of adopting the shallow, thrill a minute style of the modern action movie, J.J Abrams set out and made an action movie with a brain, a careful thriller that uses strong cinematic technique to build suspense in a plot that is the perfect mix of action movie thrills and genuine, edge of your seat suspense.
Mission Impossible Fallout opens in theaters nationwide this Thursday.
On first viewing I rather enjoyed Steven Speilberg’s Ready Player One. Seeing the film on the IMAX screen in 3D played up the film’s best features, the roller coaster ride of the visual style of Ready Player One and the fantastic special effects used to create the virtual world of Ready Player One. There is no denying how spectacular looking the movie is, Speilberg is a master director. Unfortunately, there is little to no depth in the story to go with the dazzling visuals.
Tye Sheridan stars in Ready Player One as a teenager named Wade but in the virtual world, known as The Oasis, he is Parzival, a renowned racer. Parzival is part of a large group of daredevils whose aim is to locate a series of Easter Eggs planted within The Oasis by the creator of The Oasis, played by Academy Award winner Mark Rylance. It’s believed that if one were to find all three Easter Eggs that, much like Willy Wonka and his Chocolate Factory, the Oasis as a whole would be there prize.
Parzival and his best friend Aech (Emmy Winner Lena Waithe) are working together to find the Easter Eggs, one of which is at the end of a nearly impossible to win race. Here, Parzival drives the legendary Back to the Future Delorean and continuously crashes before he can get to the finish line to find the egg. That is, until a little research teaches him how to beat the race, a cheat code put in by the creator himself that you can find if you know what you’re looking for.
Also hot on the trail of the Easter Eggs is Artemis/Samantha (Olivia Cook). Artemis is a badass who rides a motorcycle that is quite famous among fans of Anime and in real life is a vulnerable teenage girl who happens to be the same age as Wade, big surprise there. Artemis is not a bad character, especially in Cook’s capable hands. Unfortunately, the script by original novelist Ernest Cline and writer Zak Penn writer Artemis as if she were a prize to be won at the end of the game for Wade.
Even lazier is the villain of Ready Player One played by character actor Ben Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn’s Nolan Sorrento is a boilerplate baddie, motivated by arrogance and greed. He’s every villain of every action movie ever made and Mendelsohn’s attempts to inject life and humor into the character come up short against the shallow character written for the role by Penn and Cline.
Is Ready Player One a bad movie? No, Steven Speilberg is far too talented to make a genuinley bad movie. Speilberg’s bad is merely a flawed film filled with the incredible artistry of a man who still cares deeply about each of his movies. Ready Player One just happens to be particularly riddled with flaws from the shallow characters to clunky dialogue to an Oasis with no imagination beyond the already created characters of recent pop memory.
The trailer for Ready Player One sold us nostalgia and the movie plays up the nostalgia to the hilt. The nostalgia, though lovely at times, especially when Aech takes on the persona of the Iron Giant, the nostalgia also exposes the laziness at the core of the script. The film relies on other pop creations for its impact while the film’s own characters barely make an impression against the glittery background.
The story is perfunctory and when the characters aren’t cosplaying pop culture’s greatest hits, the film is exposed as thinly conceived action movie it really is. There are still neat, giddy thrills to be had and nostalgia to enjoy but I expect a little more depth from a Steven Speilberg project. His popcorn movies may all be relatively breezy and thin but they’re rarely as brainless and forgettably cast as Ready Player One.
The second installment of the Mission Impossible franchise is really where the series found its feet. After the first film, though financially successful, failed by forcing director Brian DePalma to make a standard, mainstream action movie, the makers of MI2 picked the right director to deliver a slick, stylish, fast paced action movie that didn’t have to do anything other than just be cool looking to succeed.
Director John Woo, the inventor of the cinema of cool style of action adventure, was the absolute pitch perfect choice to direct Mission Impossible 2. Woo favors visual dynamism over story and that style over substance approach works for the mindless sort of fun that was missing from the first film which ached to be both taken seriously as a movie and be enjoyed as an action adventure movie, and nearly failed on both accounts.
We pick up the action of Mission Impossible 2 by introducing our ‘MacGuffin.’ For those that aren’t aware of classic movie tropes, the macguffin is a term coined by the legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock to describe a plot device that all the characters in the movie are seeking. It can be any kind of nebulous concept as long as everyone is chasing it, that’s what propels the story along. The Maltese Falcon is arguably the most famous example of a MacGuffin, a thing everyone in the movie wanted for whatever reason the plot decided.
The Macguffin in MI2 is a virus and a cure known as Chimera and Bellerophon. A doctor friend of our hero, IMF Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has created both the worst virus in history and its cure and is attempting to escape with them both as the movie opens. Unfortunately, the doctor falls into the hands of a turncoat IMF Agent, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), impersonating Ethan. Ambrose murders the doctor and absconds with the MacGuffin and the chase is on.
To find Ambrose, Ethan must enlist Ambrose’s former flame, a thief named Nyah (Thandie Newton). It will be her job to get back into Ambrose’s life and get Ethan and his team, including his old buddy Luther (Ving Rhames) and a newcomer Aussie pilot named Billy (Jon Polson), close enough to retrieve the virus and cure before Ambrose can sell them to the highest bidder or unleash them on the world out of spite for the IMF.
The plot of Mission Impossible 2 isn’t important, we’re here for the cinema of cool, the cinema of John Woo and the style over substance master does not disappoint. Slow-motion cameras capture spectacular chases and stylish cinematography brings out the sexy fight over the affections of Newton’s Nyah between Ethan and Ambrose. Sure, saving the world and all is important or whatever, but looking good is the point of MI2 and everyone and everything looks incredible.
Every Mission Impossible is known for the stunt that nearly got Tom Cruise crippled or killed and MI2 is no different. Our first glimpse of Ethan Hunt in MI2 is him free-climbing a craggy rock in the middle of the Utah desert with no one around for miles. Naturally, Cruise insisted on doing the stunt himself and watching him narrowly cling to the side of a nearly flat cliff face is honestly still as breathtaking today as it was in 2000 when the film was released.
Screenwriter Robert Towne, back from having over-written the first Mission Impossible film crafted the screenplay with a much leaner and clearer narrative. Towne claims that he had to fit a pair of stunts into the movie even before the plot of the film had been devised and had to write the scenes into the movie as he created the screenplay. This, naturally, includes Ethan’s introductory scene and a scene near the end involving a motorcycle fight.
The motorcycle ballet at the end of Mission Impossible 2 is wildly silly and implausible but wonderfully so. Director Woo delivers the scene in his classic, slick-slo-mo style and it works for the slick, empty spectacle of MI2. Also great is the closing fight scene between Cruise and Scott where Cruise’s lithe physicality is framed beautifully within Woo’s perfectly seamless and crisp scene-setting that, of course, includes his trademark fight-scene doves.
Tom Cruise appears a great deal more comfortable in this empty-headed sequel. The first film featured him being cocky yet calculated and when you could see Ethan’s wheels turning it often slowed the film to a halt with overwrought flashbacks and other such nonsense. Thankfully, MI2 does not burden the actor or character with too much to think about and just gets on with the business at hand, super cool fight and chase scenes.
Mission Impossible 2 is as shallow as a drying puddle but it looks and feels spectacular. It’s like a great looking car that gets no gas milage, completely impractical for use, but it looks amazing. Every frame of Mission Impossible 2 is a gorgeous fantasy of the action spy genre. The awesome locations, the world travelogue cinematography and the spectacular action makes the movie insanely watchable if not all that rewarding for your attention-span.
With Mission Impossible Fallout in theaters this Friday i will likely be doubling up the movie of the day column this week to get in as much of the Mission Impossible franchise before bringing you my Fallout review on Friday.
The Equalizer 2 stars Denzel Washington, once again in the role of McCaul, a former CIA Agent turned good guy vigilante. When we meet McCaul in this sequel he is on a train in Turkey with a fake beard. McCaul is attempting to retrieve the daughter of a woman he knows that has been illegally taken by her ex-husband and scuttled out of the country. The scene is a re-introduction to the unique set of skills McCaul has; which includes timing the way he beats up bad guys.
This scene has nothing to do with the plot of The Equalizer 2 other than as a way of contextualizing the character for those who may not have seen the first film in this budding franchise. Then again, the plot of The Equalizer 2 is so loose and threadbare it’s hard to say which scenes are plot necessary and which are indulgent, unnecessary scenes intended only to show what a god-like, benevolent being McCaul is.
The plot, such as it is, kicks in when McCaul’s friend, Susan (Melissa Leo) is murdered while investigating a murder in Belgium. McCaul immediately smells a rat and decides to come out of hiding in order to investigate. His first visit is to his former partner, Dave (Pedro Pascal). Dave was with Susan in Belgium when she was murdered, helping her investigate. Is Dave a friend or a suspect? You will have to see the movie to find out but if you’ve seen a movie, you likely already know.
Antoine Fuqua hasn’t made a movie this lazy and loosely structured since King Arthur, which is the last time it felt like he was making something even he didn’t care for. The Equalizer 2 ranges from boring action to boring scenes of unneeded exposition to equally boring establishing scenes of a character who is on hand only to be device later in the movie. I’m afraid that if I even begin to describe this character it might be a spoiler as the device is so nakedly predictable.
Denzel Washington has been on auto-pilot since his 2012’s Flight. That’s the last time I can recall seeing Denzel fully invested in fleshing out and living within a character. That may sound funny for those who point to his Academy Award nominated work in Fences and Roman J. Esquire and think I am crazy, but I am not a fan of either of those performances. Both of those movies are showy, over the top, capital P: Performances, not great acting.
In Fences, Washington is performing for the stage and not the screen. His bombastic performance is ill-suited for the movie screen. Roman J. Israel meanwhile, is a different kind of over the top, a performance that is all tics and mannerisms. These performances are, at least, not boring, they have a vitality that The Equalizer 2 does not have. Despite how much he shapes this character and seems to care about it, he comes off as rather bored.
Bored is probably an unfair, even inaccurate way of describing Denzel’s performance. I’m sure his intent is to be inscrutable or unflappable, but it comes off unaffected and uninvested. Part of that is Denzel’s fault but a bigger part is the fault of Fuqua who fails to give the movie around Denzel’s performance much life. The film aims for moody but arrives at tired, it aims for gritty and ends mildly irritated.
Even the action, which had been the best part of the original The Equalizer, is lifeless in comparison and that film wasn’t exactly lively. The first The Equalizer appeared invested in its action, if not in creating memorable characters or a believable story worth investing in. Denzel’s physicality is fully present in that performance and is less so here. I’m not going to speculate about Denzel aging, because he could easily take me in a fight, despite having 20 years on me age wise, but regardless he appears slowed.
Denzel being a little slower might have worked in the film’s favor if the movie had used it but instead, the movie appears slowed down so Denzel can keep up. Denzel is at all times quicker and smarter than everyone else in the movie, even people younger than him who he apparently taught and influenced when he was a member of the CIA. I’m nitpicking here but shouldn’t this character, at very least, feel a little bit of angst about this fight?
I won’t go into spoilers but the ending of The Equalizer is nonsense. It’s filmed in the midst of a
hurricane on an empty Martha’s Vineyard or some such town and it’s a shame to say, it’s not nearly as fun or exciting as a similar scene in Hurricane Heist earlier this year. Hurricane Heist is basically a parody of an actual movie. That movie, at the very least, knew how to have fun. The Equalizer 2 has the audacity to be dour on top of being predictable, lazy and sloppy.
Sorry to Bother You is among the most bracing and stupefying movies of this century. Directed by Boots Riley, no film aside from perhaps Get Out, has felt this alive in this moment of our shared American history. This absurdist masterpiece about identity politics, corporate greed, liberal guilt and moral licensing, works on so many unique levels of satire it can be hard to keep up with but it’s damn sure worth trying to keep up with.
Sorry to Bother You stars LaKeith Stanfield, a star of the aforementioned Get Out along with equally of the moment series Atlanta on FX. Stanfield plays Cassius Green a lean and hungry young man, quite literally hungry, he has almost no money, who we meet as he attempts to lie himself into a new job. Cassius is is applying to work at a telemarketing firm and once hired he finds himself struggling to make sales.
Then, an older telemarketer, Langston (Danny Glover), gives Cash some very important advice, use your white voice. Here’s where the transgressive kick of Sorry to Bother You kicks in. Immediately, Langston gets on the phone and the surreal voice of Steve Buscemi is coming out of the mouth of Danny Glover. Soon, Cash gives his white voice a shot and he’s a natural with the voice of David Cross laying over that of LaKeith Stanfield.
This is the first layer of the identity politics satire at play in Sorry to Bother You. It gets a great deal more intense after that, after Cash realizes how powerful he can be with his ultra-confident white voice. Soon, Cash is promoted to Power Caller and is working in a pampered office with a six figure salary while his friends, including Union organizer, Squeeze (Steven Yuen) and girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson) are left behind to try and fight for more pay without the power of Cash’s earning power to help their position.
Cash’s rise through the ranks is rapid and he soon catches the attention of the company’s biggest client, a slave labor corporation known as WorryFree. WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is a psychotic mashup of Martin Shkrelli and Elon Musk, with just a dash of Jeff Bezos’ union busting egotism. Whether intentional or not, the notion of Worryfree signing workers to lifetime contracts that offer them room and board in exchange for permanent employment feels like a shot at Bezos and the conditions he’s rumored to have created for Amazon warehouse workers.
Then again, the way it is framed, the corporate satire could play off of any number of modern, soul-less, labor busting CEO. Where this satire winds up is a stunner of transgressive ideas that are terrifyingly and yet hilariously staged. Sorry to Bother You is wildly unpredictable and boldly weird, a refreshingly artful and funny mix. A scene featuring a party at Lift’s house features one of the most explosive and uncomfortably real scenes I have ever witnessed.
The scene is textbook moral licensing, a concept wherein people, or a group of people, excuse their worst behaviors by doing something they feel is moral or selfless. In this case, allowing Cash into their world gives the white people at Lift’s party, in their minds, the moral license to ask him demean himself and his race for their amusement and its okay because they claim he is now one of their peers.
We aren’t finished though with the multiple levels of transgressive satire in Sorry to Bother You. Boots Riley turns social science into a gorgeous work of art. With an incredible cast that also includes a stellar performance by Tessa Thompson and a horrifyingly pitch perfect villain turn from Armie Hammer who combines the worst qualities of the billionaire class and amps them with eye-bulging energy.
President Calvin Coolidge famously said of D.W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation that it was “History written with lightning.” I’m taking that statement away from Griffith’s racist screed and giving it here to Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. THIS is history written with lightning, just history that is in progress, as we speak. This film is a bolt of lightning to our collective soul, an electrifying and vital work of art.
The more we allow corporate greed to separate itself from moral guidance, the closer we get to Sorry to Bother You. The more we condone or fail to recognize moral licensing, the closer we get to the vision of Sorry to Bother You. We need to recognize these things and Sorry to Bother You is a clarion call to recognize these vital issues and it’s artfulness is a hilarious and horrifying guide to the kind of moral rot that could be our future if we fail to change.
Identity and politics and satire all in one package, Sorry to Bother You deserves Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Lakeith Stanfield, Best Supporting Actress for Tessa Thompson, Best Supporting Actor for Armie Hammer, Best Director for Boots Riley and Best Screenplay, among other awards. That’s how incredibly brilliant Sorry to Bother You is. I haven’t seen a movie this excitingly, scathingly, bravely, transgressive as this in my life and I am excited this exists.
Low expectations and an upgrade in the director’s chair have combined to make a Mamma Mia sequel so unexpectedly good that I am still humming about it. Mamma Mia Here We Go Again has no right to be as fun and entertaining as it is, based off of the horror show that was the sloppy, 2008 original and yet here we are. Director Ol Parker has brought order to the chaos of the original Mamma Mia and delivered a prequel/sequel far superior to the dismal original.
Mamma Mia Here We Go Again picks up the story of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) five years after the action of the original story. Now 25, Sophie is running her mom’s, Donna (Meryl Streep), hotel and is about to hold a gala grand opening. Unfortunately, mom won’t be there. Nor will two of her three adopted fathers, Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth). Luckily, Sam (Pierce Brosnan) is at hand, along with Auntie Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Auntie Rosie (Julie Walter).
Worse yet though, Sky (Dominic Cooper), despite being Sophie’s one true love and business partner, will not be there either and is considering a job offer in New York. This leads Sophie to once again pick up her mom’s diary for some bolstering. The diary is the lead in for a flashback to that glorious Greek summer when Donna met Harry, Bill and Sam, and became pregnant with Sophie. Best of all, it brings us the vibrant Lily James as the young Donna.
Do you recall that time you first saw Julia Roberts’ megawatt smile in Pretty Woman? If you’re my age you likely do and you remember the electricity of seeing a movie star emerge before your eyes. That’s Lily James in Mamma Mia Here We Go Again, a star bursting to life before our eyes. Sure, she was great in Cinderella and has honed her craft in other films, but here, she bursts forth with charisma to spare in a one of a kind performance.
James is so great she overwhelms all three of her male co-stars, none of whom make a dent in your memory despite being young and handsome. I could list their names but I couldn’t pick them out of a lineup even after having just seen the movie. James’ vibrancy is such that her co-stars don’t really matter, they are but mirrors through which to bask in Collins’ star-making performance. Can she sing? Yeah, well enough, but like Streep in the first film, she can sell the singing with passion and performance and that’s what matters.
I kept getting annoyed with the present day Sophie storyline for getting in the way of the flashbacks which were far more compelling. Slowly but surely however, the main story begins to turn an emotional corner. The flashback story begins to underline the action of the modern story in lovely ways and what emerges is a story for mothers and daughters and one that isn’t about the absurd and nasty notion of turning into one’s mother. One would count themselves lucky to become Donna.
As for the music of Mamma Mia Here We Go Again, my favorite performance is Waterloo, though it is arguably the most superfluous in terms of the plot. Indeed, I can recognize that praising the one performance that violates the order and structure that I have praised as a remarkable improvement over the original, is slightly contradictory. That said, Lily James and Young Harry (Hugh Skinner) really steal the show in this performance.
Director Ol Parker sets the scene in Paris where Harry and Donna met in 1979, the same summer she left for Greece. Though Donna is leaving, Harry nevertheless, throws himself at her feet and tells her he loves her and then they sing Waterloo at a French restaurant where waiters are dressed as Napoleon (Ho, Ho!). It sounds cheesy and it is, intentionally so. Director Parker directs the performance like an old school, early 80’s music video, ala Adam Ant’s Goody Two Shoes, with wacky set pieces and even slightly grainy cinematography to really sell the bit.
Waterloo is wildly funny and a wonderfully shorthand way to bring Donna and Harry together before taking them apart. The other standout is My Love, My Life which will leave many audience members, especially moms and daughters, a weepy mess. The trailer has spoiled that Sophie is pregnant and the correlation between her pregnancy and her mother’s pregnancy, is brought to bear on this wonderful performance with James and Seyfried singing in different time frames with the same meaning.
Ol Parker had an uphill battle to bring the unwieldy mess that was the Mamma Mia backstory into some semblance of order and he’s done an exceptional job. Sure, he takes the easy way out by mostly ignoring the problematic elements of the original backstory, but what he cobbles together works and the orderly plot helps strengthen our bond with these characters, something that was missing in the first film while we puzzled over how all of the pieces fit.
Thanks to director Parker, we can forget about the nonsense of figuring out when the film is set, it’s 1979 when Donna meets Sophie’s dad, by the way, and get on with enjoying some Abba. The disco backlash of the early 80’s robbed us of the joy of Abba’s pop silliness and soapy dramatics and I’m glad to have it back, even if it isn’t the most respectable comeback. Abba was a heck of a lot of fun if you give over to them and we’re able to do that here with far less work involved than in the original.
By the time we reach the credits climax with Super Troupers, a reprise from the original movie, featuring the full cast in full Abba regalia, the movie has won us over with its bubbly spirit and Lily James star-calibur, Awards calibur performance. James is a powerhouse movie star. I won’t go as far as to say she deserves an Academy Award, though I am not opposed to the idea, but wow, we don’t need to see anyone else when it comes Golden Globe time, this is your Best Actress in a Comedy or a Musical, hands down.
I went into Mamma Mia Here We Go Again with a sour attitude, assuming it was going to be as insufferable as the original. What a joyous surprise to find that the sequel makes logical sense, fixes the holes punched in the space time continuum in the original, and crafts a heartfelt and quite funny story out of a bunch of goofy, funny, melodramatic tunes from one of the most underrated groups of all time. This is what Mamma Mia should have been all along, a brassy, blowsy, ballsy, belt it to the back of the room Broadway comedy in execution as much as in idea.
I’m not ashamed to admit, I have a soft spot for the music of Abba. The music snob in me tries to hide this part of my fandom, much like my critic snob side tries to pretend I am not a fan of professional wrestling, Grey’s Anatomy and The Big Bang Theory. Then again, he’d rather people think I spend my time watching obscure European art films when I am not trashing the latest Hollywood flotsam but that’s just not the case.
Deep in my psyche are stored every lyric of Dancing Queen, always ready to be cued up and adored in my mental jukebox. For a time this wasn’t so shameful either. In 1999 Spike Lee threatened to make disco respectable again when he used it alongside punk rock to illustrate his gritty and remarkable New York City tableau, Summer of Sam. Then along came Mamma Mia the musical and a million cool Abba fans went back into hiding.
Mamma Mia, the 2008 jukebox musical starring Meryl Streep and directed by Broadway veteran Phyllida Lloyd could not possibly be more square. It’s a musical made for moms to drink wine to. It’s a sloppy, slapdash, mess that happens to look gorgeous at times while remaining maddeningly, deafeningly lame. Yes, moments of the film genuinely transcend the badness but they are but tiny bubbles in an sloppy cauldron.
Mamma Mia stars Meryl Streep as Donna, the iconoclastic owner of a broken down Greek Inn that thrives only because it is in the single most beautiful location in the world. Donna’s daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), is about to get married to Sky (Dominic Cooper) over Donna’s objection. Donna thinks her daughter should get out and see the world before tying herself down to one man for the rest of her life. And she should know something about that.
20 years earlier, when Donna arrived in Greece and discovered the tiny island where she would make a home, she had an adventure in which she met and fell in love three times. First came Sam (Pierce Brosnan), then came Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and finally Harry (Colin Firth) and all in a short amount of time. Short enough in fact that Donna isn’t quite sure which guy knocked her up and is in fact Sophie’s father.
Sophie, desiring to know her father, decides to steal Donna’s diary and when she finds out about all three men in one summer she decides to invite all three men to her wedding. Her hope is that fate, and perhaps facial similarities, will tell her which man is her dad and then he can perhaps walk her down the aisle. Naturally, Donna is not going to take kindly to her daughter’s plot and there you have your rather thin and forgettable conflict.
Mamma Mia is almost unendingly maddening. We have no idea when it what period of time the film is set, though it appears to be modern times, i.e 2008. If that’s the case however, then why does Donna remember being in a disco trio with her two oldest friends, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). If that’s the case, that the film is set when Donna could have been young enough to be a Dancing Queen then how come she remembers Brosnan and Skarsgard as hippies?
And how is it that Donna had an affair with Harry when she remembers him as a London punk?
These time frames make no sense. She’s disco, Sam and Bill are hippies, Harry was a punk, these time frames barely cross one another and never at the same time and certainly not in 1988 when, if the movie is set in modern 2008, the romance between these characters were to have taken place. Did she drop acid and meet all three men at a costume party?
Those who enjoy Mamma Mia are now accusing me of over-thinking it and perhaps they are right but perhaps if the movie as a whole were better, I might not care so much about the timeline. As it is however, Mamma Mia is a maddening, sloppy mess. Don’t get me wrong, the film looks fantastic. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukis takes the already gorgeous Greek shores and makes them look even more inviting. The film is spectacular as a travel brochure, if not a movie musical.
The musical, that’s the other problem with Mamma Mia. If you’re going to make a musical shouldn’t you take pains to hire actors who can sing? What are Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth doing here? Skarsgard, at least, has the decency to hide his singing voice, Brosnan is given, arguably the film’s romantic climax and his voice cannot handle it. Brosnan is cringe-inducing as he warbles the film’s closing ballad and even worse when he’s forced to swan through a painful version of one of Abba’s best, “S.O.S.”
The “S.O.S” sequence is perhaps the most painful and maddening in the movie. Played as a duet between Streep and Brosnan, the story of the song is at great odds with the characters’ backstory. From what we are told, and will be told in greater detail in the upcoming sequel, Brosnan’s Sam abandoned Donna to return to America to marry his fiancee. One can only scratch their head then when Brosnan sings the opening lines:
“Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find
I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind
Whatever happened to our love?
I wish I understood
It used to be so nice, it used to be so good”
Hey dude, YOU LEFT HER! I realize the film attempts to retcon this later in the story in order to force a happy ending but not before muddying up the timeline even more. In a scene in which Donna and Sam are arguing over Sophie’s future, Sam offers up that he has two grown children and thus a little helpful perspective. That’s curious, because if he has two grown children, that would mean he had these children before he met and fell in love with Donna 20 years early and then left her to then get married to what we are to understand was the mother of these grown children.
I’m not trying to play the morality police here, Donna gets no judgment from me for her free-spirited sexuality, it was allegedly the Disco-Punk Rock-Hippy Free love era after all, but this pushes Brosnan’s character into nasty perspective doesn’t it? What kind of guy runs off with another woman with two small kids and a fiancee back home and then leaves his new woman behind, possibly pregnant, to go back home and presumably dump the fiancee and the kids to return to Greece? That’s a lot of inference and guessing based on the sloppiness of this plot, but it certainly takes what is meant to be fun and turns it sour.
I’ve complained plenty about what’s wrong with Mamma Mia but I should point out that there are moments where the idea of a good Hollywood musical transcends the abysmal plotting. First, there is Christine Baranski who takes a scene that should not even be in the movie, as it has nothing to do with the plot, and merely stops the movie dead from that perspective, but it’s so good I didn’t mind.
Baranski, a Broadway legend, is given a solo number and boy does she bite right into it. Her character, Tanya, is being pursued by a much younger man. So, she takes the 1979 Abba single “Does Your Mother Know” and turns it into a showstopper, as if the movie belonged to Tanya and not to Meryl’s Donna. Like I said, it doesn’t make much sense in relation to the plot, but Baranski is so brassy and sexy, it’s irresistible.
The other transcendent moment in the movie is Meryl Streep’s show-stopping, belt it to the back of the mountain performance of “The Winner Takes it All.” Streep takes the pop ballad and turns it into a Jennifer Hudson level triumph ala her nearly impossible Dreamgirls solo “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going.” No, of course, Meryl can’t sing like J-Hud but the performance is invested with a similar amount of passion and pathos.
Meryl performs the hell out of the song and the cathartic bitterness and the teary ending are what I wish the rest of the film had. She uses the song to bring context to Donna’s pain and Sam’s character that unfortunately is missing in the rest of the movie, especially in the tin-eared performances of S.O.S and the cheesy happy-ending use of I Do I Do I Do and When All is Said and Done. A better film would have followed the example of The Winner Takes It All and clarified the details and fleshed out the character relations so that the songs mattered.
Sadly, that is not the Mamma Mia musical we get. Instead, we get a sloppy, cringy, mishmash of ideas that never cohere into a story we can follow and invest in. The sequel is set to create even more holes in this ridiculous plot mess as we go back in time to when Donna met Sam, and Bill and Harry and likely forgets about their comical hippie and punk origin stories. Then there is also the ludicrous notion that Cher could play Meryl Streep’s mother but that’s something to complain about when I review the sequel on Friday.
You Were Never Really Here is an ugly masterpiece. Writer-director Lynne Ramsey takes us into the dark and twisted mind of an uncomfortably sympathetic killer. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe is undoubtedly a bad man, a cold-blooded killer but who he kills here matters and makes him relatable in the most skin-crawling, discomfiting ways. The story is dark and mean and gritty as is the direction and design of the film and it all comes together to make one of the most engrossing and enervating movies of 2018.
We meet Joe in the wake of his latest set of murders. Wielding a ball-pein hammer, Joe has murdered several men and is wrapping up his nasty work by erasing any trace of himself that may be at hand at the scene. Joe has been unleashed like a nasty pitbull upon a group of child pornographers and he’s done his nasty business put them out of their nasty business. Joe rescues children but he does so outside the law and he does so with severe brutality.
Joe himself, we will come to find, was the victim of much abuse as a child. That abuse shaped Joe’s compassion and desperate need to protect the innocent via his almost mindless brutality. Yet it also formed him into a dutiful and loving son to his impaired mother (Judith Roberts). What happened to Joe’s mother has become part of his very being down to his choice of weapons of destruction but I will leave you to discover the connections.
Joe’s latest job is set to pay him nearly half a million dollars. In any other movie this would create a desperate need for escape via financial freedom but if Joe cares about money he doesn’t let on. Joe’s job is to rescue the daughter of a State Senator who has gone missing and may have fallen victim to human traffickers. Joe does his brutal work but something goes wrong in the aftermath and now Joe is on a track for revenge.
That last line of my plot description is deceptive. A track for revenge would be what happens in another, lesser movie. What Lynne Ramsey does with this aftermath and seeming notion of vengeance is something you will need to witness for yourself by seeing this remarkably bleak and fascinating movie. The film is dark and gritty and yet carries an ironic soundtrack filled with often bubbly forgotten pop songs that manage to underline how stark the story and characters of You Were Never Really Here are.
You Were Never Really Here is not a movie for all audiences. The film is blood-soaked and grim with a dark irony that will turn off those with more mainstream sensibilities. Don’t go looking for typical thriller beats in this movie or well-worn suspense tropes, You Were Never Really Here is a grim character study turned Greek tragedy. If that notion is unappealing to you perhaps you should consider going to see The Equalizer 2 in theaters this weekend. I’ve heard it’s a corker but one with a familiar beat and a Denzel Washington performance you can dance to.
That’s just not the vibe of You Were Never Really Here. That doesn’t, in itself, make it superior to something more mainstream and conventional like The Equalizer, just more artful and experimental. Far less classically ‘entertaining’ to be sure but if you are on it’s intellectual wavelength and dig the dark and gritty, you are going to adore You Were Never Really Here for it’s bold, unconventional approach to the thriller genre.
You Were Never Really Here is now available on Blu-Ray, DVD and On-Demand.
Rampage stars Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as Primatologist, Dr. Davis Okoye. A former military officer, Davis specialized in battling poachers in Africa. That’s where Davis met his best friend, George (Jason Liles, in full motion capture), a giant white ape. Davis brought George to America to keep him away from poachers who would pay a hefty price for such a rare creature. Over the years, George became a leader and he and Davis developed communication via sign language.
The plot kicks in when a plane carrying an experimental serum belonging to an evil corporation that specializes in… being evil, crashes, it exposes George and several other animals to the evil serum and causes them to grow out of control. Aside from George, the evil serum affects a wolf that develops the ability to fly and a crocodile that eventually swims across the country, even where there isn’t a large body of water, to enact destruction upon Chicago.
The evil corporation, I assume, intends to weaponize the animals afflicted by the serum. When they turn on a beacon on top of their evil skyscraper it sends out a signal to the now monstrously over-sized animals that causes them to go crazy and make a mad dash for Chicago. Only Davis and a former scientist for the evil corporation, Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), can stop the animals from destroying Chicago… in a Rampage. Ha!
Rampage sounds like a lot of fun, in description. Unfortunately, as directed by Brad Peyton, director of the equally forgettably competent, San Andreas, it’s merely a movie that exists. Rampage has no personality, no life, no charm. Everything in the movie is in frame, it looks professional and the CGI is a well-produced. Competency however, is only part of a good movie and Rampage is missing those other essential qualities.
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is one of the most entertaining movie stars of recent times and yet even his charm can’t bring Rampage to life. Like his performance in the recent flop Skyscraper, The Rock’s performance is muted, he doesn’t go for the jokes and appears to be taking the silliness of Rampage far too seriously. There are too many scenes that appear to be going for action movie suspense when they should be going for the kind of goofball, comic thrills The Rock gets in his Fast and Furious franchise.
Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays a wacky CIA Agent, on the the other hand, as opposed to The Rock, appear to know what movie they are in. Though they don’t achieve much flying in the face of the overly serious direction and score, the three supporting players, try hard to bring laughs to their roles. These three get that a movie with giant animals on a ‘Rampage’ in a big city is not something to be taken too seriously.
Morgan is unquestionably the best thing about Rampage, aside from the terrific creature effects. Morgan is grinning and giggling throughout Rampage and affects a bizarre drawl that is laughably over the top. Morgan’s looseness and giant grin are a clear port in a storm of boring exposition and tepid, acceptably well produced action. It’s a wonder Morgan isn’t a bigger star, he’s got personality to spare and as seen in Rampage, he can steal scenes from both The Rock and giant CGI animals.
The biggest problem with Rampage is an approach that takes the material way too seriously. I get that giant animals attacking a large city would be something we would have to take seriously were it to ever happen but let’s be real here. This is a silly premise that needs to be treated as such for the movie to work. The supporting players get that and act accordingly comic, with Akerman twirling an absent mustache and Lacy being slimy and weaselly and Morgan making a joke of the whole thing.
Sadly, The Rock, the most charismatic star in the world today, fails to get the joke of Rampage and in the star missing the joke, the movie fails. Director Brad Peyton especially needed to get the joke of Rampage and he completely misses the boat by going for genuine action movie suspense rather than amping up the goofiness ala The Fast and Furious franchise or the recent Jurassic World movies. That kind of approach could have made Rampage a classic. As it is, I don’t even recommend it as a time wasting rental.
I Feel Pretty stars Amy Schumer as Renee Bennett an attractive and funny woman who doesn’t find herself attractive. Renee’s low self esteem has hindered both her personal and professional life where she works for a famed makeup company but works in the I.T department in a basement office, well away from the glamour and fashion that the company is known for. Though she longs to be in the big office, she lacks the confidence to go for what she wants.
Things change when Renee takes a spin class and proceeds to tumble off of her bike. Having hit her head hard, Renee’s concussion changes her life and personality. Suddenly, post head injury, Renee is super-confident and believes she is the best looking woman in any room she’s in. This causes a rift with her friends, Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips, but it does help her climb the corporate ladder as she lands a gig working in the big building at the makeup company owned by Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams) and her grandmother Lily (Lauren Hutton).
Renee’s personal life also takes a positive turn as her confidence attracts a boyfriend, Ethan (Rory Scovell) and the attentions of Avery’s stunningly handsome, playboy brother Grant (Tom Hopper). Ethan is a perfectly down to earth guy while Grant is a dreamboat and when Renee finds herself the object of both of their affections, even her newfound confidence can’t contain her nervous excitement.
I Feel Pretty requires a bit of unpacking in your emotional response to it. For me, I’ve always found Amy Schumer attractive, dating back to before her popular Comedy Central series, Inside Amy Schumer, to her time as a stand-up comic on the rise. It was hard to accept the gags that intended to show Renee as being unattractive as I did find her attractive. The key however, is to remember that this is Renee’s perspective of herself and not an objective take.
Here, the inexperience of the writing and directing team of Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein shines through. A more experienced filmmaker would have found a way to let audiences in on the idea that we are seeing the movie not from our objective position but completely from Renee’s subjective perspective, how she sees the world and assumes the world sees her. From that perspective the story of I Feel Pretty makes more sense.
It’s not that the direction failed to communicate the perspective, it’s rather that it was clumsy in communicating that idea and thus it’s easy to misunderstand the story as an objective idea of how the world sees Renee. If taken the wrong way, it can seem as if Renee is the butt of all of the jokes, as if the movie is making fun of her for seeing herself as attractive. Once you look at it subjectively and recognize that the film is entirely Renee’s unreliable, biased perspective, it makes the film easier to understand and enjoy.
Rory Scovell, in his first leading man role is quite good at reacting to Schumer’s bawdy antics. A scene, well-featured in the film’s trailer, has the two of them visit a bar that happens to be hosting a wet t-shirt contest. Watching Scovell’s shocked reactions to Schumer first wanting to go on stage and then what happens when she actually is on stage is very funny, and the scene immediately after that has a nice romantic undercurrent that I wish the film had been better at presenting in other scenes.
It's odd to call Michelle Williams a scene-stealer as she is well known, Academy Award nominated actress but indeed, scene-stealer is her role her. As Renee's boss and idol, Williams plays Averyaas confident, assured and comically disconnected with the world beyond her bubble of rich excess. The baby voice that Williams affects in the movie is a terrific device to show how everyone has something they are insecure about no matter how rich or confident they appear. In another, lesser comedy with a lesser actress that voice would be the extent of the character.
Amy Schumer is a terrific comedian with a great sense of timing and the jokes in the movie are terrific. Yes, some of the gags are a little forced and Schumer is put in the position of using broad physicality to sell some of the lesser material but there are plenty of well-timed and quite funny moments in I Feel Pretty. At the very least, there are enough good jokes for me to recommend the movie on Blu-Ray, DVD and On Demand on Tuesday, July 17th.
It’s so strange, sometimes movies get a reputation for genius and you hear about it and hear about it and then you see it for yourself and you wind up wondering what all of the fuss was about. That’s the case for me with A Fish Called Wanda. Yes, I had seen the movie before, back when it was on HBO in the 90’s and I think that I tried very hard to like it as much as the critics of the time seemed to like it. I liked it so I could seem smart.
A Fish Called Wanda turns 30 years old this weekend and once again I watched with the aim of wanting to like it so I could seem smart. Only this time, I am mature and confident enough to say I simply didn’t care for it. A Fish Called Wanda just doesn’t work on me. I disliked the characters, I was barely amused by the gags and Kevin Kline’s Academy Award winning supporting performance, for me, came off as forced and shrill.
A Fish Called Wanda is a comic heist movie which stars Jamie Lee Curtis as Wanda, a woman who is dating a thief named Georges Thomas, played by Tom Georgeson, a gag funnier than most in the movie. Wanda is only setting Georges up so that she and her lover, Otto (Kevin Kline) can double cross him and their other partner, Ken (Michael Palin). Georges isn’t stupid however and to insure his cut, he hides the loot until he knows he’s clear, an idea that pays off when Otto secretly turns him, unaware of where the loot actually went.
To figure out where the loot is hidden, Wanda and Otto begin a convoluted plan surrounding Georges’ barrister, Archie Leach (John Cleese). The hope is that Otto will give Archie the location of the loot as a way to reduce his sentence after he is caught. The plan is for Wanda to seduce Archie to get him to reveal the location of the loot so that they can steal it back and leave the country. Things take a turn when Wanda develops a soft spot for Archie.
A Fish Called Wanda was directed by Charles Crichton, sort of. Though John Cleese claimed to have put his name on the co-director credit in order to allay studio fears about the fact that Crichton hadn’t worked in 23 years and was in his mid-80’s, it appears from on-set stories from Curtis and Kline that Cleese was the creative force. It was Cleese who came up with the memorable running gags about Wanda’s fetish for foreign languages and Otto’s insecurity about being called stupid.
There are other Cleese-ian touches as well such as Archie having a wife and the two of them having separate beds ala his character on the famed British television series Fawlty Towers. Regardless of who is responsible however, not much of anything in A Fish Called Wanda got a laugh out of me. Whether it’s the door slamming, Noises-Off style gags of people running in and out of rooms and weaving elaborate lies when caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or the almost nihilistic approach to right and wrong, I found nothing appealing about A Fish Called Wanda.
The characters in A Fish Called Wanda are all terrible people, and that includes Palin’s Ken who, though he may feel guilty about a few of his evil deeds, is nevertheless as terrible as anyone else and has arguably the most notable body count in the movie, if you count dogs. The gags involving the elaborate ways in which Ken accidentally murders an old ladies three dogs is some of the ugliest humor I can recall in a supposed comedy.
We are supposed to like Ken because Palin plays him as a simpleton, a dupe who thinks he's helping his friend but is blundering his way into crime. We are supposed to either sympathize with or find funny his stuttering but it only engenders a sad sort of pity that is far from funny. A scene where Palin and Cleese finally share the screen comes late in the film, as we've anticipated seeing the Python guys together, and the scene is a wretchedly excessive scene of Palin struggling with his stutter and Cleese becoming more and more explosively irritated while trying to stay calm. There is no gag here other than Palin's stutter and it's never funny, merely insensitive.
A Fish Called Wanda presumes its own sophistication. The filmmakers and stars appear as if they should be erudite, sophisticated players in a farce but somehow the film never earns a laugh. I shouldn’t say never, I was amused a few times, such as when Cleese dances about spouting Russian phrases while Jamie Lee Curtis writhes in ecstasy but the amusement was tempered and rare.
In his 1988 review of A Fish Called Wanda, Roger Ebert says “One of its strengths is its mean-spiritedness” and I could not disagree more. I don’t find the mean-spiritedness of A Fish Called Wanda to be a strength. It’s my least favorite thing about the movie. I don’t enjoy these odious characters and their greed and I especially don’t care for the ending that rewards each of them in some strange way.
I revere Roger Ebert which explains why, nearly 30 years ago, I watched A Fish Called Wanda and desperately attempted to like it. I wanted to seem cool to a man I would never meet. I wanted to impress this idol who didn’t know I existed via some transference of psychic energy; as if the universe might inform my hero that I was no ordinary teenage movie fan, I was a teenage movie fan who liked A Fish Called Wanda.
I still revere Roger Ebert, his writing will influence me for my lifetime but as an older man I find myself able to politely disagree. While Roger enjoyed this movie, I loathed it. I didn’t enjoy the mean-spiritedness because the characters weren’t pleasant or entertaining enough to earn it. I don’t mind a mean character winning in the end if they are charming or interesting enough and they are perhaps thumbing their nose at some societal ill. But when characters are just terrible because being terrible gets them what they want, I lose interest.
The characters of A Fish Called Wanda aren’t charming, their ugly. I don’t mind that they are criminals, I mind that they aren’t interesting or funny criminals. I don’t mind that they are killers or thieves, I mind that they aren’t charming or silly or funny killers and thieves. The characters appear as if they and what they are doing should be funny and yet I don’t laugh. I dislike these characters and thus they never become funny.
Hotel Transylvania Summer Vacation is the third and least offensive of this trilogy of Adam Sandler starring animated comedies. I wasn’t a fan of the first two Hotel Transylvania movies which felt, to me, too scatological, like a sanitized version of what Sandler does in his live action work. This time, however, with the franchise leaving the titular hotel there is something of a different feel to everything and for the first time, I laughed out loud more than once watching a Hotel Transylvania movie.
Hotel Transylvania Summer Vacation finds our hero Drac (Sandler) lonely. Sure, he has a loving family and great friends but he wants a companion and at the same time feels guilty for wanting one for the first time since the death of his wife. Drac’s daughter Mavis meanwhile, mistakes his loneliness for stress and comes up with a solution, a dream cruise to the Bermuda Triangle. The whole family is going including Frank (Kevin James), Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade), Murray the Mummy (Keegan Michael Key) and Wayne the Wolf and his wife Wanda and ALL of their kids.
While Drac appreciates his daughter’s effort a cruise for a hotel owner feels rather redundant but things pick up when he Drac meets the Captain of the Cruise ship, Ericka (Kathryn Hahn). Drac is immediately smitten and I must say, the scenes with Drac overcome with feelings on meeting Ericka is very cute and it made me smile. The follow up scene in which an over-confident Drac struts around the ship to Bruno Mars’ “24 Karat Magic” is delightful with a funny if not all that original payoff.
So, we have a love story on our hands and that means we need obstacles and this movie has a pretty good one. Ericka has a secret, the cruise is a sham and she has set it up so she can get revenge on Drac. You see, Ericka is Ericka Van Helsing, of the vampire-killing Van Helsings. She’s trained her whole life to kill Drac. Her great-grandfather Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) has stayed alive long past a normal lifespan, just to see his granddaughter vanquish Drac as he had failed to.
That’s a pretty clever conflict, I gotta admit, I really liked that. The first film played a similar conflict with Andy Samberg’s human falling for Selena Gomez’ vampire but that was somehow far less fun than this. This film seems to delight a little more in the conflict as Drac is the one who is unaware of the danger he’s in. I really enjoyed the romantic sequence of Drac repeatedly saving Ericka while she’s attempting to recover a weapon she intends to kill him with. She begins to fall for him and yet she’s torn. It’s just clever enough to be amusing.
My favorite gag in Hotel Transylvania could not be more simple. It’s a flashback to Van Helsing attempting to capture Drac and his friends on a train. We see Van Helsing enter, we know the monsters are hidden at the front of the car. We see Van Helsing pull out a box of matches, the tension builds because we know what’s coming, we know from the other movies how Frank reacts to fire. When Van Helsing lights the match, Frank freaks out and the scene and the movie are off and running. There’s nothing special here, but the simplicity made me laugh.
Hotel Transylvania 3 Summer Vacation is nothing special, it’s certainly not a Pixar quality work. This isn’t art but for a shallow kiddie flick, it’s pretty good. It made me laugh at these monster characters for the first time in the entire franchise so that’s something. Having low expectations certainly helped matters. But there is something more genuine and winning about this outing in the Hotel Transylvania franchise. Something slightly more clever and less lowest common denominator. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed it enough to say this one is worth seeing.
Releasing Skyscraper on the same weekend time frame when Die Hard was released 30 years earlier was a bad idea. Tributes abound this weekend to the staying power and quality of Die Hard and those who revisit the Bruce Willis classic will not look favorably upon the similarly plotted but far less accomplished Skyscraper. Just how bad is Skyscraper? Not even Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and his megawatt smile can save it.
Skyscraper stars The Rock as Will Sawyer a former Army Ranger turned FBI Agent and now family man and entrepreneur. After retiring from the FBI following a mission that ended tragically, Will started a family with his wife Sarah, who happened to save his life after he nearly died in that failed raid I just mentioned, and he’s just launched his own security firm. Will’s pal Ben (Pablo Schreiber) has even gone to great lengths to get him his first client and what a client he is.
Zhao (Chin Han) has just opened the world’s largest building; he calls it ‘The Pearl’ for the giant pearl design that sits above the 200th floor. Before he can open the residential section of ‘The Pearl’ however, Zhao needs to get insured and that means a full security systems check and that leads him to Will. Unfortunately, for both Zhao and Will, a group of terrorists want something that Zhao has locked away inside ‘The Pearl’ and they will go to extreme measures to get it.
Director Rawson Marshall Thurber is best known for the Ben Stiller comedy “Dodgeball.” He could have used some of that film’s sense of humor and good nature as Skyscraper is a dry, joyless exercise in simple minded, plot-heavy idiocy. The script, also by Thurber, is bursting at the scenes with clumsy, forced, exposition to the point where characters communicate plot points by speaking out loud to no one but the movie watching audience.
I’m not kidding, at one point, the main baddie of Skyscraper, played by Roland Moller, talks to no one in particular and makes mention of something important to the plot of the movie. Later, The Rock is also alone and also expositing plot points to no one but us and the scene is so forced and clumsy that even Rock’s billion dollar charisma can’t sell the line. The Rock could sell ice cubes in the arctic but the awful dialogue of Skyscraper fully defeats him.
I’m a huge fan of Dwayne Johnson and I have been since his early days in the WWE. He’s always had an air about him, a swagger, a star presence that, even in subpar efforts, still shined through. Until now, I thought The Rock was invincible, the kind of actor who unfailingly elevated the movies he chose to star in. Here, however, with Skyscraper even The Rock’s magnetism is defeated by a terrible script and subpar direction.
This Skyscraper should be condemned! Is what I would say if I were a terrible critic looking to score a cheap giggle. Instead, I will say that Skyscraper is one of the worst movies of 2018, a flat, dull-witted bit of action nonsense that can’t hold a candle to its undoubted influencer, Die Hard which, even 30 years later, feels fresh, fun and exciting and more so when compared to the dreck of Skyscraper.