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Movie Review Captive State

Rupert Wyatt is a pretty terrific director. His Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an exceptional sequel in a series that was pretty heavy with greatness. Wyatt’s talent for colorful characters and kinetic action set-pieces served him well on Rise of the Planet of the Apes and he brings a similar talent to the new sci-fi action flick Captive State. Unfortunately, for all the good that Wyatt brings to Captive State, the film lacks an essential something, a star quality that could have raised it above the nature of television drama fare.


Captive State stars Ashton Sanders as Gabriel. As a child, Gabriel lost his father and sister to a group of attacking aliens that will come to be referred to as ‘Roaches’ for their bug like appearance. Gabriel’s brother, Rafe (Jonathan Majors), grew up to be a freedom fighter. While most of the rest of the world gave up hope and began serving the roaches, Gabriel and a small cabal of activists began fighting back.


It’s been five years, as we join the story of Captive State, since Gabriel last saw his brother. He assumes the worst but holds a flicker of hope. In his own little way, Gabriel is rebelling against the system. He and a friend have a plan to get out of their Chicago neighborhood and hopefully out from under the ‘Legislators’ as some have come to call the roaches and the humans who work for them and benefit from their betrayal with wealth and privilege.


The plan involves playing courier to a message, a phone number that he must sneak out of his job where he searches and destroys cell phone memory cards. The phone number is a lovely little creative device as it is written inside a rolled cigarette and we watch it sit precariously behind Gabriel’s ear as he witnesses someone in a similar situation get nabbed and taken away by the police. This sequence is a testament to the talent of director Wyatt and his editor, Andrew Groves, who build a strong, gradual tension even as we know its too early for our hero to falter.


The phone number bit almost coincidentally leads Gabriel to his brother. Rafe has been hiding out in their former apartment in a part of Chicago that had been almost completely decimated years earlier when the roaches sent hunters in to level the place while searching for Rafe and his crew of terrorists. This only hardened Rafe’s desire to battle back and try to light the match that he hopes will spark a revolution.


You may be wondering where John Goodman figures into all of this. He does, of course, feature prominently in the marketing of Captive State as the only recognizable actor in the movie, aside from a bit part played by Vera Farmiga. Goodman plays a police detective who believes that Gabriel may be the key to preventing another attack by Rafe and his freedom fighters. Goodman’s Detective Mulligan is a super smart character whose motives are well shrouded. I especially loved his brief interactions with Farmiga which carry both a ruefulness and mistrust and a genuine tenderness that informs all that eventually happens in the third act.


Again, Rupert Wyatt is a smart director and because of his clever choices and solid artistry, I kind of enjoy Captive State. Unfortunately, the rest of the film’s cast is where the movie struggles to the point that I struggle to recommend it to you, dear reader. Let me preface this that I believe Ashton Sanders is a fine actor. He does the best that he can but as a relative newcomer he is limited and what he lacks is the heft of recognition. You don’t know who Ashton Sanders is and by extension, Gabriel remains something of an unknown.


This problem extends to Jonathan Majors as Rafe. For a time, we are taken from Gabriel who becomes trapped by some alien force for a time and sidelined from the plot. With Majors are four other actors whose names I struggle to even identify on IMDB. None of these people are bad actors but they are about as recognizable as strangers in a crowd. We are supposed to invest in these characters as they plot a major attack on the legislators but I struggled to keep an eye on them and remember who they were.


I know this won’t be popular to say, but these roles needed more than merely competent actors. If these characters are going to be this important to the plot, they need to be played by people who carry some form of recognition with the audience. They need to be played by, for lack of a better descriptor: stars. These actors are competent but not one of them has the charisma of a star. I don’t mean box office attractions, I mean that ineffable quality, that charisma that sets some actors apart from others.


Actor Ben Mendelsohn s a frequent topic of discussion between myself and my friends. I have made fun of the fact that he is not a household name. I’m not wrong about that. But, what Mendelsohn has in spades is that ineffable quality; he stands out in a crowd. The camera doesn’t search for him, it’s attracted to him. Mendelsohn like great character actors before him such as J.T Walsh or the great Harry Dean Stanton or Ned Beatty, has a charisma that helps him stand apart from any crowd they are in.


Sadly, Jonathan Majors, Madeline Brewer, Marc Grapey, even the slightly more recognizable Kevin J. O’Connor, lack that charisma. This is not to say they won’t ever develop that recognition level, they are already quite capable performers. Unfortunately, a movie that relies so heavily on us being able to keep track of these characters needs actors who draw our eye and our sympathy based almost entirely on our innate attraction to them.


There are simply so many characters to track through Captive State that when things begin to happen at a breakneck pace it’s very easy to get lost in the crowd and our emotional connection to these faces we only barely remember is limited. If one of these characters were played by a Walton Goggins or a Margo Martindale or a Kal Penn, we might find it easier to get and stay invested in them and their fate.


I know some are saying that either this should not matter or that the actors in this movie aren’t good enough but I don’t think that is the case. I think these actors are fine, and even the direction is quite good at trying to help us stay with these actors but we don’t have that deeper recognition that comes from an actor or actress we remember. This plot would resonate more if we had a deeper connection to these minor yet important characters. Movie stars matter when you are trying to connect your audience to your characters.


This isn’t the only thing that holds back Captive State but it is the most trying element for me. The film grows a tad convoluted in the final act and the ending has a particular predictability to it but I could have got behind it if I were more invested in the supporting cast. That extends to our ostensible star, Ashton Sanders. As handsome and capable as he is, he’s not yet a movie star. He’s not ready to carry the burden of being the central figure in a major movie.


Some movies do benefit from a less than showy cast. Steven Soderbergh loves working with amateur casts and has made amazing movies with first time actors in unusual roles. His film Bubble is a minor classic that has no movie stars. Captive State however, is basically a big budget sci-fi movie on a shoestring budget. With a plot this big and a story this expansive, we need the grounding of a recognizable face. In this way, Captive State comes up just a little short of something I can fully recommend. 


Movie Review Wonder Park

In January of 2018 Paramount Pictures fired director Dylan Brown from the animated movie Amusement Park over allegations of inappropriate behavior. Exactly what that behavior was we do not know. What we do know is that, more than one year later, Amusement Park, now titled Wonder Park, has arrived in theaters and it plays like a movie that was lacking a director. Now, that’s easy to say under the circumstances, but I genuinely feel that the movie lacks a rudder, a steady hand guiding the ship. Wonder Park is a sloppy amalgam of cartoon tropes without a strong throughline.


Wonder Park stars the voice of Brianna Denski as June, an imaginative young girl who spends her time dreaming up elaborate theme park rides that her mother, voiced by Jennifer Garner, whispers into the ear of her stuffed monkey named Peanut, voiced by Norbert Leo Butz, who creates them with his magic marker. Hours and days are dedicated to the elaborate design of Wonder Park which mom and dad, voiced by Matthew Broderick, allow to take over the entire home.


This is necessary as when June tried to bring Wonder Park to life outside the house, she nearly destroyed the neighborhood. June created a monstrous loop de loop roller coaster out of any pieces of free wood she and her friends could muster together. Naturally, things fly off the rails quickly and June and her friend Banky, voiced by Oev Michael Urbas, are nearly run down by a truck before crashing through every fence in the neighborhood.


Mom is upset but not too much and the two set about making Wonderland into their in-home project. This goes on until mom contracts plot cancer. Mom has to go away for a while to undergo treatment and without mom around, June doesn’t feel right continuing Wonderland without her. June takes down all of the dozens upon dozens of models she’d built and takes the many stuffed animals that featured in her fantasy and puts them all in a box in a closet.


So distraught is June that she begins to slavishly dedicate herself to her father’s health and wellbeing. She fawns over him and questions his ability to care for himself until he finally decides that she should get out of the house. June is to be whisked off to math camp for the summer but believing that dad cannot possibly get by without her, June ditches the math camp bus and ventures into the forest intent on getting back home.


June is soon distracted when she finds a small piece of her Wonderland blueprint moving magically through the air. She chases after the scrap of paper and it leads her deep into the woods where she stumbles over the entrance to Wonderland. It turns out, her imagination had manifested in a real form and was thriving until recently. Suddenly, a black cloud appears to be sucking up all of Wonderland and appears ready to consume the last of her stuffed animal friends when June arrives.


Manning the park are Greta (Mila Kunis), a wild boar and de facto leader, Steve (John Oliver), a cowardly porcupine, Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell), a narcoleptic bear, and Gus and Cooper (Kenan Thompson and Ken Jeong), a pair of woodchuck brothers always bounding into trouble teeth first. Together, they have been battling zombie stuffed monkeys in a war to keep what little of the park is left.


Where is Peanut? That’s a little touch of mystery that the film wastes little time giving away. I won’t spoil it here but the little weight given to Peanut’s apparent disappearance is pretty weak. It should mean something that the biggest avatar for June’s mom in this story is missing but instead, the movie trips over itself getting Peanut back into the story and undermines what I would assume would be the deeper meaning of his absence.


Wonder Park wants to be something on par with Inside Out, Pixar’s ingenious and emotional trip into the emotional and intellectual world of a young girl. Unfortunately, Wonder Park lacks any of that films substance and nuance. The characters aren’t nearly as memorable and Wonder Park is not nearly as funny as Inside Out. Indeed, Wonder Park pales in every comparison to Inside Out, even the animation which is arguably the best thing about Wonder Park, can’t hold a candle to anything Pixar has ever created, let alone the masterpiece that is Inside Out.


Weak narrative structure, meaningless metaphors and a shambling pace are the kinds of things that a good director might be able to work out. Unfortunately, Wonder Park didn’t have a director to help iron out those problems or to even patch them over well. Without that guiding hand you can sense just how much not having a director affected the failed final product that is Wonder Park. This lack of a guiding hand even extends to something as simple as the title. Despite the fact that everyone in the movie refers to Wonder Park as Wonderland, no one bothered to change the title. The words Wonder Park never appear in the movie and stand out as a symbol of the lack of focus that plagues the entirety of this animated adventure.


Movie Review Five Feet Apart

Five Feet Apart stars the utterly brilliant Haley Lu Richardson in a story that is beneath her talent. Richardson stars as Stella Grant, a teenager coping with Cystic Fibrosis or CF. As we meet Stella, she is returning to the hospital with a new recurrence in her lifelong battle with CF. Stella is exceptionally familiar with this hospital, to the point that it appears as if they hold this room for her with her stuff already laid out. That could just be bad editing, but that’s how it plays. 


Also back in the hospital is Poe (Moises Arias), a fellow CF patient. The two of them have been going through CF treatments together for their whole lives and I did like some of their chemistry, even if Poe’s homosexuality is awkwardly jammed into the story via some truly terrible dialogue. The movie needs us to not worry about Poe being heartbroken when we are introduced to Stella’s actual love interest, the dreamy, Will Newman (Cole Sprouse). 


Will is a newcomer at this hospital having recently moved nearby with his single mother to take advantage of a drug trial that is Will’s last hope. While Stella can hope for new lungs that can buy her a few years of life, Will has a version of CF, called B-Cepacia, that is thus far incurable and means that he is not a candidate for new lungs. This has, quite reasonably, made Will an uncooperative patient who is simply waiting to die until he meets Stella. 


Yes, this is one of THOSE movies, where pretty teens die amid their quirky attempts at creating romance in the face of death. What makes 5 Feet Apart borderline irresponsible is the central gimmick which the film rather carelessly flogs for forced drama. You see, CF patients are kept at a strict, 6 feet apart distance. CF patients are so vulnerable to each others strains of virus that incidental contact could inflame brand new infections. 


This is especially dangerous because, as I mentioned, Will’s particular strain is even more deadly than those of Poe and Stella. Does this stop him from attempting to make contact and be around Stella? Of course not. Now, to be fair, the film does well to establish why Stella takes a particular interest in Will, beyond him being dreamy. The same sense that drives her to want to spend time in the NICU fawning over babies through a glass partition, draws her to the equally helpless hunk. 


There is also a well established trope of teenagers with no control over their lives via disease or abuse or something in that vein who take chances at whatever might make their life a little normal. It’s normal for pretty teenagers to want to be desired by other pretty teenagers. It’s normal for them to want things that they cannot really have and take a few risks in order to steal what little of the thing they can of what they can’t have. I am on board with that aspect, but it’s handled rather clumsily here. 


Five Feet Apart was directed by Justin Baldoni who counts on his resume a documentary in which he followed closely the life of a teenager with CF, among a group of patients with terminal disease. You can sense that he cares about getting the disease right, to a point. Baldoni appears to respect what goes into trying to survive CF for as long as one can. Sadly, the conventions of the modern medical drama crossed with the star-crossed teen romance doesn’t allow for the kind of care and nuance that Baldoni might want to bring to it. 


What we get instead is a series of cliched romantic bits that double as unintentional thriller setpieces as we watch in horror as the failed blocking of the characters fail to keep them at the safe distance that the disease plot requires. Sure, they keep saying that they are five feet apart but often it doesn’t look that way. Take the bit they do with a pool cue. Stella claims that the pool cue is five feet long and they use it in a way that allows them to mimic holding hands. However, in more than one scene they are clearly holding the cue wrong and drawing each other too close. 


This becomes a moot concern when they both leap into that swimming pool that all hospitals have. Why not just have them spit in each others mouths for pete’s sake. Just because the pool is chlorinated doesn’t mean it’s safe. Then they start splashing each other with water. Are you kidding me? Perhaps my germaphobe tendencies are coming to the fore but this seems more than a little irresponsible. Nevermind that these are two people who already struggle to breath now just jumping into a swimming pool and exerting themselves in a manner that would deeply stress their lungs. 


I’m probably just being overly picky, but details matter and Five Feet Apart gets far to many details wrong. That, combined with the fact of the film’s treacly and contrived set pieces, such as a late in the game escape from the hospital that coincides with an important turn of the plot, turns this serviceable teen weepie into something rather insufferable by the end. Five Feet Apart pushes the wrong buttons far too often for my taste, even as star Haley Lu Richardson does so many things right. 


Richardson is an exceptional young actress and proves herself to be far more interesting and intelligent than the movie she is stranded within. If you want to see Richardson at her best seek out 2017’s Columbus with her and John Cho. That film is exceptional in every way. I even wrote a loving tribute to the film’s remarkable use of the language of film that you can read if you click here. There is also her remarkably charming and hilarious performance in last year’s criminal underseen, Support the Girls, for even more great Haley Lu Richardson. My review of that movie is linked here


Movie Review Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel more than beats the hype of being the latest in the Marvel franchise. Brie Larson comes into full movie star form playing Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel. Larson’s chemistry with this cast is off the charts, the direction is kinetic and exciting and as a puzzle piece in the long term planning in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s an incredibly satisfying fit. On top of all of that, this is one heck of a great action movie. 


Brie Larson stars as Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, aka Vers to her fellow Kree Warriors. When we meet Carol she has been training as a Kree Warrior with a mysterious and forgotten past for several years. Flashes of memory keep popping up in her dreams but the pieces don’t fit. WIth the aid of her mentor and commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers attempts to keep her memories at bay while focusing on her training and managing her remarkable abilities. 


After meeting for the first time with the Kree ‘Great Intelligence,’ Vers gets her very first mission. Under the command of Yon-Rogg, Vers will go to an alien planet and rescue a Kree spy in the midst of a Skrull controlled planet. The Skrulls are a race of dangerous aliens, the greatest foes of the Kree, who have the disturbing ability to morph their features into those of anyone they see down to a DNA level of mimicry. 


In her first mission, Vers is captured and her memories are accessed and she is forced to confront her past. When she eventually makes her escape, her only way out is a Skrull escape pod programmed to go to Earth. Here, Carol will be forced to confront her true identity as she battles the Skrull leader Thalos to keep him from retrieving technology created by a figure from Carol’s past, Dr Lawson (Annette Bening), tech that could change the course of the war between Kree and Skrull forever. 


Along for the ride, and discovering aliens for the first time in his career is Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson. Captain Marvel may be the origin story for Carol Danvers but it also provides the most important, and less important, origins of the future leader of Shield and the man behind the Avengers’ initiative. Captain Marvel is set in 1996 and the picture we get of a young-ish Nick Fury is pretty great. Baby-faced rookie Agent Phil Coulson is another standout treat. 


The chemistry between Brie Larson as Carol and Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury is off the charts fantastic. These two actors have a comfort, familiarity and ease that would be more expected of actors who had worked together for years rather than having never met before. Larson and Jackson have a comic connection that never fails to charm and when it comes time to fight that same natural chemistry increases the fun and excitement in that arena as well. 


Captain Marvel is the first major big screen release for the indie darling director duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and they prove themselves more than ready for the spotlight. The action is exceptionally captured and excited, the special effects are flawless, the script is tight and focused and the character work is some of the best in the MCU. Much of this can be traced to the the steady creative hands of Boden and Fleck. 


As I mentioned earlier in this review, Brie Larson is in full on movie star mode in Captain Marvel. Larson’s acting chops have never been in question, especially after her exceptional dramatic work in Short Term 12 and Room but this is the first time she’s truly looked and acted the part of a movie star and she absolutely nails it. Larson’s Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers is a role model more than on par with Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and equal to Gadot’s star-power in every way. 


The supporting cast matches Larson beat for beat with performances that underline her exceptional work. I already praised the work of Samuel L Jackson and Clark Gregg but there is room still to offer them even more praise for their wonderfully lived in performances. Also exceptional in Captain Marvel is Ben Mendelsohn as the nuanced villainous, Thalos, Jude Law as the leader of the Kree warriors and newcomer Lashana Lynch who plays a pivotal role in the past of Carol Danvers. 


The major set pieces are a feast for the eyes, the action pumps up your adrenalin and the cherry on top is the humor. Captain Marvel is legit funny without forcing it. The relationship between Captain Marvel and Nick Fury is pure charm and Samuel L Jackson’s relaxed, confident portrayal of 90’s Nick Fury is an unexpected comic delight. Fury isn’t the butt of any jokes but Jackson plays the scenes smart and lets the humor of the moment arrive organically and earns laughs with his pitch perfect timing and flawless facial reactions. 


I completely adore Captain Marvel. I won’t sit here and try to tell you it is a perfect movie but as the latest entry in the beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s a joyous occasion. Captain Marvel is exciting, exceptionally crafted and naturally funny. Brie Larson is a commanding and compelling movie star and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are more than just steady hands, they are legit auteurs with a vision for this massive franchise movie that nevertheless lays in brilliantly to the wider Marvel Universe. 


Captain Marvel is a MUST SEE movie. 


Movie Review Tyler Perry's A Madea Family Funeral

Tyler Perry’s Madea Family Funeral is yet another example of Tyler Perry’s bizarre approach to making movies. Evidence suggests that Tyler Perry acquires a script for a simple, dramatic movie and then, for reasons that only make sense to him, he inserts himself dressed as a woman and that woman’s brethren doing incredibly unfunny schtick that undermines the drama of the actual story taking place. 


With that in mind, I am going to review this movie in two pieces. I am going to review the movie that Family Funeral would be without Madea and the movie that Perry is making with Madea and her cast of wacky characters. This will demonstrate to you the tonal whiplash of attempting to follow a Tyler Perry movie. It’s honestly, exhausting for someone who watches movies for a living to watch what is essentially two movies playing at the same time. 


Family Funeral features an ensemble cast that includes Ciera Payton, Rome Flynn and Courtney Burrell, as siblings, Silivia, Jesse and AJ, who have returned home to Georgia to throw their parents, Viane and Anthony (Jen Harper and Derek Morgan) an anniversary party. Along with them are their spouses including David Otunga as Silvia’s husband, Will, Gia (Aeriel Miranda), Jesse’s fiancee, and Carol (KJ Davis), AJ’s wife. 


AJ however is sleeping with Gia behind his brother’s back and this is how AJ happens to be on hand when his dad is found dead in a hotel room having suffered a massive heart attack while cheating on Viane with a family friend, Renee (Quin Walters). Now, what was planned as a happy occasion is now going to a funeral at which family secrets will be exposed and lives will be altered forever. 


In the other movie inside Madea’s Family Funeral, Madea (Tyler Perry) has been invited to the Anniversary party for Viane and Anthony. What relationship does Madea have to this family? Who knows, but her brother Heathrow (Tyler Perry) has invited her and her other brother Joe (Tyler Perry) and Madea’s pals Hattie (Patrice Lovely) and Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) to come to this party and they’ve tapped Joe’s son Brian (Tyler Perry) to drive them to Atlanta. 


It’s anyone’s guess how Madea is connected to this family in Atlanta. This family has not been mentioned before in previous movies, specifically Madea’s Family Reunion, but that only matters if you are likely me and demand that a movie proceed with some sort of internal logic. Tyler Perry is not like me. Tyler Perry has no need of internal logic, plot, even characters are really only a suggestion of a series of broad traits. 


The entirety of the Madea portion of Madea’s Family Reunion could be removed from this film and it would not affect the plot whatsoever. Sure, Madea and her gang are also on hand when Anthony’s body is found, in S & M gear, in a hotel. We assume he’s in S & M gear, based on what we see, that was likely an on-set improv that Perry liked and left in the movie despite the lack of visual evidence at hand. 


The discovery of the fact that a father and, allegedly, a family friend has been found to be cheating on his wife and has been found dead by his eldest son in a hotel room with a family friend, in S & M gear, is so jarring that neither the comedy nor the extremes of dramatic emotions are allowed to land in any way. A man has just died but that doesn’t mean that wacky characters can’t do awkward, unfunny schtick like attempt to perform oral sex on the corpse in place of CPR. That’s a pleasant gag that exists in this movie. 


Tyler Perry, by the way, does not care for CPR. CPR makes Tyler Perry profoundly uncomfortable as he equates blowing air into a dying person’s chest with kissing and when the dying person is a man then it becomes a gay panic situation. Yes, CPR on a man is an occasion for gay panic jokes because being gay needs just a little more unnecessary stigma attached. Performing CPR means your sexuality is questionable somehow. Are we sure that this movie was made in this century? 


I get that Madea’s ‘political incorrectness’ is supposedly part of her charm but that charm is lost on me. Once, this character was a bizarre moral center of a movie universe. Then, Perry decided to change her backstory from a scolding southern grandma/avenging angel to that of a former gangster, prostitute, drug addict stripper who is also a wise old sage dispensing moral judgments from an unearned high horse. 


Whiplash is the lasting effect of a Tyler Perry movie. On one side is a serious family drama about lies and infidelity and the other side is a broad burlesque of elderly former criminals and drug addicts doing unfunny schtick. I thought it was bad when Madea wielded a chainsaw in the midst of the super tense drama about spousal abuse in Diary of a Mad Black Woman but at least at that point Madea was just a weird side note. 


Now that Madea is the center of the universe in Perry’s movies she’s become a monster lording her unfunny references to gang life, pimps and ho’s over the top of otherwise half baked but serious dramas. It’s the worst kind of mash up, as if an elderly version of rapper Lil Kim were dropped into the middle of a reboot of Parenthood. These two things don’t go together. The drama is half baked at best and the comedy is so broad and schticky it’s like the worst episode of Def Comedy Jam in history. 


I can see where the Madea character worked on a stage where the improv might feel organic and the setting might encourage such broad swings of tone but in a movie where editing and camera work and acting are necessary to the medium, this brand is ill-fitting. Perry’s style doesn’t mesh with the movies the way it, I assume, meshed with live audiences in the early 2000s when Perry developed the character of Madea on stages in church basements. 


Tyler Perry has allegedly stated that this will be the final movie in the Madea franchise and if that is the case, good riddance. I genuinely have nothing nice to say about the character or the movies. I don't understand the appeal and I never will. That said, I don't buy that he's done with this character. Perry has proven to be a mercenary filmmaker throughout his career and while he has plenty of money, I will need some convincing to believe he is walking away from his cash cow. 


Movie Review Greta

Greta has the makings of a very good movie. The film was directed by Neil Jordan, the Irish auteur known for The Crying Game among a varied and daring nearly 30 year career. Greta stars 16 time Cesar nominee (Cesar=French Oscars) Isabelle Huppert and perennial rising star Chloe Grace Moretz, an actress seemingly always on the verge of a breakout role. So how did Greta go so very, very wrong? 


Greta is the name of the character played by Isabelle Huppert as a lonely, French widow living in New York City. One day, Greta leaves her purse on the subway and it is found by Frances (Moretz) who kindly returns the bag and its contents. Frances is treated as some small town hick in New York despite being from the small town of Boston which is like any homey backwater I guess. Is Neil Jordan so up on the New York-Boston rivalry that this portrayal is intentional satire? 


Anyway, my digression aside, Frances returns the bag and finds herself taken by Greta’s sadness and loneliness. She takes pity on the old woman and offers to go dog shopping with her. This turns into repeated dinners at Greta’s home and lengthy, intimate confessions about Greta’s failed relationship with her real life daughter and Frances’ pain over losing her mother and her strained relationship with her father, played by Colm Feore. 


One night, as Frances is helping set up for for yet another dinner at Greta’s house, she finds a cabinet filled with purses, each with names and phone numbers attached and the same forms of identification inside. This is a quicky indicator that Greta doesn’t just happen to meet people, she leaves these bags places with the intent of having a kind hearted person return them so that she make a new friend. 


It’s really sad and pathetic but Frances, as if she has read the script ahead of time, reacts as if what Greta did was sinister. Of course, we know that it indeed was sinister but when you look at it just from the information Frances has, it’s merely a pathetic cry for help. Frances acts as if the bags are evidence that Greta is a serial killer. Instead of confronting Greta about what she found she sets about faking an illness and then sets about ghosting the old lady and not returning her calls. 


Greta doesn’t take this well and the thriller plot begins to kick in with Greta as the motherly version of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and that dog that she and Frances bought together playing the role of the rabbit. Greta begins showing up at Frances’ work and at her apartment and even after Frances calls the cop, Greta keeps upping the crazy by following Frances’s best friend Erica (Maika Monroe) while sending creeper photos to Frances. 


These scenes aren’t entirely ineffective but Isabelle Huppert isn’t exactly Max Cady from Cape Fear. Greta is strange and creepy but not menacing. You feel like she could be mollified with the promise of an occasional phone call and a casual lunch. Again, that’s as played in the movie, only the marketing has given us any indication that Greta is crazier than what is portrayed in the movie. Only the film score attempts to push us toward genuinely fearing Greta but Isabelle Huppert doesn’t do much helping with that with her docile performance. 


Docile until she gets her big “I will not be ignored” moment late in the movie but even that moment isn’t notably energetic. The third act of Greta embraces the crazy a little but not in very convincing fashion. Greta goes predictably where you think it was going from the trailer and abuses the kinds of cliches that movies like this always abuse. There is even a dead meat private detective character played by Stephen Rea who may as well have been named Max Plot Device. 


My biggest issue however, with Greta and Neil Jordan is not so much the thriller cliches of good characters making bad decisions or even annoying plot conveniences. The biggest problem is tone. More than once Greta leans a little toward the high level camp that could make the movie work and then pulls back. If Isabelle Huppert is going to play evil in such a mundane fashion the movie needed to find another way to be entertaining and the movie never finds that. The only believable thing about Greta would be embracing just how silly this all is and leaning into it in a darkly comic fashion and it never quite gets there. 


I’ve made allusions to Fatal Attraction in this review and while I am not a fan of that movie either, that film at least appeared to drift into camp with some intent. Glenn Close was believably batty but she was also unconcerned about how people would take her. There is something close to John Waters’ Divine from Female Troubles in the high level, over the top, that Close plays in that movie. Isabelle Huppert lacks the energy or nerve to really go for the campy, sleazy, silly that Greta needs to be more than cliche riddled, base, thriller. 


Sadly, what we get in Greta is a regrettably straight forward series of overly familiar cliches from similar thrillers about obsessive psychopaths. The only seeming innovation is the lack of a sexual component to the main relationship. Greta is not sexually interested in Frances and the film goes along way to make sure we get that this is about being a mom and not about a psycho-sexual obsession. The crazy lesbian is the one cliche Greta thankfully avoids. 


Strangely, rather than a movie like Fatal Attraction, Neil Jordan’s own Interview with the Vampire is the movie that best presages Greta in presenting something that should be high camp but is played dreadfully and regrettably straight. That film, quite oddly, also features a strangely bloodless and mannerly approach to a parental psycho-obsession as Tom Cruise, rather than being sexually obsessed with Brad Pitt’s effete and pretty fellow vamp, is more mad that Pitt won’t play along with being his scion. 


Mannerly is a good way to describe Greta. Yes, this is a movie about a psycho stalker but it is going to be decent and respectable about that plot in a way that deflates the movie. Bloodless, for the most part, and with a lead performance with the restraint of a Nun, Greta is a bizarre watch. The score appears to be the only part of the movie that embraces what this movie should be. The film score is filled with moody stabs and atmosphere that is lacking from the performances.  


Movie Review How to Train Your Dragon 3 The Hidden World

How to Train Your Dragon 3 is perhaps the best of the three How to Train Your Dragon movies. None of the How to Train Your Dragon movies have been bad but the first two, for me have only been passably entertaining. How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World rounds the series into something with a good deal more depth. Indeed, depth is what the first two movies lacked as they put forward perfunctory stories about learning to believe in yourself. 


How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World is the first of the franchise to carry the confidence of a movie where characters have tamed and ride dragons into battle. The hero's journey has finally stopped being a slightly bland, mostly amusing coming of age story and has become the story of a fully fledged character finally becoming who he should be. Again, there is nothing wrong with the first two, but I prefer seeing a new story with these characters as opposed to familiar tropes dressed up with dragons. 


How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World opens with our heroes, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon pal, Toothless, now in the role of dragon defenders. When dragons are kidnapped to be killed or made to serve the forces of evil, Hiccup, Toothless and their friends from the Viking village of Berk, swoop in with fiery swords and free the peaceful dragons and take them home to safety. 


Unfortunately, Berk has become quite overcrowded since our last visit. The place is teeming with dragons and the sheer volume of dragons on hand has not gone unnoticed. A group of bad guys now know where Berk is and they want to steal the dragons in order to create a dragon army. The baddies can’t do it on their own however, so they seek the help of the legendary dragon hunter Grimmel the Grisly (F Murray Abraham). In exchange for capturing the dragons of Berk, Grimmel asks only that he be able to kill Toothless. Grimmel has made his reputation on killing Night Furies.


But how will he ever get close to Berk with all of those Vikings and Dragons? Grimmel has a plan. He’s captured a Light Fury, a white, female counterpart to Toothless and also seemingly the last of her kind. Grimmel will use the Light Fury to lead Toothless into a trap. His plan is solid as Toothless falls in love at first sight with the Light Fury and in a delightful scene, attempts to romance her on the beach with a mating dance. The wordless pantomime of the dragons in this scene is genuine, sweet and funny. 


Director Dean Deblois in his third time as a director, he directed the previous How to Train Your Dragon and Lilo and Stitch prior this movie, continues to demonstrate his light and deft touch. Deblois is smart about not letting his stories get cluttered with too many bits of business. He may have a lot of colorful characters and voice actors to make use of but he’s very economical about it and never allows a bit to overstay its welcome or bog down the central story. 


The voice cast of How to Train Your Dragon remains top notch with Jay Baruchel as a sturdy lead voice, America Ferrera as the charming romantic idea, Cate Blanchett as the voice of gravitas and seriousness and Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz Plasse and Kristen Wiig providing solid comic relief. Add to this group, the sonorous tones of Academy Award winner F Murray Abraham as Grimmel and you have an exceptionally talented and charismatic group of voices. 


How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World is exceptionally well animated with some legitimately breathtaking sights that really stand out in IMAX 3D. The visuals are equalled brilliantly by the Scottish inflected music score by John Powell to create more vital and mature palette for what is the last of this film trilogy. Much credit to Dean Deblois and Dreamworks in recognizing that there is no need to beat this premise into the ground. This is the final film in a trilogy and they allow it to go out on a note of satisfying and moving finality.


Movie Review Fighting With My Famly

As a longtime fan of the WWE I have known Saraya Knight from her earliest days in wrestling’s big leagues. I saw her win the very first NXT Women’s Championship. I watched live when she debuted on Monday Night Raw and won what was then called the WWE Divas Championship. I was also there when injuries and scandal nearly ended her career. Finally, I was there when she broke her neck and was forced to retire at the far too young age of 25. 


Saraya ‘Paige’ Knight has lived multitudes in her 26 years beginning her wrestling career at age 12 in Norwich, England, working for her mother and father’s very own promotion, WAW. As the story goes in real life and in the new movie on Paige’s life, Fighting with My Family, she never wanted to wrestle as a kid, that was her brother Zak’s thing. Once in the ring however, things changed and she fell in love with the business and began regularly wrestling against her mother, a successful wrestler in England for many years. 


Florence Pugh portrays Paige in Fighting with My Family. We watch as she wrestles against her parents all the while she and her brother Zac (Jack Lowdon) dream of getting a call from the WWE. That call comes when Paige is a mere 18 years old. Paige and Zac are invited to a WWE tryout while the WWE is in London in 2012. A trainer played by Vince Vaughn as an amalgam of many of WWE’s trainers over the years, named in the movie as Hutch Morgan, decides that only Paige has what it takes to go on to WWE’s Developmental system. 


This drives a wedge between Paige and Zac who had always been very close until this happened. Nevertheless, Paige accepts the chance to join the WWE and move away from her family to Florida where the fish out of water portion of the movie begins. Paige is not the prototypical WWE Diva. She’s up against models and athletes who didn’t grow up in the industry but were brought into it, the movie implies briefly, because of their looks. 


Part of Paige’s journey, surprisingly, is coming to respect the leggy blondes who are initially her antagonists. This is a welcome inversion of the classic trope. Our outsider hero has a journey here that is not as straightforward and heroic as it would initially seem. Fighting with My Family was directed by actor-comedian and writer Stephen Merchant, a rather brilliant comic mind who does well tapping both his comic and dramatic skills in Fighting with My Family. 


Fighting with My Family is not a serious movie by any stretch but it is grounded in a way that allows for the broad humor of wrestling to stand out against the mundane regular world. The juxtaposition between the broad and strange world of professional wrestling and the regular world outside of wrestling plays well for the most part, aside from characters played by the director himself and Julia Davis who play stock characters, whitebred outsiders who look down on the low culture of wrestling.


There is plenty to enjoy about FIghting with My Family including the wonderful supporting performances of Nick Frost and Lena Headey as Paige’s parents. These are wonderful actors playing wonderful characters. Frost and Headey appear to bring lifetimes to these two characters that we never see and yet they feel real  and lived in. Their chemistry is remarkable, they are all in on the romance, the wrestling and the family. 


Florence Pugh is solid as Paige, though she lacks her swagger and lithe physique. As written, Paige is not the character we know from the WWE. Pugh plays the behind the scenes Paige as a shrinking violet, a homesick and cowed young woman, completely opposite of the wild child, charismatic, divas champion we would come to know and cheer for. There is a stock quality to the story of Paige learning to find herself, find her voice and her confidence. I don’t doubt that the real Paige went on that journey, but this is unquestionably the sanitized, safe for work take on that journey. 


Wrestling fans will undoubtedly recognize how compressed the timeline of Paige’s career is. In real life, Paige wrestled in America before her WWE debut in a company called Shimmer. She also was an overachiever in WWE Developmental where she won over the company brass enough to be picked to win the very first NXT Women’s Championship, months before her post-Wrestlemania 30 Monday Night Raw debut which is the culmination of Fighting with My Family. 


The film fails to mention that Paige was the NXT Women’s Champion when she she debuted on Monday Night Raw and many of the fans in attendance that night were fully aware of who she was when she went to the ring that night against Diva’s Champion A.J Lee, portrayed in the movie by current WWE superstar, Zelina Vega. The makers of Fighting with My Family would have you believe that she was some unknown wrestler getting a shot out of the blue. Then again, the movie would have you believe that Vince McMahon doesn’t exist and pull every string in the company or that a wrestler would make it to Monday Night Raw without seeing Vince first. 


An interesting thing about Paige is that her life after the events of this movie is way more interesting than her rise to fame. From the place where Fighting with My Family ends to today, Paige has gone through career threatening injuries, a sex tape scandal, a reportedly abusive relationship with a fellow wrestler, drug suspensions and eventually, a career ending injury to her neck that led to her having to find a whole new place in the wrestling world. 


That, however, is not a movie that Paige or the WWE would want to make. That’s a complex journey that has fewer of the warm fuzzy moments that Fighting with My Family is built around. That’s a gritty movie with much more humanity and frailty than the mythic, sweet and funny journey of self discovery that is Fighting with My Family. You can’t slap a PG 13 on that movie and mass market it to an audience of young wrestling fans. 


That said, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with not making that movie and instead making Fighting with My Family. Indeed, Fighting with My Family is a perfectly acceptable, if somewhat bland comedy and biopic. The supporting cast is wonderfully colorful and the world of WWE, though it is completely whitewashed, has a fun, mythic quality to it that, as a wrestling fan, I find entertaining. It’s the WWE of Vince McMahon’s fantasy world. 


By the way, for those wondering about Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s role in Fighting with My Family, much of what you see in the movie really happened. It was The Rock who informed Paige that she was going to be debuting on Monday Night Raw, a scene of wonderful comedy in the movie. There are some fudges in the timeline of Paige’s life in WWE and Developmental but that scene really happened in a form similar to how it plays in the movie.


Movie Review Alita Battle Angel

Alita Battle Angel has been the dream of director-producer James Cameron for a number of years. While he’d placed the project on the backburner to focus on his Avatar franchise, Cameron never stopped loving Yukito Kishiro’s unique comic universe. Though he eventually walked away from directing Alita Battle Angel, Cameron can be credited for keeping the idea alive as a film property and that life is now realized with director Robert Rodriguez bringing Alita to the big screen. 


Alita Battle Angel is a part CGI part live action adventure starring unknown newcomer Rosa Salazar as the titular Alita. Alita is a cyborg warrior who was found mostly dead and forgotten in a junkyard by Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). Dr Ido put Alita back together inside the cyborg body that he’d once intended to give to his daughter. In this body, Alita is essentially, in many ways just a teenage girl but because of her cyborg heart, she has a quickness and fighting acumen that rivals any man. 


Slowly, Alita begins to regain her memory. After a particularly dramatic and violent moment in which she realizes she has serious violent tendencies, Alita remembers that she was once an a warrior and now she wants to put that side of herself to good use as a bounty hunter. This is something Dr Ido strongly opposes but he cannot stop here. At the same time, Alita has also begun entering a romantic relations with a flesh and blood human named Hugo (Keean Johnson). 


Both Hugo and Dr Ido have secrets that they are keeping from Alita, secrets that will be revealed and shape the early plot of Alita Battle Angel. It’s these secrets that tie in the other supporting players in this adventure including Chiren (Jennifer Connelly) a fellow doctor who takes a keen interest in Alita and the dangerous Vector (Mahershala Ali) who acts as the eyes and ears and event the occasional avatar of the film’s true big bad, named Nova. I won’t spoil the cameo of the big name actor who plays Nova as the film spoils it in remarkable fashion. 


Not spoil in the sense of revealing something too soon. Rather, the way this big name cameo is revealed is akin to something spoiled and rotting. This cameo reeks to high heaven. It’s an absolute laugh out loud stinker of the lowest calibur. The cameo comes along in an already faltering third act of Alita and provides a yawp of unintended laughter before becoming a highly problematic plot point as the film comes to a close. 


I won’t spoil the ending as even my negative review of Alita Battle Angel likely won’t prevent many from seeing it. Plus, I actually don’t hate Alita Battle Angel, not completely. The first two acts of Alita Battle Angel were unexpectedly emotional and compelling. Rosa Salazar is a young actor to watch. What she lacks in experience and chops she makes up for with confidence and energy. Some may find her enthusiasm cloying but I found it winning, for 2 out of three acts of the movie. 


I even admired the attempts at romance in Alita Battle Angel. Yes, there are odd questions that the main character raises as a cyborg teenage girl, many of those questions being deeply unsettling or creepy but nevertheless. That said, Salazar sparks well with fellow newcomer Keean Johnson and I liked the plot complications that Hugo brings to this story. In pro wrestling terminology, Hugo is what we call a tweener, a character somewhere between good and evil and teetering one way or the other. 


There is perhaps almost too much Oscar gold in Alita Battle Angel. The pedigree is darn near distracting with three Oscar winners, four if you count Christoph Waltz twice, one Oscar nominee, an unrecognizable Jackie Earle Haley, and a cameo from an Oscar nominee. Robert Rodriguez has stacked the cast with Academy faves in order to balance out his romantic leads, both newcomers who benefit from the Awards savvy supporting players. 


Even that amount of talent however, can’t save Alita from a third act that flies laughably off the rails. As Alita is fighting her way toward the biggest of the big bads in Alita Battle Angel, she makes choices that make little sense. She suddenly buys into a plot point regarding a warrior code that was not well established before in the plot. This is done for the purpose of plot convenience in the most obvious fashion. 


Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali are then stranded in a classically James Bond moment where the fate of one of their characters is so achingly obvious that you can’t help but roll your eyes at the doozy of a cliche. At the very least, that plot has an unexpected and stunning visual payoff but that doesn’t change the nature of the embarrassing obviousness of that scene. And then the film ends without a complete resolution. 


Alita Battle Angel clips along for two thirds of the movie with a tremendous plot building strong complications with genuine stakes. Then, out of the blue, one of the main characters nearly dies, Alita nearly allows them to die and then, and then… well. I would need to go into serious spoiler territory to disentangle the nonsense that leads to this wholly unsatisfying end. I will only say that this abysmal third act ruined for me what was an otherwise enthralling and thrilling action adventure sci-fi romp. 


I was genuinely bummed when the movie began to falter. I could feel my heart sinking as the music of the final scene began to swell and it dawned on me that the film and these terrific characters would not have the chance to redeem themselves with a final battle sequence. Instead, I was left dispirited by a truly lame and misguided sequel tease. Ugh! Alita Battle Angel is two thirds of a really ripping adventure and one third of a bad Wachowski movie. 


( Sidebar: The Wachowski’s were the makers of The Matrix whose careers have been marked by remarkable ups like The Matrix and stunning failures such as The Matrix sequels and Jupiter Ascending. The final act of Alita sadly compares well to the worst of the output by visionary filmmakers quite similar to Wachowski’s in clout, status and popularity, Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron.) 


(Sidebar Sidebar: Yes, I know if I have to explain the funny-sad comparison it’s less funny but so be it, this parenthesized tangent is entertaining me even more than my insulting comparison.) 


(Sidebar-Sidebar-Sidebar: Then again, is a reference to the Wachowski's really so obscure that people need these sidebars? Perhaps not, but there is a lack of universality as to whether the majority of readers find a comparison to what I see as the worst of the Wachowski's, all that insulting.) 


(Si--- Okay, even I have tired of this.)


Movie Review Isn't it Romantic

Isn’t it Romantic is a complete delight. This gimmicky, in a good way, romantic comedy stars Rebel Wilson who demonstrates the kind of star power and charisma we’d been expecting of Wilson after her numerous, scene stealing supporting turns in the Pitch Perfect movies and in trifles such as How to Be Single or her breakout cameo in Bridesmaids. Rebel Wilson has been expected to be a thing for some time now and now appears to be that time. 


Isn’t it Romantic stars Rebel Wilson as Natalie, a New York architect with strong self esteem issues. As a child, Natalie loved the bubbly romantic comedy of Julia Roberts but as an adult, in the real world, she has soured on the saccharine, synthetic cliches of the genre, many of which she rants about in a lengthy but funny gag that deconstructs nearly every trope in the genre. This is one of many inspired and hilarious gags in Isn’t it Romantic. 


The plot kicks in when Natalie is mugged in the subway and suffers a head injury. When she wakes up, suddenly, everything is perfect. Her doctor is a hunky, Grey’s Anatomy type who immediately flirts with her. The streets outside the hospital are lined with flowers and friendly, helpful and welcoming faces. And, notably, New York City doesn’t smell like an open sewer where people urinate in the streets. 


Then Natalie, quite literally, is run into by Blake, the handsome and jerky client at her architecture firm. When they first met, he insulted her and made her get his coffee. Now, out of the blue, he has a sexy Australian accent and appears to be completely enamored of Natalie. He gives her a ride home in his limo but because this is a romantic comedy universe, the 30 minute takes mere seconds. 


From here, Isn’t it Romantic sets in motion a plot with a ton of very obvious jokes about the tropes of romantic comedy. These are tropes that we, in the audience, have been poking fun at for years and you wouldn’t be wrong if you mocked the obviousness of these jokes. And yet, thanks to some crisp editing and direction, and especially Rebel Wilson’s exceptional timing and charisma, these jokes land, each with a big laugh. 


Rebel Wilson was made to play the role as the one sane, angry, snarky, voice of reason in this outre romantic comedy universe. Sure, she is poking some familiar, well worn, holes in the romantic comedy plot, but she does so with gusto and timing. Wilson is a movie star with the kind of genuine likability and relatability that you really cannot teach to actors. Wilson has a natural and genuine sense of humor that speaks to the audience and doesn’t stand above them. 


Wilson is not afraid to be the subject of the joke but she’s also not here to be humiliated and laughed at either. One of the criticisms leveled at Wilson has been that she uses weight as a punchline so often that it becomes her own kind of cliche. I’ve never felt that way about Wilson myself. I felt that her performance as Fat Amy had an empowering quality, stealing back the notion that she is to be ridiculed for her weight, not merely by making fun of herself but aggressively, confrontationally, putting your bias against her awkwardly to the fore. 


Her aggressiveness is part of her charm in  the Pitch Perfect movies and I really enjoyed how that energy is used here. Natalie is initially mousy and shy and then, in the romantic comedy universe she comes into her own out of frustration more than anything. She sees the falsehoods all around her and like being trapped in The Matrix, her mind rebels against all of the fatuousness and untruth. Almost by accident this experiment works on her and she begins a great arc about being more confident and assertive. 


On top of Rebel Wilson’s outstanding performance, we get stellar work from her supporting cast. Adam Devine plays Natalie’s best friend Josh who is part Ducky from Pretty in Pink and part nerdy, male best friend in every romantic comedy ever. Devine brings a great deal of charm to this character and his chemistry with Rebel Wilson is top notch, as it was when they co-starred in the Pitch Perfect movies. 


Brandon Scott Jones is a veteran of the improv comedy scene and he brings some of that anarchic, improv energy to his character in Isn’t it Romantic. Jones plays Donny, Natalie’s stock, gay best friend who appears to only live to give her advice and support. Jones throws himself into this broad caricature with comic verve and never fails to get a big laugh. He doesn’t steal scenes per se, but he’s the perfect addition to the scenes he’s in. 


Betty Gilpin and Priyanka Chopra round out this superior supporting cast as Natalie’s assistant turned romantic comedy rival, Whitney and Josh’s romantic comedy universe, perfect, supermodel girlfriend, Isabella. I will leave you to discover the fun of these characters when you see Isn’t it Romantic. Chopra has the bigger, broader laughs but keep an eye on Betty Gilpin, she provides just the right foil for Rebel Wilson as both friend and foe. 


I haven’t even mentioned director Todd Strauss-Schulson and his exceptional work yet. Strauss-Schulson was the acclaimed director of the indie darling, The Final Girl, a film that toyed with the tropes of horror movies. Here he takes similarly satiric aim at the romantic comedy genre and once again nails it. Isn’t it Romantic has a great pace, strong visual style delineating between the real world and the romantic comedy world, and the movie has barely an ounce of any scene it doesn’t need or lingers on to long. 


It’s not a flawless piece of direction, it relies incredibly heavily on the appear, chops and charm of Rebel Wilson, but Strauss-Schulson makes smart choices. He, along with screenwriters Erin Cardillo and Dana Fox, keep the movie clipping along, getting big laughs and moving on. There is barely an ounce of fat on this screenplay, scenes begin, get to the big laugh and get out and on to the next joke. It’s efficient and funny which goes along way toward overcoming the obviousness of many of these jokes. 


In case it isn’t clear, I completely adore Isn’t it Romantic. I am a major Rebel Wilson fan after this movie and I can’t wait to see this one again. It’s not the greatest comedy of all time, I feel like I might be overhyping it just a tad, but the film is outstanding in and of itself. The execution of this gimmicky premise is damn near flawless and in the hands of star Rebel Wilson, even the most obvious jokes still get a big laugh. 


Movie Review Cold Pursuit

Cold Pursuit is the latest attempt to prop up the old guy action star genre. The film is an exercise in silly violence and black humor that is rarely exciting and rarely humorous. Director Hans Petter Moland had more success perhaps the first time he made this exact same movie in Sweden under the title In Order of Disappearance. That film was also an exercise in the old guy action movie genre with Stellan Skarsgard leading the way and doing about as much as Neeson does here. 


Cold Pursuit stars Liam Neeson as Nels Coxman a, snow plow driver in the Colorado rockies whose job is to keep open one road between a small skiing town and the outside world. Nels is popular in his small town where he has recently been named citizen of the year. Things however take an unfortunate turn when Nels’ son is killed by drug dealers. That’s what he believes happened, cops tell him that his son overdosed.


Being Liam Neeson and thus better than a police detective, Nels sets out to find the drug dealers and begins killing his way up the drug chain of command from the low level dealers who did the killing all the way up to the Denver based kingpin, nicknamed Viking (Tom Bateman). Viking is a cold-hearted killer who, though he employs flunkies for most of his dirty work, isn’t afraid to do some of his own killing. 


While Nels is searching for Viking, Viking is unwittingly searching for him while accidentally blaming a rival gang of Native American drug dealers for the murders that Nels is committing. This only serves to amp up the danger and the bloodshed while Nels flies under the radar for a while creating chaos and unwittingly fomenting the showdown between Viking and his hated rivals in the drug trade. 


Cold Pursuit is efficiently crafted and has a stark and striking setting. Director Hans Petter Moland has a leg up on this material as he did make this movie before. Moland is no stranger to the cold climate as his earlier movie was set in the barren, snowy outlands of Sweden. Moland knows that red blood against white snow is a strong visual as is steamy breath against moonlit darkness. These motifs aren’t exactly new but they are more effective than the silly story of Cold Pursuit. 


Liam Neeson appears as tired of his action movie persona as we are. His Nels may be a tough guy but his age is showing in the bone weary exhaustion in his face and manner. Neeson has spoken of retiring his action movie character but with the terrible, The Commuter, having made more than $100 million dollars at the worldwide box office it appears that only Neeson and film critics, like me, are actually tired of movies like Cold Pursuit. 


Just how tired is Liam Neeson? He disappears from the movie as if he needed a nap before resuming the plot. Partway through the second act, Nels goes offscreen while we follow the bad guys and their machinations against each other while they are unaware of Nels and his one man war against them. Tom Bateman, a British stage actor, is not a bad actor but since we don’t know who he is, he isn’t particularly compelling. 

A role like Viking needed a character actor, perhaps a younger Christopher Walken type. A Walken like actor could have transformed this character with his innate weirdness and oddball tangents. Bateman is playing the role with a good deal of energy and gusto but he’s far too serious. He’s approaching the material with a straight up bad guy performance and there is nothing special about it. The bad guy role is as perfunctory as the plot which literally ticks off a list of kill after kill with names on the screen that get crossed out as the movie goes on. 


I’m aware that Cold Pursuit was intended to have some black humor to it but none of the humor lands all that well. One example of the film’s approach to dark humor happens when Nels goes to identify his son’s body. As Nels waits awkwardly to make the identification we watch while a morgue table rises slowly from the floor to eye level. The table takes forever to rise and we are supposed to, I assume, find it hilariously awkward as the body of Nels’ son rises into the frame. 


Did you know that the brilliant Laura Dern is in Cold Pursuit? Of all of the sins of this perfunctory, forgettable, predictable action movie, casting Laura Dern only to treat her like some unknown day player is perhaps the film’s greatest sin. Why bother paying to have someone of Laura Dern’s stature when you have absolutely no interest in using her talent. Dern plays Neeson’s wife and after their son is killed her role is reduced to sulky resentment toward her husband before she just disappears. 


Movie Review The Lego Movie 2: The Second One

Has the magic of the Lego movies already worn out? The last Lego movie, Lego Ninjago, was a strong indication of the limits of the franchise. That film was so remarkably dull for non-fans of Ninjago, like myself, that I walked out halfway through the movie. I hadn’t laughed one time during the first 45 minutes of the movie and I had the distinct impression that what I was missing was something that perhaps only Ninjago fans would understand. Then again, I didn’t hear many of them laughing either as I took my early exit. 


I assumed however, that Lego Ninjago was just a case of a too insular, fandom servicing, cult piece that I was not meant to understand. The Lego Movie 2 however, is supposed to be welcoming. The first film roared out of the gates with a wide appeal story about an everyman, named Emmett (Chris Pratt), learning to become a hero in world with actual heroes including Batman (Will Arnett) and Wildstyle aka Lucy (Elizabeth Banks). 


The broad pop culture burlesque of The Lego Movie proved to be an unexpected delight that Lego then capitalized upon with the equally unexpected and ingenious, Lego Batman. That film took the gags of The Lego Movie and turned the absurdity up to 11 and, in the process, exposed the all too seriousness of the DC Movie Universe by creating arguably the best characterization of The Caped Crusader not played by Christian Bale. 


Much of the success of those two films however, is owed to creators who would not be taking part in either Lego Ninjago or The Lego Movie 2: The Second One. Phil Lord and writing and directing partner Christopher Miller may have writing credits on The Lego Movie 2 but the film is distinctly lacking in their anarchic genius. Instead we get Mike Mitchell whose middle of the road vision has given us Trolls and Shrek Forever After, a pair of mostly forgettable efforts with just enough easy to process laughs to be passable. 


The Lego Movie 2: The Second One (and what an inspired title that is) picks up the story of Emmett and his pals, Lucy and Batman, just after the action of the first Lego Movie. Finn (Jadon Sand) is informed by his dad (WIll Ferrell) that his little sister will also be allowed to play with the legos in the basement and the two will have to get along or neither will have legos to play with. Five years later, with brother and sister at odds, our heroic lego characters are no longer city dwellers in a place where ‘Everything is Awesome.’ Instead, the lego world is a dystopian wasteland at odds with the aliens of the Sistar System. 


One day, the alien General Mayhem attacks and kidnaps Emmett’s pals and he must go on a journey through the dreaded ‘Stair-Gate’ and into the Sistar System to rescue them. Aiding Emmett on his journey is a newcomer who calls himself Rex Dangervest (Chris Pratt, again). Rex is introduced more than once by an announcer who puts over his Barbie-esque ability to master many, sometimes mundane, activities. 


The voice cast of The Lego Movie 2 is as spectacular as the original with Pratt, Banks and Arnett terrific in their memorable roles from the original and backed up by equally brilliant newcomers, Tiffany Haddish, Richard Ayoade and a cameo that I won’t spoil as it is the best runner in the entire movie. Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, and Will Ferrell also reprise roles from the original Lego Movie but these are little more than cameos. 


I can’t sit here and tell you I didn’t enjoy The Lego Movie 2: The Second One, because I did laugh plenty during the movie. I am however, a little letdown. The spirit is definitely lacking in this sequel. The premise is not nearly as consistently funny and inventive as the original. There is an over-reliance on pop references that feels lazy here even as it felt fresh and funny in the original. The lacking of Lord and Miller’s anarchic spirit is definitely felt here. 


The Lego Movie 2: The Second One feels worn out, a little tired. The look is less exciting, the humorous Mad Max inspired animated dystopia has promise but is abandoned quickly for the excess of a space setting that is less inspired. Tiffany Haddish’s character, a Queen who can shapeshift into almost any character design, is not fully taken advantage of and becomes little more than a plot device by the end. 


There are still enough laughs in The Lego Movie 2: The Second One but much like that lazy subtitle, the tiredness of The Lego franchise is showing. Instead of Lego Ninjago being a one off flop in this budding animated franchise, it now appears to have been a warning that this once flavorful franchise has already run out of juice. The uninspired title The Second One proves to be as much of a warning. They put no effort into giving the film a title and only slightly more effort into making something reminiscent of the first one. 


Movie Review The Prodigy

The Prodigy is the latest in a long line of uninspired horror movies with an okay premise that falters in overly familiar execution. It is not merely that The Prodigy is predictable this horror movie from cult horror director Nicholas McCarthy (At the Devil’s Door) is insultingly predictable. The Prodigy is directed as if the film was made specifically for audiences so bereft of common sense that they need every last detail spelled out for them. 


The Prodigy stars Taylor Schilling of the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black as Sarah. As we meet her, Sarah is pregnant and on her way to giving birth to her first child. Crosscut with Sarah’s trip to the birthing center is the escape of Margaret (Brittany Allen) from the lair of a serial killer named Edward Scarka. Edward is known for cutting off women’s hands before murdering them and hiding their bodies. 


Scarka isn’t aware that his latest victim has escaped until he happens to see police approaching his door. At that moment, Edward’s strips nude walks out of his cabin in the woods to confront the cops and essentially commits suicide by cop. This happens just as Sarah welcomes her son Miles into the world and by some crazy movie magic, the soul of the serial killer leaps into the body of baby Miles without anyone noticing. 


At an early age, Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) demonstrates traits well beyond his years, but it is not until he turns 8 years old that his parents notice that he is not the loving young boy he once was. The serial killer has begun to come forward in Miles subconscious leading to him trying to kill his babysitter and eventually turning his evil eye to his extended family. Colm Feore then pops up as a doctor whose existence is predicated on delivering exposition for those in the audience who may nod off for part of The Prodigy and need a character to spell out and reiterate the plot. 


The imagery in The Prodigy is as insultingly simple minded as the script. Early on director McCarthy uses the image of Edward’s face split by makeup or mirrors to underline his dual nature. In case you need cliffs notes in the middle of the movie, Miles has one blue eye and one brown eye as further film school underlining of the kid’s dueling personalities, killer and kid. Perhaps this won’t be perceptible to those that don’t see many movies but if you see movies regularly it may be hard to stifle your groaning and simultaneous eye roll. 


I am struggling to find positive things to say here. I know people complain when I am just negative but there really isn’t much good to say about The Prodigy. It’s clean looking, it has solid if unspectacular cinematography. That’s something. When director McCarthy isn’t overdoing images of duality, he does cut a professional looking scene throughout The Prodigy. I have no qualms about praising The Prodigy for its crisp visuals. That however, is, sadly, not remotely enough for me to recommend the movie. 


Taylor Schilling is perhaps the other element of The Prodigy that is passable. Schilling is good at looking haunted and terrified. I guess it is fair to say that she doesn’t let the script insult her character’s intelligence. Sure, she makes mistakes but nothing a good rewrite of a couple of scenes could not have fixed. Had the film perhaps relied more on her abilities and less on telling instead of showing, she might have elevated the material. 


The Prodigy is not the kind of abomination that makes me hate going to the movies, does that me saying something nice? The Prodigy is more harmlessly forgettable than it is offensive. Again, I can’t tell if I am being condescending or kind here. 


Movie Review Serenity

Serenity is a highly ambitious and deeply misbegotten attempt to make a modern film noir. Writer-Director Steven Knight has something going for him in Serenity but continues to undermine himself and his movie with bizarre choices that lead to an unsatisfying and almost laughable, laugh out loud conclusion. The film strands an incredible cast in what approximates a Shyamalan level of lunatic aspiration. 


Matthew McConaughey stars in Serenity as, no I am not making this up, Baker Dill. Baker is a fishing boat captain catering to tourists on a mysterious tropical island called Plymouth. Baker has a passion for fishing but specifically a passion for one specific fish, a giant Tuna that he has come to call Justice, and yes it is heavily tortured metaphor. No points for guessing that as the film hammers the point into your brain pan. 


Baker is seemingly driven only by this giant tuna but lately other things have begun to permeate his consciousness. Specifically, Baker has recently been plagued by memories and visions of a son he left behind when he went to war in Iraq. Upon his return, his then girlfriend and the mother of his child, Karen (Anne Hathaway), has moved on and married another man and cut Baker out her and her son’s life. 


Baker’s visions of his son are truly bizarre as he appears to be able to hear his son’s voice and vaguely communicate with him with some sort of water based ESP. In one of the film’s epically bizarre scenes, a naked Baker swims in the ocean with his also naked teenage son. Why? There is no good reason, it’s just something that director Steven Knight thought might communicate the strange, water based ESP thing I mentioned before. The nudity is an off-putting choice to say the least. 


Out of the water, Baker is approached by his ex-wife with a proposition. Karen wants Baker to take her husband Frank (Jason Clarke) out fishing and toss him to the fishes. In exchange, Karen is offering $10 million dollars and perhaps the chance to see his son again. Baker immediately rejects the idea despite Karen telling him that Frank has been abusive toward her and toward their son. After meeting the epically awful Frank, Baker still resists but will his psychic connection to his son change his mind. 


No, that last line is not me being snarky… well, not entirely snarky. The plot does legitimately turn on whether Baker’s fuzzy, incomplete, ESP connection to his son will cause him to accept the offer to murder Frank and it is as goofy as that sounds. There is a great deal more however to the connection between father and son including a looney final act twist that left me utterly gobsmacked. The ending of Serenity is surprising but not a good surprise, more of a WTF surprise. 


In an effort to take the classic noir thriller to a place that might appeal to the hip, modern, technically advanced older teen and twenty-something crowd, director Steven Knight has conceived a twist that is remarkably hokey and tone deaf. It’s the kind of twist that middle aged folks like myself laugh at and younger types will straight up ignore in the way you ignore grandpa’s less than helpful comments on Facebook posts. 


It’s a twist that works remarkably well at alienating audiences of all ages, uniting generations in eye-rolls of epic proportions and derisive laughter that will last till we reach the parking lot of the local theater. Honestly, I do admire the sheer madness of the twist attempted in Serenity but I can’t help but mock the result. The execution is so laughable and clumsy that jaw dropping exasperation can only evolve into giggles of sheer schadenfreude. 


I take no genuine pleasure in laughing at rather than with Serenity. These are a group of incredibly talented actors and a director I really do respect. Steven Knight directed Locke, an exceptional and experimental thriller that got the best out of the great Tom Hardy and demonstrated the talent for talking out loud to himself that would make Venom so sneakily entertaining. Knight knows how to make a movie. Serenity is merely an example of a hill to hard to climb to a destination that wasn’t worth climbing to. 


Movie Review Bigger

Bigger stars Tyler Hoechlin, former Teen Wolf star and current Supergirl co-star, as Joe Weider. If that name sounds familiar it’s because it is the name behind the greatest fitness empire history. Joe Weider is, perhaps, best known for having discovered Arnold Schwarzenegger but his life was far more than that as he revolutionized the fitness game by creating bodybuilding as we know it and changing the way the world viewed getting in shape. 


Bigger begins poorly by taking us back, unnecessarily to the early life of Joe Weider and his brother Ben (Aneurin Barnard). We learn that Joe’s mother wanted him to be a girl and never came around to having two sons. She mistreats the brothers throughout their life and while Weider would go on to say that what his mother withheld from him and Ben became the impetus for building his empire to fill that void, it rings hollow if you consider it as him crediting emotional abuse for being successful. 


The film begins to get watchable when Tyler Hoechlin finally takes the role as Joe and Ben leave Toronto behind and move on to college and empire-building. Unfortunately, this leads to another brief derailment in Joe’s first marriage. Former Nickelodeon star Victoria Justice plays Kathy Weider and the characterization here is pretty odd. Initially, the chemistry between Justice and Hoechlin isn’t bad but director George Gallo fumbles that very quickly. 


Needing to get Kathy out of the story to move on to the more interesting part of Joe Weider’s life, Gallo chooses to have Kathy pretend she has completely forgotten who she married. From their first meeting to their first date through their marriage, Joe is consistently only interested in bodybuilding, nutrition and health. It’s all this version of Joe Weider ever talks about. He shoots everything including his first kiss through the prism of health and fitness as a metaphor for life and love. 


So when Kathy returns home to find Joe and Ben working on their muscle and fitness magazine in their dining room Kathy, seemingly out of nowhere, takes umbrage. Kathy is shocked that the man who has talked almost nonstop about his plans to legitimize weightlifting as a sport and a lifestyle is suddenly spending his time building his dream. She turn angry and bitter and by the end of the scene an editing dissolve sends Kathy packing. 


Amid the tumult of Joe’s personal life, his professional life becomes a struggle as a more established bodybuilding publisher named Hauk keeps preventing the best bodybuilders in Canada from working with Joe. Hauk, played by character actor Kevin Durand, is a loutish, boorish, bully who tries to keep the Weider brothers from getting into his field of business. When Joe finally gains a foothold by proving his methods of training and nutrition are superior, Hauk finds other ways to try to derail his competition. 


Kevin Durand is by far the worst thing about Bigger. I get that he’s a villainous character whom we are supposed to dislike and distrust but Durand’s big, broad, oafish performance stretches credulity. Sure, Mr Hauk is not remembered to this day for a reason while the Weider’s went on to riches and fame and that does seem to indicate that much of what Bigger says about Hauk is based in some reality, Durand’s caricature of Hauk is far too silly and broad to be taken seriously. 


I have spent more time complaining about aspects of Bigger than praising the movie which is strange considering I am recommending the movie. So, let’s talk positives. I really liked Tyler Hoechlin’s performance as Joe Weider. I enjoyed how earnestly and honestly to the exclusion of all other things, Joe Weider was dedicated to his craft. The script is a tad broad but Hoechlin had me believing in Joe Weider’s obsessive personality that finds him looking at sex as something athletic and marketable. 


Hoechlin also sparks well with Julianne Hough as Joe’s second wife, legendary pinup Betty Weider. Betty was a model who Joe first spied on the cover of a magazine. Eventually, he would use his connections via his good friend Jack Lalanne (Colton Haynes) to arrange a meeting that he then uses to cast Betty for a photo shoot with one of his bodybuilders. The bodybuilder in question turns out to be Joe himself and the two begin falling madly in love. 


As I said, the chemistry between Hoechlin and Hough is terrific. Unfortunately, director George Gallo nearly ruins this relationship as well with his whipsawing female emotional developments. For no good reason, Betty nearly breaks up with Joe because he talked fitness in the bedroom. Once again, it’s a case of marriage amnesia as Betty is forced to briefly forget the man she married and ask that he be an entirely different person who doesn’t speak exclusively via the language and metaphor of bodybuilding and fitness. 


I’m not kidding when I tell you that I found the single minded way that the script and Hoechlin play Joe Weider as charming. As a character, Joe Weider is fully formed, he is a bodybuilding obsessive who single mindedness drive can either making him irresistibly earnest and naive or can drive people to want to smack him in the face to see if they can find an actual human being beyond the tightly coiled musculature. 


Bigger is not groundbreaking, it’s barely even something I can recommend. Joe Weider doesn’t have a real arc in the traditional sense. Weider appears to move from success to success in his career without fail and even in lean times his single minded approach to getting what he wants sustains him. Tyler Hoechlin mines that to create a fully formed if quite odd character. Joe Weider was an oddball but Hoechlin makes him a really interesting oddball, even as the movie around him crumbles under any real scrutiny. 


Hoechlin is so winning that I can’t help but recommend Bigger. Oh and one more note: the bodybuilder turned actor who portrays the young Arnold Schwarzenegger, circa 1968, is outstanding. Calum Van Moger looks ludicrously like a young Schwarzenegger. It’s uncanny when he’s first revealed and when he’s posing in the first Mr Olympia, Van Moger unveils that classic Schwarzenegger grin as one final flawless touch on a very minor performance. 


Movie Review Glass

As the biggest fan on the planet of M Night Shyamalan’s Split, I had a bias in favor of Glass. I was deeply excited for this sequel to two movies that I absolutely adored in Unbreakable and Split. So, for me to say that Glass is a bizarre, cheap, sloppy mess of a movie is really saying something. I tried to like this movie, I attempted to will Glass into being a good movie. I tried to rationalize it into working as a narrative. Nothing I tried worked as my logical brain overwhelmed my fanboy instinct, forcing this admission: Glass is terrible.


Glass picks up the story of Unbreakable and Split in the wake of the revelation that the two are in the same universe. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) has been fighting evil since the day he sent Elijah Price, aka Mr Glass (Samuel L Jackson) to prison for his terrorist acts. Using his super strength and extra-sensory perception, David has turned his attention to The Horde, the name given to the multiple personalities of Kevin (James McAvoy).


The Beast, Kevin’s most violent and dangerous alter-ego, has been feeding on those who he believes have never felt real pain. He’s murdered several more teenagers in the time since we met him in Split but finally, David Dunn, known in the media as ‘The Overseer,’ for reasons never determined, has a lead on The Horde. He’s tracked his location with the help of his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), to an empty factory in Philadelphia.


The confrontation between David and The Beast is cut short by the arrival of police and a doctor, Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). How did the police find them? Your guess is as good as the movie’s guess, as the movie offers no notion of how the police got there. How they got there with the one doctor in the world who has created a machine that can stop the superhuman qualities of The Beast, even though they had no idea where they were is one of many contrivances of the idiot plot of Glass.


David and Kevin are taken to a psychiatric hospital where, waiting for them, unwittingly, is Mr Glass. It seems that Dr Staple has a very particular specialty: people who believe they are superheroes. She believes that the three men are delusional and sets out to prove to them their seemingly superhuman abilities can be explained through science. Naturally, Elijah Price, the ultimate ‘True Believer’ won’t be easily convinced.


The trailer for Glass spoils the fact that Mr Glass and The Horde become a team and that David and The Beast will go head to head in the yard of the hospital. One thing the trailer doesn’t tell you is how cheap and unfocused these scenes are. The final act of Glass is reminiscent of Shyamalan’s The Village, a film where the final act completely destroys what was not a bad movie until that point.


Here, Glass isn’t that bad headed to the third act and then things go completely off the rails. In his attempt to recapture past glory as the king of the ‘Twist,’ Shyamalan packs a ludicrous number of twists into the third act of Glass. There are so many twists at the end of Glass that it becomes downright exhausting. It’s as if Shyamalan was so desperate to fool us that he hedged his bets and put in as much craziness as he could think of in order to convince us that at least one of these twists would legitimately surprise us.


I mentioned that Glass was cheap and boy howdy, for a movie that is a sequel to a pair of blockbusters, this movie looks as if it were a sweded version of a sequel to two blockbusters. Glass has one location for the most part and while it promises a big showdown at a high profile location, that location is revealed as CGI that somehow looks like a below average matte painting.


The number of corners in the making of Glass are rather shocking. The makeup used in many scenes is below average for even a modestly budgeted movie and the costumes are shockingly low rent. The production is stunningly mediocre and reflects the fact that Shyamalan no longer carries the weight of major studios on his back and is now fully in the low rent district of the horror novelty outlet, Blumhouse.


No one was more excited for Glass than I was. I was endlessly excited for this movie. I ignored how the trailer appeared to reveal important plot points. I ignored the cheesy lines made just for the trailer. I was completely blind to these flaws out of fealty to my love for Split and Unbreakable. Glass was going to have to fail so remarkably for me to dislike it that the failure would have to be undeniable and complete and it truly is. Glass is undeniably bad.



Movie Review Split (2016) Shyamalan Week

Despite positive notice for 2015’s The Visit, the belief was that before Split, M Night Shyamalan was done as a big time director. Split changed all of that and put the former twist-meister back on the A-list. Split was a stunner, a film that quickened the pace of the usual Shyamalan piece while maintaining the kind of suspense and tension that made Shyamalan the supposed modern day Hitchcock.


Split stars James McAvoy stars in Split as Kevin, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder. It’s hard to know which of Kevin’s numerous personalities is going to show up. Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), has grown used to talking with Barry, Kevin’s effeminately homosexual personality, who acts as a spokesperson for what he has come to call ‘The Horde,’ a nickname for the 23 known personalities, part of Kevin’s Dissociative Identity Disorder.


Lately however, Barry doesn’t seem like Barry and Dr Fletcher begins to recognize Dennis, arguably the most dangerous of Kevin’s personalities. Barry has been emailing Dr Fletcher at night with concerns about Dennis and The Horde and then downplaying his late night emails when he talks to her during sessions. The dynamic chemistry between McAvoy and the veteran Betty Buckley is fantastic and makes the mind games between the two are exciting and riveting.

Indeed, Dennis does prove to be dangerous. With the encouragement of Patricia, another of Kevin’s Horde, Dennis has taken hostages. In a mall parking lot Dennis murdered a man and took his daughter and two of her friends as hostages. Dennis and Patricia plan to sacrifice the teens to a creature they call The Beast, a heretofore unknown 24th persona for Kevin. The Beast is indeed a terror as Kevin’s very body chemistry changes to match his personality and as The Beast you can imagine the horrors to come.

The precision of James McAvoy’s performance cannot be understated. This is one of the most remarkable acting jobs I have ever witnessed. Sure, most actors put on and take off many different personas during their career but rarely are they asked to create distinct characters inside of one movie. McAvoy sells each personality as if they are the lead in their own movie and each persona is distinct and provides another layer to the thriller.


Perhaps the most important of these personas is Hedwig, a nine year old boy. Hedwig has the heavy lifting of getting us through the second act and into the third. It is as Hedwig that McAvoy spends time interacting with Anya Taylor Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula as the kidnapped teenagers. Hedwig has a load of exposition to unfurl in this time as the movie lays the groundwork for the reveal of The Beast and he is a fantastic vessel for this. We’re never bored by the exposition because we are transfixed by McAvoy’s take on a 9 year old in a adult body.


Anya Taylor Joy, one of the stars of the equally ingenious The Witch before taking on this role, is a brilliant foil for Kevin aka The Horde. No innocent herself, Joy’s Casey has flashbacks amidst the kidnapping plot and the payoff to these flashbacks is every bit as shocking as the final reveal of The Beast. The empathy she offers to Kevin’s varying personalities is a terrific counterpoint to the menace of Dennis, Patricia and The Beast.


Split is one of my favorite movies of this young century and that it was folded into the universe of Unbreakable is a tasty cherry on top of an already great dessert of a movie. The final reveal of Bruce Willis in Split was a jaw-dropper for those of us who saw it opening weekend and then rushed home to spoil it on the internet with our speculation on how a sequel to Unbreakable featuring Kevin would play like.


It was as if we were part of the market testing of an Unbreakable and we didn’t even know it. The choice felt organic at the end, after we’ve seen Kevin become the almost supernatural figure, The Beast and considered how one might oppose such a figure. Seeing Bruce Willis was amazing in that moment and the catharsis of feeling the pieces of Glass fall into place was a terrific adrenalin rush following what was already a great thrill in Split.


Glass opens nationwide this weekend.


Movie Review Unbreakable (2000) Shyamalan Week

Continuing our weeklong look at the work of writer-director M Night Shyamalan, in honor of the release of Glass, this weekend, it’s time to look at Unbreakable. Unbreakable was M Night Shyamalan’s last moment as a seemingly unimpeachable genius of pop cinema. After this came Signs which received strong box office but the first real critical grumbles since his little seen debut feature, Wide Awake.


Don’t misunderstand, Unbreakable had its critics, but with Shyamalan still in the glow of his multiple Academy Award nominations for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable was always going to benefit from that films coattails. That Unbreakable wasn’t Shyamalan falling on his face but instead delivering a second straight crowd-pleasing blockbuster is no minor feat. Many directors have shown themselves to be one and done it-person directors in the past. To have back to back blockbuster critical darlings is far more rare than we imagine.


Unbreakable stars Bruce Willis as David, a seemingly ordinary guy with ordinary guy troubles. David’s marriage is failing, his relationship with his son is strained and his search for stable, well paying work has been hampered by his seeming depression. Then, David is seemingly nearly killed in a massive train accident. In fact, by some miracle, he’s the only survivor among more than 100 passengers and crew members.


David’s luck doesn’t go unnoticed. A comic book aficionado by the name of Elijah Price hears of David’s improbable survival and begins to seek him out. For years, Elijah has searched for someone like David on the bizarre belief that the man he is seeking is his direct opposite and thus his super-powered nemeses. Elijah himself, is nearly paralyzed by a brittle bone condition that causes his bones to shatter under pressure.


Elijah believes that David’s bones are unbreakable, making him his super-heroic doppelganger. Where David is unbreakable, Elijah is completely breakable and thus fashions himself as a mastermind type who uses his wits to orchestrate evil that David must work to prevent or avenge. David doesn’t buy Elijah’s superhero nonsense but as he begins to notice things about his body, how he’s never broken a bone, how he doesn’t experience physical fatigue, how he doesn’t get sick, he starts to think that maybe, just maybe the crazy comic book man might be onto something.


One of the clever aspects of Unbreakable is Bruce Willis’s refusal to buy into David as a superhero. Despite evidence in his very bones, Willis' David stubbornly holds on to his non-believer status. Even as Elijah begins to push him to test his limits and find his weaknesses. David eventually determines that he has ESP, Extra-Sensory Perception. When David touches someone he can sense the crime they committed.


David uses this ability to locate a janitor who had ambushed and murdered a local family man and has taken the man’s wife and children hostage. David rescues the kids and winds up in a pitched battle with the murderer. The journey of the film appears to be Elijah pushing David to become a superhero but, with this being from the mind of M Night Shyamalan, there is a twist to the ending that throws a new light on these characters.


What Shyamalan does so incredibly in Unbreakable is establish mood and tone. The mood is melancholy but with a growing sense of color and light as David slowly uncovers his abilities. The tone of the of the film is a slow burn of sadness and resignation to ordinary life that builds and builds with excitement through the second act before reaching a pair of jarring crescendos including that terrific twist ending that I mentioned.


Of course, if you are seeing Glass this weekend and you have seen the trailer, you know what the twist is. Still, no need for me to spoil it here. Just a warning though, you do need to see Unbreakable in order for you to understand the action of Glass and the importance of Samuel L Jackson’s character to Bruce Willis’ character. How they are tied in with James McAvoy’s murderous, multiple personalities from Split is the big question that Glass will have to answer.  


As for Unbreakable on its own, I cannot recommend it enough. In some ways, I actually prefer Unbreakable to The Sixth Sense. That’s not a popular position as The Sixth Sense, in many ways has more dramatica credibility than the comic book quality of Unbreakable. I simply find the conceit of Unbreakable even more irresistibly mainstream and entertaining than even the ‘I see dead people’ conceit of The Sixth Sense.


Both are artfully made, mainstream blockbusters, based in familiar genres, but there is something rather bold and unique in Unbreakable where Shyamalan forces you to treat comic books as a form of serious film art. That takes guts today, let alone in the year 2000, before Marvel made comic book movies that critics could embrace. 


Movie Review The Village (2004) M Night Shyamalan Week

The Village was seen as the beginning of the end of M Night Shyamalan as the unquestioned genius hitmaker. The follow up to the smash hit Signs, The Village was meant to capitalize on Shyamalan’s reputation as the modern day Hitchcock of twisty thrillers. Unfortunately, with the weight of expectations of a twist ending hanging over the film, fans anticipation for what the twist might be pretty much guaranteed the movie would be a disappointment.


The Village is a real trip, an at times exceptionally well acted, epically misguided story of outsiders with a deep, dark secret. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Lucius and Bryce Dallas Howard as Ivy. Despite a slow start, the film slowly evolves as a mysterious 19th century romance with a twist of horror movie monsters hanging over it. The couple are residents of a colony that is cut off from the rest of the nearby towns by a forest populated by monsters who live in a delicate detente with the residents of The Village.


The town elders, led by William Hurt as Ivy’s father, Edward Walker, have raised their families in fear of the creatures who are fed a sacrifice of animal flesh on a weekly basis. Residents of the Village are not allowed to enter the forest and must not wear the forbidden color, red, which is said to set off the creatures. As we join the story, the monsters are believed to be raiding the town at night and causing a panic.


In the midst of the panic, Lucius begins to spend more and more time looking in on Ivy and her family and while he is a character of few words, Joaquin Phoenix as an actor communicates all we need to know about Lucius, he’s in love with Ivy and shows it by becoming her de-facto protector. For her part, Ivy is far more open and vocal about her feelings and these two approaches collide in the best scene in The Village in which they eventually declare their love.


I had forgotten about The Village since seeing it on the big screen in 2004. This led to a wild viewing experience in which I was convinced that I completely disliked it and then shocked to find myself deeply invested and enjoying it during this rewatch. No joke, I was riveted by the performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard, William Hurt and the supporting players including the brilliant Brendan Gleeson and Sigourney Weaver.


Then the third act hit and my memory came rushing back. Now I remember why I hated The Village back in 2004. The third act of The Village is a complete trainwreck. From the moment that Joaquin Phoenix is knocked into a plot device coma to the reveal of the big twist well before the actual end of the movie to the nonsensical and self indulgent ending, The Village goes completely off the rails.


The next section of this review of The Village goes into spoilers so if you still haven’t seen The Village and want to remain unspoiled, jump off now and come back after you see the movie, it’s on Netflix. We’ll be here when you get back.


The big twist of The Village is despite the setting in a village that even the tombstones indicate exists in the late 1800’s, the movie is actually set in modern America 2004. The monsters that provide the oppressive atmosphere of the first two acts aren’t real. The town elders portray the monsters as a way of keeping their families from trying to leave the village and find out about the modern world outside the forest.


William Hurt, it turns out, is a secret billionaire who, with the help of the elders, created The Village as a way of escaping the crime of the modern world that had tragically taken the lives of members of every family in town. This ‘twist’ is deeply problematic in numerous ways. For instance, why convince everyone they can’t wear red? Why make red a plot point at all? It never becomes important, especially after Hurt admits to making up the rules along the way/ 


At one point, after the creatures are revealed as not real, Bryce Dallas Howard, whose character is blind, is seen to have wandered into a field of red flowers and tense music plays and you’re baffled as you know there is no danger and she knows there is no danger and yet the movie wants the scene to be suspenseful because of the monsters. The monsters that, by this point, he's already revealed as fake. Why would we be afraid in this scene?


Why didn't the elders simply declare themselves Amish and create a colony based on those values. Why the elaborate ruse about the outside world? I get that they want to frighten the children into never leaving but there had to be something simpler than goofy-looking woods' monsters to convince people from leaving. This just seems like a lot of unnecessary work to hide a secret that doesn't’t need much hiding.


Shyamalan directs the third act of The Village as if he hadn’t revealed the twist ending at the start of the act. The movie straight up has William Hurt admit the elaborate lie to Bryce Dallas Howard and then sends her on a journey through the now completely safe woods that is then played as if there were still real monsters on the loose. When Howard finally makes it out of the woods it appears Shyamalan wants us to be surprised that we are in modern day America.


That would be fine if he didn’t tell us that before she ever actually left the village. The only real tension is that Howard’s Ivy is blind and must find her way through the forest alone and blind. This is something she manages quite well under the dire circumstances but raises the question of why Hurt didn’t just go himself. He gives some nonsense about how he vowed to never leave the village and yet he reveals the lies about everything to his blind daughter and then encourages her to leave the village on her own? Blind, going into the woods alone. At the very least, that’s awful parenting.


The Village stinks because it wastes two acts of a really compelling drama on a twist that wasn’t a twist and a series of nonsensical story beats that the script undercuts by revealing everything far too soon. We get the secret about the fake monsters and the modern day setting before Ivy leaves into the forest. The film has an action beat left courtesy of Adrien Brody’s offensive burlesque of a mentally challenged man but that’s not what we have been building toward.


We were promised a twist ala The Sixth Sense and what we got instead was a third act that would come to define the worst traits of M Night Shyamalan, his tendency toward convoluted and overwrought twist endings and big plot moments. In the third act, Shyamalan abandons the strength and heart of the film, the love story between Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard in favor of nonsense action movie chases and a twist that he spoils himself before it can surprise us.


It’s a shame because there was two thirds of a really compelling movie in The Village.


Movie Review Who's Harry Crumb (1989)

Who’s Harry Crumb is a childhood guilty pleasure for me. This 1989 John Candy goof-around hit my 13 year old sensibilities square in the bullseye. Dorky, awkward and deeply silly, this detective spoof, for me, was peak John Candy. And that is saying something considering that John Candy was the defining comic face of my childhood. While others worshipped at the altar of the SNL crowd or Steve Martin or Eddie Murphy, John Candy was my comedian. 


Admittedly, much of John Candy’s work hasn’t aged well and Harry Crumb is a good example of that. Much of what John Candy did was variations on the big guy falls down style of humor, before Chris Farley picked up that mantel, but Who’s Harry Crumb at least wasn’t all humor based on Candy’s size. Most of Harry Crumb was based on the pure silliness of Candy’s persona, his talent for goofball antics and comic mimicry.


Who’s Harry Crumb stars John Candy as the titular detective, Harry Crumb. Hired to investigate the kidnapping of a millionaire’s daughter, Harry doesn’t know that he’s been hired specifically to screw up the case. Harry’s boss at the Crumb & Crumb detective agency, Eliot Draisen (Jeffrey Jones), specifically gave the case to Harry because Harry is the least competent detective in the agency. Eliot himself is behind the kidnapping of fashion model Jennifer Downing (Renee Coleman) and Eliot assumes that Harry can't possible solve the case. 


Harry’s style is bizarre as he enjoys wild and elaborate costumes that he believes fool everyone when in reality, he’s fooling no one. Harry’s saving grace is Nikki (Shawnee Smith), the sister of Jennifer, the kidnapped model and the one person who believes that Harry can crack the case, if only with her help. The duo gets on the trail and despite Harry’s bizarre ways, they manage to crack a couple of leads.


No, as an adult viewer of Who’s Harry Crumb, I cannot defend this goofball nonsense. But, as a piece of loopy, childish, nostalgia, I still can’t get enough of this movie. It’s like fatty food, I know it’s not good for me,.but Who’s Harry Crumb is really great junk food. It all comes back to John Candy who was among the most lovable lugs ever on the big screen. Candy, for a kid, was comic gold. His anything for a laugh approach never failed to hit me right in the funny bone. 


A scene set to Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero with Candy riding atop an airport staircase vehicle, chasing down the duo of Tim Thomerson and Annie Potts, is such a dumb and cliched scene but I could not stop laughing at it as a kid and the nostalgia makes it hold up for me today. If a movie today featured a similar scene I would probably complain but because it is Candy and it is Who’s Harry Crumb, I find it completely hysterical. 


A new edition of Who’s Harry Crumb is coming to DVD and Blu Ray on Tuesday and if you have young kids who love truly goofy humor based on daft characters falling down and dressing up in strange costumes, I kind of recommend this movie. It’s rated PG. Some of the costumes probably don’t hold up to modern standards of Political Correctness, but it’s hard to hold that against the movie and especially against the late Mr Candy who was always a good hearted goof.


Movie Review The Upside

The Upside stars Bryan Cranston as Phillip, a billionaire who suffered a tragic accident that left him paralyzed below the neck. The bigger tragedy for Phillip though, was the loss of his wife who died from cancer not long after Phillip’s accident. Phillip’s top executive, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) has just retrieved him from the hospital after he nearly died from what was implied as an attempt to end his life. 


Coming home, Phillip needs a ‘life auxillary,’ someone to feed him, bathe him, change his catheter, and drive him around. He doesn’t want the help but Yvonne insists. In the process of interviewing qualified candidates, Phillip meets Del (Kevin Hart) who has come to the interview just to get a signature on a form to show his parole officer that he’s been looking for a job. Del is the first applicant to treat Phillip like a human being, even if it just means that Del is rude to him. 


Over Yvonne’s stern objections, Phillip insists on hiring Del despite his complete lack of experience. This is a dark and grave decision as the implication is that Phillip hired him in hopes of Del’s incompetence and lack of care will end Phillip’s life. Del even goes as far as verbalizing this very point in a moment that actually really connected me with the movie. The honesty of this moment breaks the potential mawkishness of the film. 


The Upside could be an overwrought melodrama about overcoming the odds and a magical person who enters the life of someone in need and saves them. That’s still part of the narrative but it is rendered novel and entertaining by the dynamic between the characters and between the leads, Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston. Hart and Cranston are terrific together as mismatched friends with Cranston seeming genuinely delighted by Hart and Hart dedicated to being Cranston’s friend. 


Director Neil Burger hasn’t had much luck in the feature film arena. His most well known movie, The Illusionist starring Edward Norton, was completely overshadowed the year it was released by Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Both were films about magicians. His other claim to big screen fame was part of the flailing and failing Divergent franchise. That said, he’s always shown glimmers of talent and The Upside indicates he has a talent for character pieces. 


The embattled Kevin Hart doesn’t do himself any favors with the level of gay panic he brings to The Upside. The gay panic gags that caused an uproar on twitter and caused him to leave the gig as Oscar host, gets a big set piece in the film when Del has to change Phillip’s catheter and can’t get over having to touch Phillip’s privates. It’s not a particularly funny gag and I’m not sure why it had to be in the film. That said, the audience I watched with found this set-piece hilarious. 


One unnecessary scene however, doesn’t dampen my enjoyment of the movie. Do I wish Kevin Hart would grow up a little? Yes, it would help this movie a little for him to improve himself and grow up but as for Del in The Upside, it’s a solid performance. The dynamic between Cranston and Hart is one I cannot deny. The film is quite funny at times even as the gags are very familiar. Smoking weed, hitting on women, prostitutes, cliches but Cranston and Hart’s genuine delight in each other is enough for me to put that stuff aside. 


I am most assuredly going easy on The Upside. The film likely doesn’t deserve my kindness but it gets it because I did have fun. The film has its heart in the right place. It has uplift and laughs and pathos. I may have been too familiar with the comic premises but I never stopped smiling because Hart and Cranston are so very good with each other. These two characters, based on a real life pair from France who were previously brought to the screen in the similarly feel-good, The Intouchables, are just really good characters. 


Hart and Cranston have a huge emotional and comedic field to play from dark humor to lighthearted fun. Director Burger then grounds the story with Kidman’s more serious performance and with Del’s redemption story from criminal deadbeat to a guy on the right path. Sure, he won the equivalent of a life lottery but I bought it. I bought Del and I bought Phillip and I cared about them. I laughed with them and that’s just enough for me to recommend The Upsid


Movie Review A Dog's Way Home

A Dog’s Way Home is a movie for kids. I had to keep telling myself that so that I would go easy on this otherwise tacky and manipulative melodrama. This is not a movie intended for an audience capable of seeing through its mawkishness and pushy sentimentality. A Dog’s Way Home is meant for yet to be fully formed intellects that won’t recognize the cheap dramatic tricks on display.


A Dog’s Way Home features the voice of Bryce Dallas Howard as Bella, a dog born living underneath a fallen house. Bella grows up alongside the sweetest group of feral cats in history until animal control grabs most of them and Bella’s mother and brothers. For the next part of her life, Bella is raised by a cat that she calls Mother Cat. Seeing a dog feed on a cat is a new experience and one I am not quite sure I am comfortable with.


Bella’s life is changed forever when she meets Lucas (Jonah Hauer King), a young man who has been working to rescue the cats living in this otherwise destroyed neighborhood. When he finds Bella, Bella falls immediately in love. Lucas takes Bella home even though his landlord doesn’t allow for him to have a pet. Lucas lives with his mother, played by Ashley Judd, an Iraq war vet with the lightest touch of PTSD, she gets a little sad sometimes.


This is the status quo for some time until Lucas crosses the developer trying to raze the building where the cats have been living. The developer sics animal control on Bella and because she is part pitbull, and pitbulls are apparently outlawed in Denver, where the film is set, Bella is taken away. Lucas decides to take Bella out of town until he and his mother find a new apartment outside of Denver.


Unfortunately, Bella doesn’t understand that she’s only temporarily going to be away from her owner and when she gets the chance, Bella flees the home in New Mexico and goes on a run through the woods and towns and some 400 miles to get herself back to Denver and back to her beloved owner. Along the way, Bella makes pals with a sweet hearted gay couple and a cougar that she calls Big Kitten.


You know how I said this is a kids movie? Well, there is at least one part that probably doesn’t belong in a movie for kids. In a subplot that left me utterly bewildered, Bella befriends a homeless man on her journey, played by Edward James Olmos, literally slumming for this role. The homeless man, like all of the supporting characters in this film, is a veteran dealing with PTSD. He keeps Bella tied to him until he is close to death when he decides to chain Bella to himself and then he dies.


Yes, this kiddie flick about a heartwarming dog’s journey home, features our hero dog chained to the corpse of a homeless veteran. It’s a scene as bewildering as it is bleak. I get that Bella needs life threatening crises for dramatic purposes but this one goes way too far, and we’re talking about a movie where a dog befriends a cougar and fights wolves. Bella nearly dies until two kids find her and the body because the trauma needed more witnesses I guess.


A Dog’s Way Home will, despite how tacky and cheap it is, still appeal to animal lovers. Much like the classic cheap child in danger plot, audiences can’t get enough of cute animals in danger plots. Add in a cutesy voiceover, as if the dog has a narrator trapped in its skull and audiences go crazy for it. Our love for animals runs so deep that we often give a pass to even the most trashy of cute animal movies and no doubt many audiences will give a pass to A Dog’s Way Home. I won’t but that’s just me.


Movie Review Replicas

Replicas isn’t as bad as I assumed it would be. Instead, Replicas is just bad in a more bland and general fashion. Where I have spent the last couple of days praising Keanu Reeves blank slate approach to being an action hero, here that blankness is more dead eyed and bored. Reeves isn’t holding back to give the audience an avatar, he’s checked out in the way that big time actors can tend to check out when they are just collecting a paycheck.


In Replicas, Keanu Reeves stars as Bill, a big shot scientist attempting to copy a human mind into a computer. We watch as a dead body arrives having only died hours before. This dead man volunteered to have his brain mapped and attempted to be copied and put into a robot. Unfortunately, the man’s mind rejects the robot body, even going so far as to try and punch it’s own mind out.


With this failure it appears that Bill might lose his job and the company itself may go out of business according to Bill’s boss, Jones (John Ortiz). Meanwhile, Bill is leaving on vacation that same day. Bill’s family are going to take out a boat owned by Bill’s co-worker Ed (Thomas Middleditch) but unfortunately, on the way to the boat, Bill and his family are in a car wreck that kills Bill’s wife (Alice Eve) and their three children.


Devastated in the immediate aftermath of the accident, Bill doesn’t contact the authorities. Instead, he calls Ed and has him bring his brain mapping equipment. Bill then sets about copying the minds of his wife and children as he did the dead man in his experiment. You might assume from this that he is going to make robot copies of his family, given that is what has been introduced already but you would be wrong.


Turns out, Ed is an expert in cloning and Bill wants Ed to clone his dead family. The two then set about stealing 4 million dollars worth of company property and taking three cloning pods and various genetic materials to Bill’s home. They do this despite the security protocols the script setup prior to this scene. Ed tells Bill that in 17 days, if all goes well, he will have three members of his family back but it will be up to him to choose which three and whether he can give them the memories and personalities they once had.


Have you got all of that nonsense because the film is so convoluted you might need to take notes. And yet, the film is equally as empty headed as it is overcomplicated. Keanu Reeves could not possibly care less about this movie. Take for instance the car wreck aftermath scenes. Keanu reacts to the death of his family with the same level of concern one might have for being cut off in traffic, he appears aggravated with a touch of confusion.


Middleditch meanwhile has exactly zero chemistry with Reeves despite the two apparently being close friends, according to the script. Middleditch is a mess of tics and awkward attempts at humor and while it is similar to his work on HBO’s Silicon Valley it doesn’t fit the serious tone cultivated by director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, a television veteran whose only other feature was the similarly sedate and confused Traitor in 2008.


Nachmanoff also wrote the screenplay for the similarly overstuffed The Day After Tomorrow. Much like that film, Replicas is a jumble of competing ideas. We start with a robot and then leap over to cloning. The cloning is relatively meaningless as it only leads to a series of action movie confrontations and a chase scene. The clones wind up being a plot driver but there is little consequence to the clones as characters.


Alice Eve is completed wasted in the role of wife and clone wife. The young star who made a strong impression in Star Trek a few years ago has almost zero presence in Replicas. You might expect from this premise that the clones would have a sinister air, perhaps a Twilight Zone like consequence, but no, they’re just perfect copies of Bill’s family, minus his young daughter because he only had three pods.


The film tries to mine some depth from Bill erasing his youngest daughter from the clones’ memories but Keanu Reeves can’t be bothered to express any genuine angst over this development and thus we don’t care much either. Much like how he reacted to the death of his family, Reeves’ Bill appears mildly befuddled by the decision to erase his daughter. Then, with no build up or drama, he eventually just tells his wife she’s a clone and that he erased their daughter. What should have been an important moment plays like Bill admitting he was the one who ate the last of pudding pops.


Replicas is really dopey but, to be fair, I was expecting a trainwreck. The film’s trailer and marketing campaign made the film appear to be something akin to a Tommy Wiseau movie, minus the charm. Keanu Reeves is bored, Thomas Middleditch is irksome and Alice Eve is absent. Replicas is forgettably bad, just competent enough for it to slip your memory just as quickly as you leave the theater.


Movie Review John Wick and the Appeal of Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves returns to theaters this weekend in Replicas, a new sci-fi flick in which he plays a scientist attempting to clone the family he lost in a car wreck. While that film looks, from the trailer, like a complete trainwreck, the appeal of Keanu Reeves “Movie Star” will remain regardless of how Replicas fares. In more than 30 years as a movie star, Keanu Reeves has earned our eternal adoration as the blankly handsome face of action movies.


As I wrote yesterday, in my review of The Matrix, it’s Reeves’ very blankness that makes his otherwise ethereal handsomeness an everyman quality. We relate to him because we project upon Keanu our own personality in a more conventionally handsome vessel. That is certainly the appeal of Keanu in The Matrix and that extends also to the budding John Wick franchise. Once again, Keanu is our attractive avatar, just enough of a blank personality for us to fantasize ourselves into the role.


John Wick stars Keanu Reeves as the titular, John Wick, the world’s foremost assassin. Or, at least, he used to be. Once John Wick got married he retired his arsenal of death in favor of being a loyal and dutiful husband. Sadly, John’s wife recently passed away, leaving him a present, a dog, to help him to not be lonely. Though not conventionally a ‘dog person,’ John takes to the pup as a connection to his late wife.


One day, as John is out and about happily in retirement, he stops at a gas station while driving his cherry black muscle mustang. A seemingly random rich guy, the son of a local mobster, tries to convince John to sell his car. John rebuffs the offer and is on his way but the kid, played by Alfie Allen, is not one to take no for an answer. The kid sends thugs to kill John and take the car and during the assault, they kill John’s dog.This leads John Wick out of retirement and on the trail of the mobster’s kid.


The key to John Wick is the tremendous world building by screenwriter Derek Kolstad and the film’s credited and uncredited directors, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. Every other character in John Wick goes out of their way to talk about how scary Wick is. The main bad guy in the movie, the mobster played by the late Michael Nyqvist, only opposes John Wick because of his son. He appears more upset with his son for attacking Wick than he does at Wick for wanting revenge.


Then there are the brilliant touches around the edges of John Wick. The fight scene in which the dog is killed ends with John Wick contacting a secret, underground cleaning service that specializes in disposing of bodies. The richness of this idea is remarkable as in the John Wick universe you could make a dark comic television show based on these minor characters who answer a question that has been raised in dozens of action movies in the past: how are bodies disposed of in action movies?


Then there is the brilliant creation of The Continental, a hotel that itself could be the premise of a movie or a television show. Ian McShane is the proprietor of The Continental, a luxury hotel that caters to criminals and assassins. So respected are the halls of The Continental that even the most hardened killers are obliged to honor the rules against killing on the premises. The Continental offers a swift justice to anyone who breaks the rules.


I could argue that the film’s treatment of women is less than great, the only woman with a relatively large role, Adrianne Palicki as contract killer Mrs Perkins, is not well fleshed out and feels like a token opposite all of the testosterone on display, but that doesn’t affect my enjoyment of John Wick. The sequel appears to be attempting to rectify the role of women in the John Wick Universe by casting Halle Berry in John Wick 3.


The Keanu Reeves of John Wick may have more clenched teeth intensity but he maintains that same quiet behind the eyes approach that makes him so appealing as an audience avatar. The quality that many critics fault Reeves for, a lack of a dominating personality, is, for me, one of his great strengths. He’s lowkey and passive enough as a personality to allow the audience to reflect ourselves in him.


In John Wick, Keanu offers us the role of a lifetime as the baddest man on the planet. He’s the man everyone else is afraid with a set of envious skills that we can pretend for 90 or 100 minutes our our skills. Through Keanu’s eyes we become John Wick and that audience identification with Keanu, his status as our resident handsome avatar is what makes Keanu a movie star who has lasted for so many years.


Movie Review The Matrix (1999)

Keanu Reeves returns to the big screen this weekend in the new science fiction flick Replicas. That film has Reeves playing a scientist crossing ethical boundaries to use cloning technology, or something of the sort, to bring back the wife and child he lost to a car accident. The premise is interesting and while the trailer leaves a lot to be desired and an attempt to pretend critics like it by boasting in ads about a “92%” rating on, the film has only one critics review, a negative review, in Spanish, only makes me more suspicious of the film’s quality.


That said, even if Replicas is a bad movie as my instincts are telling me, I won’t hold it against star Keanu Reeves. After all, there is still John Wick 3 to look forward to this year and an all new Bill & Ted movie that appears to have a clever revival idea behind it still to come. Most importantly, Keanu will always be Neo from The Matrix. The 1999 sci-fi action blockbuster The Matrix heralded the beginning of the end of the era when blockbusters based on original ideas were all the rage and visionary filmmakers with new ideas appeared to have a place in Hollywood.


That era is over, likely brought to the close by the very visionaries, The Wachowski siblings, whose film, The Matrix, became the last of the great original franchises. Big budget originals such as Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending may have been the death knell for any original, big budget adventure without a built in audience, comic book or novel behind it but I don’t hold that against The Wachowski’s. I may hate both of those original flops but at least they were trying something original and bold.


In the era of the remake, reboot or comic book based blockbuster originality needs to be cheered even when it fails spectacularly as The Wachowski’s recent features have. Honestly, we should have a GoFundMe campaign or create some sort of ‘Too Big to Fail’ scam in order to fool studios into thinking those failures were hits so people like The Wachowski’s can get more chances to create something as bold and original as The Matrix was in 1999.


The Matrix stars Keanu Reeves as a part time drug dealer and full time office drone living a mundane existence. I called him a drug dealer but his trade is more in outlaw software that has the effect of getting people high. Neo himself has no use for such thrills. His life is lived in the secret places of the internet where, as a hacker, he tracks the strange movements of a vigilante named Morpheus (Larry Fishburne) whose hacking skills have led to rumors even Neo can’t begin to make sense of.


One night Neo’s work catches the attention of Morpheus and his cohorts and they reach out via Morpheus’s second in command, Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss). Trinity warns Neo that ‘Agents’ may be on to him, a warning that Neo or Thomas Anderson in his world, fails to heed. At his office the next day, Neo is cornered by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) who threatens him if he won’t help the agents find Morpheus.


With the help of Morpheus, Neo makes a dynamic and improbable escape from the agents. When Neo meets Morpheus he is offered a choice that became and has remained a meme or metaphor for seeing the world in a different way. Neo is offered a Red Pill that will wake him up to The Matrix and reality and the Blue Pill which will allow him to remain in his current place in the world, ignorant of reality.


Neo, of course, chooses the Red Pill and soon awakens in a pod, naked and covered in goo. His brain stem has a plug in it and his lungs are being operated by a machine until he removes it in a scene of modest but highly effective body horror. Neo is picked up by Morpheus’s ship, the Nebuchadnezzar where he will recover and eventually be taught about The Matrix, the machine of which he was a prisoner.


In the real world, humans are batteries within a massive machine and reality is fed to them via the subconscious. To fight The Matrix, Morpheus and his crew hack the system and work to disassemble the machine from the inside, one part at a time. Morpheus believes Neo may be a mythical savior with the power to bend The Matrix to his will and bring an end to a war most of humanity doesn’t realize is being fought between man and machine.


It’s been nearly 20 years since The Matrix arrived in theaters and the film still feels like a fresh commentary on modern society. In fact, a coterie of conspiracy theorists believe that our reality is trending more toward a Matrix-esque reality due to our ever-growing dependence on the online world. Much like ‘The Red Pill’ has become a meme that has been co opted in myriad different metaphorical forms, the The Matrix itself remains a strong and singular commentary on modern society.


Part of what keeps The Matrix fresh is Keanu Reeves. While some consider Reeves’ blank slate performance to be flat and unaffected, I have always felt that the film effectively deploys Reeves’ perceived flatness. Reeves is a rather perfect audience surrogate. We can project upon his blank, open, face, our own personas and interpretations. Some might consider that a flaw in that he doesn't’t stand out and stand on his own but, for me, Reeves’ empty vessel quality is part of the film’s appeal.


Reeves is a terrifically physical actor whose wiry frame is not so muscular as to make him un-relatable but no so average that he isn’t believable as he transforms into a karate master in the world of The Matrix. Truly, Reeves is ideal casting for Neo as he can be what most of the audience wishes we were, a handsome, world saving, bullet dodging karate hero. If Reeves played the role with a great deal of charisma he’d risk standing apart from the audience rather than standing in for us.


While I wish Keanu Reeves had more movies like The Matrix on his resume than say, Destination Wedding or Replicas, at the very least he will always be our Neo, the hero so open to interpretation and impersonation that he is all of us and none us all at once. Will Smith was initially sought for the role of Neo as The Matrix was entering production but he would have been all wrong for it. Neo isn’t a quippy, believable, world-saving, comic book hero, he’s an Everyman and while Reeves may be super handsome, his blank slate has an every man quality that is iconically Neo from The Matrix.