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Movie Reviews

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.


Movie Review The Clones (1973)

With the new movie Replicas starring Keanu Reeves opening this weekend I thought a themed entry regarding cloning would be a good idea. Replicas is about a man repeatedly attempting to clone his dead family members and it put me in the mind of how movies have dealt with the issue of cloning. It turns out, aside from several classy documentaries on the issue, narrative fiction has mostly steered clear. 


For the most part, cloning has been relegated to the dregs of the sci-fi genre with few serious looks at the issue and plenty of schlocky nonsense. This brought me to the 1973 sci-fi flick The Clones, directed by Lamar Card and Paul Hunt and starring Michael Greene and Gregory Sierra. Why The Clones? Mostly because it was available on Amazon Prime but also because it had a strikingly surreal poster that you can see here, on the film’s IMDB page


The Clones stars Michael Greene as scientist Dr Gerard Appleby, Gerry to his friends and colleagues. We meet Gerry as someone is watching him work in his nondescript lab on something vaguely scientific that the film doesn’t bother to describe. Something goes wrong and Gerry is forced to flee for his life. The film is so clumsy about what has taken place that it only occurred to me as I write this that someone intended for Gerry to die in this lab accident. 


When Gerry does escape he sees some leaving in his car. When he makes it to the nearby security office for his lab facility, the guard is surprised to see him… again. According to the security guard, Gerry had just left driving Gerry’s car. When Gerry arrives back at his office on the campus of the Pacific Institute of Technology, his assistant tells him that he’d just been there and that he’d just called campus security before he’d left. She appears convinced that Gerry has sudden onset Alzheimer's. 


Finally, Gerry returns to the home of his girlfriend, Karen (Barbara Bergdorf), and has his most unusual encounter yet. In Karen’s kitchen is Gerry, or at least, a perfect copy of Gerry who has Gerry’s wallet, ID, memories and personality. Our Gerry flees the scene, recovering his car and wallet only to be stopped by police and taken to the campus security office where a pair of FBI agents are waiting to take him into custody for a crime they refuse to reveal. Gerry manages to escape and thus begins one of The Clones’ interminably long chase scenes. 


The Clones packs its 97 minute runtime with a great deal more running, jumping and chasing than anything to do with cloning. If you are thinking that you are going to watch The Clones and find out why the government suddenly wanted Gerry dead and replaced with a clone you can forget it. The filmmakers apparently believe that being as vague as possible is a substitute for drama. Unfortunately, the clumsy scripting makes it appear that they simply never had a clue how this story was to play out. 


Michael Greene isn’t exactly your classically handsome and charismatic leading man. He’s wiry and being forced to run for most of the movie, he looks kind of odd. We never really get a chance to connect with Gerry because the silly plot, rather than being about sci-fi and cloning is more about action movie chases that are desperately overlong and silly. One has Gerry being chased through a swamp and has him slip his captors by hiding in a tree in plain sight. 


The final chase scene and shootout is set in an amusement park for reasons that only the filmmakers understand. This leads to an amazingly dumb payoff wherein the lead government good, played by future Hill Street Blues supporting cast member, Gregory Sierra, attempts to hunt Gerry down and avoid Gerry at the same time by boarding a rollercoaster. The director then shows us a sign that says ‘No Standing on the Ride’ but fails to pay off the scene with a clever decapitation. 


Then again, everything about The Clones is disappointing so why should that ending be anything other than a disappointment. Am I glad I spent time watching The Clones? Eh, it’s bad but in a somewhat enjoyable fashion. I was certainly laughing at the movie and not with it but I did have kind of a good time. I don’t recommend it but if you are, for some reason, looking for movies about cloning, The Clones is a movie that has clones in it. So there’s that. 


At the very least, The Clones is available at no extra charge to Amazon Prime members. 


Movie Review What They Had

What They Had stars Hilary Swank as Bitty, a chef living in Los Angeles and disconnected from her family back in Chicago. As the movie begins, Bitty is called by her brother Nick (Michael Shannon) to come home because their mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), has disappeared. Ruth has Alzheimers and her memory is slowly slipping away. In a frightening scene, Ruth leaves home in the middle of the night in her nightgown and a shawl. There is a blizzard coming in and everyone fears the worst. 


Later we find out that Ruth had boarded a train that she thought would take her back home to her childhood home in Amboy, Illinois, a train route that no longer exists. Nick has called on Bitty to come home to Chicago because he wants her to help him convince their father, Bert (Robert Forster) to let them send mom to a Memory Care facility, something he is adamantly opposed to. He feels she is better off, memory-wise with the person she has spent the last 50 years with. 


Nick is adamant that Ruth needs to go into the facility that he has found that also has an apartment for Bert. Bert however, hates the idea and insists that they are going to move to Florida. Witnessing all of this is Bitty’s daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga). Emma has traveled with her mom to Chicago after having been kicked out of her dorm room at college. Secretly, she’s planning on dropping out of college but she’s afraid to tell her mom. 


What They Had was written and directed by Elizabeth Chomko in her feature film debut and what a debut it is. She certainly didn’t make it easy on herself taking on a very difficult and emotional topic as memory loss and the end of life. It’s a huge topic with pitfalls that even an experience filmmaker might struggle with but Chomko absolutely nails it. A story like the one in What They had requires sensitivity and compassion and Chomko builds that into the movie brilliantly. 


The key is the performance of Blythe Danner, a veteran character actress who invests a reality into Ruth that demonstrates that she studied this disease and took care with her details. Danner is remarkable, never failing to invest Ruth with a beautiful humanity. There is a danger that a role such as this could turn into a burlesque of simplistic and childlike tics, but not here. Danner may play Ruth as spacey but you can sense the struggle that anyone who has dealt with memory loss has experienced, that desire to maintain some form of identity. 


Robert Forster is heartbreaking in What They Had. Stubborn and bitter with his children, Forster’s Bert could not possibly be more loving to Ruth. At one point in the film we are told the story of what happened when Bert returned from the Korean war. The story contains the details of the kind of love you absolutely believe has lasted 50 years. A monologue Forster delivers midway through the film that ends with him simply stating ‘she’s my girl,’ is making me well up as I type this. 


Michael Shannon is the kind of actor we take for granted. Shannon’s performances are so consistently brilliant that you could be forgiven for forgetting how natural and instinctive he is as a performer. Nick has a difficult arc in What They Lost that includes having to play the bad guy who pushes for the memory care facility against his father’s wishes while also dealing with a personal life that has crumbled while he tried to start a business and be there whenever his mother goes missing which is becoming more frighteningly frequent. Shannon balances bitterness and caring in his typically authentic fashion. 


Finally, there is Hilary Swank one of our finest actresses. Even though she has won two Academy Awards, Swank is somehow desperately underrated as a leading lady. She doesn’t have Sandy’s box office or Jennifer Lawrence’s youth and thus her marketability isn’t particularly large. Swank however, succeeds where it matter: in her characters. Swank is a brilliant actress, and in What They Had she reaffirms her brilliance with a performance that has layers and layers that get peeled away throughout. 


Swank is two for two in brilliant and little seen dramas released to theaters in 2018. In September she starred in the unfortunately overlooked, based on a true story gem, 55 Steps opposite Helena Bonham Carter. She’s even better here playing a complex, prickly and awkward character caught right in the middle of the drama playing out among her family. Then there are her daughter and husband and that’s a whole other can of worms she’s trying to contain. 


I adored What They Had but be aware, the film is incredibly sad. If you aren’t prepared for a good cry, this movie is not for you. It’s an exceptionally moving story that earns your emotional involvement and never panders to get your tears. My tears were complete genuine and induced by deep empathy for these characters and for the lovely and caring way the director told their story. I highly recommend you see What They Had for yourself. 


Movie Review The Kindergarten Teacher (Netflix)

Due to a dire lack of new releases to talk about I decided to continue the theme of Netflix movies from this past year. Another movie I missed out on when it premiered on Netflix in 2018 was The Kindergarten Teacher starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. This is one of the most distinctive movies of the last year. The premise is eye catching and the way the story plays out is bold and necessary and surprisingly unexpected. 


The Kindergarten Teacher stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lisa, the Kindergarten teacher of the title. Lisa is married to Grant (Michael Chernus) with whom she has two High School age children. Her hobby is poetry and she attends an adult education class where she shares her honestly banal talent. Her teacher, Simon (Gael Garcia Bernal), is a dreamboat college professor who is rightly not impressed with her work. 


The plot kicks in when Lisa hears a kid in her class, Jimmy (Parker Sevak) randomly begin to spout poetry. It’s quite good poetry, well beyond the talent of a 5 year old. Lisa is mesmerized by the beauty of Jimmy’s poetry so much that she writes it down and then presents it to her class as her own. When her teacher is clearly excited by her new work she begins hounding the kid for more poems which he delivers on. 


This sounds like the premise of a bad 90’s comedy where she will have to reveal who really wrote the poems at the end while simultaneously delivering a monologue about the lesson she’s learned from her terrible mistake in stealing from this child. That, however, is not this movie. The Kindergarten Teacher, directed by relative newcomer Sara Colangelo, goes in a completely different and disturbing direction. 


This is a very brave and bold performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her Lisa is more comparable to Salieri from Amadeus than she is with any traditional type of character. She is genuinely excited by Jimmy’s incredible talent but behind her eyes you can sense a disturbing sort of jealousy that takes on a whole other level of creepy when you remember that she is jealous of and dedicated to a 5 year old child. 


What made the movie that much more interesting for me is that people react to Lisa’s obsession with this kid’s poetry in a perfectly appropriate fashion. Her teaching assistant clocks it when Lisa continuously takes Jimmy out of class during naptime, Jimmy’s nanny is clearly uncomfortable with the odd and obsessive way Lisa talks about Jimmy’s talent and how it needs to be nurtured and though he eventually hires Lisa to watch Jimmy after school, Jimmy’s dad catches on after Lisa takes Jimmy to a poetry reading at night in the city. 


Where the film goes from there is for you to discover. It’s both predictable and unpredictable. I found it unpredictable because most mainstream films don’t have this films bravery. Writer-Director Sara Colangelo takes the film to places that are natural progressions and rarely settles for what we expect from lesser films. We’ve been trained to look for the easy ways out and I can say that The Kindergarten Teacher rarely takes the easy way out. 


The Kindergarten Teacher is streaming now on Netflix. It’s Rated R, for some nudity and sexuality but that doesn’t have anything to do with the main plot. The film is kind of creepy but not that creepy. 


Movie Review Outlaw King - Netflix

I had been avoiding watching Netflix’s Outlaw King mostly because I value the director, David Mackenzie so much. The director of the acclaimed Hell or High Water is a director I have high hopes for so when I saw his latest film, Outlaw King, getting less than rave reviews, I decided to keep it sight out of mind. That was easy as my field is, generally theatrical releases and Outlaw King was on Netflix. Eventually, however, my curiosity got the best of me. 


Outlaw King stars Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland. Oddly however, when we meet Robert he is on his knee promising fealty to King Edward. Robert was told by his father that the politics of surrender were better than the bloodshed likely if they continued to resist English rule. This changes however, when the legendary William Wallace is captured and killed and his body parts are hung on the walls of a Scottish border city. 


With his father having recently died, and now Wallace, Robert decides it is time to act. His family has a claim on the Scottish throne and he aims to take it. He is opposed by another Scottish family that also has a claim on the throne. Robert would prefer they unite for now and decide on the throne after disposing of the English but when Robert is forced to murder his rival, he knows the fight has begun and that he will not have all of Scotland with him, in fact, they may be just as dangerous as England. 


As you can tell from the mention of William Wallace, this story is in the same vein as Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Robert the Bruce was a character in that film as well and he was indeed inspired by Wallace’s love of his country to rise up against the English. This story proceeds as if a sequel to Braveheart in some ways, at the very least a continuation of the story. Wallace is killed offscreen in Outlaw King, but his legend hangs over the story, just as Braveheart casts an Oscar winning shadow over Outlaw King. 


That’s a shame because I happen to think Outlaw King is a better movie than Braveheart. Blasphemy, I know, but I have never cared for Mel Gibson’s epic. I found Braveheart loud and boorish and GIbson’s accent was something that I just could not get over. Outlaw King isn’t that much better, Chris Pine’s Scottish brogue is almost as laughable as Gibson’s, but I enjoyed the violent madness in Outlaw King more than I did in Braveheart. 


Chris Pine may not have a great accent but he has a fearsome presence as Robert the Bruce. I enjoyed his straight ahead performance, he rarely appears to be putting on the airs of machismo, he seems genuinely tough. I liked the battle sequences which are raw and gritty and while they may not have the epic expanse of Gibson’s Braveheart, the closeups and the uptight tension of the smaller scale Outlaw King gives the film an authenticity I feel was lacking in Braveheart. 


Nether Outlaw King or Braveheart are movies I ever plan on watching again as neither one is much fun. Director David Mackenzie however, at the very least, compelled me more with his Robert the Bruce story. I was genuinely invested in his story and while I don’t love the movie, I wasn’t compelled to get on my phone and ignore it. Perhaps if you are a fan of historic epics on muddy, bloody battlefields, Outlaw King is the movie for you. 


Movie Review American Meme on Netflix

American Meme is a recent document on Netflix that tells the story of a group of people who are ‘internet famous.’ That that means essentially is that they have achieved a level of notoriety on Instagram that has reached a level that in some ways transcends our popular culture. The documentary was directed by Bert Marcus as a rather dim profile of these internet famous people other than an actual investigation of this truly bizarre phenomenon. 


The documentary opens on Paris Hilton. In case you perhaps thought that her pop culture profile had diminished since she hasn’t been on television in several years, Hilton is still out there and her medium of choice is Instagram where she has more than 50 million followers. The main takeaway from this short segment is how according to Hilton herself, her family is concerned about how much time she spends with her online fans, including allowing them to stay at her house. 


The film proceeds next, and briefly, into the life of Brittary Furlan who has made her life on social media. Furlan does characters, impressions and straight up goofy nonsense. The documentary captures her as she is first performing an impression of Paris Hilton and then sets herself up for a photo shoot in which she recreates a famous Beyonce pose while holding an oversized burrito. The scene ends sadly when she finds that a rival called The Fat Jewish has recreated the same pose. 


Josh Ostrovsky is better known as The Fat Jewish, don’t ask about the name. The film details mostly his pictures with his dogs and his love of Paris Hilton. The Fat Jewish was famous most recently for stealing bits from comedians and posting them on his Instagram as his own jokes but America Meme does nothing to cover Josh Ostrovsky’s controversial side. Instead they allow him to play up how he managed to get invited to the Washington Correspondents Dinner and got a picture with President Obama. 


This vapid documentary is nearly nearly as vapid as the meme worthy people it portrays. Model Emily Ratajkowski shows up for a moment to talk about how she became famous in Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines video and then she’s gone. DJ Khaled is another celebrity featured talking about how he documents nearly every aspect of his life on Instagram. Everything from his breakfast, lunch and dinner to his successes as a rap music producer. 


The worst of those profiled is a photographer named Kirill whose fame is based basically on light pornography, not unlike Girls Gone Wild. Kirll’s interview is hard to watch as his obnoxiousness radiates through the screen. I don’t have a problem with nudity, I am not a prude, I just really don’t like this guy based off of the interviews in American Meme. Kirill has been repeatedly kicked off of Instagram until he finally changed his name to SlutWhisperer and suddenly the platform just let him be for whatever reason. At least the name indicates his obnoxiousness. 


Kathy Hilton is the only person who really comes off well in this movie. According to what is in this documentary, she never wanted this for her daughters. Based on this information, much of what became Paris Hilton’s infamy came without her mother’s influence. Kathy is portrayed not as some out of touch stage mom, but a reasonable and concerned parent who expresses genuine concern regarding the ways in which her daughter’s celebrity emerged. 


American Meme briefly flirts with something meaningful in both the relationship between Kathy and Paris and in dealing directly and honestly with Paris’s sex tape. Paris expresses genuine sadness  over how the tape came to be. When Paris talks about how the tape changed her life and prevented her from reaching her potential, it’s honestly moving. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for someone of such ludicrous privilege but I can say I did feel for her here. 


That’s about as close to depth as you are going to get in American Meme. The documentary is about the lowest form of modern celebrity. Instagram is this empty place full of self-involved, obnoxious people who have made ridiculous amounts of money for doing things that would have had them in detention in High School. Or there is Kirill who is basically a pornographer posing as a provocateur. 

If you are fascinated by the culture that your kids and grandkids are investing in, American Meme is kind of valuable in that way. It’s a cautionary warning to make sure that you are keeping a close eye on what your kids are doing on social media. Pay close attention to your kids and if they are following these people on social media, heed that and be afraid, be very, very afraid.


Movie Review Escape Room

The first new release film of any year is often not very good in my experience. I have been writing about movies on the internet for nearly 20 years, dating back to having that Microsoft’s now rather ludicrous Web TV. Eventually, I came to dread the start of the year at the movies. Sure, there were Oscar movies that arrived late but the new-new movies of the year, especially the first new release of any year tended to be awful year after year. 


That trend was only recently bucked just last year when director Adam Robitel delivered the terrific final chapter of the Insidious franchise, Insidious The Last Key. I really enjoyed Insidious The Last Key and while the rest of January lived up to the reputation that month has earned as a dumping ground for studios looking to bury their trash while we were dazzled by the Award winner, at least the first new release of the year was entertaining. 


What luck then to find that director Adam Robitel was leading off the year again, this time with a new horror effort called Escape Room. Sure, I was worried when the film appeared to have not been shown to critics but then, at the last minute, reviews started showing up and they weren’t all bad. And, indeed, much like Insidious The Last Key was pretty good this time last year, Escape Room is pretty good kicking off this year. 


Escape Room stars Taylor Russell as Zoey, a shy and mousey college student who receives a strange package. Inside is a puzzle box and inside that puzzle box is an invitation to a fully immersive gaming experience called an Escape Room. For the unaware, Escape Rooms are a real deal experience. The concept has you locked inside a room with a time limit to discover all of the clues and free yourself from the room. 


We also meet two other characters in the run-up to arriving at the Escape Room of the title. Jason (Jay Ellis) is a high powered stock broker who receives a gift from one of his clients. Inside is the same kind of puzzle box sent to Zoey. He and Zoey do not know each other but they will meet at the Escape Room along with Ben (Logan Miller), a supermarket employee who gets a puzzle box from his employer. 


Once at the Escape Room we meet three more characters, Amanda (Debra Ann Woll, from Netflix’s Daredevil) an Iraq war veteran, Mike (Tyler Labine) a truck driver, and Danny (Nk Dodani) who is an Escape Room obsessive. It’s Danny who figures out that the waiting room where they first meet is actually the first of several Escape Rooms they will experience. He’s also the last to accept that these are more than Escape Rooms, they are genuine death traps that they must solve in order to survive. 


What Escape Room does so much better than most recent horror films is give us characters that we genuinely care about. Each of these six characters are genuinely good people with character flaws and a deep and abiding compassion. Jason is set up as the sort of villain of the group, the one who appears to put his own survival ahead of everyone else’s but even he appears to be a good person who gets pushed to an extreme and reacting somewhat poorly. 


There is not one of these characters that I hated so much I hoped they wouldn’t survive. The worst trend in horror of this young century was the move to make villains the center of horror movies and make their victims so hateful, obnoxious and self-involved that we didn’t mind so much when they were hacked up. Escape Room goes the complete opposite direction and creates six characters that we invest in and care about. 


Yes, they are character types, recognizable for some stock characteristics, but they had a genuine quality and compassion for one another that is incredibly refreshing from a genre that revels in the survival of the fittest archetype and views compassion as weakness. I came to adore each of these characters to the point that when one of them sacrifices themselves to save the others I was honestly moved and sad that the character was gone. 


Escape Room does have its issues. The film does feel like assembled pieces from other horror movies such as Hostel and Saw but minus that nastiness. Don’t get me wrong, I truly enjoy the Saw franchise, but even that series tended fall back on nasty characters rather than good ones. Hostel meanwhile, was wall to wall vile people to the point that I wanted to nuke the entire movie and the sick minded writer-director who assembled it. 


If the character from Escape Room were in a Saw movie, they’d all survive because these characters immediately embrace the ethos of working together and trusting each others strengths and making up for each other's weaknesses. This is especially true of Taylor Russell’s Zoey who is a tremendously resourceful and compelling protagonist. She is so sweet that you assume she’s weak but Russell invests her with a rigorous intelligence. 


I am really happy to say that I kind of loved Escape Room. I did wish it had only ended once, the two sequel teases did push the wrong buttons for the potential franchise of Escape Room movies but as long as Adam Robitel is at the helm along with the witty and smart writing team of Bragi F Schut and Maria Melnik, nailing their first Hollywood script, I am on board for even more Escape Room fun. 


Movie Review Harold & Maude

Well, I did it, I watched Harold & Maude for the first time and, the magic is lost on me. I think I get it, the message, no one can tell you who to love or how to love or how to live. It make sense, and it’s a fine message. And Hal Ashby is a very good director. Harold & Maude is a great looking movie, it’s filled with quirky characters and a strong anti-establishmentarianism that I do admire. Other aspects of the movie, simply left me cold. 


Harold & Maude stars Bud Cort as Harold, a depressed young man in hi early 20’s who fills his days by attending funerals and faking his death by suicide. Harold is a deeply morbid young man whose strained relationship with his mother, Mrs Chasen (Vivian Pickles), is at a point where his repeatedly faking his suicide death in order to disturb her, I assume. Mrs Chasen appears entirely unfazed by Harold’s performances, aside from when he bloodied her bathroom. 


Harold’s depressive state grows until one day at a funeral he meets a fellow funeral junkie by the name of Maude (Ruth Gordon). Maude likes attending funerals as much as Harold does and while he wasn’t seeking any company, she eventually insinuates herself into a friendship with Harold that eventually grows into love. The two go on adventures together including stealing a dying tree from a sidewalk and re-planting it in a forest. 


In that particular adventure, Maude has them running from a truly befuddled motorcycle cop who cannot understand how Maude can be so honest about not having a license, having stolen the tree and having stolen the truck they drove in order to steal the tree. This series of scenes crescendos eventually with Maude and Harold stealing the officer’s motorcycle in easily the best gag in the movie. 


I don’t dislike Harold & Maude at all, I just wasn’t taken with it as so many have been. The whimsical nature of the story and Hal Ashby’s direction are fine but they aren’t really to my taste. I also didn’t feel that Harold’s elaborate bouts of dark humor landed all that well. I enjoyed more Vivian Pickles blase reactions to Harold’s faked suicides. The fact that she pays no mind to him other than being slightly perturbed serves to make Harold seem like the villain in my eyes. 


What was Mrs Chasen’s great crime against Harold exactly? At one point Harold monologues about how his mother gave a very theatrical, perhaps faked, response to a report that he’d been killed in an accident at school but he comes off as whiny rather than sympathetic in that monologue. Meanwhile, Mrs Chasen appears to be a villain only because she is rich and out of touch with her sons iconoclastic values. She’s uptight and right wing but she’s also seemingly supportive of her son, she puts up with his elaborate suicide pranks, how bad is she really? 


Maude is a lovely character, well played by Ruth Gordon as a lovable eccentric. Movies are filled with such lovable eccentrics and I did buy the idea that someone as strange as Harold could fall in love with someone as equally as strange as he is. Ruth is certainly that. Were Maude played by a younger actress she might be considered what pop culture writer Nathan Rabin dubbed a ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl.’

If you are unaware of the term, Manic Pixie Dream Girl, t’s a catchall phrase for women in movies who seem to exist solely to save the souls of depressed, handsome young men in need of love and sex with an attractive version of the Madonna-Whore complex. Gordon slips from that cliche only because she is not conventionally attractive. She’s nearly 80 years old and while vivacious and full of life, she is not likely to be considered ideal in a culture obsessed with attractiveness. 


The love story is intended, in my opinion, to state that loving someone is about loving their personality which is a very true statement. Indeed, if you and someone 60 years your senior share a bond of experience and mutual attraction, no one should tell you how to live. For me, I find the age difference in Harold & Maude a bridge that I cannot cross. It fills me with an unease that is perhaps unfair but it’s true. 


Hal Ashby does well to make Harold & Maude appealing in its quirkiness but not all that memorable for me. It’s pleasant enough, if you don’t mind the running gag about suicide, the film is a downright lark. But for me, it’s far too light and airy. Because I didn’t truly buy into the love story or Harold’s desperate attempts to shock his mother, I didn’t buy into what grounds Harold & Maude in the iconic. I don’t see Harold & Maude as a must see classic. It’s cute and weird but not all that resonant beyond its rather minor provocations. 


Harold & Maude is available for rent on Amazon Prime.


Movie Review Hal (Documentary)

One thing that arrogant film critics like myself hate to do is admit our blind spots, those places in film where we are less than educated. One of my significant blind spots is the work of director Hal Ashby. It’s not that I am not aware of him or his reputation as a genius and I have even seen two of his films, Shampoo, which I greatly disliked, and Being There, which I adored. I’ve seen portions of his final movie, 8 Million Ways to Die but as the new documentary, Hal, indicates, I don’t have much need to return to that troubled project as any kind of indication of Hal Ashby’s talent. 


Hal tells the life story of Hal Ashby as he went to Hollywood in the mid-1960’s and began life as an iconoclast and stayed that way. Ashby came to prominence as an editor and found fame when he worked with his closest friend, Norman Jewison on the Oscar winning In the Heat of the Night. Ashby’s editing of that AFI Top 100 movie won an Oscar and from there Ashby and Jewison’s friendship blossomed into a partnership that finally allowed Ashby the chance to be a director. 


His first feature film was a daring note on racial attitudes of the 1960’s and the burgeoning 1970’s, called The Landlord. The film stars Beau Bridges and Louis Gossett Jr and it featured a story about race and politics that many other filmmakers would not have had the nerve and boldness to approach. As attested to by Jewison, who produced the film, and Beau Bridges and Louis Gossett Jr, who starred in The Landlord and are interviewed in Hal, the film was in line with the left wing politics of the time and yet had a freshness that came specifically from Hal Ashby. 


The documentary moves chronologically through Ashby’s career picking up next with his indelible cult film Harold & Maude, a film I have found to be a particular challenge to my sensibilities. I suppose that is the point of that movie, to be challenging to preconceived notions but I have thus far found myself unable to watch the movie which has the premise of a depressed young man, played by Bud Cort, who falls in love with an 80 year old woman played by Ruth Gordon. 


Everyone I know who has seen Harold & Maude and I can’t intellectualize my issue with the movie beyond simplistic prejudice that I am sure the film confronts. I can tell you that from the documentary, the film appear to be as daring and fascinating as any of Ashby’s work I have seen. Sadly, Bud Cort is not interviewed for the documentary but footage of him speaking at an event in Ashby’s honor following his death in 1986 gives insight into the strange relationship between the two that helps to shape the unending uniqueness of Harold & Maude. 


The Last Detail is next and again, the film lacks the big interview with Jack Nicholson, though an interview he conducted at the time he was filming is featured. What Nicholson’s relationship was to Hal Ashby is not mentioned but he was known for being beloved by his actors for his loose, improv style that used scripts mainly as an outline and not the gospel for how a film was to be crafted. Ashby shot reams and reams of footage for his films and culled from there a take that suited his sensibilities which in many cases conflicted with the original intent of the writers. 

Ashby himself appears in the film via recordings he made in the midst of making his movies. Especially near the end of his career when wars with studio executives became a significant part of his life. Ashby was labelled as difficult and his copious use of marijuana was portrayed by Hollywood power players as an addiction that affected his filmmaking. I don’t buy that but we can never tell by Ashby’s 1980’s output which consists mostly of films he made and then were taken from him by studio executives. 


Hal is a fascinating and immersive documentary with a film historians eye for detail. I loved the use of scenes from Ashby’s movies and scraps of interviews at the time the films were being made and I was particularly struck by the repeated use of an old school editing machine and a very old film camera as interstitial devices. These capture the time of Hal Ashby and recall his love of the editing room and the hours he would spending pulling together his vision from reams of film that he’s portrayed as knowing backwards and forwards. 


Hal was directed by Amy Scott who is in a strong position to make a movie about Hal Ashby. Scott also began her career as an editor and makes her feature directing debut here. She also edited the documentary and it's a tremendous piece of work. Especially insightful are interviews with directors who were deeply influenced by Hal Ashby including Judd Apatow, David O. Russell and Alexander Payne whose works carry in them the kind of warmth and insight and oddity that Ashby was well known for. 


Hal is streaming now on Amazon for rent and if you love movies, I urge you to check it out. Perhaps I can get past my prejudices and watch Harold & Maude in 2019. 


Movie Review Wildlife

Wildlife stars Carey Mulligan as Jeanette, mother to Joe (Ed Oxenbould) and wife of Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jeanette is a complex woman with a strong instinct for survival. The film is set in the early 1960’s and the family at the heart of this story has just moved to Montana as Jerry searches for regular work. Most recently, he’s been working at a golf course. When he loses that job over his pride, the strain on the family becomes too much. 


Deep in the distance from their small town Montana home, over a ridge of mountains, there is a wildfire raging. Men are coming between the town and the fire with stories of many a man being injured severely or killed. Firefighters can make good money but they have to live to collect it. Desperate for a job, Jerry signs on to become a firefighter and Jeanette is desperately upset. You assume her hurt is concern for Jerry’s well being but there is so much more to it. The job means Jerry could be gone for weeks or months at a time. 


Eventually, with money tight, Jeanette herself gets a job teaching swimming at the local YMCA. It’s there that she meets Warren Miller (Joe Camp). We, the audience, only view their relationship through the eyes of Joe and that view is course and unforgiving. One day Joe comes home from his own job, working for a local photographer, to find Mr Miller making himself at home on the couch. The tension is thick and the implications are even thicker. 


Mr Miller is not what many would call a handsome man. He’s middle aged and thick in the middle but he dresses well and he has a big car. Mr Miller has what Jerry doesn’t have, financial security. Mr Miller is the owner of a local car dealership and he has a large home in a nice neighborhood. Joe’s eyes tell the story better than anything as he turns his accusing glance to his mother while giving his concern to his absent father. 


Wildlife was co-written by Paul Dano with his wife Zoe Kazan, and directed by Dano in his directorial debut. My description would indicate that the story makes Jeanette the villain, alienating her husband’s affections in favor of the comforts of financial security. But, Wildlife is much stronger and more complicated than that. Jerry is not a saintly victim here, he’s crude and driven to flights of anger and alcoholism. Jeanette meanwhile is a good mother who does what she does in part for Joe and in part out of the fear and uncertainty of a world where women were only beginning to assert their independence. 


The movie is based on a 1990 bestseller of the same name by Richard Ford and Dano and Kazan’s script is a bare bones adaptation. Dano has taken the text and made much of subtext by relying his actors to get across the reams of inner story that you’d find on the pages of a novel, into looks, gestures and a much tighter amount of dialogue. It’s a smart play as these four actors at the center of this story are superb at saying everything while saying very little. 


Young Ed Oxenbould is the main character here and for a young actor he has some real heavy lifting here. Not many actors Oxenbould’s age would have the talent to stand toe to toe with Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal but Oxenbould does and fares exceptionally well. He’s witnessing these major dramatic shifts in his home life while himself being an at an age when he’s just coming of age and beginning to experience life. 

Take the film’s most powerful moment. Jeanette wants Joe to go with her to a dinner at Mr Miller’s home. It’s the last thing Joe wants to do as he’s been desperately trying to find ways to bring his broken family back together. The dinner is terribly awkward with Jeanette drinking heavily and beginning to act out. The scene plays as if Jeanette is trying to show Joe the lengths she feels forced to go to care for the two of them, that she must make a spectacle of herself over Mr Miller to assure his continued kindness. 


Joe’s reaction is desperate and sad and drives a wedge between mother and son that may or may not be repairable. It’s a masterfully played scene brimming with conflicting emotions. Mulligan’s desperate attempts to appear at ease and in the moment are heart rending but it’s Oxenbould’s reaction, his inability or unwillingness to understand his mother’s perspective that gives the scene a gut punching power. 


Wildlife is exceptionally acted and well directed. For a debut feature, it is no surprise that Paul Dano is an actor at heart. He gives his actors room to breathe and live within their characters. He’s terrific at letting a scene build in tension and allowing it to play out in a fashion that is dramatic and yet authentic. I’m excited to see what the actor turned director does next. If Wildlife is an indication, we can expect something incredible.


Movie Review The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin is the latest work from the genius of Armando Iannucci. The man who brought us the brilliant absurdity of HBO’s Veep has crafted a truly daft history of Russian leadership in the wake of the passing of legendary monster Josef Stalin in 1953. The Machiavellian machinations of Stalin’s cabinet, including future Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev have both an authenticity and an absurdity that only a master of form and tone such as Iannucci can deliver. 


The Death of Stalin features a cast stuffed with some of the most talented English actors in the world. First there is Adrian McLoughlin as Josef Stalin in his final days. McLoughlan isn’t around long, as the title would indicate, but his Stalin is nevertheless a figure of benign menace, signing off on hundreds of deaths a day of dissidents and potential dissidents while forcing his cabinet members to jockey for position in his favor. 


Most prominently, there is Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) who is in deep competition with Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) for Stalin’s affections. Both of them are somehow behind the sniveling Georgi Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) in the leadership line, though each assumes they can take control of Georgi as needed to get their way. Also weighing in is Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) whose support both Beria and Khrushchev covet. 


The casting is impeccable and extends to the brilliant Jason Isaacs as the head of the military, Rupert Friend as Stalin’s drunken, moronic son, Vasily, and Olga Kurylenko as a dissident pianist who plays a key role in the plotting between Khrushchev and Beria. Her role isn’t large but Kurylenko invests it with passion. She along with Andrea Riseborough, playing Stalin's daughter, are the only women in the movie and both are inspired choices for their roles. 


The trick of The Death of Stalin is the tricky tone of the script which feels at once authentic and absurd. The key is finding the absurd within the authentic and Iannucci does that brilliantly, especially with an opening gag involving another brilliant character actor, Paddy Considine. As the film opens, Comrade Stalin is listening to a live performance on Moscow radio of a live band. Stalin decides he wants a recording of the performance but the performance had not been recorded. 


Immediately we sense how dangerous this moment is for Considine. It’s all in structure. We’ve seen Stalin’s death lists being signed and death squads being spread across the city. Considine’s producer has been told without it being said that if he can’t reproduce the broadcast he will be killed. So, he kidnaps what’s left of the audience and the band and sets about having the concert performed again under the threat of death for everyone from the band to the ignorant citizens Considine wrangles off the streets to fill in for missing audience members. 


It’s a masterfully dark gag and one that sets the darkly humorous tone for what is to come in The Death of Stalin. Iannucci appears to take many parts of this story quite seriously and allows the absurdity to arise from the bizarrely dire circumstances. Take Palin’s Molotov, a brilliantly doddering character, Molotov praised Stalin for seeming to have murdered his wife only t have her returned to him alive by Beria who has kept her under wraps just in case he needed her to bargain. 


The scene where she is returned is a Noises Off style gag wherein Khrushchev arrives at his home to scheme against Beria only to have Beria show up and just as Molotov is talking about how his wife deserved to die for criticizing Stalin, she is brought in the door and he welcomes her home, only to then make a running gag about how she deserved the fate that Stalin had assigned her even as he’s happy she’s home. 


My description doesn’t do justice to Pailin’s brilliantly absurd performance. He along with Buscemi are truly stand outs in this ridiculously talented ensemble. The two of them appear to have been ready built for Iannucci’s ingeniously dark and hysterical style of storytelling. Buscemi is particularly adept a switching from comedy to seriousness at the drop of a hat and without losing the complex rhythm of the story. 


The Death of Stalin is now available to stream on Amazon. 


Movie Review The Party is Just Beginning

As a Karen Gillan super-fan ever since her days as Amy Pond on Doctor Who, I had been anticipating her writing and directing debut, The Party is Just Beginning ever since she announced the project on her instagram. Gillan has been consistently great at picking material, even her short lived sitcom, Selfie, was criminally underrated. She even picks great blockbusters with a co-starring role in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji. Needless to say, I was fascinated to see what she would do with material of her own. 


The Party is Just Beginning stars Gillan as Liusaidh, an unapologetic party girl who enjoys random, anonymous sex and a whole lot of drinking. In other movies the story would be about reforming her, helping her to find a boyfriend, husband or a male savior but that is not what this movie is about. Liusaidh has some deep emotional wounds but she’s not looking for a savior, she just needs a friend. 


Liusaidh’s deepest hurt came from her best friend, Allistair (Matthew Beard). Liusaidh watched as he went into a dead end relationship with a closeted missionary and watched further as Alistair's father died and he kept pushing away her attempts at comfort. The film features seamless flashbacks that you’re aware are flashbacks but don’t feel forced. The flashbacks are layered into the story and it’s clear that the present we are in with Liusaidh, Alistair is not present. 


Death is omnipresent in Liusaidh’s life as her family is plagued by mistaken calls from people attempting to call a suicide hotline. One day Liusaidh decides to engage with one of the callers and they become friends. The caller is an elderly man whose wife died some time ago and he feels that he is now a burden to his children. The caller fears that his children are going to put him into a home so he has considered taking his life. 


Scenes of Liusaidh talking with the caller are broken up by her random drunken, hook ups. These include a nameless man, eventually named Dale (Lee Pace), who she comes to see more than once. Dale is just as troubled as everyone else around Liusaidh. I won’t go into that however, I recommend you see that for yourself. It’s not a spoiler or anything, I don’t think I could spoil The Party is Just Beginning, it’s a mood piece more than a traditional narrative. 


Karen Gillan’s direction of The Party is Just Beginning is exceptionally strong. For a first time out, she has a good hand on the basics and some innovation in the way she seamlessly brings the past and present together in the story. She certainly didn’t give herself an easy task with the script which is uncompromisingly experimental in how it weaves the past and present and doesn’t have anything approaching a traditional narrative. 


The film doesn’t have any major dramatics, there are no revelations and Liusaidh as a character isn’t evolving in a classic arc. As I mentioned earlier, The Party is Just Beginning is a mood piece. The film isn’t about anything traditional, it’s about observing this prickly, depressed and unusual character. You are either up for something unusual or the movie is not for you. I was up for every moment of The Party is Just Beginning. 

I’m a sucker for a good mood piece and I found the depressive, slate gray mood of The Party is Just Beginning remarkably engaging. I fought with the movie, my mind tried to cram it into something I recognized until about half way through when I began to settle into what the movie is, an observation of a character we don’t often see in modern film culture. Liusaidh is singularly human, unique and genuine. She feels real, like someone you have seen somewhere in your life. 


The slice of life here may not be to everyone’s palette. The film owns its depressive air and moody atmosphere. Gillan offers no comforts such as sitcom laugh lines or explosive moments of drama. Scenes you think might erupt simply don’t because such recognizable bits of drama would ruin the remarkably curated mood of The Party is Just Beginning. I feel I am not making the film sound appealing but trust me when I tell you, Gillan holds the screen and, if you’re like me, you will be riveted by her work. That’s the appeal here, observing the artful direction and complex performance. 


I had been waiting for some time for this movie to arrive. I had assumed it would be on blu ray and DVD soon and I had been watching for it. What a terrific surprise it was to find the film streaming on Amazon. It’s a little pricier than a DVD rental but it was worth it. The Party is Just Beginning is a terrific film. The film is a terrific announcement that Karen Gillan is not merely an appealing actress, she is a true artist and budding auteur. I can’t wait to see what she does next. 


Movie Review Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie is a late addition to my best of the year list. This wonderful film chronicling the final tour of the legendary comedy duo Laurel & Hardy is funny and poignant without ever becoming cloying or pushy. Steve Coogan and John C Reilly beautifully capture the history and the strain between the two great friends and partners as they attempt to salvage one last bit of glory before the spotlight fades for good.


In 1954, having not made a movie together in 15 years, Laurel & Hardy reunited for a tour of England in hopes of getting a movie project off the ground with an English producer. Things don’t get off to an auspicious start as their tour manager, Delfont (Rufus Jones) books them a run down hotel and a small theater that they are unable to sell out. Worse yet, the producer of their proposed film project won’t take Stan’s calls.


It even looks as if the tour will be cut short as ticket sales lag. Meanwhile, we cut to the back story of what let led to their break up 15 years earlier. Danny Huston portrays legendary producer Hal Roach, the man who put the duo together and brought them to the big screen. While Ollie is content with their arrangement, Stan, who once partnered with Charlie Chaplin before his days in the movies, wants to make more money.


With Stan’s contract up, he’s managed to book a deal with Fox but only for Laurel & Hardy, not just for himself. The deal fell through when Ollie decided to remain with Hal Roach and even made a movie, Zenobia, without his long time partner. Zenobia wasn’t a hit and for more than a decade both men’s careers foundered. We don’t know what brought them back together but a payday in England appears to have been the reason.


Even still, the two have a tremendous stage act that we get glimpses of and those glimpses are hysterically funny. As the story progresses, the two begin to do press for the tour and eventually the tour begins to gain ground and sell out shows. Naturally, old tensions eventually come back to light and the tour is thrown into chaos when it appears that Hardy’s health won’t allow him to continue.


Stan & Ollie was directed by Jon S Baird whose previous film, Filth starring James McAvoy, is quite a departure from the gentle and sweet poignance of Stan & Ollie. Nevertheless, Baird does a tremendous job keeping a good pace and with cinematographer Laurie Rose, he’s crafted not just a funny movie, but quite a beautiful movie. Credit also goes to prosthetics makeup designer Mark Coulier for turning the lanky Mr Reilly seamlessly into the corpulent Mr Hardy.


I would be remiss if I didn’t also praise screenwriter Jeff Pope who worked from the book Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours by A.J Marriott. The dialogue though mostly inferred feels real and dynamic and authentic. The lovely recreations of the Laurel & Hardy performances are wonderful but it is the private moments that resonate deeply, especially a near break up scene that plays as comedy for those who can’t hear the deeply hurtful things the two say to one another.


And then, of course, there are the two incredible performances at the center of the film. John C Reilly has earned both a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award nomination for his performance as Oliver Hardy and both are much deserved. Reilly, even under pounds of prosthetics finds the heart of Oliver Hardy in lovely fashion. He appears to have been a lovely man and while the film likely shaves the edges off of all of these characters, this is a lovely way to remember these men.


Steve Coogan in many ways has the much harder performance. Stan Laurel played the fool in many of the Laurel & Hardy movies, bumbling his friend into one silly bit of nonsense after the other, but behind the scenes, Laurel was a force to be reckoned with. Laurel wrote much of the duos routines for stage and screen and was even deferred to by many directors for how to film those routines, though he never earned a directors credit.


Coogan movingly captures the pain and frustration that made Stan Laurel so driven and yet so kind. He wasn’t wrong to want to get the duo more money, they were rather underpaid given their success, and it is a fine tribute to the man that he never stopped fighting for the recognition that he felt they both deserved, but especially for the endless hours of work he put in to make them so successful.


Stan & Ollie is a wonderful movie, a true crowd pleaser. It’s a movie that fans and friends and family of the legendary duo can be proud of. Yes, they had their petty differences and egotism but at the heart, they were showmen and dedicated friends. Stan & Ollie is the kind of tribute these two men deserve after so many years of being under-recognized behind contemporaries such The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and the copycats who came after such as Abbott & Costello and, to a lesser extent, Marin & Lewis.



Movie Review Holmes and Watson

I’m not going to lie, I was dreading the idea of Holmes and Watson. I have an individual appreciation of John C Reilly and Will Ferrell but the two of them together, for me, bring out the worst in each other. Step Brothers and Talladega Nights are a pair of deeply unfunny, shrill, gag fests that amount to little more than a pair of very talented comic actors screaming nonsense at each other when they aren’t violently assaulting each other or some poor supporting player.


Holmes and Watson only served to underline why I dislike Ferrell and Reilly together. Once again the duo shouts at one another and then they violently attack each other. This film throws in a terrible parody of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson alongside achingly tone deaf references to modern America politics. But, perhaps the biggest crime of Holmes and Watson is taking the brilliant actress Rebecca Hall and robbing her of her talent with a character so far beneath her she can’t help but trip.


Holmes and Watson stars Will Ferrell as the arrogant, genius detective Sherlock Holmes and Reilly as his Dr Watson. Watson has been Holmes devoted friend and sidekick since their days in school when Holmes swore off emotion in favor of the purity of logic. Together they solve London’s biggest crimes and on this day, Holmes is set to confront his nemesis, Professor Moriarty in court and send him to the gallows, but only if Holmes can first choose just the right hat.


Turns out, the man on trial isn’t Moriarty but a walking punchline for a series of abysmally unfunny masturbation jokes. The real Moriarty, according to Holmes, has fled to America. Having deduced Moriarty’s attempt to make everyone think him dead, Holmes and Watson are invited to meet the Queen but this is also a ruse. The meeting is actually Holmes’ surprise birthday party, which he deduces, just before the yelp of surprise.


Inside Holmes’ birthday cake is a corpse with a message and a brand new mystery is… on the move. Ferrell pretending toward Holmes’ trademark phrases is one of several dozen unfunny running gags in Holmes and Watson. As part of the investigation of the new mystery, Holmes and Watson are joined by an American doctor, Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her wacky sidekick Millie (Lauren Lapkus, delivering the only funny performance in the movie).


A better movie would give Hall a character to play but instead, she’s only on hand to play Watson’s love interest and the subject of Holmes’ first brush with anxiety as he worries about losing his friend to a woman. Holmes is also dealing with his first ever sexual attraction. He finds himself besotted by Millie who shares his bizarre affinity for eating onions as if they are apples, one of the rare jokes that even the brilliant Lauren Lapkus can’t make funny.


Holmes and Watson was written and directed by Etan Cohen whose best work was the slam dunk Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder. Cohen has worked with Ferrell before, he scripted Ferrell’s unfunny rich guy goes to prison ‘comedy’ Get Hard. Cohen’s approach appears to be a chaotic mix of improv and the most simplistic of plotting. It’s not hard to determine where Ferrell and Reilly appear to be riffing to find jokes in Holmes and Watson and that likely explains how deathly much of the film’s apparent improv is.


The bit I mentioned earlier about hats goes on for several endless minutes and leads immediatly into an over-extended physical gags about mosquitos, a deadly virus and killer bees. That sequence, the hats and the physical comedy, is all going on amidst another bit about Holmes perhaps being so late to the fake Moriarty’s court hearing that he may let the man loose by not showing up. The punchline is supposed to be that the man is an imposter and thus should be set loose anyway but the clumsiness of this sequence, along with the series of masturbation riffs in the scene, stomps all over that punchline.


Stomping jokes into the ground is the one thing that Holmes and Watson does well. Ferrell and Reilly pound every joke in the movie into the ground with their very physical style of humor. A joke can’t be allowed to land without either shouting or some overstuffed, unnecessary bit of physical business. Don’t even ask me about the musical sequence in Homes and Watson, the homoerotic undertones are a black hole of juvenilia.


Holmes and Watson is among the worst movies of 2018. Aside from a couple moments from Lauren Lapkus late in the movie, there are zero laughs to be had from this supposed comedy. The film has no rhythm, it has no pace, it has no style. It’s a series of gags clattering into one another at a pace at which the joke cannot be discerned. It’s like watching Michael Bay try to direct comedy, everything is childish chaos edited inside of a blender.


Movie Review Bird Box Now Available on Netflix

Bird Box stars Sandra Bullock as Mallory, a pregnant artist whose sister is killed when an apocalyptic event begins to cause people to take their own lives. Mallory is rescued by Tom (Trevante Rhodes) who helps her get into a nearby suburban home where people are have begun to fortify. Douglas (John Malkovich) is opposed to Mallory coming in the house but the owner, played by B.D Wong, welcomes her.


Also in the home is an older woman played by Academy Award nominee Jackie Weaver, a trainee cop played by Rosa Salazar, a drug dealer played by rapper Machine Gun Kelly and a grocery store clerk played by Get Out standout, Lil Rel Howery. It’s Lil Rel who theorizes that an end of the world scenario has begun. He appears to have plenty of evidence to back up his claim but we will soon realize that why is not particularly important.


Meanwhile, the film jumps 5 years in the future. Mallary is now alone with two young children whom she calls, simply, Girl and Boy. Her refusal to name them is part of a character trait she’s built from the beginning of the story with her own pregnancy which she apparently was never particularly excited about. She was worried when she was pregnant that she could not bond with her child and the unpredictable nature of the apocalypse has only deepened her conviction about keeping a child at a distance.


That distance is important as Mallary must risk the children’s lives by taking them on a perilous journey down an empty river while blindfolded. In the past, our heroes eventually suss out that if you keep your eyes covered and you don’t see the evil that is causing people to take their lives, you can get around these demonic monsters. The only people seemingly immune to the evil are the mentally deranged who will provide a secondary villain as the movie progresses.


Bird Box was directed by Danish filmmaker Susannah Bier from a screenplay by Arrival Academy Award nominee, Eric Heisserer. The film is far from perfect but the tension and the minor touches of humorous jump scares are wildly entertaining. Malkovich is on fire in this movie as the ultimate jerk who just happens to be right all the time while Moonlight star Trevante Rhodes makes for a terrifically hunky leading man for Bullock.


You may have heard all about Bird Box from the memes alone. Netflix has hit a social media goldmine with this sight deprived thriller giving audiences a seemingly endless number of quips and screen grabs of jump scares and hot takes. A scene where a characters eyes are forcibly held open so that she can die at the hands of whatever demon is at play has gone viral with numerous punchlines while Bullock’s fearsome mother figure has been raised up as the ultimate example of tough motherhood because she does everything while blindfolded. Take that deadbeat dads.


Honestly, I don’t know if I love Bird Box or the viral version of Bird Box that has become legend on Twitter. There are blockbuster comic book movies whose supporting characters don’t get shouted out by name on social media yet you can’t help but see twitter users referring to Gary or Olympia or Douglas. The film is a terrifically fun thriller but the film’s other life as a seemingly endless meme generator is even more fun.


Bird Box has many issues, not the least of which is never giving the evil a face or a motivation. The lack of a singular focus for the evil nearly renders the whole of Bird Box as silly as it at M Night Shyamalan’s ‘the tree’s did it’ thriller, The Happening. Bird Box even cribs that films use of the wind as a harbinger of doom plot device. Thankfully, the performances from Bullock, Rhodes and Malkovich never let Bird Box tip completely into parody.


Director Susannah Bier is certainly not doing anything particularly original here, especially in the wake of the far more skillful and terrifying, A Quiet Place having come out in just the last 10 months. But, Bird Box has enough of its own charms and modest scares to stand on its own as a genuinely entertaining popcorn thriller. The memes probably helped more than the film itself to make me recommend Bird Box, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit how thoroughly entertained I was by Bird Box.


Movie Review Merry Christmas with Die Hard

Die Hard is my favorite Christmas movie. Mostly because it is set on Christmas but it is not about Christmas. If I’m being honest, Christmas isn’t a favorite holiday of mine. I don’t care for most Christmas movies including supposed classics such as A Christmas Story and the loathsome, grotesque, and lowbrow National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Die Hard is a Christmas movie for people like me, those who don’t enjoy Christmas movies. 


On Christmas Day, John McClain has arrived in Los Angeles in hopes of reuniting with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). Things get off to a bad start when John arrives at Holly’s office and finds that now living in Los Angeles, she’s dropped the last name McClane, in favor of her maiden name Gennero. The two begin to argue but they never finish the argument, first after her boss calls and then when terrorists arrive and begin taking over the building, known as Nakatomi Plaza. 


John is changing clothes when he hears gunshots. He quickly intuits the situation using his instincts, he’s a New York Police Detective whose job has been a significant strain on his personal life. John quickly assesses the situation and after escaping to an upper, unfinished floor of the building, he attempts to contact the police. Unfortunately the cops don’t believe him when he calls and only dispatch one cop to the scene. 


Sgt Al Powell (Reginald Vel Johnson) was thinking it would be a quiet night of enjoying twinkies in his cruiser but when he arrive at Nakatomi Plaza the shooting starts and his quiet night turns into a major hostage situation and the only things keeping a bloodbath at bay are Al and his new friend who won’t give his name. The two veteran cops bond quickly and even more when other less capable cops arrive on the scene and begin to screw things up. 


The terrorists are headed up by the nefariously ingenious Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). Making it appear as if they have taken hostages, Hans has the cops running around in circles while his real plan unfolds. Only John McClane stands between Hans and his ultimate goal, a whole boatload of money. Hans’ ruse is brilliant and Rickman’s supremely intelligent and superior performance gives the whole film gravity. 


In many ways, Willis and RIckman were perfectly matched as hero and villain. Where John is instinctive and primal, Hans is calculating and manipulative. Hans is a buttoned up, professional criminal, used to telling others to do the dirty work, McClane is a blue collar cop who acts on hunches and well worn experience. John’s unpredictable nature isn’t merely a character trait, it becomes a strategy and Willis is remarkable in deploying it. 


Willis brings an authenticity to John McClane that matches his star power and charisma and makes John McClane an indelible hero. The film has an old school western feel in terms of the battle of good and evil. John may not be the picture of white hat virtue, but rather, he’s a more down to Earth and believable kind of good. Hans meanwhile, has an alluring evil, though you’re never on his side, you wouldn’t feel too bad if he fooled you. 


Rickman’s arrogant superiority is his most nefarious quality. Even more than his murderous plot, his stuffy, accented, suited persona is a relatable sort of evil. He’s not the picture of either a terrorist or a killer, yet he feels more real than many actual, real world villains because Rickman is so incredible at playing him. His arrogance and his suit are reminiscent of the kind of Wall Street villains that Oliver Stone had recently introduced us to. He’s just more honest than them because he robs and murders people in front of you and not from behind a desk. 


The blue collar qualities of Al and John make them our automatic allies. More of us relate to John and Al than any of the stuffy, suited types in Nakatomi Plaza. It’s part of their charm and a big part of the performances of Willis and VelJohnson. John and Al seem like people we know, people we could have a beer with. The divide between them and the suit wearing villains are signifiers that director John McTiernan clever uses to create a subliminal divide underneath the the obvious criminal and not a criminal divide. 


The action in Die Hard is top notch. Director McTiernan stacks the odds against John McClane brilliantly. The stakes rise in each passing scene with John and Holly’s identity as husband and wife acting in many ways like a bomb about to explode the story at any moment. The name game with Holly is also a terrific piece of screenwriting as the argument over the name tells us everything we need to know about the strain between John and Holly. 


Many screenwriters need a page and a half of dialogue to tell us what the names Gennaro and McClane and the hurt in John’s voice and manner do in a single scene. Die Hard is rarely thought of as being a great screenplay but Jeb Stuart and co-writer Steven E de Souza deserve nearly as much credit as director John McTiernan. The economy of character building in John, Holly, Hans and Al is really remarkable. We learn  more about them from their actions than we would from endless pages of expository dialogue. 


Die Hard is Christmas for me because I watch it every Christmas. It’s the kind of smart, well-worn action movie that is perfect holiday comfort food. The familiarity, the easy good versus evil story, the action that even after 30 years feels refreshingly new and ever exciting. Die Hard is the gift that keeps on giving. 30 years of thrills, 30 years of pithy hero banter, and 30 years of watching Hans Gruber falling to his death. Merry Christmas indeed.


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