Movie Reviews Archives for 2018-06

Movie Review Uncle Drew

Uncle Drew is a movie that shouldn’t be as good as it is. The movie is based on, of all things, a Pepsi commercial starring a basketball player. In 2015 Pepsi hired then Cleveland Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving to star in a series of commercials. The concept for the campaign was to have Irving dress as an old man and get into pickup games in the park where his overwhelming, real life skills would act as a prank on the cocky streetball players.

 

The commercials were clever and Irving carried a natural charisma behind all the makeup that sold the concept. That said, that’s pretty much where this story should have ended. The commercial campaign lasted about a year and slowly faded away. Somehow however, someone got inspired. Whether it was the success of Johnny Knoxville’s similarly conceived Bad Grandpa, a film about Knoxville pranking people in old man makeup which earned $151 million dollars on a $15 million dollar budget, or Irving’s plucky charisma, someone got it in their head that Uncle Drew, Irving’s character, would make a good movie.

 

Uncle Drew tells the story of a basketball legend on the streets of New York in the 1960’s, who simply vanished after his equally legendary streetball team no-showed the finals of the biggest streetball tournament in New York, The Rucker. Decades later, the legend of Uncle Drew lingers as the latest iteration of The Rucker tournament is about to get underway. Dax (Lil Rel Howery, the scene stealer from Get Out), needs Uncle Drew’s help.

 

Dax has just lost his entire team to his rival, Mookie (Nick Kroll). Dax has already paid the $10,000 fee to get into the tournament and can’t get his money back. The only solution is to get a team together and when he sees Uncle Drew schooling young players on a random streetball court, Dax enlists the legend to be on his team at The Rucker. Drew agrees but only if he can get together his old team including his former best friend turned enemy, Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal).

 

It’s a fairly conventional plot from here as Dax and Uncle Drew begin road-tripping to get Drew’s old teammates including Preacher (Chris Webber), Lights (Reggie Miller), Boots (Nate Robinson) and Big Fella. We’ve seen putting the team together montages before but there is something so strange and endearing about this one. Each player is given a tiny story arc to riff on and each is rather surprisingly delightful.

 

Webber especially has a great deal of fun playing Preacher as a henpecked husband to Betty Lou, played by Women’s Basketball legend Lisa Leslie. The dynamic between Webber and Leslie is basically lifted from the Aretha Franklin subplot from The Blue Brothers but instead of a brassy R & B number, Leslie throws on her basketball shoes and gets in the game. It’s an ancient anti-feminist running gag about a nagging wife that pays off with a surprisingly progressive and clever twist.

 

Miller and Robinson have lesser notes to play but Miller’s infectious energy is downright adorable while Robinson’s character has genuine pathos. When we meet Boots he’s in a wheelchair and seemingly in the throes of a serious medical condition that renders him speechless. He’s cared for by his granddaughter, played by Erica Ash, who is quite transparently in the film as a love interest for Dax. As the road trip goes on, Boots works his way from a wheelchair to a running, jumping, slam dunk, it’s hard not to smile at the cheesy, empowering never give up message.

 

In some sort of strange pop culture convergence, Uncle Drew shares the same ethos as the recent comedy Tag: You don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing. It’s a riff on a line from the legendary George Bernard Shaw who appears to be having a minor pop renaissance, even though Tag intentionally gives his famous quote to Benjamin Franklin. It’s a good line, and a great idea to hang a movie on as both films demonstrate.

 

I am almost embarrassed about how much I enjoyed Uncle Drew. Yes, the movie is clumsy at times and unbearably derivative at other times. It’s a movie that includes a gathering the team montage and a dance-off sequence. And, it’s based off a character from a Pepsi commercial. By all accounts I should abhor Uncle Drew and yet I don’t. The film is fun, far more fun than some movies with fully original characters and stories.

 

Uncle Drew has a big goofy heart and a genuine love of sport that somehow won over my curmudgeonly soul. It’s just so darn fun and positive that I could not resist it and neither will you if you give Uncle Drew a chance.
 

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Movie Review Sicario Day of the Soldado

Sicario was a movie where one character tied herself in multiplying more knots in order to do what she thought was right in the pursuit of justice. Sicario may be the Spanish word for hitman but the movie of that title was not about the hitman but rather about an FBI agent who is young enough to still be idealistic about her job until she is confronted by the futility of her work and how even doing the right thing can be a misguided notion when the line between right and wrong is so desperately murky.

 

It’s unfortunate that Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado doesn’t have an Emily Blunt like character for us to identify with. With Blunt’s everyman innocent, the story of Sicario 2 is left to a pair of characters who are charismatic but not very believable as arbiters of the moral ground. Sicario 2 asks us to believe that the characters of CIA Fixer, Matt (Josh Brolin) and hitman, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) are somehow guided to do the right thing when their cold-hearted depravity was the point of the characters when they were conceived.

 

The story of Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado begins with a pair of terror attacks at the border between the U.S and Mexico. In a shocking sequence we watch three terrorists walk into a super-market and each detonate bombs strapped to their chests. This is the act that convinces the Secretary of State (Matthew Modine) to go after the people who are believed to be helping terrorists into the country, the drug cartels.

 

For this dirty work he turns to CIA Fixer Matt and tasks him with a black op. The idea is that Matt and his team will kidnap the daughter of a drug kingpin and drop her off in the territory of a rival kingpin. The goal is to get the cartels into a war with each other and in so doing, keep the cartels from providing cover for terrorists to cross the border into Texas. The idea is solid in planning but the execution is bad. Mexican police are supposed to provide a safe lead into Mexico but instead, they go into business for themselves and nearly kill Matt and his team.

 

This leaves Matt’s friend and professional killer Alejandro to care for the kidnapped girl while Matt high tails it back to Texas to deal with the fallout of Americans killing Mexicans in Mexico. What you have here is a plot with a lot potential, plenty of rich ground to cover in crafting these characters and evolving them from the first film. Unfortunately, the makers of Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado can’t seem to make up their mind about what film they are making.

 

Turning Matt and Alejandro against each other is a clever idea, their alliance may feel close but there is underlying tension to be exploited. The story is timely and potentially bold but the makers of Sicario: Day of the Soldado can’t seem to decide what movie they are making. Is this a gritty, hard-bitten drama about hard men doing the hard things or is this a critique of the secretive and dangerous methods of an American law enforcement acting from a place of fear and weakness.

 

As I said earlier, this is a rich playing field for characters like these. Unfortunately, director Stefano Sillima is unable to capitalize on the work of his terrific cast. Sillima’s direction is lazy and deeply conventional. Where the original Sicario was an artful study of characters struggling with their morality in an amoral world, Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado is a macho, posturing, pointless action movie.

 

Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado trades the best part of the original, the character based acting and observational plot in favor of the more familiar gun fights and chases of the action genre. What they fail to consider are the expectations of people who’ve seen the first Sicario. I loved Sicario for its thicket of moral grey area and how Blunt’s character would navigate that thicket. I enjoyed her struggle and understood her frustration.

 

Without Blunt or a similar character in this sequel what is left is rather weak sauce. There are far less complicated notes being played. The motivations of the characters are lacking as is the clever visual technique of Academy Award winner Roger Deakins who made the grit and grime of Mexico come to life as if Mexico itself were a dangerous character. All of the best stuff of Sicario is missing from Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado and what a shame that is.

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Movie Review Sicario

Sicario stars Emily Blunt as Kate, a tough young FBI Agent who is recruited for a joint government task force on drug enforcement. Immediately she smells something fishy, especially after she meets Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a specialist in cartel politics who is supposedly working for the Department of Justice. Alejandro answers only to Kate’s new boss, an equally shady character named Matt (Josh Brolin).

 

Both Alejandro and Matt are suspiciously good with a weapon for a pair of Department of Justice lawyers and that’s not the only thing about this new assignment that is nagging at Kate. Among other things, Kate’s first day on the job finds her crossing the Texas-Mexico border to capture a high level drug asset. The fact that she’s flanked by an elite military force for this mission gives the strong impression that whoever has arranged this, is working outside the bounds of diplomacy and the rule of law.

 

As the story evolves, Kate is torn between the desire for results in the unending battle between the government and the fractured but still functioning cartels which have only grown more violent and territorial since the fall of the Medellin cartel which had kept an uneasy peace among the cartels while keeping the flow of drugs into America as high as it has ever been. The choice for Kate is simple, the idealistic and seemingly futile pursuit of results inside the bounds of the law or giving up a piece of her very soul for the chance to slow the flow of drugs into the country.

 

How much moral flexibility does Kate have? Can Kate kill unconvicted people if it means capturing or killing those who’ve earned it? These questions form the drama and suspense of Sicario and director Denis Villenueve gives these questions weight and patiently unfolds them as the movie goes on. Villenueve, one of the finest filmmakers working today, an Academy Award nominee for his work on Arrival, has a mastery of pacing and building toward powerful moments.

 

With the help of two time Academy Award nominee, Editor Joe Walker, Villenueve slowly allows tension to build via clever character moments and splashes of sudden violence. The editing is seamlessly brilliant and essential to how Sicario slow builds to a pair of remarkably tense closing scenes including a sweaty and intense dinner conversation with a drug kingpin and one final moment between main characters that is downright devastating.

 

I could go on and talk about the brilliant production design by Patrice Vermette, another two time Academy Award nominee or about the breathtaking cinematography of Roger Deakins, an Academy Award winner for his work on Villenueve’s Blade Runner in 2017 and the only member of the cast and crew of the first Sicario movie to be nominated for an Academy Award. Believe me when I tell you, every sequence of Sicario is impeccable.

 

Great performances, tremendous direction, beautifully spare cinematography and production design and a great story combine to make me very excited for the new movie Sicario Soldad. It should be fascinating to watch Alehandro and Matf do what they do without Kate around to force them to weigh their consciences. Just how low will these rogue elements of our spy underground go to stanch the drug pipeline between the U.S and Mexico.

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Movie Review Escape Plan 2: Hades

 have seen amateur movies on YouTube, shot on an IPhone, that have better special effects than the cheeseball fluff featured in the new movie Escape Plan 2: Hades. This Sylvester Stallone starring sequel to the not-so-great to begin with, 2013 feature, Escape Plan starring Sly and Arnold Schwarzenegger, is among the worst movies of 2018. Bad special effects, inept direction, and abysmal editing make Escape Plan 2: Hades, nearly impossible to endure.

 

Once again Stallone is playing the character of security expert Ray Breslin. Here Ray and his team, including Jesse Metcalf, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Jamie King, are hired to rescue hostages in a foreign country by developing an executing an ‘escape plan,’ get it? When the escape plan goes bad, Ray is forced to part ways with two members of his team, Jasper (Wes Chatham) and Shu (Xiaming Huong).

 

After firing Jasper, Ray let’s Shu take  a leave of absence and from there, Shu goes home to Thailand and reunites with his cousin, a tech millionaire. The cousin is wanted for his deus ex machina technology and when he’s kidnapped, Shu gets taken as well. The two end up in Hades, a state of the art prison, said to be inescapable. Naturally, when Ray finds out his buddy is missing he knows what he needs, as escape plan.

 

My plot description is intentionally snarky but the movie deserves it. Little care is taken by director Stephen C. Miller to make Escape Plan 2: Hades watchable so the film deserves my condescending descriptors. Miller’s direction is borderline haphazard, as if we’re lucky when he’s able to plant his camera in the direction of the actors. The editing is employed to try and hide the directorial and storytelling deficiencies, using quick cuts to try and distract from the bad production design and bored acting.

 

Sly Stallone looks as if he’s not getting enough sleep these days. His speech has always been a tad slow but here, words fall from his mouth as if pushed with great effort but little energy or life. He doesn’t appear to care much about what he’s saying and comes off as content to deliver the minimum effort needed for his check. Director Miller tries to cover for his star’s disinterest by giving newcomer Xiaming Huong most of the heavy lifting but his martial arts can’t overcome Miller’s inability to capture martial arts in a visually interesting fashion.

 

The fight scenes in Escape Plan 2: Hades are nearly as sloppy as the special effects are laughable. Huong appears to be a capable fighter but the slapdash camera work and quick cut editing do more to hide his abilities than to exploit them. There are times during major fight scenes where it was impossible to even locate the lead characters amid the chaos of the staging of these scenes.

 

The CGI of Escape Plan 2 is camp level bad. The effects rendering on something as routine as muzzle flair from a handgun are laughably inept with tiny fireballs that look like cotton candy popping out of a gun. A big explosion in the opening of the film looked like an effect from the legendary modern bad movie Birdemic: Shock and Terror. That film however, at the very least, was entertainingly terrible, Escape Plan 2: Hades is merely embarrassingly cringe inducing.


Just what the heck was Dave Bautista thinking when he accepted this role? Was he desperate to share the screen with Sly Stallone? Bautista is billed as the second star of Escape Plan, equal to Stallone and yet he’s barely in the movie. Bautista doesn’t even have a fight scene, content to just hold a gun in one scene and fire the gun while lightly jogging toward danger later in the movie. Bautista matches Stallone’s lack of energy with his own barely there performance.

 

Escape Plan 2: Hades was supposed to be released theatrically, nationwide this weekend but someone thought better of that idea. Instead, this abysmal effort will haunt the DVD and Blu Ray racks as of Friday, tempting Stallone completists and those who can be tricked into thinking Bautista is doing another Drax like character. Don’t be fooled, Bautista is barely there and Stallone, in a sense, is barely there as well in one of the worst movies of 2018.
 

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Movie Review Criterion Collection Female Trouble

John Waters has become an icon of those with eclectic tastes. Waters is a fascinating personality and artist whose fame as an iconoclast may at last have surpassed his fame as a filmmaker. He’s written a number of bestselling books based almost entirely on his style and personality. Film is almost secondary to who John Waters has become in popular culture. This is not to say that his movies are or should be forgotten, it’s more an indication of how the art of John Waters has evolved.

Waters began making movies in the late 1960’s in his beloved hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.

 

With his group brassy, over the top pals, Waters set out to make the kinds of movies that he and his friends wanted to see, if not audiences at large. His 1972 breakthrough movie, Pink Flamingos set the tone for the John Waters aesthetic of low budget shock with largely transgressive themes of deviant behavior and sexuality.

 

To give the uninitiated a sense of John Waters, Pink Flamingos is best remembered for star, Divine, a wild-eyed drag queen, part Norma Desmond part nightmare, eating dog feces. This wasn’t just a gag either, it was a part of the plot which found Waters’ characters competing for the title of ‘Filthiest Person Alive’ and featured numerous variations of fetishes both disturbing and fascinating.

 

Is Pink Flamingos a comedy? I believe people are intended to laugh in some portions of the movie but honestly, the movie is more about dropping jaws than guffaws. In that same vein, Waters’ Pink Flamingos follow-up, 1974’s Female Trouble isn’t a comedy either but a series of transgressions that you may or may not react to with a mixture of awe or horror depending on your disposition. Female Trouble is now the subject of a Criterion Collection release beginning today, June 26th, 2018.

 

Female Trouble stars Divine as Dawn Davenport, a High School dropout turned criminal and mother of an illegitimate daughter. Dawn is a terrible person desperately seeking fame and fortune while engaging in sex, crime and whatever impulse that happens through her reckless mind. When Dawn meets the owners of a hair salon who have a fetish regarding taking pictures of women in the midst of committing crimes, she finds her purpose in life as their model.

 

That is sort of a description of the plot of Female Trouble but that doesn’t begin to explain what is going on in this movie. There is a plot and a little bit of structure but, for the most part, Female Trouble a series of shrill, shrieking arguments between Dawn and her family and friends and her enemies, especially her eventual mother in law, Aunt Ida played by Edith Massey as a nightmare come to life.

 

Mink Stole plays Dawn’s daughter Taffy and she more than matches the shrill shrieks of Dawn in their numerous squabbles. Taffy has a fetish for staging elaborate car accidents in the family living room, that is when she isn’t castigating her mother for her criminal lifestyle. It’s hinted that Taffy has been kept in a state of perpetual adolescence and Mink Stole is disturbingly good at getting to the heart of an almost entirely unsocialized young adult.


The most striking and lasting element of Female Trouble isn’t that it is funny or even how remarkably transgressive or horrifying it is as the movie tramples on modern morality. Rather, the lasting element of the film is how it presaged our fame obsessed culture. A version of Dawn Davenport wouldn’t feel out of place on a modern reality show with her gross behavior fitting in on anything from Cops to the Real Housewives franchise.

 

Divine’s performance could be a parody of numerous modern reality show characters despite the fact that she existed before reality television. Divine himself passed away in 1988, well before he could have seen what came after in the fame-seeking world of reality television. Dawn’s sweaty, desperate desire to be in front a camera, to be adored by someone, anyone, is a trait that would be required of any performer wishing to satirize modern reality television.

 

Despite Female Trouble featuring a photo camera rather than video or TV cameras, the same ugly, impulsive neediness is still in play in this character as would be in the future with reality TV stars. That Dawn is also disfigured in an acid attack and ends the movie with a killing spree and a trip to the electric chair all while bulbs flash, either for real or in her mind, only serves to create a broad template satire of the horrific lengths a hypothetical reality star could go to.

 

It’s as if John Waters could see into the future and satirize it. That’s a rather remarkable legacy for a movie that is otherwise a whirlwind of NC-17 rated chaos. Don’t go into Female Trouble seeking a conventional film with three act structure and familiar, comforting, character arcs. Female Trouble is simply one transgressively trashy scene after another that builds one audacious scene after another into a wildfire of chaos and insanity until Dawn’s cartoon death sends everyone home with a strikingly dark comic visual.

 

Female Trouble is available beginning today as part of the Criterion Collection and features a newly restored print, directly from John Waters’ own collection, along with deleted scenes, commentary, interviews with the people involved in the making of the movie, and most importantly, the involvement of Waters himself who lends his colorful persona to all of the features of this new collection.

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Classic Movie Review Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) stands framed by a tunnel leading him to a physical and emotional destination. On the other side of the tunnel is the place where he needs to go to save his new friend, Roger, but it is also the place where, years earlier, his brother and partner was killed. The conflict weighs heavily on him as he ponders his fate, past and present colliding in a whirlwind of emotions.

 

I could be describing a 1940’s detective movie directed by John Huston or Jules Dassin with a story by Daschiell Hammett and starring Gene Tierney or Robert Mitchum. Instead, the movie I am describing in the opening of this review is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the iconic live action-animated feature from visionary director Robert Zemeckis. The comedy comes from the remarkably brilliant clash animated storytelling and love of classic detective stories.

 

The scene I mentioned at the top gets a big laugh from me every time only after I realize that what I am seeing is a man trying to rescue his cartoon friend from the same cartoon thug that killed his brother. It’s this collision of past and future in style and drama and comedy in tone that never fails to get a big laugh from me. How remarkably clever, to draw a laugh from something ostensibly serious yet inherently comic.

 

That’s the complex genius of Who Framed Roger Rabbit which was released on June 22nd 1988. The story follows Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) who we meet as he is struggling with a gag in his latest cartoon. Roger’s boss, R. K Maroon (Alan Tivern) believes that Roger is distracted by his wife, Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner), who Maroon is convinced is cheating on Roger with another man.

 

It’s Maroon who hires private eye Eddie Valiant to trail Roger’s wife and catch her playing paddy cake with her sugar daddy, Acme Products owner and Town Town proprietor, Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). When he gets the photos and they get back to Roger, the cartoon rabbit is a mess, literally exploding through a window, leaving a perfect, cartoon cut-out. When Acme is found dead the following day in his warehouse, Roger is the prime suspect and only Eddie Valiant can save him.

 

Part of the genius of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is how it is a classic noir story of an innocent man fighting a corrupt system that wants to put him away for good and a first rate animated comedy. The tone of the film is consistently hilarious on a level that children adore and yet film fans can’t help but appreciate the genre touches that show director Robert Zemeckis must have been a huge fan of 40’s detective movies, not unlike the French New Wave directors of the 60’s who took the same influence and made iconic icy drama where Zemeckis finds comedy.

 

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is legitimately that inspired. Not only is Roger Rabbit an iconic kids comedy it’s a real work of art remarkable attention to detail. The production design and costuming is as detailed and brilliant as the inspired comedy. The plot details influenced by 40’s detective movies are as nuanced as the wonderful comic character work of Bob Hoskins, and the underrated duo of Stubby Kaye and Alan Tivern.


And then there are the remarkable special effects of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The detail is remarkable. A scene where Roger, in Eddie’s office convincing Eddie to save his life, attempts to sit in the dusty chair of Eddie’s late brother shows Roger’s fingerprints on the chair as he pulls it back. Is that level of detail necessary? Perhaps not, but it is effective in showing how deeply committed Zemeckis and company are in establishing Roger in this real world scenario.

 

The seamlessness of Eddie and Roger’s interaction is breathtaking. Bob Hoskins deserved an Academy Award nomination for his deeply committed and yet still very funny performance. Hoskins’ feels like the kind of actor who would have sweated his way through one of this pulpy detective novels of the 1940’s. Rumpled and cynical, he would have been right at home in a Daschiell Hammett story and yet fits brilliantly into the comedy of Roger Rabbit just as well.

 

I absolutely adore Who Framed Roger Rabbit. As a kid it was one of my favorites and today, despite the undeniable influence of childhood nostalgia, I genuinely believe it to be one of the best movies I have ever seen. It ranks right alongside some of the more reputable dramas and esteemed genre pieces I have seen in my more than 20 years as a critic. The huge laughs, the attention detail, the stunningly great effects and the timeless quality of the film earn Roger Rabbit a place in my list of all time favorite movies.

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Classic Movie Review Cujo

In thinking of a classic monster movie to write about this weekend in correlation with Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom I wanted a non-traditional choice. Lots of critics and movie fans will be writing about classic monsters this weekend, it’s a good theme to coincide with a big budget monster movie. I was leaning towards Jaws but then I remembered The Meg is coming out this summer and that seemed apt moment to write about Jaws. So, I settled upon the unique choice of Cujo.

 

Now, you can argue that Cujo isn’t a monster movie. A dog getting rabies is a terribly sad story with many dramatic implications. But, as written about by Stephen King and directed by Lewis Teague, Cujo has much the same tension and arc as a great movie monster. In Fact, having seen Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, I can tell you that Cujo is, for me, as frightening as Fallen Kingdom’s newest villain, the Indo-Raptor.

 

Cujo begins with a little boy frightened of monsters in his closet. Danny Pintauro, who would go on to child stardom on the 80’s series Who’s the Boss, plays Tad, a normal kid who will be terribly traumatized by the end of this story. Tad’s parents, Dee Wallace and Daniel Hugh Kelly, have hit a rough patch in their marriage. As we join the story, Dee is having an affair with a neighbor and Daniel is soon to find out about.

 

In the meantime, Daniel needs his car fixed and turns to an amateur mechanic who live just outside of their idyllic small town. Mr. Kember (Ed Lauter) is a jerk but he works on cars cheap. He has a dog named Cujo who we’ve already met. The opening of the film sets the tension early on as we watch Cujo get infected with rabies. Cujo chases a rabbit into a hole and while he is barking at the rabbit, he awakes bats also hiding in the hole and is bitten.

 

From there, the tension comes from when Cujo will turn, frothing and feral and ready to build a body count. Director Lewis Teague is very patient in how he deploys Cujo. We see the dog early in a scene where he’s introduced to Tad and his family and before he’s gone fully rabid. The scene is tense and Teague lays in the suspense with a shot of the bloody bite on Cujo’s nose. It’s 45 minutes, nearly half way through the movie before Cujo goes full Cujo.

 

Director Teague cleverly uses the dogs eye point of view to create tension in scenes. When Dee and Tad arrive at the Camber farm to get Dee’s car fixed, we know only Cujo is home at this point but Dee doesn’t When the scene shifts to Cujo’s point of view from the barn he’s resting in, waiting for victims, the tension builds quickly and when he burst forth it’s nearly impossible not to gasp as Dee scrambles back into her shambling Pinto.

 

From there it is a series of tense scenes, a little bit of overacting from all involved, and some smartly played suspense over how Dee and Tad are going to survive this bizarre situation. I can’t speak to how much of the movie version of Cujo hues to what Stephen King wrote in his book but I can imagine that he mined the tension of this stand-off in a similar fashion. This is a classically Stephen King sort of set-up with average people in not so average peril.

 

Cujo isn’t an all time great film. Early on, the family drama is rather weak sauce. I understand the necessity of setting up the family dynamic and tension as it will be paid off at the end but the family stuff is clumsy and the film could have done a better job of tying this portion thematically to what Cujo is doing. The stuff about Daniel’s job as an ad executive is almost egregiously uninteresting.

 

That said, the tension surrounding Cujo the character is top notch, legitimately terrifying. I don’t know what an actual rabid dog is like but the rabid Cujo is a spectacularly gory horror show. Dripping with blood and other bodily fluid and covered in dirt and guts, Cujo is the dog body horror at its most horrific. Whoever dressed this dog did a magnificent job of making him legitimately terrifying.

 

I don’t want to think about what it may have taken to get Cujo to bark as he does but I hope that trickery and movie magic made him look so scary. The alternative is that the dog was made to do horrible things and that would make me hate this movie. For now anyway, I certainly don’t hate Cujo. The film is a remarkably good bit of B-Movie terror. The dog is scary, the way the dog is filmed is suspenseful and amps up the jump scares. It’s far from perfect, but for a drive in monster movie, Cujo is top-notch.
 

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Movie Review Zen Dog

Zen Dog stars Kyle Gallner from Shameless as Reed, a boring man stuck in a routine. He has a unique job attempting to create virtual reality tours of cities he’s never been to. Reed’s life is upended when his friend Dwayne (Adam Herschman) comes to stay. Dwayne interrupts all of Reed’s well crafted routine, messes up his apartment and generally throws Reed’s life into a general chaos.

One night Dwayne sees Reed having a nightmare, something that Reed admits is a regular occurance. Dwayne claims to have a solution to Reed’s problem, lucid dreaming. Using a special kind of tea that he curiously refuses to reveal the origins of, Dwayne claims that Reed can control his dreams and get away from his recurring nightmare. Reed is dubious of Dwayne’s claims but tries the drink anyway.

In Reed’s dream, his name is Mud and he’s just quit a job where someone has just taken their life. The revelation sets Mud on a cross country odyssey from Los Angeles to New York City with a bizarre stop in Las Vegas and a fortuitous stop in Denver, Colorado. It is in Denver where Mud meets Maya (Celia Diane), a beautiful French woman with nowhere to go after breaking up with her boyfriend. Maya agrees to join Mud for a day which becomes a week and then a full romantic road trip.

Zen Dog can be confounding if you allow it to be but if you hang in there and get on the film’s unique vibe you will be rewarded. First time writer-director Rick Darge is a cinematographer turned director and his remarkable visual style carried me past my reservations about confusing story threads, including one about a character played by Clea Duvall that goes absolutely nowhere. The style of Zen Dog, the unique use of color saturation and the clever production design and costume pushed me passed my reservations or confusion.

Zen Dog is a beautiful, meditative art piece featuring a lead performance by Kyle Gallner that is warm and inviting. Gallner’s unusual face is a great asset to his work here as he sleepiness, his heavy lidded eyes are a lovely way of delineating Reed from the much more lively, smiling and charismatic Mud, even as they are apparently the same person. Gallner’s face is so different yet the same from Reed to Mud that, much like the lively visual style of the film, it helps get you into both stories being told.

There is a legitimately Terence Malick quality to Zen Dog. It’s not nearly as polished or confident as a Malick film like Tree of Life or To the Wonder but the crisp visuals and the exploration of the psyche is similar. Like Malick, Darge likes to use changes in color as a visual shorthand for a memory or a dream. The desaturated look of Reed’s apartment and brightly colored Volkswagon that Mud drives are each lovely in their own way and help differentiate where we are in each story. It’s a lovely way to visually cue a story.

Celia Diane is wonderfully cast a manic pixie dream girl. Diane’s face and manner have a lovely dream-like quality in the way she moves like a dancer, so effortlessly. Her French-ness is part of the fantasy, especially if you’re a movie fan. There is a 60’s quality to Mud’s journey, from his uniquely styled jacket, covered with 60’s art to his VW’s psychedelic paint job. If you’re a cinema snob of the 60’s then all you wanted in the world was a road trip with a beautiful French out of a Godard fantasy. That’s Celia Diane.

I am reading way more into Zen Dog than most maybe, probably because this kind of movie is right up my alley. In reality, Zen Dog is not a movie for all audiences. If you desperately need a linear story with a conventional plot, Zen Dog is not for you. If you are impatient, Zen Dog is not a movie for you. If you are not someone who gets swept up in beautiful visuals, Zen Dog is not for you. If however, you have a love for great cinematography, costumes and the romance of cinema, Zen Dog is exactly the kind of movie you’ve been looking for.
Zen Dog is available now to rent via most Video On-Demand or Streaming Services and is on Blu Ray in some stores. 

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Movie Review Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom

Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom picks up the action of Jurassic World not long after the action of the first film in the reboot franchise. Here we find Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire now working as as a dinosaur advocate. Claire is lobbying the government to mount a mission to Isla Nublar, former home of the Jurassic World theme park, to rescue the dinosaurs who are threatened with extinction due to an active volcano on the island.

When the government declines the effort, on the advice of none other than Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jeff Goldblum’s character from the original Jurassic Park, Claire is forced to accept the help of secretive billionaire Benjamin Lockwood (Jame Cromwell) and his associate Eli Mills (Rafe Spall). Lockwood was a partner of the original park owner, Dr. Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough from the original Jurassic Park), before he dropped out of the project following the death of his daughter.

Lockwood and Mills will bankroll a secret expedition to save as many dinosaurs as they can but only if Claire can convince her old flame Owen (Chris Pratt) to come with her. Owen is the only person on the planet who can likely convince Blue the Raptor to remain calm enough to be captured and taken off the island. Once he agrees, the expedition is all set but of course, there is a secret agenda at play and once the dinosaurs are secured, plans get underway to bring them to Lockwood’s estate and not the island sanctuary that Claire was promised.

Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom was directed by J.A Bayona who took the reigns of the franchise from Colin Trevorrow. Trevorrow had left the project behind after he’d been hired to direct the final film in the Star Wars franchise, a film he was famously fired from. Trevorrow remains on this project however as one of the screenwriters alongside Kong Skull Island screenwriter Derek Connolly. Bayona brings a unique, childlike sensibility to Fallen Kingdom that makes the film scary yet still family friendly.

Bayona was the director of the wonderful 2016 family adventure A Monster Calls and that experience appears to have influenced the making of Jurassic Park Fallen Kingdom. The film features a subplot involving a the granddaughter of Benjamin Lockwood, Maisey played by newcomer Isabella Sermon. This subplot brings a child’s perspective to the film similar to the perspective in the original which featured a pair of kids in peril.

There is a warmth to the production design of Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom that was lacking in the original. This is owed to the main setting of the film, an elaborate mansion filled that becomes filled with dinosaurs as the film progresses. Despite the chilling scenes of suspense and terror with characters running for their lives, the mansion is actually rather inviting, like a library or a museum but filled with real dinosaurs.

The strong production design of Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom extends to the special effects which are top notch. The dinosaurs remain an extraordinary sight and the ways in which the effects interact with the human characters are as remarkable today as they were in 1993 when Steven Speilberg made us believe that dinosaurs had roared back to life in Jurassic Park. The effects and design go along way to make up for a tepid script and lacking characters.

I remain a fan of Chris Pratt but boy does he need to change up his style soon. His Owen is barely a step away from his Star Lord character from Guardians of the Galaxy. Owen is perhaps a tad more muscled up and slightly more mature but the wisecracks and tough guy posturing remain Pratt’s prominent acting tics. Howard meanwhile, has moments when she breaks out of damsel in distress mode but it’s a mostly one note performance undermined by a script that doesn’t seem to know what to do with her.

The human villains are the weakest part of Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom. Rafe Spall’s weasley assistant and Toby Jones rat-like underground arms dealer the ostensible villains but they never prove necessary beyond providing a reason to get the dinosaurs to the mansion. They lack personality and their ambitions appear silly. The notion that gangsters and arms dealers are paying millions to buy dinosaurs never registers as realistic and the supposed buyers are mere caricatures of villains from other movies.

The best villain in the film is the one that doesn’t have an agenda or a scheme. The Indo-Raptor is a remarkable creation, combining the DNA of a T-Rex and a Raptor. The bad guys were hoping to create a hunting, killing dinosaur that could be controlled and used as a weapon. But, when the Indo-Raptor gets loose, there is no controlling it and it’s rampage provides the best parts of Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom.

I don’t love Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom but by the lowered standard of brainless summer blockbuster, it’s not bad. Turn off your brain and enjoy the remarkable dinosaur CGI and you will have fun with this movie. It may not be great art but it’s fun enough for me to say take the kids and have a good time. Keep in mind, Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom is rated PG-13 and the violence can be scary for young kids, especially the Indo-Raptor is a potential figure for children’s nightmares but as long as you prepare them and hold their hands, kids 8 and up should have a good time here.

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Movie Review The Fabulous Allan Carr

Today the name Allan Carr is not a name that rings many bells but in the 1970’s, he was one of the most famous Hollywood movie producers in the world. Known for his lavish movie premieres, Carr was a fixture on talk shows such as Merv Griffin where his flamboyant personality was as notable and entertaining as many of the movies he was supposedly on hand to promote.

The new documentary The Fabulous Allan Carr brings the famed producer back for another look at his unique legacy. Born in Chicago, Illinois in 1937, Allan Carr was always a little different from the other kids. From an early age he was fascinated by fashion and was friends with all of the girls and yes, these are the cliched traits of many gay men of Allan Carr’s time but nevertheless true as shown in the documentary.

With his lively personality Allan took to the High School theater crowd and found his first love in show business. With the help of his parents he rehabbed a Chicago Theater and booked shows with Hollywood legend Bette Davis, far from her heyday as an Academy Award winner but still a big name who, until Carr came along, was touring High School gymnasiums and small dinner theater outlets. Carr put Davis back on the stage and got his first hit.

From there, Carr parlayed a job booking talent for Hugh Hefner’s Chicago set television series, “Playboy Tonight” into a career in Hollywood. He began as an agent for big name clients like Ann Margaret who credits Carr saving her career by taking her to Las Vegas and helping create a lavish stage show that turned into one of the highest grossing acts in the history of sin city. Carr also produced Ann Margaret TV specials but it was on the big screen where Carr found his biggest success.

In 1978 Carr teamed with music mogul Robert Stigwood to create Grease. Based off a popular Broadway musical, Grease became a monster hit and propelled Allan Carr to the talk show circuit and fame well beyond that of many Hollywood producers. The Fabulous Allan Carr has wonderful interviews with Carr’s closest friends talking about the success of Grease and how it transformed Carr’s life.

If there is anything lacking from The Fabulous Allan Carr it is interviews with the stars that Carr worked with in his fabulous career. Despite his work on Grease we don’t here from John Travolta or Olivia Newton John. There is an interview with one of The Village People who Carr worked with on the flop musical Can’t Stop the Music but no Steve Guttenberg or Katelyn Jenner, though Valerie Perrine does show up.

Then there is the most interesting flop of Carr’s career, the 61st Academy Awards. Carr was hired to produce the Academy Awards and wound up producing what is remembered as one of the biggest disasters in Oscars history. Carr was the man who came up with the idea of having Snow White sing Proud Mary with Rob Lowe in a disastrous opening musical number that cost millions of dollars and lasted more than 20 minutes to open the show.

The documentary hints that perhaps this number wasn’t all that bad and that Carr’s vision for the Oscars was something that had been maligned by history but the filmmakers do little to back up that assertion. Instead, the makers of The Fabulous Allan Carr dedicate several minutes to telling us that it was Carr who first had presenters use the phrase “And the Oscar Goes to…”, a notable anecdote but not exactly enough to make us forget Proud Mary.

Overall, The Fabulous Allan Carr is an interesting documentary for anyone who loves a slice of behind the scenes Hollywood. It’s worth checking out on-demand where it is available for rent from Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play services.

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Movie Review The Catcher Was a Spy

The Catcher Was a Spy stars Paul Rudd as Morris ‘Moe’ Berg, a former major league baseball catcher turned international spy. Berg played 15 years with the Boston Red Sox before retiring at the end of 1938. By 1941 Berg, known as Professor Berg among his teammates, a graduate of Princeton University, sought and received a position at the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.

 

Rudd plays Berg as a man of many secrets and discretion. An early scene finds Berg going to a bar, thought by many as a haven for gay men. When he’s followed there by a suspicious teammate, Berg turns to violence to try to cover his tracks. Later, on a baseball tour of Japan next to luminaries such as Babe Ruth, Berg took the initiative to dress in Japanese garb and covertly film footage of a Japanese naval yard. He then parlayed the footage into his position with the OSS.

 

Sienna Miller co-stars in The Catcher Was a Spy as Estelle, Berg’s girlfriend. The relationship is fraught by Berg’s unwillingness to commit to Estelle, his desire not to have children and Estelle’s seeming awareness of Berg’s proclivities. A side mistress is less aware leading to an argument that illustrated Berg’s commitment to being discrete, even if it means losing someone he appears to care about.

 

Once Berg moves toward becoming a spy we meet his new OSS boss, played by Jeff Daniels. Daniels’ blunt, blustering military man turned spy is impressed by Berg’s initiative and ambition though wary of the secrets he keeps from the secret keepers. Nevertheless, it’s the OSS chief who assigns Berg to go to Italy and eventually on to Sweden to investigate how close Germany may be to having an atomic bomb.

 

Along on the mission in Italy, where he faces down enemy fire from fleeing German soldiers, are an army Colonel played by Guy Pearce and a physicist played by Paul Giamatti. Their target is the well known German Physicist Werner Heisenberg, played by Mark Strong. Heisenberg was one of the few scientists who chose to stay in Germany after the Nazi take over and was appointed head of the German effort to make a bomb.

 

The question is, is he helping or hurting the German cause? The Catcher is a Spy is ingenious and exciting in laying out Moe Berg’s mission and what is at stake. Having been a major league baseball player turned spy, Moe has never had to kill a man and much tension and drama is built around whether he could, if called upon, kill Heisenberg to keep him from building the atomic bomb.

 

History tells us how that played out but if you, like me, aren’t fully aware how this turned out, it’s an exciting and exceptionally well told story. The Catcher Was a Spy was directed by Ben Lewin, a Polish director best known for his 2012 feature The Sessions starring Helen Hunt, a film that earned high praise for Hunt who was thought to be a possible Oscar contender. Hunt played a sex therapist working with a handicapped man played by John Hawkes in an equally lauded performance.


Similar acclaim could be coming for Paul Rudd who brilliantly plays Moe Berg. Rudd, known for his work as Ant-Man and as the comic foil of director Judd Apatow in several films, plays Berg very low key, almost unknowable. It’s a complex character to play, a man so insular, who kept his own council, with few broad strokes in his personality. Rudd finds smart beats to play, especially employing Berg’s talent for languages which Rudd and the story use late in the film as part of the spy play. Listen for his intentional lack of accent in an important scene, subtle but ingenious.

 

The Catcher Was a Spy will be a treat for anyone who loves an old school spy movie, one without the trappings of a James Bond or Jason Bourne. The film played as part of a new series of Independent Films at the Putnam Museum. The Putnam is partnering with the New York Film Critics Series to show 10 independent features unlikely to play at local multiplexes. The next feature for the month of July is yet to be announced.

 

You can keep an eye out for The Catcher is a Spy on on-demand services such as Amazon Prime over the next few months.

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Movie Review Superfly 2018

Yesterday I wrote about Gordon Parks’ seminal 1972 film Superfly, a landmark of film and culture. Superfly 1972 influenced fashion and music that came after it and while it was never intended to glorify the lifestyle of drug dealer Priest Youngblood, the unintended consequence of the film was that Priest became an exemplar of an idea that had little to do with the film or the character and the message of the film was transformed from an observation of a character to a pop culture caricature.

 

That caricature gets a new coat of paint in the new Superfly from music video director, X. The new Superfly has some of the themes of the original Superfly and some of the style but it lacks the central thesis of Parks’ work which was dispassionate, observation of a character and not a movie that created heroes or villains or told a conventional story with conventional morality in play. The new Superfly has an interest in glorifying Priest Youngblood and in doing so, it misses the essence of the original.

 

Trevor Jackson, best known for his work on the series Grownish, stars here as Youngblood Priest, a reversal on the name of Ron O’Neal’s O.G Priest Youngblood. This Priest is a flashy, stylish but clever drug dealer whose approach to business is stealthy. Priest lives the high life with high fashion, money and cars but carefully avoids killing and the kind of profile that attracts the attention of the police.

 

Through his mentor Scatter (Michael K. Williams), and with his partner Eddie (Jason Mitchell), Priest has a comfortable existence hidden behind a wall of respectable businesses, including an art gallery run by his girlfriend, Georgia (Lex Scott Davis). Priest and Georgia also have a girlfriend named Cynthia (Andrea Londo), another spin on the polyamory of the original Superfly Priest who had two women as well though he kept them separated.

 

The plot of Superfly 2018 kicks in when Priest decides to go around Scatter and connect directly with Scatter’s supplier, a drug cartel headed up by Adelberto Gonzalez (Esai Morales). Priest believes he can move more product than what Scatter is giving him and he seeks a new partnership. Secretly, Priest’s plan is to turn a few million dollars into multiple millions of dollars and retire from the game altogether. However, with the cartel involved and a dirty cop played by former House star Jennifer Morrison getting involved, Priest’s retirement could be perilous.

 

Many of the story beats are the same as the beats in the original Superfly, but the 2018 model lacks the urgency and kinetic energy of the original. Superfly 2018 adds an unnecessary subplot involving a rival gang called Snow Patrol who dress all in white and like to make it rain at strip clubs. One member of Snow Patrol is jealous of Priest and through a series of accidents and misunderstandings an all out war begins to unfold.

 

This subplot is not needed and seems to exist solely for the aesthetic and the costumes. Snow Patrol is unique and stylish but they add little to the story and nothing that could not have been added either by the cartel characters, a more interesting addition to this story or the corrupt cops who provided the bad guys of the original film. That plot was knotty and scary and far more interesting in Parks’ take than anything in this Superfly.

 

The new Superfly truly goes wrong with its ending which seems to treat Priest as a hero rather than a real life character. Again, the thrust of the original Superfly was not making Priest a legend or a hero but to examine the life of a man like Priest, warts and all. Superfly 2018 takes the easy way out by trying to pretend Priest wasn’t such a bad guy and asking us to root for his escape. This approach is far closer glamorizing the life of a kingpin than anything in the original in which Priest narrowly escapes with his life and money and may not have escaped entirely.

 

The original remains iconic, unique and influential. The new model is merely stylish and less accomplished. Superfly 2018 is not at all a bad movie, it’s sexy and well crafted aside from a couple of bad special effects scenes and some genuinely awful green screen. X is a director with good energy and the film has a strong, aesthetic which includes modern fashion with nods to the garishness of the original. This version however, won’t stand the test of time as the original which has earned a place in pop culture legend.

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Regional Media Classic Movie Review Superfly 1972

With a newly modernized take on Gordon Parks’ provocative 1972 movie Superfly having arrived in theaters this past weekend, I took the opportunity to look back on Parks’ original film and came away shocked and very impressed. While the film’s low budget keeps it from rising to the level of great cinema, the pieces are in place, and Parks’ incredible direction stands out more today than it did when the film was written off as a low budget drive in movie in 1972.

 

Superfly may seem like a silly movie on the surface. It’s easy to dismiss Gordon Parks’ 1972 action drama about a drug dealer trying to escape the criminal life with one last big score as just a Blaxsploitation movie, or a low budget, b-movie. People underestimated and discounted Gordon Parks throughout his brief career and often without giving his low budget movies the kind of chance that did go to bigger budget movies with white directors and white lead actors.

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What was missed by dismissing Parks and his low budget, indie aesthetic was the authenticity and earnest quality of his work. Parks was unfairly and incorrectly accused of glorifying criminal life and making drug dealing look like a lifestyle worth pursuing. In reality, Superfly is a character piece about a criminal that carries an air of detachment about crime, similar to the approach taken by big budget movies like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Obviously, Superfly is not as rich or epic as The Godfather but both movies are about charismatic criminals, one just happens to be high toned and big budget while the other is gritty and low budget.

 

Superfly stars Ron O’Neal as drug dealer Priest Youngblood. Priest has grown into a successful cocaine dealer through the liberal use of violence and a stake from his mentor, Scatter (Julius W. Harris). With his partner, Eddie (Carl Lee), he’s managed to gather $300,000 which is just enough to trade for more cocaine, high quality product that they can then sell with the aim of making a cool million dollars, split 50/50.

 

The key to the scheme is getting the now retired Scatter to put them in touch with The Man. Unfortunately, what Priest and Eddie don’t know, ‘The Man’ happens to be a cop named Reardon and once you are in business with The Man, you are in business for good, or you go to jail. This puts Priest in a tough spot: work with The Man and risk getting arrested when he tries to get out of the game or walk away with nothing.

 

Ron O’Neal’s tough guy posturing is electric. O’Neal’s eyes are brilliantly convincing, his wheels are always turning and there always seems to be a whole other story going on behind those eyes. O’Neal oozes charisma and charm and this is likely what people who reacted negatively to Superfly were thinking when they came to believe the movie was a glorification of drug dealing. O’Neal’s off the charts charisma is mistaken as Parks’ glamour.

O’Neal’s Priest as a character indicates that he doesn’t think drug dealing is cool, it’s merely a means to an end. Racism pushed many black men of Priest’s age, and especially of his ambition, into the world of crime because they believed that legitimate avenues were not open to them because of race. It’s not a justification, it’s a character trait, not unlike the way members of the Corleone family believed that crime was the only avenue for an Italian in their corner of New York City.

 

Superfly is outsized and over the top in how it portrays Priest but it is not to a comic degree. Gordon Parks was in touch with the style and fashion of the streets of New York City and at times his Superfly feels like as much a fashion shoot as a movie. The fashion of Superfly influenced fashion among black culture in New York City for years but it was the drug dealers of New York that inspired Parks who then captured the zeitgeist.

 

You can argue whether you find it acceptable that Parks glorified the style of the street dealers and kingpins of New York City, but it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t authentic and that authenticity was Parks’ goal, not celebrating drug dealing. Portraying a drug dealer authentically, the high fashion and the low crime is no different and no less provocative than what Francis Ford Coppola did for Italian gangsters in The Godfather or what William Friedkin did for dirty cops in The French Connection.

 

The big difference between Superfly and those two Academy Award winners is a much lower budget and the lesser talented performers that come from that lower budget aesthetic. Parks’s style, the gritty cinematography, the authentic production design, are top notch given the restrictions that Parks was working under in terms of budget. The camera work is lively, the editing keeps the pace humming throughout and the script by Phillip Fenty is lively, colorful and clever.

 

Is Priest a sympathetic character? Yes and no, he’s a complicated character. Gordon Parks shows us everything about Priest, his dark and dangerous side and the frightened side that longs for a life away from drugs and criminality, the kind of life he believes only white people get to have. That’s the harsh undercurrent of Superfly, the one polarized audiences and critics in 1972, the presentation of Priest as neither hero or villain but as a character who believed, right or wrong, that his race drove him to be a criminal.

 

Parks’ provocative approach came from not judging Priest but observing him. Audiences prefer the simplicity of taking sides, of clear cut right and wrong and Priest was a criminal battling other criminals, battling corruption among people in power and using his wits to build his escape. The ending of Superfly is a thrilling bit of misdirection that Parks lays in beautifully without tipping his hand before the big reveal at the end that may make Priest seem heroic but is much more subversive and murky than a happy ending.

 

A new version of Superfly hit theaters nationwide this past weekend and I will have a review of the new Superfly on Tuesday here at RegionalDailyNews.com.

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Movie Review Tag

Is Tag juvenile? Of course, the comedy featuring an all star cast playing an extreme version of the schoolyard classic game will inspire a number of think pieces about growth stunted man-boys and their unwillingness to grow up. This however, misses the genuine and very sweet, and very funny point of Tag. Based on a true story, Tag is an ode to friendship and how the friends we make as children remain special whether we stay in touch or not.
Tag stars Ed Helms as Hoagie, a veterinarian with a thriving practice, a loving and supportive wife, played by Isla Fisher and even kids that we don't meet in the movie. However, for one month of each year, all of Hoagie's grown up responsibilities go out the window. In the month of May, Hoagie plays an unending game of Tag with his group of childhood friends including Callahan (Jon Hamm), Chili (Jake Johnson), Sable (Hannibal Burress) and the best of the best Tag champion, Jerry (Jeremy Renner).
In the near 30 years that these friends have played Tag, Jerry has never been tagged and now, he's decided to retire, un-tagged. This sends Hoagie and the rest of gang on a desperate quest to get Jerry before the end of the month and his retirement. How far is Jerry willing to go to keep his streak alive and make things interesting? He's scheduled his wedding on May 31st and specifically did not invite his four closest friends.
Naturally, Hoagie finds out about the wedding and notes it as the perfect time to tag Jerry. However, these guys are actually Jerry's friend and don't want to ruin the big day, thus allowing for rules to be in place specifically to cater to the feelings of Jerry's new bride, Susan (Leslie Bibb), who may or may not be in on Jerry's scheme to remain un-tagged. Along for the ride is a Wall Street Journal reporter, Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis) who drops her story on Callahan as the CEO of a major company in favor of this story about this epic game.
Tag is the first feature film for director Jeff Tomsic. Previously, Tomsic has made his career in television, directing comedy specials for people like T.J Miller and sitcoms such as TBS's underrated The Detour and Comedy Central's much loved Broad City. Tomsic doesn't yet have much visual invention in his work but it's solid and professional. The stand out moments are the big comic set pieces such as a forest chase where Jerry has an elaborate escape and a church set scene that once again finds Jerry out thinking his buddies.
As I was saying in the opening however, as juvenile as Tag unquestionably is, there is a good heart to it. The goal of these guys, characters who are based on a real group of friends in Oregon, is to remain friends and remain in touch, quite literally. Many of the set pieces in Tag are based on bizarre things these real guys have actually done including dressing in costumes and chasing one another on golf carts.
The point is that the childlike joy inspired by the game Tag keeps these life long friends from growing complacent. That's the thing about friendships from childhood, complacency and distance creeps in and while modern technology allows many ways for us to stay in touch, there is nothing better than a milestone moment of being in the same place at the same time to really remind you how important having friends is. Life can so easily get in the way, a game of Tag now and then, or your friendship equivalent, may be just the thing an adult needs to get by.

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Movie Review: The Incredibles 2

Why don't I love The Incredibles? I have been racking my brain trying to come up with reasons why I have fallen out of love with the Pixar franchise and there really are too many little issues with the story, characters and lack of laughs for me to narrow it down. After sitting through nearly 4 hours of an Incredibles 1 and Incredibles 2 double feature I walked out baffled that the magic I felt back in 2004 was missing.
The Incredibles 2 picks up the story of the Parr family led by Bob Parr AKA Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Helen Parr AKA Elastigirl and including their three children, oldest daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), middle child Dash (Huck Milner) and baby Jack Jack (Eli Fucile). Like their parents, the kids have superpowers as well with Violet possessing invisibility and able to create force fields and Dash having super speed.
And then there is Jack Jack whose powers only came out at the end of the first Incredibles movie and only when mom and dad couldn't see them. In Incredibles 2 a significant subplot is dedicated to Jack Jack's developing more than half a dozen superpowers, none of which he can seem to control and some of them incredibly dangerous. Jack Jack's powers are the bright light of this otherwise drab outing.
The main story of Incredibles 2 centers on Helen taking a job as a superhero and leaving Bob at home to care for the kids. The CEO of a major corporation, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) has dedicate some of his vast fortune to helping bring superheroes out of hiding. If you remember the original film, Supers were driven underground following a series of catastrophes and lawsuits. Deavor wants to use Elastigirl to show the world it still needs superheroes.
Helen immediately finds a nemesis in The Screenslaver, a villain who uses screens to hypnotize people into doing his bidding. Using her smarts Helen is able to make quick work of The Screenslaver but she wonders why it turned out to be so easy, considering how brilliant the villain had seemed as he was executing his plan for world domination. The answer is rather unsurprising, I had the villain guessed rather quickly and had to hope that the movie would find a clever subversion of expectations. Sadly, that never comes.
There is nothing all that remarkable about the story being told in Incredibles 2. Where most other Pixar movies have invention and humor on their side, The Incredibles relies on vague allusions to deep issues intended to flatter the audience for recognizing them. This is however, only puddle deep philosophizing. The makers of Incredibles 2 claim to have something to say about gender roles as they put Helen in the workforce and Bob at home but there isn't much beyond that presentation of the idea.
Helen is a terrific hero, smart and tough and a great role model of how a woman can be both a world class superhero and a great mom. This isn't exactly new ground that we are covering here, The Incredibles 2 is set in a vague early to mid 60's aesthetics and is deeply rooted in the aged politics of the time which seem quaint in today's environment. The Incredibles 2 director Brad Bird brings nothing new to this and the lack of depth in the characters is exposed by how simple the empowerment message is.
Yes, it's a movie for kids, I can hear and I am well aware of what The Incredibles 1 & 2 are. Toy Story is also a movie for kids and yet the makers of that film franchise still find deep and meaningful messages about family and aging and acceptance that go beyond the surface while maintaining a story simple enough for kids to follow. The Toy Story movies are also wildly funny on top of the deep themes, something that neither of The Incredibles movies are.
There is a distinct lack of laughs in The Incredibles 1 & 2. In fact, Incredibles 1 is downright disturbing at times in its lack of a sense of humor. A running bit about the dangers of capes features multiple deaths of superheroes and eventually the death of the film's lead villain. Then there is the Gazerblade scene wherein our hero hides behind the rotting corpse of a former friend to escape detection by a high tech hunting gadget. Incredibles 2 doesn't have anything that rivals those dark moments but it's not much brighter in tone either.
Watching this double feature of The Incredibles I was taken aback by the lack of fun. There is a dourness that hangs over these films, an oppressiveness that edges into the movie in the subplot about superheroes forced into hiding. The stories nod toward Ayn Rand of all people in blatant talking points about how super people have to sublimate themselves to make average people feel better about themselves.
In The Incredibles 1 the super villain, Syndrome (Jason Lee), wants to give everyone high powered gadgets so that everyone can be super and thus no one can be super. The Incredibles 2 turns Winston Deavor into a John Galt like figure who aims to create a utopia where superheroes can once again take their rightful place in society, out of the shadows. I'm not here to argue Randian philosophy, I'm just expressing how off-putting it is to endure such mediocre philosophy during what should be a fun adventure.
In The Incredibles 2 there is an attempt to hypnotize supers and use them for villainy. Some have pointed out that this is akin to the government using the best and the brightest to further the agenda of the mediocre. I'm not saying that was Brad Bird's intention but the film is so obvious in the Randian comparisons that I can see how people would arrive at the conspiracy theory. Here again, even if there is an agenda at play, there is no depth or commitment to it just as there is no commitment or depth to notions about gender roles.
The makers of The Incredibles 1 and 2 seem to want credit for depth without actually having to be deep. The defenders of these movies want to claim they are 'just kids movies' while still wanting to claim they have deeper themes. None of it works because neither The Incredibles or The Incredibles 2 commits to a specific idea of what the movie is supposed to be beyond a pastiche of superhero cliches dressed up with the talent of Pixar animation.
Then there is the villain, The Screenslaver. This is not a particularly compelling villain. I already mentioned how obvious the identity of the villain is and how the film fails to make the character or the plot all that interesting beyond the predictable reveal. What I haven't yet discussed is the very notion of The Screenslaver as a character. The character uses screens to hypnotize people. The movie is set in the 60's so the screen in question is the television screen, for the most part.
The obvious joke however is like a dad joke observation at its most lame. The Screenslaver is a puddle deep comment on our addiction to our screens, our phones, tablets and other such modern technology. Like the attempts at Randian philosophizing and gender role questions, this idea is underwritten and relies on surface level observations. Obsessing over screens is bad, put away your screens and spend time with your family and blah, blah, blah. Thankfully, this a mostly unformed idea and we don't spend much time on it but it's another failed attempt at a deeper theme, a hallmark of The Incredibles movies.
I have long been a Pixar apologist, one who has gone as far as defending the quality of The Cars franchise, which yes, I do believe is a better and much funnier series than The Incredibles. I have loved nearly everything Pixar has done and back in 2004, I was a big fan of The Incredibles. I had misgivings then but I brushed them aside to focus on how fun the movie was. It's less fun on a rewatch however as its flaws stand out more now that I am so familiar with it.
The Incredibles 2 underlines the flaws of the originals and piles on more even larger flaws. Brad Bird's baby is filled with underwhelming ideas and a lack of laughter. There is a distinct joylessness to The Incredibles 2. The filmmakers need to lighten up a bit and while scenes involving baby Jack Jack have a light funny feel, the rest of the movie is rather drab and obvious. Worst of all, the fun is undermined by the faint notions of depth, ideas dressed up as deeper themes but lacking actual depth.

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