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Movie Reviews Archives for 2018-08

Movie Review Searching

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Eight Men Out

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review 2001 A Space Odyssey

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Woman Walks Ahead

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review A.X.L

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Summer of 84

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review The Muppet Movie

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review The Happytime Murders

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Papillion (1973)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review First Reformed

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Action Point

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Deadpool 2

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Married to the Mob

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Alpha

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Mile 22

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review The Philadelphia Story

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Avengers Infinity War

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Dog Days

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Crazy Rich Asians

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review BlacKKKlansman

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review The Meg

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Jaws

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Tootsie

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review Life of the Party

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Movie Review The Rider

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

 

The Rider tells the story of Brady, a bronco rider who, as we join the story, is recovering from what appears to be a career ending accident. We will come to find out that he was kicked in a head by a horse he’d been riding in a competition. The injury is such that if he suffers another concussion or really any other sort of jostling of his brain he could be permanently impaired or even killed.

 

The answer is simple for Brady’s father, Tim (Tim Jandreau), Brady needs to move on with his life. Tim is being reasonable and practical but not particularly sensitive. Bronco riding in competition is how Brady found his identity. All of Brady’s friends are competitors. Brady’s teenage years were all spent at the rodeo and his closest friend, in a bitterly ironic twist, is a man left wheelchair bound and mentally impaired in a rodeo accident. Brady had dedicated himself to ride on his friend’s behalf.

 

Brady Jandreau’s real life friend and real life rodeo rider Lane Scott, who really was tragically injured in a rodeo accident, plays Lane in The Rider and scenes when Brady goes to visit his friend are fraught with complex emotions of sympathy and empathy. Brady can’t bring himself to see his friend as a cautionary tale and it’s not hard to put yourself into Brady’s mind where, despite the danger, he doesn’t want to let his friend down.

 

The Rider centers on a complex and frightening notion: what if you could not do that thing that you feel makes you, you. What is it that defines your identity to yourself and to others? Now imagine having that taken from you; who are you now? Some will simply say you shouldn’t allow one thing to define you or they will remain in denial and dismiss such questions with the stubborn thought that Brady should just accept his fate and move on.

 

Chloe Zhao however, refuses to look away, she refuses to be in denial. She confronts Brady’s dilemma head on and never cuts corners or accepts easy answers. When Brady seems to find a new potential avenue of employment and life there is an undercurrent of anxiety because that way forward still brings him in contact with horses and carries the potent fear that he could be drawn back into his old life despite the danger.

 

The film is much more quiet than the aching emotional elements I have written about. The style of the film is reserved and the emotion is tucked below the stoic surfaces of Brady and his father. What we see instead are some lovely moments of silent contemplation on a gorgeous South Dakota plain. The emotion is layered into the story and we feel every inch of it but this isn’t a soap opera, the emotion is perceived and what we are witnessing feels much closer to real life sorrow, joy and discovery.

 

On top of being exceptionally moving, The Rider is one of the best looking movies of 2018. The cinematography of The Rider is breathtaking and will undoubtedly look just as beautiful on your high def TV as it did on the big screen. Zhao made a point of shooting the film at sunset in South Dakota, as the sun was just beginning to fall behind the mountains and that golden hue is as brilliant as these characters are compelling.

 

A scene in which Brady begins training a wild horse on a friend’s property is shot in beautiful, bright blue daylight and almost entirely without dialogue. The scene was actually an improvisation as real life horse trainer Brady saw the horse on the set and asked if he could try and settle it down. Zhao turned this organic moment into one of the finest scenes in any movie in 2018. This seemingly random occurrence fits beautifully into this narrative.

 

The Rider is lovely, authentic and deeply moving. It’s not a documentary, despite Brady and his father and his wonderful little sister, essentially playing themselves. This is Chloe Zhao’s story and it is remarkably well told. The questions about identity and how we define ourselves speak to a universally knowable fear while the gorgeous photography and authentic performances underline those fears in ways that are cinematic and yet so very, very real and engaging.

 

The Rider is one of the best movies of 2018 and it is available on Blu Ray and DVD Tuesday, August 6th.

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Movie Review Darkest Minds

I had really hoped that the phase of young adult dystopian drama had passed after the series of Hunger Games knock-offs tried and failed at the box office. I had a deep and abiding hope that after Maze Runner: The Death Cure, still among the worst things I have seen at the movies in 2018, had flopped into theaters I would not have to suffer another overwrought, portentous piece of young adult post-apocalyptic nonsense for a few years. 
 
Sadly, it’s only been a few months since the pain of the most recent Maze Runner sequel began to subside and already this pathetic sub-genre is back on the big screen. Darkest Minds is the latest young adult flotsam to try and cash in on The Hunger Games in hopes of striking box office gold. Here’s hoping it fails as miserably as the rest as Darkest Minds doesn’t deserve success, it deserves to be buried in a cold wet grave. 
 
Darkest Minds wastes the talents of young Amandla Stenberg, Rue from The Hunger Games, as Ruby, a teenager with a dark secret, the power to manipulate people’s minds. As we are told via generic news footage, teenagers across the country woke up one morning with remarkable super-powers and their parents didn’t know what to do about them. The only thing anyone could think of was to round up the kids and put them in camps to be studied or killed. 
 
Some kids are super-smart, others have telekinesis powers and still others have the horrific power to make fire shoot from their eyes and mouths like a kid whose had too many Smoking Hot Cheetos. Ruby belongs to a dangerous group of kids given the distinction or Orange for their ability to manipulate the minds of anyone they come in contact with. Ruby can Jedi mind trick people into doing her bidding, if she can learn to control her gift. 
 
After escaping an internment camp where she was set to be eliminated after they discover the breadth of her powers, Ruby briefly goes on the run with a freedom fighter named Kate (Mandie Moore) but when she appears to have a partner who Ruby envisions as a bad guy, Ruby runs away and finds herself in a van with a group of fellow teens with super-powers. Liam (Harris Dickman) is the leader, he has telekinesis. Chubs (Skylan Brooks) has super-intelligence and Zu (Miya Cech) can turn electricity into a weapon. 
 
Together they will seek out a utopia headed up by a legend named the Slip Kid, nicknamed for his ability to get in and out of the camps after being repeatedly captured. Naturally, the utopia will not be all it’s cracked up to be and it will be up to our heroes to point the way toward real freedom. Or, at least, I assume what the plot of Darkest Minds is supposed to be; the film is far more clumsy in execution.
 
Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson makes the jump from animated features to live action with Darkest Minds and you can sense the dutiful approach to making this as if she were assigned a task and not given a creative opportunity. There is a quality of let’s just get this over with to every scene in the movie and the rushed sensibility comes through in the look of the movie and in the performances that stem from a director picking up a paycheck. 
 
Amandla Stenberg is giving the role of Ruby her full attention but you can sense here also a dutiful if not deeply committed approach. Everyone in Darkest Minds seems to just want to get through this so they can get on with their careers in more interesting movies that aren’t mandated by the whims of a studio marketing department. You can almost hear the gleeful cry of the marketing team as they chant “Hunger Games Meets The X-Men” over and over and over as they frenzy themselves toward believing they have a hit concept on their hands. 
 
Darkest Minds is little more than an elevator pitch brought to life and colored in with derivative characters and expository dialogue. It’s unlikely that anyone who made this movie cared about it beyond making sure it wasn’t a full-on, career killing embarrassment. That modest goal is achieved, everyone here can rest assured that what they’ve made isn’t a complete embarrassment, it’s competent and forgettable in the way that will help as these talented people move on and forget that they ever took part in this throwaway nonsense. 

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Movie Review Christopher Robin

Disney has had remarkable success taking their animated properties and repurposing them for live action film. And somehow, they’ve done this with no one accusing them of recycling or calling out the nakedly calculated marketing strategy that was the inception for each of these movies from Cinderella to Jungle Book to Beauty and the Beast and now to Christopher Robin, the live action take on Winnie the Pooh.

 

Much of the reason that we’ve given Disney a pass on such criticism is because the quality of this strip mining of our nostalgic memories of childhood have been so very good. Exceptional filmmakers such as Kenneth Branagh and Jon Favreau and now Marc Forster have turned this cynical nostalgic cash grab into something genuinely, lovingly artful. Marc Forster has even made, arguably, the most loving and artful of all of these cynical cash grabs.

 

Christopher Robin is the story of the young boy who found a door in a tree and bravely crossed it’s threshold into a world of wonder in the 100 Acre Woods. There he found magical creatures including a new best friend, Winnie the Pooh along with his pals, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore. Kanga and her son Roo, and the wonderful, bouncy backsided Tigger. Together they played and dreamed and had great adventures.

 

Years passed however and time came when Christopher Robin was forced to leave behind the 100 Acre Woods in favor of soggy old London and life in a boarding school. From there, Christopher would begin to forget his fuzzy former friends and start a real life. Grown up, and played by Ewan McGregor, Christopher met and fell in love with Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), they had a baby named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) and he went to war.

 

Now home with his family, Christopher has begun to forget not just about the 100 Acre Woods but about fun in general. Christopher’s job at a luggage company consumes all his time and thoughts and even when he plans to spend a weekend away with his family, at his parents’ former cottage, he can’t get away from his work and the strain on his marriage is evident if only to us and to Evelyn.

 

Here’s where things take a turn. The scene shifts to Pooh Bear’s cottage. He’s just awoken and found that he has no hunny. He goes out seeking help from his friends and cannot find them. He finds the door in the tree where Christopher Robin always came from and decides to go through it into Christopher’s world. On the other side, Pooh emerges in London and finds Christopher anxiously hiding from a neighbor he doesn’t want to talk to.

 

Marc Forster is a filmmaker who knows a little something about gentle and pleasant kids stories. Forster’s Finding Neverland was an Academy Award nominee telling the story of J.M Barrie’s creation of Peter Pan. Christopher Robin feels a lot like that film with a similar whimsical, magical essence. Both Christopher Robin and Finding Neverland have an elegiac and plaintive pacing, an air of sadness slowly giving way to the joy of letting go. Forster worked with his Finding Neverland editor Matt Chesse on Christopher Robin and that may have contributed to the similarity in tone and pace.

 

What sets Christopher Robin apart is the screenplay which features work from three smoking hot properties. Indie darling Alex Ross Perry of Listen Up Phillip and Queen of Earth fame has a credit alongside Hidden Figures writer Allison Schroeder and Academy Award-winning Spotlight writer-director Tom McCarthy. Each contributes to the unique style of Christopher Robin’s story and the wonderful, whimsical way the characters interact.

 

Don’t misunderstand, these are still fully A.A Milne, by way of Disney, characters. Pooh still feels like Pooh, thanks to the legendary voice work of Jim Cummings and we still get to hear Tigger sing the Tigger song. But, the interaction between Christopher Robin and the rest of the world has a wit and liveliness to it that doesn’t distract from the classic source material. You can sense the respect that this creative team has for the source material, there is a loving care to the way Pooh and friends are presented, never with anything less than dignity; fun with a British sort of propriety.

 

Ewan McGregor is a wonderful Christopher Robin. I adored his stiffness early in the movie and they his shoulders slowly go from up around his ears to fully at ease. He’s a man under desperate stress to do the right thing and continually does the wrong thing until Pooh comes along and puts him straight. There is a lovely similarity to the recent Where the Wild Things Are when Christopher is in the 100 Acre Woods as an adult and realizes that he may, in fact, be the problem with his life and not everyone else.

 

McGregor is well matched with Hayley Atwell whose sympathetic care for her husband is only matched by her witty, self-protective, innate feminism. This is not a woman who will put up for very long with a man who doesn’t properly appreciate her, and especially her daughter, and you get that sense solely from Atwell’s manner and grace. She has a steely quality that easily gives way to softness and concern in the way only a great actress can show.

 

I have not even begun to praise the true star of the show, Winnie the Pooh. Earlier this year people were tripping over themselves to praise the over-hyped Paddington with his childish pratfalling and simplistic story. For me, Winnie the Pooh in Christopher Robin is my thesis statement on why Paddington doesn’t work. Pooh is charming in ways Paddington only hints at. He’s lovable in the ways that Paddington pretends towards. Most importantly, Pooh’s pratfalling antics and general mayhem are more well-explained and lovable than the destruction that Paddington wreaks upon his friends and family.

 

Christopher Robin is a lovely film, a gentle yet funny, sweet and harmless trifle that will make all audiences smile. Marc Forster is a director of immense talent and he brings that to bear in Christopher Robin with the lightest and most deft touch. The film is artful in how it is never flashy, you don’t feel as if you see Forster directing. The touch is light but effective, you sense how beautiful and well told the story is but it doesn’t feel as if you’re being steered and you sort of melt into the beauty and warmth of this story.

 

I feel as if, on a moral level, I should be upset about Disney strip mining my childhood for a quick buck. I feel like I should be annoyed that they aren’t developing original material and are instead basking in the dollars that existing products in shiny new packages can bring in. In the back of my mind, in fact, I am rebelling against these Disney products and their weaponized nostalgia. That said, up front and personal, Christopher Robin made my heart happy. The movie is completely adorable and a wonderful film for the whole family, proof that commerce and art can work together to create something beautiful. 

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Movie Review Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade is a movie of this moment; vital and real. Eighth Grade appears uniquely in tune to the teenage mind in a way that we’ve rarely seen in a feature film. Not since perhaps Catherine Hardwicke’s breakthrough 2003 feature, Thirteen, have I seen a movie that feels so uniquely on the wavelength of the modern teenager. Sweet, sensitive, smart and funny, Eighth Grade is one of the best movies of 2018 thus far.

 

Elsie Fisher stars in Eighth Grade as Kayla, a shy young woman at the end of her middle school years. Is Kayla really shy? Yes and no, she does have her own YouTube channel which is indicative of a desire to communicate with people. However, at school, Kayla has no friends and is given the award as the ‘Most Quiet’ girl at school. Kayla is awkward and angst-ridden around the other kids and it is a constant struggle between that angst and her desire to connect.

 

That struggle tends to manifest itself quite negatively in Kayla’s relationship with her single dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton), a doofy, dad joke spouting, good sport who is struggling with his own loneliness and insecurity about being a good father. The relationship with father and daughter is quietly the center of the plot of Eighth Grade which is otherwise plotless. Writer-Director Bo Burnham isn’t interested in plot but in atmosphere and especially in observing character.

 

In Elsie Fisher’s Kayla, Burnham has a character very much worth observing. Fisher’s remarkably innate likability and acute sensitivity make Kayla such a wonderful character. Unique and independent, Kayla may struggle with meeting friends but she does not struggle in evoking our heartfelt sympathy and care. I cared about Kayla the first moment she came on screen with her painfully earnest YouTube advice show as a window into her young soul.

 

Bo Burnham uses the device of Kayla’s ‘show’ to great effect as we learn things about the character in a way that feels fresh and organic and doesn’t resort to voice-over or other well-worn gimmicks of information exchange. Kayla isn’t an over the top personality, her YouTube show comes from a place of comfort where the only judgment she faces are from the likes, dislikes and page views, what few views she gets.

 

The aching, angsty,  earnestness of the millennial is captured here in a way that feels almost documentary-like. Burnham has a strong incite into this age group as it has been millennials who’ve helped to raise his profile and made his Netflix special a must see. He’s not pandering to them, he’s going out of his way to be understanding of them and careful in how he portrays them. While Burnham does resort to the kids always on their phone gag, the payoff that comes late when Kayla confronts a pair of phone-toting popular is worth the well-worn trope.

 

Elsie Fisher is a remarkable find, a young actress of the most natural instincts. Burnham has given her a wonderful character and range to play but Fisher is the one who makes Kayla sing. It’s a performance of layer and nuance and the empathy Fisher evokes for Kayla is the bond that drives the movie. We feel for her, worry for her, laugh with her and urge her forward as she pokes her head out into the world beyond her YouTube channel,

 

Equally excellent is veteran actor Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s lovingly befuddled father. Though he is the constant focus of his daughter’s unearned ire, we know he’s just as much of a lost soul as she is and loved how the movie never makes it easy for father and daughter to connect. Hamilton’s awkwardness reflects Fisher’s and bonds the two as parent and child. A scene between the two late in the film may be one of the best and most moving scenes in any movie in 2018 and much of the credit for the scene belongs to Hamilton.

 

Bo Burnham has made a lovely, insightful, warm, and funny movie that feels fresh and like nothing else in theaters today. It’s the first truly millennial movie, the first film to take on this generation and understand them and their unique sensibilities. He captures the earnest qualities that seem to be a very large part of the millennial experience and he does it all with great humor and without pandering. Eighth Grade is one exceptional film.

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Movie Review The Blob

It’s been 60 years since audiences mobbed the theaters to see The Blob starring Steve McQueen and 60 years on, The Blob remains one incredibly fun flick. This naked propaganda piece about the slow spread of the Red Menace remains a glorious piece of nostalgia and genuinely clever piece of filmmaking that combines the best kind of camp with the best kind of star power.

 

The Blob stars the legendary Steve McQueen as Steve Andrews, a big man on campus type who we meet while on a date with his girl, Jane (Aneta Corsaut). The two are at a private spot in the woods under the stars, innocently yet romantically, enjoying a night together when they see something fall from the sky. Steve immediately wants to go find it and the two drive off in search. Meanwhile, a nearby hermit gets to the thing from the sky first.

 

Moments later, Steve and Jane having failed to find the falling star begin to drive home when they encounter the hermit in desperate pain and fear. What he found inside the meteor, because he could not resist the temptation of poking it with a stick, is a purplish-red ooze that has, when Steve and Jane find him, adhered itself to his hand. The kids rush the old man to the doctor’s office and drop him off with ol’Doc Hallen where he will be cared for, though Steve can’t seem to let go of the idea that something more is going on with that oozing blob on the man’s arm.

 

Steve McQueen is incredible in The Blob. Overall, the film is silly and rather a bunch of sci-fi nonsense, but McQueen gives it gravity, if not gravitas. McQueen is so innately charismatic that you can’t help but get caught up in this story. The Blob was McQueen’s first leading man role in a feature film after breaking into television in the early 1950’s and yet you can see the movie star in him from the first frame.

 

McQueen commands your attention but not with the kind of macho posturing of his later career but rather through a more gentle charisma, a care and curiosity that is incredibly easy to relate to. He doesn’t stand apart from his co-stars, he’s invested in their performance as much as his own and he elevates a cast that was likely used to being outshined in B-pictures by rising stars or a good monster. His generosity as a performer here has an infectious quality.

 

Is The Blob cheesy and campy? Oh, absolutely it is and it’s completely charming. The low budget special effects, the obvious models covered in oozing jelly, the extras laughing and smiling as they run for their lives in the legendary theater scene, were likely seen as flaws in 1958, but today, I can’t help but see them as wonderfully campy and hilarious in the best kind of way. The sincerity of the attempt to make The Blob work lends the movie an irresistible pathos.

 

Then there is the extra charm of ‘The Red Scare.’ Though director Irving Yeaworth and Steve McQueen himself have never acknowledged the Cold War influences of The Blob, the metaphor is camptastically inescapable. Communism represented by an oozing red mass overtaking small town America and threatening everyone’s way of life. And how is it defeated? It’s defeated by the cold, get it, as in Cold War. The film ends with The Blob being dropped in the arctic, because I assume dropping it in Siberia might have been a little too on the nose.


The Blob remains influential to this day though many may not recognize it. The character Blobby in the animated franchise Hotel Transylvania is based on The Blob. Yes, Blobby is green and carries some human characteristics, but the character is undeniably an offshoot of The Blob, where else could the inspiration for the character have come from? The homage is loving and the character fits well in the HT universe, about as well The Blob might have fit in the Dracula, Frankenstein, Werewolf universe, a group of equally cheesy yet serious villains in their original incarnations.

 

I adore the campy, goofy fun of The Blob. I enjoy it for the sincere effort to turn something so silly into a something so serious and I especially enjoy Steve McQueen whose star-power is a true standout. McQueen appeared destined to be a movie star based off of this starring role, a role that many other actors might have just tossed off as just another teen movie. McQueen doesn’t exactly take the role seriously but he cares enough to make the movie matter a little and his effort is part of the charm of this incredibly charming classic.

 

The Blob is available as part of the Criterion Collection and is available to stream for classic movie fans via the FilmStruck App.

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Movie Review Dark Crimes

Dark Crimes is a whole lot of nonsense. While I appreciate that Jim Carrey is taking a risk and playing a role well outside our perception of him as a performer, Dark Crimes is a risk that should not have been taken. This Poland set mystery involving a murder among a violent sex cult is so poorly constructed and so nonsensically plotted that even if Jim Carrey had been brilliant in his offbeat, against the grain, performance, it wouldn’t have mattered against this awful piece of storytelling.

 

In Dark Crimes, Jim Carrey stars as Tadek, a veteran detective in a major city in Poland. At one point, we’re told that Tadek is the last good cop in Poland but the movie does little to demonstrate that. Tadek is investigating the murder of a man who was found bound in an S & M style and dropped in a river. Tadek’s top suspect is a writer named Kozlov (Martin Csokas) whose latest book, a thriller, describes a murder exactly like the one Tadek is investigating.

 

The details depicted in the book, which we hear as Tadek is listening to the audiobook of Kozlov’s bestseller, are uncannily like the murder and Tadek is certain that Kozlov is the killer. That is, until he continues down the rabbit hole of this sex cult which is made up of some of the most powerful men in Poland, including Tadek’s work rival, Greger (Robert Wieckiewicz). Thus, Tadek had better be right before he goes so far he can’t come back.

 

That’s an okay thumbnail of Dark Crimes but it contains a good deal of inference on my part. Dark Crimes is so nonsensically assembled that it is impossible to actually know what is happening. Nudity and an orgy and a murder give us a sense of what the plot is about, and it certainly makes for a jarring opening to the movie, but then the movie abandons the sex cult in favor of one on one staring contests between Carrey and Csokas that stagnate an already sluggish story.

 

The assemblage of Dark Crimes is almost painful to piece together. A number of scenes appear to have significant revelations but the movie is so clumsy that I am not sure what was being revealed in what appeared to be intended as revelatory scenes. One scene finds Carrey reacting to something for a good long while and when we finally see what he’s reacting to, it’s so tangential to the plot of Dark Crimes that his intense psychic pain barely registers.

 

Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose work with Lars Von Trier likely made her time on Dark Crimes feel like a cakewalk, co-stars here as a woman abused in the sex cult. She’s also the girlfriend of Kozlov though she tells Carrey that the relationship with Kozlov is over before the two sleep together in one of the least sexy sex scenes I’ve ever seen. Is Gainsbourg’s character a frightened victim seeking protection or a sexy scheming killer? I have no idea and the movie is too vague and poorly put together for me to even venture a guess as to the nature of Gainsbourg's character or any other character for that matter, including Carrey's Tadek. 

 

The ending is the most nonsensical of bit of all. I watched and then re-watched the end of Dark Crimes in the vain hope that I could figure out what happened and two viewings yielded no definitive answer. The final moment is captured so poorly, literally at a bizarre distance at a cantilevered angle, that the fate of Jim Carrey’s character is unknown as the credits began to roll.

 

I will say, aside from a desperately unneeded close-up of Carrey's twisted face during a love scene, ugh, Dark Crimes is great looking movie. The cinematography, especially on a high quality Blu-Ray, looks phenomenal. Poland looks beautiful and foreboding, a character in its own right that in a better movie would matter to the plot. But not here, not among the skill free nonsense on display in Dark Crimes.

 

Dark Crimes is undoubtedly among the worst movies of 2018. Jim Carrey’s bold decision to play a character wildly out of his comfort zone, all the way down to a silly sounding Polish accent, is almost laughably terrible. I admire the big swing Carrey takes here but perhaps he should reign in the ambition just a little. Maybe start with a clever little independent feature delivered by a promising young upstart director. Try going to film festivals and looking for young and hungry filmmakers who could use your star power to get a movie made. Most importantly Jim, stay the heck out of Poland.

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