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Movie Reviews Archives for 2018-09

Movie Review Hell Fest

Hell Fest could not possibly be more boilerplate, boring and mechanical. This is horror by committee, this is a horror film made by different focus groups in different parts of the country brought together by talentless hacks intent on giving each focus group exactly what they want. This lifeless knock off of all horror movie cliches barely rises to the level of actually being called a movie, this is 78 minutes, minus credits, of utter tedium. 

 

Hell Fest stars Amy Forsyth as Natalie, a college student who we are told works to hard. Her best friend, Brooke (Reign Edwards), and sort of nemesis, Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), tell us early on that they did not expect Natalie to join them because she’s focused on school. Natalie however, has picked the wrong weekend to take a break as her friends have procured tickets to Hell Fest, a traveling horror theme park that has a nasty reputation. 

 

In a prologue we witness a murder. A nameless woman is going through a Hell Fest haunted house when she gets separated from her party and is menaced by a man in a devil mask. The man stabs her to death and then hangs her corpse in among fake corpses in one of the haunted mazes of Hell Fest. We later learn that he body hung on display for several days and hundreds of Hell Fest patrons until the overwhelming stench of death let everyone know what was up. 

 

This, somehow, did not stop Hell Fest. Natalie and her friends are going to meet boys, Taylor’s boyfriend, Asher (Matt Mercurio), Brooke’s boyfriend Quinn (Christian James), and Natalie’s crush, Gavin (Roby Atal). With our full complement of cannon fodder in place our killer arrives. We never see his face, he has a Michael Myers style denatured mask, and we never learn what his motivation is. He’s here to kill and we’re supposed to be afraid for the obnoxious characters who aren’t Natalie and thus not the ‘final girl.’ 

 

No surprise, Hell Fest has three credited screenwriters and two more writers who receive ‘Story by’ credit. This is a movie that could only be assembled by committee. I can imagine a version of this movie that isn’t terrible; the idea of hiding murder and actual corpses inside a traveling horror show has a cleverness to it but as executed by this crew of screenwriters and a completely unimaginative director, it’s a rough sit through one dimwitted horror trope after another. 

 

The makers of Hell Fest kept directing themselves into logical corners they can’t escape from. On multiple occasions the killer has the opportunity to dispose of Natalie, his ostensible target as he’s spent the whole night following her specifically, and he doesn’t do it because she’s the main character. That’s it, that is the only reason why. There is no interruption, no one steps in to save her, she’s simply the main character and the killer chooses not to kill her for no logical reason and the filmmakers aren’t smart enough or don’t care enough to provide a reason. 

 

Hell Fest is a lazy horror movie for a lazy audience. If you don’t care about what your consuming, Hell Fest is for you. If you just want to passively watch obnoxious characters get disposed of in unimaginitive fashion, Hell Fest is for you. If you want to watch a movie not try in any way to be entertaining, scary or even have a pulse, Hell Fest is for you. If you want to watch an actual good movie, clearly Hell Fest is not for you.

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Movie Review Night School

Night School is funny enough. Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish are really good at being funny enough in mediocre movies. Just last year, Tiffany Haddish was just funny enough in the otherwise just good enough comedy Girls Trip, from the same director, Malcolm D. Lee. Kevin Hart has made much of his movie career starring and being funnier than mediocre movies, see Think Like a Man 1 & 2, Ride Along 1 & 2 and Central Intelligence.

 

In Night School Kevin Hart stars as Teddy Walker, a High School dropout turned successful barbecue salesman. Teddy has a good life despite his being dropout, he has a good job and a beautiful, successful girlfriend, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Things take a turn when Teddy’s barbecue place burns down and he’s left without a job. His buddy, Marv (Ben Schwartz), can get him a job but only if he gets a GED.

 

This leads Teddy to Night School which is being taught at his old High School. The school Principal, Stewart (Taran Killian), is Teddy’s former High School nemesis who is determined to make things hard for him. Then there is Teddy’s teacher, Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), who is also not going to make things easy for him, though she’s at least, not actively acting against him as Stewart is.

 

The film takes a few minutes to introduce Teddy’s wack pack of fellow night school students. Rob Riggle, Romany Malek, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Al Madrigal, and and Anne Winters make up Teddy’s class and eventually his new support system as he struggles to stay in class while hiding his ongoing struggle from his girlfriend, leading to the tension that will drive the 3rd act, how long can Teddy sneak around and keep it from Lisa.

 

The plot is much more mundane than that description. Night School is riddled with cliches and predictability, jokes that you can see coming a mile away and the movie is going exactly where you think it is going. With being so predictable, the pressure is on Hart and Haddish to try and overcome the plot with laughs. That they are mostly successful is a testament to their remarkable talent.

 

Kevin Hart flails and falls and insults people and still manages be likable and funny. Hart works hard for every single laugh, there is no chill in his performance. This could be annoying from a lesser comic but from Kevin Hart, he’s so great at making himself the subject of a joke that you can’t help but like him and be on his side. Kevin Hart made predictable scenes still funny with the sheer will to want us to laugh.

 

Tiffany Haddish is one of the most talented comic actors working today. She can raise an eyebrow and get a laugh. She has such an assured comic persona and such complete confidence in her choices that you can’t help but be entertained. She’s very funny here especially when she is torturing Kevin Hart’s character into learning. It is somewhat problematic that the movie thinks dyslexia can be cured by punching but it’s a minor complaint.

 

Night School should not be as much fun as it is. Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish are a terrific comic team. Director Malcolm D. Lee is an enigma to me as a director. I’ve liked a lot of Malcolm Lee’s movies even as most of them are the same kind of modestly ambitious, overly familiar raunchy comedy. Lee’s talent appears to be creating a space for his actors to find the energy, to find the joke. That safe space for performance is the hallmark of Lee’s work.

 

Night School works because the stars have so much room to move and be energetic and bounce around. You can sense that the actors are having a great time together, riffing jokes, and working to stay in character as they search for the most fun thing they could do or say. That’s another hallmark of Malcolm Lee’s work, his casts always appear to be having such a great time. Night School is fun because everyone in the movie is having so much fun.

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Movie Review Smallfoot

I had extremely low expectations for Smallfoot. This animated feature comes from the director Over the Hedge, a minor animated hit a few years back, which, like Smallfoot, is more pleasant than it is fun or exciting. Indeed, that seems to be director Karey Kirkpatrick’s niche, he makes nice, pleasant, amusing movies. That sounds as if I am damning with faint praise but I don’t mean to. Smallfoot is an adorable movie, if not one anyone over the age of 12 will remember after seeing it. 

 

Smallfoot stars the voice of Channing Tatum as Migo. Migo is a lovable galoot, a lumbering, good-natured Yeti, eager to go with the flow of his heavily regimented society. Everyone in Migo’s hometown follows the rules of the Stonekeeper (Common), who, though he rules benevolently over his subjects, does not take dissent lightly. Banishment awaits anyone who defies the writings of the ancient stones. 

 

One of the stones specifically states that there are no other creatures in their world but there are especially creatures known as Smallfoot. It’s odd that the stones are so specific in denying the existence of the Smallfoot, but remember, we are not to question the stones. This makes things extra complicated for simple minded Migo when he finds a Smallfoot on the side of their super-high Himalayan mountain. The Smallfoot makes a hasty retreat before Migo can bring him to the village and when Migo stands by his claim of finding one, he is banished from the kingdom. 

 

All seems hopeless until Migo is rescued by a small faction of Yetis who also believe in secret in the Smallfoot. This group includes Gwangi (Lebron James), Kolka (Gina Rodriguez), Fleem (Ely Henry) and their leader, the Stonekeeper’s daughter, Meechee (Zendaya). Together, this group will join forces to try and prove the existence of the Smallfoot, a task that proves relatively easy when they stumble over Percy (James Corden), a wildlife expert and down on his luck TV host who happens to be searching for Yeti’s in order to save his TV show. 

 

That’s just a taste of the plot of Smallfoot and it’s pretty standard stuff except, I almost forgot to mention, Smallfoot is a musical. Yes, the movie is brimming with light, hummable pop songs. Some really terrific pop songs including a fun, if very, very specific cover of David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure by James Corden and a soaring, epic piece from Zendaya. There’s even a big, kind of scary and oppressive tune from Common that really works well in the context of the story, if not as a standalone tune. 

 

The Smallfoot soundtrack isn’t going to be the next Frozen, it’s far too specific for a pop charts crossover. The best trait of this soundtrack is that the songs are upbeat, and they move the plot rather than being concerned with being on the pop charts. Each of the castmembers with a song, including Channing Tatum, really knock their song out of the park. There is some cheese in these pop songs, but it goes down easy. 

 

I didn’t expect to enjoy Smallfoot nearly as much as I did. I’m not saying, all audiences will enjoy it, this is unquestionably a kiddie flick, but it is a kiddie flick that won’t make moms and dads want to claw through their seats to escape it. Smallfoot is sweet and cute and clever, it’s not special and you won’t remember it very long after seeing it, but it’s not a bad way to spend a good 90 some minutes with your kids. 

 

Smallfoot is in theaters nationwide this weekend. 

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Movie Review Slice

Slice is a bizarre movie, very much in its own unique headspace. It’s not a movie for all audiences, you have to be on this movie’s very particular wavelength to enjoy it and if you’re not, you will likely turn it off rather quickly. Even someone with vast experience comparing movies to other movies, I have a hard time finding something that I can compare to Slice. Perhaps, Michel Gondry crossed with Donald Glover’s Teddy Perkins, with a little bit of Monster Squad. Yeah, this movie is that strange.

 

Slice is set in a town that is divided between humans and ghosts. Humans live on one side of town and ghosts live on the other side of town in a sort of human-ghost detente. Each side of town keeps to themselves and coexist in daily life at grocery stores and in pizza places. Mayor Tracy (SNL’s Chris Parnell) devised this plan as a way of keeping the peace and keeping ghosts from haunting people all the time.

 

The peace between ghosts and humans however, appears to be broken when a pizza guy is murdered on the ghost side of town. Many in town blame the ghosts, including the Mayor but he is being stirred up by a group of activists, led by Vera (Marilyn Dodds Frank), who blames the city for the problems with ghosts because the city built a strip mall over the top of a cemetery and former mental asylum that burned down decades earlier and unleashed most of the ghosts in Ghost Town.

 

Weird enough for you yet? It gets weirder. Chance the Rapper co-stars in Slice as Dex Lycander, a 1000 year old Werewolf who wants nothing more than to deliver quality Chinese Food at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, his Chinese food place went out of business after all of their delivery drivers, save for him, were murdered exactly the same way pizza guys from the Relax It’s Perfect Pizza franchise are now being murdered.

 

Paul Scheer from The League appears here as Jack, the owner of Relax It’s Perfect Pizza Place, and yes, saying the name as a whole mouth full, is part of the film’s bizarre sense of humor. Zazie Beets from TV’s Atlanta plays one of the pizza delivery drivers who is out for revenge on whoever killed her pizza boy boyfriend and she’s got her eyes set on Dex, whom everyone assumes is the killer. Everyone except for plucky news reporter, Sadie (Rae Gray) who has a better theory: Witches.

 

I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved writing that description. It barely cracks the absurd surface of Slice even as it appears to be comprehensive and given that the movie is barely feature length, at a mere 86 minutes, with credits, that should give you a sense of the strange you’re in for if you try Slice. The film was written and directed by Austin Vesely, an actor and regular collaborator with Chance the Rapper.

 

The film has the feel of something Chance and Vesely cooked up on the set of one of Chance’s music videos and they somehow were able to follow their odd muse all the way to a feature film. Slice is weird and charming in a way quite similar to Chance and his music, an acquired taste, just like Slice. Slice is in its own little world of weird. As much as those elements I talked about in the description might seem appealing from what you know of Werewolves, Witches and Ghosts, you don’t know what you’re in for here.

 

Slice is delightfully low budget to the point where the ‘Ghosts’ in the movie, are actually just people in makeup who look more like Halloween costume zombies. That effect is budgetary but also intentional, it’s like an homage to how Ed Wood might have portrayed ghosts, to the point where one of the biggest laughs in the movie, for me, came from watching a ghost leave through a door, not glide through it, but rather, he pushes it open as if he weren’t a ghost at all. It’s all in how the scene is set and the weird vibe the movie creates.

 

Either you’re in for the weird of Slice or your not. If you can’t get in on the strange, funky, arty, kidding vibe of Slice, it’s not for you. For me, I kind of love it. I love the strange sense of wonder in Chance the Rapper’s performance. I love the pluck of Rae Gray’s performance as Sadie the reporter, the only seemingly competent person in the movie. I loved how the movie has no fully identifiable time. There are old cars and 80’s costumes, hard-boiled cops from the 40’s and the internet but seemingly no cellphones.

 

I find Slice to be strangely charming and quite funny. I laughed loudly and often during the movie and I was consistently amused at the audacious weirdness on display. It took a few minutes but once I was on the film’s bizarre wavelength, I really began to buy in and enjoy it. It’s not for everyone, but for adventurous film lovers, for those with a strange sense of humor, and for fans of Chance the Rapper, Slice is a must see.

 

Slice is available to rent now on your favorite streaming service.

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Movie Review The Seagull

The Seagull is such a small movie that I doubt anyone reading this has heard about it. It was briefly released to theaters on the coasts and a few major markets beyond but didn’t make an impact and was shunted to home video in rather short order. I would not have taken note of it except that it stars Academy Award nominee Saorise Ronan, who happens to be one of my favorite actors working today. 

 

I count myself very lucky that I am such a fan because The Seagull is one of my favorite movies of 2018. This ode to unrequited love has just about everything I love in a good family drama. The cast is a dream, the production is elegant, there are laughs, there are tears and their are moments of incredibly raw and beautiful emotional insight. There are characters who are villains and their characters who are brokenhearted victims and there are beautiful characters in between to witness it all. What a glorious movie. 

 

The Seagull, based on a play by Anton Chekhov, is set in a 19th century suburb of Moscow. An elderly man, Sorin (Brian Dennehy), lies on his deathbed. His sister, Irina (Annette Bening) has been called to his bedside, abandoning her curtain call on the Moscow stage. Irina arrives accompanied by Boris (Corey Stoll) who immediately strikes an awkward tone with Irina’s son, Konstantin (Billy Howle). We assume we understand their tension but we will learn so much more through the course of this story. 

 

The house is bubbling with life with Irina’s longtime caretaker Polina (Mare Winningham) fussing over everyone and her daughter Masha (Elizabeth Moss), already wearing black and appearing to be in mourning. Then there is the wise doctor, Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney) doing his best to make Sorin comfortable by managing his pain and managing the many family members wandering in and out of the scene. 

 

You might assume that such a fuss over Sorin would mean he’s not merely beloved, but also a patriarch and standard-bearer, a breadwinner. Sorin is some of those things but The Seagull has you by your perceptions in the first act and then uses a flashback device to upend your many expectations. Nothing is what you see in the first act and there is so much more depth and sorrow and wonder to be found in this wonderfully told story. 

 

At the end of the first act, we meet Nina (Saorise Ronan). Again, we assume her role in this as Konstantin’s true love and the beginning of the second act, the start of the flashback appears to bear that out but director Michael Mayer and screenwriter Stephen Karam, who adapted Chekhov’s play, have something in store for you, likely the same surprises that Chekhov had for audiences decades ago. 

 

The Seagull is about unrequited love and not great romance. The film is filled with tragic false starts and failures and desperate compromises. Don’t get me wrong, I know I am painting very negative picture, but believe me, the film has as much light and passion as it does sadness and despair. This remarkable group of actors delivers one great moment after another as they reel you in, hold you close and perhaps break your heart along with their own. 

 

This is a masterfully acted movie. I became immediately invested in these performances. I have not seen much of Billy Howle but he won me over quickly as the tortured young genius, Konstantin. I bought in on his desperate attempts at recreating the art of the stage play and his struggle to do something new and innovative with the form. I also adored his chemistry with Saorise Ronan and found myself deeply affected by the rough course of their relationship. 

 

Annette Bening is also a standout in The Seagull. She has a scene late in the movie with Corey Stoll’s Boris that is among the most masterfully performed scenes of 2018. The writing in this moment zings but it takes a pair of incredibly convicted performers to deliver these lines and wildly conflicting emotional beats and Bening and Stoll were magnificent. They legitimately, took my breath away by the time the scene had finished. 

 

I don't want to go on too long with this review as I have already stated such praise for it, but I would be remiss if I did not also single out the perfomance of Emmy winner Elizabeth Moss. Moss, best known for her work on Mad Men, plays Masha, a sad woman who is desperately in love with Konstantin, who, because of Nina, can never return Masha's feelings. It's a sad story but Moss's performance isn't sad, it's bitter and feisty and it's marked by some of the deadliest lines in the movie. Moss's dark sense of humor is what keeps the film dipping into melancholy. That and Annette Bening's unending sunniness in the face of sadness. 

 

Michael Mayer is not a director I am all that familiar with. I vaguely recall his 2004 debut feature, A Home at the End of the World but it didn’t linger much in my memory. He’s worked mostly in television since then. I will be keeping an eye out for him from now on. You could argue that Anton Chekhov probably did much of the hard work on The Seagull but it is a great director who can make way for a story to truly sing and transcend our expectations. 

The Seagull is among my favorite movies of 2018. 

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Movie Review Gotti

Gotti is a weird movie not in its filmmaking but in its perception. The film has received a universally negative reaction from critics, earning a 0% rating from zero positive reviews at RottenTomatoes.com. I agree that the film isn’t very good but now having seen Gotti, I am a little puzzled at the vitriolic negativity the film has garnered. Gotti is not a good movie but it’s not so unholy bad as 20 other 2018 releases that have received at least one positive review. 

 

How, for instance, can the same group of critics, for the most part, have watched Gotti and have watched Clint Eastwood’s ludicrously terrible 15:17 to Paris and given that movie 24% positive reviews? It does not speak well of our profession when we damn John Travolta for being someone we don’t like and we kneel before Clint Eastwood because he’s a legend and some of us  aren’t willing to tell him his movie rotted out loud. 

 

But I digress, there is more than just issues related to John Travolta’s personality that rubs critics the wrong way. Indeed, everyone who gave Gotti a negative review was right to do so. My point is in regards to reviews that were so wildly negative that it appears they didn’t even watch the movie. Gotti is bad but it’s not 15:17 to Paris bad, it’s not nearly as bad as my least favorite movie of 2018, The Maze Runner The Death Cure, which deserves to have a 0% on RT but somehow tricked nearly half the critics on RT to give it a positive review. (42% positive) 

 

Now that my long preamble has ended, let’s get to what is actually wrong with Gotti. John Travolta stars as the infamous boss of the Gambino crime family. The film goes back in time to the early 70’s and follows Gotti’s rise from hitman to kingpin. From his first stint in jail all the way to his death in a federal penitentiary in 2002. The film replays Gotti’s greatest hits, so to speak, as if it were ticking of checklist. 

 

If you are familiar, as I am, with the life of John Gotti, then Gotti is relatively easy to follow. If you aren’t familiar, the film will likely play as a confusing mess of mob movie cliches. The film assumes the audience is familiar enough with John Gotti that it can bounce from one well known tabloid story to the next and we’ll be able to fill in the blanks. It’s a bafflingly dimwitted notion, considering Gotti’s been dead 16 years and was mostly a New York phenomenon. 

 

That said, this is a movie that was made by people fascinated by mob stories for people who are fascinated by mob stories. You aren’t likely to see Gotti if you’re not already familiar somewhat with the man so I can kind of understand why the filmmakers proceeded as they did. It’s baffling to me how limiting that approach is, it completely leaves out any audience that you might hope to draw beyond those well within the small niche of fans but let's assume that's the intent of the filmmakers and move on. 

 

Even as someone who is familiar with John Gotti however, a few odd choices standout. For one, Sammy the Bull Gravano is so limited in the film I could not figure out which actor was playing him. The Bull, the man responsible for sending John Gotti to jail for life when he flipped and testified against his boss, is barely featured in Gotti and when he is, he’s so minimal that you should not be surprised if you forget he was even there as a character. As a real life historical figure, those familiar with the story may be quite annoyed at how the film minimizes Gravano. 

 

Then there is the bizarre choice of the filmmakers to seemingly sympathize with, and even canonize to a point, John Gotti. As played by John Travolta, Gotti is a devoted family man, he’s a man who would never harm anyone who wasn’t a member of organized crime. According to the filmmakers, Gotti was a mafia Robin Hood, beloved by his neighborhood and maligned by a government that was always out to get him. 

 

That guy he killed in 1972 that sent him to jail for the first time, he hurt a little kid. He deserved it, John Gotti was doing the right thing and served his time for it is the thesis statement of Gotti the movie. The hands off approach to presenting Gotti the good guy who only killed other gangsters and didn’t allow his guys to sell drugs is hagiography of the highest sort. The film even portrays Gotti as being almost psychic with a scene in which he claimed to have an immediate distrust of Sammy The Bull, though all evidence indicates otherwise, including and especially, the fact that he named Gravano his Underboss. 

 

Gotti is poorly crafted and at times poorly acted though not by Travolta. Travolta is not terrible as John Gotti. He pulls off Gotti’s well known traits and tics well enough without becoming a mobster cliche and his performance is filled with fire and passion. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn’t that great. Kelly Preston is especially bad as Mrs. Gotti, John’s wife, who Preston plays by relying on every single mob wife cliche in the books. 

 

Gotti is the first feature film directing effort from Kevin Connelly, famous for playing Eric on HBO’s Entourage. Connelly needs to go back to the drawing board as a director. His direction of Gotti when it isn’t sloppily slapped together is so indistinct and lacking in personality that the sheer mundanity becomes the film’s biggest fault, aside from Kelly Preston. The film is bad but it isn’t memorably bad. At the very least, it’s adequate, it’s dull and forgettable when it isn’t shabby or poorly conceived. 

 

Gotti is a deeply misguided film but it’s not bad in the way 15:17 to Paris is bad or The Maze Runner Death Cure is bad. Those films were amateurish, laughable and barely qualified to be called movies. Gotti was merely poorly thought out, ill-conceived and occasionally incompetent. That’s more than enough for me not to recommend it but I guess I am still contending with those reviews that seemingly called Gotti the worst movie of the year. It’s not good, but it’s not the worst. 

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Movie Review Solo A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Stars Story was buried the moment that Kathleen Kennedy, steward of the now Disney owned Star Wars franchise, fired the directing duo of Lord and Miller. For fanboys and haters there was blood in the water at that point and the negativity became a feeding frenzy that no director was going to be able to get from out from under. Ron Howard was especially not equipped to get Solo: A Star Wars Story out of the fan dog house.

 

Known for his dry, doofy dad approach to filmmaking, Howard is mildly respected but for his longevity and professionalism but he’s not the kind of director the kids go crazy for. No one has ever said, ‘I can’t wait for the next Ron Howard movie.’ That’s not intended to continue to bury Solo: A Star Wars Story, it’s merely laying the groundwork for a middle of the road defense of what is a good movie despite all of the chaos, negativity and fanboy vitriol.

 

Indeed, it is my opinion, that only Ron Howard could have saved Solo: A Star Wars Story. It’s exactly Ron Howard’s qualities as a experienced and professional director that was going to deliver a movie competent and entertaining enough not to be completely dismissed by everyone. Only Ron Howard was going to make the kind of safe but solid Star Wars movie that could withstand the avalanche of online negativity.

 

Solo: A Star Wars Story is the story of Han Solo, the character made famous, of course, by Harrison Ford in the original and most recent Star Wars trilogies, and here played as much younger man by Alden Ehrenreich. We meet Han Solo as he and his beloved gal-pal Qi’Ra are attempting to escape from their home planet after stealing from a local criminal syndicate. With the baddies on their tale they head to a spaceport but get separated. They won’t see each other again for several years.

 

In the intervening years, Han joins the Empire, if only for the chance to fly a ship. He quickly tires of the Empire’s war however and looks for a way out. He finds it when he stumbles on a group of smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) who first uses the kid as cover for his own escape and scheme and then comes to take a liking to Han’s moxie and talent for being a scoundrel.

 

Along the way, Han meets Chewbacca who will, of course, live on to be his best friend and co-pilot. Their meeting is quite well drawn as Han is imprisoned by the Empire for attempting escape and is set to fight Chewie for his last chance at freedom. Instead, he uses his cunning to convince Chewie to save them both and escape the Empire, which they do alongside Harrelson and his crew.

 

Further down the line through Solo: A Star Wars Story we go through nearly all of Han’s biggest moments that we remember having been referenced in the original Star Wars trilogy including his legendary run as a smuggler who could do the impossible and his first meeting with another lifelong ‘friend,’ Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). The two don’t hit it off right away but their battle of wits is fun and their attempts to top each other’s massive ego is funny.

 

Lando leads us to the best thing in the movie, which surprisingly isn’t Donald Glover as Lando. Rather, the best thing in all of Solo: A Star Wars Story, is a robot. Lando’s sidekick, a robot named L3-37 and voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is a completely wonderful creation. Phoebe Waller Bridge is a remarkable talent, as anyone who has watched her Amazon series Fleabag can attest, and here, playing a robot with strong feelings, she is the best thing in an already pretty good movie.

 

Alden Ehrenreich, for his part, is good enough as Han Solo. It was a no-win situation for any actor who would try to play Harrison Ford’s iconic role while not being Harrison Ford. Ehrenreich does as well with it as I am sure any actor could have. He’s funny, he’s charming he captures that edginess that Ford brought to Han, that sense that while he may be a good guy deep down, he’s still part scoundrel, part smuggler, part hustler.

 

Part of the excitement of the original trilogy is watching Han Solo’s arc from smuggler to hero to a man committed to a cause. It’s arguably the best arc in the trilogy given the amount of personal baggage he sheds ever-so slowly. He went from not wanting to be anyone’s friend or protector to a member of a family and did so in a way that was very compelling and filled with pathos. Ford’s gruffness always kept you guessing but his actions were always noble. It’s a complex set of emotions and exceptionally well rendered.

 

Asking Alden Ehrenreich to bring that level to the character was a challenge no one could live up to and Ron Howard was smart not to ask him to. Instead, Solo: A Star Wars Story is more about adventure and old school derring-do than it is about character or growth. Yes, at the end of the movie, Han appears to have grown as a person but that is merely window dressing as his character growth is set to really kick in in the original trilogy. Here, he’s just a young smuggler and hustler and that’s all we should ask of him.

 

Under the circumstances, Ron Howard made the best version of Solo: A Star Wars Story that anyone was going to make. It’s a solid, if kind of forgettable, action movie with a good spine, a few laughs, good character work and enough Star Wars fan service that those who hadn’t already decided to hate it on spec, can find something Star-Warsy to hang our hats on when we tell fellow fans we actually liked Solo: A Star Wars Story.

 

Solo: A Star Wars Story is lighthearted and accessible and quite professionally crafted. It’s a solid, entertaining, if kind of bland, action movie with just enough quality for me to recommend it as an entertaining action movie and as a Star Wars movie. Solo: A Star Wars Story is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and On-Demand streaming beginning Tuesday, September 25th. 

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Movie Review Life Itself

Life Itself is among the most misbegotten ideas for a movie that I have witnessed in my nearly 20 years as a film critic. The failure is so full of nobility and effort that you can’t help but admire it in the way one admires a raging, unstoppable fire, sure it’s pure destruction but it is pure in that destruction. Fire doesn’t choose to destroy, it’s merely the nature of fire. Life Itself is like watching a fire burn down the careers of all involved, it makes you sad in context but you can’t help admire the purity of such a glorious, fiery failure.

 

Life Itself comes from the mind of This is Us creator Dan Fogelman and is his first attempt at a big screen career. Based on this, he needs to stay on television. For the record, I am a huge fan of Fogelman’s TV work. On This is Us, Fogelman has time to allow emotions to build and to breathe. On TV, Fogelman’s characters have time to build toward big, emotional revelations and important, life altering moments.

 

Fogelman’s brand of revelatory emotionalism does not work well in the context of a movie. Movies have a different kind of inertia than a television series. Movies have to build to fewer big emotional beats as too many big emotions is way too much for a single movie. Fogelman cannot be restrained to just a few major emotional beats. He’s become accustomed to television and the ability to have 24 weekly hours to draw out a lot of big emotions.

 

Life Itself definitely bears out what I am saying. Fogelman attempts to pack 24 weekly hours worth of emotions into just over two hours and the rush to get from one big emotional moment to the next renders everything comically overwrought. No lie, I laughed way more than the film intended and from what I can gather, zero laughs were intended in this movie. The laughs start in the first moments of the movie when for reasons that only make sense to Dan Fogelman, we hear a voice over by Samuel L. Jackson.

 

I genuinely thought I had wandered into the wrong movie. Jackson’s bizarre voiceover wouldn’t be out of place in Assassination Nation, another of this week’s new movies, and until I saw Annette Bening, I wasn’t completely sure I hadn’t walked into the wrong movie. Bening stars in Life Itself, or really cameos in Life Itself, as a therapist working with a depressed man named Will (Oscar Isaac) who has just been released from an institution.

 

Will’s life went into a tailspin when his wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde), left him. His perception of the world has disintegrated. He can’t remember clearly if he and Abby had been happy once or if she’d always been planning to leave him. He has distinct memories but he’s worried that his memories aren’t the same as Abby’s and this thought has him nearly suicidal. As the therapist and Will talk, Will takes us on a tour of Abby’s life.

 

Here the film employs an odd device of having Will and the therapist physically enter Will’s memories and watch his life from the vantage point of the ghosts in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s a jarring device. I could only sit in a puzzled haze, staring at the screen, trying desperately to understand why this device was used at all as what is illustrated has little to do with the rest of the story the movie is unfolding except that maybe Will isn't remembering it correctly. We will come back to that. 

 

Poor Oscar Isaac is badly mistreated throughout this early section of Life Itself. First of all, don’t get comfortable with him as the star of Life Itself because he is gone much quicker than the trailer would have you believe. Worse yet however, is how Fogelman writes Will as a dopey, dramatic, sadsack whose depression is expressed by making scenes in coffee shop while yelling an Amazon.com review of a Bob Dylan record. He also enjoys pretending to be stuck in revolving doors because who can’t relate to that kind of showy sadness.

 

It’s probably a blessing for Isaac along with Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening and Samuel L. Jackson that their screen time is relatively limited. Lord knows that the rest of the cast wishes they’d gotten off as easy. Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas, Laia Costa, Alex Monner and Mandy Patinkin have to suffer the rest of Life Itself which unfolds over five ‘chapters’ with Cooke and Monner getting perhaps the most screen time.

 

None of the actors is particularly bad in Life Itself but the film is so overstuffed with revelations and big, emotional blow-ups, that no one has much time to create a character amid the chaos. Characters die in bizarre fashion at random intervals, other characters become temporary alcoholics or get sick with pretty cancer, the kind that is always topped with too much pancake makeup and beautiful head scarves.

 

Characters are hit by buses in fantasies and in the apparent reality of the movie and other characters are witnesses to the crash and have their lives destroyed and so on and so on until we get to the single lamest and unearned happy ending you could imagine. Well, I say happy ending, I cannot actually be sure of that as the film employs a device that renders everything we witness questionable.

 

Near the start of Life Itself we are told that Olivia Wilde’s Abby has written her college thesis on the Unreliable Narrator in fiction. This theme of the unreliable narrator is then woven throughout the movie, through Will’s potentially faulty memory, conversations between Costa and Monner as mother and son and the film’s actual narrator who we meet at the end of the movie as she calls into question the entire story she’s just been feeding us as the narrator of the movie.

 

The unreliable narrator can be a wonderful device in the right hands. Paul Thomas Anderson used it masterfully in his film Inherent Vice. Here, the unreliable narrator is employed so poorly that it becomes a cheat, a way for the director to both own and disown any scene he wants. If I am criticizing a specific scene in Life Itself, writer-director Fogelman can simply say that I misunderstood it because it didn’t happen that way because the narration was unreliable.

 

It’s a built in excuse to get away with any silly, overwrought, too much-ness, Fogelman wants to jam into Life Itself. It’s a clumsy cheat and it doesn’t work if you really take the time to actually break down the film as a whole. EIther it all matters or none of it matters, either some of what we see happened or none of it happened. What the hell did we just watch? Life Itself is both vividly dimwitted and maddeningly vague in its intentions.

 

Life Itself is one of the biggest disasters of 2018. An entirely misguided effort, Life Itself reminded me quite oddly of M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. The two films have nothing in common in terms of story or style but in terms of bold failure, they are on par, among the great bold failures in history. Life Itself is trying very hard and misses wildly and erratically in the same way M. Night Shyamalan’s attempt at a new modern fairy tale had ridiculously unmatched ambition that was met by complete failing execution.

 

Dan Fogelman takes a great big swing at making a movie in Life Itself and his failure is perhaps as big as his ambition. It’s hard not to kind of admire someone swinging completely for the fences and missing so badly. It’s like that fire I was talking about at the start of the review. It begins with just a spark and then rages out of control before spectacularly flaming out. You watch in horror but also in fascination. Fire has a strange, attractive, beauty  even as it renders the world asunder.

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Movie Review Assassination Nation

Assassination Nation is a movie packed with ideas but lacking the depth and focus to do those ideas justice. Director Sam Levinson appears to want to make a violent revenge movie for the #MeToo generation, not a terrible idea. Unfortunately, the finished product is sloppy, facile and undercooked. The idea is strong as are the performances but the idea has no time breathe beneath the preening, posturing, look-at-me filmmaking.

 

Odessa Young stars in Assassination Nation as Lily, a degenerate High Schooler with a beyond her years weariness in her voice and manner. In an opening voiceover, Lily lets us in on the plot and what we are walking in on her small town of Salem, and yes, that name is intentional. A mask wearing mob is out to murder Lilly and her friends, Bex (Hari Neff), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra). Why? Why, indeed.

 

Cut back to a week earlier, a hacker has begun attacking the private lives of Salem-ites. It begins with the conservative Mayor who is outed via the hack as a cross-dressing fetishist and eventually takes his own life in front of a baying crowd. Things spread to a nice-guy school principal (Colman Domingo) who, though his life is relatively mundane, is nearly run out of town because his text messages and photos of his family are taken out of context.

 

All while this is happening, Lilly and her secret man, a figure she calls Daddy, in text messages, are exchanging sexts and worrying about whether they could get hacked. When they do, things begin to get dangerous and when speculation turns to Lilly and her friends as the culprits behind the cyber-attacks, the witch hunt is on in ol’Salem. This mob isn’t coming with flaming torches however, they’re coming strapped and the witches, they’re coming strapped as well.

 

As I said at the start of this review, there are a number of good ideas in Assassination Nation. As the film progresses through its plot it occasionally rises to the level of satire that the filmmaker intends such as a scene late the movie where Lilly talks right to the camera and delivers a monologue on the faceless hordes who hide behind masks and attack people anonymously. The clear metaphor is twitter trolls hiding behind keyboards and for that moment, Assassination Nation is nearly as clever as the filmmakers believe it is.

 

Those moments are few and far between however as most of the movie is given over to art for the sake of art cuts, strange angles, words on screen text messaging, which has been a plague of this generation filmmakers, and plenty of ogling of Lilly and her friends that tends to fly in the face of the message I assume the film is intending to send. The movie throws accusations in all directions but doesn’t appear to have any self awareness.

 

Director Sam Levinson sexualizes Lilly the same way that the villainous characters do but has apparently no awareness of that fact. Instead, the film hides behind dialogue in which Lilly accuses other characters of sexualizing things that she doesn’t believe are sexual outside of context. The film wants Lilly in super short shorts and it wants to blame the audience for noticing that her shorts are ridiculously short.

 

Assassination Nation wants to be a righteous revenge movie for the #MeToo generation but it plays more like an exploitation of that idea than something aligned with #MeToo. That’s no fault of the young actresses, especially Odessa Young and Hari Neff whose performances are more fully realized than the many ideas the film has going on. Young is an assured young actress who performs with conviction and confidence. Neff meanwhile, is a minor revelation, a young actress with an effortless charisma.

 

I wish Assassination were as good as these young actresses make it appear. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad movie, it’s just a little too flashy for its own good. The flash and the glamour overwhelm the ideas. The ideas aren’t fully formed enough to overcome the flash and high style on display. Sam Levinson isn’t a bad director, but he’s overreaching and his taste for Harmony Korine style visuals and Purge style violence never coalesces into quite the movie he appears to want to make.

 

There is a desire for Assassination Nation to be both a message movie and an art movie and a hit movie and these desires clash in ways that end up satisfying none of those desires. There are good things in Assassination Nation but they’re all in competition with each other and in the end, little of the good stands out. In the end, the finished film is a mishmash of good ideas, a few bad ideas, and mixed messages that never cohere.

 

I have a feeling that Assassination Nation will inspire a lot of talk and that talk may end up being more valuable than the movie that inspired it. In some way I guess, that’s a point in the film’s favor. I just wish we were talking about a better movie. Do I recommend Assassination Nation? Yes and no. Yes in that it does cause conversation and these young actresses are quite good but no, because the film isn’t good enough as a movie for me to say spend your money on it.

 

We’re already having the conversations that this film wants to inspire and would have them if this movie didn’t exist. If you are intrigued by the plot and these young actresses then perhaps you might get something out of seeing Assassination Nation but it is a film that is not essential in any way. It doesn’t have much to contribute to the conversation it wishes to inspire.

 

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Movie Review The House with a Clock in its Walls

As much as I am loathed to praise the work of director Eli Roth, I am left with no choice. The fact is, he’s done a fine job in bringing to life the novel, The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Strange as it may seem, there is something about his perspective on horror movies that actually lends itself well to the mild, PG-13 scares of The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Though restraint has never been Roth’s strong point before, the way he dials back on his worth instincts while still finding way to express himself works here and I am shocked to say that.

 

The House with a Clock in Its Walls stars Owen Vaccaro as Lewis, a sheltered and shy young boy who is sent to live with his estranged and quite strange Uncle Jonathan, following the death of his parents in a tragic accident. Uncle Jonathan is the black sheep of the family, or Black Swan if you ask him, having runaway at a very young age to explore the world of magic. Over time he’s become a powerful warlock who uses his powers for good.

 

Alongside his best friend and neighbor, Florence, Jonathan has explored his super-scary house for years in hopes of locating a clock in the walls. Why a clock? Because it’s a doomsday device and what could be more dramatic than a literally ticking time clock counting down to worldwide doom. The clock was placed in the walls by Jonathan’s late former partner Isaac (Kyle McLachlan) whose experiences in World War 2 drove him to want to end humanity, leaving only himself and his wife, Selena (Rene Elise Goldsberry) alive, so to speak.

 

Isaac was killed in the creation of the clock but there is a spell that can bring him back to life and that’s where the plot of The House with a Clock in its Walls really gets clever in combining laughs and scares. McLachlan plays his evil character perfectly straight, no winking, all menace and world ending fury. It’s a bold choice and gives stakes to what was a relatively weightless plot that needed a little malevolent energy to give it a kick.

 

The House with a Clock in its Walls has a bold and unique production design. The house is a large part of this ensemble cast and I loved the skilful employment of CGI, not something Roth is particularly well known for. The CGI in The House with a Clock in its Walls is rather exceptional. It perfectly fits in the over the top gothic vibe of the old house and slides perfectly into that place just outside the uncanny valley of believable CGI and rubbery amateurish CGI.

 

Jack Black is his own CGI character. Black’s energy oozes from every pore, he’s a comic whirling dervish in The House with a Clock in its Walls and it recalls some of his best work, but especially a more grown-up version of School of Rock’s Dewey Finn, an equally fearless, Avante garde weirdo cut entirely from his own cloth. Black excels at characters where he can lend his natural weirdness to the role and the role of a warlock is perfectly suited to him.

 

Cate Blanchett is even better than Jack Black but only because she’s arguably the most talented actress working today. Blanchett’s Florence is struggling with the loss of her family in the war and with that loss went her magic. With Lewis’s encouragement, however, she starts to get her magic back again and Florence has a terrific arc in the movie. She’s also the star of the film’s best and most subtle scene. As she and Lewis are huddled around a dinner table, watch Blanchett’s arm, just above her wrist. It’s a character detail delivered so eloquently it doesn’t require words and it lands with tremendous impact.

 

Perhaps, against all of my preconceived notions, Eli Roth is actually a good director. Perhaps when he isn’t intentionally assaulting his audience he actually cares to entertain people. It seemed like a longshot to me but it appears, Roth actually can direct something that isn’t ugly, hateful and violent to an unnecessary degree. I would not have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself. The House with a Clock in its Walls is quite fun and lightly entertaining and Eli Roth is responsible for that.

 

I can’t believe I just wrote that about the director of Hostel and Hostel 2.

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Movie Review School of Rock (2003)

School of Rock is among the best comedies this century. This century is less than 20 years old but still, that's among hundreds of successful and failed comedies. It's still impressive is my point. With Jack Black back in theaters this weekend I decided to take a look back at my favorite piece of his work as a leading man. That, undoubtedly is School of Rock. While Black is arguably better in his supporting role in High Fidelity or his leading role in the little seen indie movie Bernie, School of Rock is the perfect distillation of Jack Black as a movie star, a comic, and an actor.

 

School of Rock stars Jack Black as Dewey Finn, a faltering rock star who's just been kicked out the band he started. With no gigs coming and no job, Dewey is facing eviction from the small corner of his friend Ned's (Mike White) apartment. Dewey is desperately at odds with Ned's bossy new girlfriend, Patti (Sarah Silverman) who is pushing soft touch Ned to throw Dewey out if he can't come up with rent. When Dewey fails in his attempt to hock his guitar, he appears to be completely out of options. Then, luck strikes when Dewey intercepts a call for Ned about a substitute teaching job at a tony, high priced private school.

 

Seeing teaching as an easy gig that will pay enough to keep him in his home, Dewey impersonates Ned and takes the job. Once in the job, Dewey figures he can coast just sitting behind the desk and sending the kids on recess. Then he hears the kids playing music in music class and he hatches a crazy plan. Utilizing his seemingly unlimited knowledge of rock n'roll, Dewey will transform these pre-teens into the kind of rock n'roll band that he can use to stick it to his former band and compete at a battle of the bands for a $20,000 grand prize.

 

Naturally, through the bond of music Dewey comes to gain a new maturity and sensitivity while the kids discover new talents and confidence within themselves. This is a stock arc that dates back to the silent movie era. It's the kind of stock uplift that you see in television pilots and in Lifetime channel comedies. All of that said, the key is taking these stock elements and building on them and that is exactly what director Richard Linklater and writer Mike White do in School of Rock. The basic structure is strong and yet loose enough to allow Jack Black to shine and improvise and deliver the kind of loose and fun performance that made him a star.

 

Jack Black is not a star for everyone. His spastic dancing, his odd affectations and often bizarre manner can grate on some audiences. I happen to be a big fan of Jack Black's tics and tricks. I enjoy his strange energetic performances which recall Jim Carrey in the Ace Ventura movies but with pathos and a more recognizable personality. Black is absolutely hysterical as Dewey. His massive personality pops off the screen from the first moment and Jack Black plus a classroom of cute kids is a recipe for comic gold. Black himself is a big kid and he throws himself into both the role of manchild best friend and budding grown up.

 

The kids are something of a faceless mass but a couple stand out. Miranda Cosgrove, the future star of the not bad at all I-Carly, is completely adorable as the business smart grade grubber Summer. I adored the scene where Cosgrove approaches Dewey to confront him about assigning her the role of Groupie for the band project. It's a really funny scene and she nails it. The other stand out for me was Maryam Hassan as Tomika, the shy but super talented singer whom Dewey inspires to come out her shell and come out with her incredibly big and bold voice. It's shocking to find out she never acted again and carries no other IMDB credits after 2003.

 

Richard Linklater's best work tends to be small and independent. He doesn't appear comfortable as a mainstream director working for a studio. School of Rock is the rare exception where Linklater lends his considerable talent well to a mainstream feature film. It helps that Mike White gave him a strong and funky script to work with and that he had Jack Black at the height of his powers, but there is still plenty to indicate his strong directorial hand at work. In his other mainstream work such as the remake of Bad News Bears, Linklater doesn't appear nearly as engaged in the process and it shows in the lackadaisical plodding pace of that film. School of Rock is like an unstoppable rocket whole Bad News Bears was a massive dud.

 

Recently, Andrew Lloyd Webber of all people turned School of Rock into a Broadway sensation. The original idea for the film was for it to be a musical and now Webber and his creative team are realizing that original vision. It says something however, about the strengths of School of Rock that it could be so radically reimagined and still become one of the iconic comedies of this young century. School of Rock is a buzzy, energetic and wildly funny movie. I stand by the statement that this is one of the best comedies of the last 20 years. Watch it for yourself and you will see a very basic story told with great invention, energy, love and passion. What more can we ask of a great comedy?

 

Jack Black is back in theaters this weekend alongside Cate Blanchett in The House with a Clock in It's Walls. That new movie will be Friday's RegionalDailyNews.com movie of the day on Friday. 

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Movie Review Billionaire Boys Club

Billionaire Boys Club was a bad idea even before Kevin Spacey creeped out the world. The story of the Billionaire Boys Club is a desperately 80’s set story that hasn’t aged well. As directed here by James Cox, the story plays like a dinner theater version of The Wolf of Wall Street starring High School kids and their creepy Uncle. That Spacey is cast in the role of a real life creep and plays the role so effectively as a creep only serves to add a level of skeeviness to an already misguided enterprise.

 

Billionaire Boys Club stars Ansel Elgort as Joe Hunt, a High School genius who has yet to find his way in the adult world of finance in 1983. When Joe hooks up with his scheming best friend from High School, Dean (Taron Egerton) the two hatch a scheme that combines Joe’s business sense and Dean’s connections among Hollywood’s young elite. The BBC, which would come to be called the Billionaire Boys Club down the line, was born of arrogance and con artistry.

 

Joe’s brilliant plan involves manipulating the commodities market for large short term gains on big risks. It takes a lot of capital and more than a little B.S to pull it off. When Dean gets Joe a meeting with a bunch of young trust funders he slays them and gets them to invest thousands in a plan about as sketchy as your average ponzi scheme. They then go out and land their parents as clients and eventually all of the money gets tied up in Joe’s commodity play.

 

When Dean introduces Joe to Ron Levin (Kevin Spacey), Joe immediately sees dollar signs. Levin appears to be a big fish and when he offers to bankroll the rollout of the BBC things explode into new offices, fancy cars, and lavish, drug fueled parties. Naturally, it didn’t last and when things began to go wrong, they went deadly wrong with an unexpected but totally real  body count.

 

The misguided direction of Billionaire Boys Club jumps off quickly as the film begins with a bizarre and entirely unnecessary fantasy sequence. This sequence which depicts Ansel Elgort’s Joe in the famous Maxell Tape Commercial where a guy in a chair is nearly literally blown away by the power of a Maxell Tape, has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. You might assume this was Joe introducing himself using a familiar image from the time in which the movie is set, after all, there is a voiceover, but the voice isn’t Joe’s, it’s Dean’s. Why is he imagining this scenario?

 

Later, we suffer through a scene at a nightclub costume party that only serves to show how good rich people are at getting neat costumes. Emma Roberts is introduced in this scene wearing a perfect recreation of Daryl Hannah’s Blade Runner costume which is awesome except we don’t actually meet her and I am only kind of sure that was her and the costumes do nothing to further the story. Another character, so minor yet integral enough to keep popping up, appears to be wearing Harrison Ford’s actual Han Solo costume. It’s not important, it’s just kind of neat.

 

Let’s talk now about the Kevin Spacey sized Elephant in the room. Spacey’s downfall last year was hard enough to watch. Once known as an Academy Award winner, Spacey is now and forever a super-creep and Billionaire Boys Club is unfortunate enough to have cast him in a role that accentuates creepy. Ron Levin was a slimy con man and, based on the evidence of this movie, a flaming homosexual who comes very close to cutting deals in exchange for particular favors.

 

I have no idea if that was actually who Ron Levin was or if his sexuality played any role in his dealings with the real Joe Hunt or Dean Karny. What I can tell you is that director Joe Cox hints at the idea that Ron is creeping on Joe but doesn’t have the guts to go that far. Perhaps they recut that part of the movie after Spacey’s personal issues were exposed. I can’t say but what remains in the movie is still extra specially creepy based on what we know now and likely would have been more effectively creepy if we didn’t know.

 

Ansel Elgort and Taron Egerton are fully defeated by the Billionaire Boys Club. Despite their noted talents, neither actor can overcome the ick factor of Spacey combined with writer-director James Cox’s poor choices. Especially egregious is the lackadaisical voiceover he saddles poor Taron Egerton with. The voiceover sounds as if it were added after the producers realized the film was a mess and were trying to save it.

 

Voiceover is already the last refuge of scoundrels who can’t convey the same emotions or necessary information in dialogue or scene-setting. In Billionaire Boys Club voiceover exposes all of the film’s flaws in the most obvious and insulting fashion. Egerton himself barely seems invested in delivering the confusing mini-monologues he’s forced to give to try to make coherent what director Cox as rendered mostly incoherent.

 

Perhaps the best example of the failed mindset of the makers of Billionaire Boys Club is that someone thought it would be cute to cast Judd Nelson as Joe Hunt’s dad. Nelson portrayed Joe Hunt 30 years ago in the TV movie version of Billionaire Boys Club, which is somehow superior to this theatrical version. Nevermind the lame attempt at stunt casting, it’s the fact that you have to be someone like me to even remember that Judd Nelson was in the original Billionaire Boys Club otherwise his appearance here is merely an unnecessary cameo. That's if you even remember who Judd Nelson is which, I'm guessing the Ansel Elgort fanbase probably does not.

 

Billionaire Boys Club is on Blu Ray, DVD and On-Demand now though I would recommend taking your rental money and lighting it on fire as that would be just as much of a good time as watching Billionaire Boys Club.

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Movie Review Hearts Beat Loud

Hearts Beat Loud stars Nick Offerman, best known for his work as Ron Swanson on Parks and Rec, and lovely newcomer Kiersey Clemons as father and daughter musicians. Well, he’s been a musician and he would like her to be one but she’s on the fence. Offerman and Clemons are Frank and Sam Fisher. Frank owns a failing record store and Sam is planning to go to UCLA in a week to go on to medical school.

 

Sam’s impending leave for the other side of the country, they live in Red Hook, a neighborhood in New York, and she’s headed to UCLA, hasn’t stopped Frank from dreaming about starting a band with his uber-talented daughter. Sam’s mother was a singer before she died in a tragic accident and she and Frank met when they were in a band together. Music is Sam’s DNA even if she prefers examining other people’s DNA rather than considering her own.

 

The shift in our story comes when Frank convinces Sam to have a jam session and the two end up writing a song called “Hearts Beat Loud.” The song is based on a beat Sam has had in her mind for some time and a lyric she picked up in one of her pre-college prep classes. With Frank’s experience to shape it, the song comes together better than either of them could imagine and Dad, once again, starts dreaming of a band which winds up being called We’re Not a Band.

 

In between Dad and Daughter musical bonding, both are reaching out into the dating world. Frank has an ongoing flirtation with the landlord of his record shop, Leslie (Toni Collette). She wants Frank to stay open, even offers to partner with him but he’s resistant. Sam, for her part, has met and begun falling for an artist named Rose (Sasha Lane), just at the time when falling for anyone is not the best idea.

 

Life is further complicated by Frank’s ailing mother, Marianne (Blythe Danner) who’s memory is beginning to slip more and more frequently. She’s going to need to be cared for and since she’s still a cantankerous old dame, she’s not making things easy. This is the least of the plot strands in Hearts Beat Loud but Blythe Danner does well to make it matter and has one wonderfully wistful scene opposite Clemons that goes along way toward justifying the inclusion of this subplot.

 

Hearts Beat Loud also features a supporting role for Ted Danson whose late career continues to fascinate me. Having initially struggled to move from television to film and then struggled to return to television, Danson has settled into the role of elder statesman and utility player beautifully. He plays Danny, a bar owner in Hearts Beat Loud and fills the best friend role for Frank. Mostly, he cracks wise about smoking pot, but Danson’s remarkable charisma never lets that bit get old. I always love seeing Ted Danson and he’s just great here.

 

Hearts Beat Loud was written and directed by Brett Haley, a director who has been around awhile but whose work has eluded me. I have not seen his much buzzed about film Hero from last year but many were saying that Haley directed Sam Elliott to the best performance of his career, which is high praise indeed. Haley directs Hearts Beat Loud with a deft touch, a light tone that is nevertheless filled with solid drama.

 

The characters are perfectly rendered and the story unfolds in unexpected ways. I became so invested in Nick Offerman’s Sam that I could not accept anything but a happy ending for him and the film defied my expectations as to how it defined a happy ending. Kiersey Clemons too has twists and turns and the film isn’t afraid of letting her be right about her dad and right about some of the less fun points that she makes throughout the movie.

 

These are complex, thoughtful and funny characters and they are so wonderfully authentic. That authenticity extends to the music as well. Nick Offerman is a genuine musician and plays all his own music in the movie. Kiersey Clemons has a beautiful voice and working with songwriter Keegan Dewitt, they came up with these wonderful songs. Director Haley actually captured the full process of them recording the song for the first time as part of the film making the whole thing feel that much more authentic.

 

Hearts Beat Loud is a wonderful film with great characters and a brilliant story. On top of that, the music is exceptional, especially the title song which you get to hear performed ‘live’ in the movie once it is completed. I absolutely adore this movie, Hearts Beat Loud is one of my favorites of the year thus far. It’s available now on Blu Ray, DVD and On-Demand.

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Movie Review White Boy Rick

White Boy Rick is a bit of a bait and switch. The marketing materials would lead you to believe that Rick Wershie was a teenage Scarface. The reality is a great deal less interesting. In reality, Wershie was a low level drug dealer who was manipulated by the FBI and local law enforcement at a time when he should have only been worrying about girls and homework. His story has some sadness and weight to it but it is badly misrepresented in White Boy Rick.

 

Richie Merritt stars in White Boy Rick as Rick Wershie, the 16 year old son a small time gun runner, Richie Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) who parlays his dad’s connections into connections of his own in the drug world. Meanwhile, the FBI is after dad which leads Rick to accept a job working for the FBI as drug buyer and dealer. His job is to be small time and lead the cops to the actual big timers. However, when Rick gets close to a friendly drug dealer and won’t squeal on him, his life takes a violent turn.

 

Eventually, Rick does graduate to have his own crew of dealers who sell cocaine given to him by the FBI. It’s a harsh charge but appears to have been corroborated in history that the FBI indeed put cocaine on the streets of Detroit in their vain attempt to smoke out big time dealers who come out of the woodwork to slow down upstarts like Rick who get caught in the middle struggling for the scraps of cash and trying not to get killed.

 

There is perhaps a compelling story there but director Yann Demange never really finds it. His foundation is solid but there is no real propellent energy to White Boy Rick. The film is lethargic and weary and while it looks good and features committed performances, especially from McConaughey, the lethargy becomes overwhelming after an hour. Then, when you realize that Rick was never much more than a small time neighborhood dealer and not the kingpin the marketing made him out to be, it’s hard not to feel you’ve been cheated.

 

The ending of White Boy Rick is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the movie. What happened to Rick Wershie after he got caught is far more compelling than what happened to him before. It’s a true story so don’t yell at me about spoilers, Wershie fell victim to a prejudicial law in the state of Michigan that led to him spending 3 and a half decades in prison. It was a mandatory minimum sentence for having a certain weight of drugs in your possession.

 

In most states, the amount of drugs Rick had on him when he was busted would have sent him up for maybe half the time he spent in jail but because it was a mandatory minimum, there was no parole and seemingly no hope. It would be nearly 20 years before Michigan would change the law and begin freeing guys who received ludicrous life sentences but somehow, Rick Wershie was left behind. Wershie was the last man left in prison on this mandatory minimum sentence and would not be for nearly a year after the law was changed that he would get out of jail.

 

That’s a very compelling story but that doesn’t factor into White Boy Rick until the very end of the movie. The final 10 minutes is when this is introduced and then the movie is over. So we get a lot build up to no payoff on two fronts, Rick wasn’t a big time dealer and Rick’s story of surviving some of the harshest prison sentences in history is left out of the movie completely. What a bizarre choice.

 

White Boy Rick is not a bad movie. Matthew McConaughey, as mentioned earlier, is deeply committed to his performance. The wild eyes and the wild hair are a tad bit Nicolas Cage, but moments when he softens up the edges such as when he meets his granddaughter or the subplot about Bel Powley playing his daughter, McConaughey is devastatingly effective at reaching for the heartstrings without coming off as pushy.

 

That said, the movie isn’t a must see in theaters. Wait for Blu Ray or On Demand and see it there.

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Movie Review A Simple Favor

A Simple Favor is one of the most delightful movies of the year. It’s a showcase for a pair of actresses who’ve yet to receive the respect they deserve as a pair of our smartest and most unique actresses working today. It’s directed by Paul Feig who continues to be one of the most unique voices in film, an ostensibly comic voice and yet one who, in one movie, can evoke Hitchcock, the French New Wave and I Love Lucy.

 

A Simple Favor stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie a Type A mom who volunteers for every committee at her son’s school and at home, runs a V-Log for moms with helpful tips for everything from meals to laundry. It’s established that Stephanie doesn’t have many friends and isn’t particularly well liked by the mom’s in her suburb. Then, Stephanie meets Emily (Blake Lively) who sparks something in Stephanie that she never imagined was there.

 

Emily is a fascinating person and not merely because she is beautiful. She’s witty, she’s self-assured to the point of open narcissism, and she wields words like daggers when she feels like it. You can sense that Emily takes to Stephanie as a cat might to a mouse, with the full intention of eating her alive but far more interested in entertaining herself first. Equally overmatched by Emily is Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding).

 

Listen to the way Emily talks about him, openly insulting him, confessing their marital and financial issues to Stephanie in order to self servingly emasculate Sean as part of whatever game she’s playing at the moment to amuse herself. Watch the way she makes a big show of making out with him before once again openly dismissing him. She’s looking for a reaction from Stephanie and is amused to find out what that reaction will be.

 

I absolutely adore Blake Lively’s performance in A Simple Favor and would be willing to support an Academy Award campaign. Her performance is relaxed and confident and yet she makes Emily feel as if everything is of the moment and off the cuff. You get the sense that though she may have long term plans in mind, that the reality is, she’s always looking to be amused or surprised and does things to discover reactions not with a calculation of what the reaction will be.

 

It is a delicate performance, attempting to appear glib without actually coming off that way. She’s provocative for the sake of pushing an agenda but she also appears to be discovering her agenda as she goes along. This plays out brilliantly in the plot of the movie which unfolds in a way that appears deliberate but when you take a step back, you realize that it’s all been off the cuff and by the seat of Emily’s gorgeously fitted pant suits.

 

The far more deliberate character is Stephanie and while she is consistently shocked and surprised, her actions have far more intent than Emily’s. When Emily goes missing Stephanie deliberately and earnestly sets out to try to find her friend. That she winds up looking a little crazy is part and parcel of her genuine attempt to find her friend and then becomes the genuine and earnest attempt to solve a mystery.

 

Anna Kendrick is equally as wonderful as Blake Lively in A Simple Favor. Though she appears to be carrying far more of the comic weight of the movie, Kendrick manages to maintain Stephanie’s dignity and intelligence while also being very fun. She’s riding the most delicate line in the movie because if Stephanie tips to far over into parody the plot won’t work. Kendrick toes that line brilliantly.

 

One of the more unusual influences on Kendrick's performance, in my opinion, is Lucille Ball. Stephanie has a similarly awkward quality to her that always came out of Lucy when she was trying to get into Ricky's show. Stephanie wants desperately to be Emily's friend, that's the show she wants to be part of. And when Emily goes missing, there is a caper quality to Emily shambling but intentional 'investigation' of Emily's disappearance that plays like that of a classic sitcom character. 

 

That she can evoke Lucy, right down to the style of dress she prefers, and still make the sexy, thriller portions of A Simple Favor work is a testament to Anna Kendrick's remarkable versatility. She has her innocent and not so innocent qualities and through her earnestness, she combines them into a believable and entertaining character that is both broad and sympathetic, awkward and attractive. It's an incredibly deft performance. 

 

Director Paul Feig is known for broad comedy in movies like the recent Ghostbusters remake, Bridesmaids and his many other collaborations with Melissa McCarthy. He’s the last director I would expect to evoke elements of Alfred Hitchcock and The French New Wave but indeed he does in A Simple Favor. His direction of A Simple Favor is stylish, smart, witty and wildly entertaining in the same way the influences I mentioned were in their best films.

 

Like Hitchcock, Feig takes a character who could stand in easily for us all in Anna Kendrick’s Stephanie, achingly normal in her dress and manner, and places her in a situation well above her head. Then, of course, there is the blonde. Hitchcock would have loved Blake Lively. Lively effortlessly evokes Tippi Hedren in Marnie, another pernicious and impulsive character though one who doesn’t have quite the bearing and unending confidence of Lively’s Emily.

 

In case you doubt the Hitchcock influence on A Simple Favor for a moment I urge you to look back to the top of this page at that poster. If you can't see the obvious influence of the great Saul Bass in that poster you are clearly in contrarian mode. Bass was the artist that Hitchcock turned to for his iconic opening credits in North by Northwest and you can see a similar influence in the opening credits of A Simple Favor. 

 

The French New Wave influence on A Simple Favor comes much from the fact that the New Wave was greatly inspired by Hitchcock but, there is also the look of the movie. Though the sixties in general is a big influence on the style as well, look at the color and the effortless almost commonplace opulence of the sets in A Simple Favor. That’s just the kind of thing Truffaut and others were brilliant at portraying, the hapless wealth and depravity of the upper class.

 

The more time I spend thinking about A Simple Favor, the more I adore it. Admittedly, the film is rather slight, it doesn’t have large themes or any sort of message behind it. It’s simply a thrilling bit of highly artful entertainment. I wasn’t deeply moved by it but it’s not that kind of movie. This is a comic thriller with the intent of distracting and deli

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Movie Review Mandy

What can I tell you about Mandy? Boy, it’s something, it’s really something. Mandy is the latest demented performance from acting and weirdo legend Nicolas Cage. Mandy is Nicolas Cage steering right into his high level type-casting as a bizarre cult phenomenon of crazy, bug-eyed, screaming nonsense. Much like the recent films Army of One and Mom and Dad, Mandy is Nicolas Cage once again screaming at the world to laugh with him or at him and he doesn’t care which one.

 

Mandy stars Cage as Red, a woodsman, who works cutting trees. Red’s life is very happy as he has fallen deeply in love with Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), an oddly beautiful woman with an alien quality that you cannot take your eyes off. Their life appears to be ideal but Red worries a little about their remote cabin home but Mandy loves the house and the quiet and being far from the troubles of the world they see on television.

 

Red and Mandy’s lives are changed forever one day when Mandy goes for a walk and is spotted by Jeremiah Sands (Linus Roache) and his band of weirdo followers. Sands is a guru of sorts, a Jesus Freak who believes he is God on Earth and ordained to take whatever he wants. Jeremiah tells his followers to bring him Mandy and from there, the movie Mandy takes a turn from strange to unspeakably bizarre and wildly, compellingly watchable.

 

Mandy was directed by Panos Cosmatos a visionary director, part Stanley Kubrick and part Nicholas Winding Refn. The style is slow and patient, the film is slowly turning the screws and drawing you closer and closer to this story, investing you further and further. Once the movie becomes a revenge movie you are so far inside Nicolas Cage’s crazy, far out and murderous perspective you can’t help but be breathlessly caught up in Mandy.

 

The style of Mandy is unlike most anything I have seen before. It reminded me a great deal of two of my favorite recent films, Nicholas Winding Refn’s remarkable and disturbing The Neon Demon and the Spanish dark comedy horror movie Night of the Virgin. Mandy has the color and patient storytelling of Neon Demon and the outlandish horror of Night of the Virgin and the combination, for me, was electrifying.

 

That said, Neon Demon and Night of the Virgin are two of the most divisive and disquieting movies of the last few years. If you cannot take extreme violence, bizarre visual styles and highly unconventional storytelling, these three films, Neon Demon, Night of the Virgin and Mandy are not movies that will work for you. They appeal to me as a critic in many ways because they are remarkably bold works of art and they are unlike anything else I see in mainstream movies.

 

Nicolas Cage’s career is now as bizarre as any meme about Nicolas Cage on social media. With the trio of Army of One, Mom and Dad and now Mandy, Cage’s style is now only wild-eyed, bugged out, over the top crazy. He’s gone from bored and overpaid in the early part of this century to a caricature of a movie star who would take any role for a paycheck to now where he’s delivering some of the most energetic, exciting and fascinating work of his nearly 40 year career.

 

Mandy is for hardcore fans of whacked out cinema. You have to have a desire for the unconventional and a love for art movies or you won’t get this movie. I can completely understand anyone who says they don’t care for Mandy or even turn it off after starting to watch it, it’s not a movie built to please all audiences. But, for me, Mandy is an avant garde masterpiece of macabre cinema. There are few movies like it and few movies as entertaining and fascinating for me as Mandy.

 

Mandy is streaming now on Amazon.com for $5.99. Side note, there are no jokes about or references to the Barry Manilow song of the same name. I don’t want you to be looking for that during the movie.

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Movie Review The Predator

The Predator is the weakest of the main line of Predator franchise movies. That is a rather surprising revelation for me as Shane Black is by far the most talented director to have worked on this franchise but nevertheless. The Predator isn’t bad but it lacks the fun of the first two Predator movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Glover respectively and it lacks the tension, suspense and action chops of 2010’s Predators. Not to mention the lack of a truly compelling leading man like Adrien Brody.

 

The Predator stars Boyd Holbrook, the villain from last year’s Logan, as McKenna, a sniper who makes first contact with the newly arrived alien Predator in an unnamed South American jungle. Eager for a cover up, the governor sends in Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), a fixer of sorts when it comes to alien invasions. Traeger has McKenna shipped off to a hospital for the mentally, though he’s fully aware that McKenna is not crazy.

 

McKenna however, has a trump card. Prior to the arrival of Traeger and his men, he shipped some alien artifacts back home for safe keeping and proof that he’s not crazy. In the meantime, McKenna is re-routed from the hospital, along with a group of fellow mentally ill former soldiers, including Trevante Rhodes as Nebraska, Keegan Michael Key as Coyle, Thomas Jane as Baxley, Alfie Allen as Lynch and Augusto Aguilera as Nettles, to the facility where the Predator he saw is being held and is now escaping from.

 

The Predator is on the hunt for McKenna’s son, played Jacob Tremblay, who intercepted his dad’s package and mistook the alien artifacts for an elaborate Halloween costume. From there the question becomes: can McKenna and his ragtag band, along with a scientist played by Olivia Munn, get to McKenna’s son before the Predator does and what about the even bigger Predator that just landed on earth?

 

Shane Black is best known for his witty dialogue and colorful characters. His The Good Guys featured action and violence but the stand out part of the film was the banter between Russell Crowe’s thug and Ryan Gosling’s con man. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang had a healthy body count but again, thrived mostly on the interplay between stars Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. The Predator, unfortunately, does not play to Black’s strengths.

 

As demonstrated in his take on Iron Man in Iron Man 3, action is not Black’s strong suit, especially of the CG variety. His work with Downey on the character of Tony Stark was dynamite as was his take on the super villain with Ben Kingsley deconstructing the notion with comic flair. Black can script and direct actors with tremendous wit and energy. When it came time for the big action climax, Iron Man 3 got a little sloppy and misguided and thus is remembered as the weakest of that franchise by many, myself included.

 

In The Predator, the characters are all colorful ala classically Shane Black characters but the focus here is on the action and it is shaky at times. Black remains a little clumsy with CGI and his action scenes are a little all over the place. He does well to deliver unique characters as always but only Olivia Munn appears to give the kind of life to a character that we recognize from Black’s best work.

 

An example of Black’s struggle with action, late in the film, a significant character dies by accidentally blowing his own head off with an alien weapon. The scene is filled with such chaos, quick cuts, flashy edits, that this death of a significant character, goes almost entirely unnoticed. It took me over a minute to realize that this character had died and I had to intuit how the character died as opposed to have actually been able to see it happen, it flashes by so quickly amongst the chaos it’s easy to miss.

 

Boyd Holbrook is a good enough actor but he appears to lack the loose, confident vibe of a classically Shane Black kind of hero. He is by no means bad in the role, but he doesn’t have the verve of a Ryan Gosling and is nowhere near the star presence of Robert Downey Jr who carried Iron Man 3 over the hill on the sheer force of his charisma and showmanship. Holbrook is more reserved and conservative as an actor. He rarely let’s loose in The Predator and he rarely feels like the creation of Shane Black.

 

Strangely, though it appears there may have been on-set tension between Olivia Munn and Shane Black given the controversy that has erupted recently and completely overshadowed the release of The Predator, Munn is the most Shane Black-like character in the film. Munn is tough and confident and sexy and charming. She has a brain and wit and she’s ready for a fight. She never overplays the comedy or underplays the action, she’s perfectly on point throughout and is easily the best thing about The Predator.

 

The Predator isn’t a bad movie because Shane Black is not a bad director. With the right movie he’s one of the best in the business. The Predator with lots of chaos and special effects is not his forte. He writes great action and great action characters but directing action is not his strong suit. Thus, he’s made the most okay version of this franchise to date, ranking just above the Alien Vs Predator movies but below Predator, Predator 2 and the franchise best, Predators 2010.

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Movie Review Predators (2010)

Predators is a strange phenomenon of a movie. It’s a sequel to the Predator franchise began in 1987 with Arnold Schwarzenegger and continued in 1990 with Danny Glover but it feels wholly its own. The film features no references to the previous two movies aside from the Predator character which is now split into a pair of species that now hunt human beings for sport far from the jungles of the Earth.

 

Adrien Brody stars as Royce in Predators, a mercenary who finds himself dropped from some height and awakening just in time for his parachute to deploy. Royce turns out to be one of eight characters, all among the most dangerous types of people on Earth, mercenaries, soldiers, Asian gangsters, Drug Cartel Assassins, Freedom Fighters and a death row inmate, among others, who have been dropped on this foreign planet and now must work together to survive.

 

Initially, this ragtag group has no idea they are on another planet, though they know they can’t identify which jungle they believe they are in. Along the way they find small clues to their situation and manage to narrowly escape death as they are stalked one by one by a killer that likes to take trophies from its victims. As members of the group begin to get picked off, Royce looks for some way to get off the alien game preserve planet.

 

Predators was directed by Nimrod Antal, a Hungarian transplant whose most recent career has come working alongside the band Metallica on their recent concert documentaries and music videos. Beyond that, there isn’t much to judge his work by aside from Predators and based on that, he’s not bad. Antal’s strength is a patient and deliberate pace and character motivations that feel logical and well justified.

 

Antal smartly allows his characters to be nuanced and true to their murderous natures. He doesn’t force the characters to become friends or linger on bonding scenes, he is aware that these are mostly singular characters who, in this scenario, aren’t likely to get too attached to each other. It’s believable and cathartic to see characters acting in less than ideal fashion; these aren’t the good guys and Antal allows them the freedom to bad guys who might just as soon kill each other to save themselves.

 

Buffed up Academy Award winner Brody, so gaunt and frail looking in his Oscar winning performance in The Pianist, put on some serious muscle for this character and combines that with his talent for character work and created an anti-hero befitting this unique franchise. At one point, though he is looking out for everyone, he uses his new ‘team’ as bait to draw out the Predators, unbeknownst to them, and they aren’t happy. Royce however, gets key information about the enemy from this move and feels rightfully justified in his choice, despite a member of the team dying in the process.

 

It’s that cold calculation that fascinates me about these characters. Yes, they pull together for battle but they don’t trust each other at all. At one point, one character offers the old chestnut ‘ the enemy of my enemy is my friend and that is the ethos of Predators. The film features alliances and cold-hearted calculations and while there are obnoxious characters who whine and cry, I loved Brody’s specific, stoic and calculated killer.

 

The performance of Adrian Brody is key to the appeal of Predators. If you don’t identify with him much of the tension of the film is too easily shifted to what the characters should have done instead of what they end up doing which is using the Predators tactics against it, in order to kill it for good, Brody is a true badass in Predators and despite his more twee and skinny roles, I really bought into Brody as a potential future action star. Time, of course, has sent Brody into a rather confounding obscurity but he could likely come back any day.

 

While Brody is unquestionable the key to Predators being so very good, Laurence Fishburne is the film's secret weapon. Playing a mentally broken former soldier who has been surviving for some time on the planet having found ways to kill past Predators, he's now a scavenger hanging on to his last threads of sanity. It's a gloriouisly unhinged performance and Fishburne is incredibly entertaining; both funny and a little scary. 

 

I am quite surprised to say how much I like predators even more than I like the original Predator. Adrian Brody may not be Arnold Schwarzenegger but Predators takes serious what Arnold and the 87 team rendered silly and somehow it works because Brody is so believable and the action is so perfectly attuned to this unique franchise. Predators has a better pace, more interesting and fleshed out characters and better Predators than the original did. Predators is a must see for fans of this franchise.

 

The latest movie in the Predator franchise, The Predator, opens in theaters this weekend starring Olivia Munn and Sterling K. Brown. 

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Movie Review Predator (1987)

Predator is a pumped up, nasty, violent cheese-fest with a performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger that ranks among his most entertainingly goofy and bad-ass. Directed by John McTiernan, the man behind arguably the greatest action movie ever made, Diehard, Predator falls short of that film but finds its own place in the world of both action and sci-fi via a tremendous sense of humor, intentional and otherwise and some top notch gore and effects.

 

Predator stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dutch, leader of a team of military mercenaries. Gotta job you can’t do in some foreign jungle? Dutch and his team are the ones to call in with their massive guns and even bigger personalities. No joke, the character actors chowing down on scenery in Predator with hamtastically cheesy deliveries and gory deaths include Bill Duke, Sonny Landham and the biggest cheeseball of them all, Jesse ‘The Body Ventura.’

 

The team is recruited by Dutch’s old friend Dillon (Carl Weathers) who wants Dutch to combine forces with him to rescue diplomats lost in a South American jungle. The military believes that terrorists have taken the diplomats hostage but the reality is far more terrifying. A creature, that we know as simply Predator, has stalked and murdered both the terrorists and their captives in brutal fashion and now has eyes on Dutch and Dillon’s team.

 

From there, the Predator chews up each supporting player with as much visceral, gory razzle dazzle as possible. The gore effects by the team behind the legendary Stan Winston are grisly and impressive. A great deal of work went into these effects and while some don’t necessarily fit the logic of the movie, the cool factor goes along way to making up for the logical leaps. This isn’t rocket science, it’s Predator, we have to turn off our brains here and meet the movie on its terms.

 

Predator is arguably Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best performance aside from perhaps Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Arnold’s Dutch is ripped and resourceful, he’s beefy and just clever enough by the standards of the Predator, to make his scenes work. I especially enjoyed the final scenes of Predator and the battle between Arnold and The Predator is really fun and entertaining. Goofy as all get out? You betcha, but in supremely entertaining fashion.

 

Predator is one of the great action movies of all time but not because it’s a great movie. Predator is a serviceable movie at best. What the film gets right though is allowing room for things to be cheesy and over the top with ridiculous levels of blood and guts. The fake blood industry must have had a boom year in 1987 thanks to all the remarkable buckets of blood and viscera.

 

Then there is the Predator as a villain, one that has become an icon of popular culture. The Predator has become a ubiquitous figure that inspires devotion in a fashion similar to horror film icons Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. The Predator is a stone cold killer that doesn’t speak but strikes terror in the heart of the audience with a mere three red dots on someone’s chest. When you see those red dots on someone’s face or torso you know something terrible is going to happen and the anticipation is breathtaking.

 

I adore Predator for its willingness to be over the top and unapologetically cheeseball. I enjoy Arnold Schwarzenegger when he’s at his stoic best or when attempting to pop off badass catchphrases. Schwarzenegger isn’t a great actor but he makes up for a lot with charm and even here with that charm on mute, his bravado, mixed with a rare sense of vulnerability, he’s finally facing a big bad bigger than he is on screen, and I really enjoyed how Arnold acknowledges his own desperate plight.

 

The Predator, directed by Shane Black, who played the character Hawkins in the original Predator, is the latest movie in this franchise and not likely to be the last. The Predator has a chance of knocking The Nun out of the number one spot this weekend. The Predator opens for preview screenings around the country on Thursday night and then will open across the U.S on Friday.

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Movie Review Ocean's Eight

Ocean’s Eight feels like it was inevitable. The idea of an all female version of the Ocean’s heist franchise feels like a natural extension of the brand. Even the lack of involvement from director Steven Soderbergh, the man who steered the Clooney-Pitt brand to massive worldwide success, doesn’t stop the franchise from delivering yet another chapter that has the same breezy, cheesy fun of the Soderbergh flicks.

 

Sandra Bullock stars in Ocean’s Eight as Debbie Ocean, the sister of George Clooney’s Danny Ocean. Fresh out of prison, Debbie is looking to form a new crew for a massive heist. Returning to New York City, Debbie reconnects with her longtime criminal bestie, Lou (Cate Blanchett), enticing her with her big idea heist which could net $20 million if they can bring just the right crew together to pull it off

 

The plan: Debbie wants to rob the Met Gala, specifically the jewels set to be on the neck of actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). Stay with me because the plan gets complicated from there. They need to actually get Daphne to wear the necklace they wish to steal. This requires getting a famous but down her luck designer, Rose (Helena Bonham Carter), to join their gang and get her a job as Daphne’s personal designer for the Met Gala.

 

This being urgent to the plot, this part comes together with a charming ease. No joke, even as predictable as this plot point is, Carter, Bullock and Blanchett are incredibly fun pulling it off. From there, they need to get a diamond expert, Mindy Kaling, a former friend and thief, Sarah Paulsen, a hacker, Rihanna and a pickpocket, Awkwafina and even then, the plan needs a lot of luck and awesome costumes.

 

Ocean’s Eight is predictable and not really laugh out loud hilarious. What Ocean’s Eight is, is super charming. As directed by Gary Ross, a consummate professional filmmaker, Ocean’s Eight consistently earns smiles and light giggles. Ocean’s Eight is a lot of fun because this cast is having such a great time. Rihanna and Awkwafina may get something of a short shrift in terms of screentime, they nevertheless bring some youthful energy to their scenes, especially Awkwafina, a future breakout star.

 

I was occasionally bugged by the way Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett appeared as if they were trying to out-cool each other. There are just a couple scenes in Ocean’s Eight where both appear to be relaxing and slowing their speech in order to appear more relaxed and unaffected than the other and it got on my nerves a little but that is a minor thing confined to no more than a couple of scenes.

 

For most of the film Bullock and Blanchett are bouncy and charming like the rest of the cast. That said, no one appears to be having more fun being bouncy and charming than Anne Hathaway. The former star of The Princess Diaries proves that her comedy chops have improved dramatically over the years. Hathaway’s character is egotistical and bitchy but watch her closely and you can see how much she’s enjoying this performance. That plus the way she’s worked into the plot is really fun.

 

Ocean’s Eight is not perfect but as a breezy, charming star vehicle in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen, it’s a perfectly enjoyable movie. The story is fun, the plot is predictable but it is exceptionally well decorated in costume and in stylish direction. This is the kind of glossy star vehicle that Sinatra inspired years ago and that Clooney, Pitt and Soderbergh reinvigorated. If you enjoyed the Ocean’s franchise before, you will enjoy Ocean’s Eight just as much.

 

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Movie Review Filmworker

What would possess a man to give up a potentially thriving career of his own in order to subjugate himself to the whims of another man? It’s a strange question, it sounds like some sort of fetish lifestyle choice when taken out of context. In the context of the new documentary Filmworker, it has some logic and a chaste, dutiful service to art that creates an understandable purpose, if not one you could fully get on board with for yourself.

 

Filmworker tells the story of actor turned filmic jack of all trades, Leon Vitali who gave up a career in film and on the stage to work as a tradesman in service of director and visionary Stanley Kubrick. In 1974 Vitali had a breakout role in Kubrick’s epic Barry Lyndon opposite Ryan O’Neal. Vitali did so well in his role in fact that Kubrick expanded the role as the film was shooting from a brief cameo role to one of the main antagonists.

 

Even before the two came to be creative soulmates on Barry Lyndon however, Vitali was already seemingly in fealty to the master director. In a story that opens Filmworker, Vitali recalls seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey and later seeing A Clockwork Orange and telling a friend that he wanted to go work for Stanley Kubrick, not act for him, but work at whatever the master director needed behind the scenes.

 

On the set of Barry Lyndon, Vitali told Kubrick about a desire he had to work behind the scenes rather than in front as an actor and Kubrick assigned him a task of finding something behind the scenes he could do. This led to Leon being hired on to work on Kubrick’s next movie, The Shining where he wore numerous hats including casting director, acting coach and post-production guru.

 

When he wasn’t working on one of Kubrick’s next projects, Leon was working on preserving the past and dealing with the kinds of things that made Kubrick upset, things such as marketing campaigns which Leon helped to supervise, much to the dismay of Warner Brothers, the company responsible for much of Kubrick’s film distribution. Leon was part of cutting trailers, approving poster and even traveling to videostores to check on how Kubrick’s movies were being marketed. If Kubrick wasn’t happy, the studio would hear about it, from Leon.

 

Filmworker is an exceptional documentary for film geeks like myself. Rarely have we had the kind of access to Stanley Kubrick that we get in Filmworker. Leon Vitali was there for everything from Barry Lyndon through the end of Kubrick’s run with Eyes Wide Shut in 1999 and the stories he tells are funny, charming and occasionally harrowing. Vitali has the look of an aging David Lee Roth but is kind, generous and unassuming.

 

The matter of fact manner in which Vitali recalls his time with Kubrick is a strong indication of his familiarity with the man. These stories are old and worn for him, he’s not fascinated with himself, he’s recalling memories not showboating about having been part of something as incredible as the career of Stanley Kubrick. This isn’t a victory lap or a bragging session, he is aware that we’re interested to the point of obsession with his friend Stanley but he isn’t because it was just his life.

 

I adore Filmworker because it is a fine documentary but also because I adore Leon Vitali. His storytelling is incredibly charming and he seems like a terrific guy. As weird as it might still seem that he gave up his career to be of service to someone else, I get it because he was aware that Stanley was already part of film history and if he was with Stanley, he was part of history as well. He’s not arrogant or boastful about it but he’s certainly proud of that, even it the cost to his personal life was rather high.

 

I will leave you to discover more about Leon Vitali as Filmworker is an essential documentary. If you are a film fan, this a must see movie, filled with incredible stories and wonderful details. It’s the rare look at the famously shy and reclusive Stanley Kubrick from one of the few people who actually knew Kubrick and was directly part of the incredible art he created. I don’t think we’ve ever had this kind of insight into Kubrick’s life before and for that alone I could recommend Filmworker.

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Movie Review God Bless the Broken Road

God Bless the Broken Road is sincere and earnest and almost unwatchable in how poorly made it is. Director Harold Cronk is the man who directed God’s Not Dead 1 & 2, a pair of equally unwatchable films that are somehow better than God Bless the Broken Road in spite of themselves. Cronk is among the most ham-fisted, solipsistic, and lazy directors I have seen enjoy mainstream success.

 

God Bless the Broken Road stars Lindsey Pulsipher as Amber Hill, a widow raising a little daughter, Bree (Makenzie Moss), and living in near poverty. The need to work means she has to miss church with her daughter, and yes of course the film shames her deeply for this. At work, her boss is a cliche of the worst sort, an unsympathetic woman who serves the purpose of making Amber’s half-assed Job story.

 

Yes, this is the story of a woman who has everything taken from her and in the process rediscovers her faith. There is nothing wrong with that as a story but God Bless the Broken Road doesn’t approach the idea with the complexity such a story clearly deserves. All Cronk as writer and director here, does is continuously portray the horrors of Amber’s life before rotely returning her to the church for solace and an easy happy ending.

 

Along the way the film throws in a story about a failing a race car driver who is among the worst matched love interests imaginable. As the film portrays Amber as still grieving, desperately working to save her home and with a child she is struggling to spend time with, having a love interest is exactly the wrong idea. That plus the fact that actor Andrew W. Walker is a cheesy block of wood with the charisma of a beige electrical socket.

 

Robin Givens, Jordin Sparks and NFL Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson play good hearted, well-intentioned characters eager to welcome Amber back to the church but their screen time is relatively small and they basically don’t embarrass themselves, perhaps because they don’t have enough time. The one actor who doesn’t stink in this movie is veteran Kim Delaney who overcomes a stock villain character on personality alone.

 

The heavy handed direction of God Bless the Broken Road shoves the plot around with a complete lack of subtlety and nuance. When the director begins to parallel the struggles of the racer on the track and his trouble with love off the track it’s cringeworthy on a ludicrous level. I was genuinely embarrassed for actor Andrew W. Walker having to sell this nonsense and he’s already not great in this movie but this storyline doesn’t make his job easier.

 

The most egregious and ugly moment in God Bless the Broken Road comes early on when Amber skips church and the movie shames her either intentionally or accidentally, the film is so tone deaf, it’s hard to tell. She drops her daughter at church and goes to work and all of her friends look disappointed and the director makes a point of showing the empty seat in church next to her. Here is a woman about to lose her house and the movie makes missing church for work seem like a genuine sin, as if the movie has as little sympathy for her as her boss, her mother in law or seemingly God himself.

 

I utterly loathe God Bless the Broken Road. This movie is utterly brutal, an embarrassingly poorly directed film with an execrable story that appears to shame a struggling single mom for not being pious enough in the wake of the death or her husband. And I haven’t even touched on how the movie exploits our military for cheap sentimentality because I might break keyboard in my flaming, foaming anger.

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Movie Review Peppermint

Peppermint is a pointless and derivative bit of action movie nonsense. Sure, Jennifer Garner is the same badass actress who slayed us on Alias but that show was smart and intricate. Peppermint is little more than a hammer to the head. Director Pierre Morel directs Peppermint with the nuance of a sledgehammer and the artfulness of a drunk Michael Bay. It’s not the worst thing I’ve seen in 2018 but it’s pretty bad.

 

Jennifer Garner plays Riley North, a wife, mother and bank teller living in an idyllic Los Angeles suburb. The family is struggling despite having a lovely home in a well to do neighborhood and so the hubby, Chris (Jeff Hepner), decides a small criminal enterprise might help get them, I guess, a nicer house in the suburbs. Ultimately, he decides not to become a criminal but by then it is too late. A  criminal friend has given up his name and drug dealers are coming to kill him.

 

While the whole family, including daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming), are enjoying a winter carnival they are being stalked by the drug dealers. Then, as dad and daughter are returning to their car, a drive by ensues and they are killed. Riley herself is struck by a bullet but survives. A devastated Riley then takes solace in the fact that she can identify the men who killed her family. Unfortunately, a corrupt judge and prosecutor take that from her and Riley breaks down.

 

Cut to five years later. Riley is now back in Los Angeles and has become a vigilante. She lives on skid row and beats the heck out of anyone who causes trouble there. She has her very own homeless person fan club. All of this is while she is ramping up to kill an entire Los Angeles street gang headed up by Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). Soon, members of the gang are turning up gruesomely murdered and the cop who investigated Riley’s family’s murder, Detective Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr) comes to suspect Riley is to blame.

 

It’s a rather solid narrative when you write it out but in execution, Peppermint is a god-awful mess. Pierre Morel’s choices as a director are utter nonsense, slipping between quick cuts in one action scene and slo-mo in another. He’s like a kid learning how to play director and not the veteran director of the far superior revenge fantasy, Taken. Morel appears to mistake quick cuts and numerous angles for artfulness.

 

Jennifer Garner has rarely been less interesting in a lead role. It’s shocking to watch Garner be pushed along by this idiot movie rather than being the force generating the momentum as she always was on Alias. The performance has no nuance, no inner life beyond grief and revenge. Some might praise how straight-forward that is but it’s dull for anyone who prefers a hero with a brain in there head, especially one played by the former star of Alias, one of the smarter and resourceful heroines of recent television history.

 

Jennifer Garner is way better than this movie. She deserves better than this mindless, artless exercise in genre tropes. She deserves better than being unfavorably compared with Bruce Willis in the remake of Death Wish or the series of meatheads who’ve played The Punisher on the big screen. Garner’s performance is of one singular note and that note, though well played, is grim and artless.

 

The only actor who escapes Peppermint with anything close to a good performance is longtime character actor John Ortiz. Playing the partner of John Gallagher Jr’s detective, Ortiz ingeniously subverts our expectations and plays up the ambiguity of his character before a reveal that legitimately excited me. It was a fleeting excitement, but excitement nevertheless as Ortiz smartly reveals his character.

 

Peppermint is a grisly and grim exercise in action movie nonsense. It wants to play on our emotions by having a grieving mom as David versus a street gang goliath, but it isn’t smart about how to tell that story. Instead, we get a rush of violent scenes that are cut together in a blender and assembled with the rapidity of AK-47. We can barely see the action before it is over and since we can’t get to know the characters or be entertained by them, we’re left to wallow in the grim artlessness of director Morel’s dimwitted revenge fantasy.

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Movie Review The Nun

Thank you to the helpful commenter on my The Sound of Music review who pointed out that I forgot to mention the portrayal of Nun’s in The Blue Brothers and Airplane as good examples of the comic use of Nuns in movies. I also feel I should have addressed those movies as well as the large number of movies that use Nuns as signifiers of trustworthiness by using Nun’s habits as disguises, a Nun sub-genre if you will from movies such as Nuns on the Run.

 

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the latest cinematic portrayal of a Nun in the horror movie The Nun. Here we have an origin story for the evil Nun who has provided some visual terrors in each of the The Conjuring movies. Her frightening visage was the star of the of much of the ad campaign for The Conjuring 2 in 2015. Now, we get to see where she came from and how she came to be the face of the ‘Conjuring Movie Universe.’

 

Taissa Farmiga, sister of Vera Farmiga, who portrays Lorraine Warren in this universe, stars in The Nun as Sister Irene. Sister Irene is a novitiate Nun, meaning a Nun in training. She’s a Nun who has yet to take her vows. Sister Irene is something special, she has visions that have guided her to her place at the side of God. As a child, her visions brought her in contact with a priest who is now a higher up in The Vatican.

 

This is what leads to Sister Irene being paired with Father Burke (Demian Bechir) when the Vatican needs people to travel to a large Abbey in Romania where a Nun has died by her own hand. The townspeople believe there is a curse on the Abbey and warn against anyone traveling there. Only Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) is willing to take them to the Abbey in the midst of a forbidding forest surrounded by an eerie graveyard.

 

Once inside The Abbey, Sister Irene’s visions return and she begins to understand that what happened here was not simply a suicide. Evil is at home in The Abbey which has a dark and fearful history. It will take all of Sister Irene and Father Burke’s faith to face down that evil in the form of a Demonic Nun (Bonnie Aarons) whose gnarled visage is something out your worst nightmares, or would be if the character were genuinely intimidating.

 

Aside from a pretty terrific makeup job, The Nun is not a fearsome character. She’s downright laughable in the context of The Conjuring cinematic universe. She amounts to little more than a prankster who crawls along walls to provide jump scares or pops up in mirrors to provide jump scares or, here in The Nun, she buries one of our lead characters alive but doesn’t simply kill this character though it is obvious that she could.

 

What luck that The Nun buries our lead character on top of a treasure trove of material that will help in defeating her or at least slowing her down for future sequels. That’s why I can’t get behind the movies in The Conjuring cinematic universe, each of these movies is built on similar contrivances. Each film, whether a Conjuring movie or Annabelle or, now, The Nun, is merely a vehicle to propel from one jump scare to the next and I simply need more than that.

 

Jump scare machines aren’t real movies, they are contrived silliness in the form of movies. What truly stinks about The Nun is that both Taissa Farmiga and Demian Bechir are acting their hearts out in service of this machine and their efforts are wasted. Farmiga is a lovely actress with a wealth of innocence and soulfulness. She communicates her intelligence and curious nature effortlessly and as she builds strength in her faith we should be propelled by her through the plot.

 

Instead, she’s working in service of the next machine tooled jump scare, a scene crafted so that noise or gimmickry will induce a visceral response. The jump scare is a tool in the tool belt of a lazy craftsman. It’s something that any director can do but very few can do very well. Leigh Whannell and James Wan, the creators of The Conjuring cinematic universe, have proven adept at the jump scare but their disciples who’ve picked up making the sequels to their work have proven less adept.

 

If you’re like me and you’ve seen hundreds of jump scare based horror movies you’ve likely developed a strong callous against them. I am basically immune to most jump scares and takes one of perfect timing to get a response from me that isn’t a laugh or an eye roll. The last time a jump scare actually got me was Leigh Whannell’s brilliant bit of misdirection in Insidious The Last Key back in January. But, as I said, Whannell is one of the few directors who do jump scares well.

 

Newcomer Corin Hardy, sadly is not adept at the jump scare. His direction of The Nun is hamfisted and lazy. The film looks great and the camerawork is legitimately good but the plot mechanics are grinding away throughout and the factory produced jump scares are of the laughable variety. The timing is lax, the score is predictable and I could not keep from giggling as The Nun popped hither and yon in mirrors and dark hallways.

 

The Nun adds little to the cinematic canon of Nuns in movies. The Nun characters are demure and pious but don’t have much depth beyond Sister Irene who, though exceptionally embodied by Taissa Farmiga, is not a character of much depth. Farmiga helps make the character more interesting because she’s interesting, the script does her few favors. The film has little to nothing to say about faith which it wields as a weapon but little else in the battle against the evil Demon Nun.

 

All of that said, if you enjoyed the movies in The Conjuring cinematic universe, Annabelle and so on, you may enjoy The Nun. I didn’t because I don’t like this kind of movie. I can’t stand the trickster Demon/Ghost characters with the power to move furniture or bury people alive but not the strength to simply get to the point and do what it is they are there to do. What is the Demon Nun here to do? What is her goal? What is her End Game? Why does she turn crosses upside down if she’s so deathly afraid of them? Why does she turn on the radio or turn over furniture?

 

Just once, I would like to see a Demon or Ghost movie where the Demon or Ghost just got down to business and achieved a goal. But that never happens and instead we are left to wonder why the Ghost/Demon broke windows or knocked pictures off of walls. It’s all so silly and pointless and flies in the face of the ‘danger’ we are supposed to fear. What is so fearsome about moving furniture around? Most ghost/demons are minor irritants rather than legitimately frightening in these movies. GAH!

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Movie Review The Sound of Music

With the release of The Nun, the latest prequel in the franchise of The Conjuring cinematic universe, that also includes Annabelle, I thought it would be a perfect time to look at movies starring Nuns. A Nun cinematic universe if you will. What better way to examine the role of the Nun in movies than by reviewing the most successful movie about a Nun of all time, The Sound of Music. Sure, Maria may not be the best Nun but the depiction of Nuns in The Sound of Music may be the best the sisterhood has ever been presented on screen.

 

The Sound of Music stars Julie Andrews as Maria, a Nun who doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the demure, pious and peaceful Nun. Maria is flighty and full life, love and energy that can’t be confined to an Abbey for very long. Indeed, the sisters even have a song dedicated to the difficulties of a problem like Maria. There appears to be no solution for her kind of spirited nature and thus she’s given an assignment far more suited to her than the cloistered life.

 

Maria has been chosen to be the new Governess for the Von Trapp family, headed Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), a successful career military man who runs his home like he’d used to run a ship in the Navy. His seven children are heavily disciplined, always standing at attention and in uniform in their father’s presence. That discipline however, doesn’t appear to extend to their treatment of Governess’s as Maria is the latest in a long line of caretakers, some who only last mere hours before running away from the Von Trapp children.

 

Maria however, is not so easily run off. Rather than let the children run her down, Maria uses her innate kindness and positive spirit to reach the sullen children. She’s especially adept at using music to get through to them and when she sings of her ‘Favorite Things,’ she breaks through the children’s defenses. Soon, Maria is making them play clothes so they may get out of their uniforms and she’s teaching them not just songs, but song structure so they know how to sing as much as what to sing.

 

It’s not just the children that Maria is able to reach either as Captain Von Trapp eventually warms to Maria as well, much to the dismay of The Baroness (Eleanor Parker) who hopes to marry Captain Von Trapp and combine their fortunes and bases of power. The Baroness however isn’t the villain of the movie, despite a couple of questionable things she does. Rather, it’s the looming spectre of World War 2 that comes to dwarf the modest concerns of who wishes to marry whom.

 

I adore the that director Robert Wise treats World War 2. A scene in which Captain Von Trapp rips down a Nazi flag and tears it in half thrills me every time. It’s comforting in this day and age when war no longer has a single recognizable face to remember a time when our enemy was so well known to us. I enjoy seeing a time when hate-mongers weren’t defending depictions of hate symbols as necessary parchments of history and instead were tearing them off the wall and destroying them as they should be destroyed.

 

As for the depiction of Nun’s in The Sound of Music, as I mentioned earlier, this is perhaps the finest depiction of Nuns in movies. The Nuns in The Sound of Music, aside from Maria of course, a loving, kind, godly souls who, in the face of evil do the right thing, even if that right thing requires a modest sin. Is there a more satisfying scene featuring a Nun than the final moments of The Sound of Music? I can’t imagine one.

 

Nun’s in movies tend to range from stodgy and boring to severe and borderline evil to broadly silly and comic. The Sound of Music gives us Nuns who are kind and caring. They provide solace and protection and they express their faith through prayer and through the selfless service to those in need. Unlike something as well known as Sister Act, they are portrayed as silly or foolish or something like Doubt which portrays them as severe and unsympathetic, The Sound of Music gives us Nuns who are ordinary people who happen to be deeply devoted to God. Their faith defines them positively.

 

That’s not to say that something like Meryl Streep’s powerhouse performance in Doubt is wrong or indefensibly severe, but it does play into a Catholic stereotype whether you like it or not. The severe, cruel, punishing Nun whose faith is expressed in stern, uncompromising, discipline, is a trope that has taken hold over decades and likely has led to the horror movie character we’re set to endure in The Nun.

 

I will take my Nun’s with a song in their heart rather than a demon in their soul. Give me The Sound of Music any day over any other cinematic depiction of a Nun. This is the way I want to see Nun’s remembered on screen. The Sound of Music is the best possible tribute to the women who’ve selflessly given their lives to God. It’s a lovely and warm picture of the sisterhood with a nice, heroic flourish at the end as well.

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Movie Review Adrift

Based on a true story, Adrift takes some unique liberties with the real life story of a couple who were lost at sea. Those liberties include a ‘twist’ of sorts that some will find off-putting. I understand where those people are coming from. In a lesser film, the device that is at the heart of Adrift would likely be quite terrible. Thankfully, Adrift is quite a good movie, with a great story and sympathetic characters. The device works because these characters and the actors playing them are so very good.

 

In 1983, Tami Oldham and her fiance Richard Sharp accepted the job of taking a friend’s yacht from  Tahiti to San Diego, a 4000 plus mile journey. During the trip they encounter hurricane Raymond which at the time grew to become one of the biggest hurricanes of its day. Though they smartly attempted to get away from the storm, they could not know that the storm was going to take a turn and begin following them until it swallowed them up.

 

The yacht, named Hazana, was nearly completely destroyed in the storm and Tami was struck on the head by debris while inside the ship leaving her unconscious for 27 hours. When she awoke Richard was gone and the ship was a shambles. Thankfully, Richard was clinging to a busted raft not far from the busted ship and Tami was able to bring him back aboard, despite remarkable injuries to his ribs and legs.

 

Together they attempt to survive in the middle of nowhere with no one looking for them and no way of contacting anyone for help. With Richard injured, Tami has to do all the work of trying to rescue them both and her inner-strength is easily the most compelling part of Adrift. Shailene Woodley communicates both Tami’s vulnerability and remarkable strength with equal flourish. This is unquestionably, Woodley’s finest work since her breakout performance opposite George Clooney in The Descendants.

 

Woodley and Sam Claflin have terrific chemistry. When the film isn’t depicting their struggle to survive, it is flashing back to Tami and Richard’s love story which is quick and passionate and exciting. A scene of the two of them at a remote beach is film with such style that you can’t help but be moved by the beauty of the scene and the romance at its center. It’s a gorgeous piece of work and brings the romantic story on par with the survival drama aboard the boat.

 

Adrift is exceptionally well shot by director Baltasar Kormakur and cinematographer Robert Richardson, who is a three time Academy Award winner. He could win a 4th gold statue for Adrift which effortlessly goes from the peril of the survival story to the gauzy romance without feeling as if the two motifs are at odds. Both stories work and both are captured brilliantly by Kormakur and Richardson with remarkable detail and crispness.

 

Adrift is exciting, romantic, and heartbreaking, a devastatingly good combination. Shailene Woodley delivers an Academy Award level great performance and Sam Claflin is nearly her equal in his supporting performance. Woodley is doing all of the heavy lifting here, selling both the romance and the survival story with her skillful ability to switch gears from sexy and to scared, from breathtaking to breathless. It’s a whirlwind performance and among the best of the year.

 

Adrift is available this week on Blu-Ray and DVD.
 

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Movie Review Hereditary

Hereditary is, thus far in 2018, the best movie of the year. I know it’s early and there are still Oscar bait movies to come, one or two of which will live up to their hype, but Hereditary is very likely to remain my favorite film of the year. I have been a professional film critic for over a decade now and a writer of internet reviews for more than 20 years, and in that time I have seen hundreds of horror movies and become jaded. Hereditary gave me legit chills for the first time since I was a naive kid not hip to the tricks of movie makers.

 

Hereditary stars Toni Collette as Annie, an artist, wife and mother of two. Annie’s mother has just passed away and we watch at the funeral as Annie struggles to find genuine grief for her passing. Mother and daughter had a fraught relationship, as evidenced by Annie’s discernible forced grief and that will be a big part of how the story of Hereditary plays out. While Annie is seeking an understanding of grief, life goes on for her family.

 

Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is loving and supportive of his wife but can’t understand her complex reaction to her mother’s death. Son, Peter (Alex Wolff) is a typically self-centered teen and thus not expected to reckon with his mother’s emotions. And then there is Annie’s daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Charlie appears to be autistic though whether that plays into why she appears to lack empathy for anyone or anything is not for me to say.

 

Charlie is not psychotic or dangerous, although one day she could be, but her obsession with death, expressed only briefly in words but mostly in Milly Shapiro’s remarkably expressive face, is palpably disturbing. Charlie is a breathtaking character. Director Ari Aster gives her an almost supernatural presence and yet her parents and sibling think nothing of her other than caring about her like you would a family member. It’s only us who get a sense that something is deeply wrong with Charlie and it’s nothing to do with her being of special needs.

 

A tragedy plays out once more in this family and that is the catalyst for the scares to come. I will not spoil it here, I will only say that the moment is stunning and left me breathless at the daring and horror of the moment. It is among the boldest moments I have ever seen on film, a scene so shocking that it doesn’t land right away, it punches you in the gut and then holds that punch their, holding you in the grip of breath, before letting you catch yourself before the next blow lands.

 

Ari Aster is a revelatory director, a new and exciting auteurist voice. Hereditary feels like the singular vision of a true visionary with production design detail that only the truly great directors achieve. Watch the way he uses props and furniture in Hereditary. Everything is just so slightly out of scale. There is a slightly too large guitar in one scene, a hallway table that is just slightly oversized. These little touches are intentional and they intend to skewer your perception and keep you off-kilter without having to resort to many camera tricks or showy narrative devices.

 

Toni Collette’s Annie is an artist and she works in miniatures, tiny dioramas of her memories and her everyday life. Annie’s art is the cornerstone of the film’s design and as you watch it evolve and you watch Annie slowly unraveling, the models provide a strange and terrifying insight into Annie’s fraying mental state. Watch the opening scene of Hereditary closely and the remarkable subtlety at play in how the action begins.

 

Toni Collette and Alex Wolff are the standouts of a remarkable cast. Collette’s slow descent into maddening grief is truly terrifying and you will not be able to take your eyes off of here. It’s a gripping and desperate, almost feral at times, performance. Collette is a brave and daring performer and thus the perfect fit for this brave and daring narrative. Alex Wolff on the other hand, is effortlessly brilliant at earning our sympathy. Despite beginning the movie as a self-centered teen, constantly on the verge of being a jerk, Wolff and director Ari Aster find ways to deepen and explore Peter.

 

I adore every inch of Hereditary. It’s a film of incredible detail and that elusive quality of being legitimately frightening. No joke, Hereditary gets into your head and if you’re not into horror movies, you don’t want this movie in your head. Hereditary is shocking, bold, scary and wildly entertaining. It’s filled with remarkable performances, including at least two, possibly three potential Academy Award nominees.


See Hereditary now on Blu-Ray and DVD
 

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Movie Review Operation Finale

Operation Finale is a gripping historical thriller. The story of the Mossad capture of Adolph Eichmann is filled with twists and turns and the kind of drama that movies live for. Directed by Chris Weitz, whose father was rumored to be the model for James Bond after having worked as a World War 2 era spy, Operation Finale is a perfectly calibrated spy story, a captivating peace of suspense and cracking adventure story.

 

Oscar Isaac stars in Operation Finale as Peter Malkin, a spy believed to be past his prime. Malkin was believed to have been damaged by his previous work in hunting Nazis and having once killed the wrong man while trying to kill a well-known Nazi. When Israeli intelligence gets information on the whereabouts Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), it looks as if Peter isn’t going to be chosen for the mission.

 

Adolph Eichmann was known as the architect of the gas chambers. It was said to have been Eichmann’s charge to find the quickest and most efficient way to exterminate Jewish people. His monstrous, callous disregard of basic human decency led directly to the deaths of millions of innocent people. Somehow, he managed to escape Germany amid the chaos of the final days of World War 2 and settled in Buenos Aires where over a decades time, he helped to build a new Nazi party.

 

Operation Finale hinges on Israeli intelligence getting the luckiest of lucky breaks. When a young woman living with her Uncle in Buenos Aires meets a handsome young blonde man, she has no idea that he’s a Nazi or that he is actually Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn), the son of the monstrous Adolph Eichmann. She invites him to dinner where her Jewish Uncle, though blind, recognizes something in the young man’s story and the chase to capture Eichmann begins.

 

Operation Finale, even as it is based on real history, nevertheless has the charge of a great suspense flick. I know the story of Peter Malkin from several documentaries and news stories dating to his passing in 2005. I am aware that Adolph Eichmann was captured and brought to Israel for trial and yet I was riveted by Operation Finale as much as I would have been if I didn’t already know how the story came to an end.

 

Chris Weitz’s direction of Operation Finale is sharp and clever. It’s a clear eyed piece of direction that never muddies the water by trying to make things more artful than necessary. This is a straight-forward suspense movie, it doesn’t need flashy camera moves or odd angles, the camera is stationary and trained on the necessary activities of these characters. The pacing is pitch perfect, there isn’t a single unneeded scene in the movie.

 

Oscar Isaac is fast becoming one of the most reliably excellent actors working today. He can do anything from being a leading man here to being a colorful supporting player in the Star Wars universe to being the villain in something weird and experimental like Ex-Machina. His range is immeasurable as is his talent. His performance in Operation Finale is effortlessly compelling and when he’s forced to confront Kingsley’s monstrous Eichmann the scene is charged with emotion.

 

The scenes between Peter and Eichmann are the best in a movie filled with good scenes. Isaac and Kingsley have tremendous chemistry and the angry charge you get from Isaac holding back his bile while trying to use charm to get Eichmann to agree to go quietly to Israel for trial is remarkably tense and energetic. Kingsley’s style can tend toward going over the top but working against Isaac’s energy that kind of works in Kingsley’s favor. He approaches comic villainy at times but Isaac pulls him back to believability.

 

Operation Finale is a smart, tense, exciting and entertaining piece of historical fiction. Oscar Isaac is a true star, even if his name recognition is still relatively low. He owns the screen and working with a director who gives him the space to perform without stealing the spotlight, Isaac flourishes once more. I greatly enjoyed Operation Finale and I was deeply moved by it as well. It’s a crackerjack suspense movie that yet retains the gravitas to be genuinely moving and tragic.

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Movie Review Tucker The Man and His Dream

Tucker The Man and His Dream is the last time the legendary Francis Ford Coppola delivered something reminiscent to his classic movies, The Godfather 1 & 2, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. Tucker is equally artful and entertaining with a historical flair. Much like how The Godfather films take their entertainment factor from their high level authenticity, Tucker The Man and His Dream feels a proper retelling of history.

 

Jeff Bridges stars in Tucker The Man and His Dream as Preston Tucker, an inventor who rose to prominence by creating innovative items of war for the Allies in World War 2. His innovation in gun turrets for airplanes gave Tucker the seed to move toward his dream of building a brand new car, a safe, reliable car that flies in the face of modern, for the 1940’s and 50’s, car design. A vehicle that is both futuristic yet super-safe.

 

Tucker may be comfortably wealthy but he doesn’t have enough to build his dream car on his own so he seeks out Abe (Martin Landau), a man with access to money and the halls of power in Washington D.C. Abe thinks Tucker is crazy but when he manages to plant an ad in a magazine that creates demand for a car that doesn’t yet exist, Abe can’t resist Tucker’s charming scheming.

 

Tucker’s dream appears to be on track to come true until he runs up against a Michigan Senator named Homer Ferguson. Ferguson is in the pocket of the car industry and because of that he goes out of his way to make things hard for Tucker who is attempting to create the first rival to the big three car companies in decades, something the industry comes together to oppose by any means necessary.

 

There is an attention to period detail in Tucker The Man and His dream that thrills me. The hair, the set design, the color, the light, it all plays into the milieu that Coppola carefully crafts. As I was saying before, authenticity is a big part of what makes Coppola, Coppola and the design of Tucker The Man and his Dream is the last great distillation of Coppola’s artistry. After Tucker, Coppola, though hailed as a legend on par with Lucas and Speilberg, wanders in the woods for years making weird experimental movies and failing mainstream programmers beneath his talent.

 

If I have a quibble at all with the style of Tucker The Man and his Dream, it’s with Coppola’s use of camera perspective to create tension where the scene is too weak to deliver it on its own. You can sense where the weakest parts of Tucker The Man and his Dream are by the way Coppola employs God’s Eye perspective or up from under perspective with the camera framing the action pointing upward. Rarely does it feel natural for Coppola to shoot this way the choice tends to call too much attention to weaker shots or moments in the movie.

 

Jeff Bridges is an electrifying presence in Tucker The Man and His Dream. Bridges is full of life and vitality and combined with his movie star presence, the performance soars. His chemistry with co-star Joan Allen is sexy and thrilling without having the be anything more than PG. The two smolder on screen here in the same way the sparked in dialogue in their underrated re-teaming in The Contender.

 

The supporting cast sadly isn’t as strong as they are mostly underwritten characters in a sea of perhaps too many fighting for screentime. Landau is the only other performer aside from Bridges and his far from bad but he’s no match for Bridge life and energy. Lloyd Bridges does well to hide the cuddliness that made his late career performances so endearing but the character is so minor that he famously didn’t even take a credit despite being the film’s ostensible villain.

 

All of that said, I do find Tucker The Man and His Dream to be high quality entertainment. There is just enough her for the movie to stand, if not next to Coppola’s great films, not far behind them. Tucker The Man and his dream is bold and ambitious and in Jeff Bridges, it has a dynamic star at the top of his movie star game. The film is now available on special edition Blu Ray for the very first time and it is very much worth picking up for both Coppola and Bridges completists.

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Movie Review Kin

Kin reminded me so much of the mishmash mush that was AXL that I half expected the robot dog would be part of the film’s big twist. Like AXL, Kin is two movies grafted into one for reasons only the screenwriters could begin to explain. Instead of robot dogs and motorcycles, we get family drama and aliens(?). Oh and we get a so bad it's brilliant performance from James Franco who appears to be experimenting with becoming Christopher Walken in his next reinvention.

 

Kin stars Myles Truitt as Eli and Jack Reynor as his troubled brother Jimmy who is fresh out of jail when we meet him. Eli and Jack’s dad Hal (Dennis Quaid) is not crazy about his son’s return home and his suspicions appear correct when Jack falls back in with criminals, this time it’s the guy who saved him in prison, a nutbar named Tay (James Franco). Tay claims that Jack owes him $60,000 for protecting him in prison and he wants to collect.

 

This leads Jack to get on the road out of town and he decides to take Eli with him. After promising Eli that the trip was their father’s idea, it wasn’t, Jack takes his little brother on a road trip of a lifetime including all the soda the kid can drink, sneaking the 14 year old into a strip club, where they meet a new friend named Milly (Zoe Kravitz) and eventually on to Las Vegas where they get a room for the night and enjoy the glamour.

 

Oh, did I mention that aliens may also be part of this plot? Sorry, I forgot, just as the movie tends to forget until it’s convenient. Eli has a side gig where he steals copper wire from burned out old buildings and sells it for scrap. In one of these ancient buildings, Eli finds a bunch of corpses and what appears to be some kind of alien ray gun. When he touches it, the gun bonds to Eli and from then on, only he can carry it and fire it. And fire it he does.

 

Just as the dirt bike racing in AXL was the plot of one movie and the robot dog was part of another movie that were Frankenstein’ed together into a new less powerful and quite terrible movie, the plots of Kin appear similarly stitched. A family drama involving crime and runaway kids is somehow stitched together with an alien invasion plot. Neither plot is very compelling and together they are a sloppy mess.

 

Poor Myles Truitt has earnest qualities that make him quite likable. It’s a shame that this is his starring role. Truitt is left out to dry by a narrative that doesn’t know where to pull the kid next. He’s adept in the family drama scenes but he lacks the appropriate sense of awe in the laser gun scenes. He appears to approach theses scenes a little too matter-of-fact like. Occasionally, the kid just looks tired and while that may have some context, it’s not very entertaining.

 

The only truly entertaining thing about Kin, aside from the high level goofiness of the plot, is James Franco. Many will be surprised to know that James Franco is in Kin. That may be because his role was not much publicized, owing perhaps to his having been swept up in sexual harassment charges back in December of 2017. Well, I can tell you that James Franco is in Kin and his performance is completely insane.

 

Franco plays Tay, a gang leader, drug dealer who appears to cut his own hair and has an affinity for all things acid washed. You can sense a very Nicolas Cage/Christopher Walken thing happening with Franco here where he has little interest in the plot and is only interested in his bits of business and cheesy monologuing. There is one scene in which he is denied the use of a men’s room at a small town gas station and his reaction is priceless.

 

Franco, like those of us punching our way through the nonsense that is Kin, is not the least bit interested in the plot or the other characters in the movie. He’s experimenting with style and dialogue. I can’t say that the experiment works as it doesn’t really improve the movie but he is the most interesting part of the movie so there is that. If I am a director of a movie that doesn’t appear to have much going for it I might approach Franco and invite him to riff a performance just to see what we might get out of it. That appears to have been his idea with being in Kin.

 

Kin is quite a bad movie. The performances, aside from Franco, are flat to the point of lifelessness, the plot is nonsense and the action is barely adequate for a feature film. Then there is the laugh out loud ‘twist’ ending. Oh my, the big star cameo at the end of this movie must have owed the director a BIG favor. The silliness of this ending is almost Roger Corman/Ed Wood levels of madness. I was roused from my stupor by this goofiness if only for a few moments so that I could giggle just a little at how much nonsense the movie can squeeze into the final moments.

 

It’s rather glorious but sadly, not enough for me to recommend Kin.

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