Movie Reviews Archives for 2018-11

Movie Review The Possession of Hannah Grace

The Possession of Hannah Grace stars Shay Mitchell, one of the stars of TV’s Pretty Little Liars, as Megan, a former police officer now working the graveyard shift at a Boston area morgue. Megan lost her partner tragically in a moment when Megan hesitated and didn’t shoot an armed suspect. The moment haunted her to the point of driving her toward alcoholism and abuse of prescription drugs. 

 

Today, Megan is still haunted by her partner’s death but she’s in AA and recovering. Megan’s sponsor, Lisa (Castle star Stana Katic), got her the morgue job and since she also works there, she keeps a close eye on her newly sober friend. Megan will be spending many long nights by herself in the creepy basement level morgue so having someone to occasionally look on Megan and make sure she hasn’t gone crazy isn’t a bad thing. 

 

Right off the bat The Possession of Hannah Grace strikes a creepy tone. We start the movie not with Megan but with the titular Hannah Grace who we never really meet. Hannah is possessed by an unnamed and very powerful demon. The demon murders one of the priests during its exorcism by impaling his skull on a cross. The special effect is bad but the impact is strong enough story-wise to indicate the power of the demon. 

 

The film then, quite interestingly, flashes a graphic that says 3 months later. We’re left to wonder, where is Hannah Grace now? Grace’s father murdered Grace at the end of the exorcism so where has her body been for 3 months? We will get a sense of that eventually but first a handsome and funny EMT, played by comedian Nick Thune, drops off Hannah’s body with Megan in the morgue and the strange occurrences begin to ramp up. 

 

The Possession of Hannah Grace comes from international director Diederik Van Roojien in his American feature debut. This director’s strengths do not lie with special effects which throughout The Possession of Hannah Grace are hilariously low grade. I mentioned the impaling early on as an example. That scene is cartoonishly, garishly bad with fuzzy images and poor acting combining to get a big laugh without intending to be funny in any way. 

 

The special effects, thankfully, are only a minor issue. The film actually makes up for the low grade effects with some top notch creepy sound design. The sound of bones cracking and snapping reminded me of the stomach turning work in the Saw movies. Sean Kennelly was the lead foley artist on the movie and he deserves a lot of praise for nailing the creepiest sounds for the way Hannah Grace crackles and pops as she stalks the morgue or is being exorcised. 

 

If you have a weak stomach, the sound design and editing of The Possession of Hannah Grace could be triggering for you. The cracking of bones and the buzzing of flies are amped up to a disturbing degree. Actress Kirby Johnson is a special effect in her own right with the ways she’s able to contort her body and face in the creepiest possible manner. Johnson has a very limited part with minimal dialogue but she manages to make a strong physical impression. 

 

The Possession of Hannah Grace is not a movie you need to rush out to see in theaters. But, if you are looking for a streaming option once it makes the move to home video, probably in February or so, of 2019, you could do a lot worse than picking this demon based horror flick. The Possession of Hannah Grace is a solid effort in a tired genre that doesn’t recycle every cliche, just a sizable portion of them. 

 

Lower your standards and turn off your brain and you may find something to enjoy about The Possession of Hannah Grace which is in theaters nationwide this week. 


Movie Review Mirai

Mirai may be the best challenger to Ralph Breaks the Internet in the race for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. This minimalist, dreamy, family drama from director Mamoru Hosoda evokes the best works of Hayao Miyazaki and it’s not merely because they share Asian characteristics. Like the best of Miyazaki’s work, Hosada’s Mirai is a deeply humane and human work brimming with empathy, wonder and humor. 

 

Mirai tells the story of 4 year old Kun. Heretofore an only child, Kun appeared to be excited about having a sibling when mom and dad left for the hospital, leaving him with his grandmother. But, now that the baby, Mirai, is home and getting all of mom and dad’s attention, Kun is not happy. In fact, Kun openly states that he hates Mirai. Being that he is 4 years old his words don’t carry much weight but he appears to mean it as much as he is capable of understanding complex emotions. 

 

Kun’s journey will be about learning to accept the world as it is and not as he wants it to be and that journey is filled with wonder and imagination. Having had a fight with his mother, Kun retreats to his backyard which finds overtaken by a bizarre fantasy world. Here, Kun meets his dog Yuko, but in human form. Yuko tells Kun that he felt the same way about Kun when he came along and replaced Yuko as the center of the parent’s world. 

 

Yuko, being the soul of a dog, doesn’t have much insight beyond what I just mentioned but he’s mostly a way of introducing these remarkable fantasy sequences. The standouts of the fantasy sequences come when Kun meets Mirai from the future, as a teenage girl. Mirai needs Kun’s help because she can’t be seen by their dad. The consequences are unseen on screen but the sense of the dangers of time travel are brushed over in a lovely, writerly way. 

 

Kun has two more huge encounters that will help him to shape who he will become but I won’t reveal those here, you need to see the movie. These formative daydreams have an urgency and vitality that is missing from many of modern Hollywood’s animated creations, outside of Pixar, of course. The dreamy animation and the loosely flowing story that floats in time and, in one beautiful scene, floats in space spreading a sort of euphoria over the audience as it goes. 

 

The animation of Mirai is first rate and the English language cast is first rate. John Cho gives voice to Kun’s father and Rebecca Hall is the voice of Kun’s mother. Hall’s ability to communicate warmth and tenderness and be almost comically cruel can be a tad jarring but there is a reason for her unique portrayal that comes out in another fantasy sequence, equally a must see as the others I have alluded to. 

 

Mirai is showing as a limited engagement in the Quad Cities this weekend and will be made available for on-demand streaming in a few weeks.


Movie Review Boy Erased

Boy Erased is a powerful, infuriating, and compelling work. This based on a true story drama from writer-actor-director Joel Edgerton tells a very effective story in a straightforward and properly dramatic fashion, but the story just happens to tap a deep well of disdain in me, not toward the movie, but toward the subject. As a long time supporter of gay rights, love to my gay brothers and sisters, Boy Erased made my blood boil just as it intended to. 

 

Boy Erased stars Academy Award nominee Lucas Hedges as Jared Eamons, a pretty typically Texas kid. He plays sports, he has a pretty girlfriend, he has a job at his dad’s car dealership and when his dad preaches at the local church, Jared is in the front row. However, Jared has a secret: he’s begun having sexual thoughts about men and believes that he may be a homosexual. Jared’s father, Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) does not take this news well. 

 

Jared is pulled out of college for a 2 week course in Dallas, Texas at a clinic, of sorts. It’s a gay conversion facility where counselors attempt to turn healthy homosexual men and women into unhappy, repressed and pretending heterosexuals. Sorry, that’s that not how the ‘therapy’ staff sees it, I was editorializing. The idea of Gay Conversion Therapy makes me so angry I can barely see straight. Gay is not something that needs to be fixed or prayed away. 

 

This is a hardline for me, I realize this opinion makes people uncomfortable but my beloved cousin is a gay man and I love him and if anyone tried to send him to a place like this, I would burn it to the ground. I cannot abide discrimination against gay people. I will not abide it. I won’t accept that gay people have less rights than we straight people. I will not listen to you if you say gay is a choice. I will not allow you to denigrate people like my cousin with your ignorance. 

 

That’s a tangent from the movie but I needed to get that out there. I am passionate about this issue, it’s damn sure personal to me. That’s why I love this movie. It’s personal to the filmmakers, the stars and especially to the people who wrote this story in the first place. The story in Boy Erased is based on the real life experience of Garrard Conley who survived one of these gay conversion therapy place and barely lived to tell. 

 

He was subjected to emotional and physical abuse in a place like the one we see in the movie. Conley even had a friend who took his own life because of the emotional abuses inflicted upon him while in one of these insidious facilities. Why is it we think torturing people is the most effective way to fix behaviors we don’t care for? What is it in human nature that drives his horrifying impulse? Boy Erased only raises that question, because no one has a good answer. 

 

Joel Edgerton directs Boy Erased with an easy confidence. Edgerton has found his stride as a filmmaker so quickly we’re left to wonder where he finds time to also be an actor. He’s among the most talented people in Hollywood today as a writer-director-actor and producer. He chooses great material, first the thrilling and ingenious, The Gift, and now this remarkably powerful and deeply affecting drama, Boy Erased. 

 

Edgerton is aided by a cast that is bursting with Oscar flavor. Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, who plays Jared’s mother in Boy Erased, each have an Academy Award and Lucas Hedges is on his way to winning an Oscar one day, he already has one nomination on his resume. Kidman is perhaps the biggest revelation here as she is stuck in the middle of the storm between the husband and son she loves equally. Kidman also has a powerhouse scene late in the film where she gets real with Jared in vulnerable and beautiful fashion. 

 

The direction is impeccable, the acting is top notch and Boy Erased is one of the best movies of 2018. It’s certainly one of the movies of the year that I won’t forget anytime soon and that sticky quality, the ability to be both relevant and memorable should give you an idea of just how great Boy Erased truly is.


Movie Review Searching

2018 has seen some remarkable experiments in form. Steven Soderbergh’s ingenious thriller Unsane was filmed on multiple IPhones and crafted one of the most exciting and suspenseful movies of the year. And, the movie we’re talking about today, Searching, from director Aneesh Chaganty, ranks right alongside Unsane as a terrific experiment in form and as a thriller. The film was shot entirely from the perspective of a computer monitor. That sounds as if it would be a tough watch but Searching is so much better than you think it is.

 

Searching stars John Cho as David Kim, a devoted father and a recent widower. David dotes on his daughter, Margo (Michelle La), mostly via video chat and social media messenger. Margot is an over-achiever, or at least that’s what David believes. Soon he will come to find he doesn’t know his daughter as well as he thought he did. Searching is not just an experiment in form, it’s a challenging subject for parents who might want to take a closer look at their kids on social media.

 

After some mundane exchanges about taking out the garbage and money set aside for piano lessons we get to the meat of the plot. Margot is supposed to be studying late with friends but then, she doesn’t come home. We see, in the middle of the night, David gets a pair of skype calls from Margot but he misses them, he’s asleep. When he wakes and calls Margot, she doesn’t answer and when he finds she’s not at school, he calls the police.

 

So much of Searching is just John Cho’s worried face and it is a testament to his charisma and star power that Searching is so compelling. Cho’s frantic expression is engrossing and his search for clues is our search for clues. Instead of being over his shoulder as he searches, we’re in his computer following the evidence that he gathers via Margot’s computer, her social media, her bank account and her phone.

 

The mystery of Margot’s whereabouts is riveting and the shooting style, that inside the computer screen looking out perspective, feels urgent and exhilarating. It’s exactly what you and I would be doing in the same situation. Scouring social media, opening our kids computers and digging through their email for any digital trail they may have left. What David finds is what any of us might find if we investigated a typical teenager and the mystery of whether Margot ran away or was kidnapped raises the stakes throughout the story as evidence tips one way and then the other.

 

Searching is one of the least talked about success stories of 2018. The film was made for a budget of $1 million dollars and the film grossed over $70 million dollars, making it one of the best return on investment movies of the year. That the film also happens to be a tremendous work of art makes Searching truly admirable. And, now that the film is available on Blu-Ray and DVD it should only become more successful.

 

Indeed, television may add a dimension to the movie in some ways, making the experience more intimate, like looking at your own computer. The theatrical experience of Searching worked but this is one of the rare movies where home video may enhance the experience. That’s saying something considering Searching is already a really great movie. I can’t recommend it enough for the high level mystery and John Cho’s brilliant performance.

 

Searching should inspire modern filmmakers to take more chances with form. This film and Unsane are rare among modern movies, taking advantage of modern tech to create a whole new genre of movies that I expect is still in infancy and will only become a bigger genre over time. Unsane will likely be the more influential of these movies but Searching demonstrates boundaries in form that can be pushed and that will undoubtedly have a legacy.


Movie Review Blindspotting

Blindspotting is a stunningly modern, of the moment movie. Directed by first time feature director Carlos Lopez Estrada and written by and starring Daveed Diggs, Blindspotting attacks our moment in time with a powerful story of race, crime. Fear and getting by. Set in Oakland, the film makes the changing city a character as well as Silicon Valley spills outward, gentrification feels like a threat, not exactly the worst threat these characters face. 

 

In Blindspotting Daveed Diggs stars as Collin, an Oakland twenty-something with just three days left on his probation. Collin spent several months in jail and has spent the past year in a halfway house but in three days he’s free. All he has to do is stay out of trouble. This is harder than it seems as Collin’s best friend, Miles (Rafael Casal) appears determined to locate trouble. One of the first scenes in the movie finds Miles, with Collin unwittingly in tow, buying a gun. 

 

Miles says it is to protect his family but Collin doesn’t care, he just wants to never see it and hope that he doesn’t get in trouble for being near it. The two men have been friends since childhood and it was Miles who came to see Collin in jail every week and gave him money and generally looked after him. Miles makes this very clear in conversations about Collin’s ex-girlfriend and current boss at a moving company, Val (Janina Gavankar). 

 

But that isn’t the story. One night after dropping off Miles and returning the moving truck to the company, Collin sees a young black man run past his truck, followed by a white police officer (Ethan Embry). The officer shoots the man in the back as the young man yells ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!.’ Collin and the cop lock eyes for a moment before other cops arrive and Collin is told to leave the scene. 

 

You think you know where Blindspotting might be headed after that but you will be surprised. The film is rarely about the shooting. The full breadth of this story is about the shooting but it’s about it in a much wider context of racism in general. The shooting is endemic of the larger problem at the heart of American race relations. It’s about how we see each other, the assumptions we make and how we fail to question those assumptions. 

 

Blindspotting features one of the best scenes of 2018. I won’t spoil it for you, it’s the ending of the movie. Daveed Diggs is known for his stage performance as Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton and he takes some of that Hamilton stage skill and bring it to this powerful scene in which he raps about all that we’ve seen before in the film and in the life experience of the character. It’s stagy, yes, but I could not rip myself away from it. 

 

The scene is incredibly powerful and director Carlos Lopez Estrada deserves a lot of credit for the staging of the scene. He creates a suspenseful ticking clock using a security system that keeps the scene incredibly tense throughout on top of Daveed Diggs’ incredible monologue. Rafael Casal’s Miles is only a witness in the scene but even how he’s used plays into the deep emotions of the scene, his face is indelible in the moment. 

 

The use of close-ups in Blindspotting is also quite powerful. A scene where Collin is walking down an empty street with a gun in his pocket and a cop pulls u-turn is punctuated by a close-up of Diggs’ face in the bright light of a police spotlight and then darkness. It’s a minor scene but it is filled with a remarkable level of emotion and that close-up is stunning. There are other powerful close-ups as well in the shooting scene and in that powerhouse ending that I talked about. 

 

Blindspotting is a testament to the powerful words of Daveed Diggs who wrote the screenplay and stars and to director Carlos Lopez Estrada who found a terrific way to introduce himself to feature filmmaking. This is an arresting, fascinating, suspenseful and emotional movie. Diggs and Casal use their friendly dynamic to make the movie less oppressive and more watchable than my description, the film does loosen its grip to let you breath and even laugh but, for the most part this is a tightly wound and engrossingly modern drama. 


Movie Review Scrooged (1988)

Scrooged starring Bill Murray was released in theaters 30 years ago this weekend, (November 23rd to 25th)

 

It’s strange, as much as I admire Bill Murray, I haven’t been much of a fan of his many movies. I like them but rarely love them. I have a rather controversially low opinion of Groundhog Day that many have argued with me over and, as for the rest of Murray’s oeuvre, the only Murray movie I watch regularly is Lost in Translation. I like Ghostbusters but I might as well hate it because in the internet age if you don’t LOVE Ghostbusters, apparently you don’t like it at all. 

 

So if I don’t love Bill Murray’s work then where am I on Scrooged? I may not LOVE most of Bill Murray’s film work but I really do like Scrooged. In fact, of all of the awful Christmas movies out there, and I have suffered more than my share, Scrooged is the one I can watch more than once. You can have your A Christmas Story, your gross-out Christmas Vacation and even the over-played It’s A Wonderful Life, Scrooged is the only Christmas movie I can truly get behind. 

 

Scrooged stars Bill Murray as television executive Frank Cross. Frank is evil. He’s a truly bad guy. Much of the first act of Scrooged finds Murray comically over-doing Frank’s villainy, most notably at the expense of the hapless Elliott Lowdermilk (Bobcat Goldthwaite) an underling Frank fires the day before Christmas. Elliott’s crime? He criticized Frank’s promo for their live broadcast of Scrooge which attempts to terrify viewers into watching the broadcast. 

 

Frank Cross is a perfect candidate for a Christmas haunting. He has family he never sees, an assistant he mocks and verbally abuses (Alfre Woodard), especially when she needs to take her son to the doctor rather than stay and work, and a former love, Claire (Karen Allen) who still thinks there is good in him. From here, the story plays out just like the story of Ebenezer Scrooge but with terrific gags and a performance by Bill Murray that sets Scrooged apart from its source material. 

 

Murray is electric in the role of Frank Cross. From the first moment on screen he is dominant and over the top. The comic evil of the start of the movie never fails to get laughs and the slow build toward his transformative epiphany, dotted by terrific cameos by David Johanson and Carol Kane as ghosts, is absolutely inspired. The trips into Frank’s past are beautifully played and the present set scenes with Carole Kane are some of the best physical comedy of Murray’s career. I adore the Murray and Kane sequence in this movie and wish it had been longer somehow. 

 

Bobcat Goldthwait also turns in another terrific cameo in a movie stuffed with high end cameos. Goldthwait’s lovably pathetic Elliott is the subject of a terrific running gag that never fails to get a laugh. When Elliott comes back late the film with a shotgun in hand the dark humor is loud and hysterically felt. Goldthwait and Murray have terrific chemistry in their brief moments as a comic duo in Scrooged. 

 

We must also pay tribute to the great Robert Mitchum in a completely, unexpectedly perfect small role. Playing the boss of Frank’s network, Mitchum is delightfully clueless whether he’s talking about Dormice or how cats and dogs are beginning to watch television. Mitchum is known for his work in far more serious and often intimidating roles. I was delighted to see his soft comic touch in Scrooged. 

 

The fact of the matter is, I don’t like Christmas movies and I am not much of a fan of Bill Murray movies, aside from Lost in Translation, (Bill Murray Movies as defined as films centered on a Bill Murray character, not his cameos or supporting work) so for me to say I really enjoy Scrooged is saying something. I adore Scrooged. Among the movies of Bill Murray’s career where he’s playing a variation on a Bill Murray type of character, it’s by far my favorite of his work. 

 

Scrooged is available On-Demand via Starz 


Movie Review Green Book

Green Book is a charmer. This based on a true friendship story about a working class Italian schmoozer and one of the finest piano players in the world, is notable in many ways but most specifically for the unique performance of Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali who delivers a performance of such peculiar specificity that the real life man is almost rendered fully unnecessary to the story. 

 

I can’t say whether Ali is bringing Dr Don Shirley to life on screen but Ali is bringing someone to life on that screen and that life is lively, mannered, colorful and fascinating. I could not take my eyes off of him and this study of his life is quite entertaining if not all that informative about a figure from music history who has been lost to time for many of us. I’m slightly ashamed to say, as something of a professional appreciator, I had never heard of Dr Don Shirley.

 

Green Book stars Mahershala Ali as Dr Don Shirley, a world class musician who is about to embark on a tour. It’s 1962 and Dr Shirley has been booked on a tour of the deep south. Even with his pedigree and success, even Dr Shirley has to be careful of traveling through the south. The civil rights era is still burgeoning and despite only being just over a half a century from where we are now, there were places in the south where black people were not allowed to be. 

 

Dr Shirley needs security and a driver and through channels he meets Tony ‘The Lip’ (Viggo Mortensen). Tony has just lost gig as security at the Copacabana while the club is being renovated. A job driving Dr Shirley around through the end of theear fits perfectly into the time he will be unemployed. Tony has no idea what he’s getting himself into. A bit of racist himself, Tony underestimates what Dr Shirley is facing as the two begin their trip. 

 

The Green Book of the title was a real artifact of the time. It was created by black people as a way to help other black people travel in the south. It contained restaurants, hotels and rest stops where black people could go without breaking Jim Crow Laws. It's horrific that such a thing had to exist but many artists like Dr Don Shirley could not have gotten around without it as Green Book the movie makes very clear. 

 

I will leave you to discover where the story goes from there. I will tell you one of the flaws of Green Book is that, though I have framed the story through the character of Dr Shirley, the movie is from the perspective of Tony. This is a choice made specifically for us in the audience. We need to identify with Tony to get a perspective on the racial divide.Tony’s effort to understand Dr Shirley and his coming to respect his strength and character, is a good journey. Nevertheless, Dr Shirley is the more interesting character. 

 

Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Tony is really solid. He lays on the accent a little thick and much of his acting appears to come from putting a little weight on his once chiseled mid-section, but he does well to evoke a working class Italian guy. I bought into the character, I came to like the little quirks of Mortensen’s performance, his Italian-isms are broad to the point of caricature at times but I found it charming for the most part and when we get to the tougher parts of this story, I appreciated the chops that Mortensen brought to the dramatic moments. 

 

Is the film a tad soft in how it presents aspects of Dr Shirley's life and the experience of many black people from this time period in the south? Yes. Does it shy away from larger truths about these characters? Yes, but liked the way the film layered in details about Dr Shirley’s private life. I respected the restraint it must have taken not to dwell on his private details. The story being told here is about this unique friendship in telling that story the film is very straight forward. Tony wasn’t much part of the other part of Dr Shirley’s life. 

 

I enjoyed the love and compassion at the heart of this story. Ultimately, this is a movie about evolving as a person, opening your heart to other life experiences and coming to understand someone who may never have any of the same experiences as you and you still find love for each other. It’s relatively simple but I think that is what the movie is going for. Something simple and modest. In that narrow perspective, Green Book works. 

 

Green Book has a good humor to it. These are lovely characters whose friendship is really interesting. It shines a light on how unexpected people can enter each other’s lives and have a profound positive effect. It’s about opening up your heart to people, offering compassion and becoming a genuinely better person for your effort. The film is modest, it doesn’t delve too far into the darkness and for some, that will be a flaw. For me, I am going to stay focused on the story the movie is telling and not the one it might tell.

 

The story Green Book is telling is quite well told and I highly recommend it.


Movie Review Robin Hood (2018)

Robin Hood is among the most ill-conceived blockbuster action movies in history. The attempt by Hollywood to sex up and modernize the Robin Hood legend is sad and desperate instead of new and cool. Director Otto Bathurst, a veteran of numerous popular TV shows, botches Robin Hood so badly your left to wonder if it was intended as serious or as parody. The film is riddled with so many genre cliches that parody feels like a genuine possibility. 

 

We begin just as the crusades are getting underway. Young noble, Lord Robin of Locksley (Taron Egerton) is madly in love with a peasant girl named Marion (Eve Hewson). Their love affair is interrupted when Robin is drafted into the Crusades by the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn). He leaves and finds himself somewhere in the Middle East where the film becomes a straight up, modern war movie. 

 

This sequence is laughable with arrows that destroy walls more effectively than most bullets and fly at a rate that only cartoon arrows have ever flown before. Cartoon is an appropriate metaphor here because the arrows are a laughable example of bad CGI. Here, Robin Hood plays out a sequence that is a remarkable cliche from every moden, Iraq war era war movie. An arrow shooting machine gun has the crusaders pinned down and only Robin can get to him to shut down that arrow gun. 

 

This sequence made me laugh embarrassingly loud. The creators of Robin Hood believe they are bringing Robin Hood into a more modern context but the attempt fails miserably due to the remarkable series of incongruencies and anachronisms. On top of this, the idea that Robin was ‘drafted’ ruins the idea of Robin as a noble man disillusioned by what he thought was a just war. Instead, you just have Robin as a bratty dilettante who happens to be the only Englishman with a conscience. Here the movie tries to be a Vietnam movie and once again, I was embarrassed for myself laughing and for the actors selling this nonsense. 

 

During this sequence Robin meets John (Jamie Foxx), a middle eastern fighter who sees Robin as someone in a position of privilege that could be to his advantage. Stowing away on the ship taking an injured Robin back to England, John seeks out Robin and unfolds the plot. They will train and become thieves and steal the fortune of the Sheriff of Nottingham, disrupting the funds needed to continue the Crusades. 

 

In his time away, the Sheriff has condemned and burned Robin’s home and announced him as having been killed in the war. Because of this, Marion has left and moved on and is now in a relationship with WIll Scarlett (Jamie Dornan). Marion is also secretly conspiring with Friar Tuck to uncover a piece of information that will take down the Sheriff and his supporters among the corrupt Church of England. 

 

Could any of this nonsense have worked? Maybe, there are a lot of elements in play, plenty of complexities that could be explored. Sadly, the script for Robin Hood is so dopey that it botches everything from beginning to end. There is a conspiracy plot at the center of the movie involving the Church and the Sheriff and it’s all complete nonsense. There is a plot involving stealing documents that then play no role whatsoever in how the story plays out. 

 

The documents prove a plot that the sheriff is involved in but he’s already robbing and killing the people of Nottingham, do they really need a conspiracy to want to stand against him? The unneeded nonsense piled into this story only serve to drag things out in remarkably ill-conceived. At one point a character played by the wonderful F. Murray Abraham arrives and appears solely so that he can help Ben Mendelsohn deliver one of the dumbest talking killer monologues in the history of talking killer monologues. 

 

Because the script is so incredibly dumb and the plot is so remarkably convoluted, the actors are rendered silly throughout. The cast carries out actions that are mostly nonsensical, as if the plot were being written and rewritten mid-scene and all they can do is try to minimize how confused they appear to be. Poor Eve Hewson is the most let down by the nonsense script as Marion appears capably inept, able to steal useless information and just as quickly deliver dialogue dismissing the importance of what she just risked her life to steal. 

 

I must mention the anachronistic costumes as well. Wow! Leather bars don’t have leather as lovely and durable as they had in the era of The Crusades, several hundred years before leather was even invented. The sheriff wears a gray leather duster that I am pretty sure you could buy at a store for well over a thousand dollars. I realize that the suspension of disbelief is required but the modern touches brought to this story are never justified. 

 

Set the film in alternate universe, include magic or monsters, or make it a fairy tale universe, do something to establish a universe where the ludicrous anachronisms aren’t so silly looking. The filmmakers do nothing to make this a believable period in human history and yet it uses history, i.e the Crusades as a touchstone. I am being unnecessarily pedantic about something as dimwitted as Robin Hood but I am trying contextualize my reaction to this movie which was repeated, embarrassed giggles. 

 

These giggles were not intended. The movie doesn’t want to be laughed at but I could not help myself. The laughable script, the awful CGI, the ludicrously faux cool costumes made me repeatedly burst into giggles I found hard to stifle. I was laughing at the movie and not with it and it was not fun. I didn’t go to this movie to laugh, I wanted it to be the adventure that the marketing promised but no, it’s just all so terrible, so hysterically terrible. 

 

Robin Hood is one of the most laughably inept bad movies of 2018. 


Movie Review Creed 2

Sylvester Stallone is perhaps the most frustrating actor on the planet. Much like an Adam Sandler, we know how talented Stallone is, but we can never understand why they so often do not use that talent. Movies like Creed and Creed 2 are my thesis statements for how Stallone is and has been a remarkable talent throughout his career. It could just be that the character of Rocky Balboa gives Stallone a kick in the pants but I believe he’s just a great performer who chose to chase paychecks at the expense of his talent. 

 

Creed 2 is not Rocky’s story but damned if Stallone doesn’t once again steal the show from his young counterpart Michael B. Jordan, a talented young actor in his own right. Rocky is how the first Creed came to be and Rocky remains the driving force of the franchise even as he’s only a supporting player. Stallone invests deeply in Rocky and his performance lifts the film well past any sports movie cliches and into a realm of excellence. 

 

Creed 2 begins with ur hero Adonis Creed at his most successful. Adonis is in the ring fighting for the World Heavyweight Championship with Rocky in his corner. Creed is focused and determined and while he’s not dominating his opponent, he’s outclassing him with his technique and just like that, Adonis Creed is the champ. Most sports movies build to this point but Creed has other lessons to impart and thus the title fight is only the beginning. 

 

Somewhere in the Ukraine, in bombed out gyms on the edge of bombed out towns we see a familiar old face. Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is at ringside with his monster of a son Viktor Drago (Florian Monteanu) in the ring hurting people. In the crowd is a promoter named Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) who has gone all the way to the Ukraine because he could smell money. The idea of Creed versus Drago is one few shyster promoters could pass up. 

 

For the uninitiated, Ivan Drago is the fighter who killed Apollo Creed in the boxing ring in 1986, as depicted in Rocky 4. Sensing a media sensation, Marcelle returns to Philadelphia with the Drago’s in tow intending to get a big payday by antagonizing Adonis Creed into a fight. The ruse works despite Rocky refusing to be in Adonis’ corner for the bout and the title will be defended. What happens next you should see for yourself when you see Creed. 

 

There are elements here that don’t quite work so let’s get those out of the way quickly. The character of Buddy Marcelle is a giant waste of time. I like actor Russell Hornsby but the way he’s filmed in the movie places a weight and importance on him that isn’t part of the movie. Director Steven Caple Jr makes Marcelle appear important with portentous cuts to him watching Creed’s title fight and him watching Drago in the Ukraine. 

 

Marcelle has one scene with Adonis Creed in which he taunts Creed with why he thinks Adonis has to take the fight and then he’s pretty much done for the movie. He’s entirely worthless. At a certain point in the movie, Ivan Drago becomes the guy pushing for the fight to happen and Marcelle is a shadow of a character. Why was such importance placed on him? He was kind of a plot bridge but the movie could happen entirely without him. 

 

Thankfully, that’s my main gripe with Creed 2. One unnecessary and poorly crafted character doesn’t ruin the movie. It just stuck in my brain a little and bugged me. The rest of Creed 2 is far better constructed. The film settles on questions of fathers and sons, of pride and vanity. Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis is playing out the insecurities his character via boxing and ego. It’s a wonderfully well motivated performance of complex and involving emotions. 

 

Michael B. Jordas is as strong as you expect him to be, considering what a great run he’s on having soared into super-stardom in Black Panther earlier this year. What I found unexpected was the performance of Sylvester Stallone who is better than ever as Rocky. This war horse character has aged brilliantly and Creed 2 gives us a sense of the entire scope of Rocky’s life in just a few short scenes. 

 

Adonis fights Drago twice in Creed 2 and Rocky makes both fights even more compelling with how he is portrayed. Rocky watching the first fight is heart rending and him getting Creed ready for the second fight is exciting and powerful to the point where the outcome of the fight doesn’t matter. By then the lessons have been learned and the fight is a glorious exclamation point on, arguably, the best training sequence in any boxing movie ever. 

 

No joke, I thought the young man sitting next to me was going to go jump into a fight immediately after the movie just from being so pumped up by this killer sequence. This series of scenes set to a powerful hip hop and orchestral score is completely awesome. I kind of wanted to fight after this sequence. The sweat and the pain of this sequence are awesomely visceral and compelling to the point that the fight is almost a nice way to settle down for the final act of the movie. 

 

Creed 2 is not quite as artful as the original but, to be fair, that film had a genuine auteur in Ryan Coogler behind the camera. Steven Caple Jr has a ways to go but he’s off to a really great start here. Creed is a wildly entertaining movie, good enough to escape the ghetto of the sports genre if not strong enough to be a truly great movie. The film has minor flaws but the big takeaways are Stallone is incredible when he wants to be and the Creed movies may have legs for another outing. 

 

I wish Sylvester Stallone had spent more time in his career acting. As Creed and Creed 2 show when he wants to, he can turn on the craft. It’s not just the nostalgia for the character of Rocky at play, though that is some of it. The reality is that Stallone can turn the acting on and off when he wants to, when he’s motivated to be great, he can be transcendently good and that’s what we see in Creed and in this sequel


Movie Review Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet is the most surprising movie of 2018. I expected the sequel to 2012’s Wreck it Ralph to be entertaining, sweet and funny like the original. What I was not expecting was for Ralph Breaks the Internet to have such a complex and emotionally fertile story, one that would leave me in tears of thoughtful joy. I had no idea that the makers of Ralph Breaks the Internet would offer one of the smartest, warmest and most mature stories of 2018 to tell.

 

Ralph Breaks the Internet picks up 6 years after the events of the original story with Ralph (John C. Reilly) and his best pal Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) still tied at the hip and, in Ralph’s mind, living the dream. Each day is the same, go to work and have fun and then meet up at the Tapper game and drink root beer and laugh till the day starts all over again. Ralph could not be more content with things but Vanellope is beginning to get restless.

 

Tired of racing and winning on the same three candy tracks in her game Sugar Rush, Vanellope confesses to Ralph that she wishes her game would be a little different from time to time. Thinking he can fix his friend’s problem, Ralph uses his strength to tear apart the background of Sugar Rush to create a new, more challenging track. Vanellope is excited to try it but while she’s racing the new track the person playing her game breaks off the steering wheel.

 

Because the game is broken, Sugar Rush is turned off and Vanellope and her fellow Sugar Rush cast are now homeless. The only way to save the game from being recycled for parts is to find a new steering wheel. The only place to find a vintage, intact, Sugar Rush steering wheel is the internet where one awaits on EBay. With Vanellope in tow, Ralph enters the newly installed internet port at the arcade and the two are off to the races inside the internet.

 

The satire of internet culture was something I was concerned would become obvious or cheesy but I must say, it’s spot on. The gags here are inspired as the creators of Ralph Breaks the Internet find one winner of a gag after another. It’s not perfect, there are a couple groaners here and there, but what Ralph Breaks the Internet does well is be consistently inventive in how the movie presents everything from EBay to video streaming to search engines.

 

As the story builds momentum a theme begins to reveal itself as Vanellope begins to find her place on the internet, especially in a Grand Theft Auto inspired online game called Slaughter Race. Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot gives voice to Shank, the best racer in Slaughter Race who takes an immediate liking to Vanellope. The two have a lot in common, despite the obvious differences in their game and Ralph begins to worry that Vanellope might have a friend other than him.

 

Amid the gags about insidious internet ads, get rich quick schemes and viral videos, Ralph Wrecks the Internet cleverly tackles a story that all kids will face in their own lives about how you have to make room in life for the lives of others. Ralph will slowly learn that because he was content with the status quo it doesn’t mean his best friend was just as happy. He’s going on a journey to learn how to be mature and respect that friends can want different things and still be friends.

 

It’s a lesson that even adults can stand to learn. The idea of learning to respect what other people instead of demanding only what you want is a lesson too many adults haven’t fully learned. The final act of Ralph Breaks the Internet deals with insecurity and fear in a manner that is absolutely perfect and highlights how we all can feel insecure sometimes but it’s how we maturely come to terms with our insecurity that defines us as a person.

 

That is a brilliant and fresh piece of storytelling that could not be more important for both children and adults. That the film is also wildly funny and artfully animated only underlines why Ralph Wrecks the Internet isn’t merely the best animated movie of 2018, it’s one of the best movies of 2018 full stop. I rank this number 2 on my favorite movies of 2018, right behind a completely different but brilliant work of horrific art, Hereditary.

 

I completely adore Ralph Wrecks the Internet. I laughed loudly and easily and by the end I was deeply moved and quite emotional. This is the feeling we hope to have when we go to any movie, this just happens to be an animated movie intended for children. It may be aimed at kids but Ralph Wrecks the Internet can reach any audience, the film is simply brilliant on all levels, of the best movies of this year and animated milestone for this decade.

 


Movie Review A Private War

A Private War stars Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) as Marie Colvin, famed war journalist who was killed in a bombing attack in Syria in 2012. To her dying breath, Marie Colvin was a reporter, fighting to bring the facts of the story to the masses with the power of words. It was what she’d done since the 80’s when she became one of the first western journalists to interview Muammar Gaddafi when he was the name in middle eastern terror as the leader of Libya. 

 

The story begins on a shot of devastation in Homs, Syria where Marie was killed in 2012. We then quickly flashback to 2001 when Marie was reporting on the conflict in East Timor, Sri Lanka. Against the explicit instructions of the government, Marie went to interview members of the Tamil Tigers who were fighting a vicious, inhuman war in East Timor and were ravaged by starvation and violence. 

 

It was during this event that Marie was nearly killed when government backed forces attacked the rebel guides leading Marie back to a safe area where she was to write and report her story. Even after Marie told the soldiers that she was a journalist, she was nearly struck by an RPG fired by government soldiers. In that attack Marie lost sight in her left eye but still found a way to write 3000 words about the conflict and do so in time for her deadline. 

 

The attack in Sri Lanka however, would have long term effects on Marie as few stories had. Marie suffered from PTSD, something she dismissed but her repeated nightmares and increased reliance on alcohol indicated was true. Even this was not enough to keep Marie from going to Afghanistan and then Iraq in the wake of the September 11th attacks. It was Marie Colvin and her photographer who, against the explicit instructions of the American government and Iraqi leaders, helped to uncover Saddam Hussein’s horrific mass graves in 2003. 

 

A Private War bounces around in time to an occasionally confusing degree. The film does use captions to orient us to what time we are in but it’s up to us to catch up to where we are, which might be Marie’s apartment in London in the midst of a nightmare or some foreign journalist hangout in some unnamed war zone. Director Matthew Heineman is a documentarian by trade so perhaps the weaknesses of the story structure of A Private War come from inexperience in the structure of a narrative film as opposed to the more edit heavy word of documentary. 

 

That said, Heineman is exactly the right director for Marie Colvin’s story. Heineman’s time in the documentary world placed him in many of the same dangerous circles of the Marie Colvin’s of the world. Heineman’s previous documentary feature, City of Ghosts was filmed in Raqqa, Syria among a group of citizen journalists who likely would have been inspired by Marie Colvin had they known her. Raqqa is just 4 hours from Homs, where Marie was killed. 

 

Heineman’s style is strong, especially considering that the move from the intimate digital of documentary to the more filmic and controlled style of narrative feature can be jarring for some directors. A Private War is a great looking movie and that should come as no surprise as it was lensed by Academy Award winner Robert Richardson, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarentino protege. The film has a similarly hazy, heady quality to Richardson’s work for Scorsese. 


Rosamund Pike is a complete badass in A Private War. She captures Marie Colvin as a human character in a way that we’re rarely allowed to see a woman in a movie. It’s not merely warts and all,  it’s honesty and bravery and the warts and all. Not only is Pike’s Marie tough, she’s also super sexy in a way that is similar to the swaggering way actors like Richard Gere are sexy when they play rebel journalists in war zones. 

 

Pike’s femininity is enhanced by her tenacity. The film shows her being bolder and crazier than some of her male counterparts and then shows her completely nude, stripping bare your perceptions of what it means to be tough and feminine. It’s a striking scene and one in which the nudity matters, it’s a demonstration of her character, a statement about her sexuality and desirability and how these are not separate qualities from toughness and intelligence. 

 

Rosamund Pike is on her way to a Best Actress nomination if there is justice in the world. Her Marie Colvin deserves that. This performance and this person deserve that tribute. It’s a shame that Marie Colvin didn’t receive this kind of recognition when she was alive to revel in it. She had already earned her stripes even before she helped put a face on the crisis in Syria and not merely her own. It was Marie Colvin’s stories about the dead and the dying in Syria that put the crisis in Syria into the homes and minds of the world and in ways many world powers would prefer she hadn’t. 

 

A Private War is imperfect as a movie, it’s far too episodic in nature to quite satisfy as a narrative feature but Rosamund Pike’s performance goes a long way to correct many of the qualms I had with the narrative structure of the movie. Pike is incredible and for her, A Private War is an absolute must-see.


Movie Review Can You Ever Forgive Me

Can You Ever Forgive Me stars Melissa McCarthy as writer Lee Israel. Lee had modest success in the 80’s as a writer of biographies of famous women. Unfortunately, this modest success was not enough to sustain her and she fell on some very hard times in the early 1990’s. While she was working on a book about famed Vaudeville comedian, Fanny Brice, Lee was also battling poverty, alcoholism, a sick cat and eviction from her New York City apartment. 

 

Lee’s infamy fell in her lap, rather literally. While doing research for her book, Lee found personal letters written by Fanny Brice. The letters aren’t special but they have her signature and to the right collector, they are worth something. When Lee goes to sell them to a local bookseller, she has a fortuitous moment. The bookseller tells Lee that had the letters been of a slightly more personal nature, they might have been worth more. 

 

Having studied Brice’s unique wit and way of writing and speaking, Lee was in a rare position to know how Brice might just write a personal letter to a friend. So, Lee sets off on her criminal venture into fraud by buying a period specific typewriter and typing a letter in Fanny Brice’s voice. She then copies Brice’s signature from one of the less valuable letters she didn’t sell and sets out to pass it off as the real thing. When that works, Lee finds herself with what she believes could be a sustainable enterprise. 

 

Joining her on her new journey into criminality is her best friend, a gay, homeless, dilettante, named Jack Hock. Jack is the proverbial devil on her shoulder, the perfect confessor and foil whose own minor criminal enterprises creates an understanding and bond among the two, even as Lee remains uneasy having an actual friend, she still prefers her cat. Just how good of a friend is Jack or Lee, for that matter, we will come to find out. It’s a true story but being unfamiliar with the story, I was very intrigued by the many unexpected turns of this story. 

 

The movie was directed by the fabulous Marielle Heller who directed the woefully underseen gem The Diary of a Teenage Girl and will next be on the big screen with a Mr. Rogers biopic starring Tom Hanks. Heller is a director with a strong authorial voice. Her style has a lived in and gritty quality which helps capture the period setting, even if that period is merely the early 90’s in the case of this movie. The story looks and feels authentic. 

 

The script was written by another phenomenally talented female filmmaker, Nicole Holofcener, who’s perceptive and hilarious efforts include Enough Said with James Gandolfini and Julia Louis Dreyfus, Friends with Money and the brilliant Catherine Keener vehicle, Lovely & Amazing. Holofcener has a knack for prickly pear female characters and Lee Israel is right in her witty wheelhouse. 

 

There is talk that Melissa McCarthy could contend for an Academy Award for her performance in Can You Ever Forgive Me and I hope she gets the chance. This is a fantastic performance and not merely on the sliding scale of a comic actress going for serious actress cred. McCarthy brings Lee Israel to devastating life. It’s a complicated part as Israel is notably dyspeptic, she hated people and leaving her apartment and yet, McCarthy makes you care about her. 

 

Lee is a pitiable figure, an immense unrealized talent who will forever be remembered as a faker. And yet, she fooled the known world of art and literature collectors with her remarkably perceptive impersonation letters. She captured the voices of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman in ways that fooled even people who knew them when they were alive. It takes a pretty great writer to pull of that level of impersonation across such a cross section of wit and intellect. 

 

Reading reviews of Lee’s own book, which was the inspiration for this movie, you find critics begrudgingly forced to admit that Lee Israel had a scalding wit of her own, a self-lacerating nastiness that could have been a hallmark of her own writing had she ever found the confidence to write in her own voice rather than as the people she wrote biographies for. Can You Ever Forgive Me doesn’t paint the kindest portrait of Lee but it is honest in the same way she was and for that it’s brave, bold and fascinating.


Movie Review Widows

Widows is one heck of a great movie. This firecracker of a suspense thriller isn’t just a rare occasion for women to stand at the front of such a genre flick, it’s just, as a movie a really, really great movie. Writer-director Steve McQuee, whose 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture in 2012, says he’s been nursing a version of Widows for nearly a decade but finally felt that now was the right time to launch a mainstream feature after having established himself as indie darling. 

 

Widows stars Viola Davis as Veronica, the wife of a criminal named Harry Rawlings who's just been killed during a heist. In the heist two million dollars burned up along with Harry’s corpse, two million dollars that belong to a gangster named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who has decided that Veronica needs to be the one to pay him back. She has 30 days to raise two million dollars or something bad will happen. 

 

Harry has left Veronica one thing that might help her out of this situation. It’s a book length description of a five million dollar heist that appears fool proof. Veronica certainly thinks show as she begins to believe that she can pull off this heist if she can recruit some help. With the help of one of Harry’s few friends that didn’t die with him in his fatal job, Veronica approaches the wives of the men who died with Harry and tells them that Manning will be coming after them if she can’t pay him. 

 

The other women who lost their husbands are Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki). Linda lost her clothing store when her husband died deeply in debt. Elizabeth meanwhile is being pushed toward high end prostitution by her domineering mother (Jackie Weaver) now that her meal ticket husband is dead. Both are responding to Veronica’s threat but their circumstances are playing a role here as well. 

 

In the background of the heist is a battle for political power, also involving Jamal Manning. You see, the missing two million was intended to help Manning buy his way into respectability as the new Alderman of Chicago’s 18th Ward, a seat held by the Mulligan family for decades. Robert Duvall plays the aged Tom Mulligan who had planned on essentially gifting his ward to his lawyer son Jack but a political mistake has led to the redrawing of the Ward lines and left Jack with a contentious race against Manning. 

 

How the race for ALderman plays into the plot I will leave you to see for yourself. You can assume it’s about power and corruption but McQueen’s story is even more inspired than that. This a movie with strong plot mechanics and no wasted time or space. Widows is a movie that wastes little time on the extraneous even as it has a sprawling cast that also has room for Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya and Cynthia Eriivo as the final member of Veronica’s gang. 

 

The tight plotting also still has room for strong commentary on the state of politics and economics. One incredible scene transitions from Colin Farrell’s wannabe political scion holding a press conference in a rundown neighborhood and being questioned about missing money to Farrell and his campaign manager in his limo. This is an unbroken take where the camera doesn’t get into the limo, it remains outside on the front of the limo. 


We listen as Farrell complains about how he doesn’t get the respect he deserves, how he can’t stand the media and the situation his father created for him by not working with the Mayor. The visual is fantastic and the scene lasts about 3 minutes and in that time we go from a rundown neighborhood to Farrell’s well appointed mansion. The visual is powerful and evocative and the message of the movie could be contained entirely in this moment. 

 

Viola Davis is a goddess but the performance I want to highlight from Widows is Elizabeth Debicki. Debicki isn’t well known yet but this is a star making performance. She’s no mere pretty face, Debicki’s Alice is a victim of an abusive husband and a domineering mother who really finds her strength in going along with this seemingly insane heist plot. Debicki brilliantly inhabits a young woman finding herself in a bitterly smart performance. 

 

Widows is one of the best movies of 2018. It’s smart, exciting, and exceptionally well made. Steve McQueen is a masterful director who makes brilliant decisions in keeping his narrative tight and the pace quick but never too quick. Widows is a suspense thriller with brains and guts, blood, sweat and tears. It’s gritty with a touch of glamour. Widows is a movie for adults with a strong respect for the wit and intelligence of adult audiences. 

 

Widows is a must see movie.  


Movie Review Instant Family

I have struggled genuinely with how I feel about the comedy Instant Family starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne. This family comedy about a childless couple who decides to become foster parents to three orphan siblings is at times maddeningly, cringe-inducingly hard to watch. Characters occasionally drift into an area of being inhumanly silly. And yet, at the end of the movie, the uplifting message kind of works, to the point where I teared up. 

 

Did I tear up because the movie is that effective or because Instant Family is based on a true story and is, in many ways, a commercial for a charity of the same name, Instant Family, that works to unite orphaned kids and foster parents? I deeply admire the message of Instant Family and the few human moments that the movie gets right, it gets very right but did the movie cheat? Or is it actually good? 

 

Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne star in Instant Family as Pete and Ellie. Pete and Ellie own their own house flipping business where he handles the carpentry and she handles the design. Their lives are perfect but they’ve been so busy with business, they’ve neglected the notion of family. With Ellie’s sister Kim (Allyn Rachel) and her husband, Russ (Tom Segura), talking about having kids, it gets Pete and Ellie thinking about it. 

 

Both Pete and Ellie agree that they don’t want to be old parents, that they are passed the idea of having a baby. They are however, the right age for a 5 to 8 year old kid and thus adoption enters the equation. After Pete looks at a website of kids in foster care he is overwhelmed by the cuteness and the two enroll in an 8 week course to determine their fitness to be parents. Comedian Tig Notaro and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer are the heads of the adoption agency. 

 

After several bad comedy scenes of Pete and Ellie and a group of colorful but not too colorful extras failing and succeeding at the basic necessities of being parents, the couples are ready to choose their kids. For Pete and Ellie, they fall for Lizzy (Izabella Moner), a teenager who they feel pity for because no one even talks to kids Lizzy’s age about adoption, she’s 15. Lizzy has more reasons why she’s been hard to place, she has two younger siblings, Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and Lita (Julianna Gamiz). 

 

Challenged by the adoption agents, Pete and Ellie decide to take a big swing and agree to become foster parents to all three kids. Now the question becomes, can they actually handle having an instant family? And what about the kids’ mom, a former alcoholic who is just out of prison and in a program in hopes of perhaps getting her kids back? Will the forced drama ever cease and allow the movie to have a genuine moment. 

 

Instant Family was co-written and directed by Sean Anders whose taste for low brow humor and gag focused nonsense, led to the creation of terrible movies such as That’s My Boy, Sex Drive and Daddy’s Home 1 & 2. I recognize that some people like the Daddy’s Home movies, but I do not and by extension, I really don’t care for Instant Family either. I was wondering throughout why the shrill, awkward, and unfunny gags of Instant Family felt so familiar, then I looked at the director’s resume. 

 

Anders has a hard time trying to bring a real moment to the screen. He’s so focused on terrible jokes that he loses track of trying to tell actual stories with relatable characters. His taste for broad and crude caricatures sinks what little good there is about Instant Family. Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, and co-stars Margo Martindale, as Wahlberg’s mom, Tig Notaro and Octavia Spencer, they appear to be trying to get to the heart of his material but the director and the script keep interrupting with nonsense. 

 

There is a running gag in Instant Family where the son, Juan, keeps getting hurt. It’s never funny but it just keeps happening where he’s hit in the face with any sporting equipment nearby, he steps in broken glass, he gets a nail in his foot. Why would anyone think this is a funny running gag for a child in a movie? Especially a child in foster care who may or may not have a history of abuse? 

 

There are occasional moments where the characters are allowed to be real but they are drowned out by moments of shrill hysterics such as a dinner scene that begins with a minor disagreement and ends with the kitchen table on fire and Wahlberg trying to put out the fire with ketchup. That sounds much funnier than it plays in the movie. In the movie it’s a lot of yelling and chaos and zero laughs. 

 

So why did I cry at the end of Instant Family? Because the film ends on a genuine note with Lizzy realizing that her new parents do really love her and her brother and sister and then the film cuts to a picture of the real family the movie is based on. And then it’s a montage of photos of families that the charity Instant Family has united over the years. You’d have to be some kind of soulless monster not to be moved by these photos. 

 

Does that mean the movie succeeds? No, it’s definitely cheating, even if it is cheating for a good cause. The movie is mostly bad but it does have its heart in the right place. I don’t recommend it as a movie but I do recommend Instant Family as a charity. It’s nice that Hollywood was kind enough to make a 100 plus minute commercial for Instant Family but that doesn’t mean the movie is worth your time. 

 

Instead, why don’t you google Instant Family Charity and look at the pictures of newly united families. You will have a far more moving experience without having to have this movie shout shrill gags in your ear for nearly two hours. 


Movie Review Fantastic Beasts The Crimes of Grindelwald

Fantastic Beasts The Crimes of Grindelwald is some of the most fun I have had at the movies this year. This delightful entry in the Harry Potter universe brims with life and love and vitality. The script by author J.K Rowling weaves a wonderful mystery while also giving space for these wonderful characters to exist for us to enjoy as if they were brand new again. David Yates’ expert direction brings it all together in one magical package. 

 

Fantastic Beasts The Crimes of Grindelwald opens with a harrowing escape from magical jail. The villainous Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is set to be returned to London from New York City where he’d been captured and unmasked in 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Despite having his ability to speak taken from him, Grindelwald uses his incredible powers of persuasion to convince one his prison guards to take his place. 

 

Once Grindelwald is on the loose the chase is on to locate Creedence Barebone (Ezra Miller). Everyone in the wizarding world wants to find Creedence because his power may be unmatched by any other wizard and having him on your side could be the difference maker in the coming war between pure blood wizards led by Grindelwald and those who wish to live in peace with the Non-Magical world, led by the legendary Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). 

 

Caught in the middle is our hero, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). While he certainly doesn’t side with Grindelwald, Newt would prefer not to have to fight anyone. Newt is content to live in peace while collecting his magical beasts and making sure they are cared for and not hunted or harmed. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Magic won’t let Newt travel legally in the magical world unless he agrees to help hunt down Creedence and Grindelwald. 

 

Newt eventually gets drawn into the search for Creedence while he is searching for Tina (Katherine Waterston). Tina and Newt split at the end of the last film over her working as an Aura for the Ministry and his desire to remain apart from those in power. Now, he’s seeking her again to tell her how much he misses her. Joining Newt once again is his pal Jacob (Dan Fogler) whose memory was restored by Queenie (Alison Sudol) and the two are in love, though banned from being able to marry by the restrictive rules of the Ministry. 

 

The race to find Creedence is also a race by Creedence to discover the secret of his true identity which he feels will be key in helping him find his place in the world. All sides want to tell him who he is but who can he actually believe? It’s a terrific mystery with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Ezra Miller doesn’t have much to play beyond hurt and confusion but I enjoyed how this mystery and the misdirections around it drove the plot. 

 

Despite a few awkward moments, I found myself completely wrapped up in Fantastic Beasts The Crimes of Grindelwald. I really enjoy the universe that J.K Rowling and director David Yates are revealing ever so carefully. Yes, the mythology is dense, especially the nods back to the Harry Potter franchise, and that can be daunting for some but for me, the film stood alone and didn’t spend a lot of time explaining or underlining anything for comic effect, a trap that sequels in this genre tend to fall into. 


I found Fantastic Beasts The Crimes of Grindelwald to be delightful, an adventure and mystery with magic and romance and suspense. The ending even has some tragic qualities that echo some of the great hero journey’s like those of Star Wars. No joke, in interviews, actor Dan Fogler has referred to The Crimes of Grindelwald as the Empire Strikes Back of this franchise and he’s not wrong. The comparison is fair and genuine, both films have the quality of mixing tragic and triumphant moments. 

 

I don’t know what I was expecting from Fantastic Beasts The Crimes of Grindelwald but I surely wasn’t expecting to be as moved as I was by the movie. I wasn’t in tears by the end but I was affected, I cared about what happened and I cannot wait to see how this plays out in the next movie. It was a delight to be so enthralled with a big budget blockbuster, one I could allow to enfold me and bring me fully into another world. This movie did that for me, I believed in this magical world from beginning to end. 

 

Fantastic Beasts The Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t a flawless masterpiece by any stretch but by the standards of the genre, young adult adventure, it’s top notch stuff. This is some of the best young adult adventure going today. Fantastic Beasts and The Crimes of Grindelwald wildly imaginative and ingenious. The characters are wonderful and irresistibly charming. Even Johnny Depp’s appearance couldn’t ruin the movie which is so good, I forgot Depp was even there and just anticipated seeing his character get what was coming to him. Whether that happened or not I will leave you to discover. 

 

When I interviewed Dan Fogler recently, he told me that there are still 5 more movies to go in this franchise. If they can maintain this high level of quality presentation, I am all in for 5 more movies from these incredible writers and directors. 


Movie Review The Front Runner

My mother, Sue, loved Gary Hart. As a lifelong Democrat she saw in Hart not just another handsome politician, but the first real heir to the President she’d grown up idealizing, the late John F. Kennedy. I was only 11 years old in 1987 but my mom made sure I knew who Gary Hart was and why he was so important to her. In her opinion, he was going to be the next President of the United States. 

 

Obviously, we know that did not happen but what did happen? To Gary Hart, I mean, not the race for the Presidency in 1988, we know that then Vice President George H.W Bush trounced the overmatched Mike Dukakis. But, what happened to Gary Hart? Why did his promise flicker out so quickly? Why did the man who appeared destined to be the next President of the United State at one moment become a massive punchline and cautionary tale in the span of weeks? 

 

The new movie, The Front Runner starring Hugh Jackman, and directed by Juno director Jason Reitman, aims, if not to answer the question of what happened, to at least place a context and a frame on what we believe happened. It’s a story about a sea change in the world of journalism and politics, the end of the buddy-buddy bedfellows of Washington D.C and the beginning of a rampant decline in our political discourse that remains to this very day. 

 

The story begins in 1984 when Gary Hart first attempted to run for President. Hart, a relative newcomer and young lion at just 44 years old gave the establishment Democratic candidate, Walter Mondale, a pretty good scare, all the way to the Democratic convention where he was finally forced to concede to the former Vice President. Mondale would go on to the worst electoral beating in American history while Hart remained the biggest young star in his party. 

 

Cut to 1988, Gary Hart is back in the Presidential race. He’s announcing his candidacy and while his staff is struggling to keep up with his Western values, including a candidate announcement at Red Rocks in Colorado, well outside the political and media mainstream, Hart was dynamically bursting into the Presidential race as a front runner. Immediately after the announcement of his candidacy, polls placed the Colorado Senator as a frontrunner not merely for the Democratic nomination, he was up double digit numbers over VP Bush for the general election. 

 

It was, in 1987, beginning to feel like an inevitability that Gary Hart was going to be President of the United States. Inside the campaign however, cracks were showing relatively early, earlier than anyone outside Hart’s inner circle were aware. The cracks were showing in how candidate Hart and Senator Hart felt about questions related to his family and rumors of infidelity. Hart bristled at any talk of family or personal profiles, even sitting for photos with his wife appeared to be sticking points for Gary Hart. 

 

Eventually, with a remarkably entertaining and engaging setup, we arrive at the meat of The Front Runner. In May of 1987 with things going swimmingly on the policy side of things, Gary Hart accepted an invitation for a boat ride in Florida with an old friend and lobbyist named Billy Broadhurst (Toby Huss) and a few invited guests, including a beautiful model that Hart had met before by the name of Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). 

 

Rice and Hart spent time together socializing and perhaps flirting on the boat, photos were taken but nothing initially came from the boat trip to Bimini. Things actually kicked into gear when one of Rice’s friends tipped off a Miami Herald reporter named Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) that a woman was headed to D.C to meet Hart. Fiedler, along with another reporter played by comedian Bill Burr, ends up staking out Hart’s Washington D.C townhouse on a weekend when Donna Rice came for a visit. 

 

It’s here where the most important moment in The Front Runner unfolds in a fashion that is riveting and memorable. Hart figures out that someone is staking him out and assumes it is Republican operatives. He is genuinely confused to find Tom Fiedler, a reporter who had been on his campaign bus was now hiding in his bushes. Hart confronts the reporters who stand their ground, ask where Donna Rice is, ask if she’s staying at his townhouse and thus ends the era of the press and politician glad-handing. 

 

In one fell swoop the personal lives of Presidential candidates, the rumors, the gossip and the private picadillos suddenly became front page headlines. Here, director Jason Reitman rather brilliantly lays out the moment. In a scene set inside the offices of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina) relays a story about Lyndon Johnson warning the press to give his private life the same wide-birth they’d given to Kennedy or they would witness a parade of women who were not Lady Bird Johnson, leaving the White House. 

 

The press in D.C and the politicians used to have an understanding. They would drink and commiserate and members of the Congress would happily trade stories off the record with friendly reporters who would use the background for news stories. Politicians would look the other way when reporters took pieces of conversations and stretched them into stories as long as it was political and not personal. 

 

This ended for good with the Gary Hart scandal. No longer would the press abide by the gentleman’s agreement regarding sex and infidelity. With the rise of the religious right and the growing political power of the church in America, suddenly the issue of character and morality became buzzwords and political litmus tests. Candidates suddenly had to be open about religion, their marriage and their families. 

 

Was this a genuine change? It’s hard to say. Had Gary Hart not been the front runner in question would these questions have come up? It’s clear the Republican Party saw a weak spot in Hart’s campaign when it came to women and with him being so presumptive a leader, it made sense that making character and morality into political issues was a smart and effective tactic against a Senator with a strong political resume. 

 

However, the film makes a strong point that this sea change was coming with or without Gary Hart. Ari Graynor plays a reporter for the Washington Post and while her part is quite small she does make one of the most important #MeToo points in the movie when she say that Gary Hart is a man with power and opportunity and that takes a certain responsibility. “If he were just some day trader, screwing around with a cocktail girls, I could handle just not liking him. But, as our potential next President, that makes me nervous.” 

 

She’s talking about Hart but she could be talking about Bill Clinton or even President Trump given their very public proclivities. It’s a strong moment and it leads to another remarkable scene where Hart is confronted with his behavior by a reporter and backed into a corner of his own making. The movie is quite fair and doesn’t let Hart off the hook just because journalists have begun crossing lines between gossip and journalism. 

 

The Front Runner is a superb film filled with tremendous drama and excitement and a lead performance by Hugh Jackman that captures Gary Hart in a way that feels authentic. Jackman perfectly captures the duality of Hart and the times he lived in. A man of the 60’s and 70’s where the loose morality was a given among the boys club of politics and the highly intelligent and thoughtful communicator who, despite his dalliances, may have perhaps made a great leader or have been just one scandal from a downfall at all times. 

 

The Front Runner offers a tantalizing what if story that is fair to all sides. Did journalists cross boundaries? Yes, they did. Were politicians including Gary Hart making character arguments while sleeping around on their wives? Yes they were. Does a candidate's infidelity demonstrate a lack of character? Yes, as does lying about it but does cheating make someone bad at being a leader or even a President? That last question is one that The Front Runner beautifully lays on us with no clear answer. 

 

The Front Runner will be in theaters nationwide on November 20th. 


Movie Review Juliet, Naked

Juliet, Naked stars Rose Byrne as Annie, a museum director in a small suburb of London. Annie’s life is growing a bit stale. Her job is boring, her sister is a mess, and her boyfriend, Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), is obsessed with a rock star named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke) who disappeared into obscurity after making just one really successful record. For 25 years Duncan has collected and obsessed over scraps of information that he puts online at a website he made and dedicated to Tucker Crowe. 

 

At first, Duncan’s obsession was cute but after a few years of living together, Annie has grown tired of it and of Duncan. The plot kicks into gear when a mysterious package arrives at Annie and Duncan’s home. Annie finds it first and inside finds something called “Juliet, Naked.” Juliet was the name of Tucker Crowe’s only record and the ‘naked’ of this title refers to demo tracks of Tucker’s first record more than 25 years old. 

 

For an obsessed fan like Duncan, Juliet, Naked is like finding ancient religious scrolls or an authentic shroud of turin. It’s legitimately, to Duncan, an act of betrayal when Annie finds the CD and listens to it before he gets the chance. The betrayal deepens when Annie states that she finds the record insufferable and says so in a review that she posts on Duncan’s own website under an assumed name. 

 

Things take a turn for the surreal when the real Tucker Crowe reads Annie’s review and sends her an email telling her he agrees with her. Tucker has been a ghost for 25 years for a reason and part of it is how much he doesn’t like his own music. Tucker and Annie begin to correspond and as they grow closer, she and Duncan grow further apart until apart is all that they are able to be. With Duncan out of the way can Annie actually be in a relationship with the target of her ex’s obsession? 

 

Clever sounding premise aside, Juliet, Naked is one of the bigger disappointments of 2018 for me. I have been anticipating this movie since I heard about it. The film is based on a novel by Nick Hornby, my favorite writer whose books have inspired a couple of terrific movies, including an all time favorite of mine, High Fidelity starring John Cusack. I wanted desperately for this movie to be great and sadly, it's only okay. 

 

What are the specific issues with Juliet, Naked? For starters, a complete lack of ambition. The movie is so elegiac, so lacking in vitality that it feels at times to be at a crawl. I don’t need this to have the pace of a Fast & Furious movie but the montage of Annie and Tucker’s email exchange is glacially paced even as it features to very charming actors providing voiceover for the scene. Even with Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne, the scene is lifeless. 

 

And then there is the character of Tucker who is a complete disaster. Ethan Hawke plays Tucker as a sincere and forthright failure, a loser who has multiple kids by multiple mothers and lives off the residuals of his one big album, sleeping on a pull out bed at his ex’s farm so he can be close to his youngest son. That’s a lot of stuff to play as a character but Hawke doesn’t do much of anything with it. The film appears to rely solely on the charm of Hornby’s character to make Tucker interesting but somehow he appears stuck in the pages and not on the screen. 


The film reaches toward a moment of transcendence when Annie invites Duncan to come over and have dinner with her and Tucker at her home as a goodwill gesture. Duncan can hardly hold back on his fanboying and tells Tucker how much he loves his record and what it means to him. Tucker replies that he hates the record and the person he was when he made it. Duncan is wounded but defends himself and his love of Tucker’s record. It’s a good moment capped off by Duncan saying that art is not for the artist but for those who appreciate it before storming off. 

 

The film approaches something fascinating here about the relationship between artist and fan but director Jesse Peretz fumbles the moment slightly. Is Duncan a fool or are we meant to sympathize with his love of Tucker’s music. Is Tucker a jerk? Yeah, kind of. He’s kind of like those people who can’t graciously accept a compliment and instead come off as rude and unappreciative of genuine kindness. 

 

That could be a perfectly acceptable response on Tucker’s part but the way it plays in the moment makes both Duncan and Tucker look equal parts jerk and offender. We do find out why Tucker hates his own creation in the following scene but he really loses our sympathy in the previous scene and the rest feels like the character and the movie are making excuses for his rude behavior, excuses that don’t hold water. 

 

If Duncan is a buffoon then let him be a buffoon. Juliet, Naked takes such pains to be evenhanded about these characters that it lacks any perspective whatsoever and leaves a wishy washy impression of all three central characters. Director Jesse Peretz took a similarly evenhanded approach to his comedy Our Idiot Brother starring Paul Rudd to a similarly wishy washy affect. It’s as if he doesn’t want to offend anyone to a point of pointlessness and an aimless narrative. 

 

This is supposed to be Annie’s story and yet until the end of the movie, Annie is a mostly listless character. The world continually happens to Annie aside from when she posted her negative review of Tucker’s record. Everything that happens with her after that is dictated not by Annie but by everyone else. Rose Byrne is capable of carrying this story but the movie continually lets her down in scene after listless scene. 

 

All of that said, Juliet, Naked is not a bad movie. It suffers from a conventionalism that is rampant in modern movies, an eagerness to not offend anyone or make anyone uncomfortable. Everybody is flawed and no one judges anyone and even when they do, they are justified in doing so. This is supposed to be akin to realism but in the sacrosanct world of romantic comedy, realism doesn’t translate. Pretty much all romance is hyper-realised or idealised because real romance is hard work and we don’t go to the movies for hard work. 

 

There is no hard work in Juliet, Naked. The filmmakers want both to be ‘realistic’ and exist in the idealised world or romantic comedy. The dissonance is maddening and leads to a movie that moves with little momentum, features idealized characters in a contrived narrative and yet the filmmakers want to play at being taken seriously because the problems these characters have, their flaws and how they work towards overcoming them have a whiff of the real. 

 

Perhaps it is possible to make a funny romantic comedy that is also based in something real and insightful but Juliet, Naked never bridges that divide. Instead, it’s a maddening, slow moving, not entirely terrible movie featuring some genuinely good actors and some genuinely good moments. There is a good movie here but it’s missing a director who knows how to get at what is good about it.

 

Juliet, Naked is available on Blu Ray and DVD now. 


Movie Review Some Like It Hot (1959)

If you told me that I could only save one legendary film director’s career and the rest were to be destroyed, I would probably choose to save Billy Wilder’s legendary catalog. Don’t get me wrong, I would miss Hitchcock or Michael Curtiz or Ernst Lubitsch but Wilder’s catalog has movies I simply cannot live without. The Seven Year Itch, The Apartment, Ace in the Hole and today’s Movie of the Day, Some Like It Hot are simply movies I could not even think of losing forever.

 

Wilder’s knack for snappy dialogue, vivid characters, and deeply committed performances from his actors is uncanny. Wilder draws things out an actor even they didn’t know that they had. Take Fred MacMurray transforming into a nasty, nasty, character in Double Indemnity or William Holden’s lacerating performance in Sunset Boulevard. Those characters don’t come to life without the brilliance of Billy Wilder.

 

Some Like it Hot is, today, receiving a brand new Criterion Collection release on Blu Ray for the first time and it is the ultimate must buy for movie fans. Some Like it Hot is one of the greatest comedies in history, a comedy of manners in the loosest sense, the film plays toward the absurd lengths we go to try and believe what we are seeing simply because we see it. The characters of Some Like it Hot want to believe that our heroes are really women and their suspension disbelief is at the center of the story.

 

Some Like It Hot stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as best pals Joe and Jerry. Joe and Jerry are Jazz musicians who play gigs all over Chicago. One night after a gig they accidentally see a mobster murdering multiple people and they flee as fast as they can with the killer’s now on their trail. Desperate to escape with their lives, the guys resort to dressing as women and catching on with an all women’s jazz band on their way to Florida for a gig.

 

As Josephine and Daphne, Curtis and Lemmon don’t really pass for women but they pass close enough, and play their instruments well enough that the rest of the band doesn’t care enough to have disbelief. Immediately, both Joe and Jerry fall for Sugar (Marilyn Monroe). Though they can’t reveal themselves they do dance around the edges of being caught while almost flirting with the disarmingly sweet Sugar who plans to meet a rich man in Florida and get married.

 

This leads to a scheme were Joe casts himself as a rich playboy named Shell Oil Junior, heir to the Shell Oil business. He intends on winning Sugar’s heart before he reveals his true self and the fact that her new female friends aren’t who they appear to me. Meanwhile, poor Jerry ends up running interference for Joe with an actual millionaire named Osgood Fielding III and played by Joe E. Brown in a wonderful performance.

 

Eventually, the gangsters re-enter the plot and are main characters return to scrambling for cover but along the way, Some Like it Hot is a vibrant, lively, belly-laugh inspiring comedy. Not only is the movie a true classic, it is one of the wonderfully alive comedies of all time. The characters are incredible, the dialogue is witty and charming and the pace of the movie is relentlessly inventive, rarely slowing down but never going by too fast.

 

Wilder’s knack for indelible characters may be at its absolute peak in Some Like It Hot. Joe and Jerry are brilliant cast with Curtis and Lemmon, actors of uncommonly generous talent for sharing the screen and elevating their fellow performers. If Marilyn Monroe had worked exclusively for Billy Wilder in her career, she would have eventually won an Academy Award. The Seven year Itch is arguably Monroe’s finest acting moment but Some Like It Hot is a very close second.

 

It’s amazing to think that the role of Sugar was initially written for Mitzy Gaynor until Marilyn made it clear that she wanted the role and her star-power dictated he casting. Tony Curtis also narrowly made the cut, the role of Joe was first offered to Frank Sinatra who bailed on the audition leading to Curtis getting, perhaps, the best role of his career. Sinatra in a dress probably wouldn’t have worked and certainly wouldn’t have been as believable as Curtis, with his smooth, feminine face and thin lips.

 

Some Like It Hot is arguably the greatest comedy of all time. It has everything from big laughs to genuine romance to a filmmaker in Wilder who brings a craftsmanship and just the right directorial flourish to the film. The film is now available for the first time on Criterion Collection Blu Ray with incredible special features:


Special Features
• New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
• Audio commentary from 1989 featuring film scholar Howard Suber
• New short program on Orry-Kelly’s costumes for the film, featuring costume designer and historian Deborah Nadoolman Landis and costume historian and archivist Larry McQueen
• Three behind-the-scenes documentaries
• Appearances by director Billy Wilder on The Dick Cavett Show from 1982
• Conversation from 2001 between actor Tony Curtis and film critic Leonard Maltin
• French television interview from 1988 with actor Jack Lemmon
• Radio interview from 1955 with actor Marilyn Monroe
• Trailer
• PLUS: An essay by author Sam Wasson


Movie Review Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy stars Steve Carell as David Sheff, a very successful freelance reporter living in California. When we meet David he appears to be at a desperate moment. He is interviewing a doctor, played by Timothy Hutton, about addiction. The doctor assumes this is for an article but David informs him, that this research is personal. David’s son, Nic (Timothee Chalamet), is addicted to Meth and David has turned to the only thing he can imagine to make sense of things, in-depth research of the kind he’s done as a reporter. 

 

Indeed, research is the one way in which David Sheff is able to deal with the futility of his son’s addiction. We watch as David takes this research to varying extremes from trying to talk with Nic, to interviewing a young addict over lunch to interviewing the doctor. He even goes as far as trying methamphetamine himself to understand the appeal. He’s lucky that he didn’t begin his own addiction with that move. 

 

These are all kind of interesting but as presented in Beautiful Boy the observations of David have an obtuse quality. We get a vague insight into David, he lives for research, and that’s pretty much the one insight about the character that isn’t vague or assumed. He’s sensitive and he’s compassionate toward his son, he’s loving, but these are qualities we assume of a well to do parent and we wait for the story to tell us something different and it never does. 

 

David is highly reminiscent of Donald Sutherland’s character from Ordinary People minus the strawman villain provided in that film by Mary Tyler Moore’s harridan mother-figure. Like Sutherland, Carell plays a saintly figure of suffering but without the Moore character to play off of, Carell doesn’t have many notes to play here. Carell is certainly not bad in this role which leaves me to wonder what anyone thought was particularly cinematic about what David goes through. What is David’s arc? Suffering some to not suffering as much? 

 

Nic’s arc is to go from child to addict to recovery. That’s not a bad arc but it is off-screen a lot in favor of David’s less engaging lack of an arc. What are we to take away from Nic’s journey? What is special about what Nic went through? His family is wealthy, are we supposed to take away that addiction can happen to anyone regardless of privilege? The film doesn’t appear to have any insight or perspective, nothing really driving the narrative other than drugs are bad, don’t do drugs. 

 

The main takeaway I had from the movie is that Timothee Chalamet is a very charismatic and intriguing actor who is underserved by a role that doesn’t have a strong narrative engine behind it. Everything is surface level, starting with the beautiful sets and cinematography which are at odds with the agony of Nic’s addiction and the toll it is having on his family. I have joked in the past about characters in disease of the week’s drama who have what I call ‘Pretty Cancer,’ that strange type of disease that allows you to remain movie star pretty despite being on deaths’ door. 

 

Nic appears to have a case of ‘Pretty Addiction.’ Despite the years of meth abuse and living on the streets, story appears to take place over 5 or 6 years or maybe a decade, now that I think about it, the movie is vague on this point, regardless, however long Nic’s addiction has gone on, he remains a beautiful young man. Drugs don’t appear to take a toll on him aside from making him rather skinny but Chalamet even makes lanky look handsome. 

 

There doesn’t appear to be a baseline reality to the story of Beautiful Boy despite the fact that it is based, loosely, on a true story. The film shies away from the uglier parts of Nic’s addiction. For instance, in his book, “Tweaked,” Nic is very open about his years of trading sexual favors with men for money to buy drugs. This doesn’t get mentioned once in the movie and Nic rarely looks worse for wear despite the drugs and what we can presume he did to get them. 

 

Why did Nic get into drugs in the first place? The film has a scene of father and son sharing a joint and Nic opens up a little about how smoking weed makes life easier to deal with. What was wrong with his life? We don’t really know and perhaps we don’t need to. Kids try drugs all the time, some get a quick high and move on and some take on addiction that can’t be explained. Brain chemistry makes some people more or less susceptible to drugs. 

 

This is a very specific story about a specific kid who got into drugs, got addicted and stayed that way for a while. There is one thing that stands out that appears insightful and instructive. At one point, Nic talks about being ashamed of being on drugs and how drugs were the only way to stave off the shame. That’s a strong notion, a vivid insight into Nic’s mindset. Beautiful Boy could have used more thoughtful asides like that but the film is dramatically inert. 

 

Beautiful Boy isn’t notably bad. Timothee Chalamet is incredibly talented and that talent shines through the moribund story being told here. Steve Carell, Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan are quite good at earning our sympathy but the story they are in lacks a narrative engine. The story unfolds in fits and starts that cause the film to drag and feel pointless even as it clearly has one point, drugs are bad, don’t use drugs. 

 

I don’t want to completely warn you away from this movie as it is not terrible. Beautiful Boy just isn’t quite as good as it should be. The scenery is lovely but the story has no movement most of the time. Nic is moving toward not being an addict but the rest of the story sputters along hitting the same note, drugs are bad, don’t do drugs. This does not make for much compelling drama or insightful commentary.

 

See Beautiful Boy for the performance of Timothee Chalamet but keep your expectations for the movie low. This is not the Academy Award contender that some would like you to believe that it is. It’s a big budget Lifetime Movie of the week at best, with Oscar-calibur performance from Chalamet that is undermined by the rest of the movie’s lack of ambition. 


Movie Review Overlord

Overlord stars Jovan Adepo as Boyce, an infantry soldier, completely out of his depth when he’s dropped behind enemy lines in France during World War 2. Boyce, along with a group of 20 or so other soldiers have the task of destroying a German stronghold where a radio tower stands. The soldiers must destroy this communication tower, inside an old French church before the troops hit the beach at Normandy, the famed D-Day raid, and keep the Nazis from being able to radio for help. 

 

The plan requires men jumping from a plane over heavily guarded German territory and while the infantrymen are fooling themselves as best they can, they know that of the 20 or so on the plane, only a handful will survive the drop and be able to try and complete the mission. Boyce has an antagonistic relationship with many in his squad but the movie is smart not to linger over this with exposition, we will get around to that. 

 

The plane gets shot at and is about to crash when Boyce gets tossed out by his Sgt. On the ground, after nearly drowning in a lake, Boyce meets up with the few men who survived the drop. These include the commanding Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), the bullying Tibbet (John Magaro), an AP cameraman and soldier named Chase (Ian De Caestecker) and one other soldier who is not long for the movie. 

 

You will recognize dead meat guy pretty quickly as he is the first and only one of the soldiers to spend time talking about what he plans to do when he gets home. He may as well have a wife with a baby on the way and a sign that says shoot me. The character is kind of a parody of the classic trope about the innocent lamb being led to the slaughter of war, but Overlord is not meant to be a parody.The film's modest sense of humor appears tacked on.  

 

Here we make the turn away from the plot and into a discussion of the movie as a conception. Overlord appeared to be, from the trailer, a wild-eyed zombie soldier movie that would be a rollicking ride. It is not quite that, not exactly. Instead, Overlord is a surprisingly straight forward World War 2 thrller that takes on elements of science fiction via historical speculation about the Germans experimenting on Jewish people, captured soldiers and their own dead soldiers. 

 

There is history to back up the idea that the Germans were committing horrific atrocities in the name of science. In fact, you might not want to dig too deeply into how some of the medicines of the day today came to be via what monstrous German scientists did to a lot of innocent people. I won’t cite a specific example here so as not to get bogged down in conspiracy theories, I mention this only to provide an insight into where the makers of Overlord are coming from. 

 

The intention here is to make an entertaining thriller with elements of science fiction and horror in the midst of the genuine, human drama of war. This is not a movie to be taken seriously but Overlord is a movie that surprisingly earns a little bit of self-seriousness that I know I wasn’t expecting from what I assumed would be a World War 2 zombie movie. There are elements of that zombie idea, but the story actually appears more at home in the world of speculative science fiction than the braindead horror genre. 

 

Speaking of horror, the best element of Overlord is the body horror element. The special effects at play in Overlord, especially the makeup effects, are superb in how they turn stomachs. One particular soldiers gruesome death is preceded by a transformation from man to, God knows what kind of monster, features some truly gut wrenching visuals. Director Julius Avery may be a newcomer to big budget horror but he has a tremendous vision for terror, a mastery of creepy imagery that should bode well for his career. 

 

Overlord is tense and fun, a tad slow at times, and rather conventional given the zombie premise, but I do recommend the movie. Overlord is a terrific piece of war-time suspense and speculative science fiction. German scientists did horrible things to people in the name of war and Overlord is the rare movie to push the boundaries and look closer, even from the pop sci-fi perspective, at the horrors of Nazi scientist war crimes. 

 

Think of Overlord like a thought experiment that goes to the most broad and even ludicrous lengths regarding speculation over  what Nazi scientists were willing to do to those they deemed inferior to them. There is real life evidence to suggest that German scientists may have experimented on dead bodies and reanimation of corpses. That’s not me saying that Overlord has a basis in fact, it doesn’t, but I don’t see the harm in taking the idea of what Nazis may have done to people to an extreme conclusion. 

 

The World War 2 backdrop gives Overlord an unpredictable and chaotic bit of suspense that really works and keeps us in the audience aware of the constant  danger, not just from monstrous reanimated corpses, but from the Nazis who make a great villain. 
Overlord is in theaters nationwide now and is worth a look. Even if you wait for DVD and Blu Ray, if you’re a fan of horror movies, you will enjoy Overlord. 


Movie Review The Grinch

I went into The Grinch assuming I would see the standard rehash of a beloved classic combined with the modern pop culture references that 'clever' filmmakers believe to be an in as innovation. That’s what modern Hollywood tends to do so why should I expect anything more? Horton Hears a Who for example is merely a projectile vomited version of the Seuss story dressed up with references to anime and the standard amount of gross out humor that the kids enjoy.

 

What reason would I have to expect more from The Grinch? The film comes from Illumination, the company behind The Secret Life of Pets, Despicable Me and Minions so that certainly wasn’t going to aid my expectations, they’re basically a marketing machine that happens to make movies. There is Scott Mosier as co-director, that caught my eye.

 

Mosier has been the right hand of writer-director-podcast magnate Kevin Smith for years. At the very least, I could count on him not to countenance any falseness or saccharine sentimentality Indeed, the makers of The Grinch do avoid schmaltz and unearned sentimentality but the surprising thing is how often, what is still a product intended to sell tickets and toys, comes to genuine, unforced emotion.

 

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the voice of The Grinch, the dyspeptic, cave-dwelling, Christmas hating, loner from the imagination of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr Seuss. This version of The Grinch matches The Grinch we’ve always known, at least early on. He’s grumpy and rude and judgmental and then, of course, that famous song, reimagined by Tyler The Creator, comes along to pile metaphor, atop metaphor, to remind us what a bad guy The Grinch is.

 

 

But listen to that song for a moment. First of all, it’s all kinds of strange with Tyler The Creator’s odd approach to composition and his only vague interest in the original lyrics, he has a very particular fascination with the line ‘You’re a bad Banana, with a greasy black peel’ for whatever reason. But, that’s not the part I’m talking about. There is a line that Tyler invented for this version that has a pointed quality that hints at something about The Grinch character in this movie.

 

When Tyler The Creator says ‘Halloween come around, we ain’t knockin’ at your door’ he says the line with a disbelieving quality that asks ‘what are you so mad about? We’re happy to leave you alone.’ This hits at the main thesis of this new version of The Grinch, loneliness, isolation and social anxiety. The reason The Grinch is so desperately unhappy is because he doesn’t really want to be alone.

 

This plays into a very modern theme that the filmmakers lay under the traditional Grinch story. While we’ve come for the Christmas stealing and the lesson learning, the makers of The Grinch have evolved the story to examine the inner, emotional life of The Grinch in an unexpectedly thoughtful fashion. The film gives weight to the idea that The Grinch doesn’t hate Christmas, he hates the alienation that the family holiday inspires within him.

 

It’s a simplistic notion, sure, but one the filmmakers treat with the right amount of seriousness and deliver in the midst of a solid number of jokey jokes to keep from getting too weighty for a kids flick. The Grinch has just the right amount of believable angst and silliness that I found myself satisfied on all sides by this charming new take on this iconic story.

 

Whereas the original Dr Seuss take on The Grinch was as a grouchy, grumpy figure of malevolence inspired by the perceived hypocrisy of the Who’s to try and teach them a lesson, only to have the lesson turned on him, this version of The Grinch gives generous space to the emotional side of The Grinch character. In this version, The Grinch is allowed time to reveal his nature to the audience rather than the live action movie version of the story busily, noisily and clumsily attemptd to explain The Grinch while Jim Carrey ranted and vamped.

 

This version, thankfully, is less chaotic and has a genuine thoughtful quality. That’s not to say that the movie plumbs the depths of The Grinch, mining for insight. Rather, the movie is about the emotional journey of a character overcoming years of traumatic memories and isolation to step out into the world in hopes of acceptance. That’s a strong journey for a character and not one you expect of a character as seemingly uncomplicated as The Grinch.

 

For that, and the lovely animation, I must say, I very much enjoyed this modern, neurotic take on The Grinch. It’s silly and sweet and it looks great. The crisp character design has the quality of bringing together the classic lines of Seuss and a modern quality of today’s most advanced CGI, a marriage that has, until now, struggled to connect.


Movie Review The Girl in the Spider's Web

The Girl in the Spider’s Web stars Claire Foy as Lisbeth Salander, famed hacker and righter of wronged women. Lisbeth has made it her mission to rescue women in trouble and in the opening of the movie we see her hard at work. Lisbeth has infiltrated the home of a rich businessman who has just beaten his wife. The man had been in court just the day before and used his money and influence to skate on charges that he beat up two prostitutes. 

 

Now Lisbeth has come to make him pay for his misdeeds. We see her snare him in a trap, confront him with evidence of his crime and use her hacking skills to steal all of his money and split it between the women he’s abused, including his wife. Lisbeth uses blackmail to keep the man from doing any further harm to his wife and in short order, even if you didn’t already know Lisbeth Salander from her previous efforts as an avenging angel in other movies and books, you know her now. 

 

This opening sequence as crafted by director Fede Alvarez is a terrific study in character building. It cleverly allows us to create in our minds a backstory for Lisbeth without the necessity for dimwitted expository dialogue where characters read to the audience a laundry list of the character’s achievements to establish them in our minds. It’s a great example of show don’t tell, one that I wish the rest of the movie had adhered to. 

 

That’s not to say that The Girl in the Spider’s Web is filled with exposition, the film is quite good about remaining in the moment. There are however, a few of those laundry list scenes that are part of what keeps The Girl in the Spider’s Web from transcending from solidly entertaining suspense flick to something more fully engaging. Had the rest of the movie more closely resembled the off-kilter and brilliantly smart opening section, we could be talking about one of the better movies of the year. 

 

The story goes that Lisbeth Salander has been hired by a client, played by Stephen Marchant, to retrieve a computer program he created for the American government. To get it, Lisbeth will have to hack the National Security Administration and do it from halfway round the globe. This, as you can imagine from the talent she’s already displayed, will not be her biggest challenge. 

 

The hack goes off without a hitch but someone has caught wind of what Lisbeth is up to and aims to interfere. An organization that we come to know as The Spiders, wants that computer program and they will do everything short of killing Lisbeth in order to get it. But why not kill her? That appears to be a major flaw in the movie until you get to the reveal that the organization is merely an elaborate revenge ruse perpetrated by someone from Lisbeth’s past with an aim toward a revenge better served if Lisbeth is alive to see it. 

 

I’m being very generous in my description of the plot. It’s not quite as elaborate as I may have made it seem. That is because the trailers for The Girl in the Spider’s Web ruined much of the most suspenseful part of this movie. I won’t be specific so as not to spoil things for those who’ve managed to miss the film’s two trailers. I will only say that I can imagine the movie playing in a more exciting fashion if I did not have the information from the trailer that is played as a twisty reveal in the movie. 

 

The trailers are part of the reason why I only like The Girl in the Spider’s Web and not love it. I want to love it, I definitely love Claire Foy whose performance is riveting throughout. Foy is a brilliant actress of great instinct and intelligence. Her Lisbeth easily rivals Noomi Rapace’s original Lisbeth in 2009 and Rooney Mara’s slightly watered down Lisbeth in 2012. 

 

Foy crafts an angry, injured, but fierce character of great intelligence and ingenuity. Lisbeth could easily be a reductive caricature in the wrong hands. Some have called Lisbeth a goth version of James Bond minus the spy schtick. That’s not entirely unfair, in a commercial sense, I am sure Sony might embrace such simple, digestible distillation of the character. But Claire Foy makes Lisbeth so much more than that with her subtle and nuanced touches. 

 

Equally strong is Lakeith Stanfield whose Edwin is one of the more original takes on an American spy we’ve seen in a movie, mostly because Stanfield is not the typical kind of actor who is chosen for such a role. Stanfield’s unique energy, part geek, part badass, makes for a wholly original character and Stanfield plays Edwin on his own, very unique vibe. Had it not, again, been for the trailer spoiling the nature of his character, this role could have been even more exciting and intriguing. 

 

I really like and I do recommend The Girl in the Spider’s Web. The trailers do drain some of the suspense but what’s left is still strong enough for me to recommend it. I could offer a few other quibbles like the charisma free performance of the actor portraying Mikael Blomqvist, the pivotal co-star of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the laundry list scene that introduces Stanfield’s Edwin, but they don’t ruin the movie. 

 

I do want to call attention to one other scene however. There is a scene near the end of The Girl in the Spider’s Web that is, to employ a pun only funny once you see the movie, breathtaking. You’ve seen a glimpse of this scene in the trailer but the actual, full length scene in the movie is nearly as strong as that opening scene I mentioned before. In terms of visceral effects, the scene is actually superior but that could be just because it tapped a very specific fear I have regarding breathing. 

 

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is in theaters nationwide this weekend and is worth the price of a ticket or, at the very least, a rental on Blu Ray and DVD in a few months. 


Movie Review They'll Love Me When I'm Dead and The Other Side of the Wind

Orson Welles is an elusive figure in the film world. He was at once wholly present and missing in action. Welles’ long exile from Hollywood meant that though he worked consistently, his work was mostly ignored in the world of mainstream cinema. If you’re someone like me who lives in the midwest and doesn’t have unending access to obscure European adaptations of Shakespeare, then there is a large swath of the Welles’ catalog missing from you. 

 

Naturally, as a film lover, I have seen and loved Welles’ Citizen Kane, the film that though it provides Welles’ legacy with an eternal life, it was a never ending burden to the man. Kane dominated Welles’ career, it created his reputation as a film savant but also demonstrated him as a filmmaker unconcerned by the desires of commercial filmmaking. He was an artist first and a tempermental one at that, meaning studios didn’t want to work with him. 

 

These facts inform the making of Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind, a pompously titled art film that was never completed in his lifetime. Like Welles’ Don Quixote, The Other Side of the Wind was a tantalizing artifact of film history. Was it an unfinished masterpiece or some bloated attempt at a comeback by an over the hill blowhard angry at the industry that betrayed him? 

 

The new documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, streaming now on Netflix and directed by Morgan Neville, director of the hit Mr Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, examines the making of The Other Side of the Wind and gives us, if not Mr. Welles, closure on this seemingly doomed movie. Or does it? Watching the They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead appears to lead you to a resigned and satisfied place with The Other Side of the Wind. 

 

Then you get to the end and find, or at least I found it this way, that Netflix has gone ahead and bankrolled Welles’ friends, including Peter Bogdanovich and Welles’ family, to actually finish The Other Side of the Wind which completed principle photography in 1975 only to be taken from Welles by of all things, the fall of the Shah of Iran. Welles had been financed by members of the Iranian government and when the state fell in 1979, the movie was seized as an asset. 

 

It remained locked away until recently and now with the aid of Welles’ notes and those of his late cinematographer Gary Graver, the film was completed and is now available to stream on Netflix despite the fact that Welles and a majority of the cast and crew, including star John Huston and co-star Susan Strasberg have passed away. The Other Side of the Wind is something akin to a ghost of a movie, thankfully not a zombie but an ethereal filmic being. 


They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead appeared to me to be the only way we would ever have closure on Welles’ final film. It was for me, because I didn’t bother to read anything about it before I sat to watch it, such a complete surprise that I could feel the documentary making the turn toward declaring itself the unofficial completion of The Other Side of the Wind. The documentary is about movie making and Welles is even in the documentary discussing how The Other Side of the Wind and the making of it, could easily be a documentary rather than a narrative feature. 

 

Actor Alan Cumming plays host to the documentary offering rye asides on the travails of making The Other Side of the Wind via the interviews with Welles’ remaining, living friends and collaborators. It is Cumming who appears to make the turn late in the documentary that seemed to me to indicate that the documentary was, itself, the final form of The Other Side of the Wind. I found this to be a lovely and fitting bit of fakery, well in line with Welles' famed F is For Fake, another odd documentary take on reality versus fiction. 

 

Imagine my surprise then, when the credits began to roll and suddenly Netflix was starting the next feature, The Other Side of the Wind in its completed form. I was shocked and amused and I remained so I could watch it as the two are components of the same remarkable filmmaking tale. The Other Side of the Wind suddenly existed outside of the documentary and the Welles’ we get to know in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead would have loved my shocked reaction. 

 

As much as The Other Side of the Wind was a product of its lack of a budget and the limitations of those involved to remain available to the whim of Welles’ schedule, the experimental nature of the movie meant that it could be recut and reimagined in a number of different ways. This includes adding or subtracting footage of Welles himself who appears to be making the first meta-textual film/documentary project of its kind. 

 

The Other Side of the Wind is the story of an aging and failing film director named Jake 'J.J' Hannaford, played by legendary film director John Huston. Hannaford is in the midst of completing his latest movie, film of which we see throughout The Other Side of the Wind, as a movie within the movie. Hannaford is hoping that his producer will sell the movie to a film producer, modeled after the legendary Robert Evans. If that doesn't work, he needs to convince his young protege, Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), to loan him the money. 

 

Otterlake is successful in a way J.J never really was and this fact has strained their mentor/mentee, teacher and pupil, father and son, dynamic. Sure, J.J has all of the love and respect in the world for his work but next to none of the kind of success that Hollywood celebrates. Orson Welles claimed that this relationship was not modeled on his and Bogdanovich's friendship but that seems impossible to believe, even as Bogdanovich appears to humor him and push that narrative in interviews in the documentary. 

 

Cameras rolled on the set of The Other Side of the Wind at all times, even when cut was called. There are characters in The Other Side of the Wind playing film students who’ve been invited to film the lead character’s 70th birthday party and Welles had the extras filming at all times, during and after takes just to make sure he had as much footage as possible to put into a final cut in whatever form that final cut might take. 

 

The documentary makes remarkable use of the footage especially as the actors playing students were encouraged to engage with Welles between takes and Welles indulged in a one sided conversation with the cameras regarding the nature of cinema, with an extra special focus on mistakes and how mistakes can make a scene seem even more real than even a documentary. 

 

It’s a remarkable insight into the man, even as it is a strong demonstration of his vast egotism. Welles was unquestionably a blowhard but he was never boring and he is wildly fascinating in They’ll Love Me When I am Dead, a figure of Falstaffian charisma. Like him or not, you can’t take your eyes off of Welles. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead captures the man and the artist in endlessly fascinating ways. 

 

I don’t have as much to say about the quality of The Other Side of the Wind. It’s a bloviating, free-flowing art piece that both resembles and appears to satirize the French New Wave and the indie darlings of Hollywood’s post-studio era, many of whom play themselves in cameos including Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom and Paul Mazursky. Welles appears to be placing himself above the young directors and among them, both peer and influencer, sage critic and desperate wannabe. 

 

The Other Side of the Wind couldn’t be further from the patient, deliberate and gorgeous confines of Citizen Kane. The Other Side of the Wind is pure chaos where story appears almost non-existent amid the free flowing experiment that is being captured and wrangled by editing team like unbroken colt. The film appears to be fighting the idea of being formed into something like a mainstream feature film and is finally corralled only when Bogdanovich and Huston manage to get Welles to pay attention just to them for just a moment. 

 

All of this is to say that I recommend you watch both the documentary, They'll Love Me When I'm Dead and the final cut of the movie, The Other Side of the Wind, back to back for the best experience. That’s a big commitment, nearly four hours, but if you are a crazy film nerd like me, it’s an experience you don’t want to pass up on. Both They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and The Other Side of the Wind are streaming now, back to back, on Netflix.


Movie Review The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

The character of Lisbeth Salander had, for a time, become the dominant pop cultural notion of an international ‘hacker.’ Or, at least she was until faceless Russian trolls became the top meme on that front during the 2016 election year. Before that though, leather, spikes and punk attitude, epitomized by Lisbeth as written by the late Stieg Larsson, was the dominant mode of our imagination of the hacker. 

 

That is because Larsson’s characterization of Lisbeth Salander as the ultimate, badass, rebel, outlaw of the internet was so incredibly juicy. Pansexual, androgynous, covered in leather and spikes with a photographic memory and an intuition to match. And, she can beat up just about any man put in her way? That’s a recipe for an irresistible pop culture heroine. Add to that, Noomi Rapace’s iconic Lisbeth in the 2009 film adaptation and it is no wonder that Larsson and Lisbeth have lived on long past the author himself and his Millennium franchise. 

 

With the latest, and the first under a new author, Millennium franchise story, The Girl in the Spider’s Web about to return Lisbeth Salander to our collective pop culture radar, now seemed like a good time to look back at the first big screen incarnation of the ultimate hacker icon, Noomi Rapace’s 2009 award winning performance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. 

 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo introduces us to Lisbeth Salander as she is investigating a crusading journalist, Mikael Blomqvist (Mikael Nyqvist) who is being set up to go to jail. Blomqvist got suckered into a big investigative story about a powerful Swedish businessman but once he completed his story, he found that all of his sources had disappeared and he could go to jail on Sweden’s harsh libel laws. 

This, however, is not why Lisbeth is investigating Blomqvist. Instead, she is working for another billionaire businessman who wants to hire Blomqvist to investigate a 40 year old disappearance. Blomqvist specifically has a connection to the woman who disappeared, Harriet Vanger, as she was his childhood babysitter. Henrik Vanger, Harriet’s uncle is betting that the personal connection and Mikael’s desperate situation will make him the ideal person to find evidence that no one has found in the past 40 years. 

 

Lisbeth’s part of the story should end there but she is deeply fascinated by Blomqvist. Investigating his case she found him to be the rare case of someone who has nothing to hide, a genuinely good man, caught up in a scheme not of his making. When Blomqvist accepts Vanger’s invitation to investigate Harriet’s disappearance, Lisbeth invites herself into the investigation and becomes Blomqvist’s partner and lover. 


The mystery at the heart of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo oozes with intrigue including incest among Swedish elite, billion dollar fortunes, a serial killer and secret Nazis. It’s a whole lot of story for a whole lot of movie, the film, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, comes in at a fully packed 2 hours and 30 minutes. In that time, we also get to know some of Lisbeth’s frightful backstory as an abuse victim who has only begun to fight back. 

 

We learn a lot about Lisbeth’s resolve and strength in a violent subplot involving Lisbeth’s new guardian, played by Nils Bjurman. The film never explains why Lisbeth, who is clearly of an adult age, needs a guardian but the hint is that she is a recovering addict. Regardless, the brutal guardian exacts a toll on Lisbeth by taking over her finances and strangling the control she has over her life.

 

This subplot has received a great deal of controversial attention for having a brutal rape as its central conceit. Many have asked why this scene or even the subplot as a whole exists in the book and in the film. The answer is complicated, at least from my critical perspective. I can understand that the scene in question is brutal and could be fairly called exploitative. On the other hand, this subplot comes to play a larger role in the Millennium series as it goes on. 

 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo introduces this complex, traumatic and problematic subplot and it can be fairly seen as extraneous in the stubborn context of just this movie. In the Millennium franchise however, this subplot has a much larger part to play and comes to be if not a central component of any of the other stories, it’s one that communicates a great deal about Lisbeth, her history and how she copes. 

 

That director Niels Arden Oplev has done little since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2009 to distinguish his directorial career, does little to dim my opinion of the movie. This is one of the most riveting mysteries of this young century, a fascinating, twisty, and riveting work of suspense with an R-rated grit that makes it certainly not for everyone, especially those without a strong stomach. 

 

If you’re interested in the story of Lisbeth Salander ahead of the release, this weekend, of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, this 2009, Swedish language thriller, is the best possible introduction. Yes, even better than the American version of the story. That’s saying something as the 2011 version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo carries the distinguished reputation of director David Fincher. 

 

Nevertheless, consider 2009’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet’s Nest as required reading for true fans of Stieg Larsson’s dark, gritty and yet deeply commercial, mystery franchise, before or after you see The Girl in the Spider’s Web.


Movie Review Destination Wedding

Destination Wedding stars Keanu Reeves as Frank and Winona Ryder as Lindsey, a pair of mismatched wedding guests. Frank’s brother is getting married in San Luis Obispo, a piece of information the filmmakers feel is important for us to know for some reason. Frank hates his brother and based off of the evidence of the movie, he hates pretty much everyone so, Frank setting aside special hatred for someone is notable. 

 

Lindsey, meanwhile, is Frank’s brother’s ex-fiancee. She accepted an invitation to this wedding some six years after Frank’s brother dumped her on the eve of their wedding. She’s come to San Luis Obispo in search of closure and acceptance and the ability to move on with her emotional life. And, she might be insane. The movie doesn’t deal with this fact directly, but Winona Ryder plays the character with some sort of undefined mental deficiency that, perhaps is meant to be comedy. 

 

Frank’s main trait beyond extreme misanthropy is his habit of hocking phlegm. Yeah, this is a fun trait to give a character. Our introduction to Frank is him repeatedly and loudly attempting to clear his sinuses. It’s apparent that the movie thinks this is either charming or funny as they keep having him do it, multiple times throughout the movie. Somehow though the funny part of the hocking didn’t translate to those of us in the audience, it remains solely in the imagination of Keaun Reeves and writer-director Victor Levin. 

 

Keanu gets off easier than poor Winona Ryder who is forced to play Lindsey as what I assume is the victim of an off-screen head injury. Our introduction to Lindsey is her breathing heavily onto a dying plant. She does this and chants ‘come on photosynthesis’ and we are supposed to laugh I suppose, rather than cringe which my body did in instinctive sympathy for an actress I have always very much liked being made to look silly in a very unfunny fashion. 

 

Once Frank and Lindsey meet and find themselves repeatedly thrust together as the only singletons at this destination wedding, they begin to talk and immediately hate one another. The first quarter of this blessedly short 80 minute feature is Ryder and Reeves insulting one another in the most hateful and obnoxiously unfunny fashion. Imagine being trapped in a small space with a pair of obnoxiously miserable people and you get a sense of what watching Reeves and Ryder interact in Destination Wedding is like. 

 

I’m trying hard to imagine what either of these talented people thought would come of this unfunny, genuinely mean way their characters interact in this movie. I assume they were aware they were making a romantic comedy and not the prequel to a violent revenge movie, but I can’t be sure. Dialogue that is meant to be savagely misanthropic comes off as merely faux miserable ranting from characters we can’t stand and are yet the only characters in this movie. There are no other characters, just Lindsey and Frank the whole time. It's like being trapped in an elevator with relatives you hate but are too polite to scream at. 

 

When the love story began to unfold in Destination Wedding, I was dumbfounded that anyone thought these characters were capable of such a turn. Ryder and Reeves have established both of these hateful, obnoxious, miscreants as people who are more likely to commit murder-suicide than fall in love and yet we have to suffer listening to them bond over how they hate other people more than they hate each other so they must be good together. 

 

As the 'romance' progresses the two have one of the worst, unfunny, funny love scene I have ever seen. Some of the hilariously funny dialogue includes Ryder telling Reeves that he looks like he's about to vomit on her. This happens during the love scene. Eventually, the romance progresses to a genuine and earnest moment when our head injury victim, Lindsey says, without a hint of irony or sarcasm, "what if our real destination was each other?" Now, I'm the one who looks like he might vomit. 

 

When I saw that Destination Wedding starred Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder I was sure it couldn’t be that bad. Oh how wrong I was. This is truly one of the worst movies of 2018. Even at a barely feature length 80 minutes, Destination Wedding is an unbearable disaster of a movie. Bitter, spiteful, hateful, idiotic characters pretending toward being funny misanthropes, Frank and Lindsey aren’t romantic comedy characters, they are the half-hearted offspring of screenwriters who watch half of a Judd Apatow movie and think they get the gist.

 

Destination Wedding is now available on Blu Ray and DVD. 


Movie Review They Live (1988)

John Carpenter's They Live was released 30 years ago today... 

 

As a film critic one of my most reviled and despised opinions is that I don't care for John Carpenter’s 1978 horror movie Halloween. I find the film to be amateurish, if I may be frank, with almost absurd level of over-praise for its filmmaking. Thankfully, my disdain for Halloween was not enough to sour me on the work of John Carpenter as a whole. I was lucky that I gave him another chance with movies like The Fog, Escape from New York and the movie I am writing about today, 1988’s They Live, movies which I feel are vastly superior to Halloween and are a true testament to Carpenter as a great filmmaker. 

 

They Live tells the story of a drifter (Rowdy Roddy Piper of wrestling fame) who travels to a futuristic Los Angeles (maybe? Or Pittsburgh?, not sure) where searches for works in a society where the divide between the haves and the have nots has grown to disheartening degrees. Eventually, our hero finds work on a construction site and a new friend in co-worker, Frank (Keith David) who helps him find shelter at a local homeless enclave. 

 

There, our hero stumbles on to what he believes to be some sort of criminal operation inside a church. The organizer claims the church helps the homeless with food but our hero will discover that it is actually den hiding a government resistance group that has learned a deep, dark secret: our government and indeed our daily lives, have fallen under control of aliens bent on turning human against human to make way for their invasion, enriching the few and enslaving the many. 

 

Our hero finds these notions to be far fetched until he stumbles onto a pair of magic sunglasses. When he puts the sunglasses on, the world becomes a very different place. Advertising on billboards and magazine covers disappear to reveal subliminal messages such as ‘Obey,’ ‘Consume,’ and ‘Stay Asleep.’ More disturbingly though, the glasses allow our hero to see the aliens hiding in human form, their bug-eyed, meat and bone faces revealed by the sunglasses. 

 

Deeply disturbed by what he’s seen our hero tries to recruit his buddy frank so that they can find a way to warn the world about the alien invasion that is enslaving millions. But first, Frank and our hero have to have an epic, knock down, drag out, brawl to end all movie brawls. A fight so iconically brutal that for a time it superseded the film itself in the minds of those who remembered They Live. They Live became the movie with the fight and not the clever bit of classic sci-fi paranoia that it really is.

 

That fight scene is pretty epic. Rowdy Roddy Piper decided to add some of his WWF wrestling maneuvers into the battle for kicks but it is the punching and the length of this gritty battle that sticks with you. The fight lasts for endless minutes and the gut wrenching sound of each punch would make a Rocky fan wince. It’s brilliantly shot as well, the perspectives allowing you to feel almost apart of the melee yourself. 

 

Beyond this fight however, John Carpenter demonstrates a mastery of genre in They Live. He clearly has studied the paranoia and propaganda of classic cinema and he mines a treasure trove of classic science fiction to inform his very modern and still rather trenchant flick. They Live has a message about wealth distribution that feels ripped from today’s headlines. 

 

The paranoia about subliminal messages is perhaps a little dated but it works in the context of They Live and it makes for a terrific visual to go with the gory faces of the awful aliens. The crisp black and white photography is a lovely throwback to the paranoid sci-fi of the red scare 50s and Francisco X. Perez’s perfect makeup for the aliens really pops in both black and white and color, when we briefly see the aliens in color. 

 

Perez is one of the unsung heroes of the makeup world. He would go on from They Live in 1988 to The Avengers nearly 30 years. His work is as vital and memorable as ever, now as part of one of the biggest blockbuster franchises of all time. It began however, with They Live and his incredibly detailed and deeply unsettling aliens. Carpenter gets credit of course for making them creepy but he certainly could not have done it without Perez. 

 

They Live has issues, near the end of the movie we get what I have come to call ‘Deus Ex Homeless Guy,’ a character who exists solely because the plot needs him to conveniently bridge into the final act, but that little bit of cheesy cheat doesn’t bother me too much. I can’t get mad at They Live, it’s too much fun. When Roddy Piper announces to a room full of aliens that he ‘came here to kickass and chew bubblegum and I’m all out of bubblegum,’ I get giddy. It’s super-cheesy but deliciously fun. 

 

That’s They Live in a nutshell. Super-cheesy and super-fun. It has touches that are genuinely relevant, even trenchant but the core of the film is Carpenter’s exceptional plotting, terrific action and the tremendous use of homage to classic sci-fi of the past. It’s a movie that, for 1988, was incredibly modern and yet carried a love and respect for the past. And it’s just a whole load of fun even 30 years later. 


Movie Review The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms isn’t bad if you’re under the age of 10 perhaps. If you can see it through the eyes of a child it has a lovely, safe, message about self-empowerment and a bright, shiny visual style that is impressively busy. If you can get over how simple the movie is and remember that it was made for children, you might be able to find a way to enjoy it more than I did.

 

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms stars Mackenzie Foy as Clara, one of three siblings, children of Mr. Stahlbaum (Matthew McFadyen) whose wife, and the children’s mother, has passed away not long ago. Nevertheless, the family is to attend to the party of Clara’s Godfather, Mr Drosselmyer (Morgan Freeman) and attempt to put their grief aside. This won’t be easy as before they leave for the party, Mr Stahlbaum hands out Christmas presents from their late mother. 

 

For Clara, the gift is a complex mechanical egg with a keyhole but no key. There is a note with it that reads “All you need is inside” which makes it more frustrating that she does not have the key. Thankfully, at the party, Mr Drosselmyer reveals that he has the key and the key is waiting for Clara at the end of a string which leads her to a magical place called the Four Realms. The Four Realms are an entire fantasy land that her mother had built and populated with fascinating characters. 

 

Up first is a toy soldier who guards a bridge into the 4th Realm. He is the Nutcracker of the title, real name Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight). Phillip warns Clara not to go into the 4th realm because it is inhabited by the dangerous Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) and her army of mice. Unfortunately, Mother Ginger’s mouse army has made off with Clara’s key and she needs to get it back to open the egg and unlock its secrets. 

 

Before Clara can try to get her key back she must first see the rest of the cast including the leaders of the realms including the leader of the Flower realm, Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) and the leader of the Ice Realm, Shiver (Richard E. Grant). And finally, there is the leader of the candy realm, known as Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley). Sugar Plum is the most outlandish of the group and begins to explain to Clara that her mother was their beloved Queen and how the realms are now at war with Mother Ginger because of the Queen’s absence. 

 

Sugar Plum lays out the plot, she too needs the key being held by Mother Ginger so that she can turn on the machine that can make toy soldiers that can then battle Mother Ginger’s mouse army. Eager to open the egg and get at the secret her mother left behind, Clara offers to take a contingent of Nutcrackers to the 4th Realm and go head to head with Mother Ginger. She will come back with the key or all will be lost. 

 

No points for guessing that Clara gets the key back. The plot requires that she open the egg and we find out what her mother’s cryptic message was about. You can probably guess, just as I did, rather easily, what is inside the egg that has has all the answers. It’s a mirror of course, because everything Clara needs is inside herself. Get it? It really is as if the movie were good-naturedly elbowing you in the ribs to see if you understood this not all that deep insight. 

 

Indeed, the filmmakers appear quite pleased with themselves for rehashing this old cliche. But, in fairness, it’s a cliche to us jaded adults who’ve seen this kind of empowerment cheese before. For kids, especially those seeing movies for the first time, this may indeed be a revelation and it is pitched in such a simple, easy to consume fashion that it may resonate with children in a powerful way. It was groan inducing for me and perhaps most adults but I get what the movie is going for here and I understand that it is not intended to impress ME. 

 

There is a harmless, charmingly disposable quality to The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. There is nothing terribly wrong with it as a movie for grade school audiences. It has a broad beauty to it in cinematography and design that children will find enchanting and the empowerment message is fine, not exactly subtle or well crafted, but it’s fine. The part of how Sugar Plum comes to represent the angry, childish aspect of Clara’s grief is, again, not subtle, rather over top, but I can see the message reaching a child and I can’t say that’s a bad thing. 

 

Do I wish that we would not condescend to children at the movies? Yes, I don’t believe movies have to be dumbed down to reach a young audience. The Toy Story movies are a great example of reaching children and asking them to rise up to meet the movie rather than talking down by assuming children don’t get complex relationships and metaphors. I would argue: how will a child ever fully grow up if we keep speaking down to them? 

 

That said, Nutcracker and the Four Realms is not the worst example of movies talking down to children. There is a strong attempt by the filmmakers to be on the level with children even as it is patently condescending in its simplicity. But, for the most part, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a harmless empowerment fantasy with a nice look to it and deeply committed performances from Helen Mirren and Keira Knightley. 

 

I don’t love this movie by any stretch and if you are not the parent of a very young child, I don’t recommend The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. That said, if you are the parent of a young child, grade school and younger, you could do far worse than having your child watch this movie.


Movie Review Nobody's Fool

Nobody’s Fool is marketed as a platform for the brilliant Tiffany Haddish, one of the breakout stars of the last two years. The trailer for Nobody's Fool would have you believe that Haddish is being set loose in the kind of the leading role that plays to her strengths as a force of nature style performer who dominates the scene by being more alive than everyone around her. Finally, after the promise of Girls Trip and all of the buzz about how much Haddish is the next big thing we were supposed to see Tiffany Haddish step forward into the spotlight.

 

Nope! Tiffany Haddish is not actually the lead actress in Nobody’s Fool. Tika Sumpter, a nice actress in her own right, is actually in the traditional romantic lead of Nobody’s Fool. Haddish is, instead, a proxy for writer-director-executive producer Tyler Perry who employs Haddish as an avatar for his Madea character. Little of what Haddish does in Nobody’s Fool is anything Perry hasn’t done with Madea in other movies and as you can imagine, that’s a pretty big waste of Tiffany Haddish.

 

Nobody’s Fool is the story of Danica (Sumpter), a successful, sexy, young woman who we meet when she rolls out of bed and dances to Janet Jackson’s Miss You Much, a song appropriate for the fact that she misses her boyfriend Charlie (Mehcad Brooks), who she’s never actually met in person but is in love with. Danica may not see her boyfriend but thankfully she’s not short on male attention as Frank (Omari Hardwick) from the coffee shop next to her office romances her everyday with free coffee and a rose.

 

Danica’s happy, well-ordered life of privilege is thrown for a loop when her sister Tanya (Haddish) is released from prison and their mother, Lola, played by Whoopi Goldberg, forces Danica to take Tanya in. Tanya then immediately gets a job at Frank's coffee shop and sets about screwing up every aspect of her little sister’s life. First she figures out that Danica is getting Catfished by Charlie by literally getting the guys from MTV’s Catfish to investigate Charlie.

 

Then she manipulates Frank and Danica into bed together where they begin falling in love only to have a major monkey wrench thrown into the story that I won’t spoil if you still want to see this despite my not recommending that you skip it. It’s an unpredictable twist to be sure but it is also incomprehensibly stupid. I can’t fully go into how dimwitted this twist is without spoilers, all I can say is that an utterly embarrassing cameo by Chris Rock is the rotten cherry on top of all the bad decisions that culminate in this twist.

 

Where to begin with the misguided mistakes of Nobody’s Fool. The most egregious from my perspective comes in how Tyler Perry uses his supposed star, Tiffany Haddish. Haddish’s foul-mouthed, supernova charisma made her a star in Girls Trip but here, that same nasty charm is used to make Tanya an avatar for the awfulness of Tyler Perry’s usual Madea schtick. Every line out of Tanya’s mouth could be lifted from past Perry movies where his drag character Madea is little more than a series of unfunny, dirty, non-sequiturs that go on for seemingly hour after pointless hour.

 

Haddish still manages to shine through the box that Perry is shoving her into because she’s far more talented than the hacky character she’s being forced into. The charisma monster of her Girls Trip persona cannot be contained and occasionally in Nobody’s Fool we get a little of that character such as a scene where she is offered a job at the coffee shop and can’t resist offering the owner some sex as a thank you. It’s horribly inappropriate but it’s delivered with a devilish energy that is irresistible.

 

Sadly, that type of scene is limited in Nobody’s Fool. Surprisingly, Haddish is kept offscreen for a great deal of more time than you expect also. I mentioned before that we were suckered into thinking she was the lead character in Nobody’s Perfect, and we were. She’s unquestionably in a supporting role here despite being multiple times more interesting than the sweet but otherwise bland Tika Sumpter.

 

That’s not Sumpter’s fault really, Tiffany Haddish is simply not a performer who melts into the background of an ensemble. It would be like having Bugs Bunny in a scene and having him just stand there and listen while someone earnestly explains the plot of the story. That simply doesn’t work, not for Haddish whose character lacks the patience to be in the background and not for the movie which casts her and asks us to accept when she’s not out front. All we can think is, when is Tiffany going to do something wild?

 

That’s a perception problem created by us and by the movie. It’s our fault for expecting Tiffany Haddish to be a particular way as an actress but it is also the fault of the marketing team that put her front and center and made promises that the film does not keep. We were promised a Tiffany Haddish movie and we got a Madea movie minus Madea. Tiffany Haddish is way better than Madea but a Madea movie is still no prize, even without the sight of Tyler Perry in drag.

 

If you do decide to see Nobody’s Fool despite my warning just remember that I told you so. Tiffany Haddish is not the star of this movie. She tries, and occasionally, she overcomes Tyler Perry to find a joke that works, but mostly she’s stuck playing out tired Madea gags with an energy and life that are commendable on her part as a professional but misguided because, this movie doesn’t deserve Tiffany Haddish.


Movie Review Bohemian Rhapsody

Part of the reason I despise Bohemian Rhapsody so much is my own fault. I projected some very high expectations on to this Freddie Mercury biopic, expectations that were perhaps too high given my experience with similar movies, biopics of rock and pop stars. Take Ray for instance, I reviewed that recently and while Jamie Foxx is incredible, the movie overall was mediocre because it is trying to capture an outsized talent and personality in a familiar box of genre cliches, crafting a portion sized life of glamorous peaks and ugly valleys that rarely exemplify a real life. 

 

I should have known better than to expect a Hollywood biopic to capture the joy and sorrow, the genuine complexity of the life of a great artist. Hollywood has rarely done this well before and I don’t know why I expected Hollywood to do better this time. I should have been especially wary of Bohemian Rhapsody because the life of Freddie Mercury is among the most complex and tragic in rock history. It would take several movies to capture the multitudes of Mr Fahrenheit. Trying to do it in this one movie renders Freddie’s life drab and miserable outside of concert footage that could just as easily be enjoyed on vinyl recordings. 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody appeared, to me, to posit the life of Freddie Mercury as a struggle of almost constant pain, sorrow and loneliness. To believe the narrative of Bohemian Rhapsody is to believe that the legendary lead singer of Queen had no joy in his life whatsoever. His friends brought him no joy, his varied love life brought him only heartache and even his musical creations were fraught with the infighting of the band over writing credits and placement on each album. 

 

It’s apparent from the movie that the only time Freddie Mercury experienced anything close to joy was when he was on stage performing. The performance portions of Bohemian Rhapsody are pretty good. Problematic director Bryan Singer, who was fired part way through production, does give a unique look to the concert scenes with a genuinely innovative camera angle that looks out from Freddie's piano as he plays some of his most iconic songs live. 

 

Now, you might assume that the pain that Freddie Mercury experienced in his life off of the stage would fuel his creativity but you would be wrong about that. Not one single Queen song performed in Bohemian Rhapsody reflects Freddy’s heartache. For all of the rock and roll power of Queen, they were not a band that reflected upon themselves or life. They were about irony, humor and poetry. Somebody to Love perhaps could be the closest we get to something reflective but I will leave you to earnestly parse that song which is more about Freddie’s love of Aretha Franklin and the sonic experimentation of vocal layering but yeah, it’s called Somebody to Love so that passes the anti-intellectual pop psych, literal reading of the song if that’s what you want. 

 

Rami Malek does the best he possibly can with the material of Bohemian Rhapsody but he’s ultimately defeated by some of the worst and most awkward dialogue in any movie in 2018. Trying to sound like a human being while spouting some of the dialogue forced on him in Bohemian Rhapsody is a challenge that would defeat most actors. That Malek doesn’t come off badly is a strong testament to his talent. He was beaten before the cameras even rolled but he gave it a go and didn’t embarrass himself. 


The actors playing the rest of the band perhaps should have been played by extras for all of the depth they are given in Bohemian Rhapsody. We get thumbnails of the backgrounds of Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon but not much. May was a physicist in college, Taylor was a dentist and when Freddie insults John Deacon in one scene we find out he was once an electrical engineer. We know that Freddie called the band his family but very little of the movie focuses on that aspect, the script prefers wallowing in how miserable Freddie Mercury was when he wasn’t spouting awkward or banal dialogue. 

 

I understand that the Brian May and Roger Taylor were involved in the making of the movie but if that indeed was the case, one wonders just how much they actually liked their late lead singer. As a character, Freddie Mercury is a wisp of a person with no agency of his own. Freddie’s life was always predicated on what others were demanding of him and how he joylessly followed their direction. This is especially true of how Freddie’s relationship with the band’s tour manager Paul Prenter is played in the movie. 

 

Prenter is portrayed as a cartoonish villain who bullied and cajoled the fragile Freddie Mercury into the life of a gay socialite, a life he never wanted if the movie is to be believed. Actor Allen Leech doesn’t help matters by playing Prenter as a complete weasel with only the worst intentions in mind for Freddie Mercury. Prenter likely was a really bad guy, his interviews after being fired by Mercury indicate an opportunistic slimeball but the portrayal in Bohemian Rhapsody is so comical that Leech should have played the part with a tiny mustache he could twirl in order to underline his villainy.

 

Mike Myers, that famously cantankerous cartoon of an actor, shows up briefly in Bohemian Rhapsody and serves to demonstrate the bankruptcy at the heart of the film. Myers functions like a terrible meta-dad joke as he’s employed solely so that he can play a record executive at EMI who rejects the legendary Bohemian Rhapsody. Bohemian Rhapsody is, for those who don’t know, a song that Myers himself was responsible for returning to popular culture with his inclusion of the song in his hit movie Wayne’s World.

 

Someone thought it would be super funny and not terribly awkward to have Myers pointedly state that kids in cars won’t be singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody. Essentially, one of Queen’s most incredible artistic achievements gets reduced to a mediocre reference gag.  That Myers is also almost unrecognizable and using another of his nearly incomprehensible accents only serves to make the whole scene unnecessarily awkward while being terribly unfunny. The late career of Mike Myers will make for a fascinating documentary one day as few people of such talent have done so much to make themselves so completely repellent as Mike Myers has done in the decade since he was last a relevant performer. 

 

Yes, if you can’t tell, I loathe Bohemian Rhapsody. I have sympathy for Rami Malek and I love, love, love, the music of Queen but this movie is atrocious. The final act tries to redeem the abysmal whole by abandoning acting in favor of pure mimicry by having the cast re-enact Queen’s famed performance at Live Aid but it is impossible to escape the fact that we are watching pantomime and not performance. You could have as much fun listening to the movie soundtrack, which carries the entirety of the Live Aid performance re-enacted here and you could do so without having to spend time wallowing in Freddie Mercury’s seemingly endless suffering. 

 

Despite the amazing soundtrack and poor Rami Malek, who really gives his all, Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the worst movies of 2018. 


Movie Review Ray (2004)

In anticipation of the release of Bohemian Rhapsody this weekend, our movie of the day is Ray starring Jamie Foxx... 

 

There is an odd sort of verisimilitude to this week of reviews as we transition from a horror musical review on Wednesday of Rocky Horror Picture Show into a musical biopic which will remain as our theme headed into Friday when we discuss Bohemian Rhapsody, the new Queen and Freddy Mercury biopic being released nationwide this weekend. It’s rather fascinating to consider that these disparate phenomena, Rocky Horror, Ray Charles and Queen were contemporaries of sorts. Each was a facet of our vast popular culture at the same time, available to the same audience in different ways.

 

The story told in Ray stops well before the stories for Rocky Horror or Queen even begin but by the time they do arrive, Ray is established as one of the stalwart figures of the music business, a warrior who overcome disability, racism and a drug habit to become an enduring pop institution. The movie Ray gives us that proverbial ‘warts and all’ look at the life and legend of Ray Charles and while the film is on the shaggy side, Jamie Foxx’s lead performance is one of the great performances of this young century.

 

Ray tells the story of Ray ‘Charles’ Robinson is a sort of a linear fashion. The film is populated by gauzy flashbacks to Ray’s tragic childhood in Northern Florida in the early 1930’s. In the linear story, we meet Ray as he charms and lies his way onto a bus from Florida to Seattle where he has a gig as a pianist waiting for him. Confusingly, the story flips between Ray’s bus ride to Seattle and the gig that got him the cash to go, playing in a redneck country band.

 

The structure of Ray at times threatens to derail the movie but Jamie Foxx is so remarkable and the music of Ray Charles so indelible and fascinating that it’s too good even for director Taylor Hackford to screw up. We watch as Ray learns valuable lessons about protecting his money, he insisted on being paid in singles to assure that his pay was not shorted. We see him learn how not to be taken advantage of by friends and how they should not underestimate him because of his disability.

 

Finally, we watch with the most fascination as he creates a legendary catalogue of hit music. The studio portions of Ray are magical, filmed with an eye for how historic this moment and time must have been. The cuts to Curtis Armstrong’s Ahmet Ertugen and Richard Schiff’s Jerry Wexler as they witnessed Ray cutting legendary songs in a single take capture the pure creativity that infused the music of Ray Charles. You don’t have to love Ray’s fusion of Jazz, Gospel and Pop to recognize music history in the making, his music crossed all possible boundaries.

 

If it looks easy it’s because Ray Charles always made it look easy. His blindness didn’t matter, he was one of those rare souls infused with music and an untameable talent for creation. In one of the great moments in the film and in music history, we witness Ray improv what would become one of his all time, bestselling classics, “What’d I Say,” as a way of filling time at the end of a gig that had ended too soon in the eyes of the promoter who threatened not to pay Ray and the band.

 

Some discount Jamie Foxx’s performance as mere mimicry or a broad impression but I don’t think that is fair. Foxx is stuck with a director in Taylor Hackford who has stuck him with a script that undermines him with a series of pop psych level flashbacks to his childhood that are supposed to infuse him with depth but instead come off as awkward and confused. Foxx overcomes this not by committing to those moments but by busting through those moment to get to the heart of Ray Charles.

 

Foxx captures both the Ray Charles we know, the gyrating, gesticulating, impish performer and the calculating, paranoid addict side of Ray Charles that the public only glimpsed in headlines. Ray could be cruel when he wanted to be, as demonstrated by his marriage and his relationship with various managers and hangers on, people who thought they were perhaps more than just employees but soon found themselves on the outs.

 

Foxx is incredible at maintaining our sympathy for Ray even as he does terrible things to himself and to his wife, played by Kerry Washington. It’s not that Ray’s behavior isn’t disappointing, along with director Hackford’s lame attempts to explain his behavior via those pop psych flashbacks, but rather that Foxx gives Ray Charles a vulnerability that not only we find irresistible but we can imagine others found irresistible as well. That’s not an easy trick for any actor to pull of, let alone an actor known at the time for sketch and stand-up comedy.

 

Foxx’s performance is unquestionably rendered better by comparison to the rest of the movie. Taylor Hackford drags out the story with his stumbling, flashbacks and detours, he spends a good deal of time focusing on the homes Ray Charles bought for his family, admiring the architecture and dwelling on the cost in scenes that are rarely necessary for moving the plot forward.

 

And then there is the treatment of the women in Ray Charles’ life. Taylor Hackford takes a pair of our most talented African American actresses and gives them little to play beyond cliches of the put upon wife and the neglected mistress. Kerry Washington and Regina King struggle to bring depth to characters that the director appears to view as roadblocks for Ray to navigate on his redemption arc. Foxx doesn’t see them that way but he has no control over how the edit of the movie robs both actresses of moments where they can grow beyond their function to the story as impediments and aids to Ray’s faults and growth.

 

Ray is thus a mixed bag as a movie and a music biopic but as a showcase for an actor, it’s a remarkable piece of work. Hackford loves Jamie Foxx, he gives his lead actor every opportunity to exercise his limitless ability to capture the Ray Charles of our imagination and something so very real and true about the man. Foxx bites into the role with fervor and and a powerhouse level of star-power and charisma. It took an outsize performance to capture the outsized legend and a remarkable talent to bring him into a real life, sympathetic context beyond the legend.

 

Jamie Foxx delivers a truly iconic performance as Ray Charles. Here’s hoping Rami Malek is able to do the same for Freddy Mercury whose life had some strange parallels with Ray Charles, though Ray was able to overcome his demons in ways that sadly, Freddy never got the chance to do. If Rami Malek can deliver even a fraction of Foxx’s power, we’re in for something great in Bohemian Rhapsody this week.