Reviews


“Blow the Man Down” Movie Review


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     In much the same way the Coen brother’s “Fargo” and Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout “Winter’s Bone” did, directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy have crafted their film, “Blow the Man Down”, utilizing a unique and little known setting to tell a story that would otherwise feel familiar if it were to take place in a well known city.  The hook here, in other words, isn’t necessarily the plot, but rather the locale and the people who populate it.  People who in their everyday nature simply feel different than the norm. They are indeed interesting.  And those differences also tend to bring forth unpredictable solutions as well.  Looking back again at “Fargo” as a good example, who would’ve thought disposing of a body could lead to the use of a wood chipper?

     Taking place in a cold and snowy Maine fishing town called Easter Cove, “Blow the Man Down” is set up as a standard murder and subsequent cover up tale and never really delves in a different direction even when a third act arrives that isn’t nearly as clever as it should have been.  Working from a script they wrote as well, Cole and Krudy open the film with a montage of fisherman singing a tune derived from the title, as we are immersed in the daily process of catching and cleaning fish in the area.  We are meant to believe this what the characters we will soon meet depend on in their daily lives in one way or another, as these scenes also set the stage for much of what’s to come given the tools of the trade common in these parts.

     Early on, we meet Mary Beth (“Homeland” alum Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla Connolly (Sophie Lowe), two adult aged sisters who have just lost their mother and now find themselves in financial disarray, with the house they live in behind on the mortgage and the family fish store business failing.  Though both find themselves in the same predicament, they couldn’t be anymore different in the way they think.  And while Priscilla remains the more level headed and responsible half of the siblings (think Jo March in “Little Women”), Mary Beth exhibits overly impulsive behavior, longing to leave the small town she has spent her entire childhood in and experience life in a more exciting way.  Of course the fact they are now broke doesn’t help with those plans, as she chooses to storm off from her mother’s funeral reception and head to the local watering hole to drown in her self centered sorrows.

     This, of course, leads to her making an acquaintance with one of the town’s many less than savory types who are looking to blow off steam after another hard days work.  And when this guy, Gorski (“Girls” alum Ebon Moss-Bachrach), asks her to his place, the now inebriated would be couple makes their way to a shack located at one of the local docks.  But before anything goes further, Mary Beth finds something in his vehicle that immediately changes her mind, but Gorski isn’t having it.  What ensues then requires a desperate cover up where Mary Beth utilizes Priscilla’s assitance, as they both soon discover much of what they knew growing up is now shrouded in an abundance of organized criminal activity that spans through many of the people they once looked up to.

     As the sisters grapple with their now desperate situation, they find themselves in the middle of a power struggle that sees a trio of older women (Gail (Annette O’Toole), Doreen (“The Leftovers” alum Marceline Hugot), and Susie (“Nebraska" Oscar nominee June Squibb)) pitted against another of the town’s elders, Enid (Margo Martindale), as the former attempts to cleanse the town of past practices still in play today that have been now deemed unacceptable.  Namely the fact Enid still runs an illegal prostitution ring which has made money off of needy fisherman for decades.  Eventually, Priscilla and Mary Beth are thrust in the middle, as they attempt to cover up their misdeed while also safeguarding a stash of cash that has found its way into their possession.

     Practically every scene begins with a series of beautifully composed shots of the surrounding areas, ensuring the audience has a firm grasp on the layout of the town and exactly where the power structure is located in relation to other important locations to the plot.  The story includes just one male protagonist character, a young local cop named Justin (Will Brittain), who suspects many of these characters are involved in the murder of a young girl who washes up to shore early in the film, but is constantly held at bay by his partner, Coletti (Skip Sudduth) whose long career here has likely meant he was in on much of the malfeasance being uncovered.

     “Blow the Man Down” is primarily a story of an old guard within a long time fishing town who wants to ensure their own exploits are not disturbed by those up and coming.  As you can imagine, Priscilla and Mary Beth, because of the situation they have created, are at the behest of many of these older women.  The question for them is who is on their side, and who is looking to use them as a scapegoat for their own crimes.  As I eluded to earlier, the final scenes in the film will not necessarily surprise you.  There aren’t the kind of juicy revelations seen in many of the classic films of this genre, but the overall product is quite entertaining and even compelling at times, particularly given the outstanding performances by the cast.  GRADE: B

“The Jesus Rolls” Movie Review


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     Writer/director John Turturro reprises his role as Jesus Quintana in “The Jesus Rolls”, a completely unnecessary and virtually unwatchable film about a character whose most notable action in the Coen Brother’s 1998 classic “The Big Lebowski” was licking his bowling ball prior to putting it into play.  The film, which is structured as a standard road movie, plays like “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” without the context that comes from having appeared extensively in several previous stories.  And while Jay and Silent Bob are actually likable and funny at times, there are no redeeming qualities for Jesus, as Turturro finds it extremely difficult over the film’s 85 minute running time to conjure up anything remotely interesting for the character to do.

     I really don’t think audiences were clamoring for a spin off of any of the “Lebowski” characters, save for Jeff Bridges reprising The Dude.  That goes for Walter, Maude, Bunny, and Donny as well.  Each of them, including Jesus, excel as a result of being a sum of their parts.  It’s only The Dude who could be considered a foundational character whose current exploits would make for a potentially viable story, and yet Turturro, apparently with the Coen’s blessing, brings back the slimiest goon of the bunch, in a film that feels as though he’s making it all up as he goes along.

     We catch up with Jesus (John Turturro) in the present day as he is about to be released from prison.  He’s made plenty of friends while there, including the Warden (Christopher Walken), who lauds him for his bowling skills after having led the prison team to a big win at some point during his stay.  But we don’t see anymore of Walken after his brief scene.  Instead, Bobby Cannavale’s Petey, another directionless lowlife and a long time friend, is waiting outside the prison for Jesus with virtually no plan as to what they will do next.  And as they walk aimlessly within a near by town somewhere in New York, the duo comes across a vintage muscle car Jesus takes an impulsive liking to.  So in true “Repeat Offender” fashion, they steal it of course.  But that’s not before they find themselves in a confrontation with the car’s owner, and the sudden addition of the owner’s girlfriend, Marie (Audrey Tautou), who decides the criminal life is her best option.

     None of this is really played for laughs.  At least not in the manner that the Coen Brothers used the character, who is best taken in smaller doses, but is, unfortunately, plastered all over every scene.  And Turturro, a gifted performer who has no where to go but down with this seedy ex con, runs out of things for the guy to do, at one point even putting him back in a bowling alley just to have him (you guessed it) lick the ball in the same disgusting and over sexualized manner he was once famous for more than 20 years ago.  It’s at this point you realize the fact Jesus is a one note character designed to be memorable for one scene, but incapable of carrying a story by himself.

     With every frame the film slogs forward, every sequence is made to feel contrived and even more lame than what came before it.  As if the entire thing was stitched together from a series of Saturday Night Live sketches with the intent of making a movie, but without any attempt to actually create a cohesive story line.  Not that you want to know anything more about these creeps anyway.  Between Jesus, Petey, and Marie, you may just have the most unlikable  threesome ever committed to film.  There is nothing appealing about them, and yet we are forced to watch them unclothed much of the time during a series of gratuitous and generally appalling sex scenes that add zero to the story, if you want to generously refer to it as such.

     Cameos are used in much the same way the aforementioned Kevin Smith does in his films, but none of them bring forth the desired impact.  I have to believe Turturro was owed some sort of favor from the likes of Pete Davidson, Jon Hamm, J.B. Smoove, and believe it or not, Susan Sarandon in order to have gotten them to agree to be in what is truly one of the worst films I’ve seen in years.  Notice Jeff Bridges isn’t listed there.  The Dude may abide, but he definitely knows crap when he sees it. 

     One can’t argue there’s a family element to all of this or even a love story when the film fails to present anything remotely compelling about any one of the characters. That this is the best trajectory Turturro could come up with for his character’s arc is truly frightening.  He has neither nailed the supposed criminal element, nor has he fleshed out what Jesus really may have been like in a larger role given the minimal foundation provided by “The Big Lebowski”.  The result is a massive waste of time for all involved, but especially for anyone like myself who actually paid to see it.  Sucker! GRADE: F

“The Hunt” Movie Review


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     Whether or not you follow politics, most will recall the infamous campaign line during the 2016 Presidential election where Hilary Clinton referred to Donald Trump’s supporters as “deplorables”.  The line has gone on to be a mantra of sorts for those on the far right, particularly within the vast and quite active social media following the President currently enjoys.  Imagine their fire and fury when last summer, insiders from conservative media groups learned director Craig Zobel’s “The Hunt” was to feature a plot involving liberal elites hunting deplorables for sport!  Of course no one actually got to see the film when its early September release date was scrapped because of mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, and the controversy was put to rest for the time being.  Now released with an ad campaign referring to the film as “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.”, the film arrives during the coronavirus pandemic, which means a lot of empty movie theaters and a subdued reaction to the purportedly divisive film.  Considering how bad it is, this is probably for the best.

     To bring any sort of attention to “The Hunt”, regardless of what side you are on, would be a tremendous waste of time.  Put simply, the film isn’t worth talking about, let alone the controversy.  Funnily enough, the story is exactly what you have heard, but that doesn’t mean it ends the way you think.  Essentially, screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Linelof create characters and dialogue who exhibit all of the stereotypical behaviors and beliefs which we think liberals and conservatives display, and put them in scenes allowing them to regurgitate their positions to one another.  

     The liberals, who are vegan of course, speak about race and gender politics, climate change, and their belief that all conservatives are uneducated and thus ill-equipped to have a sensible voice in the issues that shape the country.  Conversely, the conservatives are presented as racist gun fanatics who flaunt their second amendment rights and their patriotism as they dismiss any ideas that would mean possible change to what they believe is the only way to run this country.  In some cases, Zobel allows both sides to interact and exchange their disdain for one another, often with hilarious results, but don’t be fooled.  “The Hunt” leans more towards a number of common horror tropes and seeks to thrill the audience with heavy doses of violence and gore in order to entertain.  There is absolutely nothing of substance here.

     The film opens with a view of a text thread between several unidentified characters conversing about their disdain for the President, but also their excitement for the upcoming opportunity to hunt deplorables.  That apparently becomes a reality when the action shifts to a remote open field where twelve people awaken with gags in their mouths, unaware how they got there.  The camera may focus for a couple minutes on one of them, giving the indication this is someone who we may spend considerable time with, but then suddenly the person’s head explodes as it is hit by sniper fire.  There is death coming from all angles, much of it is played more for laughs than something truly horrific or terrifying.  Perhaps a hint all of this is the filmmaker’s idea of fun, rather than something intending to actually make a statement about us as a society.

     Eventually, the group is whittled down to a couple people after we are treated to a series of grisly and imaginative death scenarios all too common to the Blumhouse brand responsible for producing the film.  One of them, Crystal (Betty Gilpin), seems to be well prepared to make a stand, as if the liberal elites made a grave error in choosing her to be a part of their game.  Other notables who join her for the stretch run include Don (Wayne Duvall), a older cowboy type gentleman proudly wearing a USA hat, and Gary (Ethan Suplee), a controversial conservative radio host.  All of it leads to a showdown with the event organizer, Athena (Hilary Swank), but never adds up to much.  There isn’t much of a story here in a film more interested in violence and the occasional one liner.  

     It’s actually interesting a film like this would cause so much controversy in the first place.  Anyone remember John Woo’s debut film in the United States?  Back in 1993, action star Jean Claude Van Damme became entangled with a group of rich men who put on hunts for other rich men where they would give a money belt with ten grand in it to a homeless military veteran and tell him if he could get from point A to point B without being killed, he could keep the money.  Spoiler alert, they never made it to point B.  The film was “Hard Target”, and no one cared.  And while that film had plenty of merits, “The Hunt” comes off as lame and unoriginal.  It’s amazing, given their substantial cost, how some of these films even get made. GRADE: D

“The Way Back” Movie Review


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     You don’t have to convince me to watch a film like Gavin O’Connor’s “The Way Back”, given  the story revolves around a high school basketball team and a coach looking for redemption, but also because I made a documentary film about a a small high school team very much like the one in this film just a few years ago, 2017’s “The Basketball Family”.  And while the similarities ensure O’Connor’s film will peak the interest of any basketball fan, the story here delves further into the territory of movies like “Manchester by the Sea” than it does basketball classics like “Hoosiers” or “Coach Carter”.

     “The Way Back” tells the story of Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), an early 90s high school basketball legend who never pursued the game after graduating, choosing instead to make decisions that would shy away from hoops and take him in other directions.  When we first meet Jack, he’s leaving after a day of work at a construction site and heads to a local bar where he drinks with friends.  At first, none of this seems unusual, that is until we see him drinking in the shower, drinking at home, drinking at the bar, and drinking on the job.  He obviously has a problem, but why?

     A Thanksgiving gathering at his mother’s house starts to shed light on his situation.  He is recently separated and has essentially isolated himself from everyone he knows.  It’s the alcohol that takes the edge off, but only temporarily, meaning he’s in a constant battle to somehow make the pain and burden of life’s pitfalls leave him, if only for a night.  In the middle of all this, he gets a phone call from his high school alma mater.  Their basketball coach has fallen ill and they want Jack to consider coaching the team.  And it is immediately disclosed the school has not qualified for the playoffs since Jack’s glory days, meaning a difficult road ahead should he accept the job.

     Working from a script by O’Connor and Brad Ingelsby, the story drops the would be coach directly into a practice where he discovers the talent level and discipline are significantly below the standards he would expect.  Many of the cliched basketball team subplots begin to play out, where we see a group who underperforms both on the court and off.  But Jack takes the job and instantly injects the team with energy and a higher level of fight in games with his colorful take on coaching and motivating.  All of this, of course, to the dismay of the school staff given this is a Catholic school who plays other religiously oriented high school programs.  But his knowledge of the game is clear, and the kids seem to instantly buy in, though there are plenty of rough patches along the way.

     One of the most common threads in stories like this will feature some level of character development amongst the players where they play a central role in both the team’s development, as well as their own.  You see it in “Hoosiers” and you really see it in “Coach Carter” where many of the players on the team are as important to the overall plot as the coach is.  That isn’t the case here, as the kids tend to stay in the backdrop with O’Connor preferring to have them orbit Jack’s story, as this isn’t really about his coaching job, nor is it about winning basketball games.  “The Way Back” instead brings us closer to a man who has consistently been knocked down in his life and struggles to continually find ways to get back up.  We learn of his rocky relationship with his father, and we are given a front and center look at the relationship he has with his estranged wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar), but there is also more which makes Jack an incredibly complex character.  

     All of this makes the narrative unconventional in terms of a sports film.  One of the kids, Brandon (Brandon Wilson), of whom Jack believes is the team’s best player, remains as the only one who the film explores beyond the basketball court, with a story that resonates with Jack given the issues he experienced with his own father.  It doesn’t help things that the kid is void of any kind of personality and the scenes dedicated to the study of his character seem forced, rather than authentic.  As if to manufacture a highlight moment in the third act, rather than really have the audience understand what’s going on in this kid’s head.  We do, however, begin to understand what is happening with the coach and why he can’t seem to put down the bottle.  It’s the kind of tragedy nobody could endure without turning the wrong way in life and thus finding themselves in a hole too deep to get out of.  

     The games themselves are expertly shot and executed in a manner that brought me right back to the 2015-2016 Calvary Chapel Lions basketball season, which is the Las Vegas team I followed in my film.  The “Warrior” director nails the small school vibe, and particularly the religious undercurrent that follows these kids on the court and in the locker room.  But the film uses most of this as a setting to the ongoing struggles of a man whose downward spiral seems impossible to stop.  GRADE: B

“The Basketball Family” is available to watch for free on Vimeo.

“The Invisible Man” Movie Review


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     As the Marvel Cinematic Universe was taking cineplexes by storm, every rival studio in Hollywood began looking back into their various intellectual properties for characters who could perhaps occupy the next successful shared universe.  The obvious example of this was DC’s foray into creating a world where their beloved comic book characters, such as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, would exist together within the same storyline.  An endeavor that culminated in 2017’s “Justice League”, but ultimately failed to excite audiences in a way that the MCU had already been doing since 2008’s “Ironman” began an arc that would encompass over twenty feature films.

     But DC wasn’t the only studio looking to reinvent their age old properties into the latest cinematic behemoth.  Armed with an array of notable monster characters whose popularity dates back to the 1930s, Universal unleashed the first in what they envisioned to be a series of films based on what we commonly refer to as the Universal Monsters.  And the thought of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and others occupying an ongoing storyline brought forth what Universal dubbed the Dark Universe, kicking off with 2017’s reboot of “The Mummy”.  The critically panned Tom Cruise film failed to excite audiences, ending its run with a paltry $80 million in North America and simultaneously shelving other projects in the pipeline.

     Writer/director Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” doesn’t begin with the same crafty intro announcing its inclusion in the Dark Universe the way “The Mummy” did (perhaps Universal decided to not be so presumptuous this time), but the opening sequence says enough about the film and the title character in a way that creates an instant sense of terror and dread more akin to a great horror film than the kind of all audiences fodder a lot of these projects are designed to be.  Whannell begins the proceedings with a jolting scenario so incredibly powerful, that you never fully recover from the uncomfortable feelings it conveys.  

     Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) awakens late at night and begins to undertake a plan obviously long in the making.  She seeks to escape the clutches of her abusive husband, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), having drugged him in order to leave undetected.  It’s the lengths she goes through with every detail and nuance of her exit carefully and meticulously planned where we understand the sense of urgency.  Under no circumstances can she be caught, as the fear of her captor is too great and the violence she would be subjected to is too much for her to endure.  Now mind you, Whannell doesn’t show us flashbacks of this abuse during or prior to this sequence.  Instead, the reasons Cecilia has for taking such precautions are left to the imagination.  All the while, her plan doesn’t go exactly as she drew it up, leaving the audience on edge as she negotiates the dark hallways of the home in what appears to be a perilous and never-ending journey to the front door and ultimately freedom.

     “The Invisible Man” plays as a hybrid between both horror and thriller tropes, but shares most of its DNA with films whose primary elements were more Hitchcockian in nature, such as “Basic Instinct”, “Dressed to Kill”, or “Body Double”, in the way its characters interact and how the emotion is pushed through the use of Benjamin Wallfisch’s sweeping and powerful musical score. This is, after all, about a relationship gone bad rather than your standard slasher film, although there are scenes which invoke that type of terror as well, particularly when characters look into open spaces (rooms, hallways, streets) shrouded in darkness, knowing someone is there but just out of sight.  Of course, in this case we have to look at the enemy being unseen in a more literal sense.

     Cecilia takes refuge with a childhood friend and his teenage daughter, James (Aldis Hodge) and Sydney (Storm Reid), with the assistance of her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), in the immediate aftermath of her escape.  Soon after, she learns Adrian has committed suicide and has left a large part of his fortune to her.  But the emotional scars are evident in every scene as Cecilia remains traumatized from her experience in way she may never fully recover.  And it isn’t long before things within James’ household begin to take a turn for the strange and unexplainable.

     The middle act focuses on a series of incidents within the home that ultimately lead to Cecilia, and everyone around her, beginning to question her sanity.  Whannell stages many of these in much the same way you would see in films like “Paranormal Activity” as blankets mysteriously pull off of people in the middle of the night, stove burners turn to high when someone leaves the room, and strange noises reverberate throughout the house.  Cecilia knows Adrian is there, but convincing others of the same proves to be an exercise in futility.

     Given the title character is, well invisible, the entire weight of the story falls directly on the shoulders of Elisabeth Moss and her ability to sell both the unseen trauma, as well as the presence of the invisible enemy to the audience.  You have to believe there is something out there which is incredibly terrifying, yet remains unseen.  To that extent, Moss turns in an exceptional performance while often presented in circumstances that have her as the solo character on screen. But this isn’t some damsel in distress needing to be saved by a man. If anything Moss’ Cecilia projects a character sharing many of the attributes seen in Linda Hamiliton’s Sarah Connor of the “Terminator” films.  A thought brought home by a key sequence taking place in a mental hospital, harking back to the same in that franchise’s best entry “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.”  As the potential threat of Adrian being alive begins to take shape, Cecilia gets stronger and more adept at meeting her advesary head on.

     Whannell utilizes the age old strategy perfected in films like “Jaws” and “Alien” of not showing us the villain in any visual form until late in the third act.  In doing so, he creates a gem of a pot boiler where each and every scene has this inherent tension that seems impossible for the characters to overcome.  Answers do eventually arrive, but the ending will not only surprise you, it will also have you appreciating how clever these characters are.  As in life, not everyone is as they seem, invisible or not.  GRADE: B+

“Downhill” Movie Review


     An American remake of Ruben Ostlund’s 2014 Swedish film “Force Majeure”, “Downhill” follows the same premise, telling the story of a family’s ski vacation turned near tragedy when an avalanche abruptly makes its way toward them and the father runs for his life while leaving his wife and children helplessly within the jaws of potential doom.  What then drives the plot is no longer the vacation, but rather the now quickly decaying relationship between the husband and wife.  The American version of the story is a genre bending mess, where brutally awkward scenes are at first played for laughs, but then morph all of the sudden into emotionally weighty relationship melodrama which leaves the audience confused as to just how serious the story is intended to be.

     When you watch “Downhill”, it’s hard not to wonder if Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus have already reached their peak as actors and are now struggling to define themselves after two decades of stardom.  If this is the case, perhaps it will be this film that marks the beginning of the end for both, although it only takes the right script to come along and either of them could easily find their groove once again.  But this isn’t it.  Which is surprising given the talent behind the camera, boasting directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash whose screenplay for 2011’s “The Descendants” won them an Oscar, as well as their feature debut, 2013’s “The Way Way Back”, being well received critically.  Given the talent assembled, you have to consider this a miss for all involved.

     Even with the majority of the audience walking into “Downhill” knowing the premise, the expectation of clever and well written scenes designed to take full advantage of the legendary comic talents of both leads should be a given.  But there are hints of a darker tone within the first act, as we meet Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell) when they arrive with their two boys at a high end Alpine ski resort in Austria for a get away vacation following a recent death in the family.  If skiing is your thing, you’ll instantly delight in the breathtaking scenery as the family glides effortlessly down some of the most gorgeous slopes in the world.  All seems to be going according to plan when you consider a family coming all the way from America to ski here, until it is revealed one of the boys, Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford), is just learning and is not able to keep up with his parents and older brother, Finn (Julian Grey), causing an immediate source of tension.

     Pete is that middle aged film character who is experiencing a mid life crisis and longs to be more like his care free co-worker Zach (Zach Woods) and his girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao) who are in the midst of a globetrotting vacation and just happen to be swinging by Austria at the same time.  He seeks to not only maximize the adult fun by having booked the family at an all adult and non kid friendly resort, but he also wants his wife and kids to do all of the most difficult ski runs, even though he is well aware of Emerson’s beginner skill level.  

     The conversations between Pete and Billie resemble more of a consistent squabble then anything of real substance.  Billie doesn’t want Pete constantly on his phone, so he creates private situations where he can do it anyway and remain out of her view.  With all of the distractions, the couple always appears disconnected while operating from different points of view.  If you ask me, the events in this film could not have happened and they likely would be on the path to splitting up anyway.

     The climactic sequence in the film was already shown in its entirety in the trailer, as the family is about to enjoy a patio lunch at the ski lodge when an avalanche comes tumbling down the mountain directly towards them.  As they watch it get closer, the patrons on the deck begin to panic.  And that’s when Pete grabs his phone off the table and runs, leaving his wife and kids who remain huddled together at the table, as the massive cloud of snow impacts the lodge.  But seconds later, all is well.  The force of the avalanche dissipated before it got to the bottom of the hill and only a snowy mist actually made it to their location.  And about the time Billie realizes they are fine is when Petes comes back, orders lunch, and acts as though nothing happened.

     “Downhill” then spirals into a clunky final forty five minutes where the family deals with now being trapped in a week long vacation far from home where mom and dad are now sleeping in separate beds.  And most of it is played in a serious tone where Billie verbalizes her disdain for Pete regularly, forcing the family to detach and often do things on their own.  Various characters are inserted into these scenes, but none of them are worth mentioning.  Meaning we spend the entire third act essentially wallowing in these character’s misfortunes with no payoff and none of the expected laughs that should come from a film headlined by Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  GRADE: D

“Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” Movie Review


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     When you are producing a spin off of a film like “Suicide Squad”, the bar isn’t set very high in order to match or surpass its overall quality.  So I’ll begin by saying while director Cathy Yan’s follow up “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey" certainly has a number of artistic merits thanks primarily to a feisty performance by Margot Robbie, the film suffers from an overused boiler plate superhero story that has become all too familiar.  And if the main draw here is meant to be the fact our anti-heroes are all women, than the filmmakers left quite a bit on the table as far as creating an original story for them to tell.  All that said, the film does manage to surpass its predecessor.

     There is wall to wall action, hyper kinetic fight sequences, and colorful imaginative sets to feast your eyes on, but once the movie ends and you walk out of the theater, you’ll probably forget you were there in the first place, or even more likely, confusion will set in a day or two later when “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” and virtually every other superhero film you’ve seen in the last ten years begin to blend.  Aside from Harley herself, I doubt any of these characters will resonate enough with mainstream audiences for them to even remember their names.

     “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” starts with an elaborate first act that both brings us up to speed on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker’s recent break up, as well as the back stories of some of the main characters, including mob boss bad guy Roman Sionis, played by a hammy over the top Ewan McGregor.  It turns out Harley has quite a few people around Gotham who have a score to settle with her for everything from breaking various parts of their bodies to stealing from them.  And now with the word out of her relationship’s demise, she must reinvent herself in order to survive.  Of course, as we already know, she is well equipped to take care of herself.

     Various characters on both sides begin to converge when a street level pick pocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), lifts a valuable diamond off of one of Roman’s henchman.  Now Harley, along with a cop working the case, Renee (Rosie Perez), Roman’s driver Dinah (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a vigilante seeking justice against the mob named Helena (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), find themselves ensnared in a hunt for the diamond with Roman and his army hot on their tails.  Along the way, we are treated to the group’s expansive repertoire of martial arts influenced fighting skills, most of which are rudimentary, yet effective in these circumstances.  

     Taking a cue from its R-rated counterpart, “Deadpool”, the action features slit throats, broken legs, and even the complete removal of faces, and yet there is always the feeling we have seen all of this before.  It is no longer a novelty to insert female heroes into ass kicking fight sequences with so many notable (and better) films having depicted the same.  “Kill Bill” anyone? “Atomic Blonde”? What about “Wonder Woman”?  There is nothing in “Birds of Prey” that will come across as anything more than standard fight choreography with Harley and company positioned to dispatch multiple assailants with demonstrative ease.  

     If Cathy Yan and her screenwriter, Christina Hodson, had not given in to so many over utilized comic book movie tropes, and instead explored their main characters in greater detail, sans the unnecessary action, they might’ve had something.  Remember, DC is coming off doing exactly that with “Joker”, but the tone of this one seems to be right at home within the realm of “Suicide Squad” instead, which results in the film suffering greatly overall.

     One thing that helps “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” remain watchable is the work of production designer K.K. Barrett, whose depictions of everything from the streets of Gotham itself, to the bizarre confines of Harley’s apartment, and the setting of the finale, all bring forth a catchy visual style that ensures practically every scene really pops.  Yan’s editors, Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff, contribute greatly to the frenetic pacing, as well as the insertion of various backstories at key moments.  These aspects of the film are huge since the characters outside of Harley are bland and boring.  In fact, Dinah and Helena are given nothing of substance to do at all (No, shooting people with a crossbow does not count.).  And the Rosie Perez character, Renee, often remains in the back drop as a stereotypical cop burnout whose best attribute is spewing lines from 80s cop movies.  There isn’t anything about these side characters who make you want to see them again.

     What’s really confusing is how does all of this play in the bigger picture?  Or is DC even thinking in those terms anymore?  There really isn’t any possible connection between “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” and “Joker”, particularly given the events of “Suicide Squad”.  And one has to wonder where the rest of the “Justice League” fits in as well.  Will the upcoming 2021 film “The Batman” from director Matt Reeves exist within its own world, or the ones created in “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” and “Joker”? What about “Shazam”?  There seems to be so much untapped potential here, but with no real “End Game” to look forward to, what’s the point?  GRADE: C

“The Gentlemen” Movie Review


     Writer / director Guy Ritchie, whose career began with the upstart 1998 indie film “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”, returns to his roots with “The Gentlemen”, a gangster comedy built primarily on the foundation of the filmmaker’s early work.  Once considered one of the hottest young directors in Hollywood, Ritchie has had a number of ups and downs working within the studio system, having churned out everything from the “Sherlock Holmes” films in 2009 and 2011, to the 2019 Disney mega hit “Aladdin”.  In between were big budget efforts like 2015’s revival of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, and a failed attempt at franchise creation with 2017’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.”  All the while, it’s fair to say audiences would likely have preferred Ritchie remain within the realm of which he clearly excels, and his latest offering is a strong indication of just how much he has learned along the way.

     “The Gentlemen” is loaded with the same kind of colorful and entertaining characters Ritchie created for his debut feature, as well as his breakout film, 2000’s “Snatch”.  Matthew McConaughey is Mickey Pearson, a high level marijuana grower and distributor working within England’s pot hungry criminal underworld.  And when you’re on top, you can bet there is a line of wannabe gangsters ready to take you down, but Mickey, being the professional he is, always seems to be one step ahead of the regular challenges to his Mary Jane encrusted throne.

     But where there is a will, there is a way.  We meet slimy tabloid reporter Fletcher (Hugh Grant) in the opening sequence, as he begins to lay out his over thought plan to blackmail Mickey for a large sum of money in exchange for not running a story chronicling an extensive investigation into the substantial empire the Hippy Lettuce stalwart has created.  In doing so, he corners Mickey’s right hand man, Ray (Charlie Hunnam), detailing his considerable evidence of which the film visually explores through flashbacks.  In addition, Fletcher has penned a screenplay of the events and offers to throw it in as part of the deal.  Essentially, what Ritchie has concocted here is a movie within a movie. 

     All of this fits around the notion Mickey is ready to retire and is looking for a suitable and wealthy buyer to purchase and ultimately take over his expansive operation.  The laughs seem to come as rapid fire as the frequent gun play, with a hilarious group of characters entering the fray at seemingly every turn.  There’s Mickey’s tough as nails wife, Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), who runs an all girls auto body shop and doesn’t flinch in the slightest when confronted by a number of intimidators sent her way.  A mysterious potential buyer named Matthew (Jeremy Strong) is clearly angling for some sort of play, yet he projects an all business approach that appears to convince Mickey he may have his man.  Others, like Asian gangster Dry Eye (Henry Golding), look to infiltrate their own nefarious plans when it comes to the potential sale of Mickey’s business, but the most damaging threat always circles back to Fletcher and the power he possesses to bring the entire operation down.

     Stealing every scene he is in, Colin Farrell appears mid way through as Coach, an Irish boxing trainer whose pupils make an unexpected visit at one of Mickey’s grow houses.  Save to say, the onus falls directly on the pugilist’s shoulders, allowing him to provide a number of satisfying ways to pay back his debt.  The character is a highlight amongst so many who are well drawn, giving each of the main actors an endless array of scenery chewing opportunities.  So much so that the action is limited to a few notable outbursts, instead favoring the bountiful supply of juicy dialogue provided by what is arguably the filmmaker’s best screenplay.  It is the kind of film only Ritchie could have made.

     As the third act sees the audience caught up to the present, the story is now set up to unravel a series of sub plots set in motion by Fletcher’s storytelling.  Is Matthew who he says he is and are his intentions to buy Mickey’s business genuine?  How big of a threat is Dry Eye to blow up the entire deal via the strong-arm tactics he seems to favor and strike one of his own? Does Fletcher actually have Mickey cornered? Or is the unquestioned leader of the local weed corporation already one step ahead of him as well?  The answers will surprise you, as McConaughey brings forth the lively performance necessary to ensure the audience is squarely behind him, regardless of the fact he operates on the wrong side of the law.  Mickey is the classic anti-hero drawn in the image of several of Ritchie’s other notable characters who constantly live on the edge of prosperity and total disaster.  Which way they end up going is always the best part of any gangster film and “The Gentlemen” is no exception. GRADE: B+

“Bad Boys for Life” Movie Review


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     One viewing of co-directors Adil El Arbi’s and Bilall Fallah’s threequel “Bad Boys for Life” and you will immediately realize one thing.  The main reason for bringing back Will Smith and Martin Lawrence to reprise their characters some seventeen years later has more to do with the recent success of the “Fast and Furious” films than it does any thought audiences were asking for another helping of Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett.  You get the feeling someone within the Sony braintrust came to the realization that if the low level street criminals in “The Fast and the Furious” could become a high tech crew existing within the highest levels of international espionage, why not the smooth talking Miami cop duo as well?

     And here’s how they did it.  First, of course, the story must catch up the target audience who was still in diapers when the last film was out in theaters.  This means a standard plot involving revenge where the hardened criminals of their police past come looking for a little payback.  Next, the screenwriters (Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan) create a scenario where they are teamed up with newly created high tech unit made up of younger cops to play against their now ultra experienced and salty characters who will lean on their “old school” methods versus the advanced techniques of their counterparts.  The diverse group is led by Rita (Paola Nunez) and flanked by tech whiz Dorn (Alexander Ludwig), weapons expert Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens) and the team’s hot head Rafe (Charles Melton).  It’s all by the book franchise building, or in this case, rebirthing.

     Their off site base is a garage full of massive computer monitors and screens capable of finding and tracking virtually anyone in the world, as well as tech enhanced surveillance vehicles and heavy tactical rigs each armed with the latest weaponry.  In other words a place where Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto would feel right at home given the past four installments of that lucrative franchise.  Only in this case it is Mike and Marcus leading the way as they seek to find the man responsible for a string of assassinations that seem to be connected to one of their previous cases.

     Arbi and Fallah have obviously watched their fair share of recent action films and were likely impressed with what they saw in the “John Wick” trilogy, which has clearly inspired the settings, choreography, and tone of each of the film’s set pieces.  Early on, we meet the bad guy, Armando (Jacob Scipio), as he seeks to make a deal with a local drug cartel in Miami that goes south when he finds himself double crossed.  And that’s when Armando unleashes his inner “Wick” with a knife fighting display any hitman in that series would certainly envy.  All of these scenes are lit with shades of purple, yellow, and green, as the wet asphalt mirrors the cars, motorcycles, and people who speed through them during endless car chases, fight scenes, and gun battles.  You’ve seen these same stylistic approaches before and it doesn’t appear anyone involved in the film really cares since this is the first time the protagonists are Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett.

     Now all of this isn’t meant to depict any sort of realism, but these characters are played in a serious manner where the stakes are meant to be life and death,  something which surprises me given the way these two guys act as cops.  If Lowrey and Burnett are meant to be the heroes of the story, and the audience the film is primarily aiming for is African-American, than why would this audience cheer them on when they are exhibiting the exact same bad behavior, excessive use of force, and sociopathic tendencies that is obviously frowned upon when it concerns real life police officers?  The contradiction there is alarming. 

     Is it ok for two detectives to drive recklessly through the streets of Miami, even driving on a crowded beach at one point while yelling “Sorry rich white people, we’re cops!”, just to get to a hospital for a non emergency family matter?  Fact is, neither of these guys would last a week on the job in real life, never mind the twenty five years they now claim to have at the beginning of the film.  All this does is reenforce a narrative that is simply not true to an impressionable young generation who is already bombarded by false agendas and lies, while allowing them to laugh because Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are funny.

     The third act of “Bad Boys for Life”, as it continues to follow the “Fast and Furious” formula, devolves into a series of impossible and unrealistic action sequences meant to transition these characters into the globe trotting police unit I suspect they will become in the already green lit fourth installment.  All of it, of course, is absolutely preposterous (the post credit scene will no doubt leave one character who meets his demise rolling over in his grave), but if you’ve become invested in these characters over the course of three films, there is enjoyment to be had since the chemistry between Smith and Lawrence cannot be denied.  The cross town rivalry between studios has clearly created the strategy of seeing what has worked for the competition and simply injected your own IPs into the established formula.  There’s nothing overly astonishing about “Bad Boys for Life”, but just as the “Die Hard” template produced dozens of profitable knockoffs over the years, it appears the “Fast and Furious” franchise now boasts one of its own.  GRADE: C

“1917” Movie Review


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     As would be expected given the talent involved behind the camera, the one thing standing out the most in director Sam Mendes’ “1917” is the exceptional demonstration of craft.  This is feature filmmaking at its highest level, bringing together all of the elements necessary to create a riveting and important story. The film goes well beyond spectacle and successfully puts the viewer side by side with two British soldiers as they attempt to complete a harrowing task at a juncture where World War 1 is reaching a crucial turning point.  Whether or not “1917” becomes known as a classic war film will be a matter of how well it continues to be received as time passes, but it is certainly one of the best films of 2019 and a crowning achievement in Mendes’ career.

     As many likely are already aware, “1917” unspools as one continuous shot.  Think of it as if a lone documentary film crew were installed with the two main characters and simply followed them for a day.  Of course, much of this is done by connecting each scene with CGI, thus creating the believable illusion.  The story doesn’t play in real time either, instead allowing nearly a day to go by during the two hour running time.  On board with Mendes is legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who again oversees a series of breathtaking landscapes, beautifully shot as the characters move about within them.  Deakins, as film buffs know, has been nominated a whopping 13 Academy Awards for Achievement in Cinematography, winning for the first time in his storied career for 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049”.  Given the stunning work here, a smart bet would see him winning his second in a row.

     “1917” begins with a common military scenario.  A superior approaches a soldier and tells him to choose buddy while directing the pair to accomplish some sort of detail.  Normally, this means doing something neither of them would want to do and they are chosen because of their low rank.  But this is different.  Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are led to a bunker near the British front line where they meet General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who tasks them with a mission bearing life and death consequences.  

     It is the belief of a forward British outfit that the Germans are on the run, and the time to strike is now while they are at their weakest.  But the circumstance is merely a trap, as the aerial shots in possession of General Erinmore indicate the Germans have dug in and fortified their position, expecting the British to charge.  Erinmore knows the result will see over 1600 men killed, with the Germans again seizing momentum and likely winning a key battle in the war.  With phone lines between them and the unit destroyed, the General sends Blake and Schofield on a mission to deliver the intelligence to the forward unit’s commander, Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), before he sends his men on what he doesn’t know will be  a slaughter.

     We leave the meeting with our two protagonists and follow them as they traverse deserted battle fields en route to a location said to be about 9 miles away.  Of course the terrain is treacherous and full of potential pitfalls in the form of obstacles, booby traps, and stray enemy forces.  The script, written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, provides an ample amount of character developing banter between the leads and succeeds in bringing forth the kind of emotional connection between the characters that is necessary to elevate the proceedings beyond that of a first person shooter video game.  And though this is achieved chiefly through the fact Blake’s older brother is a member of the unit about to be sent to their death unknowingly, it is the many characters in smaller roles throughout who supply a true sense of danger in virtually every step these soldiers take.

     When they are engaged by an enemy combatant, we never see the person up close, only the point of view that either Blake or Schofield is seeing.  But the damage they can inflict feels like the shots are coming at point blank range and the level of danger they seem to be in for the majority of the film is ever present and always unsettling.  This is the kind of film experience that gives you that white knuckle feeling people often speak of.  It feels real.  The gun shots, the explosions, and the various pyrotechnics on display rumble and shake the audience in a visceral way of which few films ever actually achieve.  And that appears to be the goal of the filmmakers here.  To put the viewer in the middle of all this in much the same way Spielberg did with “Saving Private Ryan”.

     With all of the bravado on the technical side, it’s easy to overlook the startling performances by both Chapman and MacKay, whose work explores the very depths of their character’s soul and provides a very human interpretation of what it is like to fight in a war, while leaving everyone you care about behind.  Often times not knowing whether or not you will ever see them again.  That the story begins and ends in a similar location is symbolic of what everyone in this situation already knows.  You may have survived the battle today, but it is now time to begin preparing for the battle tomorrow.  War is hell, and “1917” depicts this idea in its most raw form.  GRADE: A