“A Rainy Day in New York” Movie Review


     Writer / director Woody Allen’s “A Rainy Day in New York”, a project shelved for over a year as a result of the filmmaker’s long ago abuse allegations causing an inability to get a distribution deal, has finally premiered on VOD and features an all-star cast headlined by Timothee Chalamet and Elie Fanning.  The film, which chronicles the adventures of a young couple during a rainy weekend in Manhattan, proves yet again the innate ability Allen possesses to write the romantic comedy genre.  Even now some four plus decades after “Annie Hall” as relationships have undoubtedly changed, the master screenwriter seems to have an uncanny understanding of the many nuances between a young man and young woman with their entire lives ahead of them.

     Allen’s characters here won’t gain much sympathy from the masses, especially given their status as high society elite types, but if anything we come to realize something many already know.  Money won’t buy happiness. And so we meet Gatsby (Timothee Chalamet), a bright but eccentric student attending college in up state New York, and his girlfriend, Ashleigh (Elle Fanning), a quirky debutant type who writes for the school paper.  In the first scene, she brings news of an opportunity to interview Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), a famous film director, in New York.  Something which immediately has Gatsby, fresh off winning twenty grand at a recent poker night, plan a lavish weekend for the fledgling couple where they can take full advantage of his hometown knowledge.

     There will be carriage rides in Central Park, drinks at old piano bars, and high dollar dinners at five star hotels, all in an effort to “fall in line” as Gatsby describes it.  As if his being with Ashleigh will somehow meet the expectations of those around him, particularly his mother and father, rather than his own.  But as we get to know Gatsby and Ashleigh, you get the feeling the chemistry is simply not there.  A thought that comes to mind when the initial plan of an early afternoon lunch is blown off by Ashleigh when after interviewing Roland, she is asked to a private screening of his latest film and accepts.  Leaving Gatsby to wander around Manhattan and inevitably run into the many characters who still populate his old stomping ground.

     One of those people is Chan (Selena Gomez), the younger sister of one of his former flames, as he stumbles upon a student film set where the lead actor hasn’t shown up and is asked if he would like to fill in.  And what does the scene entail?  A romantic kiss with Chan, of which he initially falters as thoughts of what Ashleigh would think begin to creep within his mind.  But after several takes, he musters the courage and passion necessary to properly kiss Chan, which sees her recall the ratings scale her sister once utilized to measure Gatsby’s abilities in that and other departments.  Of course, we know Allen has inserted this scene for a reason, and it turns out Gatsby will have a lot more time on his hands than he originally thought.

     As Ashleigh’s day turns into an evening with screenwriters and movie stars (played by Jude Law & Diego Luna) within Roland’s orbit, Gatsby and Chan spend the day together, as the cracks begin to show in the strikingly different personalities at play here.  And a chance encounter at The Met with his Aunt and Uncle means Gatsby must also now attend a gala put on by his parents, but without Ashleigh of whom he has no idea where she is or what she’s doing. The ensuing antics as both parties cope with their now individual situations brings plenty of laughter for the audience, while also bringing forth certain realizations that we know are inevitable.

     Every scene in “A Rainy Day in New York” is brought to vivid life courtesy of three time Oscar winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose compositions of the many high end New York apartments, restaurants, and hotels burst with the color and artistic nature the characters who occupy them most certainly would have intended.  Butt the core of Allen’s work, like many of the great screenwriters, is the dialogue spoken by his characters who seem to fit perfectly with the actors who play them.  It’s no secret many writers tend to create their characters based off people they know, and you get the idea early on that Allen has chosen Chalamet to play a character Allen himself likely would’ve played in the 1970s.  

     Gatsby is merely a modernized version of the same persona.  And while some of the running jokes, such as one character’s involuntary hiccups when the feeling of sexual tension begins to overcome her, garner a laugh or two, the highlight of Allen’s script is the noticeable demeanor change seen in the main players as they attempt to navigate a weekend that is not meeting their initial expectations.  It’s as if they come of age in a short forty eight hours.  Gatsby is on the receiving end of several revelations, many of which come from the unlikeliest of sources, while Ashleigh, still on a path to discovering her true self, learns important life lessons of her own.  In this sense, the character studies are nothing short of fascinating, leading to a series of decisions that indicate they may be growing up faster than we originally thought they would.  GRADE: B

“On the Rocks” Movie Review


     Writer/director Sofia Coppola demonstrated 17 years ago how to get the most out of Bill Murray as a leading man in a film that while utilizing his comedic strengths, still manages to explore themes which are more serious in tone.  That film, Best Original Screenplay winner “Lost in Translation”, explored the budding friendship between a once successful actor and the lonely wife of a photographer as the two find themselves spiraling downward in life while staying in the same Tokyo hotel.  Murray excelled outside of his 80s funnyman persona for the first time, while still embracing the charm and wit that had cemented him as one of our many cinematic icons. 

     “On the Rocks” sees Coppola and Murray collaborating once again and in similar territory, telling the story of a wife who suspects her husband of cheating, as her father swoops in to aid in the investigation. And like “Lost in Translation”, the story explores the many nuances of relationships at all levels and how the decisions we make individually can have an everlasting influence on generations to come.  It’s the fallout of these decisions that fuels the ambitions of everyone involved, where regrettable circumstances lead to emotionally charged bad judgements completely devoid of rational thought.  We’ve all been there.  And that’s why this film is likely to resonate with all of us.

     Laura (Rashida Jones), an aspiring writer, stays home to take care of the kids while her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans), works long hours at the office, while in the kind of job that requires socializing with potential clients at swanky New York City clubs and restaurants.  And with his team being made up of young attractive assistants, such as his closest co-worker Fiona (Jessica Henwick), we quickly get the idea Laura has become uncomfortable with where their marriage is headed.  A thought she shares with her father, Felix (Bill Murray), a long time single Playboy whose reputation precedes itself amongst New York high society.

     We learn the circumstances of the long ago split between Laura’s mother and father were largely due to an affair Felix had with a younger woman.  And though she still maintains some semblance of a relationship with him, it’s clear nothing was ever the same after their family was torn apart in the manner that it was.  It’s almost cruel to believe the kids would ever accept the circumstances and simply move on, as you get the feeling there were never any consequences for the infidelity and the serious problems it caused their family for years.  And yet, with Laura now suspecting she may be a victim of the same, enlisting the help of Felix to uncover the truth appears to be her best option.

     What ensues is a series of cliched moments in a relationship where the pilot light is long since extinguished and the inconsistencies in day to day interactions become more glaring.  Is he thinking of another woman when he’s kissing me?  Why won’t he let me look at his phone?  Should I have an issue with him and his new assistant working late and meeting with clients?  Does he still find me attractive?  All of which are valid questions, particularly when your life centers around two kids the both of you created and are currently impeding you from achieving your own dreams as a writer.  But then there’s dad who comes along and not only agrees something is amiss, but takes it upon himself to lead an investigation.

     It’s no surprise Coppola’s script nails the instincts of a woman who finds herself in an anxiety inducing situation of marital mistrust, nor is the reaction of a father who himself once destroyed his family while exhibiting the same behavior.  Because of his own flaws, Felix inserts himself into the scenario as a sort of expert, counseling his daughter on the warning signs of which he knows all too well.  The resulting middle half of the film brings forth the kind of subtle hilarity Murray has made a career of, whether it’s his ability to run a red light and then talk his way out of the ticket when it turns out he knows the father and grandfather of the cop, or the hijinks of following Dean around town, seeking proof of an affair that would have an undeniable impact on the family for years to come.

     At this point, I’m convinced Bill Murray would be funny regardless of how serious the film’s subject matter is.  He doesn’t even have to try anymore. And his performance works perfectly with Rashida Jones’ portrayal of a woman attempting to navigate the potentially ugly situation she now sees as her future.  It’s also worth mentioning the solid contribution from Marlon Wayans, another funnyman trying his hand in a drama and turning in the best performance of his career as an often missing husband whose ambitions may have caused him to lose sight of what’s really important.  Coppola’s clever script and expert direction allows the cast to show enormous chemistry, led by Murray and Jones, but certainly with the many supporting players as well. 

     There’s an adventurous side to what happens in “On the Rocks”, along with a twist in the third act that sort of turns the entire situation upside down, but whether it’s Laura’s confusion when attempting to define the perfect marriage, or Felix’s desire to somehow come through for his daughter at a moment when she really needs him, the film is always about those imperfect ties that somehow continue to bind us.  And just how complicated those relationships can become when life becomes real. GRADE B+  

“The Witches” Movie Review

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     With studios continuing to sit on piles of finished films as many theaters still remain shuttered and the movie going public fearful to return, more expensive high end releases are finding their way to streaming services than ever before.  These aren’t the self produced originals created purposely for Netflix or Amazon Prime, but rather the sort of product intended as major tentpoles of which the studios making them typically stake on a large portion of their financial viability on a successful global theatrical release.  And as the pandemic continues its stranglehold on the entertainment industry, big titles are finding their way directly to the comfort of our homes, where hopefully you’re watching on a decent sized television since consuming these offerings on a phone or tablet would be an absolute travesty.  The latest of which being “The Witches”, an adaptation of Ronald Dahl’s book by director Robert Zemeckis.

     Boasting a cast that includes Octavia Spencer, Anne Hathaway, and Stanley Tucci, “The Witches” has the larger than life blockbuster appeal of a film that would’ve played spectacularly on the big screen, but suffers a bit when the viewing experience isn’t optimal.  For a film to really work on the small screen, it needs to excel in its presentation of the characters.  And though Spencer and Hathaway shine, the clunky narrative they are forced to occupy, courtesy of the screenplay by Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro, doesn’t allow for the kind of dialogue and third act that may have made this film truly special.  Instead, we are ultimately led to an ending that is not only unsatisfying, but leaves you feeling as though the filmmakers struggled with how to top two scenes in particular which serve as the centerpieces of an otherwise entertaining story.

     In this version of Dahl’s story, the locale is moved from a European setting to that of late 1960s Alabama, where we meet an 8 year old boy (Jahzir Bruno) in the midst of the tragic loss of his parents in a car accident.  His Grandma (Octavia Spencer) takes custody of him, and so begins a difficult time where she balances empathy with the need to ensure her grandson continues to grow into the young man she expects him to become.  All of this is turned upside down when a routine trip to a grocery store sees him come face to face with what his Grandma believes is a Witch.  The encounter is interrupted, but she remains fearful of what may now be brewing so close to home.

     A prologue narrated by Chris Rock tells us “Witches are real”.  And an extended conversation between Grandma and her now shaken grandson indicates she herself has had run ins with Witches in the past, describing the fact they hate children, luring them with poisonous sweets, along with a list of disturbing physical characteristics we know at this point are certain to be revealed in coming scenes.  A notion that is propelled by a mysterious and sudden illness Grandma suffers, which sees her determine the need to leave home and check into a hotel until the looming threat of a potential Witch visit passes.

     Problem is, the hotel they check into happens to be hosting a Witch convention where the attendees have gathered for their latest nefarious plot!  How convenient for the film to find yet another way to ensure the danger remains ever present.  Of course, this doesn’t dissuade our heroes from staying.  Instead they stick around and find themselves caught in the web of a sinister plot to transform all of the hotel’s children into mice.  

     The group is led by the Grand High Witch, played by Anne Hathaway, who upon arrival instantly takes over the film, dominating every scene she is in with a campy Disney Villain like performance ensuring she remains the center of attention.  And she is given one truly great scene in which the entire group of Witches assemble in a meeting room where she breaks down their plan and in the process reveals the many physical maladies common amongst them, all of which I’ll leave for you to see for yourself.  But it’s Hathaway’s screen presence here that allows for such a deliciously cinematic sequence where the cards are laid on the table and each of the main players must now take action regardless of what side they’re on.

     The main issue with Hathaway’s scene stealing is the mere fact that the dozens of other Witches who appear on screen with her are left with nothing to do other than stand behind her.  She does all the talking, leaving no chance for development of any of the other characters on the evil side.  This becomes a glaring problem in a climactic sequence later on that sees our heroes bringing the battle to the coven, where many who meet their demise leave zero emotional impact on the audience given we know nothing about any of them.  And because that sequence plays spectacularly, the following scene that pits the Grand High Witch against our heroes feels like a let down when the obvious solution occurs and no surprises are to be had.  And that’s before an abrupt ending and credit roll which makes no sense at all.  It’s as if the last several pages of the script never made it to the set.

     As you would expect from Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”, “Forrest Gump”), the technical aspects and production design are exceptional, particularly the re-creation of the era with the lavish surroundings of the hotel making for a colorful setting as all of the mischief begins to take place.  And with Guillermo del Toro producing and co-writing, it’s no surprise the CGI and make up effects utilized for the Witches are amped up for maximum scariness.  You’ll watch “The Witches” and wonder aloud if making a kids film was ever their goal, but then you realize much of it plays like a rehash of “Stuart Little” with plenty of rodent level high jinks to keep children happy.  Even if the sight of the Grand High Witch’s feet might keep them up at night.  GRADE: C+

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” Movie Review


     I’ll never understand what compels people to spend their valuable time attending a protest, as if the mere sight of an angry and unruly mob will scare government officials into making the changes these people demand.  They’ll tell you how important these acts of civil unrest are to democracy.  But last I checked, the only way to ensure the majority achieves meaningful change is through the ballot box.  Don’t like how your representatives are representing you?  Vote them out.  Causing unnecessary chaos that includes violence and the loss of property, along with the ruining of people’s hard-earned livelihoods, seems to be counterproductive for both sides of any issue.  

     The timing of Netflix’s release of Writer/Director Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is obvious, purposely adding more fuel to an already burning fire.  And as the election nears, I doubt a dramatization of the courtroom trial for the seven people charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago will move the needle for anyone who watches the film from the Fox News segment of the country.  So you have to wonder, what’s the point of releasing this long gestating project now?  If anything, the events depicted in the film will only strengthen the views of each opposing side.  I say that because in all actuality, much of this is presented in a way that gives equal time to both arguments.

     Sorkin, who arrived on the scene in 1992 after adapting his play “A Few Good Men” into a screenplay that would go on to become the iconic Rob Reiner film, is a solid fit for the material, both as a writer and as a director who is in command of a star studded ensemble that includes Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Sacha Baron Cohen.  And with the majority of the story taking place inside the courtroom, it’s crucial that Sorkin elevates the emotion behind what exactly is at stake here.  Like “A Few Good Men”, a proverbial fuse needs to be lit and ultimately culminate in a judiciary set verbal explosion that will make everything about the film both quotable and memorable.  Unfortunately, that never happens, but that doesn’t mean Sorkin’s creation isn’t entertaining from beginning to end.

     Early on, we meet the main players, beginning with a present time (1969) set up that sees Richard Nixon’s newly appointed Attorney General, John Mitchell (John Doman), brief up and coming federal prosecutor, Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), on the order to bring to trial and convict seven men accused of leading their respective groups to the 1968 National Democratic Convention to protest the Vietnam War and consequently incite a violent riot.  The politics here, of course, center around two issues.  One is Nixon’s disdain for these groups who dare have a different opinion about the war and thus make their presence known in the form of mass protests.  And the second is the response by the local police departments, which in this case brings the Chicago Police Department front and center.  Thus the parallels with the ongoing “peaceful protests” going on in our cities today.

     The seven are made up of people who couldn’t be any different, and yet they share the same goal.  Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are the stereotypical hippies of the time, complete with log hair, groovy duds, dope smoking, and constant references to the fact they apparently don’t bathe very often.  Alex Sharp (Rennie Davis) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) head up a college student group who present themselves with both intelligence and restraint, while being in complete disagreement with the over the top antics of some of their counterparts.  They want to make a statement, but only in a manner that exudes a high level of pragmatic thought.  A notion that is also shared by David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), a middle aged leader of an anti war group, who despite his efforts to quell the out of control emotion amongst the protesters has still found himself charged with causing the situation to devolve.

     In what plays as a running joke in the courtroom, Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) has been included in the group of defendants even though he wasn’t actually at the protest.  And making matters even more suspect, he is forced to stand trial without his attorney who is in Oakland recovering from a medical issue.  This and many more strange and unsupported decisions by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) contribute to the circus like atmosphere of the daily proceedings within the trial that go on for more than six months.  All of it is politically motivated, leaving even Richard Schultz to question his duty in the case and whether or not the truth actually matters.  That thought remains on the mind of lead defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) tenfold, as he attempts the arduous task of navigating the numerous landmines and roadblocks put in front of him by both the Judge and the substantial powers behind the prosecution.

     And who is left in the middle of all this?  Just like today, it’s the Police.  The men and women asked to do an impossible job, as they somehow must enforce the law while battling a mob who see them as culpable as the government they are protesting against.  The film is quick to highlight protestors being struck in the head with batons (which is a tactic that should only be used when deadly force is warranted), but overlooks the 152 cops who suffered injuries at the hands of these calm and peaceful souls. This is a film that wants us to care about the legal plight of seven protest leaders, but what about the Cops who may have been injured severely enough that they couldn’t work anymore. Or the 101 innocent civilians also injured after being caught in the cross fire.  Will there ever be a film about how all of these families suffered as well? 

     One of the final lines in the film sees Abbie Hoffman on the stand in cross examination where he exclaims the shocking revelation that he is on trial merely for his thoughts.  A notion he never believed would ever happen in America.  But lets be clear.  You can think what ever you want and your ability to speak about an issue and voice your opinion is protected by the Constitution, but remember, as a leader of a group if your thoughts turn into orders that encourage violence and destruction, your encouragement is no longer lawful.  Now was this trial a politically motivate sham?  Of course it was.  Does anything in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” parallel the incendiary rhetoric and mob mentality we are seeing today? In many ways, yes.  But again, how you interpret the events in the film will depend on what side of the aisle you’re on.  And despite solid writing and directing by Sorkin, as well as a fantastic ensemble performance by the cast, a film like this coming out now does nothing to help heal the gaping wounds we have continually inflicted upon ourselves.  GRADE: B

“Hubie Halloween” Movie Review


     We’ve seen this movie before.  Clearly channeling many of the same characteristics from a bevy of previous characters he has portrayed in the last 25 years, Adam Sandler again leaves the realm of the serious work he did in last year’s “Uncut Gems” and devolves his abilities as an actor in “Hubie Halloween”.  Yet another over reaching comedic underdog story, the film, directed by frequent Sandler collaborator Steven Brill (“Little Nicky”, “Mr. Deeds”), features a carbon copy character fans of the actor will certainly attribute to many of his past creations, most notably his Bobby Boucher in 1998’s “The Waterboy”.  I suppose Sandler may believe his audience is now primarily made up of youngsters who weren’t alive then, and thus wouldn’t remember enough to make the comparison.  Sadly, this guy hasn’t been relevant as a funny man for the last fifteen plus years.

     Armed with a red thermos featuring a multitude of Swiss army knife style gadgets that appear as the script needs them, Sandler plays Hubie Dubois, a forty something who lives with his mother in the Halloween obsessed town of Salem, Oregon.  Hubie typically spends his days around this time as the self anointed “monitor” of Halloween.  On one hand, he’s sort of a Clark Griswold of the holiday, having overly decorated his mother’s home with hundreds of lights and frightful characters to set themselves apart from everyone else on their street.  On the other, he functions primarily as the town punching bag, getting around on a bicycle while dodging everything but the kitchen sink thrown his way by middle school kids who apparently see it as ok to bully him on a constant basis.  Oh, and he talks just like, well, Bobby Boucher, ensuring his persona could easily be mistaken for someone slow and taken advantage of.

     Not coincidentally, Sandler has teamed up with fellow scribe Time Herlihy, who contributed the screenplay to nearly all of the former SNL star’s early efforts, and returns now so many years later with nothing original to offer, just more of the same.  Perhaps this is Sandler’s way of rebooting his old material for a new audience?  If that’s the case, I would advise streaming “Billy Madison”, “Happy Gilmore”, and “The Wedding Singer” if you want to really see Sandler at the height of his powers while emanating real swagger amongst an authentic 90s vibe.  In “Hubie Halloween”, we get something that feels recycled, though there are several highlights.

     At this point, it’s clear Sandler’s production arm, Happy Madison, has no problem rounding up an entertaining combination of SNL alums and character actors willing to play against type who populate each and every scene with at least the promise of having the audience wonder what will happen next.  That’s a good thing.  What isn’t is the point where you realize nearly all of these guys are riffing on past performances while spewing the lines for this one.  And while Tim Meadows, Maya Rudolph, Ray Liotta, and Kevin James are given bland, replaceable characters of whom they have no choice but to mail it in, the wonderful June Squibb is a hoot as Hubie’s mom/  Steve Buscemi as a creepy new neighbor finds fresh ways to be his unusual self, and even Shaquille O’Neal manages a few laughs as a radio DJ who is not what people picture as they listen (A joke that was done better in “Wayne’s World 2”).

     But the bottom line is Sandler has played this role several times before, even with similar circumstances.  He is regularly pranked by his friends, co-workers, and the aforementioned gangs of town bullies.  All while longing for that one woman in town, Violet Valentine (Julie Bowen, reuniting with Sandler after also playing his squeeze in “Happy Gilmore”), who he has wanted to ask out since high school, but hasn’t built up the nerve to do so as his social awkwardness instantly takes over and his personality seemingly reverts to that of a child.  It’s the constant need to impress her that fuels the story, but also the disappearance of key characters on Halloween night with word getting out about both an escaped mental patient returning home, as well as the sighting of a werewolf prowling amongst the town’s overdone festivities.

     All of this comes together just as you might think.  Each scene plays like an SNL sketch, and often times contributes nothing to the story.  And the same can be said for Sandler’s voice.  It’s distracting enough that you begin to wonder if “Hubie Halloween” may have been slightly better without it.  Although I doubt quality was the goal here in the first place.  In truth, you have to wonder if Sandler is merely attempting to see how long he can continue to get paid for churning out the same cookie cutter comedies over and over again.  And since we’re still watching, maybe he’s the smart one.  GRADE: C-

“Enola Holmes” Movie Review


     After breaking out during the first three seasons of Netflix’s “Stranger Things”, it was only a matter of time before Millie Bobby Brown would elevate her star power by launching a franchise of her own.  Boasting a producer credit in addition to the leading role, the 16 year old Brown clearly establishes herself as a power house with her turn in “Enola Holmes”, a story chronicling the origins of Sherlock Holmes’ teenage sister as she begins to follow in the foot steps of her famous sibling.  Directed by television vet Harry Bradbeer, working from a script by Jack Thorne based on the book by Nancy Springer, the film is carried, almost solely, by Brown’s energetic performance, as she regularly breaks the fourth wall and ensures the audience is with her every step of the way.

     We are informed in a prologue of the early happenings within the Holmes family, as the older brothers, Mycroft (Sam Clafin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill), long ago reached their adult years and have left the family home to chase their respective careers.  And with their father having passed away, this leaves their mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), to raise Enola on her own.  A task she clearly relishes in, with the younger Holmes being educated early on through a vast of array of books contained in the family library, along with regular lessons in the use of martial arts and weapons.  Mom vehemently believes her daughter will grow to become her two sons equal in every way.  Something this film is clearly out to prove.

     And just when Enola seems ready for the next step, Eudoria suddenly vanishes without a trace, which brings Mycroft and Sherlock back into the picture in order to help find their mother and care for their younger sister.  And because they haven’t seen Enola since she was a young child, the now capable teen isn’t recognizable in their initial meeting, as Mycroft, who has taken Enola has his ward, sees nothing more than a young girl who needs only to be sent on a path to being a good wife for her future husband.  As such, Enola is sent unwillingly to a finishing school, suddenly in the presence of girls her age of whom she shares nothing in common.  Unbeknownst to her brothers, this was not the way her mom raised her.

     It only takes a few scenes to realize Enola will soon plot her escape, and when she does so with the help of an acquaintance, Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), of whom she met during her first attempt to find her mother, the adventure begins as she sets off to London armed with the pedigree of one of the world’s greatest detectives and a knack for finding trouble.  Much of which centers around her initial foray with Tewkesbury, who is being hunted as part of a family conspiracy Enola soon finds herself embroiled in.  As much as she is focused on finding Eudoria, the young detective can’t seem to shake the mounting obstacles in front of her, as she sees no choice but to uncover the danger surrounding Tewkesbury.

     All the while, Mycroft continues to ensure Elona will face difficulty in avoiding the authorities charged with bringing her home, a task the reserved Sherlock clearly does not support.  All of this leads to a third act where the main players ultimately converge, but the center of attention always remains on the feisty Enola as she grows before our eyes into the young woman her mother had envisioned from birth.

     Now is all of this entertaining? Of course.  But the film never sets itself apart from the many detective films depicting the period.  It feels like the only difference is watching Brown as the lead character, as she maneuvers through many of the same beats as the various actors who have portrayed Sherlock over the years.  And if the sole purpose here is to show us that women can do it too, then mission accomplished.  But for some reason, you watch “Enola Holmes” and feel as though there should’ve been something more to the character.  

     Sure, she was able to outwit Mycroft several times over, and thus defeat his misogynic attitude towards women, but aside from unconvincingly holding her own in several fight sequences (apparently she’s been studying Jujitsu for years), what exactly separates her character from that of a man?  Rather than utilize ingenuity and intuition, she merely imitates  the bad habits of men.  You’d think the screenwriters would’ve have ensured Elona brought something else to the table other than the fact she is as capable as her older brothers are. 

     You always have the feeling she is falling into these circumstances and simply dealing with them, rather than viewing her options and meticulously choosing the best way to proceed.  It’s a crucial element that appears to be missing along with her mother.  And as such, we end up with a film that benefits greatly from Brown’s stellar performance, but stops short of allowing the character to take off in a manner where we would ask to see more of her.  No doubt, she will someday be as good as Sherlock, but as far as we know, the skill set will be the same, meaning you’d want either one of them working on your case.  But then again, perhaps that’s exactly what the filmmakers set out to do.  GRADE: B

“The Devil All the Time” Movie Review

     Tragic and continuously negative circumstances abound in the aptly titled “The Devil All the Time”, a period crime drama from director Antonio Campos, based on the novel by Donald Ray  Pollock.  Campos’ film is the kind of well crafted and exceptionally acted work that would normally spawn some level of awards season mention, but in a year where everyone is understandably looking for something of the uplifting variety, this tantalizing yarn is likely to be overlooked.  Featuring standout performances by Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Jason Clarke, Haley Bennett, Sebastian Stan, and Bill Skarsgard, there is no shortage of intriguing storylines, complex characters, and happenstance which brings many of them on a brutal collision course of violence and revenge.

     Narratively speaking, “The Devil All the Time” utilizes many of the elements that made films such as “No Country For Old Men” (2007) and “Winter’s Bone” (2010) so compelling.  Both effectively transport the audience to a place unfamiliar, while creating an uncomfortable atmosphere for the characters to dwell.  And those characters remain the unsavory types that sway so far from the norm, many will wonder if they actually exist within our society.  Hint: they do.

     While fighting in the Pacific theater of World War II, Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgard) is exposed to horrifying images and violence, as would be expected when bullets are flying between enemies.  During a patrol in which he and his squad appear to be clearing through the remnants of a battle recently fought, they come upon an American soldier who has been crucified to a make shift wooden cross.  Blood drips from his tortured body.  Flies infest the gaping wounds made by the knives holding him upright through his hands and feet.  The soldier appears dead, but suddenly awakens.  But Willard knows they can’t get him out and his injuries have left him incapacitated, leaving the group with the only humane choice of ending his suffering by way of shooting him in the head.  

     As anyone will tell you who has been through traumatic situations like this, you can’t unsee the things you’ve seen.  And Willard, now having returned to his roots in rural Ohio, will soon show the effects of PTSD which were not widely known at the time, but clearly wreaked havoc on the lives of our returning servicemen and their families.  To an extent, this is the story of how the condition can have lingering consequences decades later.  An issue we sadly still grapple with today.

     Upon his return, Willard meets Charlotte (Haley Bennett), a waitress at a local diner, of whom he ultimately marries and has a son they name Arvin.  In their early years, they live a meager cash strapped life, hoping to one day save enough money to buy the shambled home they currently rent as Willard works long and hard days just to save a few bucks here and there with the hope of achieving their goal.  All seems well, and Alvin, now about 8 years old, is being taught, often harshly, about the importance of hard work, faith, and not taking crap from anyone by his father who seems intent on demonstrating exactly what he expects through example.

     One of those times is an incident Arvin says later he will never forget.  While praying near their home in front of a wooden cross Willard has built in much the same image as the one he came upon as a soldier, the father and son duo encounter two locals wandering through the woods.  Clearly of the trashy type, the pair begin to talk about sexually assaulting Charlotte when Willard is away, among other things.  They eventually leave without incident, but Willard tells Arvin it’s important to know when to strike and to never let anyone get the best of you under any circumstances.  Ultimately, this leads to Willard driving to the two men’s home and beating both of them within an inch of their lives as Arvin watches from their truck.  It’s a disturbing sequence of violence that is echoed throughout the remainder of the film.

     When we fast forward about 8 years (from 1957 to 1965), Arvin is now a young man and played by Tom Holland.  He has lived through several tragic circumstances during that time, and his persona is clearly molded from that of his father’s, a notion that will actually serve him well later.  Campos brings in a series of characters who are now intertwined in Alvin’s life through family and other circumstances.  As the film moves into its third act, you always have the feeling many of them will somehow converge at the wrong time.

     There’s Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), the town’s corrupt Sheriff, whose sister, Sandy (Riley Keough) road trips around the county with her husband, Carl (Jason Clarke), looking for hitchhikers to unwillingly participate in nefarious deeds.  Sandy’s younger sister, Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), is orphaned early in her life and is looked after by Arvin’s Aunt and Uncle, while becoming a sort of sister to him.  Her story moves in the wrong direction when a new pastor takes over at their town church and the lines between religious faith and morality are disturbingly blurred.  The pastor, played with devilish southern charm by Robert Pattinson, is just one of many characters lurking about whose intentions remain in question in virtually every scene they appear in.  All of which makes for a number of inventive twists that give each and every one of these actors the kind of scenery chewing dialogue all of them deserve.

     Know this going in.  There is absolutely nothing positive, uplifting, or redeeming about anything that goes on in “The Devil All the Time”.  I would surmise Campos chose the source material because of its depiction of society’s problems during a bygone era, noting in particular it isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for how far we’ve come today, which is to say, not far at all.  Bad things happen, many times completely out of our control.  And even the strongest will be forced to wage a life long battle against the demons inside them.  Sure, Arvin wants to be good, but the decisions made by those around him have created a sticky web of deceit, debauchery, and evil that even the most noble soul cannot shake.  GRADE: A

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” Movie Review


     If you’re already familiar with writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s work, than the bizarre nature and melancholy atmosphere of his latest effort, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” certainly won’t surprise you, but is likely to leave those who stick around until the end baffled at some level.  And this is the sort of thing the three time Academy Award nominee and Original Screenplay winner for 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is known for.  The guy doesn’t think the way an average person would, and thus the stories that come out his mind are told in a way far from the norm.  

     For those who thought Quentin Tarantino may have been over indulgent in the 20 minute opening scene in 2015’s “The Hateful Eight”, which sees the three lead characters converse over a letter written to one of them by Abraham Lincoln while enduring a long snowy stagecoach ride, you may come away from “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” believing Tarantino’s scene suffered from over editing. Kaufman opens his film with a young woman (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons) driving to his parent’s farm, located in a secluded rural section of Oklahoma.  All the while, her inner monologue tells us she is hesitant about the trip, if for no other reason she doesn’t see her relationship with Jake as permanent.  In fact, as the film’s title suggests, she wants to end things sooner rather  than later.

     And so we accompany them.  Getting bits and pieces of her disdain for the trip she has agreed to take, their first together, and the qualities Jake clearly lacks as she pictures her ideal mate.  There are times where the silence is deafening, even forcing Jake to suggest listening to the radio at one point, but soon conversations involving musical theatre and movies come into play, mostly as a means for Lucy, as we come to know her, to suggest his personality has been primarily shaped by the media he has consumed during his life.  Most of this sequence is shot, interestingly, from the outside of the car, so we always see the icy surroundings and the windshield wipers pushing the snow and rain away with the characters seemingly out of focus just beyond the windshield.  And as the scene continues to a point where you wonder if this is meant to be depicted in real time, we begin to ask the question, what is Kaufman doing here?

     If all of this isn’t strange enough, once they arrive at the farm and see Jake’s mother waving to them from the upstairs window, he decides to instead, in the middle of a snow storm, give Lucy a tour of the barn, rather than go inside.  It’s there where he shares a particularly disturbing story about the pigs they once had, but there’s no connection to what’s happened so far that would explain why the story is being shared.  Is Kaufman ratcheting up Jake’s creepy vibe on purpose? The entire thing makes you feel as though Kaufman is transitioning to the horror genre, especially given the lengthy set up and the notion of Lucy’s desire to break up.  All the while, we know Jake suspects her intention as well.

     This doesn’t change when they finally make it inside the house.  Jake’s parents, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, take their time coming down stairs, and when they do, it is clear their son prefers his mother over his father.  Eventually, they sit down to a dinner neither of them really touch, but the parents do show an interest in learning about Lucy, which she is obliged to participate in and gladly shows the giddy duo some of her artwork by way of her smart phone.  And as expected at this point, the parents are genuinely strange and remain off kilter during the entire dinner scene with a clearly embarrassed Jake frequently shutting down both of them as they giggle their way through these exchanges with Lucy.

     As they move deeper into the evening, you again begin to wonder if perhaps Kaufman is intending a homage to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”, as his camera floats within the hallways, following Lucy as danger seems to lurk beyond the doors she is about to enter.  There’s even a basement whose entrance is covered in scratches and strange markings that Jake tells her is a place he prefers not to go.  But the set up here is much more than the plot of some low rent horror premise.  Remember whose film this is.

     Kaufman’s screenplay is based on the book by Iain Reid, which proves the perfect project for a film maker whose previous work revels in the surreal.  And while the regular cut aways to an older janitor working in a high school at night may seem impossible to connect to the primary storyline, a step way back from the typical expectations of a film like this may lead you directly where Kaufman intended.  As the third act moves even further into a dream world and slowly pulls away from reality, you begin to think about the possibility that maybe none of this is actually happening the way it was initially presented.  Is this Jake looking back on his life with the regret of someone who couldn’t get it together, and instead chose to wall off everyone close to him in order to avoid further pain?  Has Kaufman once again delved into the human psyche in a way most filmmakers are incapable of?  GRADE: B+

“Mulan” (2020) Movie Review


     Disney continues the ongoing trend of remaking their classic animated films into mega budgeted live action spectaculars with director Niki Caro’s “Mulan”, a film departing from the photorealistic motion capture techniques utilized in John Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” (2016) and “The Lion King” (2019) in favor of live actors filmed at actual locations.  And with that comes a certain breath of fresh air, as these settings instantly bring the audience back to an age of epic filmmaking where directors staged complex action sequences outside of studio confines and within the actual places these scenes intend to depict. “Mulan” is the kind of film where its reported $200 million production budget not only shows in what was completed in post production, but also during its principle photography as well.

     Working from a script written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek, Caro infuses every frame of her film with a level of creativity and effort often not seen in event films that are created solely for four quadrant mainstream consumption.  Here, Caro embraces the art of filmmaking as her camera glides toward and around her subjects in the same graceful manner displayed by the many talented martial artists in the cast.  And never are any of these movements repeated.  Every scene utilizes a different array of tracking shots, crane shots, and aerial photography that gives an often dizzying view of the detailed surroundings and massive settings where much of the story takes place.

     If only the cast wasn’t subdued by a series of poorly written characters and several bland performances, perhaps Caro would’ve had something truly special.  But as is, “Mulan” plays more like an obviously stripped down version of  “Game of Thrones” style battle sequences, crossed with significantly muted martial arts mayhem and Chinese lore of films like Jet Li’s “Hero” (2003) and the roof hopping wire work of And Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000).  “Mulan” even features many of the notable martial actors from the films it is no doubt attempting to emulate, including Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and Jason Scott Lee - but the constraints of Disney’s brand hold this back from being anything comparable.  Most of the killings in battle take place off screen, and the ones we do see are bloodless and devoid of anything overly violent.

     When a ruthless army, led by a stock villain called Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), threatens the Emperor (Jet Li), the Chinese Imperial Army goes to nearby cities and orders each family to provide one male to serve in an effort to bolster their numbers against an enemy they know will not be easily defeated.  When a former and well known soldier, Zhou (Tzi Ma), is asked who in his family will volunteer, he is forced to offer himself as he and his wife only have two daughters and no sons.  And with his left leg badly disabled, the odds of him still being able to perform the required duties seem in doubt. 

     Enter Mulan (Yifei Liu), Zhou’s oldest daughter and one who has proven quite capable, but is not allowed to serve in the army because of her gender.  In order to save her father from certain doom, she sneaks away with his sword and armor, taking his place as their family’s volunteer, while portraying herself as a man, rather than a woman.  Now of course, we as the audience are in on this, so it’s instantly difficult to believe those in charge of her, as well as her peers are going to buy the charade, but Caro has fun with it anyway.  Particularly with the running joke of her taking watch each night in order to avoid having to shower, which sees many of her bunk mates complaining about the foul odor she soon develops.

     Even her commander, Tung (Donnie Yen), is duped into believing this obviously feminine looking soldier is indeed a male, as is a small band of buddies who accompany her in various scenes depicting martial arts and weapons training, as well as feats of strength and endurance.  All of which Mulan excels at and often bests her male counterparts, something her superiors notice and laud her for.  It would’ve been nice to have written some of these guys lines that could’ve made them more than just reactive to what Mulan does from scene to scene.  It’s as if they are there as place holders for later when it will likely become necessary for her to save them, or something.  Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a reason to keep them around right?

     And it is during the initial battle between the Imperial Army and Bori Khan’s goons that Mulan discovers her “Chi” and decides to unveil her true self.  Suddenly, what was once a dirty and grimy battle worn soldier, becomes a clean and shiny Disney Princess, complete with make up, lip stick, and professionally done hair!  She swoops in on her horse and dispatches the enemy with ease, while saving many of those aforementioned battle buddies from near death.  Now there is a bit of the supernatural in play here, particularly given her encounter with a mysterious goddess, Xianniang (Li Gong), whose own abilities include morphing into a bird for easier travel between scenes.  So some of this is meant to be fantastical and all of it is intended to be a pure family experience, so the princess transformation has to be expected.

     But the character herself is played a bit too reserved, and because of the secret she is hiding during the majority of the picture, Liu is never given the kind of moments with her co-stars where anything other than the serious and disciplined routine is required.  We’ll never really know how any of these characters feel about each other because they don’t have the kind of exchanges where emotion or personality comes into play.  There’s even a surprisingly low amount of comic relief.  And with everything leading to a showdown between Mulan and Bori Khan with the fate of the Emperor hanging in the balance, the result is always obvious, regardless of whether or not you’ve seen the 1998 animated version.  All of which means “Mulan” is carried primarily by its endlessly striking visual spectacle, but remains devoid of an emotional core that could very well have turned the film into an instant classic.  GRADE: C+

“Tenet” Movie Review


     Since arriving with his breakthrough film “Memento” (2000), Christopher Nolan has established himself as one of the preeminent filmmakers of his generation, having built an impressive resume of spellbinding event films spanning everything from pulse pounding historical epics to mind bending action thrillers. The best in this business are typically identifiable by trademarks they often employ in each of their films in order to tell a story and Nolan is no exception.  The director, who pens the original screenplays that build the foundation for these visual spectaculars, utilizes the element of time as a key method of moving the story forward, or backwards, as was the case in “Memento” and has now come full circle with “Tenet”.

     “Tenet” may well be Nolan’s deepest dive yet into how time affects the way a story unfolds on screen.  And that’s saying something given the way time is presented in films such as “Inception” (one minute in real life is a week in a dream.), “Interstellar” (a few minutes on a planet is twenty years for those parked just outside its atmosphere.), or “Dunkirk” (events are depicted as they take place over a day, week, and month.).  Here, Nolan introduces a concept of which a supporting character tells us we are not meant to understand, but rather only feel.  You’ll exit the theater likely holding on to that since there never is a cohesive explanation given for the logic defying visuals you will have just witnessed.  In “The Matrix”, it was as simple as we are projections of ourselves in a computer simulated construct, and thus our minds can allow us to perform actions not possible in the real world.  “Tenet” offers no such simplicity.

     The film opens with a thunderous action sequence as terrorists suddenly arrive at a packed concert hall in Kiev, Ukraine with nefarious intentions.  Outside, SWAT team members ready themselves to enter the building and presumably save lives.  One of them is a character we will only know as the Protagonist, played by John David Washington (“Blackkklansman”), as we are shown he and his immediate team are likely not a part of the larger group when the local police department’s patch is distributed and affixed to their gear just before they embark on their mission.  What is that mission?  Well, it’s clearly not the same as the others entering the fray.  They seem to avoid the terrorists in the main room and go straight to one of the upper level boxes in order to retrieve a specific person.  Maybe they are CIA? Perhaps there is an important agency asset who needs extraction?  

     It’s not explained, but the result leads to the Protagonist being captured and tortured.  And when he follows protocol by taking a poison pill, he drifts off believing his duty is done.  But then he awakens, having been treated medically and on a large boat somewhere in the world.  A man tells him he has passed a test many do not, and is now on a new team with a new directive he doesn’t choose to explain. Instead offering the word Tenet for him to follow up on.

     Essentially, a coalition of government agencies from around the world have discovered a technology that is being deployed in the future and can be transported to the past.  People and objects can experience actions in reverse, thus giving someone with ill intentions to ability to change the course of history and undo a series of actions crucial to a specific plan or goal.  That’s simplifying things substantially, and you may not come away with an explanation like this after viewing the film.  But let it marinate a bit, and a lot of what’s presented in Nolan’s standard loud and tightly edited style will begin to come into focus.

     The man in possession of this dangerous technology both in the present and the future is a foreign arms dealer named Andrei (Kenneth Branagh), who has a plan in motion to end the world.  The Protagonist learns Andrei’s wife, Kat (Elizabith Debicki), is a victim of his constant abuse and utilizes her cooperation to get closer to the Russian’s operation.  Working with another agent, Neill (Robert Pattinson), the duo moves through various locales in an attempt to peel away the various layers of Andrei’s organization and determine what exactly he’s trying to do.  It’s never actually clear to the audience, but we assume it’s bad.

     All of this proves to be a creative canvas for Nolan to unspool several eye popping action sequences, each of which seems determined to outdo the last.  The best of them are presented at different stages of the film, where we believe we understand what the intentions of the characters are, only to find out there are other characters unseen in the exact same sequence, but operating in a different realm of time.  I know, it doesn’t make sense, but like “Inception”, Nolan is playing with one of the most original movie ideas we’ve seen in years.  So you have to figure this one is going to be a doozy.  

     As you would expect for a film that is said to have cost north of $200 million, the technical aspects of “Tenet” are exceptional.  And the seamlessly rendered action sequences are heightened greatly by Ludwig Goransson’s pounding score that is often loud enough to drown out the dialogue, which is yet another Nolan hallmark.  The entire experience is the kind of ride you want to see on the big screen, as the images courtesy of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”, “Interstellar”) have never looked better in a film where the visual punch is clearly its most important aspect.  “Tenet” is that proverbial mystery box, likely designed through Nolan’s extensive imagination to be the kind of film we as filmgoers will endlessly debate and dissect for years to come.  GRADE: A