Reviews


“High Flying Bird” Movie Review


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     With “High Flying Bird”, director Steven Soderbergh delves into the world of professional basketball at a time where the entertainment aspect of one of the world’s most popular sports leagues unceremoniously comes to a grinding halt.  With the advent of collective bargaining and the game’s most prominent athletes looking for a larger cut from the owners, the expiration of such contracts almost always means the threat of a lock out, the last of which occurred in 2011, leaving the NBA with a shortened 66 game season.  But aside from the wrangling back and forth between the attorneys representing the player’s association and the owners, what actually goes on behind the scenes?  How does the situation effect rookies coming into the league?  And with a sudden loss of their primary income stream, how do players and their agents survive?

     Working from a script by Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Moonlight”), Soderbergh again pushes the limits of that electronic device we all have in our pockets and shoots the entire film on an iPhone.  Citing the ability to both put a camera anywhere he needs it at a moments notice, as well as the ability to see exactly what he’s shot before moving on to the next, Soderbergh utilizes the camera to squeeze into tight spaces in vehicles, as well as for a number of impressive wide angle shots that take full advantage of the story’s New York setting.  He also has a game cast in front of him who seem to be oblivious to the fact he’s using a smart phone.

     In the opening scene, we begin to understand the tenuous situation a work stoppage can cause within the various levels of what is a massive corporate machine.  Ray Burke (Andre Holland) is a sports agent who is currently overseeing the affairs of the NBA’s number one draft pick, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), as the two meet for lunch to discuss the ramifications of a high interest loan Erick recently took out in order to fund his new lifestyle while waiting for his rookie contract to kick in.  The issue here is the fact this kid was drafted, but has yet to receive a dime due to the work stoppage.  This also means Ray doesn’t receive his commission either, a notion that becomes painfully real when his corporate card is denied when he attempts to pay for lunch.  Ray implores Erick to be patient, wait it out, and to not do anything stupid that would jeopardize his ability to maximize his star power when the lock out ends.  Above all, he implores the youngster to understand the league is a business first.

     There is also chaos within the management company Ray works for.  His boss, David (Zachary Quinto), has been told to freeze all expense accounts, and the company is being reorganized to benefit from other revenue streams while the NBA and the players association continue to haggle over money.  It’s clear there are many more people involved in all of this who depend on the NBA operating at a peak performance level than just the players and owners.  And Ray’s job seems to be on the line as well, given his clients are all NBA stars, meaning he is not bringing in any business.  The first casualty of this is the transfer of his long time assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz), to another department, which leaves him mulling his next move.

     Soderbergh takes a hard look at these issues by asking some very serious questions about the arrangement between owners and players.  In doing so, he utilizes a character named Spence (Bill Duke), who runs a basketball program at a community center and was a long time NBA player himself.  The questions raised include the notion of white team owners who unfairly utilize the players in a mostly black league for their own monetary gain, and do so with unprecedented control over the players via clearly spelled out restrictions in their contracts, as well as the collective bargaining agreement.  Essentially what he’s saying is players not only must give up the rights to their likeness, but they are limited in their ability to sell themselves as a brand.  In essence, the argument is the player’s star power on and off the court benefit the NBA, rather than benefiting the player.  

     All of this plays out around a publicity stunt set up by Ray, as the various entities involved haggle over percentages and who gets the bigger slice of the pie with revenues increasing after lucrative broadcast deals.  Back and forth between the player’s association and the owners is depicted through scenes where the union’s attorney, Myra (Sonja Sohn), debates with the owner’s representative, David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), as the two seem unlikely to bend and work towards an agreement.  Meanwhile, the players are out of work and not being paid, which leads to them looking for other means to support themselves by using their basketball talents, something the league does not want to see.

     Now the fact “High Flying Bird” is shot on an iPhone shouldn’t indicate the film lacks in standard production value.  It is in fact a marvel artistically with seemingly every shot carefully composed in the exact same way a film would be had it been shot with a high end camera.  And the story succeeds in its quest to ask hard questions about a system that may very well be rigged to ensure every NBA franchise continues to rise exponentially in value, even if it means continuing to hold the players back from creating their own businesses based on their own star power.  In an interesting and quite effective twist, Soderbergh includes documentary style interviews with real life NBA players Karl-Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell, and Reggie Jackson who speak about their experiences as rookies in the league.  Their words play meaningfully into the story as we see Erick Scott struggle with his place in all of this when his expectations of the beginning of his career are reduced to just sitting around and waiting while the wealthy owners of the league ensure their bottom line remains the ultimate priority.  GRADE: B+

“What Men Want” Movie Review


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     It was only a matter of time.  A no brainer if you will.  Maybe it took a little longer than once thought, but the script has been flipped on Nancy Meyer’s 2000 hit comedy “What Women Want”, bringing a female into Mel Gibson’s role and thus giving her the ability to hear what men are thinking internally.  And don’t tell Taraji P. Henson she’s being utilized here to fill someone else’s shoes, as she absolutely owns this role in every way, perhaps even making Gibson’s performance a distant memory in the process.  Working from script by Tina Gordon, Peter Huyck, and Alex Gregory, director Adam Shankman changes much of the dynamic from the original, but still places Henson in a position of secondary power, though she is aiming for a big promotion, amongst a male dominated workplace she struggles to get along with.

     Strangely enough, this is the third time in just under a year where a female lead character hits her head hard enough to create some kind of otherworldly experience meant as social commentary.  In addition to Henson’s Ali Davis, who after an interesting session with a psychic ends up gaining her ability to hear men’s thoughts when she abruptly smashes her head on a table while dancing at a nightclub, there was Amy Schumer hitting her's during a cycling class in “I Feel Pretty”, and it appears Rebel Wilson will do something similar in the upcoming “Isn’t It Romantic”.  Nonetheless, the story moves along with a consistent and welcome comedic beat set to Henson’s ability to deliver sharp, witty dialogue accompanied by raucous physical comedy.

     Ali Davis (Henson) is a sports agent working for a sports management firm comprised of mostly male counterparts.  And while she boasts an impressive client list of several notable female olympic athletes, she has been continually passed over in becoming a partner due to the lack of signing true superstar talent within the big four professional sports leagues.  In an opening scene, she still believes she is about to achieve her goal in a board room ceremony where the next partner is about to be named.  The company boss, Nick (Brian Bosworth), tosses a ceremonial football to the new partner and with Ali thinking its her, she catches the ball, only to be told it was directed at the guy sitting next to her.

     After the latest setback in her career, she is told if she could get the top college basketball prospect in the country, Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), to sign with her and the company, it would potentially guarantee she becomes a partner.  Flanked by her assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener, Big Head from HBO’s “Silicon Valley” doing his best Gary impersonation from “Veep”), the duo sets out to meet Jamal and his flamboyant Lavar Ball caricature of a father Joe “Dolla” Barry (Tracy Morgan) during a photo shoot that doesn’t go as planned, leaving Ali to wonder what it takes to land a client of this stature.  Of course, we the audience have an idea since it’s shortly thereafter Ali is suddenly gifted with a power that proves to be quite handy within these male ego infused scenarios.

     There are a number of hilarious bits Shankman comes up with, each of which utilize cameo appearances from several notable sports stars who are no stranger to captivating audiences with their larger than life personas.  An all male poker game Ali finds herself in the middle of includes Joe Barry, but also Shaquille O’Neal, Mark Cuban, and Grant Hill.  And with her new found ability to hear each of their ongoing thoughts, it doesn’t prove difficult to clean house if she chooses, but she also sees an opportunity.  Add to this a budding love interest in Will (Aldis Hodge), and his very cute 6 year old son, Ben (Auston Jon Moore), who owns the line of the movie with his “Welcome to Wakanda” while utilizing Ali’s underwear as a mask, and you have the recipe for an all out comedy sure to end with the usual sentimental touches.

     Though all of this leads to a formulaic narrative, the film earns its laughs from a very game cast who no doubt gave their all in order to ensure “What Men Want” would stand tall next to its predecessor.  And while Henson clearly carries the film, she works well along side Brener as he makes a welcome transition from the small to big screen.  Meanwhile, Morgan is absolutely hilarious with his helicopter dad impersonation and clearly makes a gargantuan effort to steal every scene he appears in.  The only curious bit of casting is that of Shane Paul McGhie as a basketball player being sold as the next phenom and number one pick in the NBA draft.  Problem is, he doesn’t seem to have the kind of over the top skills necessary to sell himself as a high level player (one scene in particular between him and Henson on an outdoor court did not exude someone with the kind of talent to play in the NBA).  This would’ve been a great opportunity to cast an actual NBA player in the role, but in reality, the film isn’t about him so they get away with it.

     Of course, neither this film nor the Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt version really ever answer the question both titles ask.  And that’s because there is no answer.  After all these years, we have yet to really figure each other out.  But it would be cool (and quite helpful) to finally know exactly what you’re thinking.  GRADE: B-

“The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” Movie Review


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     Writer/ Director Henry Dunham’s feature debut, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek”, is a stunning and brilliant achievement worthy of being touted as the first great film of 2019.  And while it is certain there will be many more, it would be a massive disservice to forget the film when best of lists are being compiled at the end of the year.  Working with a budget of less then $500K, the film takes place within the claustrophobic confines of a large lumber warehouse and is populated with a cast comprised of seasoned veteran character actors that most casual movie watchers likely won’t recognize.  But the tension Dunham and this group manage to create, working from a fantastic script by Dunham as well, rivals the very best thrillers of the past decade, while also managing to create several unique twists of its own.

     The easy comparison here would be Tarantino’s 1991 classic “Reservoir Dogs”, but look deeper and you’re likely to find similarities within another genre entirely.  Essentially, what Dunham has created, with his men trapped in small spaces scenario, is something more akin to Ridley Scott’s “Alien” or John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, but without the monster.  Although with these characters, many of them certainly could qualify for such a distinction.  Nearly every scene is lit with a semi bright key light illuminating the actor’s faces from only one direction, leaving the rest of their silhouette shrouded in darkness.  People can appear and you didn’t know they were there, while others just walk away mid conversation without the audience knowing.  All of this plays to important aspects of a plot torn directly out of today’s headlines.

     When we first meet Gannon (James Badge Dale), he’s deep in the woods lying hidden within some brush and concealed behind a tree.  With a rifle and scope, he has a deer in his sights.  We don’t see him pull the trigger, but the next shot indicates he bagged his prey, as we catch up with him at his seemingly middle of nowhere trailer.  As he’s eating dinner alone, he hears automatic gunfire repeating in the distance.  Soon after, he gets a call to meet at the Sparrow Creek lumber yard from the leader of the militia he belongs to.  The message is one of urgency.

     Gannon is an ex-cop who now toils away with a small militia in Northern Michigan.  I found this interesting since a memorable segment in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” features interviews with a couple of these sloppy out of shape whack jobs who spend their days training like soldiers just in case they may need to stop the government from taking away their arms, or something like that.  And in that exact vein we have a group of seedy looking individuals show up at the lumber warehouse to find out what has happened.

     Off camera, a lone gunman has committed a mass shooting at a police funeral.  The murderous monster was said to have fired hundreds of rounds with an assault rifle, and employed the use of IEDs hidden amongst the grave stones in order to maximize casualties which is said to have been nearly everyone attending the service.  Through listening to the police radio, the group realizes that the local militias are the prime suspects, and Ford (Chris Mulkey), the group’s leader, has called a meeting to find out if the suspect is among them.  Complicating matters is the fact one of the AR-15 assault rifles from the militia’s armory is missing, and everyone who has the code to that armory is now in the room.

     Because of his background as a cop, Ford charges Gannon with interrogating the prime suspects in the group, who are made up of confessed murderers, former members of the Aryan Nation, and prototypical anti social types who scream serial killer just by their mere presence.  If you’re familiar with police interrogation techniques, the dialogue in these scenes will be quite intriguing to you, as you’ll right away pick up on Gannon’s methods in an effort to gain confessions from the militia’s most obvious suspects.  Beyond this, the group finds themselves unable to leave the lumber yard, as it is now being reported via police radio that several militias have completed coordinated attacks throughout the United States.  The mistrust then begins to brew within, as each begins to wonder what the other knows and isn’t telling them.

     Dunham’s team proves top notch with outstanding work from Director of Photography Jackson Hunt, Production Designer Adam Dietrich, and Editor Josh Ethier, creating a dark, gritty, atmosphere for the actors to thrive in.  And all of this is accomplished without a single note of musical score to support it.  When you think about the limited indie budget, as well as the shooting schedule said to have been only 18 days, it’s astounding what the filmmakers were able to create with such limited resources.

     Perhaps even more compelling is the narrative being centered around a mass shooting and the use of an assault rifle equipped with a bump stock serving as the primary means of the attack, particularly given the many recent events in our country.  A plot point made even more shocking when we begin to realize the make up of this militia, as it features several members who would qualify as having the background and personality traits of a poster child for a mass murderer.  At a certain point in the film, you’d likely believe it could have been any one of them. A testament to the superb performances by the supporting cast that includes Brian Geraghty (“The Hurt Locker”), Patrick Fischler (“Mad Men”), Happy Anderson (“Bright”), Robert Aramayo (“Nocturnal Animals”, “Game of Thrones”) , and Gene Jones (“The Hateful Eight”).  As for Dunham, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” announces his successful arrival into feature filmmaking and assures his growing audience will no doubt be looking forward to his next project.  GRADE: A

“Serenity” Movie Review


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     “Serenity” is one of those films that absolutely has to be seen in order to be believed.  There is no describing it, unless completely giving away its secrets is an option, but even then words allowing for a proper portrayal of the plot and the characters in the story would be hard to come by.  Because the film will make little noise at the box office, most will have to wait until it becomes available on digital platforms to determine for themselves if the film is actually any good or not.  Writer/director Steven Knight has weaved together a film so hokey, it’s difficult to take it seriously.  A fact that undermines what lies beneath the surface where Knight changes the laws of film narrative to suit his strange third act.

     Whatever trailer house was hired to create the advertising for “Serenity” must’ve only been given scenes from the first half of the film.  What audiences will expect to see is not what’s delivered.  An all star cast featuring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, and Jason Clarke populate a secluded tropical island called Plymouth where we are meant to believe a twisted murder for hire plot is about to become a reality.  Baker Dill (McConaughey), is a local boat captain who take tourists out to sea on fishing excursions, while also continually attempting to hook a rather large tuna that thus far has remained elusive.  His first mate, Duke (Djimon Hounsou), functions as a sort of moral compass when Baker becomes impulsive towards catching this fish he has dubbed “Justice”, particularly when they have paying customers on board.

     The set up here will strike you as odd from the very first scenes.  Everything that happens seems convenient and created for purposes that may be revealed later.  Each day when Baker returns from the sea, a woman named Constance (Diane Lane), who lives in a cottage overlooking the dock, opens the shutters of her window and looks upon the returning fisherman, not saying a word, but beckoning him to join her as we learn he does each and every time.  And after their time in the sack, both exchange some of the most cheesy dialogue you will ever hear, as if the screenwriter was a child and doesn’t have any idea of what exactly he is writing about when it comes to adult situations.  This leads to similarly odd exchanges between Baker and patrons of the island’s only bar, as his life seems to be a proverbial daily repeat with nothing but that big fish in his mind.

     That is until Karen (Anne Hathaway), his ex wife, arrives on the island with an offer and a desperate plea for help.  Per her words, we are meant to believe she has arrived several days early before her husband, Frank (Jason Clarke), where he is expecting to go on a fishing excursion she has booked for him.  But Karen’s motives are, of course, geared to something else entirely.  Frank abuses her, as well as the son Baker and Karen have in common, which leads to her bringing an offer to Baker she believes he can’t refuse.  Take her unknowing abusive husband on the fishing excursion, get him drunk, and then send him overboard.  In exchange? Ten million dollars of dirty money, courtesy of Frank’s illegal business exploits.  But Baker wants nothing to do with her or the situation, leaving Karen to deal with Frank’s arrival and the expectation he will be going on a fishing trip which Karen claims she spent hours on the internet searching for.

     If the film were to go on from here, you would think this was a classic Femme Fatale story cooked up by the likes of Hitchcock or DePalma, but then Knight changes the game significantly, going somewhere you likely will not predict.  For their part, the actors really seem to be into the material with McConaughey going full bore, as he willingly and assuredly belts out his lines with every ounce of emotional grit he can muster.  And while Anne Hathaway isn’t as effective with what she is given to work with, Jason Clarke has a mischievously good time playing the bad guy, yucking it up with his ultra-arrogant persona as a man who is used getting exactly what he wants when he wants it.  Some of the back and forth between Baker and Frank is actually quite good, given the fact Frank is being set up and he’s too dumb to realize it.

     But where does all of this end up?  To make sense of Knight’s endgame is practically impossible.  And the way he gets there makes it seem as though he believes one upping the audience is imperative, even though the pay off doesn’t pack the emotional punch I think he was going for.  Nonetheless, “Serenity” could end up being one of those films where once the masses see it, there could be a good bit of water cooler talk debating the narrative choices made by Knight and whether or not they should be allowed in a film.  It’s kinda of like something staring right at you in the face, while it consistently tells itself “I’m invisible”.  That’s what it’s like to watch the film.  It’s all so obvious where it’s going, lessening the impact of the reveal once we get there.  GRADE: C

“Glass” Movie Review


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     After demonstrating so much promise with recent hits such as “The Visit” (2015) and “Split” (2017), M. Night Shyamalan regresses back to the days of his lesser work like “After Earth” (2013) with “Glass”, a sequel to his 2000 film “Unbreakable” and the third film in a trilogy which also includes the aforementioned “Split”.  In all fairness, Shyamalan, like many of his contemporaries, is often victimized by his own success.  His breakout hit, 1999’s “The Sixth Sense”, established the director as a phenom and also attached clear expectations of which few filmmakers could possibly meet.  Sure, others such as James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino have managed to capture lightning in a bottle, churning out several notable classics after their debut features created lofty standards for themselves.  But Shyamalan has struggled to do the same, and critics have regularly ravaged his offerings as having never measured up to what he had already proven capable of.  A one hit wonder if you will.

     Coming on the heels of “The Sixth Sense”, even “Unbreakable” was not the sophomore effort audiences were expecting, though the film over the past nineteen years has been reexamined and is how thought to be Shyamalan’s best work.  The final scene in “Split” gave way to something many of his fans had been clamoring for, as it was revealed the film was a sequel to “Unbreakable”, taking place in the same world as Bruce Willis’ would be superhero David Dunn and his nemesis and criminal mastermind Elijah Price played by Samuel L. Jackson.  News which then brought forth a number of interesting possibilities where David would face off against The Beast, as a horrified Philadelphia looked on.  

     One of the issues Shyamalan faces with each film he makes is the built in expectation of that “gotcha” moment that has become his hallmark ever since we all were left dumbfounded when we finally realized Bruce Willis was a ghost.  That need to fool the audience in every film seems to have pigeon holed Shyamalan into coming up with new ways to continually pull off the same trick, regardless of the subject matter he’s exploring.  As you view “Glass” and the narrative moves into the third act, it’s easy to see this is exactly where the film’s downfall is.  Without revealing what Shyamalan has concocted for his latest trick, I will say it is neither surprising, nor effective, but rather a real let down that will leave you wondering what the significance is and how it has anything to do with what you just saw.

     “Glass” begins with a reintroduction of David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and his now grown son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), who run a home security business as a front for David’s nightly exploits fighting and solving crime.  We are then brought to a run down empty warehouse, where The Beast (James McCoy), along with his many other personalities, has kidnapped four cheerleaders and has them chained down, presumably for The Beast’s later consumption.  It’s an odd look for sure, with the cheerleaders in full uniform, stuck in some grungy, cliched, horror film set that somehow conjures images of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video and just seems all too convenient considering this is one of the first places the police should look when four young girls go missing.  But this is just the beginning of the film’s plot conveniences.

     After an initial encounter between The Beast and David, they are duped by an army of cops waiting outside and brought to a mental institution where they will be examined for their belief that they are superheroes.  Never mind The Beast is a suspected serial killer with multiple personalities, and David is an internet famous vigilante who has severely injured numerous people.  Forget jail or trial, we’re taking them to the very same institution where Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) is housed so that nineteen years later he can team up with them, help them escape, and enact some nefarious plan he has imagined just for this moment.  No, I’m not kidding.  That’s the plot.

     And while we wait for this, the film spends it’s entire middle half inside the walls of the hospital as a monotone Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) tries to convince the trio that their various “super powers” are merely coincidental.  None of these conversations are interesting, and each requires some kind of plot mechanism to ensure they would even be possible.  Like the one that allows Dr. Staple or an orderly to stand in the same room as The Beast, as their safety depends on a light flashing device installed at the doorway which conveniently, and without fail, instantly changes his personality to another more docile one.  Meanwhile, the character whose name graces the film’s title is no where to be found until the midway point, and even then he’s a sedated mute.  And Bruce Willis couldn’t look any more bored, but can you blame him?

     Even more baffling is the promised climax that never actually happens.  In fact, aside from the opening sequence, the entire film takes place inside the hospital or in the hospital’s parking lot.  And given the size of the hospital and the criminal’s within, there seems to be some really shoddy (or convenient) security in place where there are two employees working 12 on / 12 off shifts and a security guard who mans a gate at the front door.  Aside from this, we never see any other employees or any other patients for that matter.  Safe to say, you don’t have to be a genius like Mr. Glass to figure a way out.  But when you do, the property room still has your superhero gear ready and waiting because after all, you can’t fight The Beast without your rain coat and you can’t execute your diabolical scheme without your “MG” charm from almost 20 years ago.

     If anything saves “Glass” it’s James McAvoy’s performance, as he has perfected the transitions from personality to personality in a manner that is truly frightening.  But seeing the character again just 2 years removed from “Split” takes away some of the novelty.  I don’t want to say “Glass” belongs in the same territory as “The Happening”, but the result here, particularly because of the ambiguous ending, leaves you feeling unsatisfied and bewildered.  There was an opportunity here that seems like it was missed.  The idea of superheroes living among us and utilizing their special talents without the need for flashy costumes or other worldly explanations is as intriguing as any for a film.  But why act like everything has to be a secret and contain nearly the entire film in one building?  Throughout the film, Shyamalan has his characters invoke the necessary framework for great comic book characters and stories, as if the story itself was a comic book in the making.  Fact is, if this story was in the form of a comic book, it would be in the bargain bin within a week.  GRADE: C-

“Beautiful Boy” Movie Review


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     The hardships of drug addiction on a person, and those closest to them, is unquestionably one of the most difficult obstacles someone can attempt to overcome.  Looking at this scenario from the perspective of both the user and a family desperate to help, “Beautiful Boy” is a poignant and startling story of a father’s fight to help his son through his late teen years as he struggles with drug use and the expectations of his family of which he feels he will never meet.  Directed by Felix Van Groeningen, the film is based on the memoirs written by David Sheff and Nic Sheff, a true life father and son duo of whom the film’s story is based on.  The sheer turbulence on screen presents a harrowing scenario where any positive outcome seems nearly impossible, as the family must ultimately determine when their own son is beyond helping.  A decision that is as gut wrenching as any a parent would have to make.

     Following up his Oscar nominated performance in 2017’s “Call Me by Your Name”, Timothee Chalamet delves deep within the soul of Nic Sheff, portraying the character with the kind of raw emotion and realism that could certainly have him back in the awards conversation again this year.  Nic is an 18 year old expected by his father, David (Steve Carell), to go to college and enjoy the kind of success we all want for our children.  And while Nic has certainly benefitted from an upper class upbringing thanks to his father’s success as a writer, he is the product of a broken home with his parents divorcing when he was young.  His mother moved away, limiting visits to the holidays, leaving his father to raise him.  Soon after the divorce, David married again and had two children with his second wife, Karen (Maura Tierney).  Those of us who have ourselves been involved in similar scenarios know the potential pitfalls of this dynamic.  No matter how much attention David would give Nic, there would always be others requiring his attention as well.  And often times the kid in the middle isn’t so quick to sign off on such an arrangement.

     The narrative structure utilized by Van Groeningen is little messy.  The story shifts between what seems like dozens of timelines, flashing forward and then back so many times, it can be difficult to keep track of.  Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to depict the chaotic nature of these true events by keeping the audience off balance, but the result leads to confusion and may have been better suited as a story told in a more linear fashion.  Nonetheless, the film remains a powerful force throughout.  Not once did I notice any kind of needless camera movement or unnecessary fluff employed by Van Groeningen in order to score points for artistry.  Instead, the director simply points his camera in close up on his actors and lets them perform.  A wise decision given the subject matter and the incredible talent he is working with.

     It must’ve been three quarters of the way through before we finally meet Nic’s mother, Vicki (Amy Ryan), who attempts to shepherd her son through one of the many addiction programs he takes part in over several years, only to relapse each time.  The affects of drug addiction are obvious when we see Nic attempting to cope with his life as it unfolds around him, but what “Beautiful Boy” really excels at is ensuring we understand the strain a teenager can put on a couple who do not share that child in common.  Sure, Karen indicates she will treat Nic like her own son, but these relationships (Step Parent / Step Child) are filled with an unending array of potential landmines as it is.  Inject an issue such as the step child being addicted to drugs, and the blood parent now becoming consumed with helping instead of tending to his new family’s needs, and you have a classic slippery slope.  And there is no book to read that can provide answers.

     Nic himself remains lost throughout the process, as he attempts to live life independently of his family, while often returning in order to get money or steal valuables he can sell in order to maintain his habit.  He freely admits his disease is of his own doing and refuses to categorize his problem with a sickness such as cancer.  But despite the repeated attempts to help from those who care deeply for him,  something internally drives him to make the wrong decision.  It’s a state of mind I hope to never understand.

     Despite the outstanding work by Chalamet, it is the ever dependable Steve Carell who anchors the film with a steady and nuanced performance indicative of the emotional roller coaster he finds himself on as his son falls deeper into the darkness of addiction.  As the custodial parent, he endures phone calls from Nic’s mother, who from far away blames him for their son’s problems.  At home, he tries to shield his younger son and daughter from any outward displays of negativity, yet there is also the lingering issue of Karen’s patience wearing thin as she begins to see things spiraling out of control.  Imagine being Karen, having to endure all of this with virtually no say in potential solutions as her husband David and his ex wife are thrust back together in order to deal with something few people will truly understand.  These are real issues that society has yet to determine proper solutions for.  Everyone is different and no case is the same.  And given the circumstances here, it’s amazing it didn’t end much worse than it did.  GRADE: B+

“If Beale Street Could Talk” Movie Review


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     There’s no telling the heights writer/director Barry Jenkins will ultimately reach, but the amazing work he has on display with “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a certain indication there is no limit to his potential given this is just his third feature.  Based on the book by the late James Baldwin (the subject of the powerful 2016 documentary “I Am Not Your Negro”), Jenkins' film, taking place in the early 1970s, explores social issues which sadly remain topical in today’s society.  At its core, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a deep rooted love story where two soulmates must navigate the pitfalls of a legal system seemingly designed to work against them.  There is, perhaps, no greater injustice than the thought of two people meant to be together, only to be separated by prison walls when someone is accused of a crime he didn’t commit.  And the fact many of these issues remain nearly fifty years after Baldwin penned the novel is a stain on the fabric of our society and our role as human beings.

     As narrated by the story’s lead character, Tish (KiKi Layne), the film reveals to us early on that the father of her unborn child, Fonny (Stephan James), has been arrested for a sexual assault which given they were together the night of the crime, means it was impossible for him to have been the suspect.  A scenario which means the couple is separated by a glass barrier during visitation, even when Tish first informs Fonny they are going to have a baby.  The first thought about the information given at this point in the film is why was Fonny arrested in the first place?  If it can be proven he wasn’t anywhere near where the crime occurred at the time it occurred, how did he end up handcuffed and in the back of a police car?  Those questions are eventually answered with a set of twisted facts and racially charged legal politics that will only infuriate you.  If only it could be said stories like this aren’t true, but they are.

     Jenkins uses a non linear format to tell the story, allowing the audience to flashback to the very foundation of Fonny and Tish’s romance.  We also view the story in the present as Fonny remains in jail awaiting trial while the family deals with Tish’s pregnancy and the legal defense necessary to prove Fonny did not commit the crime.  These issues set up two key scenes in which the acting is some of the best you will see in a film this year.  It’s my understanding that both of these scenes are the highlight of Baldwin’s book as well.

     The first could easily play out on a Broadway stage as Tish reveals to her mother, Sharon (Regina King), that she and Fonny are having a baby.  This leads to an after dinner conversation adding Tish’s father, Joseph (Colman Domingo) and her older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) to the mix.  In hilarious fashion, Sharon pulls down a top shelf bottle of liquor for the occasion, a gesture of which Joseph can sense the importance of the pending announcement.  The scene is a clear indication of the loving nature of this family.  Through the reactions of each person, we gain a clear understanding of the fact they will support one another through thick and thin, never wavering even in the toughest of times.

     It is then decided they will invite Fonny’s family over to tell them the big news. And through Tish’s narration, we are warned some of the personalities have never mixed very well.  Fonny’s father, Frank (Michael Beach), seems to have a long history with Joseph, but his wife, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis), brings with her an overt belief in God and feels it is necessary to chastise those who do not follow suit.  Her daughters, Adrienne (Ebony Obsidian) and Shiela (Dominique Thorne) are literal clones of their mother and the three of them look down arrogantly at Tish and her family, criticizing them after the announcement and judging their every move in the aftermath.  All of this while Fonny remains in jail with an uncertain future.

     The second scene involves the fact that the victim in the crime, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), has fled the country to her native Puerto Rico and cannot be found by the District Attorney.  Common sense would dictate if you don’t have a victim, how can you have a crime?  Particularly if there are two witnesses who can testify as to Fonny’s whereabouts at the time of the crime.  Nonetheless, Sharon takes it upon herself to track Victoria down and is able to come face to face with her, revealing the true nature of the situation.  But none of what she uncovers ultimately matters with the racial injustice common within the system that seeks to ensure Fonny is convicted and sent to prison.

     Jenkins expertly weaves these scenes within a very tender and emotionally charged narrative centered around Fonny and Tish falling in love, moving in together, and having a family.  It’s heartbreaking to see these two having to overcome so much simply because of race, but you also realize the feelings of hate resonate on both sides, making a potential solution seem impossible. 

     “If Beale Street Could Talk” is Jenkins' followup to his Best Picture winning “Moonlight” (2016), a set of sterling accomplishments which now cements his name amongst the top filmmakers in the industry.  And what really strikes me about his work is the fact each of these two films have something important to say and successfully ingrain their respective messages into the minds of the audience long after leaving the theater.  This is a testament to both his writing and directing, but also to the performances of his actors, particularly those of Stephan James, who recently shined along side Julia Roberts in Amazon’s “Homecoming”, and Regina King who both nail their respective characters in a way that would make any thespian green with envy.  These elements, along with a breakout performance by KiKi Layne, create yet another exceptional film from Jenkins and one of the best of the year.  GRADE: A

“Vice” Movie Review


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     Writer / Director Adam McKay’s “Vice” seeks to bring light to a person and story of which has already been thoroughly explored.  A surprising move as a follow up to his Academy Award winning 2015 film “The Big Short”.  “Vice” is a seething takedown of Vice President Dick Cheney, who served under President George W. Bush from 2001 - 2009 and was said to be the most powerful VP in our history.  I suppose it’s not overly shocking McKay chose to go this route, particularly considering the daily takedown of our current President, why not make a film about a former leader and destroy his image too?  Everyone is doing it after all.  Not that Cheney needed any help in that regard, since he left office with an approval rating that hovered around 13%.  Fact is, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore previously fired many of these shots in his massively successful 2004 documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11”, doing so without the need to engage in what comes off as a Hollywood costume party.

     There is one glaring issue with “Vice” that I have to figure will turn off most audiences, and the reasoning behind the problem is actually found in “The Big Short”.  In that film, the story centers around subject matter nearly every person in this country can gravitate to: The Recession of 2008.  Talk to anyone and you’ll likely hear a story involving tremendous financial loss that had significant ramifications on their lives moving forward.  And in some cases, even now ten years later, they have yet to fully recover.  Now given “The Big Short” is a dramatic dissection of the reasons the recession was caused, the film tends to be a major punch to the gut.  For all it’s comedic aspects and stellar performances (many of whom also appear in “Vice”), “The Big Short” pisses you off and thus strikes the kind of emotional chord few films are successful in achieving.  

     “Vice “ on the other hand plays like old news.  Regardless of your politics, the likelihood of you caring for this kind of material is low.  And it’s not like anyone entering the theater will leave with a different opinion or outlook anyway.  Doing a politically charged biopic can only accomplish two things:  Illicit cheers from one side and groans from the other.  And given McKay utilizes essentially the same style and filter as he did in “The Big Short”, the resulting tone simply doesn’t match the material.  With Cheney depicted as a monotone introverted wise guy, the serious nature of the issues explored don’t mesh well with the smart ass detours McKay likes to take every few scenes.  If anything, the filmmakers should have sided with a tone more akin to last year’s “Darkest Hour”, rather than reverting to the silly antics of McKay’s “Anchorman” days.

     On the positive side, “Vice” boasts an engaging performance from a shapeshifting and unrecognizable Christian Bale as Vice President Dick Cheney.  The actor, who has said he gained 45 pounds for the role, delivers yet another memorable character, even if this one was likely conceived from heaping amounts of embellishment.  The early years scream by as we see a drunken Yale flunky who somehow makes his way to a Congressional internship working for then Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).  The story moves forward via a nifty plot device courtesy of our narrator named Kurt (played by Jesse Plemons), making stops at most of Cheney’s various posts within the government, including President Ford’s Chief of Staff, and President George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense.  Along the way, Cheney is accompanied by his smart and quite ambitious wife Lynne (Amy Adams), as they navigate the political landscape, complete with all of the typical backstabbing and pitfalls we are accustomed to seeing, in much the same way the similar Frank and Claire Underwood do in Netflix’s “House of  Cards.”

     But there are no bombshells, nor tidbits of compelling information presented anywhere in the 132 minute run time.  About half way through, George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) is introduced as a secondary character and a backyard meeting between him and Cheney ultimately results in the two becoming running mates and defeating Al Gore in the 2000 election.  When 9/11 happens less than a year later, the story delves into the core of its purported existence by presenting several layers of Cheney’s power pulpit including multiple offices in and around the most important parts of Washington D.C., the angling of various constitutional legal opinions that give the Executive Branch more power, and the inevitable mentioning of the U.S. engaging in torture tactics during the war on terror.  Again, regardless of your individual take on things, isn’t all of this something we’ve left in the past?

     The reason McKay’s “The Big Short” worked so well is the characters being portrayed on screen were not people who have remained in the public eye for decades.  The crimes committed by those behind our financial ruin were done by faceless men who were too cowardly to be on the forefront of anything, choosing instead to hide behind the scenes within their deregulated and well protected existence.  With costumed political satire airing each week on Saturday Night Live,  transforming stars into well known political figures in the film world, particuarly when the person is from our recent and contentious history, is clearly a tricky proposition as it opens up the character to instant and unforgiving scrutiny.  That fact does “Vice” no favors.

     Now I know the probability of cooperation from the Cheney family would be highly unlikely, but the material here is clearly better suited for the documentary format, so as to hear the facts and opinions from those directly involved with Vice President Cheney.  The filmmakers themselves even open the film by saying Cheney was a secretive politician and thus they “did their f**king best” to tell his story and the events depicted accurately.  And that’s the film’s biggest problem.  How can you tell a story without having walked in this man’s shoes?  How can you possibly portray what Cheney was thinking in the decision room as 9/11 was going on in real time, without the man himself weighing in?  It’s at that point you begin to wonder how much fiction and conjecture was necessary to fill out the script.  GRADE: C

“Aquaman” Movie Review


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     It it wasn’t clear before, it is most definitely the case now.  The filmmaking world is incapable of producing content without lifting key design and plot elements from classic films of the past.  For all the talk about reboots and remakes, there seems to be another trend that has been occurring for some time now in which films such as “Star Wars” and “Blade Runner” have become templates where filmmakers simply insert their own characters and play as though the work is their own.  The latest example of this is director James Wan’s “Aquaman”, an origin story of the character introduced to the filmgoing world in both “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” and last year’s “Justice League”.  Now I realize most will let these issues slide, and many won’t notice, but it’s amazing what lengths these film studios will go in order to guarantee themselves a hit.

     What exactly am I talking about?  “Aquaman” transports the audience to the underwater world of Atlantis, a sprawling and beautiful aquatic metropolis that appears not to be somewhere within Earth’s oceans, but rather those of Pandora.  In addition, the city’s design elements look suspiciously like those within Coruscant, seen in the “Star Wars” prequels, with the notable overhead flying traffic lanes and infinite levels of futuristic structures below.  If rumors are true that James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels will partly take place underwater, than he must be pissed right about now because Wan likely beat him to the clear and obvious look of a potential oceanic city.  Take it a step further and Cameron might also not like the fact “Aquaman” features plot devices taken directly from 1989’s “The Abyss” in which those living below the water are not happy with us land dwellers and our habits with war and pollution.  There’s even the recycled image of a massive brightly and colorfully lit underwater craft rising to the surface and thus lifting other ships and people who were floating above it.  Is this a case of “What’s old is new again”?  Or is it ok now to rescue a failing franchise by reusing the ideas and concepts of other more successful films?

     Fortunately, all of this works in the favor of “Aquaman” given the fact it removes the action away from any chance the other “Justice League” characters could enter the fray and muck the whole thing up.  With the vast majority of scenes taking place under water, the story belongs solely to Jason Mamoa’s titular superhero.  The screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall works to the film’s advantage as well, providing some weight to the proceedings where we actually understand what the characters are fighting for and why.  It also helps that Mamoa is paired with Amber Heard’s Mera, which gives the action scenes the welcome addition of an ass kicking female lead who challenges Aquaman both physically and mentally.

     Through dialogue, it is indicated the events unfolding are taking place after the heroes of “Justice League” defeated the menacing, yet personality free CGI creation, Steppenwolf, an act which essentially saved Atlantis and has now put Aquaman, who goes by Arthur Curry on the mainland, in line to take his rightful place as King.  In a flashback, we learn Arthur is the child of Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and a lighthouse keeper she falls in love with named Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison).  An affair of which is said to have been executed for, which left her only full blooded son, King Orm (Patrick Wilson), as the purported heir to the throne.  Politics between those within the royal power pulpit, including King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren) and Orm’s top advisor, Vulko (Willem Dafoe), lead to the idea of an all out war with the unsuspecting people living on land.  All the while, Arthur and Mera embark on an expedition to find a hidden Trident said to be wielded by the only true King of Atlantis.

     Aware of Arthur and Mera’s exploits, Orm sends a goon squad led by Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a pirate with an ax to grind against Arthur,  in an attempt to stop them. The sequence leads to a tone changing foray in the desert that has the look and feel of an “Indiana Jones” movie, but then moves quickly to a roof top chase in Italy that plays exactly like the one in “Fast Five” where Vin Diesel encounters The Rock for the first time.  Although the action here, trumped up with a sci-fi twist, is definitely top shelf.  Wan, at one point, propels his camera, as if it’s on a zip line, from one roof top to one a football field away where simultaneous action is occurring with different characters.  Even though, yet again, there’s familiarity from another film franchise, the adrenaline still flows in the scene, creating a high stakes confrontation between a superhero and masked villain equipped with the very best in Atlantian technology.

     But like nearly every superhero film before it, “Aquaman” stages a massive and mostly unintelligible battle sequence in the third act where multiple sides collide in all out war for aquatic supremacy.  You’ll again be reminded of “Avatar”, both because the field of battle resembles Pandora, as well as the many people involved in the fight are riding various sea creatures of whom they can communicate with in much the same way the Na’vi could with their surrounding animal population.  It’s also overkill and mind numbing, as you realize the film has now gone on for well over 2 hours with the conclusion no where in sight.  As a CGI demo reel, the sequence would certainly turn heads.  But what exactly does it add to the story?  Did the filmmakers believe the key to saving the DC Universe was more excess?  Aren’t they paying attention to that other comic book film studio across town?  You know, the one’s whose characters we actually care about?

     As Arthur Curry / Aquaman, Jason Mamoa is one of those rare actors who possesses both the physical tools, as well as the charisma to bring the character to heights many may have never thought possible.  In fact, more of a story dependent on his considerable presence may have done wonders for the film, considering none of the best qualities of his performance are featured in any of the dozens of action sequences.  Think back to 1978’s “Superman” and the dramatic aspects of character development which propelled Christopher Reeve to legendary status.  You get the feeling Jason Mamoa could’ve done the same, but unfortunately the filmmakers became too impressed with all of the toys they were given to play with and ignored the very basic components of telling a story.  And because the film is jam packed with so much eye candy, “Aquaman” becomes an instant blur soon after you leave the theater.  GRADE: C

“Mary Poppins Returns” Movie Review


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     The thought of doing a sequel to the beloved 1964 Disney musical, “Mary Poppins”, is daunting when you think about everything that would need to go right, along with everything that will likely go wrong.  In today’s toxic and incendiary social media frenzy within the world of filmdom, it isn’t possible to please everyone. But director Rob Marshall’s “Mary Poppins Returns” certainly tries to be practically perfect in every way, clearly making the effort to pay homage to the original, rather than breaking the kind of new ground likely to cause a fuss amongst the masses.  The filmmakers here played it safe in other words.  A decision whose dividends may not be known until many years down the road.

     In order to flourish beyond their theatrical windows and remain relevant for decades to come, it is crucial for a musical to have a catchy hit or two that thrives within other mediums such as radio and streaming.  Bottom line is people need to be listening to the songs outside of watching the film.  2016’s “La La Land” had the Oscar nominated “Audition” and the Oscar winning “City of Stars”.  2017’s “The Greatest Showman” had the ultra popular “This Is Me”, plus an entire soundtrack that has since been re-released with covers by notable artists such as Pink and Kesha.  Now think back to “Mary Poppins” and I’ll bet at least a half dozen songs immediately come to mind with hits like “A Spoon Full Of Sugar”, “Jolly Holiday”, “Feed The Birds”, “Lets Go Fly A Kite”, as well as that catchy tune about a certain really long word, are practically rolling off your tongue as if you just saw the film yesterday.  So my question remains:  Will we be singing and thinking about “The Place Where Lost Things Go” and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” at this time next year?  We will see.

     Marshall and his collaborators seem intent on keeping both the look and feel of the original film intact and have gone to painstaking lengths to ensure 1930s London nearly replicates everything we remember about the sets and locations from the first film.  And this is a good thing.  The last thing we would have wanted is a re-imagining that didn’t feel like a “Mary Poppins” film, where the production design wallows into an unintentional modern vibe.  What you want here is the following of J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” blueprint in which from the opening frame, we know we are in the right world.  

     And so it begins with a musical number where we meet Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a lamp lighter who as a young boy worked as a chimney sweep and now bicycles from street to street ensuring the dark cobblestoned walkways are properly lit.  On one of those streets is the familiar Banks home, which now two decades after the first film is suffering through a series of awful family tragedies.  The now grown Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) recently lost his wife and the mother of their three children, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson).  Michael and the kids receive constant support from his sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), but after a year of grieving, their financial situation is about to take a turn for the worse.  In order to stay afloat for the past year, Michael had to borrow against his home and after missing several payments is now being told by the bank the family home will be repossessed.

     It’s in these difficult times the family needs someone to help keep them together and moving in the right direction.  And this is again when Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) appears and with her comes the familiar framework of the original film, along with a slew of musical numbers, some of which are effective, and others that could have been shortened or cut altogether.  Nonetheless, the story proceeds as Mary begins by getting the three children to shape up and learn from her time tested wisdom.  As Mary takes the children through a whimsical array of animated worlds and choreographed dance numbers, Michael continues in his attempts to save the family’s home by imploring the bank manager, Wilkins (Colin Firth), to give them more time.  But of course, there are ill intentioned motivations behind the bank’s business dealings unbeknownst to the Banks family.

     Marshall manages to work in cameos and musical numbers that include both Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury who starred in the original, as well as an unneeded detour involving Mary’s cousin Topsy, played by Meryl Streep.  The script, written by David Magee, seeks to inject a number of life lessons, courtesy of Mary, as the stress of losing their home so soon after the loss of their wife and mother begins to take a toll.  And those lessons revolve directly around Mary preaching you must never forget how to be a child.  What she means is holding on to the ability to be happy and thankful for what you have, knowing the rest will eventually work itself out.  Loss is something nearly impossible to deal with and the themes explored in “Mary Poppins Returns” are definitely well beyond the younger crowd parents may believe the film is intended for.

     After her tour de force performance in “A Quiet Place” earlier this year, Emily Blunt ably steps into the shoes of the character made famous by Julie Andrews.  And she does so, not necessarily by making the character her own, but rather continuing on with the performance as if Andrews had never left.  She absolutely nails it, from the mannerisms to the look.  With so much to measure up to and expectations through the roof, the entire cast is certainly up to the task, providing a film that is sure to lift your family’s spirit and perhaps even help you realize things are not all that bad after all.  No one said “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was better than “Star Wars: A New Hope”, but that doesn’t mean the modern filmmakers here haven’t created something equally as special.  The original is always the benchmark, especially if you grew up with it.  “Mary Poppins Returns” is a sequel that doesn’t seek to necessarily surpass it’s predecessor, but instead looks to remind all of us what makes this character one of the most iconic in all of Disney lore. GRADE: B+