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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

All my aimless thoughts, ideas, and ramblings, all packed into one site!

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (2017)

What’s film? Thought that was what “digital” meant?

Elsa Dorfman is one of the most well-known and celebrated portrait photographers of our time. She’s used a rather large piece of film that not many people know about, or even use, and has gained so much traction that she was able to take the pictures of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, to name a few. But now as she’s getting older, Elsa is realizing that the times are indeed a changin’, and with that, she’s also realized that they aren’t making her kind of film any longer. Now, she’s stuck possibly thinking of moving on to the digital-age, or better yet, just stopping altogether with the picture-taking. After all, she’s over 70 years of age and she probably owes it to herself, as well as her family, to possibly sit down and take a break.

Right?

Doesn’t take too long to load that thing up, right?

Errol Morris is fascinated in what Elsa Dorfman does and not necessarily about who she is as a person, and that’s okay. As a person, Dorfman’s charming, happy-go-lucky, and generally pleasant, and that’s all fine for a documentary about her and her life. But what fascinates Morris about her, as well as us, is what she represents – this old-time, that seems so long ago, where ancient artifacts like film were held up to a higher-standard. You don’t have to be a photography-lover to appreciate what Dorfman represents and stands up for, but it’s hard not to feel the pain and sadness in her eyes when it becomes all too clear to her that film is going the way of the dodo, people are using it less, and yes, digital is the new way.

In Elsa’s mind, it isn’t and it’s fascinating to see her realize this and accept this, yet, still stick to her guns. The B-Side is about this battle of film vs. digital, new vs. old, retro vs. modern, but it’s also just about the longevity that lasts in a picture. One of the more interesting and compelling little bits of the B-Side is when Elsa is going through all of the subjects she’s had throughout the years pose for her, as well as the ones that the couples didn’t want. It’s an interesting concept to remember that this is why people take pictures and pose for huge pieces of film like this, even if everyone’s using their phones and taking selfies with their tongues out, and hash-tagging all over the place.

Nope. Not David Cross. Close though.

Yes, I know I sound old, but with this movie, it’s hard not to.

The B-Side gets you on its side immediately and in all honesty, despite its very short run-time still feeling like a little too long, it’s still a joyful and pleasant movie. We learn more about Elsa, her life, the cameras she uses, and why photography means so damn much to her. The movie is clearly on the side of using film to provide a snapshot into the past and remind us of something forever there and permanent (which is ironic, considering that the movie was clearly done using digital video-cameras), but it also knows that times change, trends change, and people use different things, for all sorts of activities in life.

Film will always be there, but who will use it and how many, well, that’s an entirely different question.

And possibly, documentary. Errol?

Consensus: Even at an-hour-and-16-minutes, the B-Side may meander, but still argues the idea of old and new, while also giving a pleasant snapshot into the life of Elsa Dorfman, her life, accomplishments, and most importantly, her portraits.

7.5 / 10

“Smile! And expect this in the mail around 2-3 months!”

Photos Courtesy of: NEON

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Sieranevada (2017)

Family’s are fun.

It’s the 10th of January in 2015, nearly three days after the terrorist attack on the offices of Parisian weekly Charlie Hebdo. Why does this matter? Well, a small, close-knit family reunites to commemorate the loss and the life of their patriarch, who passed away a few months beforehand. While this family is in doubt a dysfunctional bunch, they mostly try their best to get by, remember the good old times, have some holiday-joy, and oh yeah, eat. But there’s a lot of waiting around for that meal to come around, when you’ve got older relatives discussing Communism and its benefits, others discussing what really happened on 9/11, and other family-members freaking out about their lives literally falling apart.

In other words, it’s absolutely a family-gathering.

“It’s too early for this s**t!”

Sieranevada is the latest from writer/director Cristi Puiu and it’s only his third-feature in a little over a decade now, which already seems too low. I get it: In order for his nearly three-hour-long movies to work, he needs to be a little thought, time and effort into them. And of course, people aren’t exactly clamoring for three-hour long Romanian dark-comedies about people just living their lives and doing a whole lot of talking. I get that there’s not a huge, everlasting audience for those kind of movies and it’s probably hindered why we haven’t heard a whole lot from Puiu, but I’m part of that demographic who wants more of this, all of the time.

Which is to say that Sieranevada is nearly three-hours of craziness, fun, humor, hilarity, sadness, anger, and insight that you can only get with a movie done by someone who knows what they’re doing. Sure, Sieranevada takes awhile to get going and of course, you’ll still probably be tying together how all of these characters are related, their own lives, and what sorts of dramas are going on by the third-act, but there’s something exciting about that. Having a writer/director not telling you absolutely everything right off the bat and instead, letting you piece it all together yourself, is a joy because it’s so rarely done in movies and it has you look closer to what’s really going on.

And what may seem like just a bunch of scenes about family-members bickering and battering with one another, look closer, and it’s much deeper.

Plenty of laughs to be had when the drunk and philandering uncle comes to the table! Woo-hoo!

Puiu is smart to use his social-commentary in a way that isn’t too obvious or over-the-top, but still clearly gets its point across. As he did with the Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the idea of this one man getting tossed from one hospital to another, may have seemed like something of a joke, but was really hard-biting satire, without much of a punchline. It’s just a little sad, depressing, and altogether upsetting, and that’s what a whole lot of Sieranevada is, except a touch on the lighter-side, with it being all sorts of fun to just poke and prod at this family for being as crazy as they can get.

But Puiu kind of loves these characters, who they represent, what they bring to this little gathering, and just what sort of special relationship, or lack thereof, they have with one another. For a movie that comes close to three-hours, Puiu does a nice job of making it clear of who everyone is, their own little tidbits of personality, background, and allowing us to wait and see as the domino pieces fall. It is, once again, smart and thought-provoking writing and directing, that makes it feel even better when you get to the end of the movie and you’ve laughed a whole lot, maybe even teared-up, and hell, came away from it a whole lot more enlightened about the world beyond your government-borders.

And hell, your eyes will definitely be tired after all of that reading.

As are mine. So, goodnight.

Consensus: A three-hour film about a bunch of Romanian people arguing with one another may not sound like a joyous good time, but Puiu’s script is so well-done, his characters so rich, and the ensemble so good, Sieranevada becomes that after some time to get used to it all.

8 / 10

“No agendas here, pal. Lord be with you.”

Photos Courtesy of: Mandragora

No Stone Unturned (2017)

Staying away from any near-by pub this World Cup Fever.

It was 1994 and a group of guys all gathered together, in their local pub, and were watching the World Cup. It was a peaceful and lovely time, that was all of a sudden turned into tragedy when they were all gunned-down by a bunch of a masked-men and it would come to be known as the “Loughinisland massacre”. It was a tragedy and the families wanted answers, but before they could ever get anything, the Irish peace process began and for some reason, the case went cold. The policy stopped getting back to the families, evidence dried-up, and basically, people stopped trying to find out what happened, except for the families that is. Nearly 20 years now, we’ve got the answers and well, they aren’t at all pretty.

Pubs don’t usually get this wild, people.

Alex Gibney already covered this subject in a rather short 30 for 30 documentary he did almost four years ago and I’ve got to give him the courage for going back to the story and figuring out just what the hell happened. Sure, a part of this documentary happening can be chalked-up to the “true-crime” fascination that is always prevalent in our society, but you’ve also got to chalk it up to Gibney himself for being an out-and-out investigative journalist that knows when he smells something fishy, to try and reel in whatever he can find. It’s a lot easier to say you’re going to do that, especially when you’re taking on the government, but Gibney doesn’t seem afraid and it’s why No Stone Unturned remains impressive and completes what it sets out to do: Give us answers.

And then some.

And it’s why No Stone Unturned, above all else, is an investigation into what happened, why, from whom, and how in the blue hell it’s continued to get covered-up all of these years later. Gibney steps over some toes and runs into some grey areas, legally speaking, and it’s astonishing to see him just constantly keep on pushing the investigation further and further into what seems like a never-ending abyss of lies, corruption, conspiracies, and dirt. It’s as if Gibney knew what he was getting himself into and is almost pleased that he’s able to ruffle a few feathers, but make no mistake, he never forgets who this movie is really for and that’s the family.

“So, what are the specials?”

After all, they’re the ones who have been waiting around, day-in and day-out, for nearly 20 years, for some sort of answer to their numerous questions and concerns. As the title of the movie says, Gibney seeks out to answer every question, give an answer, an explanation, and leave it up to those watching at home, how they feel. He knows this is a travesty and often times, that the answers are really hard to fathom, but he also knows that this kind of awful stuff can happen when you have dirty, relatively evil people at the top of the food-chain, who are just as corrupt as the criminals.

And the web of lies that No Stone Unturned spins, what it deciphers from evidence, and how it all eventually comes together, despite the many different moving parts going at the same time, is truly compelling to watch. We know that by the end, we’re going to learn some new information, but what do we do with that? Do we try and take matters into our own hands and punish those responsible? Or, do we just sit around and move on with our lives, as if everything is still the same? Gibney has a lot of answers here, but that’s one he doesn’t and it’s why No Stone Unturned, as rough and as gripping as it can be, still feels emotionally stilted.

Perhaps that was intended. So as to have us learn from the mistakes and problems of the past.

Consensus: As an investigation into corruption, murder, and injustices, No Stone Unturned finds Alex Gibney in total-form, getting down to the bottom of what happened and where to possibly go from here.

8 / 10

Ah, lovely Ireland. Where’s the damn sun!?!

Photos Courtesy of: Abramorama

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

Who needs humans when you’ve got fluffy little animals?

The time is 1939 and the place is Poland, homeland of Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), and the two, when they aren’t loving one another, are watching over the Warsaw Zoo and ensuring that everything is all hunky dory. That all changes, however, when their country is invaded by the Nazis, and the two are forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), a guy who loves animals so much that he wants to resurrect an already-extinct species for some reason, and hopes to get the help of not just Hitler himself, but the Zabinski’s, too. The Zabinskis wouldn’t normally be cool with this, but in these times and these circumstances, they decide that it’s best to play ball with Heck, so that they can continue to covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans to save the lives of hundreds from what has become the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Zookeeper’s Wife seems as though it’s going to be an interesting change-of-pace for the “Holocaust film” sub-genre of films, by focusing on animals and how one zoo in particular was affected by this awful travesty, but it doesn’t go there. Instead, it shows a couple of animals being killed, a zoo being blown up, and that’s about it. Everything else that happens is tired, conventional, and so incredibly familiar that they could have ripped-out footage from other Holocaust flicks, planted them in here, and it wouldn’t have been all that shocking, or really changed the movie up.

“Come with me, honey. Don’t bang that hot Nazi.”

It’s still a bore and one that, honestly, feels as if it doesn’t really know what it wants to be just yet.

Sure, it’s a Holocaust movie about the Zabinskis, how they banded together, and faced all odds, to ensure that hundreds of Jews’ lives were saved, but it also wants to be about something a little more. It’s sort of about their marriage and how Antonina may need a little more from her attention from her husband, but really, it isn’t. There’s some forced moments between Chastain and Brühl’s characters where we’re supposed to see it as possible sexual-tension, but the movie never makes up its mind about that. It just touches that possible idea/subplot, moves on, and continues to add-on more and more random ideas/subplots.

And yes, it’s a mess, but normally, that kind of a mess would mean that it is, at the very least, interesting – for some reason, the Zookeeper’s Wife is not interesting, at all. It’s boring and feels like it was made-for-TV, but had such a big-budget and cast, that they had to give it their all, put it on the big screen, make tons of money, and hope that people didn’t pay too much attention to the sheer dullness of it all. It’s mean to be an uplifting and sentimental tale of love, humanity, and survival, in the midst of pure hatred and violence, but really, it feels like another Holocaust movie, with the possibility that we’re going to talk more and more about how awful animals were treated.

Maybe?

See what I’m talking about? Dayummmm!

But nope, we don’t get that. We just get a bunch of people we don’t really care about, regardless of if they’re real or not, played by people who have been far, far better before. For instance, this is the first time in awhile that I’ve seen a bad performance from Jessica Chastain and it all comes down to her accent. It’s a European-accent that, for obvious reason, sounds different from everybody else’s here because she’s the only American in it. Everyone else is working with actual, born-and-bred accents; they may have to speak English to appeal to American-audiences, but you can still hear the authenticity in their accents. You can’t in Chastain’s and it’s what makes her character sometimes look and feel like a parody.

Same goes for Brühl’s Heck who, once again, is another Nazi who may have nice intentions, but ultimately, gets swallowed up by pride and greed. It’s the character that Brühl can play to perfection by now, but for some reason, he’s just boring here and it’s not entirely his fault. He’s clearly the villain here, however, the movie attempts to make him sympathetic in some ways, but never makes it clear why he should be viewed as a somewhat nice figure. Is it because he sort of loves animals? Jessica Chastain? Or, is it just because he doesn’t go out of his way to kill every Jew he sees?

I’m not sure, really. And the movie isn’t, either.

Consensus: The Zookeeper’s Wife is a typical Holocaust-drama that never settles in on what it wants to be about, and therefore, feels typical, conventional, and above all else, unimportant, despite the obvious importance of the true tale it tells.

2.5 / 10

But how could they bomb the cute little cubs?!?!? Screw Nazis, man!

Photos Courtesy of: Focus Features

Marshall (2017)

Freakin’ white people.

A young Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) faced one of his greatest, roughest, and toughest challenges while working as a lawyer for the NAACP. Travelling all the way to the ultra-conservative Connecticut for a case in which wealthy socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson) accused her black chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) of sexual assault and attempted murder. Thurgood believes that he has the case done, but finds out that the judge (James Cromwell) doesn’t want Thurgood to speak in his courtroom; so, his co-counsel, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a local Jewish lawyer who’s never handled a criminal case before in his short career, takes over as the lead. It’s hard for Thurgood to sit back and watch it all go down, but he knows and understands that in order for change to happen, you sometimes have to wait for it. Oh, and fight for it, too.

Hey, if they ever need a new Batman and Robin.

What’s really odd about Marshall, and what ultimately keeps this away from being a much better movie is that all of the ads for it would have you think that it’s a Thurgood Marshall biopic, where we got to know just about everything about the man, from the inside, the out, and he would be literally in center-stage. But nope, in fact, he’s much more of a supporting-player to Gad’s Friedman who, in real life, was the lead on this case. In a way, you can’t fault the movie for history itself being so inconvenient (as well as incredibly racist), but you can sort of put the blame on it for making you think you’re going to get one thing, then something else completely, and wondering, “What was the point?”

Sure, it is to tell a good story, that has meaning and thought behind it, but did we really want that? Or did we want something that would truly test our minds, make us think, and give us a clear, well-deserved insightful look into the life of Thurgood Marshall, a civil rights hero for all times?

Personally, I wanted much more of the latter, but hey, that’s just me.

That said, Marshall, not as a Thurgood Marshall-biopic, still works as a courtroom drama that does tackle some heavy and hard issues about racism, discrimination, and general issues with the law and in that sense, it’s fine. Director Reginald Hudlin, who hasn’t made a movie in what seems to be 15 years (Serving Sara was his last, yikes), seems to know what he’s doing behind the camera in order to make a lot of what is familiar and has been done, many, many times before in these kinds of movies, somewhat fun and exciting. It’s odd that perhaps the most sterling moment within the courtroom is the actual jury-selection itself, but that goes to show you that the movie knows a thing or two about what makes a solid courtroom drama, tick and tick. You may know what the outcome of the case is, but you still get all wrapped-up in what’s going on that it works and you forget about the rest of the movie’s shortcomings.

As per usual, a black man’s life comes down to a white woman.

Oh, and it also helps that the ensemble is pretty great here, too, with Gad taking over the lead in a solid way. Sure, he gets a lot of crap for being over-the-top and a total ham when it comes to comedy, but he’s downplaying it a lot here and it’s effective. We like this person and although he starts off a bit dull, we start to see that there’s more to him that makes him something of a SJW, but also an overall good guy. He and Boseman have an odd bit of chemistry that’s a lot more of Tango & Cash, than Abott & Costello, but it still works because Gad’s a little silly, and Boseman is chock full of suave charm.

Speaking of Boseman, as good as he is here, he deserves a little more.

Yes, it’s a movie about Thurgood Marshall and while he’s not entirely a supporting-player, Gad has a lot of the heavy-lifting to do and it’s a tad dispiriting to watch. We know that he can take over a movie and do the heavy-lifting, so why not give him the chance? Either way, he’s still good, as is Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens, James Cromwell, and an against-type Kate Hudson, but sometimes, it’s nice to get these great actors, give them great roles to work with, and let them work their magic.

I don’t know. Guess I’m just crazy.

Consensus: Marshall isn’t necessarily the Thurgood Marshall biopic you’d expect, but it does get by on being an old-fashioned, solid courtroom drama, with a couple of good performances to keep things entertaining.

6 / 10

“See you soon in…Black Panther.”

Photos Courtesy of: Open Road Films

The Polka King (2018)

“Pennsylvania” and “Polka” can never be mentioned in the same sentence again.

Jan Lewan (Jack Black) was a legend among the Pennsylvania polka community. He was charming, fun, talented, and most of all, a great guy with large crowds. However, he and his wife, Marla (Jenny Slate), knew that they wanted a little more out of life and it was up to Jan to come up with the grand idea: Fleece his audience out of their savings, so that they could invest in his band. Of course, they would see returns, but over time and because his fans were so in love with him and his persona, they trusted him for all that they were with. And for awhile, Jan’s life was looking pretty great; lovely wife, solid savings, a Grammy nomination, and hell, he even got to meet the Pope. But as expected, it all came crashing down when people were wondering just where there money was, what it was going towards, and when they were all going to get it back.

Jan Lewan: An American hero to us all

And clearly, Jan couldn’t come up with a clear answer.

The Polka King is one of those typical tales that seem all too crazy and weird to be real, but the fact is that it is and there’s a documentary about it. I haven’t seen it and after time, I’m pretty sure I’ll get to it, but as for right now, the Polka King remains the top information-piece about Jan Lewan, the Pennsylvania Polka King. And the reason why the movie works as well as it does is because of Lewan himself, his tale, and just how bizarre his tale truly got.

In fact, a lot of movies with similar subjects get by on this point alone and it’s why the Polka King, for so long, is entertaining. It can be funny, but in a dark way where you know all of the fun times are all going to come crashing down and people will be sad by the end. There’s a certain tragedy behind the Polka King that co-directors Wallace Wolodarsky and Maya Forbes tap into, but only ever so slightly. Mostly, they keep an arms-length from allowing this material to get either too dark, or too light.

It’s somewhere slap-dab in the middle and it can sometimes feel like it’s keeping the material from truly reaching the heights that it should.

Yes, all people in Pennsylvania dress this tacky.

That said, it’s mostly dependent on Jack Black’s performance as Lewan, another wild and colorful character that Black’s perfect at channeling into. While his Polish-accent may, at times, sound faulty, it works because it makes this character who seems so manipulated and constructed, feel exactly like a caricature of what his screen-presence is; we know that he’s not as lovely and as nice as he lets himself come across as. It’s why Black’s performance is the main reason why the Polka King works as well as it does: There’s something deeper, darker, and much more sinister in there. It hardly ever comes out, but the slightest hints we get of it, are worth watching.

Same goes for the rest of the cast, especially Jenny Slate as Jan’s wife, Marla, who feels like she’s darker than she is portrayed, too. But we get brief instances of her trying to distance herself from being in her husband’s shadow and it promises a much more different, much more interesting movie. It never comes together, but it promises at so much more.

Much like the Polka King itself. But hey, at least it’s entertaining.

Consensus: Though it never gets as deep and as dark as it should, the Polka King benefits from a light and entertaining look at someone who’s much meaner and sinister than is let on, played to perfection by an impressive Jack Black.

6.5 / 10

“Cause I’m as free as a bird now!”

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix

Paddington 2 (2018)

Marmalade and bears may just save 2018.

Paddington (Ben Whishaw) has officially settled in with the Brown family and finds himself enjoying all aspects of life. However, he still wants to bring his Aunt Lucy to England, so she can see just what he’s been up to all of these years and why it’s such a blast. Problem is, it’s a lot of money for Aunt Lucy to make it all the way out to England from wherever the hell she is, so Paddington has to save up and do whatever he can to get her there. His plans change, however, when he’s framed for a stolen pop-up book, arrested, and thrown into jail. While the Brown family knows that sweet Paddington would never do such a thing, they do their best to investigate the cover-up and figure out just who would do such a terrible thing. Meanwhile, Paddington’s in the slammer giving it his all and trying to make the world a better place – not just for himself, but for the lonely, rather angry inmates who need a little bit of sunshine in their sometimes gloomy lives.

Isn’t this supposed to be the 21st century? What’s up with that damn landline!?!

Had Paddington 2 been released in any other year, it would have been a perfectly fine, funny, charming and entertaining little movie made for all ages, just like the first one. However, with all of the anger, hatred, racism, bigotry, misogyny, and general wrongness that continues to take over the world that we currently live in, Paddington 2 can’t help but feel like a breath of fresh air that everybody needs. It’s literally a movie about making the world a better place, loving those around you despite their differences, and most of all, having respect for each and everything that surrounds you, no matter what.

It’s literally a testament to love and happiness, which makes it all the more tragic that it was once a product of the Weinstein’s.

That said, it’s not their product anymore and with good reason: Paddington 2, as a movie, is way too good for either of those scum-bags. It’s a joyful, happy, entertaining, and rather hilarious movie that’s perfect for all ages, of course, but also a perfect watch for the older-people in the crowd who appreciate a lot more wit to their goofiness. Whereas a lot of kids movies released nowadays sort of dumb everything down so that it’s just the youngsters laughing in the crowd and absolutely nobody else, Paddington 2 remembers that the older ones in the audience deserve a chance to laugh, too, and that happens quite often here.

I chalk it up to great writing, but I also chalk it up to just typical British humor, where even the silliest of happenings, are somehow wittier and a step above smarter than most of what we see in mainstream American comedies. It’s what makes Paddington 2 a trip worth investing in, but another reason why it’s a movie made so that others can enjoy it, smile from cheek-to-cheek, and just feel a whole lot better about themselves and the people around them. It’s why movies exist in the first place, but it’s hardly brought to our attention.

Seriously. He’s insane. And I love it!

But Paddington 2 reminds us and honestly, we all needed it.

It also reminds us what you can do with an incredibly talented cast on kiddie-material, so long as the material is funny and just generally well-written. The ensemble from the original are all great here, with Bonneville being the general stand-out, but really, it’s Hugh Grant and Brendan Gleeson, the two newcomers, who show up, bring their A-games and steal the show. Gleeson is doing his usual rough and gruff act that works in spades, but it’s Grant who really tears away, playing the most manic and insane that we’ve ever seen him in a movie. Like ever.

Seriously. Grant’s had fun before in almost all of his movies, but it’s always come at a price. He’s always stammering, starting, stopping, and being a cad-like creature. But as Phoenix Buchanan, the would-be villain of Paddington 2, Grant unleashes a new beast that we’ve never seen from him before, where he goes all-out, has a total blast, and reminds us why it’s so much fun to still have Grant acting in movies, even if he’s not considered the handsome sex-symbol he still was. If anything, he’s just the handsome, older-gentleman who has seen the world, done that, and is just going to enjoy his latter-years, the way he wants to.

Hell, don’t we all?

Consensus: As a tribute to love and respect for one another, Paddington 2 is also a fun, hilarious, well-acted, and incredibly joyful adventure that’s literally worth it for the whole family. And I mean that.

9 / 10

“Put some clothes on, you bear!”, is something I’m told every time I go out to the clubs.

Photos Courtesy of: Warner Bros. Pictures

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (2017)

Takes one whistle to blow.

Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) was just any other ordinary man, living in America, trying to do right by his country. He worked for the FBI, believed in the values the country was founded on, and mostly, wanted peace, love and harmony. He also wanted a happy marriage with his wife Audrey (Diane Lane), and to find his daughter Joan (Maika Monroe), so that she could come home once and for all and they could go back to being the perfect, little family. But soon, Felt will find out that like his family, the United States government can’t just be put back to perfect, because, in all honesty, it wasn’t even perfect to begin with. It’s a realization that shocks him and forces him to take matters into his own hands and do what we all call “leak”.

And the rest is, I guess, history.

“Don’t worry, honey. No one’s kidnapping you today.”

With three movies under his best (Parkland, Concussion, this) writer/director Peter Landesman shows that he has knack for assembling ridiculously impressive ensembles for fact-based, true-life dramas that seem like they’re more important than they actually are. Parkland was a movie about the different viewpoints on JFK’s assassination, but mostly just seemed like an attempt at doing Crash, but with a twist, whereas Concussion was a little bit of a better movie in that it tackled a hot-topic issue with honesty and featured a great Will Smith role, but ultimately, felt like it came out too early and would have been better suited as a documentary.

Now, Landesman is tackling Mark Felt, his life, and the whistle that he blew on the United States government and it’s about the same thing going on again: Big cast, big situations, big history, but almost little-to-no impact.

And that’s the real issue it seems like with Landseman – he’s good at assembling all of the pieces, like a cast, a solid story to tell, and a nice look to his movies, but he never gets to their emotional cores. They feel like, if anything, glossy, over-budgeted reenactments your grandparents would watch on the History channel and have about the same amount of emotion going on behind them. Every chance we’re being told that “something is important”, it mostly doesn’t connect and feels like Landseman capitalizing everything in the script, but never trying to connect with the actual audience themselves. It’s one thing to educate and inform, but it’s another to just do that and forget to allow us to care, or even give us a reason.

“Yo bro. You’re gonna want to hear this.”

Which is a shame in the case of Mark Felt, the movie, because at the center, there’s a real heartfelt and timeless message about how we need men like Felt to stand up to Big Daddy government, tell important secrets, so that the citizens of the U.S. know just what sort of wrongdoings are being committed on their behalf. Landseman clearly makes his case of who’s side he’s on here, which is also the problem, but his admiration is nice: We need more Felt’s in the world, especially when it seems like our government is getting involved with shadier and shadier stuff.

Issue is, that message is left in a movie that never gets off the ground for a single second.

Cause even though the cast is stacked and everyone here, including a solid Neeson, are all good, the material gets in the way. It’s too busy going through the bullet-points of who everyone is, what their relation to the story is, and why they’re supposed to matter, that we don’t actually get to know anyone, especially Felt himself. He himself feels like another bad-ass Liam Neeson character, but instead of finding people and killing them, he’s just taking information in and leaking it out to the presses. It’s really all there is to him here, as well as the rest of the movie.

Shame, too, because we need more Mark Felt’s in the world. Regardless of what those in power may want or say.

Consensus: Even with a solid ensemble, Mark Felt never gets off the ground and always feels like it’s too busy educating us, and not ever letting us have a moment to care.

3 / 10

Oh, what could have been. Or hell, what can be. #Neeson2020

Photos Courtesy of: Sony Pictures Classics

The Foreigner (2017)

Who needs a green card when you can kick every citizen’s ass?

Quan (Jackie Chan) is a humble and quiet British citizen who keeps to himself. Mostly it’s due to the fact that he’s lived such a hard life already, he wants to live out his remaining years in total peace and harmony. That all changes, however, when his daughter is killed in a near-by explosion, supposedly set-up as a terrorist attack that wasn’t meant to be as devastating as it was. Quan’s not happy about this, obviously, so he decides to set out and find answers anyway and anywhere that he can, by any means necessary. His trail of tears leads him to Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former IRA member turned politician who claims that he no longer has ties to the terrorist organization. But Quan knows better and doesn’t believe this for one second and decides to take matters into his own hands.

“Do I hear Beach Boys?”

The Foreigner is a whole bunch of thrillers, rolled-up and spat out into one. It’s a Hong-Kong action-thriller; it’s a conspiracy thriller; it’s a dramatic thriller about loss, regret, and family; it’s a small bit of an espionage thriller; and oh yeah, it’s a bit of a pulpy, rather over-the-top thriller, too. All of them are fine, no doubt, but put together, it’s a tad bit of a mess.

But coming from director Martin Campbell, it’s a fine, fun, and old-school mess that feels like it was made with class and precision, even though it never plays out that way. Campbell knows a thing or two about these kinds of thrillers, and while there’s maybe one too many strands of plot to fully work as one, cohesive whole, Campbell himself never seems to want to be bored. He keeps everything moving and at a somewhat lively pace, that even when it seems like we’re harping on one plot for too long, he moves right on to the next one, in hopes that we don’t take notice of how it doesn’t really fit together all that well.

Like a true pro, that Martin Campbell.

But what’s perhaps most interesting about the Foreigner is how it takes two of the world’s most recognizable action-stars of yesteryear, and puts them in roles that you don’t least expect to see them in. Pierce Brosnan, in what seems like forever, is playing an all-out, full-on bad guy and it’s a great sight; he’s angry, sporting an Irish-accent, and constantly seeming like his eyes are going to bulge out of his skull. It’s the kind of hammy and over-the-top role that would normally kill any actor, but Brosnan is such a class-act, he seems like he’s just genuinely having a ball and not caring who knows it.

“008, out.”

Same goes for Chan, although, it’s fair to say that if you’ve ever tracked down any of his Hong-Kong martial-arts films that don’t star Owen Wilson, or Chris Tucker, then you know he’s capable of playing these darker characters, with shadier morals than we expect. But as usual, Chan’s good in the role, because it’s less about him jumping, diving, and ass-kicking (which he can still sort of do, even at 65), but more about the sadness deep inside of the eyes. And you can see it all and it’s a sign that even though he may not be able to do the stunts anymore, Chan still has some acting-muscles to stretch and work-out with.

But really, nostalgia is the real reason why the Foreigner works as well as it does.

The action, the twists, and the turns are all fine and make this movie a lot better than it has to be, but watching Chan and Brosnan up on the screen, shouting at one another without having to resort to fist-a-cuffs, feels like a nice diversion from everything else in the world. With so many thrillers turning into crazy, over-bloated messes, it’s nice to get one that’s lean, mean, and a little nasty.

It’s still a mess, but hey, they can’t all be winners.

Consensus: With an old-hat direction from Martin Campbell, the Foreigner feels like a solid throwback to the thrillers of yesteryear, with Brosnan and Chan putting in great work, and measuring up and beyond the rather convoluted and silly script.

6 / 10

Every early-to-mid-90’s fanboy’s dream, 20 years later.

Photos Courtesy of: STX Films

The Promise (2017)

Can’t deny what they make movies about, right?

A medical student by the name of Michael (Oscar Isaac) meets a beautiful dance instructor Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) in late 1914 and the two instantly fall in love. Well, sort of. He falls for her, head over heels, but she already has a boyfriend, an American photojournalist named Chris (Christian Bale), who is dedicated to exposing the truth. However, the one thing keeping them together and united is their Armenian heritage and in the time they live in, it matters most. Cause as the Ottoman Empire crumbles into war-torn chaos, all three must have to put their differences and passions aside to ensure that they save one another and help out those who need it the most.

A lot of the positive reviews about the Promise seem to highlight the fact that it isn’t perfect, it’s a little messy, and oh yeah, it’s a bit of a faulty-look at the Armenian Genocide, but is being made and should be praised for nonetheless. In some regards, I see this, understand this, and agree with this; whereas most Hollywood studios would like to turn a blind-eye to such a catastrophe like the Armenian Genocide, especially since the Turkish government still refuses, to this day, to actually admit it happened, the Promise is the rare exception. It’s made, it’s got something to say, and it’s there for the whole world to see.

How could a girl deny that beard?!?

Does that mean that they should see it? Probably not, good intentions and all.

The one issue of the Promise, no matter what it tries to do or say, is that it all revolves around this love story and that’s just hard to get past fact. There have been countless movies that have used real-life tragedies to star-glossed, passionate and heated love-affairs (Titanic, the Impossible), but the reason why those kinds of movies have, for the most part, worked, is because their attention to the tragedy is well-known and the romance is actually something to get behind. While the Promise does pay an awful-lot of attention to the tragedies of the Armenian Genocide, it also spends nearly as much to a love-triangle that, in all honesty, just never works.

It never registers because the whole time, we know that the Armenian Genocide is going to happen, it’s going to take over the story, and we’re not really going to be all that concerned with whether they live or die; we’re way too busy worrying about all of the countless others that are going to hit their graves already. It’s why the Promise, try as it might, just doesn’t work – it’s romance is lame and the fact that co-writer/director Terry George spends so much time on it, shows that he was trying to play center-field, and not only appease the studios and audiences who wanted a love story, but also dial down on the Armenian Genocide stuff, too.

What the set of Exodus: Gods and Kings should have liked look, but nope!

Aka, the stuff that really counts and needs to be talked about.

And it’s a shame, too, because the trio of leads here all do their best, but the screenplay is sometimes so cheesy and melodramatic, they almost never have a chance of surviving it. Oscar Isaac turns in perhaps his possibly first bad performance as Michael, as he’s saddled with an Armenian accent that seems to go in and out; Christian Bale is interesting as Chris, the journalist who wants to expose the truth, but also feels so made-up, that it’s hard to see him as anything more than “a type”; and Charlotte Le Bon, as the object to both of their affections, is charming and pleasant, but once again, is given a dull-role as the woman who everybody loves and falls over for. It’s probably what happens to her everywhere she walks in real life, but it doesn’t feel like the right time, here, in this movie.

There’s clearly bigger issues to discuss and drop over.

Consensus: Despite the legions of ridiculous deniers, a movie based in-and-around the Armenian Genocide like the Promise, is a step in the right direction, but with such a weak script and love-story surrounding it, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

4.5 / 10

“Women, men and children are being wrongfully slaughtered, but hey, let’s have that passionate embrace!”

Photos Courtesy of: Open Road Films

Wonder Wheel (2017)

Went to Coney Island and Man, We’re People Annoying.

It’s Coney Island in the 1950’s and there are a bunch of people who are just doing their best to get by, whatever the hell that even means. There’s Ginny (Kate Winslet), an emotionally volatile former actress now working as a waitress in a clam house and yeah, she doesn’t quite like it. There’s Humpty (Jim Belushi), Ginny’s rough-hewn carousel operator husband who just wants the best for his family, even though he knows that’s easier said then done. There’s Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a handsome young lifeguard who dreams of becoming a playwright and instantly takes a liking to Ginny, despite her marital-status. And lastly, there’s Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s long-estranged daughter, who is now hiding out from gangsters at her father’s apartment. Together, all four are just trying to get by, finding work, finding love, and oh yeah, finding a whole heck of a lot of issues along the way.

He could save me from drowning any day.

Wonder Wheel is, yet again, another one of Woody Allen’s less inspired efforts, although it does flirt with the idea of being something so much more and something so much better. And yet, it doesn’t. It sort of just sits there, stagnate, telling its story, its characters, conflicts, and just moving at its own even-pace. Which is odd, because Wonder Wheel is never all that funny to be a comedy, nor is it really all that sad or emotional to be considered a “drama”; it’s mostly just a bunch of dialogue, with bits that seem like comedy and drama, yet never reach that magnitude.

Which had me thinking, “Why doesn’t Woody Allen give television another try?”

I know that Crisis in Six Scenes was considered a bomb (though I didn’t mind it), but seriously, with so much TV out there that blurs the line between comedy and drama, there’s a part of me that wonders, with more time, effort, and care, Allen may be able to make a great TV show. Of course, though, you could say the same thing about the movies he makes, where each and everyone only takes a year to write, shoot, edit, and release, which is surprising for an 82-year-old man, but also obviously inconsistent. It’s almost as if every 7th flick or so from Allen is good, whereas all the others are just incredibly mediocre or fine.

And yes, Wonder Wheel is that movie where it seems like it Allen may have an inspired idea, but doesn’t really go there. He could have chosen to crack jokes about post-WWII America and the utter nostalgia that frames every inch of the beautifully-lit screen here, but instead, he settles for a story about four people, finding love and inspiration on Coney Island. If Allen actually cared, these characters would be compelling, but that’s the rub: It almost seems like he doesn’t. It’s as if everyone written here were already small sketches that he somehow got the green-light to make more of, but rather than working on said characters, he just continued to write more and more plot.

It’s like the Sopranos, with Jim Belushi, somehow.

And it’s a bit of a sad affair that, without the actors in it, would have been terribly boring.

But it isn’t and that’s because the cast all come ready to play and give it their all. Kate Winslet is going way wacky and over-the-top here as Ginny, but the woman sells it because she’s funny, a little sad, and a little different from what we’re used to seeing from Woody Allen’s heroines. For one, she’s older and going after a younger man, so already, she’s a ground-breaker, but yeah, she’s also an enjoyable presence in the movie that I would have loved to have seen in another movie that cared more about her. Justin Timblerake is fine as the lifeguard that Ginny falls for and while a lot of people have been ragging on Timberlake’s performance here, he’s okay enough to where he handles himself well, even among the crowd of talented people he’s stuck with.

But really, my favorite is probably Jim Belushi as the depressed and rather upset husband of Ginny. This character is interesting in that we’ve seen Allen play with these sorts of characters and make them completely awful human beings (see Danny Aiello in the Purple Rose of Cairo), whereas Belushi’s role as the husband is a lot more sad and sympathetic. Usually, these characters are mean and cruel, but this guy seems like he just wants a little bit more love out of life, isn’t getting it, but isn’t going to give up, either. He’s the kind of character who I wanted to give a hug, too, but once again, Allen steps a bit shy of actually giving this character more to deal with. It’s mostly just Belushi doing all that he can and he makes it work.

Wish I could say that about the rest of the movie.

Consensus: Never quite settling on a tone, Wonder Wheel is another middling-effort from Woody Allen, who seems to get by with beautiful visuals, a nostalgic setting, and solid cast, but can’t quite get his scripts to work.

5 / 10

Wrong attire for the beach, but hey, at least you’re here!

Photos Courtesy of: Amazon Studios

Blame (2018)

High school will never change.

Abigail (Quinn Shephard) returns to high school after a nervous breakdown and hopes to get everything back to normal. Of course, with this being high school, no one ever forgets about her and her crazy tactics, which is why, on the very first day, rumors are already swirling about her. One of the leaders in bringing up the rumors is Melissa (Nadia Alexander), a type of mean-girl who has some issues of her own, but uses her anger and rage to hide it all. But both of their lives change when a substitute teacher (Chris Messina) fills in for the semester and wakes both of them up. Abigail is awoken because she sees something of a tortured soul within him, whereas Melissa doesn’t like the attention that Abigail is getting and decides that it’s up to her to take matters into her own hands.

Damn cheerleaders and their cliques!

Blame, for all of its missteps and flaws, is still an impressive work because of its 22-year-old director/co-writer/editor/producer/star Quinn Shephard, who takes something that could have easily been a dumb, conventional after-school special, and turn into something raw, gritty, mean, and a little sad. It still feels like the work of someone incredibly young, who is just starting out and getting used to the game of making movies, but for the most part, it’s a solid debut and is a sure sign of things to come.

That said, the movie’s got some problems, and it mostly comes through in its plot. Mostly, Shephard likes to have a little bit too much going on; there’s Abigail’s story, there’s Melissa’s story, there’s the subsitiute teacher’s story, there’s a few other girls stories, there’s the Crucible, and oh yeah, there’s the various romantic subplots that come up every once and awhile. While all are interesting in their own rights, mashed-up in a 100 minute movie, it just doesn’t totally work, with some parts feeling much better than others.

Move on, girls. It gets better.

That said, there’s a realism to this that I appreciated, mostly because Shephard seems to know and understand how rough and grueling high school can be, especially when you’re a little different. Some of it may have to do with the fact that she’s young enough to remember high school like it was literally yesterday, but there’s no nostalgia or sunshine here – it’s just mean teenagers, treating each and everyone of each other awfully. Shephard doesn’t shy away from this, nor does she ever seem to be trying to get across some tacky message about bullying and why it’s all wrong.

Basically, she’s just showing us that high school is a pretty rough time and for some, she’s not wrong.

What helps this all out, too, is that the ensemble is all pretty good. Shephard herself is an interesting and compelling presence on the screen, who can get away with a lot, without saying much of anything at all; Alexander is rough, raw, and a little unlikable, until you realize that there’s possibly more behind her evil and possibly cruel intentions; and Messina, while playing a bit of a loser-like character, gains sympathy by showing us that he’s just as sad, confused, and depressed as the students he’s teaching and doing his best to put up with. The whole love-angle feels like it could have been more fully fleshed-out, but believe it or not, Shephard and Messina have a nice chemistry to where you see the attraction and possibly, love, but you also don’t want to buy into it, either.

So conflicting. Yet, so beautiful. High school, in a nut shell.

Consensus: As a debut, Blame serves as a promising, if also messy high-school drama that digs in deep and doesn’t shy away from the rougher aspects of adolescence.

6 / 10

Yes! But also, no! I don’t know! Ugh!

Photos Courtesy of: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Before I Wake (2018)

So, I don’t know, maybe don’t adopt? Or something?

Mark (Thomas Jane) and Jessie (Kate Bosworth) have been wanting to desperately have a kid, but they just can’t, so they decide to adopt a cute and nice little eight-year-old named Cody (Jacob Tremblay) who, inexplicably, has been without a family for quite some time. And while it takes awhile for them to get used to each other, eventually, they begin to grow into their own little family, where they mess around, get along, and generally have a great time together. But that all begins to change when weird, downright spooky things begin happening and no one really knows why, except for Cody himself. And then, it all becomes evidently clear why Cody has been by his own for so very long and Mark and Jessie have no idea what to do. Should they give him back and move on to the next kid and hope that there’s not some evil spirits following them around? Or stick it out with Cody and treat him as one of their own, fight these spirits, and live together in perfect harmony?

There’s mom.

Before I Wake has, infamously, been trapped in release-hell for the past few years and I’m not really sure why. The movie isn’t all that awful to the point of where the studio involved would feel ashamed to ever release it, nor is it really all that great to begin with. It’s the kind of movie that gets made, doesn’t have much hype behind it, and of course, due to some other random business-reasons, gets lost in the shuffle, is known and/or talked about, and eventually, gets released to the wide masses. But why did Before I Wake take so long?

No clue. And really, I don’t care. Had the movie stayed on the shelf longer, I would have been perfectly fine with that, because while I do appreciate how Mike Flanagan is trying to single-handedly change the game of horror, after this and Gerald’s Game, I hate to say but I’m growing a little worrisome. Granted, Gerald’s Game was a tad more inspired than this here Before I Wake, but both suffer from the same problem in that there just isn’t much of a story to really work with; Before I Wake does, thankfully, benefit from a solid family-dynamic, but never focuses on it enough to where it’s completely effective, the way it should have been to heighten the emotional drama.

Instead, it’s much more focused on the ghouls, ghosts, and butterflies that mysteriously begin to pop-up and yeah, it just takes away from everything else.

There’s son.

Of course, I’m not one to say that Before I Wake didn’t need all this horror in the first place, because it’s most certainly Flanagan’s wheelhouse, it just doesn’t feel necessary. It’s like the Babadook in that we actually deal with some real issues about love, about family, and about surviving together, as one, except that Before I Wake only occasionally passes on these ideas and themes, only to then get distracted by the spooky stuff. And it doesn’t work, really, because the spooky stuff either doesn’t make sense, or isn’t even all that scary; it’s a little cheesy, a little schlocky, and because we don’t totally care about what happens to the characters, a little dull.

That said, the cast gives it their all, with Thomas Jane putting in a pretty great performance as the dad of the family. Jane seems like he’s in a totally different movie where he’s cool, funny, and always one step ahead of the plot. Which is why it’s a shame that he gets saddled with a role that, honestly, would have been better in a much more character-based drama. Kate Bosworth is good, too, in that she has to handle a difficult role in being the matriarch of the family and it works. Tremblay is fine, too, although, because he was so young and because his role wasn’t all that demanding, doesn’t get a whole lot to do. Or, at least, not as much as he would continue to do in the next few years or so. Something everybody else involved with this movie would be doing.

Thankfully.

Consensus: Though it does aim for some heartfelt notions about love and family, mostly, Before I Wake‘s a dull, unemotional, and unscary horror flick that could have stayed on the shelf for a lot longer, or even, forever.

4 / 10

Oh, and there’s a ghost-creature. Or something.

Photos Courtesy of: Relativity Media

Hostiles (2017)

Wish I could say we treat Native Americans any better.

It’s 1892 and legendary Army Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is coming closer and closer to retiring once and for all. He’s seen and done a lot of crap that would take its toll on any man in his own right, and for Blocker, who is no doubt messed-up in the head, he’s done. But, asked by his superiors, there’s one last mission for him to take out and it’s one he reluctantly agrees to on the basis of self-respect: Escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to their tribal land. Why does he not want to do it? Well, it’s the near-end of 19th century and let’s just say that Native Americans weren’t all that loved by practically anyone in the deep and dirty West. But still, orders are orders, which means Blocker, along with a great deal of his most trusted-soldiers, embark on a journey from Fort Berringer, N.M., to the grasslands of Montana. On the way, they encounter a young widow (Rosamund Pike) whose family was killed on the plains. But that would only turn out to be one small surprise, on a journey that would soon bring many, many more to come.

Give him a gun and he’ll run wild. Trust me.

Hostiles is the rare kind of Western that isn’t really a Western, at least not in the general sense. There’s not much gun-play, there’s not all that many trips to small towns, or even really that much conflict. It’s a movie that plays by its own rules and moves to the beat of its own drum, which is cool in a sense, but when it’s actually playing out on-screen, shocker, it’s kind of a bummer.

Like a huge bummer.

And coming from director Scott Cooper, it’s a bit of a disappointment, because even though he doesn’t have the best track-record around, he’s still a solid enough director to keep things interesting, even when they’re not. In Hostiles, the story is moving at such a slow, languid pace, it almost feels like it’s going to end up everywhere, but nowhere, even if we’re already told a clear-objective up front. Sure, it’s admirable that Cooper’s trying to make the anti-Western, in that there’s not many conventions and the movie’s much more about grief, sadness, and depression, but when you’re movie’s a little over two hours and feels like it’s about three, it’s a bit of a problem.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of good stuff to find in Hostiles, cause like with Cooper’s other flicks, there’s always a few great sequences every so often. The only issue is that they’re strung along this rather long and melodic movie that never picks itself up. It can, often times, be gruesome, intense, and a little dramatic, but these scenes, how few there are, happen about ever ten minutes or so – the rest of the time is spent watching as these characters travel from one spot to another, all to a slow-tune. That may work for some people who are expecting a whole heck of a lot different from their Westerns, and usually I’m in that boat, but here, it just didn’t get me as involved as I would have liked.

Hitchhikers have never looked so beautiful.

The only real benefit to this direction is that there’s more attention on the performances, all of which are great, including Christian Bale in a shockingly un-showy role.

For one, it’s nice to see Bale dial things down, almost to the point of where he’s practically a mute. But his silence works well for a character who, we’re told early on, was a bit of a reckless savage in his war days and has done all sorts of hurtful, dangerous, and downright violent things. He gets celebrated and praised as a “hero”, but you can tell, just by looking into Bale’s eyes throughout the whole thing, that there’s something truly messed-up about him and the movie, as well as Bale himself, are both very subtle about that. It’s the kind of performance that saves a movie, because it makes you interested in seeing what happens next, if not especially to the rest of the movie, but to him.

And the rest of this ensemble is pretty good, too, although, it’s such a huge ensemble, there’s only so much love and praise that can go around. Rosamund Pike, like Bale, plays her role very grounded and quiet, to a devastating affect; Rory Cochrane has some truly powerful moments as a fellow-soldier of Bale’s who may be just as messed-up as he, if not more; and Ben Foster, about halfway through, shows up to be crazy and almost steals the show. The only disappointment of this cast is that the Native Americans here (Adam Beach, Wes Studi, Q’Orianka Kilcher), don’t really have all that much development to them, except that their stoic and in-touch with their spiritual side, or something. Maybe that was the point, but it seemed like a waste to just have them around, not give them much to do, and that act as if the movie truly cares about them at the end.

After all, it’s kind of their story, isn’t it? When will Hollywood ever learn?

Consensus: With such a slow-pace, Hostiles can take awhile to get used to, but with such a great cast, including a spectacularly subtle Bale, it’s hard to fully not be interested in.

6.5 / 10

Cry it out, Chris. Go for that Oscar.

Photos Courtesy of: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

Lucky (2017)

Realism truly is “a thing”.

Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) is 90 years old and believe it or not, feels fine. He can’t move his body like he used to and sure, it’s a little creaky every so often, but for the most part, he’s getting by just fine. He spends most of his days doing the same things, like waking up and getting a coffee. Then, he watches game shows on TV and tests his knowledge. And then, lastly, he ends up at the local bar, where he wants to smoke, but doesn’t. Instead, he sits around and waits for someone to have a stimulating conversation with him, whatever it may be, or about whatever.

Lucky doesn’t have much of a plot and that’s actually fine. All it really needs is a solid bit of characters, good performances, and a sweet sense of time and place and it gets by just fine. Making his directorial debut, legendary character actor John Carroll Lynch seems to know how to let a story like this play itself out; he takes his time enough to where some could say it’s “boring” and “slow”, but really, it’s just languid and it fits with everyone and everything else here.

“Coop?”

Especially the one, the only and the late Harry Dean Stanton himself.

And yes, it’s pretty crazy to watch this movie and realize that this would end up becoming Stanton’s swan song, but it feels so incredibly fitting. Stanton himself has never really gotten the chance to have a movie all to himself and it seems like, even at age 90, he was due; the role doesn’t really challenge him, or stretch the talents we know him for, but it doesn’t necessarily have to, either. All it has to do is offer us another great glimpse of the never-ending and charming talents of Stanton, why he was great, why it was always nice to have him around, and why, above all else, he will be missed.

And yes, like I said, Stanton’s pretty great here. He’s charming, wise, and seems like he’s years above everyone else that he meets. But the movie is smart in that it isn’t just about Lucky and his life, as it’s also about the people he runs into on a daily-basis, most of whom put up with him and have been doing so for quite some time. Some will be happy to see David Lynch show up in a cooky-role as a guy looking for his tortoise, others will be happy to see Ron Livingston show up as a life-insurer with a huge mustache, and others, like myself, will be happy to see a nice little Alien reunion between Stanton and Tom Skerritt, in one of the movie’s sweeter scenes.

Seriously, why’s that ‘stache so huge?

But the movie isn’t just about one character over the rest – it’s about all of them and it’s why it’s so sweet.

Carroll Lynch and co-writers Drago Sumonja and Logan Sparks seem to understand how to get the heart of this tale, but never playing their hand too much. Some may not see this as having much of a point, or better yet, not really being about much other than just a bunch of old people talking and yammering on about things that can kind of seem random, but it really isn’t. It’s about watching life pass you by, understanding that reality, moving on, and doing whatever the hell you can to make the best of it while you have it. It sounds cheesy, in retrospect, but Lucky, the movie, as well as the character, aren’t and it’s why it’s a small joy of a movie.

And it’s why we’ll forever miss the talents of Harry Dean Stanton.

Consensus: Sweet and sultry, Lucky is the kind of small and oddly charming movie that works best because of its time, attention, care, and solid performances, especially from the late, great Harry Dean Stanton.

7.5 / 10

Goodbye legend. You will surely be missed.

Photos Courtesy of: Magnolia Pictures

The Light of the Moon (2017)

Seems pretty relevant in today’s times.

Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz) seems to be living the good life. She’s young, has a nice job in New York City as an architect, a good group of friends, and even better, a loving and supporting boyfriend (Michael Stahl-David), who may not be perfect, but does what a good boyfriend should do. However, her wonderful and nice life changes when late one night, after a heavy night of drinking and partying with co-workers, she is taken into an abandoned alleyway and raped by a total and complete stranger. Obviously, Bonnie goes through the system of testing and finding out who her perpetrator was, but it’s the long and winding affects of the rape itself that continue to stick with Bonnie and not just haunt her life, but those around her, as well.

“Yeah, bro. Not today.”

The Light of the Moon could have easily been another TV-movie-of-the-week that, while it approached its subject with honesty and humanity, could have also been melodramatic and silly. Especially when you have a movie that deals with rape and its after-effects, it’s either that the creators behind it don’t want to go too far into the description, so as not to offend anyone, or they’ll scratch the surface, just to a certain degree. Writer/director/producer Jessica M. Thompson isn’t afraid to go deeper and further into these issues, discuss them, and approach them head-on to where it’s almost uncomfortable to watch sometimes.

But you know what? Rape itself is uncomfortable and it should be discussed in the same manner. Thompson knows this and understands this, which is why the Light of the Moon hits hard than most “message-movies” of its nature; it’s not discussing how rape happens in the first place, or how awful the system can be (even though, of course, we know that). More or less, it’s discussing the kind of affects it can have on a person, small or tall, and why it’s not always easy to diagnose as a problem, until it’s taken over your whole life for good.

It’s also why Stephanie Beatriz’s performance is something of a quiet, desperate, and upsetting revelation.

Creeps go creep in the night.

It’s the kind of role that gets passed-up on come awards-season because, let’s face it, the movie is small and has a very limited-distribution plan, but Beatriz, for all of the effort she puts in her, but without ever showing it, deserves some attention. It’s a small, subtle role that doesn’t always ask or demand of her to yell, scream, and holler of her plans, but instead, sit there, look upset, boil in her own misery, and cry for love and help, but without ever actually crying. It’s not an easy role to pull-off without looking like you’re trying too hard, but Beatriz is more than up to the occasion and it’s a shocker that she gets away with so many raw and heartfelt emotions, by doing so very little.

It’s also crazy how much of this role paints her in such an unlikable and, at times, unflattering light, but that’s also the point. That Bonnie begins to alienate all of those around her after the rape, isn’t meant to be a character-flaw, as much as it’s a psychological-issue that most victims of violence go through; they don’t want people loving them, or treating them better than they did before, but at the same time, they sort of do. Once again, it’s a rough role that takes a lot of looking after and studying, but it’s also why Beatriz’s performance is so great and makes you wonder what she’s got next up her sleeve, when she isn’t stealing scenes on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Yes, the same comedy show on Fox starring Andy Samberg. I know.

Consensus: By approaching its rough and raw material in a subtle, but upfront manner, the Light of the Moon remains a sad and unsettling look at rape, especially with an amazing performance from Stephanie Beatriz in the lead role.

7 / 10

A boyfriend’s love can be so suffocating. Like ugh!

Photos Courtesy of: Imagination Worldwide/The Film Collaborative

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Robots are humans. There. Said it.

In the near future, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is the first of her kind: a human who is cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier devoted to stopping the world’s most dangerous criminals. When terrorism reaches a new level that includes the ability to hack into people’s minds and control them, Major is uniquely qualified to stop it. As she prepares to face a new enemy, Major discovers that her life was stolen instead of saved. Now, she will stop at nothing to recover her past while punishing those who did this to her. And to make matters worst, she now starts to realize that she may have a lot more human in her than she ever thought was possible and it gets her thinking: “What’s the real point about life?” Is it to just be used to stop violent-criminals? Or, is it to enjoy yourself every once and awhile?

Glass or feathers? Who…cares?

The original animated-flick from which Ghost in the Shell is adapted from is, I must say, a bit overrated. Sure, it helped inspire a crap-ton of cyberpunk and techno-thrillers that would hit the air-waves in the next decade or so, but story-wise, it’s pretty generic material. The question of whether or not A.I. can be trusted, are more human than human, or at the very least, deserve to be treated with respect, aren’t necessarily ground-breaking ideas and it’s why the animated-flick feels as if it’s treading familiar waters. It’s visuals are great and clearly time and effort was put into them, but aside from them, that’s about it.

And yes, I can say almost the same thing for the live-action adaptation.

Although, that said, the visuals are downright amazing. Director Rupert Sanders has an eye for detail and in this world where everything and anything seems to get easily hacked, he needs it. Colors, visuals, special-effects, CGI, and all sorts of wacky shapes and sizes literally pop-off the screen and it’s quite a treasure to behold; the world itself is already creepy and weird, but Sanders doesn’t forget to add a little bit of juicy-development to why it’s so creepy and makes you feel like a prisoner in it. In a way, it feels a lot more like the remake of Total Recall, than Blade Runner, but there’s still some actual thought going into the production-design this time around and it helps Ghost in the Shell not feel like a total cash-grab.

It is just a shame, however, that the rest of the movie is pretty conventional and doesn’t always measure up to what the visuals are doing/saying. For instance, Max Landis, who isn’t always well-loved, seems to appreciate the material he’s adapting so much, that he literally never changes a single thing. Though it’s about ten minutes or so longer than the original, this Ghost in the Shell features the same story, same twists, same turns, and hell, even the same scenes. If you’re an absolute and undying fan of the original, there may be a real treat in seeing those hand-drawn animated scenes out on paper, but if you’re like me and just wanted something a little more, yeah, it can feel a bit disappointing.

Pictured: Next week

Maybe a better screenwriter would have helped with Sanders vision a tad more?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Either way, the ensemble assembled is at least interesting, even if nothing is entirely done with them. Scarlett Johansson takes on a very dull and one-note role as Major, yet, seems to have some fun in it by just running around, shooting people, and being a general bad-ass, despite being barely over 5’1″. Pilou Asbaek shows up as one of her fellow for-hire assassins and is interesting to watch, even if his character is pretty conventional; Juliette Binoche brings some levity to a whole ton of exposition as Major’s doctor/confidante/admirer; and in what seems like his first English-language role in forever (even though he doesn’t speak it here), Takeshi Kitano steals the show as Major’s boss, an age old bad-ass who speaks in his native-language, yet, everyone understands and speaks back to. It’s a bit of a silly joke in a world that seems way too real and serious, and it’s why it’s great to see such an living legend like Kitano show up in something like this, bring some panache, bring some gravitas, and oh yeah, bring a little bit of fun.

Movies like this need more of that.

Consensus: Despite the dazzling and sometimes all-too-impressive set-design, Ghost in the Shell is a major blockbuster cash-grab at material that was already conventional in the first place and doesn’t really get much else to do here, except cover the same ground.

6 / 10

Put some clothes on, Scar-Jo! This is PG-13 family-fun! Not hard-R Under the Skin!

Photos Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

200 Cigarettes (1999)

Ring in the New Year, but without these people.

It’s New Year’s Eve 1981 and everyone’s out there lookin’ to find that special someone, or to get drunk, or to score some drugs, or to get laid, or hell, all of the above. None of these people really care, because they just want to get over the crap year that they’ve already had, get whacked out of their minds, join a party or two, and move on with their lives. Even if that means bedding some rando for a little bit, then so be it. For instance, there’s a young couple (Jay Mohr and Kate Hudson), who get together, only to then realize that one was a virgin and wants something more out of the relationship. There’s one story involving two besties (Paul Rudd and Courtney Love), who want to get over their ex’s and will do whatever they can to find that special someone when the clock strikes at 12. Then, there’s two young girls (Gaby Hoffmann and Christina Ricci), who are out on the town and roaming for whatever parties they can find. And then, finally, there’s another upper-class girl (Martha Plimpton) planning a stacked and studded New Years party, but for some reason, nobody’s coming. Like, at all.

“Hey, wanna get out of here and fire our agents?”

Oh, and Dave Chappelle plays a cab driver that keeps conspicuously showing up whenever the movie needs some laughs.

Why didn’t 200 Cigarettes work? Some chalk it up to the fact that it was released in February, therefore, not really serving as the movie you need to see before the holiday was around. Others chalk it up to the fact that it was produced heavily by MTV, despite it being about a generation that the MTV crowd would have little to nothing to relate to. And others mostly just say that it was that there was no real driving-force behind the movie, despite the non-stop barrage of names in the ensemble, as nobody here was really all that huge or as established as they would be in another year or so.

But another reason, and here’s my crazy theory, is that it just sucked.

Plain and simple.

And yes, 200 Cigarettes sucks. It’s the kind of movie that should have been a fine and fun time, with charming people, a charming holiday to revolve around, and an even more so charming soundtrack of pure disco and new wave hits. But instead, it becomes this annoying, unfunny, and terrible waste of a movie that has no clue what it wants to do with everyone who’s in it, nor does it ever really seem to make much sense of itself. It wants to be a raunchy, dirty and over-the-top R-rated comedy about a bunch of young hooligans doing what they can to find that special someone, but also wants to be a sweet, sentimental, and nostalgic R-rated comedy about the same thing. It’s going for that American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused vibe, but instead, feels like an overly-plotted, over-written, and over-acted Robert Altman movie, done for the MTV crowd.

Must have saw the final-product.

Sure, that sounds interesting, on paper, but as it plays out, on film, it doesn’t work. It’s just dull and nothing much else to it. It’s not funny in the slightest and even when you think that the movie’s given up on trying to make us laugh, it brings another random cast-member in and, guess what? Does what it can to reel the laughs right out of us.

But it doesn’t work. Like, at all.

And what makes it even worse is that, again, the cast is so stacked and impressive, it’s hard not to take notice. But with a movie like 200 Cigarettes, you have talented people like Dave Chappelle, Courtney Love, Elvis Costello, Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Martha Plimpton, Paul Rudd, Janeane Garofalo, Christina Ricci, Jay Mohr, Kate Hudson, Gaby Hoffman, David Johansen and Caleb Carr, to name a few, and none of them are given anything hilarious or fun to do. Some, like Chappelle and Rudd, overcome the material because they seem to be giving it their all and seeing whatever sticks, but everybody else here is just stuck being caricatures of people who are supposed to be funnier and a whole lot more interesting, but nope, they’re not. They’re just annoying and as phony as you can get.

It’s weird too, because, like I said, everyone here went on to do much better, much more interesting, and oh yeah, way more interesting things with their careers. In a way, 200 Cigarettes can work as a bittersweet bit of nostalgia, because it features literally everyone before they grew up, got smart, possibly fired their agents, and started doing much more interesting things with their careers. Sure, people like David Johansen, Angela Featherstone, and Caleb Carr, sort of fell-off the map, never to be heard from again, but maybe they saw this and thought, “Maybe it’s time to take a break and pick things up later.”

Thankfully, nobody else her got that memo, even though we wouldn’t blame them for having done so.

Consensus: Even with a crazy talented ensemble, 200 Cigarettes is purely unfunny and dull, stretching itself far and wide beyond its promising premise of everything happening in one, crazy, eventful night.

2 / 10

My feelings exactly.

Photos Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

I, Tonya (2017)

Goodfellas on ice.

In the early-90’s, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was one of the premier figure-skaters in the country, let alone, the world. She was popular, talented, driven, and oh yeah, a lot different from the prissy, overly-attractive skaters out there. It’s why the judges didn’t love her so much and felt as if she wasn’t the face of the figure-skating world, despite her being the best in the game and clearly deserving of a spot on the Olympics team. It’s also what Tonya’s husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), thought too, and it’s why he decided to take matters into his own hands, therefore tarnishing Tonya’s good name and professional career forever. But in a way, it was destined to always be this way, according to her mother (Allison Janney), who never let up on her for a single second, no matter how young and/or inexperienced she may have been.

Uh oh. Look out, girl! Here comes the swing!

One of the most important takeaways from I, Tonya is that, above all else, it makes you look at and view Tonya Harding in a different light than I think has ever been done so before. For almost two decades now, Harding’s name has been used as a punchline for something, in all honesty, she never did or even had a hand in; she’s always claimed innocence, but honestly, no one ever wanted to listen. Most people thought she truly was a jealous, evil and maniacle woman who saw what she wanted, saw that she wasn’t going to get it, and decided to do what she could to take away from said person who was going to take it away from her.

I, Tonya, in a way, proves differently. It shows us that Harding had nothing to do with it and even if she did, was she a tad bit justified? Director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers come together in a very interesting way, in that they don’t ever argue the authenticity of this tale, but argue whether it’s sad and depressing, or over-the-top and hilarious. Or, in a way, is it a little bit of both? Can it be a little bit of both?

In other words, I, Tonya is a tragic-tale that often times, can get played for laughs a little too often, but it’s never, ever boring.

One main reason for that is because the movie never seems to ever settle down, no matter what. Gillespie’s direction is pure-Scorsese in that it’s quick, fast-on-its-feet, and always giving us something new to chew on, at least every five seconds or so. Even the plot-device of having the story told to us by a few different interviews and viewpoints, makes the movie all the more exciting as we’re getting to know the full story of what happened, who did what, who’s to blame, and hell, why any of it matters. I, Tonya is the kind of biopic that could have easily been boring and a little too long for someone like Harding, but as Gillespie and Rogers show, we realize that there’s much more to this story and how it still relates to our world today.

See, one of the main discussion-points behind I, Tonya isn’t whether or not Tonya did it; we already know that she didn’t and we’ve all moved on. What the movie shows us is that the way Tonya’s life was lived, both on and off the rink, mattered a whole lot more to the judges than what she could actually pull-off. She was, as they say, one of the best figure-skaters in the world at one point, however, the judges didn’t like the way she looked, acted, or who she went to bed with and while her life and actions weren’t perfect, the movie argues that none of that should have mattered. Her personal life may have been an absolute wreck and in-shambles from day one, but it didn’t take away from her ability to skate the hell out of her opponents, so why should anybody else care but herself?

Would you really expect a woman with that hair to be a nice, generally-pleasant member of society?

It’s an interesting argument that, unfortunately, gets muddled underneath all of the wacky and crazy hijinx that ensue everywhere you look.

And it’s why I, Tonya, despite being an altogether entertaining and compelling look at Harding’s life, also feels a little off, tonally speaking. Scenes of Harding getting her teeth kicked-in by her husband, while awfully disturbing in nature, are played for chucks here when they shouldn’t; even the times when it seems like her mother’s going too over-the-top with her intimidation, the movie decides to play up an obvious song-cue from whatever retro-playlist it can find. I admire the direction Gillespie takes, in that he makes material like this, literally pop off the screen, but it comes at a price and it’s that it sometimes feels like we’re not fully getting the story of Tonya Harding that we, as well as her, should be treated to.

That said, Margot Robbie is absolutely amazing in this lead role, so that has to at least accounting for something, right? And yes, it does. Robbie’s becoming more and more of an interesting actress as she’s not only taking on roles that take away from her sheer stunning beauty, but that also challenge her more emotionally as an actress; she did it last year in Suicide Squad as the downright insane, but bubbly Harley Quinn, and she does it so here, with equally as much power. As Tonya Harding, we see a sad, tortured soul who just wanted love, acceptance, and to be considered one of the best in the world, but because of mediating circumstances surrounding her life, she just never got what she wanted. Robbie’s plays up this sadness and this desperation so well, that by the end of the movie, when everything has settled and the tone is cooled-off, we truly do see a battered, beaten, and broken-down human being. We feel for her and although we don’t love her, we sure as hell root for her.

And it’s easy to when you’re played by Margot Robbie, someone who is closely becoming one of our best actresses around.

Same goes for Allison Janney who, for what seems like the first time in forever, is given a role in a movie that’s up-to-par with the constant skills she shows on TV. As Tonya’s mother, Janney steals every scene as this mean, cruel, and downright nasty woman who always challenges her daughter to do better, isn’t afraid to say what’s on her mind, and push all those around her. It seems phony and like a made-up character, but by the end, we realize that this woman’s real and it makes Janney’s performance all that more impressive. Same goes for Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly, an idiot who we learn to grow some sympathy and heart for over the film even if he is, in the end, just another man who took the main-prize from Tonya Harding’s life.

Like all men do to the successful women around them. Nice going, fellas. Way to make us all look bad.

Consensus: The tone is a bit wobbly and all-over-the-place, but I, Tonya benefits from some great performances, and an electrifying pace that hardly ever slows down.

8 / 10

That’s how it starts. And unfortunately, ends.

Photos Courtesy of: NEON

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Oh and I will.

It’s the summer of 1983, and precocious 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending the days with his family at their 17th-century villa in Lombardy, Italy. Most of the time, he spends his days reading, bathing in the oh hot sun, taking a trip around the city, and meeting all sorts of colorful and cool people. One such person he meets is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a handsome doctoral student who’s working as an intern for Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg). Immediately, Elio is attracted to Oliver, but he doesn’t know why, or how the hell it even happened. For all that he knows, he likes girls and even has a girlfriend who may, or may not, be totally in the picture. Either way, Elio tries to do whatever he can to reach out to Oliver, get his attention and hopefully, get him to fall for him right back. Elio possibly gets what he wants, but at the same time, also gets a lot more than he bargained for.

That’s how the lovin’ starts. It always does.

Call Me By Your Name is perhaps the most subtle movie I’ve seen in quite some time and I mean that as a total compliment. Director Luca Guadagnino and writer James Ivory seem to come together and compliment each other’s styles in that one knows how to tell the visual side of the story, whereas the other knows how to actually tell the story, but not too much. In other words, we get a lot of moments of pure, absolute silence, where instead of listening to characters jabber on and on, we actually just watch as they bike through a field, or walk side-by-side, or hell, even just a rare glimpse at the beautiful nature that surrounds these characters.

And you know what? These scenes speak louder than words themselves and it’s why Call Me By Your Name is a silent, but deadly revelation. It’s a slow-burn for sure that, on the surface, may seem like a conventional coming-of-ager about a boy growing up, realizing who he is, what he wants, and answering the age old question of what love feels like, but it’s also about so much more. It’s about family, history, architecture, and how all can come together in random ways to give us a clue of who the hell we are, why we are here, what our purpose is, and what’s next to come.

Sounds like a bit of a stretch, I know, but to watch how it all plays out, trust me, it somehow works like gangbusters.

And it’s why it’s hard to watch Call Me By Your Name and not get wrapped-up in all of the raw, heavy and honest emotions that the movie isn’t afraid to embrace. It’s a love story for sure, but it’s one of first love and how, often times, it’s the messiest, most awkward, and weirdest times in our lives; we don’t know what we’re doing, what we’re saying, or how we’re going to act next. But in a way, it’s a truly beautiful time that makes us feel even more human than ever before and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Just turn around. Please.

But it’s why Guadagnino’s direction and Ivory’s script balance each other out so well – they both know what works in a small, yet powerful character-drama, and to have it speak volumes to all who see it. Some will obviously be turned-off, like certain celebrities, of how it’s a gay romance, featuring a 17-year-old-boy, but the movie breezes by that notion reminding you that, yes, it’s consensual, and also, in Italy, it’s legal. That’s neither here nor there, though, because the movie isn’t about what’s in good, or poor taste, as much as it’s about two men, finding one another, understanding each other, and above all else, falling in love, even if they sometimes have an awfully hard time of admitting it.

Oh, and the performances are pitch perfect, too.

For one, it’s great to finally see, after all of these years of me championing him as the “possibly next Johnny Depp”, Armie Hammer gets the role that’s most deserving of his charm, good-looks, chiseled-body, and overall atmosphere of general coolness. As Oliver, Hammer’s this tall hunk of a man that literally swarms over the movie, even when he’s not around; Elio is always thinking about him, his body, and his unabashed charisma and we can totally see why. Hammer’s not afraid to make this character a bit of a dork, but we sort of love him for that and we start to realize that no matter how much of a hard-front this character may put on, it’s all going to come crashing through sooner or later. And when it does, it’s a beautiful sight to witness, as it not only shows us that there’s more to this character than just good looks and a winning-personality, but a whole lot more range to Hammer himself.

But even better is Timothée Chalamet as Elio, one of the best coming-of-age performances in quite some time because, if anything, it just feels all too genuine. Though Chalamet is at least 21 or so in real-life, he feels like such a real kid that it’s not hard to despise him at first; he’s so insecure, so awkward, and so full-of-himself, it’s hard not to want to smack him in the face. Then, it’s easy to realize that he’s also a kid, trying to make sense of himself, and at that age, I think it’s safe to say that we were all like him, in one way or another. Regardless, Chalamet’s progression from being awkward and a little deuchy, to absolutely starstruck, head-over-heels, and at a total loss for words, is not only believable, but amazing to watch.

And together, there’s absolute fireworks between the two. There’s a real and true love between them both that goes from lust and admiration, to full-on, hot, sweaty, and emotional passion. It’s both sensual and beautiful and oh yeah, it makes it one of the best movies of the year. If not the best.

But hey, we’ll wait for that list until later.

Consensus: Both emotionally overbearing and powerfully subtle at the same time, Call Me By Your Name is the rare achievement in storytelling that transcends coming-of-age tropes with a genuine heart, emotion, and two of the finest performances of the year.

9 / 10

Do it! Come on, guys!

Photos Courtesy of: Sony Pictures Classics