“Blue Bayou” finds poetic beauty amidst tragedy

September 16th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Blue Bayou” finds poetic beauty amidst tragedy”

“Blue Bayou” is much more than a character study. It’s a study of our social and criminal justice system in today’s volatile world where your skin color and/or race makes you a target for deportation. Written, directed, and starring Justin Chon as Antonio, a Korean immigrant adopted here in the United States at the age of 3, fights to combat his heritage and his past while trying to save his marriage, his step-daughter, and the future of his unborn daughter as well as his own.

Chon’s heartfelt performance lets us inside, opening the doors to a world most of us probably never will know. Antonio is poor and has a record. Living in poverty with his wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and adorable daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), Anthony desperately searches for a new and better paying job, but with a felony record, he can’t outrun his past. His optimism turns inwardly into pain and hopelessness, but never will he let his family know he has failed. When a chance argument is interrupted by Kathy’s ex-husband, a cop with less than stellar virtues and a moralistically bankrupt partner, Antonio finds himself incarcerated by ICE and a daunting fight to correct the oversight of paperwork stamping him as a Korean citizen, not an American one.

The cards are stacked against Antonio from the beginning and we realize this even more as the story unfolds … he never had a fighting chance. His decisions and others’ reactions based in prejudice create a never-ending and vicious cycle in which he is embedded. From a broken juice system to police abuse of power, “Blue Bayou” punctuates that the American Dream has become a nightmare for this family.

Cinematically, this is pure poetry. Using artistry of foggy memories intertwined in the story’s narrative, we begin to understand the ghosts that haunt this Korean man. We also begin to understand the barriers that his life built, unbeknownst to him. Identity and belonging are key components to his persona, both of which were built on a shaky foundation. Unable to connect with his past and finding a formidable future, Antonio is never fully able to understand himself, what’s broken, and most importantly, how to fix it and move forward in a positive direction.

Chon is the heart and soul of this film, giving a finely-tuned and evocative portrayal of a shattered man held together by tenuous material and a man whose goodness oozes from these crevices only to be obliterated with the ugliness of hatred. And Chon surrounds himself with a small, but incredibly talented ensemble cast who allow this cinema verite style of film to give the story complete credibility as a possible true tale; we are flies on the wall watching Chon’s “Antonio” live this small but pivotal portion of his life. Sydney Kowalske gives us a heartbreakingly authentic performance as Jessie, Antonio’s young daughter. Their relationship is natural and the camera captures every beautiful moment. Equally genuine is Chon and Vikander whose understated performance is sheer perfection. Together, they are a family. A real family. And like real families, there’s a disapproving mother-in-law, an angry ex-husband (Mark O’Brien) and another bad egg in the law enforcement world. Never, thanks to realistic writing, insightful directions, deft performances, and intuitive camera work, does this feel forced or contrived. The story washes over you like a gentle wave until you’re soaked in the plight of the situation, more fully understanding what thousands of adopted immigrants may have experienced over the last 50 years.

“Blue Bayou” has a brutal yet realistic ending that reminds us of not just our flawed deportation laws but the adoption laws that failed to protect the innocent. Chon’s skills allow him to wear the three different hats — star, director, writer — and do so with definitive finesse.

4 Stars

Schrader’s “The Card Counter” a troubling look at forgiveness

September 10th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on “Schrader’s “The Card Counter” a troubling look at forgiveness”

Paul Schrader, known for the searing “First Reformed” in 2017, “Raging Bull” in 1980, and of course “Taxi Driver” which catapulted Jodie Foster’s career in 1976, is back in the driver’s seat with “The Card Counter.” Starring Oscar Isaac as a troubled military ex-con, Schrader delves deeply into guilt and forgiveness in this troubling and flawed film which loses direction and pace only to wrap up its loose ends neatly with a bow.

That’s not to say “The Card Counter” isn’t worth seeing. Schrader takes on three storylines, all of which are interwoven and their concurrent presentation hooks you as you walk along Isaac’s character of Bill. We know from the very beginning that Bill has made mistakes; mistakes for which he paid behind bars. And with that time, he learned some very valuable lessons—how to count cards to win at Black Jack. Now released, Bill flies under the radar, using his knowledge and talents to make a living. A happenstance convention places Bill in a room where Major John Gordo (Willem Defoe) is speaking. A young man, Cirk (Tye Sheridan) slips Bill his number to discuss Bill’s past and possible future. Which path will Bill choose, revenge or forgiveness?

From this point, Bill takes the young man under his wing, attempting to steer him in a more positive direction other than fulfilling a revenge plot. In order to help Cirk, Bill must find higher stakes and a backer who comes in the form of La Linda (Tiffany Haddish). The three travel the country, making a name for Bill and winning, but the past is a difficult thing to shake as we find Bill’s demons haunting him and wrestling with doing the right thing.

The story starts with promise as we learn about the intricacies of card counting as Bill narrates this portion. It’s reminiscent of “The Big Short” as it plunges us into a previously unknown topic, enlightening us yet still confusing us. Bill plays poker against some odd characters, particularly Mr. USA with his obnoxious chants and cheers, but these tournaments which could have been nail biters, are just a vehicle for the story to focus upon Bill’s past traumas and decisions. We learn of the military torture and Cirk’s father’s relationship to the protocol that Gordo instituted and Bill implimented. Flashbacks take us to horrific conditions and events that are visually and emotionally disturbing, but we can’t unsee what was just shown. These images haunt us as they haunt our character Bill, creating a sense of removed empathy with him.

The story seems to leave something behind. While we understand why Bill is helping Cirk avoid a devastating path of no return, the emotional connection between the two is missing. Schrader, as writer and director, makes no bones about the core of this film. Forgiveness. Being punished for wrong-doing is one thing, but forgiving yourself for wrong-doing is quite another. And on yet another prong of the forgiveness spoke, is vengeance, meeding out your own punishment for being wronged. All of these are spokes are of the same wheel; and all of these impact Bill and Cirk differently. Perhaps Bill’s age invokes wisdom, that of which he hopes to impart upon Cirk. It’s a captivating conversation, but the story itself slips and slides too much as it focuses upon the gambling, not the card counting, resulting in the the pace feeling more like a snail than a high-intensity game.

The casting in this film seems odd with both Sheridan and Haddish. Sheridan’s stiff and stifled performance elicits a questioning of why Bill wants so badly to help Sheridan’s character. His measured delivery, emotionless, is empty. His supposed rage is too tempered as he comes off as a misguided directionless and apathetic teen. Haddish, feeling quite comfortable and giving us a new layer of her acting skills is natural in her performance. She never appears to be acting, but the role itself is odd and Haddish doesn’t pull off the wheeler and dealer of the high-stakes gambling world.

Isaac, however, gives us a haunting performance. We fully believe he has suffered the traumas and cannot forgive himself for those he inflicted upon others. He is a broken man and many of the pieces will never be found. And Isaac’s captivatingly raw yet understated delivery elevates the story to a more evocative level, making us forgive it what it lacks in energy and direction.

Of course, with Schrader, you’re going to expect unique cinematography and lighting which he delivers on a silver platter. Use of a fisheye lens creates an even more jarring image as captors abuse those incarcerated in disturbingly horrific ways. Lighting and color accentuate the scenes as does the musical score. Schrader always creates a film that emphatically punctuates each and every scene with the very important ancillary elements and “The Card Counter” beautifully exemplifies this.

“The Card Counter” is a visceral exploration of forgiveness, but unfortunately, has numerous missteps in pacing, an inconsistent performance from Sheridan, and an ending that disappoints.

2 1/2 Stars

“Come From Away” musical finds a new perspective about 9/11

September 8th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Come From Away” musical finds a new perspective about 9/11”

A musical about 9/11? Yes! This daring, funny, and poignant musical, “Come From Away,” filmed on a live theatrical stage in New York City portrays the townspeople in Gander, Newfoundland and the 7000 passengers, more than two dozen plans diverted to a small nearby airport on that fateful day 20 years ago.

The town is represented by a small ensemble cast who take on multiple roles to give us a story about these welcoming, kind-hearted individuals who opened their arms and their homes to strangers from around the world during an unnerving and uncertain time. Most of us never considered the thousands of planes which were en route to various destinations during the attack of September 11th. This immediately raises questions about how long they were stranded, how were they cared for, and at what point did they understand the news? Of course, the musical brings up many other questions and concerns that many of the passengers had during this time, but most importantly, it punctuates the kindness of others during a time of need.

“Come From Away” gives us characters that are oftentimes over-the-top, but always in a good way and always to make us laugh out loud. From the new broadcast journalist and the humane society volunteer to the mayor of the town and a local air traffic controller and several more, the characters are vividly portrayed as they sing songs about the town of Gander and how they all came together to house, feed, and entertain 7000 additional guests who were staying for an undetermined amount of time. As the actors take on numerous roles including a Muslim man, a gay couple, a mother of a NYC fire fighter, and more, you see this pivotal day from a new perspective. It’s a lens that truly opens your eyes to a new world.

The music is the driving undercurrent of the story; all of which you unexpectedly begin to sing along with the characters. The voices of the actors compliment the story, but it is Jenn Colella’s vocal prowess that stands out among them all. Taking on a range of characters, her vocal range is just as great. The strength as she sings about loss or love reverberates within your body, reminding us of the tragic events as well as how each and every individual was somehow effected by the attacks of 9/11.

3 ½ Stars

You can stream this captivatingly entertaining musical beginning September 10th on Apple TV+

“Cinderella” live-action remake hits all the right notes

September 4th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Cinderella” live-action remake hits all the right notes”

The seemingly endless live-action Disney remakes have found a way to make the old new again with “Cinderella,” starring Camila Cabello. Written and directed by Kay Cannon (“Pitch Perfect,” “30 Rock”), a graduate from the local Reed-Custer High School and Lewis University, the fairy-tale is set in a fictional time period of long ago while it breathes new life into the story with current social and global issues. What once was a rather dull and predictable story of a fair maiden being rescued by a wealthy prince has transformed into a funny feminist fairy tale with great music that will have you dancing in your living room, laughing aloud, and loving this new spin on a tired old one.

We meet poor Cinderella (Cabello) as she dreams of being a dressmaker, trapped in the basement of her stepmother Vivian’s (Idina Menzel) home with her difficult stepsisters constantly degrading her. Meanwhile, the rebellious Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) dares to defy his father, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan) who desperately wants his son to marry royalty and does not care an iota about love. His mother, Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver) understands her son’s reticence as she sees her own relationship with the King falter. As we all know with the story of Cinderella, a ball will take place for the Prince to choose his bride, but what we don’t know is all the different layers of story that don’t follow the old tried and tired storyline.

Cannon takes the time to develop all of her characters to the extent needed to augment Cinderella’s story and hone in on topical issues. A new character of Princess Gwen (Tallulah Grieve) who is always lurking around, pushing progressive concepts onto her father’s reluctant radar gives us great humor as well as thoughtfulness. And while we have those familiar characters of the footmen, formerly mice, the Fairy Godmother now known as Fab G (Billy Porter), and the nasty stepsisters, Anastasia (Maddie Baillio) and Drizella (Charlotte Spencer), each of these characters breaks the mold to find a new way to tell this story.

Let’s get back to our star and focal point of the story, Cinderella played by the not only gorgeous, but vocally beautiful Cabello. Again, Cannon allows this character to be so much more than just a pretty face waiting to be saved by some guy. She’s smart, creative, and has dreams to fulfill. She has a heart of gold, but is also driven to rise to her potential as a seamstress and future entrepreneur. Her brazen independence and unwillingness to fall into line and follow this antiquated patriarchal society gives this character a current-day and refreshing feel. And Cannon dares, successfully so, to take this character in a totally different direction as she does the character of Prince Robert. Gender stereotypes are shattered along with a formerly predictable storyline.

The numerous side stories unfolding give this old fairy tale much more depth. Stepmom Vivian has her own baggage to carry as we learn more about her past and Queen Beatrice looks back on her life’s decisions and marriage hoping to impart wisdom to her son to do better. And let’s not forget the totally revamped character of the Fairy Godmother who is now Fab G, making us laugh—yes, it’s true that even magic has its limits with making high heels comfy— and tap our toes, reveling in the energy.

The music is an element that blows this version of Cinderella out of the water. As the Town Crier (Doc Brown) raps his news to the townspeople, we hear new renditions of Madonna’s “Material Girl” as Vivian and her girls wash clothes, dreaming of a better, richer future. The list goes on and on with great music like Earth Wind and Fire’s “You’re A Shining Star,” The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army” as a background for the ballroom dance, or Ed Sheeran’s “You Look Perfect.” Every song is perfectly placed to help propel the story, augmented by finely-tuned choreography that is simply mesmerizing.

What Cannon imbues into the script that was sorely lacking in the animated version is humor. This is laugh out loud funny thanks to the comedic abilities of James Cordon, Billy Porter, Pierce Brosnan and the relative newcomer Tallulah Grieve. “Cinderella” has found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (or was that Rumpelstiltskin?) with an updated bold story, eye-catching costuming and set design, captivating singing and dancing, and vibrant characters that actually develop.

While most of the live-action Disney remakes are nothing more than that, “Cinderella” daringly takes us down a new path and what a visual spectacle it is for both kids and adults.

4 Stars

“Together” Poignantly dramatic with razor-sharp wit hits all the right notes of relationships during Covid

August 27th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Together” Poignantly dramatic with razor-sharp wit hits all the right notes of relationships during Covid”

A film about Covid-19…is it too soon? The answer, thanks to the brilliance in writing, directing and acting in the new movie “Together,” is a resounding no!  In fact, the dynamics and messages within make it the perfect time to see a movie about this on-going pandemic with no end in sight.  

To read the review in its entirety as published in the Alliance of Women Film Journalists , go to AWFJ “Together”

“Candyman” surprisingly complex and relevant horror film breaks the mold of the genre

August 26th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Candyman” surprisingly complex and relevant horror film breaks the mold of the genre”

“Candyman,” a sequel to the original 1992 version, takes us back to Chicago where the former housing project of Cabrini Green has been leveled to make way for a new, gentrified neighborhood. (If you haven’t seen the original, don’t fret. This new film, co-written by Jordan Peele gets you up to speed.) The lore of the Candyman is revisited as Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a rising artist struggling to find his muse for his next exhibit, learns of the horrors of the past in Cabrini Green. Delving into the long-buried stories, Anthony’s artistic creations take on a life of its own, catapulting him from struggling to renowned.

Anthony and Brianna (Teyonah Parris) live in this gentrified upscale neighborhood, basking in the luxuries that life has afforded them. Brianna, a wealthy and successful woman in her own right, watches as Anthony gets pulled deeper and deeper into a very dark space. His research consumes him and meeting a stranger (Colman Domingo) who provides pivotal information about the legend of the Candyman, plunges him into an abyss from which he may not return. But this is exactly what inspires him to create a must-see exhibit called “Say His Name,” allowing him to rise from the ashes and profit from his past.

Mockingly, Anthony shares with Brianna the lore of saying “his” name five times while looking in the mirror after learning of the deaths surrounding his exhibit. The brutally horrific demise of those he knows brings no sadness, but a sense of accomplishment as the publicity helps with his own name recognition. Abdul-Mateen II’s performance, particularly in this scene, reminds us of his finely tuned skills as an actor as he sends shivers down your spine in reaction. He was also a show-stopper in his performance in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” so it comes as no surprise that he can take this role and make it his own.

“Candyman” isn’t your typical bloody horror flick. In fact, there’s nothing typical about it. This is a smart and complicated story that gently exposes the ills of the past and how they continue on through the present. The inequities of opportunities and oppression based on race are the underlying currents that ebb and flow throughout the film. However, it is never heavy-handed, but articulately defined and portrayed, sweeping you out to the sea of understanding. And unlike any other typical horror film, we don’t know how this is going to end as the narrative arc is a surprising one.

The writers carefully depict the past, present and perhaps the future using various story-telling techniques. Shadow puppetry, as old as the hills, is interwoven into the fabric of the story, an impactful visual effect more powerful than any high-tech cinematography. Additionally, the writers and director (Nia DaCosta) sprinkle in bits of symbolism and repetitive imagery which brings the story to its inevitable yet surprising conclusion. The twists and turns it takes are what keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering what lies around the next corner.

DaCosta’s vision brings “Candyman” to life. She doesn’t rely on the “jump-scares” but instead on psychological set-ups to awaken your every sense. With simple yet effective set designs, we are also brought into the grit of Chicago’s former housing projects and the horrific conditions of the past that still live in our memories. These, of course, influence the trajectory of the story as our main character relives his past and others.

Knowing that Peele had a hand in the writing, you immediately know that you’re in for surprises and societal statements. He does not disappoint. His keen understanding of storytelling and surrounding himself with the talents of his co-writers, director and of course, the cast allow him to create a genuinely unique and captivating story. We also see the genre of horror with all its tropes push the envelope to become something far superior. It challenges us to look more deeply into our history and our knowledge base to actually see things for what they are. And at the same time we are thoroughly entertained.

3.5 Stars

“The Night House” A flawed yet chilling thriller

August 19th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Night House” A flawed yet chilling thriller”

Writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski along with director David Bruckner create “The Night House,” a chilling atmospheric horror flick starring Rebecca Hall. While the story has more holes in it than a moth-eaten sweater—if you look at it at a superficial level—you can’t deny the fact that it hooks you, sends shivers down your spine on a frequent basis, and perhaps is even a metaphor for depression and the grip it has on our main character, Beth (Hall).

Beth’s husband Owen has committed suicide on a small row boat where their dream house was being built. The devastation she exhibits is palpable and we know her love of Owen was as deep as the Grand Canyon. Trying to push forward, Beth, a teacher, goes back to her duties, but her husband’s death has changed her. One of the best scenes in the film happens early on as she discusses with a student’s mother a grade the boy got in speech class. Her response is priceless and a scene I am sure teachers will most certainly enjoy. Leaning on her colleague and best friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg), Beth confides that she is experiencing strange events at night ranging from phone calls from Owen, seeing and sensing someone—perhaps him—in the house. And as Beth delves more deeply into Owen’s past, she discovers some rather dark and disturbing secrets.

The trajectory of the film is what you would expect in a horror film, but what stands out is not only Hall’s skilled delivery of a broken woman in search of answers, but the overall effect of the film. There aren’t any silly jump-scares, but the film delivers a visceral punch that elicits goosebumps to form and run down your back and your arms. Deft direction and skilled cinematography are key players in any horror film, but to pull the viewer into the film and allow us to feel the effects is sheer brilliance.

Unfortunately, the screenplay has too many red herrings and unfulfilled threads of stories which are never neatly tied up. However, this doesn’t take away from our connection to Beth and in finding out why he killed himself and whether or not her nightly episodes are just a figment of her imagination or are they real. It’s truly a mystery/thriller that ends with a few more questions than it should, but still, on many levels, leaves you satisfied.

Digging more deeply into this film, we learn early on that Beth wrestles with her own dark demons of depression. You can’t help but wonder if her near death experience and the “dark holes” she feels within her are actually a projection of what it feels like to deal with depression and “dark thoughts.” Owen seemed to have been her stabilization factor and with him gone, the dark holes get bigger and bigger, pulling her into an abyss.

Either way you look at this film, it’s a chilling thriller. While the story needed to wrap up a few loose ends—it felt as if it ended too early with the final scene missing the perfect camera angle—it still delivers the requisite goose bumps with characters we care about and a story that hooks us.

3 Stars

“Free Guy” an absolute blast

August 16th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Free Guy” an absolute blast”

I haven’t had this much fun at the theater since “Knives Out!” “Free Guy” co-written by Matt Lieberman and Zach Penn take comedy and a creative concept to new levels in this strange world of gaming and artificial intelligence. Ryan Reynolds stars as Guy, a bank teller and NPC (non-playable character) inside a violent video game. His role is to react to the repeated bank heists and brutal killings that occur thanks to the gamers dressed in avatars invading Free City from the real world. But when Guy sees a woman from afar and eventually meets her, his world turns upside down. He begins to challenge his “Ground Hog Day” choices and make some changes. These small ripples will forever change the game called “Free City.”

That woman, Millie (Jodie Comer), is playing the game for a different reason. A programmer who’s technology has been stolen is determined to find the clue in this game that will prove her proprietary rights. Meeting Guy, however, gives her a partner in this game to help right the wrongs. As Guy learns more, he changes and these changes effect not only Free City, but the controlling real world. To tell you much more about what happens would spoil the fun of this journey and ultimate conclusion. Suffice it to say that each and every scene will have you laughing out loud and surprised by all the twists and turns (and cameos) that occur. And what starts out as a comedic mystery becomes an unexpected love story.

“Free City” has it all: humor, heart, mystery, intrigue, social commentary, incredible set designs and jaw-dropping special effects that bring you into this video world. All of this is elevated by actors who are having fun with their roles. Reynolds is magical as Guy or as he is deemed “Blue Shirt Guy.” He is a master of comedy with his timing, facial expressions, and nuance. We love his character immediately and watch him grow, rooting for him every step of the way while we wipe away the tears of laughter. Of course, it’s not a one-man show. His best friend and bank security officer named Buddy is played by Lil Rel Howery who uses his signature style of comedy but shows us he can deliver another level of persona: that of a scared, insecure NPC and loyal friend. Guy and Buddy’s interactions are a sheer delight.

Comer has a dual role as Millie in the real world and that of her gaming avatar. Joe Keery is “Keys,” Millie’s former work colleague who wants to be so much more. Together, these characters navigate the pretend world as it morphs into its own reality, racing against time to prove that their technology was stolen. The cast of characters including Utkarsh Ambudkar as “Mouser” and Matt Cardarople as “Gamer” who provides some of my favorite scenes in the film, and Taika Waititi as the offensively greedy gaming tech company Soonami CEO, make us laugh and escape into the movie.

Unlike many superhero movies where you really need to be a fan to appreciate it, you don’t have to be a video gamer to enjoy every aspect of this film. “Free Guy” is pure fun, stirring up the worlds of reality and video gaming and giving us one of the most entertainingly hilarious rom-coms ever. With its smart and creative plot, dialogue, and message, I can’t wait to see this movie again…and again.

4 Stars

“Nine Perfect Strangers” – A riveting take on Moriarty’s best-selling book

August 16th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Nine Perfect Strangers” – A riveting take on Moriarty’s best-selling book”

Lianne Moriarty’s “Nine Perfect Strangers” has received the Midas Touch from Nicole Kidman and her company to bring this best-selling novel to full life as a series on Hulu. The book provides more than a basic foundation for the series as it maintains the premise and narrative arc of each of the characters. What it changes, however, gives the story intrigue, mystery, and multi-dimensional characters. With a twisting, turning script and actors who breathe complexity and reality into their characters, “Nine Perfect Strangers,” thanks to the creative talents of Kidman and her crew at Blossom Films, will make you set a reminder each week on your phone to tune in to the next episode on Hulu.

If you’ve read the book –this isn’t a prerequisite– the series begins a little later as we meet the guests of Tranquilum, a word of mouth health spa. Arriving, some begrudgingly, some who are antagonistic toward one another, we find that they each have their own story to tell. With great style and screenwriting skills, we are immediately captivated by each and every one of these characters.

Francis (Melissa McCarthy) is a heartbroken, lonely, and previously successful author of romance novels. Duped by an on-line scammer, she is struggling to makes sense of her life; confidence waning with an unpredictable future. Tony, an abrasive brut, is her nemesis, never holding back his thoughts as if the edit mode has long been broken. The Marconi family comprised of their soon-to-be 21 year-old daughter Zoe (Grace Van Patten), father Napoleon (Michael Shannon), and wife Heather (Asher Keddie) have suffered an unspeakable tragedy and have graciously been granted a discounted stay at the facility. Carmel (Regina Hall) is a confused, soft-spoken woman who seems more like a sad little puppy dog, and Lars (Luke Evans), a mysterious and angry man lashes out at anyone within striking distance. To round out this strange but somehow connected group of broken individuals looking for a healing spa week, the lottery winning couple Ben (Melvin Gregg) and Jessica (Samara Weaving) bring their own baggage to unpack during the week. Together, these nine strangers– definitely not perfect– lead by Masha and her staff, will venture down a path with the hopes of healing, but what they find may be much more than they bargained for.

Tranquilum is the brain child of Masha (Kidman), an intimidatingly beautiful, confident, and intelligent woman whose staff worships the ground she walks on. The effect she has on her guests is equally powerful as she addresses each of them and their issues. Set in the hills of California, beautifully secluded, the guests complete tasks as they focus on their health and wellness. Manny Jacinto slips confidently into the persona of Yao, leaving behind that quirky character of Jason Mendoza from “The Good Place” and Tiffany Boone finds just the right tone to bring Delilah to life.

“Nine Perfect Strangers” takes the basic premise and characters of the book and elevates each and every one of them, and thanks to astute casting, we find a connection with each as well. McCarthy is spot-on perfect, portraying Francis with a wit and intelligence that makes us laugh, but we can see the pain she suffers. With each episode, we learn more as she shares and gets to know the other guests. No one could have more perfectly portrayed this character than McCarthy as she breathes a breath of believability into Francis and we just can’t get enough.

Bobby Cannavale rounds out his character of Tony and Regina Hall gives Carmela a layered personality that could easily be someone you know or perhaps it’s even a representation of you. Michael Shannon gives us a never before seen portrayal of an upbeat, always-look-at-the-bright-side kind of guy. His chipper attitude and never wanting to rock the boat is unexpected, but perfectly portrayed. Together with Van Patten and Keddie, they superficially seem to be an ordinary and happy family, but with finely tuned performances and deft direction, we feel that’s not the case…and we are right. Weaving shines with her Instagram and social media always-ready look, as she reminds us not to judge a book by its cover. This ensemble cast is brilliant, hooking you from the first episode to the last.

The series follows much of what the book sets up for the foundation, but it boldly deviates, taking a right turn instead of a left. Where the book spun its wheels, looking for signs of how to proceed, the series takes the reigns and pushes full steam ahead. We have to hold on tightly as we careen around each corner, not knowing where the story will land. This smart, succinct script pulls you into uncharted territory, satisfying your intellectual and emotional cravings. In other words, “Nine Perfect Strangers” is simply riveting.

4/4 Stars

“The Suicide Squad” a disjointed, gruesome mess

August 4th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Suicide Squad” a disjointed, gruesome mess”

“The Suicide Squad” strikes again although it appears it didn’t take the time to add more than the word “the” to differentiate it from the original in 2016. What it did take the time to do is drone on repetitively to give this film a 2 hour and 12 minute running time. While it’s no secret that super hero (or is it superhero?) films are not my cup of tea, going into them with zero expectations, I am occasionally pleasantly surprised. For example, both versions of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” or the original “Thor,” or, well, ok, that’s about it in the vast sea of superhero films. This version of “The Suicide Squad” was certainly better than the first one, but again, that is a low bar from which to rise.

You might be asking yourself, like I did, “Where or should I say when does this story fall into place given Harley Quinn’s “Birds of Prey” flop?” In the wise words of a fellow film critic, “It doesn’t really matter.” And it doesn’t. The premise is the same as the first rendition: A crew of horrid incarcerated supervillains are corralled by the director of a black ops program, Waller (Viola Davis). These characters are charged with saving America from some unknown future threat, but if they deviate from the plan, the detonator installed in their heads will be remotely engaged resulting in a horrific death.

Colonel Flag (Joel Kinnaman) leads the craziest bunch of characters into what becomes a death mission. The bloody onslaught quickly convenes and we appear to lose many of the characters to this guerrilla warfare. With heads sliced open like a cantaloupe and bodies exploding everywhere, you think you can’t take anymore, but then you are quickly ratcheted back in time to meet this motley crew just a few months ago. This back and forth time warp is one storytelling tool that actually keeps us interested in the story, thin as it may be.

Creative chapter markers keep us in the right timeline and we are left with Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Peacemaker (John Cena), Ratcatcher2 (Daniela Melchior), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and King Shark (Sylvester Stallone) to infiltrate the human experimental site and take down its leader, Thinker (Peter Capaldi). Along the way, there are so, so, so many fights to win and the plot thickens (remember, it starts as thin as chicken broth) which, I am assuming, will delight comic book fans. For others, it’s just another bizarre CGI character that artists have fun bringing to life.

“The Suicide Squad” has quite a bit of unexpected comedy, most of which is brought to light by the competitiveness between Bloodsport and Peacekeeper. Cena and Elba are truly fun even amidst the bloodbath of violence. These actors understand comedic timing and reactionary humor which plays beautifully. If only writer James Gunn could have focused more on this relationship rather than the ever-repetitive and overly choreographed fight scenes.

Newcomer characters Ratcatcher2 and Polka-Dot Man give us hope in the film with their bizarre backstories and skills. If you have a rodent phobia, this will give you nightmares for weeks. And Polka-Dot Man’s mommy issues are disturbingly humorous as the animators take us into his psychologically warped mind. Unfortunately, Quinn’s oddball personality adds nothing to the narrative arc and actually puts the brakes on, bringing the story to a screeching halt.

Also disappointing is the fact that several of the initial characters such as Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Javelin (Flula Borg), Blackguard (Pete Davidson) and Weasel (Sean Gunn) are disposed of within the first few minutes of the film. A sigh of disappointment comes over you as you realize that these actors will not have an opportunity to perform and entertain, reaching their potential in this Universe.

As well as the time-line tool works, the disjointed feel of the individual stories just doesn’t. The promise of a film that works for both comic book fans and those who are not, falls flat and becomes exactly what you think it’s going to be: non-stop fight scenes with over-the-top violence. While some of that violence is ridiculous—comic book-like—a lot of it is truly disturbing. Torture scenes and realistically gruesome deaths are just too much to stomach.

Gunn had a kernel of what could have been a fun sequel to a bomb, but blew it when the focus became the special effects and fight scenes. At a running time of over 2 hours, the only thing repetitive actions scenes do is lull you into a state of sleep.

“The Suicide Squad” with a core group of interesting characters, personalities, and charm are
highjacked by the one-dimensional character of Harley Quinn and Gunn’s inability to focus on what makes a story work—the story. Missing out on utilizing his characters to their fullest, Gunn gives us a disappointing sequel even if it is better than the original.

2 Stars

“Ride the Eagle” is an absolute pleasure

July 28th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Ride the Eagle” is an absolute pleasure”

Jake Johnson is one of those guys you feel like you already know. You grew up with or went to college with someone like him. He’s a buddy, a friend, a character with whom you’re already familiar before he even gets into his role. In this film, “Ride the Eagle,” he’s Leif, a disarming young man with no direction and a rocky past who, living off the grid, is visited by his mother’s long-time friend Missy (Cleo King) to share the news that dear old mom, also known as Honey (Susan Sarandon), has passed away. Estranged from her, the news comes as a surprise, but Honey’s going to be a part of her son’s life even after death as Missy shares the caveats of Leif’s “conditional inheritance.” He must reside in the palatial cabin near Yosemite and complete a list of tasks.

Following his mother’s orders, he pops in the video cassette and listens begrudgingly to his her directions. The chill in the air is palpable as Lief holds a grudge against his mother for abandoning him so many years ago. But he really wants his inheritance, so he’s going to complete the list even if he hates every moment of it. Ultimately, Honey has a lot of regrets and she hopes that she can reach and teach her son what’s important in life even if she isn’t physically able to be a part of it.

The film plays out like a treasure hunt; each direction leading to a new adventure and a pot of gold waiting at the end. Of course there are bumps in the road, one of which is Carl (J.K. Simmons) who hunts Leif like he’s prey. Their interaction and discovery is as awkward as it is humorous, particularly with Simmons’ signature style and of course, his voice. And yes, there’s a love story in the film as well. Audrey (D’Arcy Carden) enters the picture midway through the film to deliver her unique sense of humor as the two characters reconnect over the phone. We chuckle as they relive their past and guardedly share their current states and possible hopes for the future. It’s as genuine a conversation as you could imagine, much of it feeling improvised, but polished to push that plot forward.

“Ride the Eagle” is sheer fun and escapism. The plot is simple yet our main character is more complicated as he struggles from his past and barricades himself from his future. There are plenty of laughs along the way from the preposterously silly situations, yet the emotional authenticity prevails. Johnson is having fun. He’s giving us seemingly off-the-cuff commentary, talking with his dog Nora, as he works through his character’s life’s decisions which have placed him in his current state of turmoil. The ensemble cast of characters adds levity to the story as we watch Leif grow up and find a new direction in life.

Trent O’Donnell directs this gem of a feature co-written by he and Johnson and while the narrative arc may be a predictable one, it’s truly a pleasure to watch. Set in the majesty of Yosemite, the intimate and relatable story is one that will make you laugh and maybe even reminisce about your own family and relationships.

3 Stars

“Stillwater” plays it safe in the fictitious version of the Amanda Knox story

July 28th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Stillwater” plays it safe in the fictitious version of the Amanda Knox story”

Tom McCarthy who gave us the award-winning “Spotlight,” dips back into the pool of reality as he loosely bases “Stillwater,” starring Matt Damon, on a top news story from 2007. Amanda Knox was accused of murdering her roommate, convicted and sentenced to jail, but then acquitted after nearly 5 years. McCarthy and his co-writers use her story as the foundation for the film, changing slight details and adding their own subplots, characters, and ultimately their own narrative. These blurred lines between reality and fiction become a story in and of itself; frustrating at times, entertaining at others.

“Stillwater” introduces us to Bill Baker (Matt Damon), a man without means, struggling with consistent employment but determined and hardworking. He travels abroad to visit his incarcerated daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) each month, assisted financially by his aging mother. Residing in a French prison, Allison desperately pleads with her father to deliver a letter to her attorney containing information which she feels will lead to her exoneration. Bill will do anything to help his daughter, the least of which is delivering a letter, but her attorney doesn’t deliver the news he was hoping for. And hope is at the core of Allison’s survival and the story’s heart.

Bill’s motive to protect and free his daughter are his goals, but the means by which he completes them aren’t always honest and true. This is the slippery slope upon which he slides, gaining speed like an avalanche crashing down a mountain. Again, as any parent would do, he drops his own life and moves to France to work on his daughter’s case; something the authorities will not do as it appears to be a hopeless endeavor. Following clues, Bill digs deeper into finding the one person who may be able to prove his daughter’s innocence, but at what cost?

Essentially, this is Bill’s story as we learn more about his background filled with errors in life. Living in a backward poverty-stricken town of Stillwater, his success or lack thereof seems predetermined. Could his fate be changed thanks to the kindness of one woman, Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). As the months drag on for Allison who is under the impression that her lawyers are working steadily on her case, Bill finds a glimmer of happiness in life and his newly formed family. But he can’t escape his mindset or his daughter’s situation which haunts and impacts his every day and decision.

Damon’s reserved yet evocative portrayal of Bill is the key to the film as we watch his character suffer from the onslaught of life itself exacerbated by his widely swinging pendulum of life-altering decisions. There’s a familiarity to how Damon depicts Bill which creates a relatability to him and most importantly, a connection. The disconnect between the characters of Allison and Bill, aptly portrayed, allows us to see a complete background picture of them without having to display it in narrative form. Breslin gives us a well-rounded Allison, filled with flaws as she finds she must quickly grow up in this oppressive and hostile environment. Equally engaging are Cottin and the adorable Siauvaud who both augment Damon’s performance with their natural chemistry. Cottin’s supporting role requires strength, intelligence, and compassion which effortlessly creates Virginie. And Siauvaud steals each and every scene without even trying. Never is she or her scenes over-the-top, but always grounded in reality. She and Damon are an absolute delight together which provides us a hope for their characters’ futures.

While the similarities between the real life Amanda Knox and our fictitious Allison cannot be argued, the film delves into cultural differences as well as American ideals and the realities of escaping pervasive poverty in the States. If you can separate the real story from the film, it is a gripping one filled with great performances, underlying themes depicting life’s struggles, and the lengths a parent will go to in order to help their child, even when the blinders of love are gradually lifted. Unfortunately, even though “Stillwater is its own story in its own right, it played it safe, borrowing too many facts from the Amanda Knox story.

3 Stars

“Jungle Cruise” – A disappointment

July 27th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Jungle Cruise” – A disappointment”

Disney’s newest action adventure film “Jungle Cruise,” starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt is big, bold, and…boring. Perhaps it’s just been too long since I’ve been to Disney World and ridden on the theme park ride upon which this entire film is based. Or perhaps the writers forgot to give us a better story.

The premise is that Frank (Johnson), a river cruise captain of a dilapidated boat who owes money to the slimy head honcho Nilo (Paul Giamatti), must find a way to pay his debt. A seasoned scam artist, he finds Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), both scientists in search of a healing petal form a secret tree located in the unknown and yet unmapped area in the jungle. Setting up a myriad number of scams, Lily is just too smart for this huckster and together they discover more than they set out.

While this sounds like it should be a lot of fun, and perhaps for children who require non-stop action and musical overload to drag you along a predestined emotional path, it is. However, as an adult who loved the likes of “Indiana Jones” and all the iterations of it, I was expecting more. So much more.

“Jungle Cruise” quickly ramps up after Lily and her brother present their hopes of finding a special species of tree to the scientific community of the 1800’s only to be rejected, primarily because the “powers that be” knew the hypothesis was written by a woman…Lily and not MacGregor. Immediately, the action starts and once it begins, it doesn’t stop. This constant tone of excitement desensitizes you to it making subsequent scenes dull and repetitive. And even when the scene doesn’t visually call for high intensity, the accompanying music pushes you into high gear. It’s just too much.

When you hear that “The Rock” is starring in a film, you automatically expect humor. He’s the king of braun and big laughs with incredible comedic timing and expressions, but we only get a glimmer of his signature style. He seems restrained, reined in from the personality we have grown to love and expect. We also have a written connection between Lily and Frank, but unfortunately, it’s only in the script. The two never exhibit any on-screen chemistry and only occasionally do we see either of them truly having fun with their roles.

This vibrant spectacle of a film does visually whisk you away as the characters travel along the river constantly battling dangerous animals and natives as they search for the petals from a tree. Finding themselves in one predicament after another, we learn of supernatural elements and curses from centuries ago that still effect the land and ultimately those who travel too far. Within this, Disney takes unexpected chances and delves into historical genocide, gender discrimination, and gender identification. While the former two topics are more obvious than the latter, it’s an unexpected element within a high-action kids’ movie.

Equally unexpected is the violence. That PG-13 rating is for several reason, violence being one of them as several people are killed, some in horrific ways such as being crushed like a bug beneath a stone structure, and gruesome images of supernatural events. Another unexpected turn of events is a couple of scenes spoken in a different language to which we, the viewer, are never privy—no subtitles, no translation, just confusion.

“Jungle Cruise” misses the mark, particularly as it jumps into the PG-13 rating and at 2 hours and 7 minutes, the 13 and up group needs more than non-stop action. Blunt and Johnson can’t find the right rhythm together and regardless of the intense music, the film sputters and stalls as it lulls you into either a quick nap or your mind wandering elsewhere. Yes, the special effects are Disney calibre, but the script is as lackluster as I remember the ride to be decades ago.

1 1/2 stars

“Old” finds the time to tell a layered tale

July 23rd, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Old” finds the time to tell a layered tale”

I was 5 years-old, looking out the window on a winter’s day when I wished aloud to my mother, “I wish I was older!” She admonished me, warning me that as I got older, the days went by faster. Nothing could be more accurate in describing M. Night Shayamalan’s thrilling drama “Old,” starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Alex Wolff, and Thomasin McKenzie.

The story centers upon the Kappa family comprised of Guy (Bernal), Prisca (Vicky Kreps), and their two young children Maddox (Alexa Swinton) age 11 and Trent (Nolan River), age 6. Guy and Prisca stumble upon a remote island vacation opportunity and upon their arrival to this unknown destination, there’s an air of “Fantasy Island” as they are greeted by the resort manager. The couple, obviously having issues in their relationship, are attempting to give the kids one last vacation before they share “the news.” Struggling with agreeing upon what to do that first day, the family accepts an invitation to visit a secret beach along with select other guests all of whom have their own secrets to share.

Dropping the guests off near a slot canyon and directing them to follow the path to one of the most exquisite beaches imaginable, their nightmare quickly begins as a young woman’s body is found and a man, Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) sits in the background staring into thin air. The group must work together to determine what has happened, all of whom contribute their own background and knowledge base to the situation, but before they can wrap their heads around the situation, more death occurs along with the revelation that the three children are becoming pre-teens and then teens before their very eyes.

The minutes tick by as do the years, 2 years for every 60 minutes, and the group slowly diminishes, but not before we learn about each of the individual’s backgrounds and secrets. To give away more than that would do disservice to Shayamalan’s signature surprise plot twist but there’s so much more to the film than that very important discovery near the end.

The story, based on the graphic novel “Sandcastle” by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters, delves into the difficulties of the aging process as well as the regrets we all have. A poignant moment among many is when therapist Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) longs to see her sister with whom she had a falling out and realizing the ridiculousness of the disagreement as the precious gift of time slips through her fingers.

The youngsters go through a seemingly instant metamorphosis as Shayamalan shields us from the transition much the way a magician surprises you visually. Wolff and McKenzie are now Maddox and Trent as teens along with Kara (Eliza Scanlen) the daughter of cardio-thoracic surgeon Charles (Rufus Sewell) and his wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee). The teens’ psyches create subplots and stories within the larger picture making “Old” a psychologically thrilling mystery that holds your attention as your mind races ahead, searching for a possible conclusion…and you’ll never guess it.

Shayamalan’s screenplay gives each of the unique characters their own story to tell, all at different stages of life and backgrounds which allows them to contribute differently and connect to the viewer. The pace of the film accelerates as quickly as time on this island which becomes a race, but when do you succumb to the inevitable? The multiple layers of psychological and ethical as well as moralistic questions are numerous making this a film to discuss long after the credits roll.

Shayamalan’s story telling technique is the star in this film. He masterfully uses perspective and long camera takes which brings us into the group and the situation. Additionally, Shayamalan’s deliberate partial reveals give us small pieces of the puzzle, just enough to entice us to stick with it like a carrot being dangled and promising to make it worth our while…and it does. All of this along with a few stellar special effects provide plenty of gasp-worthy and jaw-dropping moments giving us that roller coaster feel we crave in a film.

While the story is the main event, the actors must rise to the occasion and while initially, the interactions between Guy and Prisca feel contrived and stilted, this is quickly corrected as the heart of the story becomes evident. It’s a difficult task particularly for the “children’s” parts, but Wolff and McKenzie retain their child-like innocence while acknowledging their fast-forward chronological age. These well-balanced performances are the foundation of the film, supporting the riveting difficulties of their older cast members’ changing lives.

Shayamalan’s “Old” provides us an opportunity to see how precious life and all of its experiences are as it asks several poignant questions with which we can all relate. With creative storytelling techniques, “Old” is a summer film you won’t want to miss.

3 Stars

“Joe Bell” cuts deep into father’s journey to understand his son and himself

July 23rd, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Joe Bell” cuts deep into father’s journey to understand his son and himself”

“Joe Bell” isn’t pretty. It isn’t sweet and sappy. And it doesn’t have a happy ending. But what it has is heart and soul with an important message for all who are willing to hear it making it a must-see movie. Starring Mark Wahlberg as Joe Bell, a father who is making a trek from his small town of La Grande, OR to NYC on foot, and based on a true story, the film captures one man’s literal and figurative journey to recognize the part he played in the death of his son.

Bell’s son Jadin committed suicide after years of verbal, mental, and physical abuse in all forms at his school. Reaching out for help and not receiving it, Jadin felt that even he couldn’t accept himself because he was different…he was gay. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal that writers Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty convey eloquently using flashbacks in both Bell and Jayden’s life. We get a glimpse into what Jayden experienced, from physical assaults at school, a dismissive educational administration, to the even more devastating neglect and non-verbal messages from Bell himself. This allows us to experience through Jadin’s eyes how bullying can feel like an emotional onslaught with no escape. We are also privy to the raw and honest look back at the part that Bell played in Jadin’s sense of self worth.

The entire Bell family must not only cope with Jadin’s death, but also Joe’s behavior before and after the event. He’s a flawed man–a real man–and Wahlberg’s portrayal of him isn’t a glossy form of the character, but a gritty one. We all know a Joe Bell. We may even live next door to one or even with one. It’s this level of realism that gives the story more credibility as it delves into Bell’s marriage to Lola (Connie Britton), his relationship with son Joseph (Maxwell Jenkins) and the emotional armor he has built brick by brick. The very foundation of this shield must come down and we gradually see it happen, changing Bell from the inside out.

Of course, with these flashbacks we get to see the struggles Jaden experiences and Reid Miller’s fine-tuned performance allows us to walk in his shoes. From the outside looking in, the mere concept of bullying is unfathomable, but there’s not one person out there that hasn’t been a part of this on one side of the fence or the other. Miller’s “Jadin” is as equally a credible character as Wahlberg’s Bell. And together, in spirit embodied, we watch their understanding of one another grow. Yes, it’s too late in many ways, but for Bell, perhaps change and growth can happen.

While the message is clear, the story is more about the transformation of Bell which, in turn, makes us, the viewer, look into our own actions and behaviors. This is the key to the story. Looking at our own actions and reactions and perhaps changing toward a more positive and supportive one is the more important message because our children learn from us. With powerful performances, particularly Wahlberg and Miller, this story lingers with you long after the credits roll.

3 Stars

“Black Widow” A Disappointment in the Marvel Universe

July 7th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Black Widow” A Disappointment in the Marvel Universe”

How many origin stories can there be in the Marvel Universe? The number seems to go beyond infinity as is demonstrated in the latest story, “Black Widow” starring Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, the infamous traumatized Avenger who sacrificed herself for the greater good at the end of “Avengers: End Game.” The true stars, however, are Florence Pugh and David Harbour as Natasha’s little sister and father, respectively. THIS is the story we wanted, but unfortunately, we didn’t get enough of it.

We meet the young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and her family who are living in Ohio. She and her little sister, Yelena (Violet McGraw) want nothing more than to live a regular life in a regular town amidst regular people, but Mom (Rachel Weisz) and Dad (Harbour) have different plans. A crisis emerges and the two girls are taken by Russian mobsters where they are the subjects of training, manipulation, and experimentation in the Red Room. We never see any of this, thankfully, but we do hear their sordid tales of forced sterilization and other tragedies while they are growing up. Of course, this is a direct correlation to the difficult lives both of these women lead and provides the motivation for the entire film.

Now adults, Natasha finds herself duking it out with Yelena until they each recognize one another. Both women seek revenge and go on a mission to take down the head of the Red Room lead by Dreykov (Winstone) who also imprisoned their father, the only person who can lead them to the torturous locale. This prison rescue scene, one with total disdain for the man they call Dad, is the most exciting action scene with incredible CGI. While there is plenty more action aka non-stop fight scenes, there isn’t too much that is memorable. What is memorable is the family quipping and clever banter, especially when Mom comes back into their lives. Mom, by the way, is raising experimental pigs which in itself becomes a story. Family dinners never looked crazier; interactions that could have and should have been a focal point of the film because this loose and undeveloped “back story” is as threadbare as an entry room rug.

With a lax storyline and little character development, you have to rely on the actors to carry a very heavy load. Johannson is overshadowed by Pugh who gives us a natural and relaxed performance. Pugh does as much as possible with the written dialogue, but Johannson’s stiff and uneasy performance creates an opportunity for Pugh to steal each and every scene…and she does. (If you haven’t seen “Macbeth,” “Midsommar” or “Fighting With My Family,” you’ll want to check out Pugh in these roles.) Harbour, who, as the film plays on, allows himself to nestle into his comedic role, giving us the impression that he’s initially testing the waters and when he doesn’t get reined in, he lets loose a little bit more. Pugh and Harbour are a delight in the midst of a film that is nothing more than ordinary in yet another typical super hero film.

Cate Shortland directs this lackluster film co-written by Jac Schaeffer who gave us the quirky film “Timer” from 2009 and the recent hit “WandaVision,” but Shortland can’t pull a rabbit out of her hat with this Avenger prequel. No amount of production design or CGI can make up for a dull and monotonous romp through the Marvel Universe. And while there are underlying themes of issues with which females uniquely deal, the thrust of the story is the typical fare much like you’d find at a truck stop buffet—we’ve seen it all before, it’s stale, and it’s been sitting around for much too long. If this origin story for all the Avengers characters continues, it’s time to punch it up a notch and take some chances, something “Black Widow” seemed too timid to do.

If you’ve sat through the previous 23 Avenger films, there’s no doubt you’ll go see this one. If you’re not a fan, stay home and check out “No Sudden Move” on HBOMax by Steven Soderbergh. This complicated period piece inspired by the car industry cover up is well worth your time with an all-star cast.

1 1/2 stars

“Long Story Short” – A Timely Tale

June 29th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Long Story Short” – A Timely Tale”

Time. It’s truly the most precious commodity. No amount of money can buy it and once it’s gone, it’s gone. The new romantic comedy, “Long Story Short,” starring Rafe Spall screams that message from the mountain tops in one of the most familiar yet innovative ways possible. Think of this story as “It’s a Wonderful Life” meets “Groundhog Day” and “A Christmas Carol” with plenty of room for its own unique flare to become a romantic comedy.

The movie begins as Teddy (Spall) inadvertently kisses the wrong woman on New Year’s Eve—a “When Harry Met Sally” moment—and as luck would have it, he and this woman, Leanne (Zahra Newman) begin their journey together…eventually. It seems that Teddy the Procrastinator lives by the motto of “later.” Never embracing the moment, or even taking any chances in life, an unexpected encounter with a stranger (Noni Hazlehurst) at his father’s gravesite pushes Teddy into the future as she presents him with a gift – or is it a curse – that will begin on his wedding day and every anniversary thereafter.

The strange events begin to unfurl the night of Teddy and Leanne’s wedding and he notices an odd gift of a tin can that reads on the tag, “Open on your 10th Anniversary.” Tossing it aside, he hops into bed with his new bride only to wake up one year later. However, he doesn’t realize a year has flown by as he overtly demonstrates by his odd response to his suddenly pregnant wife. Trying to piece the puzzle of his life together certainly makes us laugh with compassion. As quickly as a year went by, Teddy then finds himself on his second, third, and fourth anniversary, desperately attempting to steady the moving time quickly flowing beneath his feet. Finally grasping what has happened and watching his wife steadily push him away over the course of “years,” he sees himself and the path he has paved as a very unpleasant one. His question quickly becomes how to get off of this time warp merry-go-round.

Writer/Director Josh Lawson adeptly tells this story of regret and learning to cherish every precious moment we have on this planet with sincerity and humor. Spall’s low-key, earnest style creates a lovable and believable character as Teddy’s life spirals out of control. His signature off-the-cuff almost parenthetical speech style lures you in as you hang on his every word; not wanting to miss a chance to chuckle or laugh aloud. Lawson also finds just the right dialogue to propel what might be defined as a typical marital trajectory; highlighting the ups, downs, and complexities of love, marriage, and parenting.

Newman is pure grace on screen as Teddy’s wife. She portrays Leanne as a woman completely enamored with her hubby, but understands that life is a roller coaster ride. She’s the realist in the relationship and Newman’s authenticity connects us with her character’s trials and tribulations and responses to Teddy’s bizarre behavior.

“Long Story Short” may borrow a lot of concepts from other films, but the “long and short” of it is that it’s just plain fun with a punch of a lesson, a lesson we all need to be reminded of from– please pardon the pun–time to time.

3 Stars

“F9: The Fast Saga” should have slammed on the brakes before making another sequel

June 23rd, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““F9: The Fast Saga” should have slammed on the brakes before making another sequel”

“F9: The Fast Saga” which we will just call “F9” for the sake of time as this two hour and 25 minute film has already stolen enough of my time.  The story, if you can call it that, continues to follow the globetrotting characters of the “Fast and Furious” crew as they find themselves sucked into another “mission” by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell).  
If you’ve seen one “Fast and Furious” film, you’ve seen them all; at least the ones which don’t have the supercharger persona of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in them.  His absence has powered down all of the subsequent films leaving the saga idling in neutral.  (Yes, the car analogies will continue throughout this review.)

While there are eight previous films and even an off-shoot (“Hobbs & Shaw), there’s no need to see them all before you find that there is absolutely nothing else to do and the only option is going to see “F9.” The skeletal backstory is this: Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), chiseled and always wearing a white v-neck t-shirt, ironed and spotless with myriad close ups of his biceps and triceps, is the father of the adorable Brian (Isaac and Immanuel Holtane). The mother was killed by the notorious Cipher (Charlize Theron) in a previous “Fast & Furious” film, and Letty, who miraculously hasn’t died after all, is living with Dominic off the grid to raise this child together. It’s a peaceful existence, but all of that is immediately upended as Tej (Ludacris), Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) careen onto the property to alert the couple to a secret mission needed to stop Cipher from controlling the world.

Sound familiar? It should. There is absolutely nothing new or creative in this even as writers Justin Lin and Daniel Casey attempt to give us a back story of Dominic and Jakob (John Cena) who are ripped apart by their father’s intentional car racing death when they were just teens. Using flashbacks, we watch young Dominic (Vinnie Bennett) and young Jakob (Finn Cole) experience that devastating day and the subsequent moments which lead the once tightly-knit siblings to loathe one another.

If you’re a fan of this franchise, you’ll see the return of characters who, as Roman vehemently discusses the seemingly immortal characteristics of their group, never die or even gets a scratch on them during militaristic combat events. Roman and Tej are the highlights of this movie and I found myself rousing from near sleep when they were on the screen. Thankfully, they provide the comic relief and do the most possible with the bare bones dialogue they are given, but we need more. Director and co-writer Lin and Casey also drop the ball with this comedic pair’s narrative about immortality. It was the only narrative thread that held me in my seat.

This sequel, not surprisingly, becomes nothing more than never-ending fight scenes and car chases that, while they are cool to watch, the CGI takes away its impressiveness. However, what remains impressive are the locations of filming much of which is in Tbilisi, Georgia and Thailand. Additionally, there is a cameo from Helen Mirren (Queenie) who drives a hot car, stick shift, in one of the most incredulous chase scenes you’ve ever witnessed. But she’s having fun and so is the audience because of her. Theron who has a lackluster character also makes the most of it and she, too, brings some energy to Cipher who inexplicably is in a glass box for much of the film.

There are plenty of inexplicable and even low-tech aspects in this film making it more of a film to watch at home with friends so you can talk and laugh about the ridiculousness of it. “F9” is a comedy but it just doesn’t know it.

With the superficial and dull script comes with it equally dull and cardboard performances from our main characters. Diesel has one gear, performing much like my daughter’s beach bike in the mountains. He’s mad. He purses his lips and has no inflection or body language. He’s just mad. Rodriguez mirrors Diesel’s performance and Cena fits right into this mold. This is the perfect recipe for a lullaby and it works as I found myself dozing off a couple of times.

Sometimes it’s best just to slam the brakes on a concept and know when you’ve already crossed the finish line. “Fast” is finished.

1 Star

“12 Mighty Orphans” finds the true meaning of family

June 17th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““12 Mighty Orphans” finds the true meaning of family”

Who needs another football underdog story? We do. We all do. Based on the book by Jim Dent and Lane Garrison, and the true events of the Mighty Mites, Ty Roberts, co-writer and director of the film, brings us a heartfelt story of what it means to be a family and support one another no matter the adversity.

Taking place back in 1938, Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) arrives in a barren and impoverished area near Fort Worth, Texas with his wife and daughter begrudgingly in tow. Always looking on the bright side, they spy the massive institution of the Masonic Home for Orphans that will be their new residence. Meeting Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight), the director of the facility, and the gregarious resident doctor, Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), it’s evident there’s trouble ahead.

Russell, summoned to the orphanage by Doc, will not only teach Math and Science, but will also be the coach of a currently non-existent football team. The family’s quarters, rat-infested and dilapidated, is a far cry from their former abode in Pennsylvania, but Russell’s commitment and immediate devotion cannot be swayed even in the midst of putting together a completely inexperienced, oftentimes non-compliant, and raw team. Wynn, an abusive authoritarian with ulterior motives of running this home, is despicable with his tentacles of avarice reaching far and wide, especially as he attempts to thwart the success of Russell and the boys.

Russell has his own history and demons to deal with as he endeavors to connect with and help these forgotten “second class citizens.” He’s a veteran of WWI and suffers from PTSD as we experience flashbacks in his life, witnessing the additional atrocities that, in many ways, help him reach these rejected children. Together, with time, love, and a common goal, the boys become a family with both Doc and Russell as surrogate fathers, even as the odds are stacked against them.

Sony’s “12 Mighty Orphans” begins with what feels like a stereotypical Disney touch. Narrated by Sheen, it’s an ode to story telling of years gone by, but this also helps to accentuate the era of the story. Initially, Russell seems too good to be true; he’s kind, compassionate, and understanding to an exponential degree. Additionally, Wynn is a caricature of an evil-doer who you can almost see snickering as he commits his dastardly deed. Thankfully, these over-the-top representations and performances quickly dampen and a more realistic and heartfelt story finds its way to the forefront.

The story takes us through the football season of 1938; shoeless, lacking equipment, and getting pummeled in their first game. Always taking the high road and finding a way to work with what he’s got, Russell, credited for creating the first “spread” formation in football, thinks outside the box to help the boys capture something they’ve long forgotten: hope. Win after win, they become a formidable team, but there’s always someone looking to take them down. It’s a classic story, but it’s one in which we are completely invested as we sit on the edge of our seats for the finale.

With any “Cinderella story,” we know the arc of it. There are trials and tribulations, but in the end good triumphs over evil. And while this story may be no different, the obstacles they face certainly are. Co-writers Dent and Kevin Meyer also take the time and care to give each of the characters a story and backstory with unique personalities. Attention to these details connects us, the viewer, to the every element of the film. The end result and ending are not what you expect making it a more dramatically powerful story.

Wilson’s understated performance gives the character of Russell a deeper and more complex persona. It’s a delicate balance, but Wilson seems to be directly connected to his role. Sheen also finds the right path as he, too, could have gone too far in one direction or another to give Doc Hall a more comedic and less credible performance, but he doesn’t. We are endeared to him and root for him to overcome his tragedies as well.

This is the story of the boys, the orphans, and each of them, perfectly cast to represent the real youngsters, allows us to truly know them. Jake Austin Walker (Hardy Brown) takes the lead in this group, the most overtly troubled character in the bunch, and elicits incredible empathy as we watch him wrestle with his inner demons. Jacob Lofland (Snoggs), Slade Monroe (Wheatie), Sampley Barinaga (Chicken) and Woodrow Luttrell (Leon Pickett) are all standout characters in this group of connected misfits.

“12 Mighty Orphans” is a familiar story with its own unique elements reminding us of the definition of family in its truest form. The film has plenty of lessons, ones which can never be repeated too often, and all of which will leave you feeling satisfied and buoyed with hope. While the film has a rocky start, the road smoothes out quickly to give us an entertaining and enjoyable story. Be sure to stick around for the credits to meet the real “kids” and find out what became of them.

3 stars

“Trying” gets it right effortlessly

June 16th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Trying” gets it right effortlessly”

“Trying,” the AppleTV+ series now in its second season, strikes an unlikely harmonic chord as it tackles the topic of infertility with humor and heart. Jason (Rafe Spall) and Nikki (Esther Smith) are a young couple who have been trying to conceive, but doing so in the traditional or even unconventional way, just isn’t in the cards. Considering the adoption option, the couple apply, but the hoops they must jump through make it an ever-changing obstacle course paving the way for comedy and drama in perfect balance.

Nikki and Jason, in many ways, are a regular young couple. Neither of them has their act completely together and both of them constantly compare themselves to others as they attempt to find their own path…together. Over the course of two seasons, we get to know them individually and as a couple. Their family and friends, all very unique, influence who they are and how they trudge forward in creating a family by way of adoption.

The story finds credibility and reality as both Nikki and Jason try to become the model prospective parents. This craziness is accentuated when the social worker, Penny (Imelda Staunton), a standout in the series, comes on the scene. Testing the waters of parenthood, a memorable episode depicts Nikki and Jason babysitting a friends’ youngster for the weekend. They quickly realize parenting isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. This is just one of the myriad number of wonderful episodes that, no matter whether you’re a parent or not, you’ll chuckle and connect with this less-than-perfect perfect couple. And by the end of Season 2, we are so fully invested in this couple and their possible success that we can’t wait for Season 3.

“Trying” delicately yet authentically creates what millions of couples in both the US and in the UK experience. It’s traumatic, yet with “Trying,” the comedy lifts this difficult topic by identifying all the realities of what it means to be a parent. Creator Andy Wolton walks that fine line like a tightrope walker, confidently honing in on the dramatic while finding humor in the everyday realities, never losing his balance or his pace.

Spall and Smith shine together, a natural chemisty emitted no matter the situation. Their interactions and dialogue make you believe they’ve truly been together for years with the never-stilted conversations, natural body language, and comfort between them. With smart, succinct, and creative writing, and comedy used in just the right proportions, Spall and Smith deliver a one of a kind show.

You can stream Seasons 1 and 2 on AppleTV+ now.

3 1/2 Stars

“In the Heights” an energetically bold and vibrant universal story

June 12th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““In the Heights” an energetically bold and vibrant universal story”

“In the Heights” has everyone humming already and with good reason! It’s bold, vibrant, and intoxicating as it sings its universal song. Of course, that’s no surprise with King Midas aka Lin-Manuel Miranda in one of the driver’s seats of this film. Originally written for the stage and based on the book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, Miranda’s vision for the stage version transfers seamlessly over to the silver screen without skipping a beat. And Jon M. Chu who gave us “Crazy Rich Asians,” brings his unique signature flare to boost the story’s decibel level to reach everyone, no matter their heritage or background.

We meet Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) —an interesting name which is charmingly explained later in the film— with the beach in the background as he tells a group of youngsters his life story back in his old neighborhood of Washington Heights, in New York City. Magically, we are transported back in time to Usnavi’s old stomping grounds and his bodega where he pines for the spunky and driven young Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). While Usnavi has dreams of going back to his homeland of the Dominican Republic, Vanessa has her dreams as well—to become a fashion designer. With money as both of their economic barriers, the two push forward in their lives to make their dreams come true.

While Usnavi and Vanessa are our lead characters, almost equally in story and screen time, we meet Nina (Leslie Grace) who, thanks to her father’s (Jimmy Smits) dedication to helping his daughter reach the educational heights he never was able to, she returns home, perhaps permenantly. Benny (Corey Hawkins), is secretly and madly in love with Nina, but their goals may just be too far apart to bring them together. With the matriarch of the family, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) offering sage wisdom and sharing memories, the story unfolds in beautifully synchronized song, dance, and visual aesthetics.

“In the Heights” feels like a touch of every great musical to date, particularly “Hamilton” with the stylized rap songs and beats of the dialogue and edits. Where this film differs, in a positive way, is the grandiose staging of all its musical numbers. The songs capture the moment, but the choreography is visually breathtaking. From taking over city blocks, synchronizing to perfection every step, to a swimming pool scene that may go down in history as one of the best dance scenes, these are the captivating stitches that weave this majestic tapestry together.

It’s not all song and dance, though. The story hits all the right notes as well. Usnavi’s story, while it takes place in a specific neighborhood with his father, an immigrant who brought him to the city to provide more opportunities, it’s a common one that resonates with many. Ramos’s portrayal of this young man is an engaging one as he pulls us emotionally into his life. His charm and innocence of youth with his hopes and dreams brings us all back to a point in life where we looked ahead, striving for more. That is the common theme with all of the young characters—they want to escape their current environment, but need that firm foundation to support them. Vanessa punctuates this lesson as she attempts to gain an education and fit in with those who have had more privilege. And Nina, pushing her father away, finds that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side as she feels out of place away at college. To its slight detriment, we really have two main stories which compete with one another for time, but eventually meld together.

In many ways, “In the Heights” is a coming of age movie told with the perspective of hindsight. The multiple viewpoints, from a grandmother or father to youngsters listening to Usnavi’s tall tale, give it incredible depth. And within this complete circle, we peel away the layers as it eloquently addresses the injustices of wealth and poverty, opportunity and oppression, and racism. It’s a finely tuned and balanced work of art, that expresses a socially relevant story, but also one that is universally understood.

Within this complex story, these actors effortlessly sing and dance. Ramos’s athleticism is captivating as he leaps, bounds, flips, and spins to the music. Barrera and Grace are equally beautiful as they powerfully step to that complicated beat. While the singing and dancing are an integral part of the film, the acting must reach that same high bar. Ramos is exceptional which is no surprise, and the supporting cast does not disappoint. Hawkins is also a standout with his performance as the sweet young man whose expressive eyes give you a glimpse into his heart, one which beats solely for Nina. And Merediz, who played her character of Abuela Claudia on stage, winning a Tony for the role, is sheer perfection. She knows who her character is on the inside and out and allows the viewer to know her as well. Merediz is key to the story and to the film and she flawlessly fulfills her role.

“In The Heights” is a gigantic undertaking and while there are two separate storylines pulling you away from the other —Nina and Benny, and Usnavi and Vanessa—they eventually merge together at the end. Under Chu’s direction, “In The Heights” satisfies all the senses making it a film you’ll want to see time and time again.

3 1/2 Stars

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” A classically chilling horror film

June 3rd, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” A classically chilling horror film”

Based on a true story in 1981, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” portrays a young man, Arne Johnson, who pleaded not guilty to murder by reason of demonic possession. Truth, once again, proves to be crazier than fiction in this chilling, sometimes comedic, and always gripping horror story.

The “Conjuring” series depicts the numerous accounts of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), specialists in exorcisms, as they collect the evil paraphernalia from their encounters, all housed in a locked room in their basement. “Annabelle” is one such special item that “The Devil Made Me Do It” harkens back to, eliciting knowing chuckles as well as chilling memories.

Ed and Lorraine find themselves in a particularly sticky situation in this current rendition as a young boy, David (Julian Hilliard) is possessed by an unusual demon—yes, there are run of the mill types and this isn’t one of them. Sweet and protective Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), David’s sister’s boyfriend, saves the boy by inviting this evil spirit to take him instead of David. Of course, this wasn’t the best idea as Arne finds himself behind bars for subsequently killing a local man.

Ed and Lorraine must find out this demon’s reasons for the possessions in order to help Arne who now sits behind bars. Their detective and intuitive skills lead them to prior murders, a retired priest, and a cult of Satanists who, again, aren’t your typical devil worshippers. Pulled deeper and deeper into this world, Ed and Lorraine fight not just for Arne but for themselves and one another.

First, let me say that there’s nothing like watching either a comedy or a horror film in a movie theater with others…it makes everything more intense. Seeing “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” with an audience on a huge screen created the creepy ambiance with jump-scares that make you laugh at yourself. The film itself uses all the typical horror film tropes such as low lighting, flickering lights, walking into cobweb-lined cellars and more, but all of these gimmicks are a part of the genre. In using these techniques, “The Devil Made Me Do It” doesn’t take itself too seriously, either, as it makes fun of situations. A standout moment is during an exorcism in prison, the priest attributes the flickering lights to an old building, run by the state. These types of comedic moments, sprinkled sparingly throughout the film gives the viewer a break from the intensity, providing the needed uphill climb on this roller coaster of a film.

The story takes a few twists and turns, explaining the occult’s rationale and how particular demons work. While we know how this is going to turn out, the story sucks you in, and you are invested in the mystery, working with them to solve it. The writers spoon feed you the clues and give you the keys to unlock the puzzle, just a little bit at a time and that hooks you.

Farmiga and Wilson take their roles seriously as they hone in on the actual Warrens—their looks, styles, and personality attributes. While this appears to be over-the-top at times, it’s also a part of the fun. We’ve come to expect these actors to be a certain way in each of these horror films, welcoming their interpretation of their characters. We get to know them better and they, in turn, do the same. O’Connor is a standout of the film as the sweet young man who sacrifices his freedom, spiritually and physically, to help young David. In an instant, O’Connor can switch gears to become a murderous man who is hell-bent on wreaking havoc, and then back again to his innocent persona.

Of course, make up, props, and special effects go a long way with horror films and this is no exception to that rule. The contortion special effects of the possessed characters is jaw-droppingly mesmerizing! And creating gruesome characters, even dead ones, is showcased in “The Devil Made Me Do It,” all compounded by a musical score that are sure to send shivers up and down your spine. But the most disturbingly scary part of the entire movie is the end credits. If you don’t want to have nightmares, leave before those roll!

3 Stars

“The Killing of Two Lovers”

May 13th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““The Killing of Two Lovers””

There’s a chill in the air with a hushed silence; tragedy seemingly about to occur as David (Clayne Crawford) hovers over a peaceful couple in bed sleeping.  Distraught isn’t a strong enough word to describe this disheveled young man on the verge of murder.  A noise in the background helps him switch gears and he leaves, gun in hand, walking along the cold, desolate street in a very small town in Utah to his father’s home where he attempts to interact as usual.  

We learn that David and his wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) are separated with an agreement to see others if they wish.  Much more difficult for David than Nikki, he knows he’s not only losing his wife, but his home and most importantly his four children, three of whom aren’t quite old enough to grasp the gravity of their parents’ situation.  Jess (Avery Pizzuto), a teenager, however, is keenly aware of everything happening as she places blame on each parent differently.  While acting as a typical teen, there’s an element of wisdom as she commands her father to fight for his family.  It is at this moment that we understand David more completely.

The series of events takes place over a very short period of time, in true cinéma vérité style, we are but a mere observer, following David in his every interaction.  Seeing this unfold from his perspective creates sympathy for David as he flounders in life.   And living in a small town where everyone knows everything about everyone, we feel the pressures of his world.  

From a cinematic perspective, writer and director Robert Machoian plunges us into the story, this family, and David’s emotional turmoil.  Machoian also creates a small cast of characters who explode with authenticity.  Crawford’s complex portrayal of David is gut wrenching as we watch him try to win back his family.  He gives David just the right touch of confusion, hurt, anger, and tenderness to develop a man we all know.  As it is seen through David’s eyes, the remainder of the cast is supportive, but these actors all give such realistic performances that it elevates the story at every level.  

Machoian’s eye for capturing this tragic love story is brilliant as it’s never invasive nor too dramatic–it’s realistic.  One scene in particular will remain with me as David packs four kids into the cab of his pick up truck on a cold winter day and discusses the kids’ day at school.  A very routine and mundane topic we’ve all had, but I was overwhelmed by emotion as this family, on the verge of being ripped apart, interacts lovingly yet realistically.  Crawford’s twinkle in his eyes, the loving smiles and laughter from them all, as they talked to and over one another, warmed my heart.  It was an actual conversation from this family that made me, as a viewer, want Nikki and David to repair their relationship and keep this family together.  I was completely invested in these characters and this story.

This type of story could easily forget the need for a narrative arc, but Machoian is a master at surprising us with the pivotal interactions that lead David down one decisive path.  “The Killing of Two Lovers” is sheer artistry in storytelling, acting, and directing although a somewhat ambiguous ending may leave some viewers needing more.  

Find out where to see “The Killing of Two Lovers” here: HERE

3 1/2 Stars

“Profile” A realistic and harrowing journey

May 12th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““Profile” A realistic and harrowing journey”

You’ve been wary and warned of the evils of the internet since its inception, but never has the reality of it been so vividly illustrated than with “Profile.” Inspired by the true story of Anna Érelle, a pseudonym for a former French journalist who wrote “In the Skin of a Jahadist,” “Profile” depicts Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane), a struggling British journalist who pitches a story idea to her editor Vick (Christine Adams) to go undercover and be recruited by a leader of Isis who reportedly dupes young female Muslim converts to join their cause, come to Syria, and become a “war bride.”

This concept in and of itself is a harrowingly intriguing one, but director Timur Bekmambetov brings it one step closer to reality—it all takes place on a computer screen. While it’s been done before (“Searching” 2016 and “Unfriended” 2018), never have we felt as if it was happening in real time on our own computer. We meet Amy, scattered and frantic, as she FaceTimes Vick, opens emails letting us know that she’s struggling to make her rent, chats with friends, posts on Facebook, and “tours” a new place to live with her fiancé Matt (Morgan Watkins). In our virtual world, particularly since Covid, living on the computer and juggling twenty things at once, is our new reality. Amy’s reality is a frenetic world which spirals out of control after receiving the green light on the story. And here we meet her in her alternate universe as Melody Nelson.

Within mere moments, Melody’s Facebook sharing of a violent act from Isis leader and head recruiter Abu Bilel Al-Britani aka Bilel (Shazad Latif) leads to a message from him. Elated and nervous about her quick results, she video chats with her editor, updating her on the success. Understanding the possible gravity of her situation, she is coached by the outlet’s Muslim IT coordinator as the face-to-face courtship between Bilel and Melody begins.

The dangers of Amy’s assignment are at the forefront of the story, but it is her carelessness or even recklessness that creates high anxiety throughout the film. Deeper and deeper Amy slides into Bilel’s recruitment process. Amy continues the ruse of being Melody, but with her chaotic life, represented by the constant messages, alerts, and pop up windows, the inevitable mistake will occur. While we know it will happen, we don’t know how and we also never predict the emotional effects the cat-loving, murderous marauder will have on Melody/Amy.

Watching the film on the big screen gives you a better understanding of every moment as you multitask reading messages, watching screens pop up and disappear, and being taken in by the smooth-talking Bilel. However, as I watched this on my big-screen computer monitor, it felt even more real, tempted in the beginning to restart my computer as I thought somehow my link messed up and Facebook appeared. This real feel continued throughout the film, expertly pulling me into Amy’s world as my heart raced and my blood pressure skyrocketed.

Bekmambetov expertly develops this alternate world as he carefully takes us on Amy’s journey, in hindsight, as days are just files being opened to view. Screen-recorded interactions are her diary which lead up to the climactic finale. It’s a recorded recreation of events to which we have seemingly been experiencing in real time.

The ensemble cast of characters give us this authentic portrayal of the events and while this is not a documentary—it’s only inspired by a true story—the possibility of it occurring much in the way it is presented is not beyond the realm of possibility. Kane portrays Amy as a typical young woman; overwhelmed by the cost of living, life itself, and attempting to make a living as a journalist. She deftly develops a complex character whose cognitive and emotional intellect slowly meld together, inversely, to place her in harm’s way. We watch helplessly as Kane’s Amy is wooed by a soulless killer.

Latif is extraordinary as this young follower of Isis and leader of his soldiers. His casual bragging about killing is at once repulsive, but Latif gives us a reason to understand Amy’s attraction to him. The brainwashing and targeting of young women becomes much clearer thanks to his performance as Bilel.

Bekmambetov’s keen eye and creative lens in developing the film is impressive. Directing his cast, the lead who must complete her entire role in front of a computer screen, is a logistical nightmare, but he effortlessly pulls it off. We are sucked into this world for 115 harrowing minutes, not daring to look away as we might miss a key and fleeting piece of information. Acknowledging the fact that this is fiction, but understanding that it is based upon a woman’s experiences, one who is currently protected by “round-the-clock police protection and has changed her name,” punctuates the importance and dangers of true journalism.

3 1/2 Stars

“What Lies West”

May 11th, 2021 Posted by Review 0 thoughts on ““What Lies West””

Nothing denotes the Wild West more than the thought of navigating the time between high school and graduating college. Discovering yourself during this time period is as overwhelming as mapping the Colorado River in the 1870’s—it’s turbulent, confusing, and dangerous.

Writer and director Jessica Ellis takes us along a comedic journey with Nicolette Kaye Ellis as Nicolette, a new college grad who’s been used and dumped by a boyfriend and finds herself living at home for the summer with no job and no prospects. Nicolette, reminded continuously as to how difficult it is to return home after college, finds herself accepting a position to “babysit” Chloe (Chloe Moore), the daughter of a frenzied, neurotic mother. In this unusual set of circumstances, both girls find in one another the strength and knowledge the other needs to move forward in life, both literally and figuratively.

Nicolette’s introduction to the obstinate teenaged recluse named Chloe reminds us of the chasm that separates one age group from the other. Chloe, protected from the visible and the invisible dangers lurking around every corner, feels smothered. Longing for independence, rebelling against her mother isn’t quite right. Chloe loves her mom and is compassionate about her insecurities and difficulties as of late, particularly her divorce. But a girl can only take so much and this precociously manipulative and sharp-tongued girl sees the world from a clearer vantage point. It’s one that will help illuminate the path ahead for both she and Nicolette.

The pair let down their guard with one another, eventually and unequally, allowing Chloe to share with Nicolette her ultimate goal: to venture out of the house and hike to the ocean from her home in Santa Rosa. Little did Nicolette know that Chloe was training them both as they took walks, longer and longer each day, in the woods near their home. When Chloe shares with Nicolette her elaborately detailed plan, they both find that this could only do them both some good…or does it?

On the surface, “What Lies West” is a lighthearted romp through summer, taking a hike, and surviving till fall. However, pulling back the many layers, we see the difficulties of a typical life of a young girl who is bullied and another who doesn’t fit the mold of what she so desperately wants to become—an actress. The image in the mirror isn’t what she wants and trying to put a square peg in a round hole is senseless. Chloe’s wisdom helps push Nicolette outside the confines of her own box and see her value as she builds her confidence. Of course, Nicolette’s years of experiences, gives Chloe a sense of a light at the end of the tunnel. Things will get better with time. Their friendship, an unlikely one, beautifully develops amidst the upbeat tone and cheerful banter as they both change and grow. And the lessons they each learn are ones young women and girls can never hear enough.

Our two main characters, Nicolette and Chloe, are perfectly cast. Nicolette Ellis portrays Nicolette as an effervescent young woman who hides beneath her chipper exterior and Moore shares with us a brooding teen, starving to explore the world. In many ways, these polar opposite characters are more similar than different and the actresses balance one another with absolute precision. Nicolette Ellis’ strength in this character makes the viewer feel that perhaps these are familiar issues with which she copes, making it a natural performance. Moore, equally believable, gives us an incredibly powerful and authentic performance. Her delivery of writer Ellis’ dialogue is sharp, succinct, and smart. I am confident that this isn’t the last time we see this young woman’s name in the acting credits of a film.

“What Lies West” is a heartfelt exploration of friendships and their importance as two young women look ahead in life, leaning on one another to grow and learn. Director Ellis captures the beauty of life at these stages in all its awkward glory as the butterfly emerges.

3 Stars

To see “What Lies West,” go to WHAT LIES WEST



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