Film Review: Justice League

Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot and Ezra Miller
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 2 hr 1 min
Warner Brothers

Until this season, when the NFL allowed players to celebrate after touchdowns, many referred to the game as the No Fun League. That is also how many fans referred to the DC Comic film universe. Christopher Nolan’s ultra-dark Batman trilogy, not to mention Zack Snyder’s brooding “Man of Steel” and “Batman vs Superman” gave fans their favorite characters, usually having a bad day. While they were entertaining, they missed the one thing that has made the Marvel films so appreciated: humor. Earlier this year we got a brief breath of fresh air when Wonder Woman arrived in her own film. Things continue to look upward with the arrival of “Justice League.”

The film opens with a phone image of Superman (Henry Cavil), happily agreeing to answer some children’s questions. They bombard him with queries, which he smiles at. He is then asked, “What do you like best about Earth?”

Full of action and some much needed humor, “Justice League” is an entertaining two-hour roller coaster ride. With — SPOILER ALERT— Superman having died at the end of “Batman vs Superman,” the world in general, and Metropolis in particular, have became a haven for evil doers. Even Gotham City isn’t spared. One night, while on patrol, Batman (Affleck) comes across a mechanical monster that, when destroyed, leaves a pattern of marks, similar to marks found in Lex Luthor’s papers. As things go from worse to…whatever is worse than worse…Batman decides he needs to recruit other people to help save the world. Besides Wonder Woman (Gadot), he travels north to meet the strange Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) and then hits the city to find the young and friendless Barry Allen (Miller). Finally he tracks down Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) a former athlete. Each of these people have a secret but also learn they have a common goal – to save the world.

It can’t be easy to run around on screen in your underwear, and part of the success of “Justice League” must be attributed to the actors who embody their roles completely. Affleck and Gadot have already built some chemistry with “Batman vs Superman,” and Momoa, Miller and Fisher blend easily with them as, respectively, Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg. Miller steals every scene he’s in as the teenage Scarlett Speedster, making him as appealing here as Tom Holland was this past summer in “Spider-man: Homecoming.” As the junk food loving Barry (due to his very high metabolism, he must constantly eat), Miller gives the character a heart, a soul and a proclivity for one liners.

Director Snyder took some time off from the production of the film after his daughter passed away in March. He was replaced by Joss Whedon, the director who gave us “The Avengers” among other films. Whedon shares a screenwriting credit here, and it looks like he may have been the perfect piece to solve Snyder’s dark puzzles. If you’re looking for excitement and a few laughs this weekend, look into joining the FUN “League!”

Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz and Willem Dafoe
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
20th Century Fox

One of the most impressive ensemble casts of the year seems lost in sweeping CGI landscapes and overstuffed set pieces. “Murder on the Orient Express” is geared more towards technical film geeks who enjoy richness in their production design, more than they do in the script or the acting. I only say that because “Murder on the Orient Express” is awfully pretty to look at, but there isn’t much behind the lens.

Through happenstance, world-renowned detective Hercule Poirpot (Branagh) has found himself on the Orient Express. The luxury train connects Istanbul to the rest of Europe, which means the train is filled with socialites heading back to the Western World. The hodgepodge of characters seems at odds during casual dinner and indifferent during coffee, but there’s a singular thing that connects them all. It’s something Detective Poirpot will have to uncover after a passenger is found murdered in his cabin.

Murder mysteries are usually good, if not Oscar bait this time of year. However, “Murder on the Orient Express” is neither. While I haven’t read Agathe Christie’s work or seen the previous adaptations of her work, I can still confidently say that this isn’t on par with its predecessors or source material. I can surmise this because of how ambitious it looks, but the story never matches that visual gusto.

Johnny Depp plays the murder victim, but he’s not painted as a victim. We’re told he’s a scumbag, but we never feel like he’s one, despite the overwhelming evidence. The others on the train are played by the likes of A-listers, like Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, and Michelle Pfeiffer, while up and comers, like Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. round out the cluster. The ensemble is too overwhelming, visually and narratively, with the film struggling to divvy up enough even time for the audience, and Poirpot, to question the lengthy list of suspects.

For those unsure of how this film will play out, like me, it’s slightly interesting in some spots to watch Poirpot work out the tangled web surrounding the murder. For those who love a good whodunit, you may not be disappointed, except for how the end and reveal is executed. “Murder on the Orient Express” is a classic in the literary sense, but this 21st century retelling offers nothing new.

Interview with “A Christmas Story” star Zack Ward

Ever since his debut as Scut Farkus in “A Christmas Story” over three decades ago, Zack Ward has steadily carved out a career both in front of and behind the camera.  But there is a lot more to Cleveland Street’s best known bully.

Zack and co-star Scott Schwartz will be appearing in Omaha this Friday, November 10, where they will host a charity screening of “A Christmas Story.” I had the opportunity to speak with Zack this week and he shared his thoughts about the film and his career.

Mike Smith:  Why do you think, more than 30 years after its release, “A Christmas Story” is still so popular?

Zack Ward:  I’ve been asked that question many times over the years and I’ve been able to give the answer a lot of thought.  It has something to do with the combination of many things.  The writing.  The story is the same story structure of Homer’s “The Iliad.”  A young boy goes on a mythical adventure.  He fights all of these different demons.  And he does this to finally earn the respect of his father.  That’s what the B.B. gun is about.  It’s not that it’s a toy.  It could have been anything.  If you remember what happens at the very end of the film, when the father says to Ralphie, “What’s that behind the tree?”  The mom doesn’t even know what’s there.  And he finds the B.B. gun and the mom is upset.  But he tells her that he had one when he was that age.  What the whole statement of the B.B. gun is is a coming of age.  It’s the father’s acceptance of the son being responsible and becoming a man.  Transitioning from being a child.  And getting that respect from the parents that you adore means everything.  It doesn’t matter what the toy is.  What matters is what it represents.

MS:  That is the greatest answer to that question that I’ve ever gotten.

ZW:  (laughs)  Thank you.  I’ve had many years to ponder this.  The other thing is the direction.  If you look at the film again, and I’m sure you will now, you’ll notice that it is shot from the child’s view.  Bob Clark had the camera lowered so that the camera was always shooting from Ralphie’s point of view.  That never happens.  Usually adults are looking down on children.  In this situation, it’s always from the child’s perspective.  At a certain point, Bob Clark had them remove the floor from part of the set to ensure they could get the camera dolly low enough in order to have the right perspective.  He fought for that tooth and nail.  Also, the film is multi-generational.  It’s what they call in the industry “co-viewership.”  It’s like “Modern Family.”  You can watch “Modern Family” if you’re a grandpa, if you’re a mom, if you’re a dad, if you’re a teenager or if you’re a kid.  And “A Christmas Story” captivates all of those life moments.  You can see it as a child.  Understand it as a parent.  And reflect on it as an adult, thinking about your own childhood.  I’ve been amazed to watch 70-year old men with their 50-year old sons and 25-year old grandsons and 5-year old great-great grandsons walk up to me because they all want to meet the kid from “A Christmas Story.”  And they’re all surprised it’s me because they actually think it was shot in the 1940s.  That’s the thing that’s incredible.  How multi-generational it is.  How inclusive it is.  There’s no CGI.  There’s no special effects.  It’s just a great story that connects with people.

MS:  Do you have a favorite memory from the shoot?

ZW:  Yes I do.  My favorite memory from the shoot was when I came to the set one day.  We were shooting in Cleveland and there was no snow.  It was the middle of winter and all of the lawns were dark brown.  Cleveland at that time was not a city you really wanted to be in.  It was going through a very severe economic crisis.

MS:  I was born in Cleveland so I know what you’re talking about.

ZW:  So you know.  We were not allowed to go outside of the hotel after 6:00 pm for good reason.  It was a scary place at night.  We walked down to the set, to the house which is now a museum, and we turned the corner.  And every other street is just brown grass and ugly lawns.  But in the middle of the street is a house covered in snow.  With a big tree in the yard full of icicles glistening in the sun.  And it was all man-made.  That for me was a “wow” moment.  It took my breath away and still today I remember that feeling…that anything is possible.

MS:  You have worked steadily since “A Christmas Story,” which is very rare for someone whose career started when they were a child.  What’s your secret?

ZW:  (laughs)  I think it’s because I’ve got this face that people look at and want to punch!  It’s not my fault.  I’m a sweetheart of a guy.  I just happen to have slanty eyes and red hair.  And I really think people want to punch me in the face.  Definitely it’s helped.  (laughs)

MS:  You’ve written and directed in the past.  Do you see yourself doing more of that in the future?

ZW:  I’m actually in the process of doing that now.  I’m writing a series called “Fracture” and we go into pre-production in December.  It’s a series I co-created with a friend of mine and I’m the single writer on it.  I won’t be directing this one but I will be executive-producing and writing.  But I do love directing.  I’m actually getting ready to direct a commercial being shot in Akron, Ohio in about a week.  I love working on both sides of the camera.  The one job I hate is producing.  It sucks!  It’s such a horrible job.  Everybody blames you for everything and nobody thanks you for anything.  No matter what you pay them!

MS:  Anything else coming up soon?

ZW:  Yes.  Onscreen I have a T.V. show called “Swedish Dicks,” as in detectives.  The old, 1940s style term.  He’s a flatfoot.  I appear with Peter Stormare and a little fella named Keanu Reeves.  I tell you, I don’t know but I think he’s got a career ahead of him.  I’m also working on something I’m very excited about outside the entertainment environment.  It’s called “All Sports Market” and it is the world’s first stock market for sports team.  We’ve been working on it for the past 15 years and we’ve had a data model up for the last 3.  The whole concept is that you can buy shares in your favorite sports team.  And you can sell or trade them like you would stocks.  It’s something that goes back to the Roman times, when at the Coliseum people would place their bets.  And the sport always suffers because someone always takes a dive.  Even if there is a suspicion of collusion towards throwing the game, gambling sours sports.  It poisons it like a cancer.  This takes that element out of the game.  And it allows parents to bond with their children over their favorite sports teams.  Do you have any children?

MS:  One

ZW:  How old is he?

MS:  33

ZW:  If you said to your 10-year son, “hey buddy, let’s talk about market fluctuation and dividends and stock prices because you need to learn how to be an investor so you won’t be homeless when you’re 33,” I can pretty much guarantee you that he would fall asleep or start crying.  But if you find out his favorite team, you can tell him that together you’re going to buy 10 shares in his favorite team and you can watch what happens over the season.  It’s something you can do together.  And by the end of the season you’re son or daughter is now financially literate.  They know how to make investments.  Because you took the moment and educated them on something important while to them they were just talking with dad about their favorite team.

You can learn more by going to www.AllSportsMarket.com.  And if you sign up you get $2500.00 of play currency, what we call “learning capital.”  The whole thing now is a learning market.

MS:  Last question.  You run into Peter Billingsley (Ralphie) in an alley.  Who wins the fight this time?

ZW:  (laughs)  Is there any doubt in your mind that Scut Farkus took a dive?  Another point against sports gambling.  You KNEW I took a dive.  I was bought out.  I went down harder than a sack of potatoes.  I’ve got a couple of black belts and was in “Black Belt” magazine so I think I’d do well.  On the flip side, Peter did produce “Iron Man” so he’s probably got more bodyguards!

 

 

 

Film Review: A Bad Moms Christmas

Starring: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn
Directed by: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 44 mins
STX Entertainment

Soon it will be the season for presents and mistletoe, Santa and his reindeer. And family. I always welcome the chance to see my mom over the holidays. Of course, my mother is nothing like Ruth (Christine Baranski), Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and Isis (Susan Sarandon). Thank God!

Just as funny and, even though I never thought it possible, raunchier then “Bad Moms,” “A Bad Moms Christmas” finds our heroines from the last film getting things in order in the last week before Christmas. Amy (Kunis) is now happily dating Jessie (Jay Hernandez) and is unprepared when her very wealthy and judgmental mother Ruth shows up a few days before she was expected. Same with Kiki (Bell) and her mom Sandy, a woman who has become more and more clingy since her husband died. And Carla (Hahn) never knows when to expect Isis (her mom, not the terrorist group). She only knows it’s when she needs to borrow money. ‘Tis the season!

Blame it on “Bridesmaids.” Ever since that movie came out and made almost $300 million world-wide, Hollywood has inundated moviegoers with all kinds of “women talking dirty” films. For every funny and successful film, like “Trainwreck” or “Girl’s Trip,” you also have to put up with “dirty talk for talk’s sake” in a movie like “Rough Night.” (I did give “Rough Night” a positive review but did note that a lot of it’s raunch was for shock value, not laughs).

“A Bad Moms Christmas” works mostly because of two things: the cast and the script. The film was written, and co-directed, by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who in the past have written, among other films, the first “Hangover.” They obviously know what works where funny is concerned. All six female leads, mothers and daughters, work great together and, on a personal note, a movie that features two of my three biggest Hollywood crushes, Baranski and Sarandon, has got to be enjoyable. If Judith Ivey had played Sandy I’d have given this movie five stars!

If you like to laugh, and if you like your humor extremely “R” rated, then there’s an early Christmas present waiting for you at the multiplex!

Film Review: “Thor: Ragnarok”

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Cate Blanchett
Directed By: Taika Waititi
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

While “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was only about two and a half years ago, it feels like an eternity since we last saw Thor (Hemsworth). It can easily be said that Thor’s cameos in other Marvel films are a lot more enjoyable than his own feature length vehicles. That’s mainly because his two previous movies are devoid of mentally stimulating storytelling, hollow villains and an inescapable sense of forced plotting. Luckily, third time’s the charm for the God of Thunder.

In an attempt to get to the meat of the story, “Ragnarok” spends the first handful of minutes rushing through plot points about Thor, Loki, Odin and Jane Foster, and what they’ve been up to since we last saw them. It’s taxing, especially since no one really cares about Odin and I think Loki is a reminder of Marvel’s previous attempts to make him more of an imposing bad guy than he actually is. But it’s during these clichéd moments that “Ragnarok” still manages to find fun and establish tone.

For instance, the cold open finds Thor having the most fun we’ve ever seen him have on screen. With a flick of his wrist and a twirl of his hammer, he obliterates dozens of faceless foes, and it’s all set to Led Zepplin. We also get a much needed detour from the story line catch-up with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). His cameo is unexplained and seemingly unnecessary, but it’s certainly one of the most delightful highlights of the film. Once the film catches up on two years, we meet the Goddess of Death, Hela (Blanchett)

Hela may be the blueprints needed for a Marvel universe in sore need of a compelling, yet dangerous villain. Hela is a genuine threat, demonstrating her overt God-like powers throughout. Her first scene shows her destroying Thor’s hammer with a singular flex of her arm and disregarding Thor’s threat much like a pesky fly. There’s a charming menace behind her smile as she slaughters countless soldiers on her way to Asgard’s throne. Blanchett’s performance is simply magnetic.

Most Marvel films know how to have fun, but “Ragnarok” is an entirely new beast. It draws upon child-like humor, usually seen in more mature Saturday morning cartoons. The film expertly utilizes humor to introduce new characters flawlessly and in minimal time. Jokes convey their attitudes and mentality easier than any drawn out exposition could. It also helps when you have the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) aggressively stomping around like an upset Kindergartener. Director Taika Waititi deserves a lot of credit for taking the title character and its world in such a retro direction so that’s equally lighthearted and visually joyful.

“Ragnarok” isn’t breaking the established Marvel mold, as much as it wants to. Film executives might have pulled their hair out if the film didn’t still lean on protagonist redemption subplots, cheeky squabbles amongst allies and fanboy pandering. That shouldn’t take away from Waititi’s vision. He’s brought his own brand of goofiness, managing to make the film and its characters crass, yet warm, and brutish, yet charming. “Ragnarok” is a dazzling space opera that finally gives Thor meaningful purpose in the vast Marvel cinematic universe.

Animator Rick Farmiloe Talks About His Amazing Career

I hate to sound like Grandpa Simpson here, but “back in my day,” Saturday morning cartoons were…well they were cartoons. They weren’t 30 minute advertisements for toys (I’m looking at YOU, Transformers). Animator Rick Farmiloe remembers that time, and how his work then led him to a stint working on some of the greatest and best loved animated films in recent history.

Beginning on such shows as “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” and “The New Adventures of Tom and Jerry,” Mr. Farmiloe worked his way to the Disney Studios, where he helped with the animation of such early 1980 films as “The Great Mouse Detective” and “The Black Cauldron.” He continued working in television, including multiple episodes of “Ghostbusters” and “She Ra- Princess of Power.”

Back at Disney, he worked on “Oliver and Company,” then helped take Disney into an all new world of animation success, designing some of the most popular characters of all time, including Scuttle in “The Little Mermaid,” LeFou in “Beauty and the Beast” and Abu in “Aladdin.” He has also animated for Dreamworks (“The Prince of Egypt,” “Shrek”) and added his touch to “The Simpson’s Movie.”

To help spread the word that “Frozen” actresses Eva Bella, who played young Bella and Livvy Stubenrauch, who played young Anna will be appearing at the upcoming Kansas City Comic Con (Nov. 10th-12th), Mr. Farmiloe took some time out from his schedule to talk with me about his career.

Mike Smith: You began your career in what was, to me, the golden age of Saturday morning cartoons. How has the process and style of television animation changed since you started?

Rick Farmiloe: When I started in the late 1970’s all animation was still done in the US. Most of it now is sent overseas to keep down costs. Storyboarding is still done here, but the actual animation is done out of the country. TV animation was a good way for a young animator to get started. A lot of veterans were around to help with advice and drawing tips. These days there are a LOT more outlets and styles of animation. There were no ‘adult’ cartoons back then. It was all very safe and by the book. “The Simpsons” changed all that, and now TV animation runs the scale from pre-school to ‘R’ rated style shows.

MS: You’ve animated some of the true classic Disney characters of the past three decades. How are the characters assigned?

RF: At Disney we were cast just as actors would be cast. Those with very strong draftsmanship, or a bent towards more realistic characters would be cast on the leads. I always had a knack for doing more comical animation, so I was always cast to do funny sidekick characters. Those characters were always attractive to me because of the freedom to come up with funny things for my characters to do. I always wanted to ‘plus’ my animation, and if I could come up with an even funnier idea or gag, I was given the freedom to pitch it to the director. If he liked it, I gave it a shot. ALL animators were encouraged to improve upon ideas that were in the script or in storyboard form. A friend of mine once compared my animation to that of Ward Kimball, one of Disney’s famed ‘Nine Old Men’ because Ward pretty much only animated sidekicks as well. That was a huge compliment of course, but that was a role that I felt very comfortable with. I was never one of the best draftsmen at Disney, but I feel I had a talent at doing some funny animation. People still remember a lot of my scenes. I am very proud of that role.

MS: You’ve also worked on some non-Disney animated features. Are there different rules for animating for Disney as opposed to a studio like Dreamworks?

RF: At Dreamworks, Jeffrey Katzenberg made a decision to NOT be ‘Disney’. He was largely responsible for helping to create a style at Disney during the 80’s and early 90’s. He knew trying to be another Disney was the wrong way to go. The character designs and overall feel of the Dreamworks Films were much different from what was done at Disney, even though a lot of us came from Disney. He wanted the films to be for more mature audiences, not for small children but more like teens. “Prince of Egypt” was the first film in that style. It was a really bold choice in subject and style. I had to adjust my animation style to fit the subject matter. I animated the camel. I wanted to still make him funny, but without the usual broad animation and really cartoony style I was used to doing. I think the film holds up really well. I’ve always respected Jeffrey so much for wanting to come up with a new and unique style of filmmaking.

MS: Best show, in your opinion, between “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “South Park?”

RF: You forgot “Ren and Stimpy!” (laughs). I like all of those shows a lot! The writing on all of them is just so smart and never obvious. They are all more of an adult nature, but completely unique in style and content. They all have their copycats of course, especially “Ren and Stimpy!” But since you are FORCING me to pick only one, I’m going to have to go with “The Simpsons.” It was the first and still the most consistent. Matt Groening is an absolute genius. The show has been on the air since 1962 or something and still has that great quality. The reason it’s still on, if you ask me….and I think you did….is because people LOVE that family! They seem 100% real. And beneath the sarcasm and cynicism, there is a real love between all the family members. I was lucky enough to work on “The Simpsons Movie,” and got to see first hand how that franchise works so successfully! INCREDIBLE writing! It will probably be on long after we are all gone!

MS: What are you working on next?

RF: I am always doing freelance on one project or another! I just finished animating on a live action Chinese feature that has some sections of hand drawn animation. We are in the planning stages of doing some animation for a documentary/celebration film on the legendary band, Cheap Trick! My girlfriend Christi Haydon and I have teamed up on a fun project called “Full Moon Cartoons.” It is a one panel cartoon that deals with us as cartoon characters who have moved to a town called Full Moon Springs. It is inhabited solely by monsters! It has a very mid-century modern style to it. It deals with us just trying to fit into the monster world as comfortably as we can, with funny results. It comes out every Friday, which we call ‘Full Moon Friday.’ You can find it on a site called HorrorBuzz.com, and our Facebook page called Rick+Christi’s Full Moon Cartoons. It’s so much fun for us because we have EXACTLY the same sense of humor. I have loved drawing classic monsters my entire life. Christi is a writer and production designer who loves stylistic details, and is great with color choices. We also love traveling around the country appearing at numerous comic conventions, meeting fans and making lots of new friends! It’s a very exciting time.

You can also see more of Mr. Farmiloe’s work here.

Film Review: “78/52”

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Peter Bogdanovich and Guillermo del Toro
Directed by: Alexandre O. Phillipe
Not Rated
Running time: 1 hr 31 mins
IFC Midnight

It is one of the greatest scenes in movie history. Like the crane shot showing the carnage of the Civil War in “Gone with the Wind” or the Odessa Steps sequence in “The Battleship Potemkin” (later copied by Brian De Palma in “The Untouchables”), whenever you think about Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film “Psycho” the first thing you think of is the shower scene. The new film “78/52,” which references the number of pieces of film (78) and edits (52) that comprise the scene, takes a look at the creation of the scene as well as its impact on Hollywood and world cinema.

Despite the use of plenty of footage from “Psycho,” the film begins with a recreation of a scene featuring Marion Crane’s car driving thought the rain. What is disconcerting about this footage is that the woman featured bears a very close resemblance to Adrien Brody in a blonde wig. Thankfully we soon return to the film being discussed and take a painstaking journey of 90 minutes to dissect a scene that only lasts three.

General fans of the film will be impressed with all of the “behind the scenes” interviews with everyone from Mali Renfro, who played Janet Leigh’s double during the shoot to Jamie Lee Curtis, Leigh’s daughter. Also included are fans like Elijah Wood, Danny Elfman and Bret Easton Ellis. Film buffs will also enjoy the comments of filmmakers great (Guillermo del Toro, Martin Scorcese) and, well, not so great (Eli Roth) as they explain how the film helped shape some of their own work.

A seemingly unending number of industry insiders (editors, writers, etc) offer their own takes on the meaning of the scene, going so far as to dissect it nearly frame by frame. In between the comments are some great moments, including the actual storyboards Hitchcock had Saul Bass design for the scene as well as the still-to-this-day argument about whether or not we actually ever see the knife penetrate the body.

If you’re a fan of “Psycho” and want a good “behind the scenes” look at the film, I’d recommend the brilliant documentary put together by the great Laurent Bouzereau that can be found on the DVD release of “Psycho.” But if you’re REALLY keen to learn the in-depth story, you should give “78/52” a look.

Film Review: “Suburbicon”

Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac
Directed by: George Clooney
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 44 mins
Paramount

1959. In the quick-growing town of Suburbicon things are about to get a little dicey. It seems a black family has moved into the snow-white city and the townspeople aren’t happy, even when the town leaders offer to pay for fencing to separate their houses from the new arrivals. But this isn’t the only thing going on in town. A house has been invaded and a woman killed. What the hell is going on here?

Cleverly written by the Coen Brothers (in “Blood Simple” mode), George Clooney and his writing/producing partner Grant Heslov and directed with a keen eye by Clooney, “Suburbicon” is a black comedy with a message attached. It’s also a story about infidelity, greed and murder, not necessarily in that order.

The film opens like one of the old educational films they used to show in high school. It chronicles the very beginning of Suburbicon, boasting how in a dozen years the town has grown a population of 50,000 people. Among the residents is Gardner Lodge (Damon), who lives there with his invalid wife, Rose (Moore) and young son Nicolas (an outstanding Noah Jupe). When the new neighbors move in to the house behind them, Rose urges Nicolas to go over and play catch with the young boy (Tony Espinosa) in the family. However, it seems only the Lodge’s are accepting of the newbies, as night after night, mobs begin to gather outside their house, loudly urging them to move.

On one such night Nicolas is woken up by his father who tells him “there are men in the house.” Downstairs, he finds his mother and his aunt Margaret (also Moore) in the kitchen along with two bad guys. The robbers assure them they won’t be hurt but soon tie them up and chloroform them. When Nicolas awakes he learns his mother is dead. He now spends his days playing with his new friend and his nights worrying that the bad men will be back. Even if he could sleep it would be hard with the mobs screaming on the next block.

I’ll say up front that I pretty much figured out the plot twist about 10 minutes into the film, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying “Suburbicon.” The performances are solid, with Damon also shining next to your Mr. Jupe. Another standout is Gary Basaraba who plays Nicolas’ fun-loving uncle Mitch. Also funny is Oscar Isaac, an insurance claims adjuster investigating Rose’s death.

There are plenty of laughs and some great sight gags but I did find it a little hard to chuckle during the mob scenes, which get progressively larger, louder and more violent. I understand the message, but I didn’t need to get hit over the head with it. I will say it was nice to see the Mayers (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke) portrayed as a strong black family unit. They refuse to let the hate envelop them and it is their bravery in the face of adversity that is an important part of the story.

Film Review: “Goodbye Christopher Robin”

Starring: Domnhall Gleeson, Margot Robbie and Kelly MacDonald
Directed By: Simon Curtis
Rated: PG
Running Time: 107 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Origin stories are all the craze in Hollywood right now, so why not one for Winnie the Pooh? I know that’s a tough sell. But luckily “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is a decent enough biopic drama that sometimes handles the weight of its thematic messages. The film is about author A.A. Milne (Gleeson) and how through his own struggles and an attempt to bond with his son, he created one of the world’s most iconic children’s characters.

The mood of England is to forget rather than confront the demons of WWI that linger throughout its picturesque countryside. Milne’s writer’s block is compounded by his that he suffered on the front lines. When Milne’s wife Daphne (Robbie) gives birth to their son, Christopher Robin (or Billy), Milne sees it as an opportunity to hit the restart button on life. The young family moves to rural Essex where Milne’s bouts with PTSD flare up, Daphne becomes disenfranchised with her husband and a young Christopher Robin has a more meaningful connection to the family’s live-in nanny.

It’s not until Milne’s life begins crumbling around him, that he attempts to find some sanity and joy to grasp on to by playing with his son in the surrounding woods. Milne views these moments initially as an opportune moment to bond, but as time passes, he finds that his creative juices start to flow again. He brings his son’s stuffed animals to life and makes the sleepy humdrum woods around them more vibrant and adventurous. But not everything works out in the end as Christopher Robin’s persona becomes larger than his own life.

Most of “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is mired in turmoil, with happy moments and achievements sprouting up few and far between. But even those tiny victories for our characters are quickly overshadowed by more troubling developments. It’s interesting watching a family suffocate from early-to-mid-20th century tabloids and a boy’s childhood innocence and wonder get smothered in a flood of worldwide fame. Instead of playing with his toys or meandering outside, he’s making global calls to radio stations and having tea with dignitaries.

Gleeson plays an emotionally fragile, yet stonewalled man who’s finding it hard to tap into his own youth that was nearly killed in No Man’s Land. Much of his role is spent expressing the difficulty of restraining tears and fear while raising a child, teenager, and then a man. He’s definitely the highlight of the film considering Robbie is wasted as her character is relegated to bored housewife/angry spouse purgatory for unknown and unexplained reason. Gleeson also has to work with a child actor that’s equal parts adorable and annoying.

“Goodbye Christopher Robin” spends a little bit too much time playing in the woods instead of expanding on its emotional stakes for a finale that should have been way more impactful. It attempts to tie a lot of its theme together in the final few minutes, with some hitting harder than others. It manages to squander its theme of unnecessary war and the heartache it causes, but manages to find beauty in forgiveness and child rearing. We also learn that Christopher Robin’s miserable childhood led to happiness for millions of children and adults. Almost makes you hate yourself for ever taking pleasure in ever loving Winnie the Pooh.

Film Review: “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House”

Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Lane and Tom Sizemore
Directed by: Peter Landesman
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 1 hr 43 mins
Sony Pictures Classic

Many years ago, when he was first working on bringing the story of Abraham Lincoln to the screen, the word was that director Steven Spielberg’s first choice to play our 16th President was Liam Neeson. When I heard that I was curious if Neeson, a very fine actor, had the necessary gravitas to play the Great Emancipator. Based on his performance in “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” I think he would have been well cast.

April 1972. With the upcoming U.S. Presidential election coming up in November, the FBI’s Deputy Director, Mark Felt (Neeson) is summoned to the White House. There he meets with John Dean (Michael C. Hall), President Nixon’s White House Counsel, and Attorney General John Mitchell (Stephen Michael Ayers). The conversation turns to the possibility of the President “encouraging” the current FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, to resign. What are Felt’s thoughts? Felt keeps his thoughts to himself, though he is quick to remind the men that the director has amassed his own set of secret files. A month later, Hoover dies. Felt does what he thinks is best so that, when the White House sends a courier to pick up Hoover’s files his answer is “What files?”

So begins the story that ushered in one of the most embarrassing political episodes in America’s history. One hand not only knows what the other hand is doing, it’s not even sure of its own fingers! As the election gets closer, things get crazier in the bureau. In what is obviously a vote of non-support, instead of promoting Felt to the top job, Nixon appoints L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas, who could pass quite easily for Russell Crowe’s younger brother) as “acting” director until a permanent successor for Hoover is found. This makes Felt take a long look at his life, and the bureau, and his displeasure with both. But things begin to go downhill for everyone concerned when a break-in is reported at a Washington D.C. area hotel known as the Watergate.

A nice look at the inner workings of government, the film is based on Felt’s book of the same name. Instead of F.B.I. the name of the game is C.Y.A. with an unlimited number of people on the sidelines ready to pounce on the slightest mistake. Unhappy with Nixon’s interference in the bureau’s investigation of Watergate, Felt begins speaking to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Julian Morris). Unwilling to go on the record Felt gives himself the name “Deep Throat,” hiding in the shadows as the government he loves unravels. Led by Neeson’s performance, the film features great work from everyone involved, including Lane, Sizemore, Noah Wylie and Bruce Greenwood. The film is well paced and, even if you’re familiar with the story, holds enough surprises to keep your attention and helps begin the upcoming film awards season.

Film Review: “A Silent Voice: The Movie”

Starring the Voice Of: Miyu Orino, Saori Hayami and Aoi Yuki
Directed By: Naoko Yamada
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 130 minutes
Eleven Arts Anime Studio

Wracked with guilt over early childhood wrongs, Shoya Ishida (Orino) is a teenager in search of atonement. The wrong he is looking to right is the bullying of a deaf girl, Shoko Nishimiya (Hayami), that he spearheaded back in elementary school. During those turbulent times, Shoko can only smile and fight back tears as Shoya’s harassment moves from verbal to physical. It piles on as Shoya not only becomes the instigator, but the ringleader for others looking for an excuse to pick on Shoko as well.

Shoko reaches her breaking point, during a particularly unflinchingly cruel moment in the film, and transfers schools. But left in her wake is chaos as the bully becomes the outcast and Shoya’s shunned by friends and classmates. Current day Shoya believes his life, which is devoid of any friends and little meaning, is punishment for his prior torment and vicious taunting. It’s only by happenstance that he realizes his salvation may be in befriending a reluctant Shoya.

Despite clocking in over two hours, “A Silent Voice” is a brisk journey through high school drama and emotional maturity. Within its first few minutes, the film grips viewers with Shoya ominously on the edge of a bridge, narrating his meaninglessness. While the movie may feel like a bullying redemption story, there’s an unmistakable tone of depression. Part of the film’s purpose is to relay how depression, with its tentacle-like grasp on the heart and mind, can impact every facet of one’s life. Most characters, even unnecessary secondary ones, suffer some emotional or mental issue.

The most subtle touches of the film are when we get Shoya’s point of view. He can’t make eye contact, he places an x over people’s faces as if mentally marking them off as potential friends and his depression is clearly compounded by crippling social anxiety. He eavesdrops into nearby conversations, hearing only negative things about himself, but even those poisonous remarks by classmates may be his imagination. There’s even a scene, which on the surface is about miscommunication, which has a deeper meaning implying that Shoya believes unworthy of anyone’s friendship or love.

Shoya’s attitude and demeanor amplifies Shoko’s purity. But we have to wonder how much the stress is getting to Shoko and what kind of impact it’ll have as the film lingers into its third act. It’s not that her personality is simplified, but a lot of it comes from everyone inability to properly communicate with her. The ones who are able to speak with her do open a door into Shoko’s thought process, but just like Shoya, the viewer would only truly know what’s going on if Shoko was able to narrate. This is an intentional frustration on the audience’s’ end that matches the characters on screen.

“A Silent Voice” risks’ being melodramatic on several occasions, but it’s moments between Shoko and Shoya, or when they’re on their own, are when the film works best. During those moments, the duo is treated with teenage realism that isn’t bogged down by oversexualization, drug use, or other clichéd youth problems. Its two teens being treated like adults by the filmmakers. It makes for a better relation to the audience that can reflect on their own troubled youth or their own struggle with depression.

Bring on the Popcorn, and Make it a LOL Kids Movie Night! The Emoji Movie includes the original Hotel Transylvania Short “Puppy!”

Available on Digital October 10 and On 4K Ultra HD™ Combo Pack, Blu-ray + Digital, & DVD on October 24

CULVER CITY, Calif. (September 12, 2017) – Be the movie night hero and bring home the film that kids give two thumbs up to for the ultimate kid’s movie night! It’s time to express yourself when Sony Pictures Animation’s THE EMOJI MOVIE arrives for the first time on Digital on October 10 and on 4K Ultra HD+ Blu-ray + Digital, Blu-ray + Digital and DVD October 24 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The animated comedy unlocks the never-before-seen secret world inside your smartphone. Hidden within the messaging app is Textopolis, a bustling city where all your favorite emojis live, hoping to be selected by the phone’s user. In this world, each emoji has only one facial expression – except for Gene (T.J. Miller), an exuberant emoji who was born without a filter and is bursting with multiple expressions. Determined to become “normal” like the other emojis, Gene enlists the help of his handy best friend Hi-5 (James Corden) and the notorious code breaker emoji Jailbreak (Anna Faris). Together, they embark on an epic “app-venture” through the apps on the phone, each its own wild and fun world, to find the code that will fix Gene. But when a greater danger threatens the phone, the fate of all emojis depends on these three unlikely friends who must save their world before it’s deleted forever.

THE EMOJI MOVIE features an all-star voice cast including T.J. Miller (How To Train Your Dragon) as Gene Meh, James Corden (“Late Late Show with James Corden”) as Hi-5, Anna Faris (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) as Jailbreak, Maya Rudolph (Big Hero 6) as Smiler, Steven Wright (Louie) as Mel Meh, Jennifer Coolidge (American Pie, Legally Blonde) as Mary Meh, Jake T. Austin (“Wizards of Waverly Place”) as phone owner Alex, Grammy® Award Winner Christina Aguilera as Akiko Glitter, Emmy® Award Nominee Sofia Vergara (The Smurfs) as Flamenca, Rachael Ray (“Rachael Ray”) as Spam, Emmy® Award Winner Sean Hayes (“Will & Grace”) as “Devil” Steven, and Emmy® Award Nominee Sir Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek: The Next Generation) as Poop.

THE EMOJI MOVIE is filled with interactive bonus materials on the Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD, DVD and digital releases that are fun for the entire family to enjoy including the “Good Vibrations” Dance Along and Lyric Video, where you can join along in the dance party. Learn about the amazing dance moves from the film’s celebrity choreographer in “Choreographing Emoji with Matt Steffanina.” Get creative with step-by-step tutorials on how to draw your favorite Emoji’s with two “how to” videos. Go behind-the-scenes of a real-life coding school with the “Girls Who Code” featurette, and get to know everything about the all-star cast in “Express Yourself: Meet the Cast.” Fans will also get to unveil more of the story behind their beloved character in “Jailbreak Decoded: The Untold Story.” Additional featurettes include “Creating the World Inside Your Phone,” “Bringing Emoji’s to Life,” and the very exciting “Puppy! An Original Hotel Transylvania Short.”

In addition to extra content above, exclusive to Blu-ray, fans of all ages will be able to give it their best shot at the “Gimme a Hand! Guess the Emoji Game,” where Hi-5 and Smiler give you clues to help you guess the mystery Emojis. You will also have the chance to get creative with your Halloween Trick-Or-Treat candy with “Sweet App-etite: Make Your Own Candy Crush Inspired Saga Cake.”

THE EMOJI MOVIE is directed by Tony Leondis, with screenplay by Tony Leondis & Eric Siegel and Mike White and story by Tony Leondis & Eric Siegel. The film is produced by Sony Pictures Animation, with Michelle Raimo Kouyate serving as the producer.

DVD and Digital Bonus Materials Include: 
• Director & Animators Commentary
Puppy! An Original Hotel Transylvania Short
• Jailbreak Decoded: The Untold Story
• “Good Vibrations” Dance Along
• “Good Vibrations” Lyric Video
• Express Yourself: Meet The Cast
• Girls Can Code!
• Choreographing Emoji With Matt Steffanina
• Creating the World Inside Your Phone
• Bringing Emojis to Life
• How To Draw Poop
• How To Draw Gene

Blu-ray Exclusive Bonus Materials Include:
Everything listed above, plus:
Gimme a Hand! Guess the Emoji Game
• Sweet App-etite: Make Your Own Candy Crush Inspired Saga Cake

THE EMOJI MOVIE has a run time of approximately 91 minutes and is rated PG: for Rude Humor.

ABOUT SONY PICTURES HOME ENTERTAINMENT
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (SPHE) is a Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) company. Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) is a subsidiary of Sony Entertainment Inc., a subsidiary of Tokyo-based Sony Corporation. SPE’s global operations encompass motion picture production, acquisition and distribution; television production, acquisition and distribution; television networks; digital content creation and distribution; operation of studio facilities; and development of new entertainment products, services and technologies. For additional information, go to http://www.sonypictures.com.

ABOUT SONY PICTURES ANIMATION
Sony Pictures Animation produces a variety of animated and family entertainment for audiences around the world. The studio is following its worldwide comedy hits—the record-breaking monster comedies Hotel Transylvania and Hotel Transylvania 2, the hybrid live action/animated blockbusters The Smurfs and The Smurfs 2, and the mouth-watering Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movies—with the fully animated reboot Smurfs: The Lost Village available on digital and Blu-ray now; a surprising and comic take at the secret world inside our phones with The Emoji Movie in July 2017; the inspirational The Star in November 2017; Hotel Transylvania 3 in July 2018; and an animated Spider-Man feature from the minds of directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord in December 2018. The studio, in conjunction with Aardman Animations, has produced two critically acclaimed feature films: the CG-animated family comedy Arthur Christmas; and the Academy Award® nominated stop-frame animated high-seas adventure, The Pirates! Band of Misfits. In 2007, Surf’s Up also received an Academy Award® nomination for Best Animated Feature Film; a sequel entitled Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania is now available on digital and DVD. The division, whose first feature film Open Season led to a very successful movie franchise including the brand new Open Season: Scared Sillynow available on digital, DVD and Blu-ray, was founded in 2002. Sony Pictures Animation is a division of the Sony Pictures Motion Pictures Group.

Film Review “Happy Death Day”

Directed by: Christopher B. Landon
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 96 minutes

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I was simply sold on “Happy Death Day” from the moment I heard it pitched as “Groundhog Dog” but horror film. Sign me up! So instead of meeting ole Punxsutawney Phil and seeing if he sees his shadow every day. Our heroine, Tree (Jessica Rothe), as she wakes up to birthday only to gets killed and wakes up and repeats the same day over and over.

While she is trying to find out who the killer is the film looses so steam as the false alarms because a little predictable but overall. It was still fun to see how each day would be different. Even though not horror, this reminded me of the action-comedy “Edge of Tomorrow”, which also had that “Groundhog Day” feel. “Happy Death Day” even though rated PG-13 packs pretty creative kills during each repeated day.

2017 has been the year of Woman power with breakout films like, “Wonder Woman” and this film fit the mold nicely, it features a strong lead female character that can kick some serious ass. This film is a fun blend of horror with some great comedic moments mixed in. Definitely a lot of fun and got some great laughs in the audience, so it was definitely pleasing everyone.

If you are not familiar with the lead actress, Jessica Rothe, it is not surprising because she is only just getting started after a very small role in last year’s “La La Land”. What interesting is that out of all the anxilary extra characters in that film she honestly stood out to me, so I am excited that hopefully this film will be her big break.

Based on the audience reaction in the theater, I have a feeling that this film will end up connecting with an audience. If so, I can see this being a new franchise of sorts, definitely a lot of fun options. So those looking for some mindless fun and not excited for yet another “Saw” entry, I would definitely give “Happy Death Day” a shot!

Film Review: “The Foreigner”

Starring: Jackie Chan, Rufus Jones and Pierce Brosnan
Directed by: Martin Campbell
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 54 mins
STX Entertainment

A man picks his young teenage daughter up from school. He notices her sharing a glance with a boy and asks when he will get to meet him. She blushes. He drives her to a popular London dress shop to pick out a prom gown and urges her to be careful as she crosses the street. Sadly, all of his love can’t prevent the bomb that is about to kill her from going off.

An edge-of-the-seat thriller full of twist and turns, “The Foreigner” is a welcome return to the screen for the great Jackie Chan, whose grieving father Quan will not stop until he discovers who planted the deadly explosive. The bombing is claimed by a group associating itself with the IRA, which causes much tension between the British and Irish governments. It is left to Liam Hennessy (Brosnan, given that rare occasion to use his real-life brogue), an influential Irish politician, to get to the bottom of what is going on before things get bloodier. Unfortunately for him, and the police, Quan is a man with a past full of surprises.

Not counting voice work in animated features, it’s been almost a decade since I’ve seen Jackie Chan on the big screen and I’m happy to report that, even at age 63, the man can still kick some serious ass! He also shows a much larger range as an actor here, portraying a father who has basically lost his entire family violently. This is not the clowning man from the “Rush Hour” films. This is a man whose grief and need for revenge seem, at times, to be all that is keeping him alive.

The action here, both with and without Chan, is outstandingly staged, with much credit needing to go to director Campbell, who also helmed Brosnan’s debut as James Bond in “Goldeneye” as well as Daniel Craig’s amazing Bond reboot “Casino Royale.” The film is also driven along by an amazing musical score by Cliff Martinez. The music not only helps deliver the story on-screen but is very reminiscent of the great film scores (“Sorcerer,” “Thief”) by the German band Tangerine Dream.

Film Review: “American Made”

Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson and Sarah Wright
Directed By: Doug Liman
Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Universal Pictures

How does a TWA pilot go from tedious commercial flights and a blue collar existence to the Walter White of international arms and drug sales? The tale of Barry Seal (Cruise) almost seems to outlandish to be true as he finds himself working for the CIA and one of the most notorious drug cartels, at the same time. The tag, “Based on a True Story,” is stretched to the max in “American Made,” but at least they had a hell of a time embellishing the facts and telling a few fibs along the way.

We meet Seal midway through life and quickly learn that he hasn’t always been straight and narrow. Even while charting passengers across the country on the daily basis as one of the youngest pilots to be hired by the once major airliner, Seal was a low-time smuggler. Apparently smuggling Cuban cigars here and there for some extra side cash was enough to attract the attention of Schafer (Gleeson), a mysterious CIA agent who wants Seal to take his aeronautical expertise to help spy for the U.S. government.

Spying then turns into drug and weapons smuggling for both sides. At $2,000 a pound, Seal gladly begins smuggling cocaine for the Medellin Cartel. And when spy photos aren’t enough for the CIA, under the direction of the Reagan administration, Seal is asked to help run guns to the Contras. Seal is even given a slice of land by the U.S. in rural Alabama so that he can keep up the charade that he’s a small-time business owner who happens to own his own tiny airport and fleet. Of course all of this is only the tip of the iceberg as Seal goes full-Heisenberg and carves off his own slice of the criminal underworld to create a smuggling juggernaut.

For historians, “American Made” is pulpy trash, glorifying a drug smuggler turned informant, but for everyone else it’s a funny and entertaining take on a biographical crime tale. Cruise, who’s best when he’s unbalanced, is the every man of Louisiana looking for a thrilling escape from monotony, and finds it by playing both sides of a dangerous game. Cruise is doing some of his best humor since “Tropic Thunder” and finding fresh acting life outside his stereotypical smug good guy role.

But “American Made” suffers from pop-culture being saturated with multiple anti-heroes over the past couple of decades. Everyone from Omar Little of “The Wire” to Tony Soprano of “The Sopranos” have familiarized audiences with the genre’s tropes so much so that much of the film’s runtime comes with few surprises, making for an elongated ending to Seal’s entrepreneurial smuggling empire. That’s not to say that “American Made” spends most of its runtime having fun. The film proves that maybe in 30 years, we’ll be able to have a good laugh about the current impending doom we’re experiencing with North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Maybe.

“American Made” works best as a comedy. There are hints of global political satire, where at the end of the day, no one is really the good guy and that it all comes down to who’s responsible for the lowest body count. That kind of bleak humor is kept on the back burner as Seal smooth talks his way out of precarious situations. There are also plenty of visual gags to feast on, outside of Cruise’s physical and verbal humor.

In amateur hands, “American Made” would be a mixed bag, but Cruise and Director Doug Liman, who previously worked on “Edge of Tomorrow,” combine for infectious manic energy. Cruise makes” American Made” charming in a way that Jon Hamm made Don Draper a likeable womanizer and scumbag. Cruise isn’t only slick with criminals and government officials, but he’s also drawing in the audience to cheer on his illegal shenanigans. History be damned, “American Made” is an engaging circus act with a realistic final bite to keep its audiences grounded in reality.