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.

Film Review: “Battle of the Sexes”

Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell and Bill Pullman
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 2 hrs 1 mins
Fox Searchlight

Do you remember where you were 44 years ago?  I do.

On Thursday night, September 20th, 1973 I was at my friend Mike Schwartz’s house (my parents had gone out that night) and, along with his family, sat down in front of the television to watch what was being billed as “The Battle of the Sexes,” a tennis match between reigning superstar Billie Jean King and former champ Bobby Riggs. Having just turned 13-years-old the week before, I had no idea who Riggs was and the only thing I knew about King was that her brother, Randy, was a pitcher for the Giants and I owned his baseball card. Thankfully there was much more to the story.

Depending on your age you probably can’t believe that there was a time where it not only seemed like a joke to suggest a woman could run for President, it was news any time a woman was elected to office. In 1973, there were 16 women in Congress (out of 433 members) and a grand total of ZERO in the Senate. Any woman who showed any gumption was looked down upon by a very chauvinistic male society. One of these women was Billie Jean King (Stone). The #1 ranked women’s tennis player in the world, King was very vocal in getting the prize money paid to women at tournaments raised to the same amount as the men. Learning that, for winning the US Open, the winning man would receive $12,000 while the woman champ took home $1,500, King not only boycotts the tournament but convinces the other top female pros on the circuity to join with her and form the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs (Carell) is now married to a socialite (Elizabeth Shue) and pushing papers in an office. Always a hustler, Riggs hates being behind a desk and often leaves the house to run errands, which mostly consist of him playing tennis against his friends for money. He also attends Gambler’s Anonymous, though he’s not a good disciple. He reminds his fellow attendees that the reason they are there isn’t because the ARE gamblers, but because they are BAD gamblers. One night, while watching King on television, Riggs comes up with the ultimate hustle – a tennis match between he and King. “The Battle of the Sexes.”

An entertaining and charming film, “The Battle of the Sexes” is just the backdrop in a look at the life of one of sport’s greatest figures. The film looks at King’s home life; her marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell) (not THAT one) seems happy but when she meets a young female hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) she realizes that maybe she’s not. There is also the constant bickering between the WTA members and tennis honcho Jack Kramer (Pullman at his pompous best).

Not only is the film fun to watch, it handles it’s subject matter (both the tennis and the unexpected love story) with reverence. Both Stone and Carell give standout performances, and they are aided by quality performances from Pullman, Riseborough and an incredibly funny, but serious, Sarah Silverman. Look for the film to garner an Oscar nod of two come January 2018.

Film Review: “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Starring: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth and Julianne Moore
Directed By: Matthew Vaughn
Rated: R
Running Time: 141 minutes
20th Century Fox

As if emboldened by an impressive box office receipt and growing fanfare, studio executives clearly handed over a blank check and unrestrained creative control to Matthew Vaughn. For better or for worse, his second time around with the “Kingsman” franchise has him embellishing every little detail to the point of nausea. Like some of James Bond’s sillier outings (“A View to a Kill” and “Die Another Day”), “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is pure insanity as we’re rushed through another absurd outing with Britain’s super-secret intelligence organization.

Within the first five minutes, the movie drips in excess action and CGI, immediately taking viewers out of anything resembling sanity. Eggsy (Egerton), the hoodlum turned hero from the first film, fights a former Kingsman recruit, also from the first film, who has a robotic arm with a mind of its own. That’s not even the craziest thing in this film. After disposing of him, we then go through the set-up motions as we meet Eggsy’s girlfriend, the sexually exploited Princess from the end of the first film, and catch-up with the other holdovers from the first flick. Anyone who hasn’t seen the first will unquestionably be confused and lost from the get-go.

The film squanders very little time getting to the villain of the film, Poppy (Moore). Poppy is the leader of a high-powered drug cartel. She wears a psychotic smirk on her face, forcing her underlings to undergo grotesque tests of allegiance. Her hideaway, Poppy Land, is a nostalgic step back into 1950’s Hill Valley with robotic murder dogs patrolling the compound. Her beef with the Kingsman is unknown other than she needs to eliminate any potential threats to her devious global plan. After missiles strike several targets in England (which is seemingly shrugged off by everyone else outside the plot), the remnants of the Kingsman activate their doomsday protocol and are forced to rely on their United States counterparts, the Statesman.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the biggest name in a film containing Halle Berry, Channing Tatum, Julianne Moore, Jeff Bridges and Elton John (yes, that Elton John). Very few are used to affect except for Elton John. He arrives as an unnecessarily needed and gratuitous cameo, but evolves into a delightfully needed and gratuitous cameo. However, my disappointment stems from a lack of Bridges, Tatum and Berry, who play different components of the Statesman organization. You could also make the argument for Moore’s character. “The Golden Circle” could have benefitted from as much Moore as possible, just like the previous film benefitted from a lisping Samuel L. Jackson.

The action isn’t entertaining in the traditional sense, but in a fun, manic Saturday morning cartoon kind of way. The laws of gravity, rudimentary physics, the limitations of the human body, and common sense are an afterthought for most the film’s runtime. Just like the first film, there are the over-the-top gadgets that serve one inane purpose. There’s even one gadget that’s too sexually explicit to even attempt to convey in a PG way.

“The Golden Circle” is delightfully bonkers, locking reality out of the writing room and barring believability from the set. The “Kingsman” universe has American citizens being locked up by their own government in cages, bad guys driving down the streets of London with .50 cal machine guns blasting away in full sight of civilians, and oddly placing a retirement home below an avalanche danger zone. To expect anything remotely logical would be a dishonor to the film’s status quo, but adding a little of intelligence certainly wouldn’t hurt it in the long run.

Film Review: “Home Again”

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Nat Wolff and Lake Bell
Directed By: Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 97 minutes
Open Road Films

I imagine the pitch for “Home Again” was originally a sitcom. Hallie Meyers-Shyer probably pitched to a studio big wig that over a 24 episode season, the audience would be introduced to newly divorced and hard-working interior designer Alice Kinney. We’ll watch as she picks up her life, and her two kids, to move to her father’s old home in sunny L.A. She’s the daughter of a former film prodigy, whose greatest achievements weren’t the boxed up Oscars in his work room, but raising Alice. I also imagine the pitch ended with an executive saying, “Not enough content. Why not make it a movie?”

The only thing missing from “Home Again” is a canned laugh track, applause and other phony audience reactions. The 97-minute sitcom has Alice, after a drunken night at the bar, take in three young go-getters looking to make it big in Hollywood. They remind me a lot of “Entourage” and I kind of hated that show. George (Jon Rudnitsky) seems to believe he’s the next Stanley Kubrick or Walt Whitman, Harry (Pico Alexander) wants to move beyond being a bit-part actor, and Teddy (Wolff) is the “big picture” man of the group, who smooths talks people like a skeevy used car salesman.

Problems arise when Teddy swoops in on Alice like a sexual predator of women going through a midlife crisis. George becomes upset because he believes he’s entitled to some nooky with Alice because he’s the “nice guy” and he seems frustrated that he’s been friend-zoned. As for Harry, he’s slight impartial, but ends up showing his true colors when he views himself as the shining armor brought in to protect Alice and her two children like a vicious Mother bird.

“Home Again” is barely kept alive by Witherspoon’s natural likability as well as her growth throughout the movie as a woman coping with the concept of becoming a single mom. Most movies would handle her shortcomings and struggles with grace and realism that creates a humanistic bond with the audience. Instead she makes a few speeches reminiscent of “Ally McBeal” and allows for the three-men living in her home to commit “Two and a Half Men” hijinks. “Home Again” is a boring copy and paste of common television dramedys.

Like any sitcom, the character’s emotions, feelings, and misunderstandings are hashed out in a brisk verbal manner. It seems all too easy for everyone to admit their flaws, apologize and hug it out like it’s a family night around on the television. Everyone just comes together like one big dysfunctional family and forgets all their squabbles. If you want to believe in a phony universe where four men pining for Alice’s emotional and sexual affection can break bread at a table in peace, that’s fine. But the unearned sappy mentality and rushed conflict resolution in “Home Again” is lazy.

Film Review: “IT”

Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis and Bill Skarsgard
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Rated: R
Running time: 2 hrs 15 mins
New Line Cinema

Why do I hate clowns?

Could it be because one Saturday night, while eating dinner alone at a Pizza Hut, the evening entertainment was a clown? Asking if there was “anything else” she could do for me, I told the waitress to “keep the clown away from me.” She must have said something to Bozo because, before I could finish my salad, this red-nosed freak stood next to my table and announced, very loudly, “Hey everybody….this guy doesn’t like clowns.” He then led the kids in the restaurant in booing me. Hell, who am I kidding, he got the parents to boo me too. When I left I told the waitress that I had left her a nice tip but that I had seen the clown take it off the table!

Could it be that quiet afternoon in 1991 when I was visited at the theatre I managed by three clowns, all in full regalia, who warned me that if I played the movie “Shakes the Clown” there “could be trouble?” I told them I could handle trouble, I just didn’t want any “drive by pie-ings.” They stared blankly at me.

Or it’s possible it’s because a woman I dated and gave almost five years of my life to liked clowns immensely and then ripped my heart out. Works for me. This hatred (read “fear”) of clowns led me to completely ignore the 1990 television production of “IT.” However, I did watch it recently to prepare me for the movie, thinking if I know what’s going to happen I won’t react to the new film. Wrong!

As summer begins in the town of Derry, Maine school ends. The town is dotted with all kinds of kids, but not enough that no one notices when one turns up missing. We quickly meet Bill Denbrough (Lieberher) and his little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). Bill has made Georgie a paper boat to sail in the rain-swollen gutters outside. In order to make sure the boat will not sink, Bill sends Georgie to the cellar to get some wax to seal it. The cellar is a dark, foreboding place and Georgie hurries down and back in a flash. Pleased with himself, he soon finds himself chasing the boat down along the curb and watching it slide down into a storm drain. The boat is lost. Or is it? Georgie is surprised to be stared at by a pair of blood-shot eyes, attached to the white face of a friendly clown. Well, more like a non-friendly clown. One that likes to eat children!

Based on the popular novel by the master of horror himself, Stephen King, “IT” is a terrifying journey through childhood, one that doesn’t let the occasional “lost kid” go by unnoticed! A group of kids that calls themselves the Losers Club notice a lot. They are led by Bill, a slight boy with a stutter. The other members include Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the fat kid; Beverly Marsh (Lillis), the girl with the bad reputation; Richie (Finn Wolfhard), the smart aleck; Mike (Chosen Jacobs), whose only apparent malady in this town is that he is black; Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), the Jewish kid and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the sickly one. Together these youngsters battle their childhood fears, a couple of JD thugs and a horrifying clown named Pennywise (Skarsgard) as they investigate the morbid history of Derry.

Why is this movie so damn scary? The cast. The filmmakers have assembled an amazing cast of young actors that perfectly fit each role. Each is pitch-perfect in his/her portrayal and you can’t help but see the film (and the horror in if) through their eyes. And Skarsgard is a revelation! With minimal dialogue and eyes that dart wildly, his Pennywise is up there with Hannibal Lecter and Heath Ledger’s Joker in the movie villain Hall of Fame. A warning to those who only remember the television production: this is a violent film. Very dark for a King adaptation, though I’ve been warned that the novel, which I may or may not attempt to read, is even darker. And that’s no joke!

Film Review: “Goon: Last of the Enforcers”

Starring: Seann William Scott, Wyatt Russell and Liev Schreiber
Directed by: Jay Baruchel
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 41 mins
Momentum Pictures

In 2011, a small budget comedy written by actor Jay Baruchel and Seth Rogen’s long-tine partner, Evan Goldberg, called “Goon” attracted itself a small following. The story of Doug Glatt, a man whose IQ level is so low it leads him to become an enforcer in pro hockey, had its funny moments. Not sure if anyone was clamoring for a sequel but one has arrived. And it’s not too bad.

The NHL is on strike, which means more attention is being paid to the minor league teams, including Halifax Highlanders. Doug (Scott) is now the team’s captain, and each night he leads them onto the ice. He also leads the team in penalty minutes. It seems Doug is still a goon – picking a fight with anyone he sees. However this year things have changed. There’s a new black-hat in the league, Anders Cain (Russell) who is not only big and bad but is the son of the Highlander’s team owner. One night out on the ice Doug and Anders throw down, with Doug being seriously injured. With a new wife and a baby on the way, Doug decides to retire, thinking he can skate away from the game he loves. But it’s never easy to walk away.

Well cast and smartly written, “Goon: Last of the Enforcers” is built on different relationships. Doug and his teammates. Doug and his wife. Anders and his father. They all play a part in the story. And the cast help pull these relationships off. Scott has always been able to play the dense guy who just doesn’t get it but here he give Doug (or, as he signs his name, “Dug”) a quiet sweetness that keeps you rooting for him. And as much as you want to hate him, you also quietly root for Anders. It’s obvious that he’s only playing the game the way he does to earn some recognition from his father, a one-time hockey star. The violence he dispenses is his way of asking for attention. I had the opportunity to meet Wyatt Russell last year and he is a pretty good sized guy. He was also a hockey player (he was a goalie) so I can imagine it was fun for him to be outside the pipes and facing off on the ice. Schreiber seems to be having fun with his role as former enforcer Ross Rhea who, like Doug, finds himself reliving the old days by participating in local “hockey nights.” It should be noted that no hockey is played at these events. It’s just fighting match-ups, with the winner moving on to the next guy.

First-time feature director Baruchel shows a keen eye for keeping the film moving and his cameras have managed to capture the best part of ice hockey – the speed in which the game flows.

If I have a problem with the film it’s with the amount of blood that is shed during the on-ice battles. Most hockey fights consist of one guy grabbing another guy’s sweater, pulling it up over his head and giving him a few shots to the head. Those pale in comparison to the violence here, where teeth are lost and gallons of blood are spilled. Oh, and also TJ. Miller has an unfunny, recurring gig as a “Sportcenter” style host. I wish I knew who in Hollywood he had naked pictures of because I’d steal them back and return them if it meant I never had to endure him again in a film.

Film Review: “Good Time”

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ben Safdie
Directed By: Ben Safdie and Josh Safdie
Rated: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
A24

In 2011, if you had told me Robert Pattinson was an audacious talent that must be experienced; I would have called you a bold-faced liar. The “Twilight” saga tainted his image as he spent years as a twinkling in the sunlight vampire that makes constipated reactionary faces. 2017 may be the year he erases that moniker after a wonderfully low-key performance in “Lost City of Z” and now the subdued, yet enthralling performance in “Good Time.”

Constantine (Pattinson) is on the run after a botched bank robbery. His mentally challenged brother Nick (Safdie) was caught by police and isn’t handling prison life well. Morally corrupt, Constantine attempts to scrounge up bail money by duping his unaware girlfriend Corey (Leigh) into ponying up thousands of dollars with her mother’s credit card. When that doesn’t work, Constantine takes the next best route a petty thief can think of, busting his brother out himself.

“Good Time” works best without lengthy, wordy exposition because of how fast it moves. How the movie begins and ends is very telling of how Constantine should be viewed. Throughout “Good Time” Constantine looks nervous, his mind is racing through a thousand scenarios and exit plans at every turn. Midway through the film we watch him in a short amount of time work his way out of a jam with two different people, one with his words and one with his lips. His criminal odyssey doesn’t necessarily sprawl throughout the Bronx, but his manipulative impact is felt by those who encounter or get ensnared in his devious plans.

“Good Time” is very much a vehicle for Pattinson, who is a tour de force. He’s not likable, in fact you really hate him before all is said and done. But there’s this next-level intelligence at work that keeps you entertained. Much like watching Walter White weasel his way out of the grasp of fellow criminals and police through five seasons of “Breaking Bad,” watching Constantine squirm out of trouble and manipulate others through 100 minutes is much more unnerving, brisk and exhilarating.

Constantine is audaciously rotten, sometimes evil, when using others and tossing them aside when they no longer have any further use to him. There’s a moment when Constantine has to team up with another criminal, who’s much less intelligent and a lot cruder, and that when the film mixes in dark humor and entertainment. It blends well with Constantine’s self-preservation, as we watch him tout non-violence, as well as brutal violence, in the same scenario.

Lush neon light bathes the dark New York City night as the film soaks up a matching retro soundtrack from the 80’s. The visual aesthetics sometimes contradict Constantine’s depravity and corruption, but matches scenes of fleeing and fighting like any well-oiled crime-drama. “Good Time” is a gritty character piece because like most real-life criminals, Constantine is a scumbag. He’s a repulsive loser who’s gotten good at a few things, lying, cheating and scheming. We’re not supposed to root for him; we’re supposed to watch the devastation left behind in his wake.

Film Review: “The Hitman’s Bodyguard”

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson and Salma Hayek
Directed by: Patrick Hughes
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 58 mins
Lionsgate

Michael Bryce (Reynolds) is a Triple-A rated bodyguard who is proud of the fact the he hasn’t lost a client since….BANG! Oops.

A film that only works in small doses, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is several films in one. First you have an action comedy full of dirty words and exploding heads. Next is a political thriller as the leader of Belarus (Gary Oldman) is put on trial, at the Hague in the Netherlands no less! Finally you have the “bro-mance,” featuring Bryce and hired killer Darius Kincaid (Jackson), a duo that yells and bickers with each other like an old married couple. Taken separately, you have a surprisingly entertaining (sometimes) film. Put it all together, and you have a mess.

When the film works it’s when Reynolds and Jackson act as you expect them too. Reynolds is all smarm, his character seemingly trying to be the smartest man in the room while Jackson finds new and entertaining ways to use the words “mother” and, well, you know.

Somehow Kincaid is the only witness that can put Oldman’s character away forever, though it’s never really understood how until the end of the film. Throw in Bryce’s old lover, who just happens to be an INTERPOL agent, and you can see how jumbled the film is. Thankfully, the chemistry (and improvisational skills) of Reynolds and Jackson keep the film moving. The action is frenetic, moving across Europe like a Zagat video gone wild, so much so that you appreciate it when Mr. Jackson gets to utter his favorite phrase. “You know you’ve totally ruined “mother fu**er) for me, Bryce tells Kincaid. Hardly. The words flow out of Kincaid like the paint off of an artist’s brush. If only the rest of the film were as much of a masterpiece.

Film Review: “The Glass Castle”

Starring: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts
Directed By: Destin Daniel Cretton
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 127 minutes
Lionsgate

There’s an old adage that everyone has heard at some point about how we can’t pick our parents. I hate that truism. It’s rarely used in an earnest conversation and mainly glosses over a more deep-seeded conflict. In “The Glass Castle,” the conflict is multi-layered and a lot more complicated than its face value. Rex Walls (Harrelson) drags his wife and kids cross country to escape debt, police and his own parents, internalizing and allowing some of his more dark secrets to manifest into emotional manipulation and possible abuse.

Rex repeatedly attempts to drown his sorrows in alcohol, but surprisingly reveals a softer side anytime he hits the bottle. That’s not to say he has his deplorable moments with whiskey heavy on his breath. His four children and wife, Rose (Watts), are generally at his mercy as he goes from dilapidated home to dilapidated home. They live without proper plumbing, heat or even food sometimes. They finally settle down in rural West Virginia where his children, on the cusp of puberty, begin to piece together that their father isn’t the kind, gentle soul they have believed him to be.

“The Glass Castle” is told from the point of view of Rex’s second oldest child, Jeanette. Brie Larson is wasted as grown-up Jeanette, but is played much better in flashbacks by Ella Anderson. The other three kids don’t have much of a personality in the flashbacks, but considering its Jeanette’s memoir, that’s perfectly fine. The audience’s perception of Rex unravels as Jeanette gets older and sees Rex as a flawed father figure. Besides being an alcoholic, he possibly abuses their mom, imprisons the children within their own home without proper education and prioritizes booze over buying essentials for the family.

Rex is a difficult character to root for, at all. His likeability is buoyed by Harrelson’s ability to flip from a shattered, paranoid man to a charming goofball. It’s difficult to fully comprehend Jeanette’s overall attitude because when Larson is brought back, she’s used to deliver icy stares and spout declarative disgust in the film’s present day. It’s not only until the end of the movie that she begins to warm up to her father’s habitual lies. “The Glass Castle” sloppily attempts to ever convey a direct, and even indirect, message about who Rex really is.

But because it continues to play with Rex as an anti-hero, “The Glass Castle” is rarely boring and is a sometimes interesting, if not derivative, soap opera. There are predictable beats, but the film throws a few curveballs and avoids several cliché moments, settling for a more genuine dramatic effect. Some viewers may even see their own family in the Walls, which is both heartbreaking and terrifying. Of course the modern day Walls most likely wouldn’t be able to handle life without a smartphone.

“The Glass Castle” is based on Jeanette’s memoirs, which I imagine is much more lengthy and in-depth. The book is a bestseller with a massive following because of its truthful slice of impoverished Americana. Despite taking place in the 70’s, there are parallels to the broken small towns that continue to dot America, which add another level of relatability to the film. However the entirely white cast may disarm and confound anyone outside the demographic depicted on-screen.

There is a level of understanding in “The Glass Castle” about how once one or both of your parents pass, you don’t necessarily reflect on the bad times. You seem to neglect how terrible they may have been, but instead focus on and cherish the moments where they showed their parental love and care for you. The things that bugged you and the moments of turmoil are reflected on through tears and laughter, as long as those memories weren’t too tumultuous. “The Glass Castle” is a peculiar film about hindsight forgiveness, more than blind acceptance.

Film Review: “Step”

Directed By: Amanda Lipitz
Rated: PG
Running Time: 83 minutes

A 100% percent high school graduation rate isn’t unheard of. However the average graduation rate, depending on your state, hovers anywhere from 66% to 94%, according to U.S. News and World Report. In Maryland though, out of 204 schools, there isn’t a 100% graduation rate at any high school. But you have to dig a little deeper to find the one that accomplished it back in 2016, the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.

The predominantly African-American middle-high public charter school was an experiment created in 2009. The hope was to help transform the young women in the urban core through strong education and empowerment. “Step” catches up with the first class ever to attend that school, as they get ready to graduate and look to get into college. Specifically we watch three women on the high-school step dance team.

That’s not to take away from the most fascinating part of this film, the public education experiment, which surely isn’t the only one in the country. When the cameras go home with the girls and we see a broken home life, impoverished circumstances, and single moms. We fully grasp that this is a city, at every multi-generational level, working to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Even behind closed doors at the school, where educators are reaming students over bad grades, we see this disheartening concern in their eyes that their students may not make it and they may never make anything of themselves.

In that regard, “Step” is a wonderfully engaging documentary about perseverance against insurmountable odds. The film’s backdrop is the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore riots which were broadcast for the world to see, and inner city decay. To see these teenage girls being forced to grow up in such harsh conditions and to strive for positivity in the face of hopelessness is one of the most inspiring things an American documentary has shown in years.

There is a little bit of choppiness in the film’s narrative, mainly because the film’s speed is hit on fast forward. It buzzes through people, faces and places in a dizzying whirlwind, instead of taking a breath here and there for reflection. But it also helps prevent the film from becoming too melodramatic and repetitive when detailing the young women’s lives and circumstances.

While the step dance team is certainly the least interesting part of this film, it does play an integral role of playing by subliminally layering in sports movie tropes about self-esteem and tenacity. It makes many of the film’s moments, like one girl getting a full ride scholarship to college and another girl making a last minute to even be considered for acceptance, that much more impactful. “Step” is an encouraging dose of reality that America’s future will be in capable hands.

Film Review “A Ghost Story”

Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara
Director: David Lowery
Distributed by: A24
Rating: Not Rated
Runtime: 92 minutes

Our Score: 2.5 out of 5 stars

A24 has been releasing some very interesting films recently including this year alone with “Free Fire” and “It Comes At Night”. With a title like “A Ghost Story”, it definitely grabbed my interested…unfortunately not for long. Don’t get me wrong this is definitely a film that will stay with you for a bit. I can’t say that I hated it overall but damn was I bored at some points. I have a feeling this might be a film to benefit from multiple viewings but I don’t think that I could make it through a second time here. I mean there is a pie eating scene that lasts five minutes and I understand why its there but it is painful to get through….pretty much like the whole film.

Official Premise: Recently deceased, a white-sheeted ghost (Casey Affleck) returns to his suburban home to console his bereft wife (Rooney Mara), only to find that in his spectral state he has become unstuck in time, forced to watch passively as the life he knew and the woman he loves slowly slip away. Increasingly unmoored, the ghost embarks on a cosmic journey through memory and history, confronting life’s ineffable questions and the enormity of existence. [A24]

The cast for “A Ghost Story” includes recent Oscar Winner Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Funnily enough reuniting together again along with the director of this film after all working together on 2013’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”. Performances are good from Mara and the loss is definitely depicted well, almost too well. Please make sure you realize though, this is not a scary horror film at all. I see the aspect of horror but it is not the same. Deep is a word, I would use to describe the message in this film, much deeper than I usually like. So if you are interested in a different kind of ghost movie that has few words, very long scenes with sometimes little happening but leaves you thinking a bit afterwards you might then be interested in this.

Film Review: “Atomic Blonde”

Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy and John Goodman
Directed By: David Leitch
Rated: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Focus Features

David Leitch’s first solo directed movie comes after the success of his work on the “John Wick” franchise. While a lot of the “Wick” DNA is on display in many of its action sequences, “Atomic Blonde” suffers from a choppy narrative and lack of character intrigue outside of its two leads.

MI6 agent Lorraine (Theron) is first seen, covered in bruises and burning the memories of a former ally. She walks into a soundproof room to give her recorded recollection of her undercover week leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. She recounts her tale of infiltrating East Berlin, in search of an allusive watch containing information on every agent deployed during the Cold War. Failing to retrieve that token, may result in another 40 years of nuclear arms muscle flex by the U.S. and Soviet Union.

The premise is alluring as Theron’s character radiates macho gusto and calm precision. She speaks in short, biting simplistic sentences and delivers angered quips under her breath. She’s matched by a Berlin ally, David (McAvoy), who’s underground smuggling and cocky smirk covers his secretive intentions. The two, while relatively friendly, aren’t about to become buddies as they spy and record each other. “Atomic Blonde” should be an interesting blend of spy-thriller and action-survival, but is bogged down by its jumbly plot.

There’s plenty of exposition to munch on, but nothing clear or meaningful. There are dozens of characters brought in and out of the woodwork to offer their allegiances and services, but none bring a unique personality or influence to the script. The exquisite opening for “Atomic Blonde” quickly sinks into uninvolving plot progression that feels like an assigned household chore before the film’s real goodies, the action sequences.

Hand-to-hand combat is filmed tightly, but fully in frame to put the viewer right in the middle of fists, kicks, groans and gunshots. They’re some of the film’s most inspired moments, but they’re shoehorned in towards the end and sparse. The sagging middle cuts between uninteresting character interactions and posturing that only pays off in the final 10 minutes of the movie. It makes the entire storyline a lot clearer; however the bad taste of wasted talent meandering aimlessly doesn’t leave your mouth.

This graphic novel adaptation displays an attractive visual flair along with an 80’s best-of soundtrack that keeps your eyes from wandering to far from the screen although there’s no substance beneath its neon portrait. Despite her best efforts, Theron (who also helped produce the movie) can only carry the film so far. Her mix of femme fatale and impenetrable action star is humbled by a late emotional reveal towards the end, that’s more impactful than it should be. Her recent run of action films, like “Mad Max” and “Fate of the Furious” are commendable. But “Atomic Blonde” is more bark than bite.

Film Review “Atomic Blonde”

Directed by: David Leitch
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy
Distributed by: Focus Features
Running time: 115 minutes

Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

When I first heard about “Atomic Blonde”, I read the quote describing it as “John Wick” with a girl! And I said, “Sure, kickass!” Charlize Theron is nothing short of amazing and extremely bad-ass, continuing from her roles in “The Fate of the Furious” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”. She is just incredible. I did quite enjoy the 80’s music and the Germany setting during the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately this film doesn’t succeed like “John Wick” and has some great moments of action, but never goes all-in.

The film follows undercover MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) as she is sent on a mission to Berlin to dig into a murder of a fellow agent while also trying to retrieve a highly wanted after list of double agents. Teaming up with a local agent in David Percival (James McAvoy) in Berlin as they struggle to find out who to trust and who is who they really say they are.

There was something about “John Wick” to me that just had that “their are no rules” feeling and this one felt much more by the book. I did read that Charlize Theron did most of the action herself and trained very hard for the role, so I really give her credit and I would love to be able to say that I liked it more.

There were some great standout scenes, one feeling like it was a one-shot room to room shootout. Very cool scene. Ending had some cool twists and turns, which is expected with a CIA/spy movie. Could this be a new franchise? It’s possible, I’m sure…I will hold out for a Atomic Blonde/John Wick crossover!

Film Review “Dunkirk”

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard and Mark Rylance
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Rated: PG 13
Running time: 1 hr 46 mins
Warner Bros

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Even though it was one of the most important events of World War II, the story has rarely been told. 400,000 soldiers trapped on a French beach in the early days of the war. That tale is now front and center in the latest film by Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk.”

June 1940. As the battle in France intensifies we happen upon a group of English soldiers. They walk quietly through the deserted streets, trying to avoid detection. Suddenly a shot rings out. Then many. They run for cover but to no avail. One manages to escape and joins others on the beach.

In England, the British Navy is requisitioning civilian watercraft to travel across the channel to help evacuate the troops. One of the boat owners, Mr. Dawson (Rylance) is readying his yacht with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend, George (Barry Keoghan). However, rather than turn his boat over, Mr. Dawson decides to push off and make the journey himself.

High above the Channel, a pilot (Tom Hardy) gathers with his squadron mates to begin a sortie to give cover to the evacuation. It’s a high risk game of distance, altitude and available fuel. The slightest miscalculation of any or all three can spell certain death.

Told as three separate stories (Mole, Sea and Air) in three different time narratives (from a week out to a day to an hour before) “Dunkirk” is more of a thriller than a full out war film. Director Nolan, who also wrote the script, weaves the three stories together seamlessly, giving each story ample time to develop. He also has filled the cast with young actors who do a good job in projecting the fear and anticipation that war can bring. Besides misters Whitehead, Bonnard, Glynn-Carney and Keoghan, I must add pop star Harry Styles to the list. Though not a large or showy role, it is an important one, and if he ever decides to give up music he has found another profession in which he can succeed. If I have one complaint about the acting it’s that Nolan has attracted such talents as Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy but has put them in roles that don’t require a lot of acting. Both Rylance and Branagh have been recognized alongside a small group of actors as the best Britain has EVER produced and Hardy is always a treat to watch on screen. Would have loved to have seen them seriously chew some scenery.

The film is beautifully shot, and the musical score by Hans Zimmer accompanies the on-screen action perfectly. That being said, I expected a lot more action in what was being sold in the trailers as a “war film.” Why have 400,000 troops, a couple destroyers and a few squadrons of airplanes if you’re only going to use them sparingly? Anyone?

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