Film Review: “The Gentlemen”

THE GENTLEMEN
Starring: Matthew McConaughey abd Charlie Hunnam
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hr 53 mins
STX Entertainment 

There’s little that’s gentlemanly about the sordid cast of characters in director Guy Ritchie’s new action crime thriller “The Gentlemen.” However, there is plenty to enjoy in this wonderful caper that’s brimming with sharp dialogue, a delicious plot and a few laughs along the way. It is certainly Ritchie’s best effort since 2011’s “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” and is only surpassed by 2000’s “Snatch” as his greatest overall work. With a talented, all-star ensemble cast, and a terrific hook at the start, Ritchie takes us on an exciting, twisting journey that’s certainly not for the kiddos. 

From an impoverished childhood in the United States, Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) rose above his situation to earn a Rhodes Scholarship to England’s esteemed Oxford University. Instead of becoming a law-abiding scholar, Mickey saw the monetary potential in selling marijuana to his fellow students. Those humble beginnings led Mickey, often through violent means, to build a multi-million-dollar illegal empire. Despite the power, and prestige he commands, Mickey has grown tired of the game and wants out to spend time with his beloved, yet equally criminal wife, Rosalind (Michelle Dockery, “Downton Abbey”), for whom he will do anything. 

Much of this background information is told to us during an extended, elaborate conversation between an unsavory, thick-accented private investigator named Fletcher (scene stealer Hugh Grant), who’s been hired by a jilted tabloid editor snubbed in public by Mickey, and Mickey’s righthand enforcer, Ray (played with subdued rage by Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”). For his efforts, which he has typed up in a screenplay form, Fletcher wants 20 million British pounds to keep his scoop silent. 

Meanwhile, Mickey finds a potential buyer for his empire, but there is a concern that this will show competitors that he has become weak. Blood is spilled in the water when one of Mickey’s illegal sites is robbed by a group of young, social media savvy thugs led by a man known simply as Coach (Colin Farrell). The plot only thickens with the introduction of overly ambitious, young Chinese mobster Dry Eye (Henry Golding, “Crazy Rich Asians”) and the accidental death of a Russian mobster’s son. 

McConaughey is perfect for this role. Of course, he is quite adept at playing it cool, calm and collected, as demonstrated in a variety of his previous performances. What makes this more notable is the vengeful side he fleshes out while playing Mickey. It’s something we don’t normally see from him and he is brilliant at unleashing the lion in “The Gentlemen.” For their parts, Golding is a nice surprise as a villain and Farrell is marvelously entertaining, harkening back to Brad Pitt’s unintelligible performance in “Snatch.” 

Written by Ritchie, the plot is chock full of twists and surprises that keep one glue to the silver screen, waiting on edge as to what is going to happen next. There are some laughs amidst the violence, which is brutal enough, along with adult-oriented lingo, to make “The Gentlemen” non-kid friendly. Ritchie’s pacing is just as quick as the dialogue with nary a dull moment. In the end, “The Gentlemen” is a jolly good time and the best release of the new year thus far!  

Kansas City Stage Review: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – the Musical

  • “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
  • The Kauffman Center – Kansas City, Missouri
  • January 21, 2020 

Oh, how sweet it is! Filled with colorful costumes, magical set designs, and wonderful songs that will put a smile on your face, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” now performing at the Kauffman Performing Arts Center in Kansas City, Missouri, is a terrific musical the whole family can enjoy. Based upon the 1964 children’s novel of the same name by British novelist Roald Dahl (1916-90), “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was first adapted for the silver screen in 1971 and then again in 2005 before premiering as a musical in 2013 in London.

 The musical version takes us to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory where, after being shut up for 40 years, the legendary chocolatier (Cody Garcia) decides to venture out into the real world to find an heir. Disguised as a chocolate shop owner, Willy ends up befriending, in a small way, a local boy named Charlie Bucket (Ryan Umbarila). Charlie lives an impoverished life just down the block with two sets of grandparents, who never leave their bed, and his widowed, overworked mother. 

Charlie is a dreamer to the tenth degree and so, it’s only natural that he becomes enamored with the idea of getting a Wonka chocolate bar in order to get a golden ticket. The five lucky recipients of which will get to go on a tour of Willy’s factory with the chance to win a lifetime supply of chocolate. Of course, the whimsical and quirky Willy has other plans. Charlie ultimately proves himself to be a good-hearted lad, especially when compared to the other four children who reveal themselves to be brats, each meeting their own unique, laughable fate during the tour. 

The first half of the show contained a couple of heartfelt moments between Charlie and his Grandpa Joe (Steve McCoy) that pulled at the heartstrings. Umbarila had an overall nice stage presence but was overshadowed a bit by McCoy’s charismatic delivery of his comedic lines. Despite Charlie’s underdog nature, the most fascinating character remained Wonka himself. However, his portrayal during the first act was a little flat, which was accompanied by a sluggish pace even with a few entertaining dance sequences. 

The true highlight of the night’s show was the second act. It was fun, lively, colorful and thoroughly entertaining. Garcia delivered a superb performance down the stretch run with a portrayal that was reminiscent of a blend between Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp. Supported by a solid orchestral performance, the musical’s second act was punctuated by well-choreographed Oompa Loompas who generated the biggest laughs of the night. 

In the end, don’t wait for a golden ticket in a candy bar to see “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” because it will be gone before you know it. 

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” runs in Kansas City at the beautiful Kauffman Center through January 26th. For tickets in KC or for the rest of the tour, click HERE.

Film Review: “Three Christs”

THREE CHRISTS
Starring: Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage
Directed by: John Avnet
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 57 mins
IFC Films 

When you think of great films with mental hospitals as the setting, indelible titles such as 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or 1990’s “Awakenings” probably come to mind. With a similar backdrop, the drama “Three Christs,” starring Richard Gere, boldly attempts to delve into the realm of paranoid schizophrenia by exploring a time when pre-fontal lobotomies, insulin-induced comas, and electroshock therapies were standard treatments. Directed by John Avnet (“Fried Green Tomatoes”), “Three Christs” alas fails to achieve any level of greatness as it is saturated with terrible melodrama and an overall lack of emotional connectivity.

 An adaptation of the 1964 psychiatric case study “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti” by psychologist Milton Rokeach, “Three Christs” takes us back to December 1960 when a bruised Dr. Alan Stone (Gere) is recording a defense of himself against accusations leveled at him by a disciplinary board. It’s a nice hook as it gives off a sense of mystery. We are soon taken back to the beginning during the summer of 1959 when he arrives at the Ypsilanti State Hospital.

 Having left a prolific teaching and writing career to pursue a study of delusional patients, Dr. Stone, with the help of his new assistant Becky (Charlotte Hope, “The Theory of Everything”), finds three men who all claim to be Jesus Christ. Joseph (Peter Dinklage), Leon (Walton Goggins) and Clyde (Bradley Whitford) are tragic figures with sad pasts. Each has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics and left to essentially rot in near-barbaric conditions. 

With the encouragement of his wife (Julianna Marguiles), Dr. Stone challenges his peers and a reluctant hospital head by using more modern methods that don’t involve inflicting pain. The irony is that he is treating three men collectively who believe they are Christ while he himself does not believe in organized religion. Gradually he makes progress, but countless roadblocks make it a treacherous path. 

Despite having a solid cast, “Three Christs” falls flat on nearly every level imaginable. The story is without any unique qualities as it feels like any other run-of-the-mill medical drama. Its characters are nothing special and Gere seems to just rely upon every facial gesture he has ever used in his past films instead of pushing for something more. The pacing is sluggish, and the plot is predictable. Gere is also not believable as the father to two young, pre-teen daughters considering he was roughly 67 years old at the time of filming. Furthermore, we are supposed to believe Dr. Stone fought in WWII and Korea. Assuming his character matches his age, then Dr. Stone would have been 59 or 60 while fighting on the front lines against North Korea. Uh, no. Of course, to be fair I should mention the rest of the cast, which can be covered in one statement – every actor is so over-the-top with their performances you have to wonder how on earth the film ever got released, much less contemplate if Avnet should ever direct again. 

In the end, “Three Christs” is a strikeout.

Film Review: “1917”

1917
Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Universal Pictures 

With three Golden Globe nominations, “1917” is not only a masterful example of the war film genre, but it is also a masterpiece of cinema in general. Directed by Oscar-winning British filmmaker Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “The Road to Perdition”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“Penny Dreadful”), “1917” is a highly accurate depiction of the Great War with a plot that is essentially Great Britain’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

 The story takes place during Operation Alberich, a strategic German military withdrawal lasting from February 9 to March 20, 1917 in France. Its purpose was to shorten German lines along a section of the Western Front in order to consolidate forces along the Hindenburg Line. “1917” plays upon this event by thrusting two young men into what appears to be an impossible mission.

 British Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, “The King,” “Game of Thrones”) and Schofield (George MacKay, “Where Hands Touch,” “Captain Fantastic”) are suddenly pulled away from their unit on orders from their overall commander, General Erinmore (Colin Firth). The general needs a message dispatched deep into German territory to stop the advance of a Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), who believes he is pursuing a defeated enemy when in fact it is a trap that will cost the lives of 1,600 men including Lance Corporal Blake’s brother. 

Lance Corporal Schofield is the more seasoned veteran of the two and is wary of crossing No Man’s Land as he believes they are the ones who are walking into a trap. However, Lance Corporal Blake is doggedly determined go through with the mission, which must be completed by the next morning when the fateful offensive by Colonel MacKenzie is planned. In their way lies a myriad of obstacles including endless amounts of mud, deep craters, barbed wire, booby traps and German snipers. It is a heart-pounding, near-continuous sequence of events that will leave you riveted to the silver screen. 

Historically, “1917” delivers the goods with its accurate depiction of trench warfare ranging from the uniforms worn to the hellish conditions to the psychological effects on the soldiers. Painstaking care was clearly made to get every battlefield detail right as well as an accurate depiction of the Germans’ scorched earth policy as they pulled back to the Hindenburg Line. “1917” also delves into the toll the German occupation had on the French civilian population, best embodied by a young woman barely surviving in a burned-out city. 

Chapman and MacKay deliver solid performances throughout the film as they humanize their characters, thereby making it easy for us to become emotionally invested in their epic journey. The biggest praise, though, is reserved for Mendes direction. For example, the first half of the nearly two-hour film, which does not feel that long, is shot so seamlessly that it has all the appearance of being one, long continuous take. His orchestration of mass chaos with a multitude of extras and cameras, not to mention how his hand-held work puts us right in the trenches, is worthy of an Oscar for best cinematography. “1917” is nothing less than one of the ten best movies of 2019.

Film Review: “Richard Jewell”

RICHARD JEWELL
Starring: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1 hr 59 mins
Warner Bros 

Richard Jewell. I cannot help but wonder how many Americans recognize the name and the heroic actions associated with it. Better yet, who can recall how Jewell’s heroism during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia was tragically stained by an assumption of guilt by the FBI and the news media, which subsequently caused millions to believe he was a domestic terrorist. Thankfully, someone in the form of iconic, Oscar-winning filmmaker Clint Eastwood did not forget and has now made a poignant drama that pays tribute to a simple man who saved dozens of lives one hot summer night. 

It’s 1986 in Atlanta where Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, “BlacKkKlansman”) has just started work as a mailroom employee at a law firm. Portrayed as respectful and observant with a dose of simple-mindedness, Jewell catches the eye of attorney Watson Bryant (Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell). A pivotal friendship develops between them with long-term consequences and when Jewell announces that he is leaving to become a security guard, a first step in what he dreams will become a career in law enforcement, Watson, a bit of crusader, warns him to not let the badge go to his head.

 Flash forward ten years later where Jewell, who lives with his doting mother, Bobi (Oscar-winner Kathy Bates), is fired from his job as a college campus security guard after a series of events that include him unlawfully pulling over students on the road as they return to school grounds. Having previously been dismissed as county sheriff’s deputy, it would seem likely that Jewell would have a hard time getting another security guard job. However, with the arrival of the Olympics in Atlanta, bodies are needed, so Jewell, almost delusional about being a member of law enforcement, gets another chance to patrol Centennial Park. 

No one takes Jewell seriously, that is until he finds a suspicious backpack filled with pipe bombs. Two people do perish as a result of the subsequent explosion and dozens are wounded, but it would have been much worse without his actions in a pre-9/11 world that wasn’t quite as vigilant. Jewell is hailed as a hero, but he is quickly labeled as a villain by fictional FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm in a one-dimensional performance), a man desperate to get vengeance, and newspaper reporter Kathy Scruggs (played with over-the-top acting by Olivia Wilde), an unscrupulous and brash journalist willing to do anything to get a headline, even if it means destroying Jewell’s life in the process. 

One of the most sacred principles of our judicial system is the presumption of innocence. That all persons are presumed innocent until proven guilty. “Richard Jewell” reminds us all just how terribly wrong things can go when that fundamental adage can be so easily forgotten by a rush to judgment fueled by motives that are less than noble. Although Jewell was exonerated, his case remains a stain on our nation’s history. While Eastwood’s effort does not rise to the level of cinematic achievement as some of his other later works, such as “Gran Torino,” it is still a solid film that successfully plays the emotional heartstrings. Rockwell is a joy to watch, but the breakout star is Hauser. On the surface, his portrayal of Jewell appears too simplistic. However, as the film flows along, his performance reveals itself to be far more complex and impactful than what we first realize. By the end, his role makes you so invested in the story that it will stick with you long after the curtains close. 

Overall, Eastwood and Hauser are successful in accomplishing at least one thing – making us remember who real heroes are. 

Film Review: “Queen & Slim”

Film review: “Queen & Slim”
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith
Directed by: Melina Matsoukas
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 132 minutes
Universal Pictures

Ideally, a great work of art will have a deeply emotional and even an intellectual impact on the viewer. It is no different with the genre of cinema. A rare, special example of such a work is the new drama “Queen & Slim.” Erroneously labeled by some as a Bonnie and Clyde-type story, “Queen & Slim” brilliantly explores the fear and outrage felt by many in America over numerous fatal shootings in recent years of black men, often young ones, by white law enforcement officers. While its climax is heavy-handed and the overall portrayal of the police is insultingly generalized, “Queen & Slim” remains a terrific specimen of cinematic art.

The story begins innocently enough in a black-owned restaurant where Ernest “Slim” Hines (Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out,” “Black Panther”) and Angela “Queen” Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith, “Jett”) are having their first date. Ernest seems almost outclassed by Angela, an experienced attorney who only said yes to him because she was lonelier than normal on this night in Ohio. During the drive back to her place, a white police officer pulls them over because Ernest forgot to use a turn signal on a deserted street. The situation escalates when the officer forces Ernest out of the car and pulls his gun despite the latter’s cooperation. A struggle ensues, resulting in Ernest fatally shooting the officer in self-defense, all of which is caught on the officer’s dashcam.

Considering her knowledge of the law, Angela inexplicably and fatefully convinces Ernest that they should flee the scene. Thus, begins an arduous journey to the Deep South while trying to avoid a nationwide manhunt that produces a large bounty for their heads. They eventually make it to Louisiana where Angela’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine, “Spider-Man: Homecoming”), a pimp suffering from PTSD because of his war service, reluctantly helps aid their quest to get to Florida. Once there, their plan is reach Cuba. This is also when the duo realizes how much of a media sensation they have become across the country and how they have become a symbol to those tired of racial injustice. This is touched upon in one powerful scene, but in the film’s totality it is a paltry effort to explore an important aspect of the story by first-time, feature-length director Melina Matsoukas, who is best known for her music videos, short films and the HBO series “Insecure.”

Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are magical on the silver screen together. Their chemistry is smooth as silk and their powerful, emotional performances, brimming with fear, anger, love and bravery, are worthy of Oscar consideration. Woodbine delivers the best acting of his long career with a brief, yet complicated portrayal of a man swimming in pain beneath the surface of his tough exterior. He, too, should be considered for a nomination come Academy Award time.

It is a misnomer to compare Ernest and Angela to Bonnie and Clyde, who seem to still be mistakenly labeled as some sort of folk heroes like the James brothers. Here is a refresher from a trained historian – Bonnie Parker (1910-34) and Clyde Barrow (1909-34) are credited with murdering at least four civilians and nine law enforcement officers as well as numerous armed robberies and kidnappings. They were not Robin Hood-type characters and bare no resemblance to Ernest and Angela, who go out of their way to not harm anyone during their attempt to get out of the country before being potentially gunned down.

Overall, “Queen & Slim” is a thought-provoking story that is relevant to our times and is so emotionally powerful that it will stick with you long after you have left the theater.

Film Review: “21 Bridges”

  • 21 BRIDGES
  • Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller
  • Directed by: Brian Kirk
  • Rated: Rated R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 39 mins
  • STX Entertainment 

Perhaps the greatest consequence of watching the crime drama “21 Bridges” is how much it makes you appreciate actual great movies. Some of the words that come to mind while reflecting upon 99 minutes of what were presumably good intentions to make a quality film are predictable, stereotypical and cliched. Despite having a bankable star in the form of Chadwick Bosman (“Black Panther”) in the lead role, Irish-born director Brian Kirk (“Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire”) fails to make much of an impression with his first foray into feature-length films. 

We meet Andre Davis (Bosman) when he is a little kid attending the funeral of his father, a NYPD officer who is described with such sappy, glowing prose that it is easy to feel like you are being hit over the head with a radioactive mallet. Unsurprisingly, when we fast forward 19 years, we see that Andre has grown up to become a driven NYPD detective with a history of fatally shooting his suspects. Some credit is due to Kirk because at least he tries to provide a glimmer of insight into Det. Andre’s motivations, but it is so fast-paced that neither he nor Bosman are able to turn the lead character into someone that is more than just a cliché cop. 

Kirk does grab our attention for a bit when two military veterans – Ray Jackson (Taylor Kitsch, “John Carter”) and Michael Trujillo (Stephan James, “Race”) – pull a late-night heist that goes completely sideways. It goes so wrong that eight NYPD officers are gunned down. Of course, who is the first person called in to lead the investigation? You guessed it, the most famous detective in all of New York City. Everyone believes he will track down the two thugs and shoot them dead without any questions being asked. However, Det. Andre has some questions of his own as he begins all-night investigation the requires all twenty-one bridges leading into Manhattan to be shut down, thereby preventing the two gunmen’s escape.

 Shockingly, Det. Andre doesn’t like having partners, but he is saddled with narcotics Det. Frankie Burns (a bland Sienna Miller) who often acts as a cheerleader as she roots for their prey to be shot down like dogs. The vice squeezes tighter on the cop killers as they try to figure out both a way out and how they ended up in the situation they are in. (We are left to wonder how they never seem to run out of bullets.) It all leads to a giant conspiracy that is so blatantly obvious that it would cause Sherlock Holmes to turn over in his grave, if such a thing is possible for a fictional character.

 Kirk is consistent as he maintains his swift storytelling from beginning to end, which does occasionally give an artificial sense of suspense. His lone bright spot is Bosman, whose presence is about the only thing that makes “21 Bridges” watchable. Bosman does the best he can with material that should have had a team of writers to rework to prevent it from being something less than satisfactory. Oh, and Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons is in it but his character in the Farmers Insurance commercials is far more multi-dimensional and interesting.

Film Review: “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi”

THE WARRIOR QUEEN OF JHANSI
Starring: Devika Bhise, Rupert Everett
Directed by: Swati Bhise
Rated: Rated R
Running Time: 1hr 42 mins
Roadside Attractions 

Held in as high regard in India as Joan of Arc in France, Rani Lakshmibai (1828-58) became a heroic martyr during the 1857 Indian Rebellion against the despotic British East India Company. While the British were successful in putting the revolt down, it placed India on a 90-year path to independence and Rani’s actions served as an inspiration then and now to generations of Indians. “The Warrior Queen of Jhansi” is based upon Rani’s story of rising from being a commoner to leading an army against the world’s lone superpower of the day. Sadly, this heavy-handed historical drama is not a fitting tribute to Rani’s legend as it fails to generate any sense of suspense; its acting and direction is stilted; its dialogue is often cliché; and it plays loose and fast with the facts. 

Our heroine of the story narrates some historical background at the beginning by telling how she was born on the banks of the Ganges River. Rani (Devika Bhise, “Mosaic”) then vaguely describes how the British East India Company gradually seized more and more power in India over the decades. The story then flashes through her early years like a streak of lightning complete with nauseatingly stiff dialogue. If you don’t blink, you learn that as a teenager, Rani married the ruler of the state of Jhansi. After a son dies in infancy, the couple adopts a nephew as their own to become the male heir. 

In the meantime, Indian soldiers forced to serve the British East India Company revolt in vengeful fashion after their rifle Enfield cartridges are coated in pig fat, an insult to both Muslims and Hindus. Back in England, Queen Victoria (Jodhi May, “Defiance”), with her Indian Muslim advisor by her side, the story of which was detailed in 2017’s “Victoria & Abdul,” wants cooler heads to prevail while her British advisor (Derek Jacobi) is consumed with hubris and is quick to crush the revolt with brutal force. This is a problem because the British army in Jhansi, commanded by experienced officer Sir Hugh Rose (Rupert Everett) but ordered around by East India Company representative Sir Robert Hamilton (Nathaniel Parker, “The Perfect Host”), has become bogged down by cholera. 

Now a widow, Rani trains her people how to use swords, bows, running obstacle courses, and fighting from horseback. Since any real backstory is nonexistent and there is a lack of character development, it is incomprehensible, without any explanation, that Rani is suddenly an expert military trainer and commander. There are a couple of vague references to her combat experience later, but that is perfunctory at best. Moreover, the discombobulated story continually skips across time while Rani’s adopted son seems to never age. It all comes across as ridiculous and unbelievable without any emotional impact on the viewer besides confusion and boredom. 

Eventually, Rose’s force attacks Rani’s well-fortified palace in Jhansi and the ensuing action resembles the often silly, overly exaggerated fight sequences from the brilliant comedy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” It goes without saying that there is no real suspense to the final battle scene, which is poorly choreographed and not representative of historical events. It doesn’t help that in the buildup there are sappy lines like, “She’s an idea. And ideas cannot be captured or owned. She belongs to her people, and not the East India Company.”

 Rani of Jhansi was a hero for the ages, but this film about her life should be shot off into space and lost to the ages.

Film Review: “Motherless Brooklyn”

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN
Starring: Edward Norton, Alec Baldwin
Directed by: Edward NortonRated: Rated R
Running Time: 2 hrs 24 mins
Warner Bros. 

While “Joker” has strokes of genius, namely Joaquin Phoenix, the new crime drama “Motherless Brooklyn” is a triumph of cinematic art and deserves to be an Oscar contender in multiple categories. Adapted from the 1999, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel of the same name by American novelist Jonathan Lethem, “Motherless Brooklyn,” written and directed by Edward Norton, is a brilliant, throwback detective story with an all-star cast that delivers the goods. It mirrors early 1950s Brooklyn in such a palpable way that it makes you feel like you are there. Despite its arguably long, two-hour plus running time, the puzzle-like central story is so engrossing with its twists and turns that you can end up losing yourself in it. 

“Motherless Brooklyn” revolves around Lionel Essrog (Norton), a gumshoe with Tourette’s syndrome, which is a neurological disorder consisting of involuntary tics, utterances and sometimes profane outbursts. One of a few misfits under the employ of WWII vet and longtime private detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), it is Lionel’s photographic memory which proves useful in his line of work. On the day we meet him, Frank needs Lionel and another detective to provide backup during a secret meeting in case something goes wrong. Unfortunately for Frank, this is exactly what happens and despite Lionel’s best efforts, he is unable to save his boss who leaves him a solitary word as a clue as to who is responsible. 

Like a string he cannot stop pulling on, Lionel obsessively follows in Frank’s footsteps to find out not only who killed him but why. The trail leads him down a path that puts him in physical jeopardy on multiple occasions as well as a woman named Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Belle”), whom Frank had discovered was the key to unlocking a dark secret that certain powerful people want to keep buried. Eventually, Lionel must find all the puzzle pieces and put them together before a looming deadline arrives. 

“Motherless Brooklyn” may well be Norton’s greatest accomplishment of his career as he succeeds pulling off the rare feat of wearing all three hats (writer/director/lead actor). His adaptation, which has been 20 years in the making from the time he first read the novel, brilliantly captures the essence of Lethem’s work while his direction is even-handed throughout the film. The latter is reflected in its tension-filled pacing, camera work, and his cast’s general success with disappearing into their roles. This includes Alec Baldwin as a power-hungry politician, Willem Dafoe as an eccentric genius, and Rose who is more than just a damsel in distress.

 The icing on the cake for Norton’s detailed film is its terrific costume designs, vintage cars, music, and overall early 1950s vibe he creates. It all adds up to a work that gives you a lot to chew on and to pay attention to. Overall, “Motherless Brooklyn” is simply one of 2019’s best films thus far.

Film Review: “The Current War” – Director’s Cut

THE CURRENT WAR – Director’s Cut
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr 42 mins
101 Studios 

Electricity. We take it for granted much like air and water. It is almost hard to imagine how human civilization ever functioned, much less survived without it. In the totality of human history, it was just a blink of an eye ago, circa the beginning of the 1880s, when electricity was delivered unto the masses by two extraordinary men – Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. The struggle between these two icons of invention over AC and DC current is dramatized in “The Current War,” a film that made its debut two years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival and languished in limbo until now. With engaging performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, and an interesting script, “The Current War” is a quick-paced historical work that is indubitably watchable. 

It all begins in 1882 when Edison (Cumberbatch) demonstrates the power of DC current by lighting up a small section of Manhattan, New York. After being snubbed by Edison, rich financier and inventor Westinghouse (Shannon) pursues the possibilities of AC current with equal passion. A war between the two gradually heats up with casualties along the way. 

Edison’s sometimes blind, cutthroat ambition, causes him to often make empty promises to his young children and losing out on time with his wife who dies tragically. He refuses to see any possibilities beyond DC current, which takes more power stations and heavier wire. Even a young and eccentric Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult, “Dark Phoenix”) cannot convince him otherwise. 

Westinghouse tries to stick to his moral principles by avoiding the use of dirty propaganda that Edison often employs. However, he lets a little envy creep in over Edison’s abundant fame and so he pushes harder to win with the more dangerous AC current, which can run longer distances via thinner wire. A close associate pays a high price for it and Westinghouse, who is dubiously portrayed as being haunted by a harrowing Civil War experience, resorts to similar tactics as those of Edison while forming a partnership with the scorned Tesla, who’s relegated to more of a sideshow within the story. 

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) “The Current War” was originally under the Weinstein Company’s umbrella, but it’s release was sidetracked after Harvey Weinstein’s fall from power. Thankfully, Gomez-Rejon, with the help of executive producer Martin Scorsese, was able to get the film back and did some reshoots. His final product is a rapid-paced, enjoyable work with good cinematography and solid costume designs.

 “The Current War” provides a keen look into this likely forgotten period of American history that changed the world forever. Cumberbatch and Shannon dominate the screen with as-expected impressive performances the bring to life these two titans of electrical ingenuity.

Film Review: “Lucy in the Sky”

LUCY IN THE SKY
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm
Directed by: Noah HawleyRated:
Rated R
Running Time: 2 hrs 4 mins
Fox Searchlight

Like most North Korean missile tests, the disastrous melodrama “Lucy in the Sky” fails to achieve full lift-off and explodes into a million fiery pieces. Although we are told the story is inspired by real-life events, in truth it bears little resemblance to the bizarre 2007 actions of disgraced NASA astronaut Lisa Novak. Natalie Portman tackles her lead role with sheer abandon, but this turns into heavy-handed acting, resulting in an inability to take her seriously. First-time feature film director and co-writer Noah Hawley, whose previous directorial efforts have been limited to TV episodes of “Fargo” and “Legion,” has no sense of pacing as it veers aimlessly while making us feel like we just spent 40 days in the wilderness when it is over, which is the best part of the film. 

Pushed by an alcoholic mother (Ellen Burstyn) to be better than everyone else, astronaut Lucy Cola (Portman) achieves a career pinnacle by spending two weeks on the International Space Station. Like a wide-eyed Major Tom, Lucy loses herself as she gazes at Earth during a spacewalk outside the station’s confines. (Lucy should go blind during this opening sequence because she stares at the sun without having her gold, protective lens down, but who cares about science?)

 Upon her return to Earth, the childless Lucy immediately begins having problems readjusting to life with gravity. This includes her ever-increasing, distant relationship with her doting, religious husband, Drew Cola (Dan Stevens, TV series “Legion”), who seems to have been based upon Ned Flanders from “The Simpsons.” To her credit, Lucy does try to be a mentor to her teenage niece, Blue Iris (Pearl Amanda Dickson, TV series “Legion”), who looks up to her aunt as an inspiration. 

Routine family life doesn’t cut it for Lucy as she becomes determined to go back into space, and along the way she starts an affair with fellow astronaut Mark Goodwin (Hamm). She views him as one of only a select few who understands her, but Mark is a playboy. So, when Lucy runs off the rails, he steps away from her and turns his attention to up-and-coming astronaut Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz, “Deadpool 2,” “Joker”). The idea of losing Mark to another woman, who is also her competition for a seat on the next mission, pushes Lucy over the edge. Naturally, she hatches a plot to do a dirty deed dirt cheap while enlisting her impressionable niece as her help.

 We are supposed to feel sympathy for Lucy as she struggles with her sanity, even after the story’s bizarre climax. However, this is a far-fetched idea by Hawley considering that if her plan succeeded someone would have probably died a violent death. As for the real facts, without spoiling too much and keeping it to a nutshell, Novak was married with three children during her approximately two-year affair with astronaut William Oefelein.

She was arrested in 2007 in Orlando for attempting to kidnap a U.S. Air Force Captain who had become romantically involved with Oefelien. Lastly, Hawley’s fumbling attempts at exploring existentialism throughout “Lucy in the Sky” are too muted to accrue any depth. He also under-utilizes Eccles and simply lets the film drag on far too long. 

Film Review: “Tigers Are Not Afraid”

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID
Starring: Paola Lara, Juan Ramon Lopez
Directed by: Issa Lopez
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour 23 minutes
Variance Films 

While there are certainly enough terrifying elements to make “Tigers Are Not Afraid” a horror film, this 2017 title from Mexican director Issa Lopez is a breath of fresh air for any cinephile. It first taps into the cartel-related violence plaguing Latin America to create an imaginative story concerning a group of orphaned children struggling to survive. Next, Lopez’s engaging script puts a spin on what would have been a tragic drama by inserting the ghosts of that violence and their desire for retribution. At not even 90 minutes running time, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” is a sprint that will leave your heart racing. 

Lopez hooks us right away from a startling statistic: that in the 10 years since the beginning of the drug cartel wars (2006) in Mexico, that an estimated 160,000 people had been killed and another 53,000 had disappeared. Staggering numbers to be sure. However, it is made even more sobering when you are forced to consider how many innocent children in all of it have been turned into orphans with no where to go. If a random bullet does not get them, then human traffickers will. 

We find young Estrella (Paola Lara) attending school and crafting a fairy tale in her class about a tiger when gunfire on the street erupts, causing all classes to be suspended indefinitely. While hunkering down, a teacher gives Estrella three pieces of chalk that represent three wishes for Estrella to use. It is not until Estrella encounters a dead body in the street that things become a little Stephen Kingish as a trail of blood follows her home like a snake. 

After Estrella arrives home, we realize that both of her parents have vanished, and she is utterly alone. The father has apparently been out of the picture for a while, so it is the mother that is the focal point of her mourning. In desperation, Estrella uses one of her chalk pieces to wish that her mother would come back. A natural thing to want, but poorly though out as her mother comes back to her in the form of hushed whispers and ghastly images. 

Estrella, always followed by the blood trail, ends up finding refuge with a group of orphaned boys led by a streetwise kid named El Shine (Juan Roman Lopez). This refuge is no place for a girl, especially since El Shine has recently stolen the gun and cell phone belonging to a notorious human trafficker who has murdered multiple people. As they try to stay one step of ahead of them, Estrella other wishes, compounded by her mother’s requests goes to show to be careful what you wish for, even if you do survive. 

“Tigers Are Not Afraid” is a gripping, intense story that is plenty tragic even without the horror element. The plight of Mexican children entangled by this long war on the cartels and the one between them, is too easily forgotten by a news media starving for the next 24-hour news cycle. As for the horror element, it is done is such a minimalist way that it greatly heightens the story’s tension when it is introduced. The acting by the two lead children is performed well enough, but it is the story itself that is the star. If you have heart issues, then you might want to take your medication first before seeing “Tigers Are Not Afraid.”

 

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Film Review: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

  • WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE
  • Starring: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup
  • Directed by: Richard Linklater
  • Rated: Rated PG-13
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 10 mins
  • United Artists Releasing 

The question that has haunted America for decades now is where did Jimmy Hoffa go? Rumor had it once upon a time that he was buried in the end zone at the New York Giants old football stadium. If it were true, then it’s too bad that the much-delayed comedy/drama “Where’d You Go Bernadette” was not buried with him under a ton a concrete. Based upon the 2012 novel of the same name by American novelist Maria Semple, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” wanders aimlessly for over two hours and establishes no real emotional connection with the audience. Despite a talented cast, and a long list of cameo appearances and small roles by recognizable faces, it’s not enough to save its unremarkable script and direction by Richard Linklater (“A Scanner Darkly”). 

Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) is an agoraphobic mother of a teenage daughter and was once a trailblazing architect in Los Angeles. Since moving to Seattle with her husband and tech entrepreneur Elgie Branch (Billy Crudup), Bernadette has isolated herself in their home, created from an abandoned church, and devoted all her time to their daughter, Bree (Emma Nelson in her feature film debut). Not only does she refuse to make friends with her closest neighbor, the nosey Audrey Griffin (Kristen Wiig), but she also does whatever she can to make Audrey’s life miserable. The only other interaction she has is with an unseen assistant named Manjula to whom she assigns all sorts of tasks via text messaging. 

We eventually learn more about her past successes, which is where cameos by Laurence Fishburne, Steve Zahn and Megan Mullally come into play, but by the time it does we don’t care. The greatest failure of any story is the inability to hook the audience within the first sentence/paragraph of a book or the first couple minutes of a film. If this doesn’t happen then it’s a monumental task indeed to get the audience to ever give two cents. This is exactly the case with “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” which was originally supposed to be released in the spring of last year. There are brief glimmers of something serious going on with Bernadette’s character, and Blanchett is terrific at fleshing them out, but it’s all overwhelmed with one-dimensional characters around her, boring dialogue, and predictable, Disney-like comedy. 

With their marriage on the rocks because of her hatred of all things, including Seattle, and facing near-financial ruin thanks to a scam, Bernadette freaks out and instead of facing her problems flees to Antarctica where they were supposed to take a family trip. The question is – will the experience turn Bernadette back into being a creative force in the architect world, or will she disappear like so many doomed Antarctic explorers at the dawn of the 20th century? Truth be told, the answer doesn’t matter.

 In conclusion, if you want to be scratching your head wondering where this film is going, while also having to listen to needless and distracting voiceover narration by Nelson, then “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is the story for you. I think Mr. Hoffa would agree.

Film Review: “Them That Follow”

  • THEM THAT FOLLOW
  • Starring: Alice Englert, Walton Goggins
  • Directed by: Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 38 mins
  • 1091 Media 

If you are anything like Indiana Jones, then the Appalachian-set drama “Them That Follow” will at the very least make you squirm in your seat. The feature film directorial debut by co-directors/writers Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, “Them That Follow” is an interesting yet not too in-depth look into a branch of the Pentecostal faith that believes handling venomous snakes will prove their devotion to God. With a pace that flows like the mountain streams in the film, this relatively short drama contains a standout supporting performance by Academy Award-winning actress Olivia Coleman, but nothing else much is all that memorable. 

A teenage boy named Augie (Thomas Mann, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) is led into the woods by the girl of his affections, Mara Childs (Alice Englert, “Beautiful Creatures”), to a den of poisonous rattle snakes. It is perhaps not the greatest way to spend a date, but it quickly gives us an idea of what the people of an isolated mountain community are like. Snakes or no snakes, troubled times are brewing when we watch Mara steal a pregnancy test from a local convenience store run by Augie’s sour mother, Hope (Coleman). 

This leads into a brief depiction of a church service led by old school pastor, Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins, “The Hateful Eight”), Mara’s father. Lemuel inspires his small, yet devoted congregation to uplift their arms and wail as he dances about with a rattlesnake in his hands preaching that serpents will not hurt them if they truly believe in God. It all serves to heighten the pressure that Mara feels as she prays for the stain on her soul to be removed thanks to her test turning positive. And while Augie may be the baby’s father, she is squeezed in a vice when she is pressured to marry Garret (Lewis Pullman, “Bad Times at the El Royale”), another local boy infatuated with her but with a seemingly stronger devotion to her father’s church. 

A pregnancy is obviously a difficult thing to hide for long and as such the stakes are raised when Hope discovers her secret as well as her blabber-mouth-of-a-best-friend, Dilly Picket (Kaitlyn Dever, “Booksmart”). The film falters with this storyline to be as tense as it could have been. It feels more like an after-school special on TV with the snakes being more dramatic than most of the actors. Goggins starts off well enough with his performance but his character is soon revealed as merely one dimensional. What could have energized the entire film, and is only barely alluded to, is the cultural struggle between the Pentecosts and the outsiders, especially law enforcement who seems to hound them. 

Colman, fresh off her win for “The Favourite,” is a shining light as she burns up the screen each moment she is in a scene. Her performance ranges from stoic to deeply emotional. Every actor around her is overshadowed by her presence, which is not hard to do as the rest of the cast delivers mundane performances. Overall, “Them That Follow” is predictable fair with nothing to keep our memory of watching it alive for too long.

 
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Film Review: “Shadow”

  • SHADOW
  • Starring: Chao Deng, Li Sun
  • Directed by: Zhang Yimou
  • Rated: Not Rated
  • Running Time: 1 hr 55 mins
  • Well Go USA 

The Chinese action/drama “Shadow” is one the most unique-looking films you will ever see, yet underneath its beautiful veneer is a fairly unremarkable story with a “surprising” climax that is not all that surprising. Directed by Yimou Zhang (“House of Flying Daggers,” “Hero”), “Shadow” contains almost nothing but black-and-white imagery as all of its costumes and set designs are colorless. The only exceptions are skin pigment, blood (a lot of it) and muted greens. While there is a plethora of wonderfully choreographed fight sequences, albeit nothing we haven’t seen before, it is the story that proves to be what is truly colorless.

 We are told in the beginning that for decades, the fortified city of Jingzhou was at the center of a back-and-forth conflict between the kingdoms of Yang and Pei. The latter lost Jingzhou after its Commander Ziyu (Chao Deng) lost a three-round duel to the former’s commander. A peace has settled it, but it is now threatening to unravel because the stoic Commander Ziyu, who longs for Jingzhou to be under Pei control, has agreed to a rematch. This is much to the consternation of Pei’s juvenile-acting and cowardly king, Pei Liang (Ryan Zheng, “The Great Wall”) who wails like a baby when Ziyu calmly tells him that his odds of winning are three out of ten. 

What no one realizes, except for Ziyu’s wife, Xiao Ai (Li Sun, “Fearless”) is that Ziyu has been forced to live in a cave for many years because a wound he received during his duel has taken its toll on his health. To keep up appearances, he has been using his body double named Jing (Deng) to be his proxy or shadow in the king’s court. Through the self-doubting Jing, Ziyu plans to win back Jingzhou and even claim the Pei throne for himself. However, King Pei Laing is so desperate to avoid war that he agrees to a proposal that would make his own sister a concubine for the son of Yang’s commander and thus insure peace. It ends up becoming a well-choreographed game of chess as members of the court try to maneuver themselves into a winning strategy. 

Again, visually there isn’t anything not to like about “Shadow” as it is nothing short of being a beautiful work of art worthy of hanging in a museum. The dialogue, though, is less than remarkable and the acting in its entirety is at times campy and others is just as gray as the background. Chao has the difficult task of playing two parts at the same time, but he only pulls it off a little better than Jean Claude van Damme once did. Many critics have praised the fight sequences in “Shadow,” yet there isn’t anything here that hasn’t been done a million times before since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which remains a far superior film, both visually and content-wise.

 “Shadow” could have redeemed itself with some sort of jaw dropping ending with an explosive climax. Unfortunately, it fails with this also as the supposed twist can be seen coming from a mile away, therefore causing it to explode with a thud rather than a bang.