Film Review: “On the Rocks”

ON THE ROCKS

Starring: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones

Directed by: Sofia Coppola

Rating: Rated R

Running Time: 1 hr 36 mins

American Zoetrope 

There is nothing rocky about the dramatic comedy “On the Rocks” as comedian/thespian extraordinaire Bill Murray delivers a superb performance as a wealthy, partly retired art dealer with a penchant for the playboy lifestyle. Arguably his best role since 2014’s “St. Vincent,” this marks the third time Murray has teamed up with filmmaker Sofia Coppola – 2015’s “A Very Murray Christmas” and 2003’s “Lost in Translation,” which garnered her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Murray received a Best Actor nomination for that collaboration and deserves another for this one. 

In “On the Rocks,” which made its world premiere last September at the New York Film Festival, Laura (Rashida Jones) is a successful yet mild mannered New York novelist who is currently experiencing a severe case of writer’s block. A devoted wife and mother of two young daughters, Laura is often on her own as her husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans) is typically away trying to launch his startup tech company. Troubling signs, like a woman’s travel bag in Dean’s luggage, give Laura pause. 

Worried that an increasingly absent Dean could be cheating on her, Laura calls her father, Felix Keane (Murray) for advice. This seems to be a bad idea as we soon learn that Felix, who years ago left Laura’s mother for another woman, believes all men are hard wired in their genetic code to cheat. With all sorts of conspiracy theories, Felix becomes convinced that Dean is having an affair with an assistant despite a lack of concrete evidence. His paranoia, though, feeds into Laura’s concerns and she starts to think her marriage is on the rocks. 

Murray is a perfect fit for his somewhat eccentric character who proves to be one of those rare people who can charm almost anyone. His natural delivery and timing is spot-on, and it often feels like his lines are more often improvised than not. The chemistry he shares with Jones is terrific and their scenes are consequently performed effortless ease. This is best magnified during a casual lunch scene and a more dramatic one later involving a serious emotional confrontation. The latter is given a dash of gravitas as Murray throughout the film subtly infuses Felix with a complexity and fragility that lies below his flirtatious, playboy façade. 

Perhaps best known for her TV series work on “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office,” Jones holds her own as she delivers a nice, consistent performance throughout the film. Her character’s relationship with Dean could have been explored more thoroughly to help enhance depth to the married couple’s relationship, and therefore a better understanding of their issues. However, “On the Rocks” is much more of a father/daughter story than a husband/wife one. It is one that should not be missed.

Film Review: “Promising Young Woman”

  • PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
  • Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham
  • Directed by: Emerald Fennell
  • Rating: Rated R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 53 mins
  • Focus Features 

Former Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) delivers the performance of her career in the inventive crime drama “Promising Young Woman.” Written and directed by British actress Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman,” which marks Fennell’s first attempt as the creative force behind a feature length film, is a well-crafted tale of revenge by a woman scarred by the tragic loss of her best friend.

 The night is getting late at a local bar where three single men spot Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Mulligan) sitting alone at a booth. She appears to be so drunk that she cannot sit up or see straight. The supposed “nice guy” of the three jumps in to save her but betrays who he pretends to be by taking Cassie to his apartment where he attempts take advantage of her. Much to his shock and fear, Cassie suddenly reveals she has been faking inebriation. What she does to him exactly we do not know, but we do see her make a mark in a ledger she keeps that also contains the names of predatory men she has turned the tables on.

 We soon learn that 30-year-old Cassie lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, “2 Broke Girls” and Clancy Brown, “The Shawshank Redemption”) and that she has worked at a coffee shop ever since she dropped out of medical school several years earlier. Her decision came in the wake of her best friend, Nina being raped in school and no one believing her, which ultimately led to her friend’s suicide. Cassie is clearly a broken soul full of rage against most of humanity, especially anyone male excepting her doting father.

 During the process of going after those who she most blames for her best friend’s death, Cassie meets Dr. Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham, “The Big Sick”), a former medical school classmate who awkwardly asks her out on a date. Things move slowly at first, but a romance does unexpectedly develop. It goes so well, that Cassie decides to move on with her life, especially after a conversation with Nina’s mother. However, a ghost from the past reveals an old bit of information that turns the story on its head. 

“Promising Young Woman” made its world premiere on January 25, 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival but its release had to be postponed until this past Christmas weekend thanks to COVID-19. Except for a couple of brief, poorly done supporting performances near the climatic end, the cast surrounding Mulligan does a solid job with the script and Fennell keeps us wondering where exactly she is going to take us. The material is dark yet remains engrossing.

 

Film review: “Promising Young Woman”Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo BurnhamDirected by: Emerald FennellRating: Rated RRunning Time: 113 minutesFocus Features Former Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) delivers the performance of her career in the inventive crime drama “Promising Young Woman.” Written and directed by British actress Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman,” which marks Fennell’s first attempt as the creative force behind a feature length film, is a well-crafted tale of revenge by a woman scarred by the tragic loss of her best friend. The night is getting late at a local bar where three single men spot Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Mulligan) sitting alone at a booth. She appears to be so drunk that she cannot sit up or see straight. The supposed “nice guy” of the three jumps in to save her but betrays who he pretends to be by taking Cassie to his apartment where he attempts take advantage of her. Much to his shock and fear, Cassie suddenly reveals she has been faking inebriation. What she does to him exactly we do not know, but we do see her make a mark in a ledger she keeps that also contains the names of predatory men she has turned the tables on. We soon learn that 30-year-old Cassie lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge, “2 Broke Girls” and Clancy Brown, “The Shawshank Redemption”) and that she has worked at a coffee shop ever since she dropped out of medical school several years earlier. Her decision came in the wake of her best friend, Nina being raped in school and no one believing her, which ultimately led to her friend’s suicide. Cassie is clearly a broken soul full of rage against most of humanity, especially anyone male excepting her doting father. During the process of going after those who she most blames for her best friend’s death, Cassie meets Dr. Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham, “The Big Sick”), a former medical school classmate who awkwardly asks her out on a date. Things move slowly at first, but a romance does unexpectedly develop. It goes so well, that Cassie decides to move on with her life, especially after a conversation with Nina’s mother. However, a ghost from the past reveals an old bit of information that turns the story on its head. “Promising Young Woman” made its world premiere on January 25, 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival but its release had to be postponed until this past Christmas weekend thanks to COVID-19. Except for a couple of brief, poorly done supporting performances near the climatic end, the cast surrounding Mulligan does a solid job with the script and Fennell keeps us wondering where exactly she is going to take us. The material is dark yet remains engrossing. Mulligan is nothing short of spectacular in a role that requires her to dwell in a painful place filled with darkness and anguish. She deftly switches between her character’s wide-ranging emotions with the ease of someone who has become an expert at their craft. Mulligan is nothing short of mesmerizing as she elevates “Promising Young Woman” to a different level.

She deftly switches between her character’s wide-ranging emotions with the ease of someone who has become an expert at their craft. Mulligan is nothing short of mesmerizing as she elevates “Promising Young Woman” to a different level.

Film Review: “Driveways”

  • DRIVEWAYS
  • ”Starring: Lucas Jaye, Brian Dennehy
  • Directed by: Andrew AhnRated:
  • Unrated
  • Running Time: 83 minutes
  • Prime Video – Amazon 

The late Brian Dennehy, who passed away in April of this year at the age of 81, was a versatile actor perhaps best known for his interpretations of Eugene O’Neill’s works onstage, for which he received two Tony Awards (“Death of a Salesman” in 1999 and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” in 2003). Of course, he also had a prodigious film career that included such titles as “Silverado,” “Cocoon” and “Rambo: First Blood.” Dennehy continued to pursue his acting craft even through last year, which allows us the gift to witness his prowess a few more times posthumously. One of these titles is the drama “Driveways,” a wonderful, sweet little drama in which Dennehy shines in a supporting role as a Korean War veteran who befriends an 8-year-old boy.

Kathy (Hong Chau, “Watchmen” TV mini-series), a single mom from Michigan, has driven to a sleepy little New York town with her 8-year-old son, Cody (Lucas Jaye, “The Sleepover”) to settle the affairs of her recently deceased and estranged older sister. It is a shock to the system for Kathy when she discovers that her sister was a hoarder, which means an overwhelming amount of cleanup she must do by herself before she can put it on the market. 

Amidst his mom’s cleaning, Cody, a shy boy with a vomiting problem when placed in stressful situations, encounters the next-door neighbor, Del (Dennehy), a widowed Korean War veteran who is several degrees nicer than Clint Eastwood’s grizzled veteran in “Gran Torino.” A charming friendship begins to develop between them, probably the first one Cody has ever had, and it brings some happiness to Del’s often lonely world. 

Days turn into weeks as Kathy struggles to not only get her sister’s house ready, but also trying to be the best parent she can be for Cody, whose father could care less. In that way, Del becomes a grandfatherly/fatherly figure for Cody while the boy becomes a mirror for Del to realize the regrets he has regarding his deceased wife and his only child. 

With a couple of unimaginative character stereotypes mixed in, “Driveways” has a rather slow beginning, and it takes a while to really sink its hooks into us. Once it does, though, it becomes a touching, bittersweet drama. Kathy turns into a heroic character thanks to the toughness that Chau infuses into her and Cody, played with an innocent charisma by Jaye, is easy to root for. However, the greatest triumph of “Driveways” is Dennehy’s performance. While the director overdoes it with too many scenes of Del eating in silence in his kitchen (he is lonely, we get it), Dennehy delivers his lines with the ease of an expert craftsman. Even in moments of silence, Dennehy conveys to us tangible emotions. It is a supporting performance that lays the bedrock for this story and should be recognized with an Oscar nod.

Film Review: “RECON”

  • RECON
  • Starring: Alexander Ludwig, Franco Nero
  • Directed by: Robert David Port
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Running Time: 1 hr 35 mins

Available on VOD, including Apple TV, Prime Video and FandangoNOW 

While it may lack traditional star power on the marquee or an expansive budget that is more than what a small country spends in a year, the World War II flick “RECON” is nevertheless an intense, historical drama ripped from the horrors of combat. Based upon the 2008 novel “Peace” by American author Richard Bausch, who received the W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction from the American Library Association, “RECON” is a well-written work with a standout lead performance by Alexander Ludwig (“Vikings,” “The Hunger Games”).

 Inspired by true events, the story takes place near the mountainous area of Cassino, Italy during one long day in the winter of 1944. It begins with a punch to the face as an American squad encounters a Nazi officer trying to hide in a villager’s cart. Gunshots are exchanged. Two Americans and the Nazi officer lay dead in the road. But that is not the end. The squad’s sergeant mercilessly slaughters the Nazi officer’s unarmed wife, much to the horror of his men. 

When the sergeant realizes he may be ratted out, he orders four potential troublemakers – Corporal Marson (Ludwig) and Privates Heisman (RJ Fetherstonhaugh, “21 Thunder”), Hopwell (Mitch Ainley, “Heaven is For Real”) and Asch (Chris Brochu, “The Vampire Diaries”) – to follow an elderly villager named Angelo (Franco Nero, “John Wick: Chapter 2”) on a reconnaissance mission to find Germans. 

Up a lonely, snow and ice-covered mountain the four dysfunctional American GIs follow the mysterious Angelo, who is supposedly taking them to a German position. However, as they march on, the four gradually see that their sergeant was sending them on a suicide mission. Their resolve to turn the sergeant only grows but so do the dangers around them – the Germans, the weather, the terrain, and themselves. 

Director Robert David Port, who co-won an Oscar for the 2003 documentary “Twin Towers,” does a brilliant job at capturing the horrors of war with a no punches pulled approach. There is nothing glorious. It is tragic, terrible and at times difficult to watch. The main American characters are a little stereotypical and generic, and most moments designed to be red herrings or genuine surprise are predictable.

 Ludwig is superb with his role as a soldier on edge just wanting to somehow survive so he can return to his wife and young child back home. His emotional range and depth help with moving the story along and keeps our attention on the screen.

 Overall, “RECON” may be a small tale, yet one that is worthy of the greatest generation. 

Film Review: “Antebellum”

  • ANTEBELLUM
  • Starring: Janelle Monáe, Jena Malone
  • Directed by: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 45 mins
  • Lionsgate 

Kansas City native Janelle Monáe (“Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures”) gets an overdue opportunity to be a headline star in the alleged horror flick “Antebellum.” While Monáe burns brightly on the silver screen as a successful sociologist in present day and as a slave on a cotton plantation, “Antebellum” is such a meandering, sluggish work of cinema that you want to scream out, “Get on with it!” Furthermore, placing this film in the horror genre is a fallacy because while the story itself is horrific on every level imaginable, it is not necessarily a “horror” film like recent classics as “Us” and “Get Out.” 

We first meet Eden (Monáe) after Confederate officer Captain Jasper (Jack Huston, “Fargo” the TV series) executes a female slave as she tries to escape a Louisiana plantation during the Civil War. Eden is subsequently branded with a hot iron by a disgusting Confederate general who claims her as his own personal property. Despite the failure of the escape attempt, current and newly arrived slaves look to Eden as someone who can lead them to freedom. However, Eden tells anyone who approaches her to keep their eyes down and follow the Captain’s rules about not speaking unless spoken to. 

After being raped by the General, Eden dreams of being renowned sociologist and author Veronica Henley in modern day America. A woman who has found a balance between being a wife/mother and having a successful career, Veronica is often sought after for interviews and speaking engagements. One of whom is a mysterious southern-speaking woman named Elizabeth (Jena Malone in an almost maniacal performance), who bears a striking resemblance to the plantation’s white matriarch. After celebrating with friends, Veronica takes an Uber ride to her hotel, but discovers that Elizabeth, whom she only met via an awkward online conversation, is driving and Veronica is subsequently knocked out with a blow to the head. 

“Antebellum” does have an interesting twist, but there are so many glaring breadcrumbs that it is almost expected. Additionally, just to get to the “surprise” it takes as long to get there as it does to walk across the Sahara Desert. The supposed climax is a little clumsy and not as rewarding as one might hope it to be. Monáe is a delight to watch, though, as she infuses both of her characters with grace and an inner strength that is almost tangible. With superb skill, she contrasts these elements with a sense of sheer terror and tremendous pain when called upon to do so. 

Overall, “Antebellum” does have an intriguing premise with a talented star, but it fails to deliver on almost every level, and unfortunately, Monáe is left to carry the load as her supporting cast is largely forgettable. Much like the film.

Film Review: Babyteeth”

BABYTEETH
Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by: Shannon Murphy
Rated: Rated MA-17
Running Time: 1 hr 58 mins
IFC Films 

The tragic teen love story about a girl or boy who is terminally ill yet finds true love with minutes left on the clock is the poster child for cliched storylines. At first glance, “Babyteeth” appears to be nothing more than just that. However, with a quartet of interesting, complex characters trying to find their way in the shadow of a young girl’s terminal cancer, “Babyteeth” becomes something quite unexpected – pure cinematic art. The kind of art that provokes a deep, emotional reaction which will stay with you long after the final credits had disappeared off the screen. 

Based upon the stage play by Rita Kalnejais, who also wrote the screenplay for the film version, and directed by Shannon Murphy (“On the Ropes,” “Rake”), “Babyteeth” starts us at a train station where Milla (Eliza Scanlen, “Little Women,” “Sharp Objects”), bedecked in her high school uniform, stands gazing at the tracks in a way that suggests she is pondering death. This is when Moses (Toby Wallace, “Boys in the Trees”), a rat-tailed young man a few years her senior, bumps into her. When her nose starts to bleed, Moses, who may be high on something and possibly homeless, bends over backwards to help her, and from that point on Milla is smitten with him.

 Scanlen draws us in with a profound sense of innocence, despair and longing all rolled into one. There is an air of tragedy about her so thick that it is hard to breathe. Still, a visible spark is ignited within her and Scanlen plays it masterfully as Milla’s passion to live life is reawakened by what will become her first and only love. Wallace, the recipient of the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress at the 76th Venice International Film Festival for this very role, is damaged goods himself. He longs to have a relationship with his estranged mother, but Moses would rather play the tough, street thug card. On the surface, his character seems stereotypical, yet Wallace manages to subtly infuse several degrees of complexity into his role that is both surprising and rewarding. 

Rounding off the quartet is Milla’s psychiatrist father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn, “Ready Player One,” “Rogue One”) and her pill-popping, former classical pianist mother, Anna (Essie Davis, “True History of the Kelly Gang,” “Assassin’s Creed”). With his daughter’s terminal diagnosis looming over him, the pressure on Henry to get through each day keeps growing. It eventually pushes him to make a pass at his pregnant, much younger next-door neighbor, who symbolizes a way out to a more normal or at least alternative existence for him. All the while, Anna takes a wide array of pills as her way to escape from a reality that she knows deep down will not include her daughter for much longer. 

Mendelsohn and Davis share a great onscreen chemistry with one another as they face any parents’ worst nightmare. There are times when, especially towards the end of Milla’s life, they press on with a sense of grace that tightens their bond. They are even able to laugh at the craziness of letting Anna date a small time drug dealer in Moses who even breaks into their house at one point to steal Anna’s pills. However, how can they deny her the experience of a first love? Especially one which serves as a means for Moses to transform himself. 

We know how “Babyteeth” is going to end. It is clear as day. The brilliance of Murphy’s direction is that when we do reach the end, we are still emotionally moved to the point of tears.

Film Review: “The Other Lamb”

THE OTHER LAMB
Starring: Raffey Cassidy, Michiel Huisman
Directed by: Malgorzata Szumowska
Rated: Unrated
Running Time: 1 hr 37 mins
IFC Films 

Officially, it is listed as a “drama/horror” film. However, “The Other Lamb,” currently streaming on-demand, is neither dramatic nor horrific. While it does have an interesting concept involving a mysterious cult leader and his all-female flock, “The Other Lamb” misfires on nearly every single level imaginable. In a remote section of forest dwells a small commune of women, ranging in approximate age from eight to thirty-somethings, who are held together by a man only referred to as the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman, “The Age of Adaline”). While doing his best to resemble the Caucasian version of Jesus Christ, the Shepherd exudes an inexplicable magnetism that his multiple wives are captivated by. 

There is a noticeable “Handmaids Tale” look to it all with the stark contrast of red and blue uniforms the Shepherd’s wives and daughters are forced wear against the often bleak, natural landscape around them. Unfortunately, “The Other Lamb” does not provide any background for the female characters other than the hint that they were once all “broken” women. Only his daughter, Selah (Raffey Cassidy, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) and a wife, Sarah (Denise Gough, “’71”) who has become disillusioned with the Shepherd, are given anything resembling depth. It is akin to looking at a coloring book without any colors filled in.

 We also never glean much about the Shepherd either, whether it be his past or how he can wield such control over the women. As a result, there is a psychological dynamic that is missing. All we see is him standing around looking stoic and telling the women how if they behave, they will have his grace, which they scream hysterically over like he was Elvis Presley.

 The director, Malgorzata Szumowska (“Mug”) inserts symbolic imagery throughout the film to explain what is going on in Selah’s head as she begins to spiral down into her own rabbit hole. Some of the images are intended as an allusion to Selah becoming a woman, yet, it often comes across as a boring, gimmicky acid trip. 

There is a bit of a mystery as to what happens to baby boys born in the Shepherd’s flock, something that is eventually answered in a memorable way as they trek to find a new home in the wilderness. It is also a turning point for Selah as she becomes increasingly revolted by the Shepherd whose actions turn more heinous, including incest. 

Overall, “The Other Lamb” is a rambling mess that wanders aimlessly across the screen until it reaches a conclusion that is meant to be unsettling but is unsatisfying.

Film Review: “Resistance”

  • RESISTANCE
  • Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy
  • Directed by: Jonathan Jakubowicz
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 2 hrs
  • IFC Films 

The name Marcel Marceau (1923-2007) is synonymous with mime artistry as he was the godfather of the silent artform. While his name conjures white face paint and silent, comedic stagecraft influenced by Charlie Chaplin, there was a tremendous heroism behind the façade that had started to dim with time. However, the new war drama, “Resistance” seeks to remind us of the incredible actions Marceau undertook as a member of the French Resistance against Nazi occupation. 

An attempt to create a tone for “Resistance” is set during its opening scene, which takes place on the infamous night of November 9, 1938 in Munich, Nazi Germany. Known ever since as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, German Jews were targeted by Nazi paramilitary forces throughout the country. Thousands of businesses and hundreds of synagogues were destroyed while thousands of Jewish men were arrested. Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz (“Hands of Stone”) gives us a harrowing depiction of this horrific event through the eyes of a young girl who watches helplessly as her parents are murdered in the street during the assault. It’s a powerful sequence meant to grab our attention, but that momentum is quickly dissipated. 

We are suddenly transported to 1945 in Nuremberg, Germany where Gen. George S. Patton (Ed Harris) addresses troops under his command at a former Nazi rallying point. Harris does not capture the emotional spirit of Patton as he stoically tells his men about a resistance fighter who made their sacrifice worth it. It is then that we are whiplashed back to Strasbourg, France shortly after Kristallnacht. Marcel (Jesse Eisenberg), whose real last name was Mangel, is a self-absorbed, wannabe thespian whose disapproving Jewish father would rather see him become a butcher. 

Marcel’s life is forever changed when he is brought in by his cousin, Georges Loinger (Géza Röhrig, “The Chaperone”) to entertain over 100 German Jewish children, who were left orphaned after Kristallnacht, when they are brought over to France. Marcel becomes emboldened to join the French Resistance and finds an inner strength in the process as he and his fellow resistance members try to save Jewish children by crossing the Alps into neutral Switzerland. 

Eisenberg is at his best when he is portraying Marcel doing mime, particularly when it is in front of American troops. Even so, his overall performance fails to get us too deeply invested on an emotional level with his real-life character. This is representative of the entire film as it does not leave a lasting impression as say other titles like “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist,” or “Son of Saul.” For lack of a better word, “Resistance” is generic. There are moments of darkness and terror, punctuated by scenes involving Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer, “100 Things”) who is a little overplayed. 

Despite its subpar quality, “Resistance” is still an important film to be watched as it sheds light again on a true hero plus, it reminds us all again that we should never forget what happened to the Holocaust’s six million Jewish victims.

Film Review: “Blow the Man Down”

  • BLOW THE MAN DOWN
  • Starring: Sophie Lowe, Morgan Saylor
  • Directed by: Bridget Savage Cole & Danielle Krudy
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins
  • Amazon Prime Video

 With a title borrowed from a classic English sea shanty, “Blow the Man Down” is an average, yet entertaining mystery/drama with a multitude of secrets that emanates a “Fargo”-like vibe. First-time feature length directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, who also co-wrote the film that debuted on Amazon Prime, have crafted a smooth-paced work of cinema with a few flashes of well-timed suspense. 

Set in the small, picturesque fishing village of Easter Cove, Maine, “Blow the Man Down” begins with the Catholic wake of one Mary Margaret Connolly. Her two daughters – Priscilla (Sophie Lowe, “The Beautiful Lie”) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor, “Homeland”) – are naturally saddened by the loss of their mother, whom they had to care for in recent times. The girls, though, seem surprised to hear tales from their mother’s three closest friends – Susie Gallagher (Academy Award nominee June Squibb, “Nebraska”), Gail Maguire (Academy Award nominee Annette O’Toole, “A Mighty Wind”) and Doreen Burke (Marceline Hugot, “The Messenger”) – of how Mary had saved their bacon on several occasions. 

Interspersed within this sadness is a scene in which a nameless woman frantically jumps out of a car and runs screaming from an angry man who eventually tackles her. All the while a woman we come to know as Enid Nora Devlin (Margo Martindale, “August: Osage County”) watches silently from a second story window. We get the sense she may approve of the violence that is transpiring and thus has no interest in helping the woman. It’s brief but it’s an important nugget of things to come.

 Back at Mary’s house, the younger Mary Beth is dismayed to learn from Priscilla that their mother has left them with nothing. Mary Beth leaves in an explosion of anger and ends up at a dive bar where she latches onto a man who proves to be far more dangerous than she had ever considered. This is followed by a killing and cover-up that leads the sisters down a rabbit hole of secrets and lies involving prostitution, bribery, murder and a police force that either looks the other way or is incompetent. 

Even with a solid story, “Blow the Man Down” does contain some mystery clichés so don’t expect anything fresh when watching it. Additionally, the two leads are fine enough in their roles, but they are overshadowed greatly by the much older, supporting female cast. Squibb, O’Toole and Hugot are a hoot as a trio and they excel at making us feel like there is something more to their characters without giving too much away too quickly. 

Overall, the real star is Martindale who is simply a delight to watch. A woman with a ton of secrets and a hardened, mean streak a mile wide and a mile deep, Enid is someone that proves to be a perfect antagonist. Martindale also infuses her character with a level of complexity that the other cast members are not quite able to achieve. 

Call it a poor man’s version of “Knives Out,” “Blow the Man Down” is a nice way to spend 90 minutes in front of a screen at home.

Film Review: “The Way Back”

THE WAY BACK
Starring: Ben Affleck, Janina Gavankar
Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 48 mins
Warner Bros. 

Having its release date delayed several months was not a good sign for the new sports drama “The Way Back” starring Ben Affleck. However, instead of just being another piece of cinematic rubbish that is typically released at the beginning of each year, “The Way Back” proves to be one of the greatest cinematic surprises in recent memory. With one of Affleck’s finest performances to date, this sports drama about an alcoholic who becomes a high school basketball coach ranks among the pantheon of such classics as “Hoosiers” and “Bull Durham.”

 The life of construction worker Jack Cunningham (Affleck) has boiled down to this: wake up and have a beer while showering; drive to work while having another beer; work all day while drinking some more; drive back home while drinking; and then either drink a case of beer in his run-down apartment or drink himself into a stupor at a local bar. It’s a tragic life as he is clearly on a path to drinking himself to death. 

One day, Jack receives a coaching offer from the priest who oversees his alma mater – a private Catholic school that is experiencing some hard times thanks to diminishing enrollment. We learn that once upon a time, Jack was a high school basketball phenom and was recruited by NCAA Division I programs. However, Jack walked away from basketball after high school and never looked back. 

Reluctantly, Jack takes on the role, but he soon discovers that his team is less than stellar and his assistant coach (Al Madrigal, “The Daily Show”) is a math teacher with no real experience. There are some predictable things that subsequently occur, but for the most part, the story evolves beyond general sports clichés, which typically dominate this subgenre, and deals with real life issues, thus giving “The Way Back” substance over style. 

Whether he likes it or not, Jack becomes a mentor to his players, particularly so for the team’s lone standout. Yet his newfound lease on life is shaky at best because of the underlying issues that remain, which are brought to the forefront again when his estranged wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar, “True Blood”) reaches out to him. Inevitably, Jack hits rock bottom in a painful and sad way. 

Once upon a time, yours truly was offered a position as a basketball coach at a private high school. Strictly basketball speaking, Affleck nails the evolution of Jack’s growth as a rookie coach and as a mentor to young men, notwithstanding his profane tirades. Director Gavin O’Connor (“The Accountant”) also brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the little gymnasiums that these schools play in as well as bringing an authenticity to the depiction of games played. 

Affleck has been open about his own battle with alcoholism in recent years and it is easy to see that he gave everything he had to the role. As the lone “star” of the film, Affleck lives up to the challenge with a fantastic performance as a man in great pain that is raw and authentic. In the end, like a Steph Curry jump shot, “The Way Back” is nothing but net.

Film Review: “Ordinary Love”

ORDINARY LOVE
Starring: Liam Neeson, Lesley Manville
Directed by: Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hr 32 mins
Bleecker Street Media 

Nearly everyone has been affected by cancer in some way. Whether you have had to battle it yourself or had a family member, friend or acquaintance to be diagnosed with it, cancer, as we all know too well, is non-discriminatory as to who it invades. In the somber British drama “Ordinary Love,” this hideous disease inflicts a toll on the relationship of a devoted married couple still haunted by a tragic loss. The ups and downs they experience during one long year are portrayed with absolute brilliance and humanity by Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville (“Phantom Thread”). 

By the time we meet Tom (Neeson) and Joan (Manville), their relationship has developed into one that feels like putting on a comfortable pair of slippers. There is a tangible ease about how they interact with each other, punctuated by wonderful chemistry between the two leads. Initially, they have all the appearances of carefree empty nesters enjoying the autumn period of their lives. However, when Joan discovers a lump in her breast, we learn that underneath the pleasant exterior of their marriage is a scar that runs deep in their souls.

 Somehow, their marriage endured the death of their daughter long ago, but cancer threatens to put them through an altogether different ordeal. Despite trying to maintain a stiff upper lip about her diagnosis, Joan is racked with fear of the unknown while Tom swims in denial while trying to do his best to be supportive. What unfolds over the course of a year are challenges they meet with a variety of emotions, ranging from gut-wrenching despair to laughter to anger born from frustration. Through it all there is a grace which carries them through. 

“Ordinary Love,” which had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, is a serious work of cinematic art that will leave its mark on you. It is raw and unfiltered. Neeson and Manville are terrific at making us feel the painful intensity of their characters’ emotions. For her part, Manville, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in 2017’s “Phantom Thread,” delivers a gut-wrenching performance as a woman trying to endure a disease that takes its toll on the mind, body and spirit. 

The film’s brevity, at just over an hour-and-a-half, means less time the story can explore the medical/hospital elements of Joan’s cancer. As such, these moments seem rushed and too abbreviated, thus lessening how truly impactful “Ordinary Love” could have been. Some elements are also predictable, yet this can be overlooked as a negative because of the overall emotional potency within the film. “Ordinary Love” is certainly not ordinary and will hit close to home for anyone who has been touched by cancer. 

Film Review: “Emma”

EMMA
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn
Directed by: Autumn de Wilde
Rated: Rated PG
Running Time: 2 hrs 5 mins
Focus Features 

Patience is a virtue and you must be virtuous indeed to eventually enjoy the newest adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 classic novel, “Emma.” This is due to its initial pacing, which is lethargic, and it takes a bit to get comfortable with the cadence of the dialogue. Anya Taylor-Joy (“Glass,” “Split”) delivers a solid performance as the strong-willed title character, but excepting Bill Nighy as her character’s somewhat eccentric father, the remaining supporting cast doesn’t provide much that is memorable. Some of the blasé quality can arguably be attributed to “Emma” being the feature-length film debut for American director Autumn de Wilde, whose previous endeavors have predominately been video shorts. The trick for something so well known, and thus predictable like “Emma” is for it to be unpredictable. Sadly, it fails to surprise in any way. 

This silver screen adaptation of Austen’s work begins by telling us that, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition… and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” Having grown up in a privileged, aristocratic existence, Emma is spoiled and is vain about her matchmaking abilities. Her own self-aggrandizement has caused her to be blind to the dangers of playing with other people’s hearts. 

With no wish to become married herself, even though she pines away for an often talked about yet unseen Frank Churchill (Callum Turner, “War & Peace”), it has become Emma’s desire to follow-up her most recent matchmaking success by finding a suitable suitor for her friend, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth, “Suspiria”). Harriet is a nice girl with a pleasant disposition but is not as high on the social ladder as Emma, which is a challenge for her because she wants to upgrade Harriet’s status.

 Emma proves to be ignorant of a good thing right in front of her in the form of one George Knightley (Johnny Flynn, “Clouds of Sils Maria”), a gentleman of means who lives within walking distance. Generous and kind-hearted, George doesn’t mince words with Emma as he often expresses disdain for her meddling in other people’s affairs. Ultimately, Emma finds herself in an ostracized position and must look inward in order to make things right.

 “Emma” contains some beautiful costume designs, wonderful locations, and good cinematography throughout its running time. It’s nice icing on the cake, but the cake itself is what’s truly important. There are a few moments that produce laughter, especially ones involving Nighy being a scene stealer, but de Wilde’s retelling fails to pull on the heartstrings enough to evoke a deep, emotional reaction when the climax arrives. It’s a decent enough film so that one doesn’t feel like they have wasted two hours of their life, yet “Emma” isn’t something that’s so impactful that you will still remember it say two years from now except, of course, for perhaps diehard Austen fans.

Film Review: “The Call of the Wild”

THE CALL OF THE WILD
Starring: Harrison Ford
Directed by: Chris Sanders
Rated: Rated PG
Running Time: 1 hr 40 mins
20th Century Studios 

The 1903 novel “The Call of the Wild” by American novelist John “Jack” London (1876-1916) was written after the author had spent nearly a year in the wilds of the Canadian Yukon. It is arguably his most popular work and has been adapted to film several times – a silent film in 1923 followed by a 1935 version starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young, and numerous others since. Its indelible mark on American literature cannot be discounted as Hollywood has yet again decided to release another silver screen adaptation. Directed by Chris Sanders (“The Croods,” “How to Train Your Dragon”) and starring Harrison Ford, this newest incarnation is a dullish version of London’s classic tale. It’s tragic because the original story is full of harrowing adventure and timeless themes. However, its clear that Sanders and 20th Century Studios, formerly 20th Century Fox, wanted to make a more politically correct and kid-friendly story. 

Set in 1897, we meet Buck, a 140-pound St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix, at the Santa Clara Valley home of one Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford). A highly intelligent, happy-go-lucky pet, Buck has a knack for getting himself into trouble. It’s all nice and cute and feels like a Disney movie at this point, but what becomes annoying perpetually forward is that Buck is a CGI creation, and a poor one at that. It gives the film a phony quality, but of course it might have caused too much controversy if a real dog had been used instead. Be that as it may, after one trouble-filled occasion, Buck is forced to stay the night on the porch, which proves to be a fateful decision by Judge Miller. A nefarious local steals Buck for the money he will receive from those looking for good sled dogs in the Yukon. 

After learning the law of the club, Buck is purchased by a mail deliverer and his assistant who need a new dog for their sled team. (Amidst this, Buck has his first encounter with John Thornton (Harrison Ford), a man with a wounded soul looking to disappear into the northern wilderness.) Gradually, Buck, guided by a black wolf that represents his inner call to the wild, learns to be a part of a pack, but he ends up butting heads with the team’s menacing sled leader, Spitz for leadership. This conflict, for example, has been watered-down to the point it fails to reflect the struggles of nature that London related in his work. However, it’s par for the course as London’s original, brilliant story is repeatedly gutted. 

Eventually, Buck acquires yet another new master, but this one is cruel, naïve and blinded by gold lust. When Buck is worked nearly to death, it is Thornton who saves him and takes him in. Perpetually mourning the loss of his son, Thornton answers a call to adventure and sets out with Buck to find the wildest place they can. Once there, Buck is put in a position to decide if he wants to stay in the world of man or answer his ancestral calling. The real calling, though, that everyone should answer is stay away from this movie. Instead, pick up London’s book, or download it, and read it for yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

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.