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.

Film Review: “Ophelia”

  • OPHELIA
  • Starring: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts
  • Directed by: Claire McCarthy
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Running Time: 1 hr 54 mind
  • IFC 

There is nothing more spectacular, and scary than taking an epic work of theater, by Shakespeare no less, and turning it on its head by retelling it from a different perspective. This is the case with “Ophelia,” the doomed love interest of the equally doomed Danish prince, Hamlet. With a more modernesque musical score and friendly dialogue that lacks the thous and thees you would expect from Shakespeare, director Claire McCarthy (“The Waiting City”) takes us on a journey with an unexpected destination. 

As she floats with an eternal peace across face, our heroine Ophelia asks us in a voiceover if we know her story. Tired of no one knowing who she is, Ophelia tells us it is time we finally understand her. As such, she takes us back to when she was a dirty faced, rebellious little girl in Elsinore Castle who draws the fateful attention of Danish Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts). Turned into a lady-in-waiting, a grownup Ophelia (Daisy Ridley, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) enjoys the queen’s favor, but she is hen pecked mercilessly by the other ladies who all hold the distinction of being noble by birth. 

When Prince Hamlet (George MacKay, ’Where Hands Touch”) returns from school as a man, he is instantly smitten with Ophelia. However, “Ophelia” is still a Shakespearean tale despite the rewrite and the budding romance is complicated by the sudden death of King Hamlet and the subsequent quick marriage of Queen Gertrude and suspect number one, the deceased king’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen) who ascends to Denmark’s throne. It proves to be too much for Prince Hamlet to bear and his wits begin to deteriorate. 

At the same time, Prince Hamlet becomes obsessed with Ophelia and the idea of marrying her, which comes to fruition but in secret. Secrets though are no stranger to her, who learns many from the witch Mechtild (Watts), Gertrude’s sister. Claudius comes to view Ophelia as dangerous while Prince Hamlet falls deeper into madness. And while it’s to be expected for people to die in droves, this enjoyable retelling of Shakespeare contains some delightful twists that makes it fresh and surprising. 

Based upon the 2008 novel of the same name by American author Lisa Klein (“Lady Macbeth’s Daughter”), “Ophelia” is a breath of fresh air. It’s daring. It’s imaginative. It doesn’t require Ridley to hold a light saber as she is given a chance to shine on the screen. While the depth of her emotional output is found wanting, she more than holds her own against a terrific dual performance by Watts. Owen is adequate as the diabolical Claudius and MacKay is just wide-eyed and stammers a lot with spittle spewing from his mouth. 

In the end, “Ophelia” is a definite must-see for anyone who loves Shakespeare or good theater in general.

Film Review: “The Dead Don’t Die”

  • THE DEAD DON’T DIE
  • Starring: Bill Murray, Adam Driver
  • Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
  • Rated: R
  • Running Time: 1 hr 44 mins
  • Focus Features 

Zombie movies have been a part of the cinema landscape since the 1930s with Victor Halperin’s “White Zombie” in 1932 among the first. George A. Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” is regarded as a cult classic with its depiction of cannibalistic zombies. Since then there have been dozens and dozens of zombie flicks, often of low budget origins, featuring the undead scaring the life out of the living. Director Jim Jarmusch (“Paterson,” “Broken Flowers,” “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”) has thrown his hat into the zombie arena with his comical horror/fantasy “The Dead Don’t Die,” which features an all-star cast that’s sure to make anyone alive look twice. While it may have some clever laughs and some dry one-liners that only star Bill Murray can deliver, Jarmusch’s effort is about as mundane as watching Selena Gomez act.

 After responding to a complaint by racist Farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi) that his chickens are being killed by the disheveled eccentric Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), Centerville police Chief Cliff Robertson (Murray) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) notice something odd is going on. Animals are disappearing, cell phones no longer work, and its daylight way into the night. All of this is blamed on polar fracking, which is denied in news reports by the companies who are doing the fracking. With the poles shifting their positions, it has altered Earth’s rotation, which of course means that the dead begin to rise from their graves.

 The town is littered with other recognizable faces including Danny Glover, Chloe Sevigny, Gomez, and Tilda Swinton as, you might guess it, an off-kilter character. I know it’s shocking, but who else could play a Scottish accented, samurai sword wielding, funeral home director? With so many different faces it only makes sense there are several little side stories as the townspeople struggle to avoid having their intestines eaten. They often fail as they are typically slower than the undead and even slower than the film’s pacing, which is often excruciating to sit through.

 Besides some great interaction between Murray and Driver, who talk in character about Jarmusch’s script and the repetitive-to-the-point-of-annoying theme song by Sturgill Simpson, the only bright spot of entertainment is Swinton’s performance. Otherwise, the plot is looser than someone who has drank a bottle of Metamucil in one setting. Characters vanish and unidentified objects appear for no reason. The acting is bland, punctuated by Gomez who seems to have no idea what she is doing and would have probably been better off just playing herself. Lastly, the nonsense becomes ridiculous when Jarmusch’s script turns political when he has Wait’s character go on socialist, metaphoric ramblings about consumerism, among other things. If I wanted that then I could have stayed at home and watched a documentary on PBS.

Film Review: “I Am Mother”

  • I AM MOTHER
  • Starring: Rose Byrne, Clara Rugaard
  • Directed by: Grant Sputore
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Running Time: 113 minutes
  • Netflix 

With the same gusto that Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark used to declare, “I am Iron Man,” I am hereby announcing that “I Am Mother,” currently on Netflix, is the best work of science fiction to grace the cinema universe since 2014’s bold “Ex Machina.” Brimming with a Stanley Kubrick vibe, “I Am Mother” holds your attention with ferocious vigor from beginning to end without ever skipping a beat. It captures the horrors of artificial intelligence gone wrong, something the late Stephen Hawking warned humanity about, with an engrossing cerebral script, solid acting, and a vision of the future that should make anyone shudder. This film should also make us question what is cinema?

 “I Am Mother,” which debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, begins with dark, foreboding music as we are taken to an underground repopulation center. A red counter on the screen tells us that just one day has elapsed since an “extinction event;” that there are 65,000 human embryos being stored here; and that there are no human beings currently alive in the complex. The extinction event is kept a mystery to us, but in the meantime, we watch a solitary droid, known simply as Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne, “X-Men: Apocalypse”), begin the task of restarting humanity by incubating an embryo. When that child eventually asks why it’s the only one, the kind Mother cryptically says that she needs practice to become a good parent.

 Flash forward to 15,867 days after the extinction event to when a teenage girl, Daughter (Clara Rugaard, “Teen Spirit”), is prepping for a test involving moral and ethical conundrums. It’s at this point our suspicions of Mother grow deeper since Daughter is still the only child in the facility, and roughly 40 years have passed since the first embryo was grown into a walking, talking human being. The situation becomes complicated because of Daughter’s own curiosity and the arrival of Woman (Hilary Swank) at the front door. The appearance of Woman, who has been shot, further contradicts Mother who repeatedly warns Daughter that the outside world is unhabitable for humans. Woman, who is less than truthful herself, paints a picture of human annihilation by A.I.-controlled droids.

 A brilliant first feature-length directorial effort by Grant Sputore, “I Am Mother” has influences on it that range from “Terminator” to “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Ex Machina” itself. There is a great feeling of suspense that builds and builds until it reaches a crescendo that will leave you analyzing what you saw for hours after the final credits leave the TV screen. Rugaard is a joy to watch as she delivers a breakout performance that rivals Alicia Vikander’s in “Ex Machina.” Byrne gives us a new HAL 9000 and Swank is raw and powerful as a lone survivor.

 Despite its greatness, is “I Am Mother” not cinema in the truest sense of the word because it is a Netflix endeavor and did not have, for example, a 3,000-screen release across the United States with an international debut of even more? And if it is classified in the same way as say a new “Terminator” would be, without gracing a silver screen, does that mean it would hypothetically be eligible for an Oscar? “I Am Mother” and others like it are a sign of changing times and perhaps a redefinition of what cinema is.

Film Review “Tolkien”

 
TOLKIEN
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins
Directed by: Dome Karukoski
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr 52 mins
Fox Searchlight
 
He was arguably the greatest fantasy writer of all time and certainly the godfather of modern fantasy literature. British author J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (1937) and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (1954-55) have endured the test of time while inspiring countless other works of the same genre, not to mention a modern-day film franchise that grossed nearly two billion dollars domestically. What many may not know is who Tolkien was during his formative years and what inspired him to create such a diverse world. Finnish director Dome Karukoski (“Tom of Finland”) helms a modestly successful attempt to shed light on the complicated young life of the writer, poet, philologist, academic and World War I veteran.
 
When we first meet John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), he is being forced, along with his younger brother, to move from their family cottage in the English countryside, which is painted as grossly idyllic, to the overly dark and sinister heart of an industrial city by his widowed mother. (The family patriarch died in South Africa when Ronald was three years old.) Thanks to the efforts of the stern, yet caring Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney, “Layer Cake”), the Tolkiens avoid complete destitution, but things go from bad to worse in 1904 when Ronald’s mother suddenly dies. Father Francis does not abandon them, though, and helps the lads find a home at a boarding house, and ensures their continued education based upon the family’s reputation.
 
Although brilliant and already well-educated, Ronald initially does not fit in well with his fellow classmates, preferring the company of books over people. However, thanks to a scuffle on the rugby field, Ronald develops a close fellowship with three other lads as they form their own, semi-secret society. Even into their teens, Ronald (Nicholas Hoult, “Mad Max: Fury Road”), Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle, “The Lost City of Z”), Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney, “Dunkirk”) and Robert Q. Gilson (Patrick Gibson, “The OA” tv series) continue their pledge to change the world through artistic endeavors. Their most difficult challenge, though, arrives when they all volunteer to serve in the war to end all wars.
 
The hallmark of a good movie is how long does it stay in your train of thought. Some are gone so fast that you might as well file an insurance claim for amnesia. A few manage to linger on forever like the taste of apple pie that grandma made for you twenty years ago. While “Tolkien’s” romantic elements are full of innocent sweetness and the four lads’ friendship is nice, none of it is all that remarkable. The only exception might be how Ronald’s imagination, even at a young age, began to create the fundamental building blocks that would become Middle Earth. What does stay with you are the horrific battle sequences. War is hell, as Sherman once said, and it’s depicted as such in “Tolkien.” Karukoski doesn’t shy away from also delving into what’s nothing less than PTSD for the survivors of the Great War. Hoult is at his best when he portrays the evolution of the author from naïve linguist to a leader of men suffering from trench fever to a grown man struggling with his inner demons. Karukoski does a marvelous job throughout with the use of symbolic imagery to put us into the head of Ronald as he continues to put together Middle Earth. It greatly helps to overcome some of the sluggishness that exists during the more mundane aspects of Ronald’s life, which is left a little vague in a spiritual sense as Tolkien was a devout Catholic, something that’s barely alluded to in the story.

Overall, “Tolkien” should satisfy all but probably the most die-hard Middle Earth enthusiasts who may strive to pick apart every, last embellishment. It’s a fairly satisfying film that should wet your appetite for a “Hobbit”/”Lord of the Rings” movie marathon.
 

 
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