Film Review: “Little Joe”

LITTLE JOE
Starring: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor
Directed By: Jessica Hausner
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Magnolia Pictures 

Due to the prominence of Little Shop of Horrors‘ famous “Audrey II” in pop culture, it makes sense that I approached Little Joe–the titular blossom in Jessica Hausner’s new feature, named after its lead’s young son–somewhat warily. After all, naming that unnatural plant after its owner’s closest loved one didn’t quite work out for Seymour, did it? Both the plant and the feature Little Joe are not quite the bombastic spectacle as that man-eater, but they offer a few creepy elements of their own. Part sci-fi, part social commentary and with hints of horror, Hausner’s film is visually arresting but its many thematic seedlings never fully take root.  

Alice (Emily Beecham) works in an advanced plant breeding lab, where she has just made a breakthrough in engineering: a plant that is meant to boost its keepers happiness just by breathing in its presence. This antidepressant alternative, which Alice dubs “Little Joe” after her son, sounds promising but Alice’s coworkers remain suspicious. Particularly after the Little Joes causes “his” planted neighbors to wilt. Alice’s only supporter appears to be Chris (Ben Whishaw) who’s anxious for Alice to come out for a drink with him. The first red flag comes in the form of fellow scientist, Bella’s (Kerry Fox) dog running rampant in the lab after encountering the new plant. His owner was already in opposition to Alice’s work and even more so after she becomes adamant that his encounter made the dog “not himself.” Despite this, Alice has a seedling of her own currently potted in the home she sometimes shares with her son (she is divorced), the human Joe. 

As you can imagine, suddenly Joe isn’t exactly himself either. The trouble with the film comes in how it never really commits to how malevolent Little Joe is meant to be. In some of those encountered they do gain a sort of vapid air of cheerfulness. In others, their entire personalities take hard turns. Human Joe suddenly does want to move out to live with his father while the lovelorn Chris gets more aggressive in his overtures to Alice. At times it seems to lean into critiquing what exactly is true happiness–if you’re only happy on a drug, does it count and does it matter? At the same time though, Hausner introduces this angle of the plant wanting to multiply via its human hosts and a whole lot of movie pseudo-science. A sort of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. But it’s an extreme it only really goes to in one tense sequence with Fox’s character trapped in Little Joe’s greenhouse. 

If there’s one thing that’s consistent, it’s Hausner’s overall grip on the film’s visual design.  Production designer’s Katharina Woppermann beautiful pastel palette complements Beecham’s overall aloof demeanor well from her sterile labs to her small home. Little Joe’s flower with its vibrant puffs of blood red pollen is also fittingly ominous. Meanwhile Hausner’s camera never quite stays still, even roving slowly through the quietest of conversations to keep viewers just a little on edge throughout. It’s unfortunate however that the visual team’s work is frequently undermined by a jarring score of loud clashing sounds. Again, the score is telling me horror film, but Hausner isn’t giving me enough to support it.

Overall, like a botanical garden, Little Joe is something I admired in a slow meandering sort of way for its beauty and craftsmanship more than any sort of emotional connection. 

Film Review: “Dark Waters”

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Rated: R
Running Time: 126 minutes
Focus Features

“Dark Waters” sounds like the title to a horror movie, and it kind of is. Potentially, probably, most likely, sitting in your gut right now is a chemical that you didn’t know you were being poisoned with. It was marketed as safe and did what it was supposed to do, help make life a little more convenient. The solutions to some of our minor inconveniences means that these secret chemicals will take forever to break down. That means even after we’re dead and decomposed, they will still be there.

“Dark Waters” is about the moral journey of corporate lawyer, Andrew Billott (Ruffalo). He goes from defending the big boys to defending the little guy. It comes after he’s approached by West Virginia farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp). Not only are Tennant’s cows dying at an alarming rate, but their remains reveal startling organ problems and grotesque mutations. Tennant believes the American conglomerate, DuPont, is to blame. Tennant says their landfill upstream poisoned the water that his cow’s drink from. What Billott doesn’t know, is that he’s about to uncover a decades-long public health crisis, that’s been kept under wraps.

Based on real-life events documents in a New York Times Magazine article, “Dark Waters” is a 21st century David vs. Goliath. It’s not only about corporate wrongdoing, but the bureaucratic red tape that’s allowed it to fester outside the public eye. We learn how DuPont stepped through gaping loopholes in the EPA’s regulatory system, and then attempted to take advantage of the political system, at the local, state and federal level, when Billott busts out the flashlight and begins digging through DuPont’s dirty laundry.

Ruffalo, whose characters should be foaming mad, and sometimes is, plays Billott as a modest, soft and well-spoken attorney. He’s angry behind-the-scenes, but when coming face-to-face with DuPont’s legal team and leaders, he’s methodical and calm. It’s the kind of performance that makes it seem like every other actor is overacting, especially when Tim Robbins sticks his head in. This is Ruffalo’s vehicle, as it should be since his name is all over it, and he takes command of the ship with extraordinary confidence.

Despite the message and Ruffalo’s performance, “Dark Waters” suffers from a choppy pace and the overwhelming feeling that’s it outstaying it’s welcome towards the end. Granted, it’s a two-hour movie that tries to condense a decade and a half or more worth of actual content. But there’s still a lot of odd editing choices. At times, the movie smartly condenses years with on-screen text to show the passage of time or fill the audience in on some key plot points. Other times, it appears to be twiddling it’s thumbs, content with unnecessary back story and a handful of bizarre cameos. Cameos that feel a little grotesque considering the movie’s content. It barrels forward at full-steam in the beginning, but begins to lose a lot of its punch as the movie comes to a close, which is a bit unfortunate.

“Dark Waters” is the kind of film that should make us all feel concerned about the kind of toxins that have been deemed safe by the government, as well as the products that are continually marketed as safe by unchecked corporate America. Even though this movie is far from perfect, Ruffalo should feel proud to have his name all over this. Anyone who sees this movie will think twice about the marketing fed to them daily, the companies that promise to have their best interest, and the politicians who say “Trust us.”

Film Review: “Marriage Story”

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver and Laura Dern
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Rated: R
Running Time: 136 minutes
Netflix

It’s an impressive feat to reach out to an audience and make them feel something, especially when those audience members aren’t able to relate to the plight at hand. I say this because I’ve never been married, so I haven’t experienced the painful complications surrounding divorce. Despite that, I felt the pain, sorrow, and heartbreak experienced throughout “Marriage Story.”

When we first meet the New York couple, Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johansson), they’re narrating all the little things that they like about one another. We come to find out they’re both mentally going over a list of things they love about one another. The lists were at the behest of a mediator because their marriage is falling apart. Both stay silent over the list, choosing to never read them. Charlie, a playwright, and Nicole, an actress, have decided that marriage counseling isn’t right for them, and maybe their union isn’t right for them as well. Things erode further as Nicole accepts an acting job in Los Angeles, taking their son with her. Things crumble even further once Nicole is told by a friend about a divorce lawyer.

The narrations at the beginning feel like a distant memory midway through the movie. The split reaches a point where it becomes about who can do the most emotional damage, no dime spared. Even their more cordial conversations, feel tense because they’re on the verge of lunging at one another a delivering another blow to the other’s heart. Thankfully some of the tension is undercut by sardonic comedy and moments where ancillary characters simply help the two main characters breathe.

There is no right and wrong in “Marriage Story,” because it’s all messy, just like a real-life divorce. Now granted, director/writer Noah Baumbach does a fantastic job of layering each character with relatable and detestable attributes. We see moments of selfishness and selflessness from Charlie and Nicole. Baumbach does slip up in the middle and towards the end as he tends to focus more on Charlie’s distress and misery, rather than giving the audience a peek at what kind of turmoil is going on with Nicole.

“Marriage Story” offers up two of the best performance to date from Driver and Johansson, who are simply magnetic together on-screen. The dialogue is brutal, honest and straightforward, which bats away any potentially dull moments. Their divorce is a slow-moving car crash that you can’t look away from because of how engrossing it is, but because of how well Charlie and Nicole have been written, you can only hope that they both make it out OK in the end.

Film Review: “This Is Our Home”

THIS IS OUR HOME

Starring: Simone Policano, Jeff Ayars, Drew Beckas
Directed by: Omri Dorani
Rated: Not Rated
Running time: 1 hr 13 mins
Uncork’d Entertainment

  We meet Reina (Simone Policano) and Cory (Jeff Ayars) in what could be one of the most memorable moments of their relationship. Reina eagerly fidgets while trying to share the news that she’s pregnant. The next scene is something most parents will find touching and familiar… our couple, intertwined, in a playful and intimate baby-naming brainstorming session. Things are going well and we’re optimistic for these people who seem like a nice team. The next scene shares a fleeting and incredibly terrifying and intimate moment where you begin to watch the process of mourning that child. This moment alone will decide what how the rest of this film is received depending on the audience’s personal experience.    

Reina and Cory head upstate to her family vacation home, secluded in the woods. A relaxing few days, of which we can only assume is intended to serve as a last-ditch effort relationship repair. Scene after scene they become more unbearable to observe together and then an unexpected third party joins them, a child who has seemingly emerged from the woods claiming to be their son. Drew Beckas, who portrays Zeke, brings a remarkable set of eccentricities to his new family unit. His arrival, received by his “parents” in violently varying ways, is agonizing to watch. His age, mannerisms, vocal cadence or the toddler-like prance that doesn’t match his adolescent body all make the second half of the film unsettling and strangely efficient.       

After their initial agreement to call the authorities about his arrival, Zeke separates the couple for one on one time, finding Reina submitting to her maternal instincts (and grief) and Cory growing increasingly more agitated and threatened. Both drawn into different corners of madness, the story commits to serving as a psychological thriller when layers of their relationship are peeled back and you start to question how much of what you’re viewing is actually happening, where it’s happening and why?

     “This is Our Home” is the equivalent to being a guest at a highly dysfunctional family dinner. You go home, glad you’re not related to these people but with a great story to discuss with others. It’s 73 minute run time falls just short of feeling complete. An early sequence involving the couple’s interaction with some backwoods-y motorists feels wedged in to an otherwise claustrophobic story. There’s additionally several unnecessary lingering shots that unnecessarily pad the film’s short runtime for style’s sake. Director Omri Dorani still makes a very worthwhile attempt at constructing a very horrific study of the demolition of a relationship. His storytelling commits to trusting his audience to piece together their own interpretation warranted a few days digestion and earned a second viewing dissection where it proved even more effective.  

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: “Knives Out”

Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans and Ana de Armas
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Lionsgate

About two years ago, around this time of year, I was criticizing Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” as being stuffy and unimaginative despite the ensemble cast and production budget. Unlike that dreary and forgettable whodunit, “Knives Out” is a welcome addition to the murder-mystery genre.

The mystery in “Knives Out” is spun around the apparent suicide of the Thrombley family patriarch, Harlan (Christopher Plummer). The suspects are the surrounding Thrombley family, made up of a cast characters played by the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon and others. Each of the Thrombley’s has their own selfish reasons or reasoning for wanting to kill Harlan. Simply put, they’re leeches. But the police aren’t the ones looking into the possibility of foul play. Private detective, Benoit Blanc (Craig), was tasked with finding the killer after a mysterious letter arrived at his door. So he enlists the help of Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Armas), to track down clues and interview family members.

Just like “Clue” and “Murder by Death” before it, “Knives Out” works first as a comedy, and second as a mystery that twists and turns until the very end. Even when you think you’ve figured it all out, the movie manages to unravel a little bit more. If I was to nitpick, just a wee bit, it’d be that the movie reveals a little bit too much, too early on, and takes its time revealing a few more of the twists. However, the comedy masks a lot of its pacing flaws. The silliness of the characters is inevitably undermined by their ulterior motives by the end of the film. The final frame serves as an unmasking for the film’s allegory, which writer/director Rian Johnson has carefully pieced together over the course of a few hours.

“Knives Out,” a modern throwback, works best when it’s delivering one-liners and verbal gut punches during family squabbles. The material moves so fast, that I’m certain there will be some people giving this a re-watch to see what kind of jokes they missed out on. “Knives Out” is engaging, fun, and clever, and what more could you want from a whodunit?

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: “Animal Among Us”

ANIMAL AMONG US
Starring: Larisa Oleynik, Erin Daniels and Heather Tom
Directed by: John Woodruff
Not Rated
Running time: 1 hr 30 mins
Uncork’d Entertainment

“This is a movie about a monster.” Author Roland Baumgarner’s (Christian Oliver) first and only successful writing venture found him fame by exploiting the mysterious deaths of two young girls at the family owned Camp Merrymaker. His novel helped to simultaneously draw curious and fanatical Sasquatch hunters to the area and cause the camp to shut down. Years later, Roland is living his own personal blasé-suburban nightmare and, without a sophomore success to his name, has resigned himself to teaching creative writing to a group of uninspired young writers.

     When Roland receives a strange fan letter in the mail – inviting him to return to  Camp Merrymaker for it’s grand reopening – he jumps at the opportunity to use the event to get his creative juices flowing. However, upon his arrival, he quickly realizes the proprietors of the camp, sisters Anita and Poppy (Larisa Oleynik and Christine Donlon), shouldn’t rush to open their gates to guests just yet. As hidden agendas and bloodied Sasquatch investigators emerge from the depths of the woods, Roland finds himself spiraling into the kind of real life terror that, incidentally, would make for a great book.


      Director John Woodruff is a lifelong genre fan and has crafted his first feature film with his bleeding monster kid heart on his sleeve. It’s filled with loving nods to a variety of classic horror films with all the key players of a traditional summer camp slasher present: the foreboding, woodsy atmosphere, creative special effects, the short shorts, the badly behaved counselors and the looming ever-present threat of death but “Animal Among Us” finds its own unique and emotionally honest voice by weaving in themes of obsession and revenge. It’s never exploitative or gratuitous, explores marital relationships with refreshing albeit uncomfortable honesty and stands out by utilizing every minute of its ninety minute run time to expand a creature feature into a multi-layer monster movie that will really keep you guessing who you’re rooting for.

Film Review: “Frozen II”

FROZEN II
Starring:  Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel and Josh Gad
Directed by: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Rated:  PG
Running time:  1 hr 43 mins
Walt Disney

Call me Nostradamus.  In 2015, in a book I published, I commented on the proliferation of sequels in today’s Hollywood.  I also noted that, as the original “Frozen” was such a big hit, you can rest assured there will be a “Frozen II.”  And now there is.  And it’s pretty darn good.

The film begins with a flashback of the two young princesses being told the story of how their kingdom was founded by their father.  It’s not a pretty tale and their mother calms them down with a lullaby.  Jump to the present.  We join our Princesses (Anna – voiced by Ms. Bell and Elsa – voiced by the Marvelous Ms. Menzel) as they enjoy a nice day outside with their snowman pal Olaf (Gad).  Apparently Olaf has been “permafrosted” so the sun no longer bothers him.  The story takes a turn when Elsa vanishes, having left to discover the secret behind her power (for the uninformed, she has the ability to conjure up snow and ice at will).  Adventure, and several songs, ensue.

“Frozen II” sticks to the Disney tradition of the sequel – familiar characters doing different things.  The story (and songs) aren’t as strong as the original, but it is enjoyable.  I may be unfair in doing this comparison, but the songs here are not as strong as in the first film.  “Let It Go” was a powerhouse of a song, deservedly earning the Academy Award for Best Original Song.  The best number here is “Into the Unknown,” which is delivered in full throat by Ms. Menzel.  As someone who would pay to hear Idina Menzel sing the phone book, her range and power on this tune is breathtaking.  Great for me, but it kind of takes the wind out of the sails of the other numbers.  The cast is in great form (and voice), with both Bell and Menzel giving life to their characters while Josh Gad is at his best comic timing as Olaf.

Visually, the film is perfect.  When I think back to the hand-drawn animation of my youth I can’t believe the progression that has been made up until today.  Directors Buck and Lee, who took home the Oscar for “Frozen,” return and keep the story moving, always a good thing when your target audience is youngsters.  They have delivered an early holiday present to princesses’ everywhere.

Film Review: “Dolemite is My Name”

DOLEMITE IS MY NAME
Starring:  Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key and Wesley Snipes
Directed by: Craig Brewer
Rated:  R
Running time:  1 hr 57 mins
NETFLIX

If.  If pigs had wings, they would fly.  If a frog had wings it wouldn’t bump its ass.  And if Eddie Murphy made better career choices he’d already have an Oscar.  He may have that opportunity soon thanks to his performance as Rudy Ray Moore in “Dolemite is My Name.”

Rudy is a hustler with big dreams.  He left his Fort Smith, Arkansas home and headed for California, knowing he would be a star someday.  When we meet him, that day hasn’t yet happened.  It’s the 1970s and Rudy manages a record shop while MC-ing at the local jazz joint, telling stale jokes and trying to get discovered.  Things begin to improve when he overhears a homeless man telling outrageous stories about a character named Dolemite.  He pays the man to share his tales and, donning an afro wig and sporting a look that could only be described as “pimp-sheik,” he takes the stage and begins telling the old man’s stories in a fresh new way.  A lot of jive and “F” bombs.  Suddenly he’s a hit!  A few successful comedy albums later Rudy decides to take his character to the big screen.  And the story begins.

Featuring an amazing cast, led by Eddie Murphy, “Dolemite is My Name” is an intriguing look behind the scenes of one of the most influential genres in film, the Blaxploitation film.  This genre spawned movies like “Shaft,” “Black Caesar,” “Blackula” and so many more.  It is also a look at true guerilla filmmaking.  Rudy knows nothing about making movies, yet he’s not intimidated at the prospect either.  He can’t be.  He knows what his goal is and he’s determined to reach it.  He is assisted on screen by some well known actors including Mike Epps, Keegan-Michael Key and, in one of his best performances in many years, Wesley Snipes, who stars as real-life actor D’Urville Martin, whose friendship with Fred Williamson led to some great roles in many of “the Hammer’s” action films.  Martin thinks of himself as more than a Blaxploitation star, commenting that he’s worked with Roman Polanski (he’s the Dakota’s elevator operator in “Rosemary’s Baby.”  And, for some extra trivia, he was cast as Lionel Jefferson in the two pilots for “All in the Family,” though lost the role to Mike Evans when the series finally aired.)  Martin feels he’s above a low-budget film like “Dolemite” until Rudy offers him the chance to direct.  NOW he’s an auteur! 

The script is sharp and funny, which I’ve come to expect from writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who have given us such great bio-pics as “Ed Wood,” “The People vs Larry Flynt,” “Man on the Moon” and “Big Eyes.”  Director Brewer (“Hustle and Flow,” the upcoming “Coming to America 2” keeps the film moving smoothly, letting the humor build while still telling an interesting story.

Eddie Murphy should have been an Academy Award nominee for the first “Nutty Professor” film, and he should have won the award outright when he was nominated for his performance as Jimmy Early in “Dreamgirls.”  As long as he doesn’t have “Norbit 2” on the horizon, he may finally take him the prize.

Film Review: “The Report”

Starring: Adam Driver, Annette Benning and Ted Levine 
Directed by: Scott Z. Burns
Rated: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
Amazon Studios

It’s easy to lose sight of things that happen with all the constant distractions that we have nowadays. Especially in 2019, it’s difficult to keep up with all the headlines, much less remember ones that happened in 2014. “The Report” is a reminder about one of those headlines that may have skirted under the rug, but it’s a sobering reminder that we shouldn’t let it go away anytime soon.

Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a real-life Senate investigator tasked with looking into the use of torture by the CIA during the War on Terror. It’s established early on that Jones is a meticulous, by-the-books staffer. He’s ready to shine his light into every crevice in the search for the truth, but he has one hand tied behind his back. The agreement between the Senate and the CIA means that he doesn’t get to take any findings with him from a pale, bleak, windowless underground office space at the CIA, and he regularly finds that files are being deleted as he searches. However, those hurdles aren’t going to stop Jones from uncovering what the CIA did and what the CIA doesn’t want anyone to know.

Despite the dense information that “The Report” has to condense, it does it in a reasonable amount of time. It’s the kind of movie that can feel like its three to four hours long, when in reality it’s barely two. That’s not necessarily a knock because Driver is magnificently engrossing as Jones, delivering these exciting monologues when everyone else is procedurally discussing things. This is the kind of political thriller that you’d expect to be flashy, but it’s not. Much of the scenery is straight-forward, the surroundings are bland and some of the characters have to repress their outrage or disgust because of the D.C. environment they’re in.

While Driver is a tour de force in this, its director/writer Scott Z. Burns who should deserve a lot of credit for making this film as entertaining as it is. He manages to whittle down a nearly 7,000 page report into a movie, while also hopping along a lengthy timeline flawlessly, without confusing or talking down to the audience. Anyone who keeps up-to-date with the news will surely be able to follow along and know what’s coming next, but most of the general public will be stunned, if not upset depending on their political affiliations.

Much of what Jones’ and the audience find out as the film progresses is absolutely horrific. Not only is the U.S. participating in immoral techniques, but they don’t work. There comes a point in the film where the CIA plays defense, saying that the facts are misinterpreted and that Jones’ work is nothing but a witch hunt. It might be saying something about temporary day and what’s going on in the nation right now, but I’d like to believe that “The Report” is doing its due diligence at highlighting the work of public servants. Jones’ was in a thankless position, under threat of prison time and espionage. He was doing, what many seeing this movie would believe to be, his public duty and looking for answers that the public needs to know.

Film Review: “The Irishman”

Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Rated: R
Running Time: 209 minutes
Netflix

There’s a lot of background noise surrounding Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” On one hand, you have the general movie-going crowd groaning over the stuffed runtime, and on the other hand, you have industry insiders bemoaning the dispute that Netflix has had with cinemas. In a lot of ways, these issues stem from an older generation, wondering why they need to sit through a movie this long or would want to seek out a movie that isn’t at their local conglomerate movie theater. These feel like such miniscule problems when you watch this film and realize it’s one of the best movies of 2019.

When we first meet Frank Sheeran (De Niro), he’s beside himself in a nursing home. No one pays any mind or bothers talking to the WWII veteran turned truck driver turned hitman. He has a wild story to tell, but no one to tell it to. So, he tells it to the audience. It begins in 1950’s Pennsylvania, where his stonewalling in court earns the respect of local gangster, Russell Bufalino (Pesci). The two quickly develop a bond and appreciation, so Bufalino starts having Frank do odd jobs, not petty crimes mind you, but murder. Frank makes a big enough splash that he’s soon introduced to infamous teamster, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). That’s when things get weird and violent.

Unlike Scorsese’s previous crime and mob movies, this film moves at a confident, quiet pace. It’s not sexually bombastic like “Wolf of Wall Street,” or violently speedy like “Goodfellas.” It has a lot to say and it’s going to take its God damn time. It has two and a half decades to cover, along with various flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks. The narrative structure is built around the most shocking revelation of this movie, which most anyone with an understanding of criminal history in the U.S. should know before turning this movie on, but just in case, I won’t reveal it. Despite the lengthy runtime and the years of story the film pours over, this movie is rarely boring.

Scorsese is a master at making overly long films. He makes three hours seem like a walk through the park. It’s the style in which he shoots, the way he tells the character’s story and the outlandishness that he captures on screen. It’s almost like he taps into this primal ID, making us feast on the depravity of others. But “The Irishman” takes on small, but major step towards a different path. “Goodfellas” or “Wolf of Wall Street” doesn’t end well for the film’s antagonists. Their punishment is generally a mundane end to their life, but “The Irishman” takes it a step further. It shows that this wild lifestyle, filled with action and fun, ends alone. The final 30 minutes are bittersweet.

It unfolds in such an interesting way, that we become more wrapped up in Frank’s life and how he manages to balance these violent side gigs with a picturesque home life, with a wife and kids. We get little breadcrumbs about the Bufalino crime family and how much their tentacles have penetrated the East Coast. We also get a lot of intriguing political dramas as Pacino pushes the limits of overacting through Hoffa. Pacino never quite reaches the unnecessary acting heights of a film like “Scent of a Woman,” but he comes precariously close. Hoffa is crafted in such a flawed manner, that you come to sympathize and loathe him from scene-to-scene. Meanwhile, Pesci, in his most reserved role, is just as menacing as ever behind the wrinkles of Bufalino. There’s a lot of creative supporting work here as well from the likes of Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Harvey Keitel.

Putting a sweeping epic like this on Netflix seems bizarre to many. Decades ago, folks would have lined up around the block to see this film and theaters would have slapped an intermission in the middle so that people could refill on sugar drinks and salty popcorn. Instead this movie will be watched by people on their TVs at home, their computers, or even on their smartphone. There are a lot of people wondering why this film isn’t being shown the classic way. Maybe Scorsese recognizes the direction the industry is heading. He recently caught flack or making a negative comment about Marvel films, even though they were grossly taken out of context in the never-ending effort to satisfy today’s outrage culture. “The Irishman” feels like a bookend to a beloved genre, as Scorsese reflects on his past and says goodbye to the murderous crooks that made his career.

Film Review: “Ford v Ferrari”

FORD v FERRARI
Starring:  Matt Damon, Christian Bale and Jon Bernthal
Directed by: James Mangold
Rated:  PG 13
Running time:  2 hrs 32 mins
Warner Bros.

There have only been a handful of movies dealing with auto racing that give the audience the feel of being behind the wheel.  In the 1960s, as the sport was gaining notoriety, films like “Winning,” “Le Mans” and “Grand Prix” fueled the audiences’ appetites.  Later on, “Days of Thunder” and Ron Howard’s “Rush” helped convey the feeling of going around in a circle at 200 miles per hour.  This week, that list is joined by the latest film from director James Mangold, “Ford v Ferrari.”

In 1959, Carroll Shelby (Damon) did what no American had ever accomplished by winning the 24 hour Le Mans auto race, held annually in France.  Shortly after his victory Shelby left the driving to others and began selling sports cars to the rich.  But he wanted more. And one day, that “more” – in the form of Ford Motor Company’s Lee Iacoca (Bernthal) – walks into his showroom with an offer he can’t refuse.

With an exhilarating pace that belies its 2 ½ hour run time, “Ford v Ferrari” is a testament to the wills and friendships of two very different people.  While Shelby know cars he also knows who needs to be driving them.  That would be one Ken Miles (Bale, actually getting the chance to employ his very real British accent), a top driver who has a bit of a temper.  It’s this temper that his held Ken back and he knows he needs to become a “team player” if he wants to race the new car that Shelby has created.  Miles has a loving wife and a doting son, both of who support him in the good times and bad.  If Ford hopes to beat perennial champion motor company Ferrari at the upcoming Le Mans race, the good times need to outweigh all other.

I’ve always been a fan of James Mangold.  From the cop drama “Copland” to the R-rated Wolverine epic “Logan,” he has always entertained me with smart films that show a master’s touch in storytelling.  Here that touch is put together with two of the best actors working today, making for a nice combination.  Throw in plenty of race footage and you’ve got a film that takes the checkered flag.

Film Review: “The Tokoloshe”

  • THE TOKOLOSHE
  • Starring: Petronella Tshuma, Kwande Nkosi and Dawid Minnaar
  • Directed by: Jerome Pikwane
  • Rated: Not Rated
  • Running time: 1 hr 32 mins
  • Uncork’d Entertainment

Review by Becki Reiner

Director Jerome Pikwane’s debut feature film, “The Tokoloshe,” explores South African mythology and real-life terror residing parallel to patriarchal rule. Busi (Tshuma), in her escape from a scarred upbringing of poverty and abuse, has come to Johannesburg and is forced to take a job cleaning at a rundown hospital managed by a sexual predator. The persistent grime and shadowy barren corridors alone thrusts audiences into immediate anxiety and familiarity with Busi’s crawl through her hostile universe. Stacked atop her personal present and repressed traumas, Busi connects with a young female patient who has suffered her own experiences with abuse. The young girl shares her fears of the Tokoloshe, a frequently utilized South African folklore creature who is terrorizing the hospital wings.      

The creature, rarely seen in the film, is eventually revealed in a form that will surely feel familiar to horror fans but surprisingly not out of place. The journey to unmasking the Tokoloshe’s true form is filled with multiple sequences of gorgeously frightening atmosphere, a bedroom entity assault that will instinctively pull you back to your childhood nightmares (and lovingly lend a nod to “A Nightmare on Elm Street”), and an intelligently character-led march into terror that genuinely trusts the audience to submerge themselves in a supernatural pursuit instead of insulting them with superficial modern Hollywood jump-scares.      

Pikwane’s “The Tokoloshe” serves as a needed depiction of the most marginalized of humanity suffering at the hands of society and Ms. Tshuma, as Busi, easily wins the film and carries the story as a refreshingly non-traditional final girl with her dynamic presence and fearless, maternal heroics. “The Tokoloshe” is a promising first feature that is a strong hybrid of uniquely South African folklore and generational notable terror. It squelches the notion of “tribal” or “urban” legends, as the underlying monster here transcends boundaries that will make you itch to shelve the copies of your favorite familiar suburban horrors and explore other regionally specific storytelling and monsters from all the darkest corners of the globe.

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.

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