Film Review: “Blinded by the Light”

  • BLINDED BY THE LIGHT
  • Starring:  Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra
  • Directed by: Gurinder Chadha
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 58 mins
  • Warner Bros.

I was introduced to Bruce Springsteen when I was 15-years old.  And I wasn’t introduced to the Boss by a school friend but rather by my father.  He had been out and seen Springsteen’s face on both the covers of TIME and Newsweek magazines so, intrigued, he bought me the “Born to Run” album.  When he handed it to me he said, “This guy is supposed to be pretty good.”  He was.

England in the 1980s.  As the decade begins we meet Javid and Matt – two young boys with different upbringings.  For his birthday, Matt got a new bicycle.  Javid’s parents got him a Rubik’s Cube.  Learning over fun.  They also share another difference.  Javid is Pakistani while Matt is white.  Their friendship is color-blind.  Sadly, their neighbors are not. 

We meet up with the two lads in 1987 as they prepare for pre-university schooling.  Javid (Kalra) wants to be a writer, though his father finds that occupation frivolous and wishes him to be a doctor.  Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) is now a musician with his own band.  One day, after a day of bullying, Javid meets Roops (Aaron Phagura) a Sikh classmate who hands him a couple of cassettes and tells him that he needs “the Boss.”  After a few listenings he readily agrees.

An uplifting film with a serious back story, “Blinded by the Light,” like this year’s “Yesterday,” is an amazing combination of words and music that tells a story that is just as vital today as it was 30 years ago.  Javid is questioned by his father about why he is so enamored by this American and Jewish singer (for the record, Bruce Springsteen is NOT Jewish), unable to believe that this man’s words can have any meaning in his family’s life.  Yet Springsteen has always been a poet for the people, putting their daily struggles and triumphs into words that resonate with his listeners.

Director Chadha, whose best known film is probably “Bend it Like Beckham,” fills her lens with amazing images, often featuring Springsteen’s lyrics superimposed over the scenes, giving the songs and their message added meaning.  She has also assembled an amazing cast.  Kalra and Chapman have a great chemistry, facing the ups and downs of being friends.  Phagura is energetic as Roops, a young man who has discovered the music that comments on his life and is happy to share it.  Hayley Atwell has a nice turn as Javid’s instructor.  And I must give a proper mention to Kulvinder Ghir, who plays Javid’s father, Malik.  Malik is a proud man who is dealt a few setbacks yet never falters in his love for his family.  He only wants his children to succeed…to do better than he did…though he is reluctant to accept the paths they wish to take.

Even if you’ve never enjoyed the music of Bruce Springsteen (I guess there may be a few people out there that feel this way), you will be swept up in the way that music is celebrated here.  In this writer’s opinion, “Blinded by the Light” is pure inspiration!

 
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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: “A Score to Settle”

  • A SCORE TO SETTLE
  • Starring:  Nicolas Cage, Noah Le Gros and Benjamin Bratt
  • Directed by:  Shawn Ku
  • Not Rated
  • Running time:  1 hr 43 mins
  • RLJE Films

Not many people know this, but Nicolas Cage made his film debut 37 years ago in the comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”  He was one of Sean Penn’s stoner pals (along with fellow up and coming actors Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards).  He was also billed with his real name, Nicolas Coppola.  I didn’t really pay attention to him until the next year’s film “Valley Girl.”  There was something about him that struck me as interesting.  His career highlights include winning the Oscar for Best Actor in “Leaving Las Vegas” and such action hits as “The Rock” and “Con Air.”  I should also add that, when he was in Baltimore making the film “Guarding Tess” that he often ate at the restaurant my roommate worked at.  I was told he was very nice to talk to and a great tipper!

He hasn’t been in a lot of high profile films lately, but no matter what the film, he’s usually the best thing in it.  He certainly is in the new drama “A Score to Settle.”

Frank (Cage) has been looking forward to this day.  After 19 years he is being released from prison, where he was sentenced for a brutal murder.  On his way out he is informed by the prison doctor that he must do something for his insomnia or risk a life of hallucinations and, eventually, death.  But all Frank wants to do is spend some time with his son, Joey (Le Gros), hoping he can make up the time he lost with him.  Oh, and he also plans to take his revenge out on the people who put him in prison.

An entertaining and well-paced film, “A Score to Settle” is Nicolas Cage at his best – deeply intense with a little bit of crazy mixed in for good measure.  Carrying a duffel bag full of cash, as well as a bunch of prison-made baseball bats, Frank is trying to ease the guilt he feels from not being there for Joey, especially after his wife dies.  However, a fancy hotel, new clothes and even a new car are not what Joey wants.  Complicating things are Frank’s relationship with his former partner in crime, Q (Bratt) and his meeting of a female escort (Karolina Wydra) with her own problems.  As the film progresses it takes a twist that amps up the emotional impact of Frank’s mission. 

A well recommended action/thriller, “A Score to Settle” is currently available with Video on Demand. 

Film Review: “Good Boys”

Starring: Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams and Brady Noon
Directed By: Gene Stupnitsky
Rated: R
Running Time: 89 minutes
Universal Pictures

More than lately, it feels like we’ve been inundated with coming-of-age movies. Just off the top of my head, we’ve had “Lady Bird,” “Eighth Grade,” “Booksmart,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Love, Simon,” “Blockers,” “Mid90s,” and to some extent, “IT.” Most of those movies are natural extensions of the genre which now include women, the LGBT community, Millennials and Generation Z. So “Good Boys” just feels like a casual dose of more of the same before the arrival of the 2010s.

To say that “Good Boys” has a story, feels a bit disingenuous to the film’s true narrative which feels more like several sketch ideas strung loosely together. To cut straight to the core of what’s happening; Max (Tremblay), Lucas (Williams) and Thor (Noon) have skipped school to fix several spin-off problems caused by Max’s invitation to a party where he and his pals will finally be able to kiss a girl. The problems this invitation have caused involve the destruction of a pricey drone, the theft of drugs, the need to buy drugs, and being chased all around their neighborhood by some angsty high schoolers. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before and several shenanigans feel reminiscent of “Superbad.”

This plot doesn’t really take shape from the get-go. “Good Boys” actually looks and feels amateurish for the first dozen or so minutes, coming off like a string of riffs on preteens being clueless preteens as they navigate a tricky minefield of sex talk, sex toys and dirty jokes. At least the movie is smart enough to recognize that most 12-year-olds talk a big game, but are as clueless as any kid entering a sex education class for the first time when it comes to the actual act of doing it. The inherent comedy of young kids saying four-letter words quickly loses its luster, but it’s the personalities of our three boys that the film actually finds some real comedy in.

Lucas is like Lincoln, he cannot tell a lie. His inability to fib further dooms the trio during their perilous journey or confuses adults because of how blunt he’s being. Thor is a theater geek who’s burying his own passion so he can try and impress other tweens. Unfortunately he’s not privy to the fact that they’ll never like him, no matter how many sips of a beer he’ll take. Max is the only one invested in this adventure, since he was the only one to actually be invited to the kissing party. He actually had to coerce the cool kids into allowing him to bring Lucas and Thor. It sets up the film’s final act fairly well. For a movie that’s as foul-mouthed as “American Pie,” it’s good to see that there’s an actual attempt at teaching a lesson in maturity and growth.

“Good Boys” is a passable entry into the coming-of-age films, but it isn’t unique or funny enough to stand tall with classics in the genre. It also suffers from some of its best jokes being in the trailer and a somewhat scatterbrained story flow that hiccups when it comes time to deliver a wise crack or sight gag. The three child actors manage to elevate a so-so script and they’ll certainly win over the adult crowd that sees this, as well as those young ones that sneak in to see what all the fuss is about.

Film Review: “Ode to Joy”

ODE TO JOY
Starring:  Martin Freeman, Melissa Rauch and Jake Lacy
Directed by:  Jason Winer
Rated:  R
Running time:  1 hr 37 mins
IFC Films

We are an emotional people.  The simplest things can set us off.  A puppy can make us smile while a flat tire can make us curse.  Pretty normal.  Unless you’re Charlie (Freeman).  He is one of the people that the term “his emotions really got the best of him” was coined for.  Charlie has cataplexy, and when he feels happy he passes out, which can’t be good for his love life.

A funny and well written film, “Ode to Joy” begins with Charlie serving as Best Man at a friend’s wedding.  Despite trying to keep neutral thoughts, he smiles at his friend’s good fortune and drops like a stone.  Charlie is a librarian – a great job for anyone that doesn’t want to deal with any emotions, since you basically have to stay quiet in a library – and one day meets Francesca (Morena Baccarin), a beautiful woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend.  Intrigued my Charlie, she agrees to go out with him.

Being with Francesca is a good thing for Charlie…until, of course, it becomes a bad thing.  Down he goes again.

Inspired by a true story – yes, cataplexy is very real – from events in co-writer Chris Higgins’ life, “Ode to Joy” is held together by an amazing performance by Freeman.  It would be so easy to play Charlie as another bumbling fool looking for love, but Mr. Freeman gives the character an emotional edge – a true heart that makes your own ache for his problem.  Ms. Baccarin is both funny and beautiful, a deadly combination for anyone.  Supporting work by Melissa Rauch and Jake Lacy is also strong.  And it’s always nice to see Jane Curtin, who should have been declared a National Treasure years ago, on the big screen.

Director Winer, an Emmy winner and frequent producer/director on television’s “Modern Family,” brings a light touch to the material, treating the situation as seriously as possible while still maintaining an undercurrent of humor.  He keeps the story movingbut allows the viewer to pause, when necessary, to assess the situations at hand. 

As summer comes to a close, take a chance on “Ode to Joy.”  And try not to pass out! 

 
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Film Review: “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood”

  • ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD
  • Starring:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie
  • Directed by:  Quentin Tarantino
  • Rated:  R
  • Running time:  2 hrs 41 mins
  • Sony Pictures

THE 9th FILM FROM QUENTIN TARANTINO!! So read the ads for the filmmaker’s latest opus, a love story to old-time Hollywood, with a little Charles Manson thrown in for good measure, called “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.”

1969.  As the New Year begins we find ourselves in the company of former western television star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his constant companion and stunt-double Cliff Booth (Pitt).  Rick’s career has waned since his turn on “Bounty Law.”  After a few action films, Rick has found himself appearing on episodic television, usually as the bad guy.  In fact, as he meets with the producer of an upcoming “Spaghetti” Western (a wasted Al Pacino), he can’t help but brag about his upcoming turn on “The F.B.I.”    Meanwhile Rick’s neighbors,  a pair of young newlyweds, return from Europe and make their way to their canyon home on Cielo Drive.  Their names:  Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate.

A love letter to the Hollywood he grew up watching, “Once Upon a Time…” is quite possibly the least “Tarantino” film the two-time Oscar winner has ever created.  I recently learned that this project was originally intended as a novel, and after watching the film I can understand why.  This is basically two individual stories, slowly woven together, that intersect occasionally before climaxing in a “what-if” explosion of fury and satisfaction. 

Story one is Rick and Cliff.  Their continued bonding, their obvious love (platonic) for each other and the way they each have the other’s back.  DiCaprio and Pitt have great chemistry together, and a bromance I haven’t seen since Paul Newman and Robert Redford worked together in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” which happens to be a film actually released in 1969.

Story two focuses on Sharon Tate (an excellent Robbie), who is portrayed her as a sweet, unassuming young woman whose idea of a good time was going to see one of her films at a theatre and smile at the audience’s acceptance of her work.  We accompany her and Roman as they attend parties with such celebs as Michelle Phillips, Cass Elliott and Steve McQueen. It’s heartbreaking to see the character so full of life, both figuratively and literally, when you know the tragic way that life ended.

The story begins to get intense when Cliff one day meets Pussycat (Margret Qualley), who hitches a ride from Cliff back to her commune, hoping to introduce him to her friend Charlie.  Yes, that Charlie.  The entire Manson family is represented, from wacky future would-be-presidential-assassin Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning) to “Tex” Watson (Austin Butler).  We even get Bruce Dern in senile “old-man” form as Spahn Ranch owner George Spahn.

At more than two and a half hours, the film does have its slow points.  I also had some issues with Tarantino’s use of occasional flashbacks.  At least they seem to be.  A scene where Cliff meets the show stunt coordinator, played by Kurt Russell.  In what appears to be the next moment, we find Cliff taking on Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) in what appears to be on the set of “The Green Hornet,” which left television in 1967.  Moh is solid in this small, but entertaining scene, and once again Tarantino has managed to attract an amazing cast, from regular players like Michael Madsen and Zoe Bell to newcomers like Pacino, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant and the late Luke Perry.  Heck, the cast even includes a group of second generation actors including Rumer Willis (daughter of Bruce), Harley Quinn Smith (daughter of Kevin) and Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan and Uma Thurman).

Visually the film amazes.  Tarantino fills the screen with reminders of the good old days of Hollywood, from brightly lit marquees to oversize movie posters.  The script has some classic dialogue, though the almost near-absence of the “F” word – and the non-appearance of the “N” word – may surprise some of Tarantino’s fans.

Tarantino is on record as saying he only wanted to make ten films.  This is #9.  I’m curious if he will be true to his word and, if so, what that film would be.  I’ve read he’d like to do a “Star Trek” film, but I can’t imagine one of the most creative and influential filmmakers of all time ending his career as a gun-for-hire.  Whatever he does, it will be the book-end on an amazing career.

Film Review: “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham and Idris Elba
Directed by: David Leitch
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 137 minutes
Universal Pictures

At this point, all that’s missing from the “Fast and the Furious” franchise is a TV show, Saturday morning cartoon, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys and breakfast cereal. The unexpected Universal Pictures franchise has its first spin-off, giving the two men who helped rejuvenate the series their own side adventure. Luke Hobbs’ (Johnson) affable character pairs naturally with the rough around the edges Deckard Shaw (Statham). The two have spent the last two movies at each other’s throats in a jokingly, sometimes serious, manner. So it’s a little disappointing to see them relatively toothless and hollowed out in “Hobbs & Shaw”.

Their characters remain the same, but we spend a little too much time with them, making these godlike characters a bit more human. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but having them play into the long steady “family” trope of this franchise feels disingenuous. The two feel more like ancillary characters that were created to offset the eye-rolling “we’re all family” dynamic that Vin Diesel’s character has yammered on about for years. Seeing Hobbs and Shaw degraded to that level may play to the franchise’s hardcore fanbase, but not for the casual fan like me who enjoys these movies as mindless eye candy. Also, there’s only so many times we can hear Hobbs and Shaw verbally get out the measuring sticks for their manhood.

As for the story, it’s somewhat interesting, building off of “The Fate of the Furious.” The bad guy of this film, Brixton Lore (Elba), works for a secret dark web syndicate known as Etheon. Lore is part man, part android, to the point where I’m glad Hobbs name drops “The Terminator.” Lore is on the hunt for a virus that could be weaponized to eliminate the “weak” parts of the human population, i.e. mass extinction for the betterment of humanity. But before Lore can get his superhuman mitts on it, an MI6 agent injects herself with it so that Etheon can’t obtain it. Of course, who that MI6 agent is, is a twist. I won’t spoil it, but you should be able to figure out who it is before it’s revealed, if you’re operating your brain at a primitive level.

Putting aside my opening salvo, I think this movie is still enjoyable because of how absurd it is, like when Hobbs tackles assailants scaling down the side of skyscraper and landing without a scratch on top of an SUV several stories below. My qualm is that the action pieces never really reach the highs that we’ve seen before in this franchise, specifically when Justin Lin and James Wan were behind the camera. Director David Leitch gives the duo plenty of fun settings to blow-up and chase sequences for audiences to ogle at, but none of them quite have that spectacular oomph that we’ve come to know and love. Even some of the lesser movies of this franchise have that memorable moment of Herculean feats or car acrobatics, but this one didn’t quite land one. Luckily the film stops short of dragging to the two and a half hour mark, so you don’t begin to get sore in your seat from its CGI fireworks. 

“Hobbs & Shaw” delivers enough mindless fun, ludicrous fight and action sequences, and wink-at-the-camera cameos to put a smile on even the curmudgeonliest of viewers. While it sometimes lacks in those aforementioned categories, it never feels unnecessary, especially since it’s a franchise stuffed with preposterous reasoning and farcical realism; Common sense be damned. Just like the rest of the franchise, “Hobbs & Shaw” doesn’t benefit from the viewer attempting to apply any kind of logic. Once you flip that switch on, you can’t unflip it. So setting your brain to cruise control is the optimum way of enjoying “Hobbs and Shaw.” Enjoy it for what it is, big, dumb action porn.

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: “Midsommar”

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and William Jackson Harper
Directed by: Ari Aster
Rated: R
Running Time: 140 minutes
A24

I don’t use superlatives a lot in my reviews, but I think it’s fitting this time because “Midsommar” has one of the most unsettling and gripping openings to a horror film I’ve ever seen. The movie begins on a snowy night in the states with Dani (Pugh), frantically trying to get a hold of her parents after a trouble set of texts from her bipolar sister stating that the darkness is too much, along with remarks about their parents. Compounding the issue is Dani’s boyfriend, Christian (Reynor), who seems disinterested in her concern about her sister, and why her parents aren’t picking up their phone. In fact, we find out, he’s at the bar getting drunk with friends, mulling over a potential break-up with Dani, instead of showing a single shred of worry. Christian is about to pull the trigger on their nearly four year long relationship when he gets a phone call from Dani. As soon as he answers, we hear the most horrifying cries of agony. Dani learns that her sister has taken her own life, and the lives of their parents, via carbon monoxide poisoning.

Cutting ahead to the summer, their relationship is still strained, Christian is still distant, and Dani is still dealing with grief. Escapism, for both, comes in the form of Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), one of Christian’s Swedish friends. Pelle is inviting Christian and their mutual friends, Josh (Harper) and Mark (William Poulter) to Pelle’s small village of Halsingland. They’ll be privy to a true once in a lifetime event, a festival that’s only held once every 90 years. Despite this village’s knowledge of the outside world and how advanced we’ve become, the people of Halsingland hold on to some incredibly archaic, brutal and terrifying beliefs that’ll slowly unfold over the course of a few days.

Unlike Director Ari Aster’s last film, “Hereditary,” nearly all of “Midsommar” is in the bright light of day, as the rural village sits nearly at the top of Scandinavia, so the sun, if ever this of year, doesn’t ever set below the horizon for the time that our characters are there. So much of the film’s horror doesn’t even happen in the cloak of darkness. The terror of the unknown, the secrets that this village holds, what their plans are, and what’s behind every closed door, happens in the optimistic shine of daylight. If anything, the moments in the dark are a part of a dream-like sequence or in the midst of a heavy dusk when the characters are lurking about the village, when they shouldn’t be.

The Americans in this movie should know better since the village is one constant red flag after another, but the slow boil of the plot plays into Aster’s hands as he’s given enough time to establish why each character remains there despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that says, “Run.” Josh is an anthropology student, looking to do his dissertation on the little researched village of Halsingland, shrugging off morbid rituals as cultural differences. Mark is a stereotypical horndog, thinking a lot more with his second, believing that a European excursion will get him high and laid. He’s half right. Dani seems aimless and lost in the world after the death of her entire family at the beginning, still pondering how she could ever move forward. Meanwhile, her boyfriend, Christian, whose seemingly non-commital to everything, is genuinely indifferent to danger. In fact, having any sense of self-preservation in these kinds of movies gets you killed first. Two ancillary characters, who were also invited to the village by Swedish friend from England, are the first to sound the alarm, but they soon disappear.

Maybe it’s because I watched “Hereditary” and knew that Aster loved sprinkling his movie with copious amounts of breadcrumbs, but I didn’t find myself completely shocked about the things that eventually transpired, nor was I shocked by the various, gruesome revelations that stacked on top of one another. That being said, I’m sure there are dozens of breadcrumbs that I missed because Aster is meticulous. Nothing seen in this film is incidental or by accident, it all serves a purpose towards the film’s numerous themes and subject matter. As to what this movie is about, that’s a lot to unpack. I’m certain that a movie as thematically open-ended as this is sure to leave a different, long lasting impact on viewers. That might mean that there is inherently no wrong way to interpret this, but only Aster is privy to how to correctly take it all in.

Since Aster had made this film deeply personal, “Midsommar” is most certainly a contemplation of death, literally and figuratively. One could muse that Dani seems unable to let her relationship with Christian die. Even though she mentions to a friend at the beginning of the movie that she suspects Christian is ready to dump her. She seems indecisive about confronting him, while sub-consciously knowing that it should come to an end. Even as they both walk like zombies through their relationship, Dani shows another layer to this toxicity, a fear. Despite taking a leap by going to a strange country, strange village and take part in their strange customs, she holds on to this belief that letting go of what’s she become accustomed to is the end, when it’s not. It’s odd finding that nugget of commonality in humanity amongst the gore and paganism. As for Christian, the movie does a fantastic job making the audience care less and less about what happens to him, showing over and over again that he’s emotionally detached from his friends and the world because he’s inherently selfish. Dani pines for a sense of unity, while Christian views people as a means to an end. In that regard, their individual fates are fitting.

It’s hard not to compare “Midsommar” and “Hereditary,” even though they’re drastically different in several categories. For example, “Hereditary” was a horror grounded in Satanism and the paranormal, whereas “Midsommar” is horror grounded in heathen ideology and violent ceremonies, without the use of supernatural forces. However both require a great deal of effort by its cast to read and act out these bizarro scenes with the utmost, straightest of faces. It’s hard to spot a flaw in any of the performances, with Pugh being the standout here as her character deals with so much emotional turmoil. One standout bit of acting by her is the opening scene where she mourns. In my line of work, I’ve had to edit clips of mothers at the scene of a homicide, sobbing loudly through the most tragic of griefs as they find out that their child is dead. Pugh captures that bone chilling wail flawlessly and it should cut into anyone.

“Midsommar” is an unsettling nightmare, showing unflinching carnage, all while smiling back at you. Aster’s sophomore effort will certainly be criticized by the mainstream audiences for being heartlessly malicious, crass, and boring, as evidenced by the handful of people that walked out of my screening at the first sign of violence in the film. I, like others, will be endlessly picking it apart in my mind, discussing it with others who’ve watched it and reading the insurmountable online articles by cinephiles attempting to do the same. I have yet to say a negative thing about this movie, which would usually necessitate a higher rating than the one I’m giving it, but this is an instance, much like “Climax” from earlier this year, where a second viewing would help me solidify my opinion on this film, and whether or not I’d rank it higher. My only hesitancy with “Midsommar” is its rewatchability, mainly because I didn’t find “Hereditary” as enjoyable the second time, nor would I ever want to watch it again. Like some high-concept films, enough time has to pass for a viewer to rewatch, analyze and appreciate during a second time, as opposed to a Hollywood blockbuster. I’m also fully aware that’s a critical cop out my end. However, “Midsommar” may be that, once every few years, trip to the museum, where you need a healthy amount of time to mull over and appreciate the art for what it is.

 
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Film Review: 30 for 30 – “The Good, the Bad, the Hungry”

  • ESPN 30 for 30 – THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE HUNGRY
  • Starring: Joey Chestnut, Takeru Kobiyashi and George Shea
  • Directed by: Nicole Lucas Haimes
  • Running time: 1 hr 17 mins
  • ESPN Films

As the 4th of July approaches, many Americans will head to their backyards and throw some hot dogs on the grill. I know I am. And, if I’m particularly hungry that day, I might eat 3 of them. Which would in no way get me invited to Coney Island to participate in the Nathan’s International Hot Dog Eating Contest!

The contest has been going on since 1972, but it wasn’t until 2001, when a young Japanese man named Takeru Kobiyashi showed up and ate an amazing 50 hot dogs, with buns, in 12 minutes. He held the title for 5 years when, inspired by Kobiyashi’s success, a young man named Joey Chestnut took a chance at winning the coveted Championship Mustard Belt. He lost. Thus began an rivalry as intense as any in sports. And yes, Competitive Eating is a sport.

A very in-depth behind the scenes look at an event that draws 30,000 people annually, “The Good, the Bad, the Hungry” is another excellent film in ESPN’s 30 for 30 canon. Though I had certainly been aware of the annual Coney Island event, I was surprised to learn that competitive eating as a sport has long been recognized in Japan. We are introduced to early Kobiyashi gastronomic feats, like eating 19.6 pounds of food at one sitting. As the rivalry between Kobiyashi and Chestnut grows, so do the contests. I love me some Krystal hamburgers, but there is no way in hell I’m eating 97 of them. And their calorie intake isn’t the only thing that’s large. Chestnut has made six figures a year doing this.

In 2008, Kobiyashi and Chestnut tied, resulting in a 5-dog Overtime Period

What is amazing is that these two take their skill seriously. They train daily, everything from figuring out the right temperature of water to soak the buns in to training the various throat muscles to help swallow easier. We also learn about each one’s upbringing through conversations with their parents. While Chestnut’s parents are all for Joey’s achievements, Kobiyashi’s father is more subdued. Born after World War II, he notes that to him food is meant to be thankful for and appreciated. This doesn’t mean he isn’t proud of his son, of course,

Another thing noted are the cultural differences. Once Chestnut beats Kobiyashi, the Japanese man is shocked by the crowd’s sudden change. Where they had constantly cheered him, once defeated he is met with cheers of “USA! USA!” Not understanding American culture, his feelings are genuinely hurt.

I should add here that when he arrives in America, Kobiyashi is stunned at the size of some of the competitors. In Japan, most of the competitive eaters are thin. In fact, Kobiyashi only weighs 144 pounds and often celebrates his wins by pulling up his shirt and showing off his six-pack! If I won I’d be flashing a keg!

An entertaining film about an entertaining subject, grab a couple of hot dogs this week and pull up a seat in front of the television. Who knows, maybe you’ll be inspired enough to take Chestnut down nest year.

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: “Spider-Man: Far From Home”

Starring: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson and Zendaya
Directed by: Jon Watts
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 129 minutes
Sony Pictures Releasing

If you haven’t yet watched “Avengers: Endgame,” then there’s a couple of things I’d like to say. 1. How have you not? 2. Why are you reading this if you haven’t? 3. You know there will be spoilers abound in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” for “Endgame,” if you haven’t watched it yet, right? Now, while my review will not have any spoilers, because Marvel fans are becoming incredibly irate about the slightest drip of a reveal and I generally find it to be disingenuous to do so in a review, I think it’s important for those who haven’t seen “Endgame” to know that they’ve been warned.

Seemingly weeks, maybe even days, after the events of “Endgame,” “Far From Home” wastes no time getting us up-to-date on what’s going on in the world of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Holland). As comically explained in a high school TV news update, the Thanos snap threw a curveball and some students are now towering over the other students because of the five-year gap. Meanwhile, there are fresh reminders that the world continues to mourn the loss of Tony Stark/Iron Man, and immortalize him in whatever way they can. However, the movie isn’t too clear on where we’re at chronologically within this world or Peter’s world, but who cares? He’s going on a European trip, hitting the proverbial FU button on his phone when Nick Fury (Jackson) calls, and trying to get in good with MJ (Zendaya).

“Far From Home” may have actually worked infinitely better as a high school comedy, as opposed to a superhero movie. That’s because the villain(s) of this movie aren’t that interesting, nor is there a lot of peril when Peter has to quickly throw on the Spider-Man suit and save the day. The movie works a lot better when Peter and his classmates are goofing around in Italy, Austria, or whatever European country they find themselves in. The movie makes this odd choice of trying to convince us, as well as S.H.I.E.L.D., that Peter is the savior of Earth, and to some extent, the next figurehead for hope like Iron Man was. That’s hammered home a lot, even though the film repeatedly shows us that Peter is too young or inept at being a hero, sometimes to cataclysmic effect.

I did have some fun here and there, warming up to the characters like a fire in a snowstorm, but there’s too many boneheaded decisions, and pivots in tone and direction. I’m also not entirely sold on the relationship between Peter and MJ, mainly because the movie seems to just assume that we already know why they like one another and why they should be together. It’s almost like “Far From Home” suffers from being sandwiched between the most climactic finish to a series of films and the beginning of a new cinematic phase. That really puts the teenager superhero, and the filmmakers, in precarious situation. It’s also quite possible that superhero fatigue is setting in after the “Endgame” sugar rush.

“Far From Home” is a fun epilogue to “Endgame,” but it isn’t strong enough to stand on its own merits. Thankfully this movie doesn’t hit the lows of other Marvel sequels, like “Iron Man 2” or “Thor 2,” thanks to the charm of its lead, Holland, and his pairing with Jake Gyllenhaal who, as per usual, gives it his all. I didn’t love it as much as “Homecoming” and I probably won’t rewatch it as much as “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Infinity War,” but it’s passable enough that you’ll leave with a smile, although it’ll fade by the time Marvel churns out another one of these.

Film Review: “Yesterday”

YESTERDAY

  • Starring:  Hirish Patel, Lily James and Ed Sheeran
  • Directed by:  Danny Boyle
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 56 mins
  • Universal

Dear Readers – If you would please indulge me:

AN OPEN LETTER TO RICHARD CURTIS – Sir, in the trailer for your 2003 film “Love Actually,” you include a scene of Andrew Lincoln holding up a card to Kiera Knightley which reads HELLO FATSO.  This scene is NOT in the film.  What did that mean?  I know her character liked sweets.  Did her husband complain she was getting a fat arse???  If Richard Curtis is reading this, or if anyone knows the answer, please reply to me via this website.  Thank you.  We now return to your scheduled review.

I’m 58 years old.  I grew up with the Beatles.  The very first record I ever purchased was “Hello/Goodbye.”   I wept when John Lennon died.  So to imagine a world where the Beatles and their music never existed would be horrible to me.  But it works out well for Jack Malik (Patel) an aspiring musician who, despite having some talent, cannot make it into the music business.  After a disappointing gig he announces to his manager Ellie (James) that he’s hanging up the guitar and going back to teaching.  Unable to talk him out of it, Ellie watches as Jack pedals his bicycle into the night.  However, soon their lives will change forever.

Directed by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), “Yesterday” is a lot like the Beatles songs that fill the soundtrack – an emotional rollercoaster.  After an accident with a bus, Jack gets out of the hospital to discover that things are different.  When he asks for a Coke he is given quizzical looks.  When he plays the song “Yesterday” to Ellie and her friends, they are amazed by the song, asking him when he wrote it.  He tells them that it was a song by the Beatles, but only gets blank stares.  When he Googles “the Beatles” on the Internet, he is directed to the bugs.  Curious, he tries other bands and is relieved that the Rolling Stones are still around.  He is even more relieved when he learns that the band Oasis isn’t.  Realizing the situation, he begins performing Beatles songs and soon catches the ear of musician Ed Sheeran, who challenges Jack to a spontaneous song writing contest.  10 minutes later, Sheeran delivers a sweet song about love.  Jack counters with “The Long and Winding Road.”  Boom!  Mic drop!

Patel is very strong as Jack.  He has a pleasant enough voice and, when he sings from the Beatles catalog, he isn’t just covering the songs, he invests an emotional weight into them, as if he HAD written them.  When he performs “Help” in front of a huge crowd, he’s literally begging for someone to help him get off of the rollercoaster he has found himself on.  James and Sheeran are also quite good, with Sheeran having fun at his own expense, even going so far as to suggest that Jack rename “Hey Jude” as “Hey Dude,” which apparently he finds cooler.

The film also packs an emotion punch with a scene that had many in the audience, myself including, tearing up.  Boyle’s direction is brisk and screenwriter Curtis is at the top of his game.  And you can never go wrong with a soundtrack consisting of 17 of the Beatles’ greatest songs.  As John Lennon sang in Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, “a splendid time is guaranteed for all!”

 
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Film Review: “Loopers: the Caddie’s Long Walk”

  • LOOPERS: THE CADDIE’S LONG WALK
  • Narrated by: Bill Murray
  • Directed by: Jason Baffa
  • Rated: PG
  • Running time: 1 hr 16 mins
  • Gravitas Ventures

One of my many jobs as a teenager in Tampa involved getting up early on Saturdays and walking the few blocks to the Palma Ceia Country Club. The earlier the better. There those of us that assembled would hang out around the clubhouse and ask arriving golfers if we could carry their bags. On a good morning, you could end up with $10 (including tip) for four hours work. That’s right, I’ll admit it. I was a looper.

Full of interesting golf history and some fun interviews, “Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk” is an interesting take on what was once seen as a menial job that has blossomed into a handsome way to make a living for some. The film looks at golf, and it’s caddies, in both Scotland (the birthplace of the game) and here in the states. We visit the world famous St. Andrews course, founded in 1552! That’s right, golf has been around for over 400-years. The history of the caddie is also explored, running from the three basic caddie rules (Show Up, Keep Up, Shut Up) to the origins of the name looper (a round of 18 holes was called a loop). We also get a glimpse at some of the more famous caddies to ever carry a bag, including the caddies that worked at Augusta National, home of the Masters. I found it ironic that these young men were so vital to a golfer’s success, yet theirs were the only black faces on the course until Lee Elder played there in 1975 (blacks were not allowed to join the club until 1991).

A particularly poignant sequence examines the relationship between golfer and caddie. Living as I do in Kansas City, I was happy to see local boy made good Tom Watson talk about the two-plus decades he spent with his caddie, Bruce Edwards. The men remained friends until Edwards passed away in 2004 from ALS. We also meet other well known caddies, like Steve Williams (Tiger Woods’ ex-caddie) and Carl Jackson, who caddied for Ben Crenshaw in almost 40 tournaments in their partnership.

The film is narrated by former looper Bill Murray, who immortalized the caddie as Carl Spackler in “Caddyshack.” Murray relates some of his own experiences as well as narrates, lending his particular sense of humor to the film.

With the beginning of summer upon us, before you head out to the course give “Loopers” a look. And watch out for those kids hanging out in front of the clubhouse!

Film Review: “Toy Story 4”

Starring the Voices of: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Annie Potts
Directed by: Josh Cooley
Rated: G
Running Time: 100 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Since 1999, audiences have asked three times, “Do we really need another one of these?” And every time, Pixar responds with, “Yes,” and audiences have overwhelmingly agreed. It’s astonishing that that same animation studio has struggled to justify other sequels, yet has had no problem continuing the adventures of Woody (Hanks), Buzz (Allen) and the other toys we’ve come to love over the past 24 years. So I almost have to wonder, is it really time to say goodbye?

If you haven’t been keeping up-to-date with these movies, the toys are no longer with their kid, Andy. They were left in the care of Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) and she’s now off to Kindergarten. Woody, wanting to ensure that his new kid is happy despite the scary change, tags along for her first trip to school, only to watch Bonnie struggle with making friends. So with some unforeseen help from Woody, Bonnie creates a new companion/toy, called Forky (Tony Hale). The fork, with crudely created feet and arms, creates a lot of existential questions for the toys, and audience. Forky doesn’t see his purpose as a toy, actually knowing that his purpose is to be a utensil and to be tossed in the trash. He believes in that mantra so much, that he abandons Bonnie during a family trip, leaving Woody to have to go after him.

In a lot of ways, “Toy Story 4” is a road trip movie where Woody and Buzz inherently grow up. Along the way, Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (Potts), one of the secondary characters from the first two films, but unexplainably missing from the previous film. In this one, we’re shown why Bo Peep is absent from that third film and just how important she is to Woody. So much so, that when she reunites with Woody, that’s when things come-to-a-head for Woody, who just isn’t quite as happy in his new life with Bonnie as he was with Andy.

Thankfully it isn’t just Woody who’s having an identity crisis. A lot of the toys in the movie seem to be pondering their own place in this world they don’t quite understand. Woody’s knows all the rules, but may be tired of following them. Buzz may be realizing that the world isn’t as black and white, and that tough decisions come from reflection and listening to that little voice inside your head. It’s astounding that after giving our toys in the previous film, a fresh restart on bliss, that they find themselves still wondering if there’s more to this world. It’s something that kids can surely latch on to as they grow into the world around them, and for their parents who still ponder a lot of “What ifs?” in their own life and own personal quest for happiness. It’s astonishing that the fourth of any franchise, animated or not, could be this profound.

Another thing that seems to impeccably be a part of Pixar’s storytelling arsenal, is their seemingly effortless nature to establish loveable characters. Like the first three, “Toy Story 4” introduces us to a lot more toys, maybe some of the most memorable ancillary ones of the series. Although this one has the benefit of having a lot more star power, with guest stars like Key and Peele, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, and some brief cameos by the likes of Mel Brooks and Betty White. Those kinds of cameos may give credence to the belief that Pixar is officially done with the franchise.

I would have never guessed back in 1995, as a seven-year-old in theaters, that these plastic toys come to life would make me cry twice later in my life. While a lot of that is because I’ve actually grown up and matured alongside these characters, Pixar’s writers and creators bare their soul and tap into a lot of elements of the human condition in this series. The franchise has managed to create a litany of unique and impactful messages that feel simple enough for kids to understand, but complex enough to resonate throughout one’s adulthood. As much as I was OK with saying goodbye in “Toy Story 3,” especially with where our toys were left, part of me doesn’t want to say goodbye this time because of how Pixar has always given these characters something new and heartfelt to say every time.

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